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‘High Life’ Upends Sci-Fi Conventions

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published September 15, 2018, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

After the Toronto premiere of Claire Denis’ new film, High Life, critics rushed to post about its most extreme and bizarre moments on Twitter, mostly in an ecstatic manner. Besides being a display of public awe, the early micro-impressions helpfully illustrated the difference between a good science fiction film and a great science fiction film: good science fiction finds fascinating new ways to depict things we’ve already imagined, but great science fiction is concerned with the sort of ideas we’ve never even contemplated. High Life, her first English-language feature, is a stunning achievement for Denis, one that violently expands the conventions of the genre, and further evidence of her restless vision.

Like Andrei Tarkovsky, Denis doesn’t bother with the standard details — we never find out what year her film is set in, and the very recognizable Earth flashbacks are incongruous with the dingy yet futuristic space scenes that make up the bulk of the film. In this unnamed future time, convicts on Earth who have been sentenced to death have been given the option to fly into space to participate in scientific missions. If they die, it’s not much different than their fate on Earth, but if they survive long enough they have the chance to return knowing they’ve done a service to humanity. Except that it’s quickly revealed that this is all a lie. The convicts will never return to Earth, either because it’s not feasible, or because they’re no longer wanted.

Robert Pattinson adds another adventurous role to his resume as Monte, who has been imprisoned since he was a young boy. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that he is the lone survivor of a drifting spacecraft — well, him and a young baby. The ship has sailed for years toward the nearest black hole to Earth; the mission is to determine if there is a way to harness energy from the sucking maw. There used to be many other crew members, including a scientist (a wonderfully eerie Juliette Binoche) who performs fertility experiments on the convicts, an impetuous young woman who becomes her guinea pig (Mia Goth), and a laid-back prisoner who seems resigned to his fate (an underused André Benjamin).

Like Kubrick, Denis delights in the slowness of life in space; she wants us to consider every extended moment and what years of this repetition could do to a person.

High Life - Claire Denis

Denis’ vision of space travel in High Life has clear connections to the grungy design of Alien (1979). The equipment still works fairly well, but in a few years things will look as beat up as the interior of the Nostromo. Denis has also praised the work of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick in interviews, and their influence is unmistakable. Like Kubrick, Denis delights in the slowness of life in space; she wants us to consider every extended moment and what years of this repetition could do to a person. And like Tarkovsky, she imbues her characters with great passions, but often leaves them hidden behind stoic faces that require the audience to interpret their feelings.

Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography finds great beauty in what might otherwise be an asylum of fluorescent lights, turning what could have been a very ugly film into something quite beautiful. In a scene that may have been inspired by Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), Binoche visits what Denis refers to as the “fuck box,” a self-pleasuring device that the crew visits to let off steam. Le Saux photographs Binoche in a faint purplish light that emphasizes her long black hair — it streams all the way down her back like a cascade of spiders. Binoche’s witch-like doctor seems more humane in the fluorescent light when she carries on her fertility experiments, but in the box, she can be seen in her true light.

Pattinson, though, is clearly the star of the film, and he wisely does as little as possible in that capacity. The last few years have been filled with adventurous and remarkable career choices for Pattinson, and his great strength is knowing when to turn down the temperature. In his last great performance, Good Time (2017), Pattinson was most moving in his restrained scenes with his intellectually-disabled brother, and in High Life, he practices an even greater degree of restraint. It would be easy for an actor to pull out all the stops with Denis’ bonkers story, but it’s far more compelling when they keep the energy low, as if they have been desensitized to everything around them.

High Life

Despite the more obvious science fiction homages, the movie High Life most feels akin to is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). The stories have nothing in common plot-wise, but Denis’ movie has a painful undercurrent of sorrow that occasionally peaks out above the menace, much like that film. Like Scarlett Johansson’s asexual alien, Pattinson and his fellow prisoners are starving for human connection and love. The closet Johansson got was luring lonely men to their deaths, but she never made a real connection. The prisoners in space are also desperate for connection, but they mostly resort to the sex box, and even when they do have sex it’s violent and ugly. Pattinson lives a life of chastity as if he knows the possibility of love is futile in the cold sterility of space.

I’ve seen many great films so far at TIFF, but none have made me want to watch them all over again as strongly as High Life. I just want to bathe in its cosmic glow a little longer.

 

‘High Life’ Upends Sci-Fi Conventions

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

TIFF 2019

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.

Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.

Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [2018]), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.

Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.

Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.

In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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TIFF

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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Film Festival

‘House of Cardin’ is a Toothless Retrospective of an Auteur

DOC NYC 2019

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An enigmatic figure in the fashion industry, but one whose output has an everlasting appeal, Pierre Cardin’s stylistic choices feel prescient. They also represent an individual who has sequestered his private life away from prying eyes, while cultivating a brand that is distinct and pushes forth a public persona of eccentricity and boundless ambition. House of Cardin serves as a means of exploring the brand which Cardin has fashioned, and how it reinforces the prolific designer as an auteur. But as a look at Cardin himself, the film feels stunted.

Clearly a vanity project authorized by someone who has maintained a life of luxury and prefers to keep his life outside of the spotlight a secret, House of Cardin is a toothless but still relatively interesting beginner’s guide to Pierre Cardin. Focused primarily on his successful endeavors inside and out of the fashion industry, the documentary offers an extended look at the idea of creating a brand and preserving it as the world around is constantly in a state of flux. Littered with interviews with some of fashion’s biggest names, as well as other famous stars like Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, and Alice Cooper, there is a lot of ego-boosting to wade through before finding the nuggets of compelling ideas. No matter how many people say great things about Cardin and his work, there’s a distance to the man himself that the film fails to narrow. This ultimately leaves the film feeling inconsequential, even with concepts that it easily attaches to Cardin.

The trouble with House of Cardin is that it doesn’t really have much of a thesis. It opens with talk of how Cardin’s private life is a mystery to many, but then moves immediately away from that and into his public-facing self. It’s less a biography and more of a career retrospective that feels disingenuous, at best. It plays the highlights, and despite a few extremely brief moments in his early life, much of the documentary places a further level of gloss on an already shiny exterior. There’s no real examination of any specific facet of his career, effectively declaring Pierre Cardin to be untouchable.

Now, whether Cardin is truly unassailable or not is one thing; how the film handles it is another. It feels like a lot of Cardin’s work is put in a bubble, separated from the outside world and therefore excluded from a critical perspective, as there is nothing within the bubble to immediately compare and use as reference. The film doesn’t take his work and put it in the context of his contemporaries, instead opting to treat it like a separate industry of its own making. It doesn’t place Cardin in the fashion industry, but instead looks at his works as components of his brand. Yet, even then the film simply identifies it as a strong brand without actually positioning it in the pantheon of commercial enterprises. Cardin is Cardin, and the documentary refuses to believe that any other external factors are worth exploring to explain why he is so distinct from the pack.

As an officially authorized biography of the iconic fashion designer, House of Cardin is still a substantial entry-point for those unaware of Cardin and his work. Clearly equipped with a unique style, the movie has plenty of imagery to gawk and drool over, simply reinforcing how influential and important Cardin’s work is in the industry. That being said, nothing is more depressing than watching a puff piece that omits key elements of any biography simply because the subject refuses to be candid about that. House of Cardin amounts to the kind of documentary that gets played in a museum exhibit that highlights career-defining moments in a succinct and easily digestible fashion. Perhaps it’s better to just go look at the work he’s done and form one’s own opinion than have it spoon fed by the creator and his followers.

The 2019 DOC NYC festival runs 11/8-11/15.

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