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Scarlett Johansson surprises in ‘Under the Skin’

We all knew it would come to this. Artificial intelligences, superheroes and now aliens from beyond the stars? Perhaps Scarlett Johansson has simply superseded portraying regular old people in favor of the wholly digital, the post-human and, in Jonathan Glazer’s cool, disturbing and moving science-fiction film “Under the Skin,” a sometimes clothing-optional extraterrestrial.

Oh, yeah, the naked thing. Yes, Johansson goes full birthday suit. But before you nerds start the car, know that as in “Her,” Johansson is savvy enough to understand how the audience has come to regard her body; she and Glazer use that in ingenious, sometimes terrifying ways.

In “Her,” she did a terrific job acting with nothing but her voice; no physical form on screen at all. In “Under the Skin,” we first see her naked form in a nonsexual, surreal and scary moment. It is decidedly not a turn-on.

At first, it is quite literally hard to know what to make of “Under the Skin.” The opening images are abstract: A white dot on a black screen gets larger, then turns into concentric rings.

Over the terrific score by Mica Levi — a sort of a cross between the choral bits of “2001” (a film recalled also by the opening visuals) and the industrial thrum of “Eraserhead” — we hear a voice, Johansson, if one listens carefully, practicing words and vowel sounds.

The white circles image resolves into an eye. The inference is that a lifeform, eventually Johansson-shaped, is being assembled in a very blank, very bright room somewhere.

This woman-shaped alien is never given a name; much like Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (another touchstone) she is definitely Not From Around Here. Methodically, sans visible emotion, the woman assembles her earthly identity — some out-of-fashion clothing here, some lipstick there.

Assisted by an equally mysterious man on a motorcycle who functions as her handler (we assume — the two never speak), she steals a van and drives around Glasgow, Scotland, picking up strange men, whom she then seduces (it is implied) and, uh preserves in amber, more or less.

When she is alone, the affect is impenetrable, her face impossible to read. With the men, she is personable and charming.

Most of the movie’s dialogue takes place in the van, when the woman, speaking in a decent British accent, chats up these anonymous guys (in apparently improvised scenes with nonactors). No wonder they go back to an abandoned house with her, which is where things turn for the obtuse.

As the score revs up, the men follow her as if hypnotized into a black, abstract space. Both parties remove clothing as they walk forward, she continuing on a level path, the men sinking into an increasingly gelatinous floor.

Again, Johansson cuts a fascinatingly distant figure. A deeply upsetting scene involving a young family at a beach proves she has little knowledge or care for human life. But this also works in reverse, brilliantly, when she picks up a guy with large neurofibromatosis tumors all over his face (played by a young man with that condition). She literally cannot tell the difference between this man and any other. Or can she?

The screenplay by Glazer and Walter Campbell is based on the novel by Michael Faber. But Glazer seems determined to boil the story down to a series of images, both minimalist — a single tear lets us know someone who looks dead is horrifyingly alive — and utterly gaga in others. There is very little dialogue and, mercifully, no voice-over to clarify what you are seeing. If you have read the novel, you probably know what specific images mean. If you have not, no matter. The movie scans as full of allegories about desire, violence and identity.

In some ways “Under the Skin” is a conventional narrative — part serial killer horror, part what-does-it-mean-to-be-human? — subverted by elliptical storytelling. We don’t see this sort of thoughtful, brainy science-fiction anymore, and, at at a time when sci-fi means little more than summer blockbusters, “Under the Skin” is the best kind of palate cleanser.

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  • Declaring 'the start of a new era' in energy production, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said would revive the coal industry and create jobs. The move makes good on his campaign pledge to unravel former President Barack Obama's plan to curb global warming. The order seeks to suspend, rescind or flag for review more than a half-dozen measures in an effort to boost domestic energy production in the form of fossil fuels. Environmental activists, including former Vice President Al Gore, denounced the plan. But Trump said the effort would allow workers to 'succeed on a level playing field for the first time in a long time.' 'That is what this is all about: bringing back our jobs, bringing back our dreams and making America wealthy again,' Trump said, during a ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, attended by a number of coal miners. The order initiates a review of the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants. The regulation, which was the former president's signature effort to curb carbon emissions, has been the subject of long-running legal challenges by Republican-led states and those who profit from burning oil, coal and gas. But just as Obama's climate efforts were often stymied by legal challenges, environmental groups are promising to fight Trump's pro-fossil fuel agenda in court. Trump has called global warming a 'hoax' invented by the Chinese, and has repeatedly criticized the power-plant rule as an attack on American workers and the struggling U.S. coal industry. In addition to pulling back from the Clean Power Plan, the administration will also lift a 14-month-old moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. The Obama administration had imposed a three-year moratorium on new federal coal leases in January 2016, arguing that the $1 billion-a-year program must be modernized to ensure a fair financial return to taxpayers and address climate change. Trump accused his predecessor of waging a 'war on coal' and boasted in a speech to Congress that he has made 'a historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations,' including some that threaten 'the future and livelihoods of our great coal miners.' The order will also chip away at other regulations, including scrapping language on the 'social cost' of greenhouse gases. It will initiate a review of efforts to reduce the emission of methane in oil and natural gas production as well as a Bureau of Land Management hydraulic fracturing rule, to determine whether those reflect the president's policy priorities. It will also rescind Obama-era executive orders and memoranda, including one that addressed climate change and national security and one that sought to prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. The administration is still in discussion about whether it intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Trump's order could make it more difficult, though not impossible, for the U.S. to achieve its carbon reduction goals. The president's promises to boost coal jobs run counter to market forces, such as U.S. utilities converting coal-fired power plants to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. Trump's Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, alarmed environmental groups and scientists earlier this month when he said he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming. The statement is at odds with mainstream scientific consensus and Pruitt's own agency. The overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed studies and climate scientists agree the planet is warming, mostly due to man-made sources, including carbon dioxide, methane, halocarbons and nitrogen oxide. Opponents say Obama's effort would have killed coal-mining jobs and driven up electricity costs. The Obama administration, some Democratic-led states and environmental groups counter that it would spur thousands of clean-energy jobs and help the U.S. meet ambitious goals to reduce carbon pollution set by the international agreement signed in Paris. Trump's order on coal-fired power plants follows an executive order he signed last month mandating a review of an Obama-era rule aimed at protecting small streams and wetlands from development and pollution. The order instructs the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to review a rule that redefined 'waters of the United States' protected under the Clean Water Act to include smaller creeks and wetlands. While Republicans have blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the loss of coal jobs, federal data shows that U.S. mines have been shedding jobs for decades under presidents from both parties as a result of increasing automation and competition from natural gas, which has become more abundant through hydraulic fracturing. Another factor is the plummeting cost of solar panels and wind turbines, which now can produce emissions-free electricity cheaper than burning coal. According to an Energy Department analysis released in January, coal mining now accounts for fewer than 75,000 U.S. jobs. By contrast, renewable energy — including wind, solar and biofuels — now accounts for more than 650,000 U.S. jobs. The Trump administration's plans drew praise from business groups and condemnation from environmental groups. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue praised the president for taking 'bold steps to make regulatory relief and energy security a top priority.' 'These executive actions are a welcome departure from the previous administration's strategy of making energy more expensive through costly, job-killing regulations that choked our economy,' he said. Former Vice President Al Gore blasted the order as 'a misguided step away from a sustainable, carbon-free future for ourselves and generations to come.' 'It is essential, not only to our planet, but also to our economic future, that the United States continues to serve as a global leader in solving the climate crisis by transitioning to clean energy, a transition that will continue to gain speed due to the increasing competiveness of solar and wind,' he said in a statement. ___ Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker contributed to this report. Follow Daly and Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC and https://twitter.com/colvinj ___ This story corrects the number of coal mining jobs in the U.S. to 75,000, not 70,000.
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  • A woman was paying for parking in Midtown Sunday afternoon when a man slashed her throat and grabbed her handbag, Atlanta police said. Marla Franks was at a pay station at Juniper and 5th streets when the man tried to take her purse off her shoulder, according to an Atlanta police incident report. She resisted and held onto the bag.  “I will hurt you,” police said the man told Franks. She continued holding her purse. 'The man then took a knife and cut her throat about 5 to 6 inches,' Officer Stephanie Brown told Channel 2 Action News. He grabbed the purse and took off running, according to the police report. Fernando Bispo, who witnessed the attack, told police he ran after the man and got him to drop the handbag. Bispo stopped when the man turned the knife on him.  Another witness told police she saw a man jump the back fence of Kindred Hospital and offered to help him when he fell. She later learned about the robbery victim, according to the report. Police have not made any arrests in the incident. Bispo wasn’t injured in the encounter.  Franks had to get 17 stitches but was expected to recover. In other news:
  • Two men have been charged with murder in an October shooting outside a Pappadeaux in Marietta that began with a piece of costume jewelry and ended with a dead husband. Cobb police investigators filed the paperwork on Thursday against Dylan Marquis Ledbetter and Demarious Greene, both of whom were already in custody. The men are connected to violent crimes throughout Cobb and Cherokee counties. Ledbetter is also wanted in Florida on an attempted murder charge. Sentenced: Cobb man paid Filipino girls to perform online sex acts The Cobb murder charges stem from an Oct. 7 shooting. Cynthia and Anthony Welch were heading to their car after a birthday dinner at the Windy Hill Road restaurant when they were stopped in the parking lot. Cynthia Welch previously explained that a man shot her husband of 25 years and snatched the $5 costume necklace off her neck before shooting her and running away. The warrant doesn’t specify who police think pulled the trigger. Cobb man indicted in double murder of his mother and Buckhead teacher  Ledbetter was 22 when he was indicted in January for allegedly trying to run over officers with a car. A week after the Pappadeaux slaying, cops were trying to stop Ledbetter because the car he was driving matched the description of a vehicle connected to the shooting. Officers shot Ledbetter in his arm and leg as they said he sped toward them. Lab results in the Pappadeaux shooting were recently returned from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and Cobb police were able to file charges in the case. Man facing death in Craigslist slaying of Marietta couple appears in court  Ledbetter has been in jail since Oct. 18. Two days before that, 21-year-old Green was booked into Cherokee County jail on charges of robbery, aggravated assault and other counts. Those Cherokee charges are from an Oct. 12 incident when the men allegedly stole a man’s necklace at gunpoint outside the Outlet Shoppes at Atlanta. Like Cobb County News Now on Facebook | Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.  Ledbetter has also been accused of a similar necklace-snatching crime in Sandy Springs. A woman told police she was holding her 1 year old and just getting home when a man snatched a gold chain off of her and the child. The men are awaiting indictment on the Pappadeaux charges. Authorities have not discussed how they will handle the pending charges in other jurisdictions.