Under the Skin.

Under the Skin can send you under the covers. To sleep.

A trio of directors considered auteurs unveiled their new movies at TIFF. One has Oscar aspirations, the second couldn’t care less if people watch his film and the third guy is the only one to show some evolution.

Under the Skin (UK, 2013): After the success (for art house standards) of Sexy Beast, director Jonathan Glazer decided that the best career path for him was to alienate people. His follow up, Birth, had Nicole Kidman convinced that her dead husband had been reincarnated in a 10-year-old boy. Under the Skin is equally bizarre with two additional hurdles: one, it’s probably the bleakest film you’ll ever watch. Seriously, wherever you look is dark, damp and cold. Two, the plot moves at glacial pace, to the point that not even an often-naked Scarlett Johansson can keep you interested.

Vaguely inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth, Under the Skin follows Laura (Johansson), an alien whose mission is to pick up strangers, lure them to a cottage and strip them of their essence (the one cool sci-fi sequence in the entire movie). As she reduces the male population of Scotland one sucker at the time, Laura develops a set of rules: Her victims must be single, with no family or someone waiting for them at home. Soon enough the code is not enough and she just can’t bring herself to continue.

It’s implied Laura develops sympathy for mankind after giving a ride to a kid with John Merrick disease. What ensues is a very long running-away sequence as suspenseful an Eskimos game. Remember LifeForce? Under the Skin is like that but with less payoff. Two prairie dogs who would totally follow ScarJo, no questions asked.

The Double (USA/UK, 2013): Nobody could have predicted Richard Ayoade’s career turn. From supporting player in the British TV comedy The IT Crowd to sensitive filmmaker, Ayoade has already delivered a solid coming 0f age drama (the little seen Submarine). His follow up, The Double, shows tremendous ambition and imagination.

Based on Dostoevsky’s classic, The Double is a story of a dystopian world straight from Kafka. Barely able to go through everyday indignities, Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) finds solace in the few seconds he spends with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the office clerk. The ongoing abuse hits fever pitch with the arrival of James (Eisenberg again), Simon’s doppelganger. James has all the confidence Simon lacks and steals everything the protagonist considers precious. And yet, Simon feels drawn to him and takes his self-serving advice.

While the story has been adapted a thousand times, Ayoade’s dialogue and mise-en-scene make it feel fresh. It’s often reminiscent of the earlier Jean-Pierre Jeunet films (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) with a contemporary flavor, courtesy of Eisenberg (showcasing yet another shade of his nebbish persona) and Wasikowska. Ayoade even coerces the cast of Submarine and The IT Crowd to do cameos. It’s hard not to like the guy. Three and a half prairie dogs. Or is it seven?

12 Years a Slave (USA, 2013): Call it heresy, but I won’t join the voices calling this film a masterpiece. Director Steve McQueen, who challenged moviegoers’ expectations with the uncompromising films Hunger and Shame, has crafted his most traditional movie thus far. As the title indicates, 12 Years a Slave covers the darkest period in Solomon Northup’s life. A free man living in New York , Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold to a Southern landowner. In the heart of the Antebellum South. Nobody cares if Solomon is an educated man or can play the violin. He is no longer a person. Northup must fight the slave mindset, without being perceived as a threat to the plantation’s way of life.

McQueen’s smartest move is to make a film as low-key as the topic  allows. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s overblown Django Unchained, the physical and verbal abuse is down to earth, and consequently, more gut-wrenching. Sadly, 12 Years a Slave has little new to say about the issue of race and indenture. It often seems like a more violent Roots. Three respectful if unengaged prairie dogs.

Tomorrow: More Wasikowska and Eisenberg. Also, Can a Song Save Your Life? (I’m going to say… no).