Review: High Life

High Life

The conception of High Life on its own would be strange enough: septuagenarian French auteur Claire Denis decides to make her first English-language film a sci-fi adventure starring Robert Pattinson. But let me tell you, the result of all that is something much weirder even than you’d expect.

Falling not so much into the “exciting space adventure” subgenre (e.g. Gravity and Apollo 13) nor the “supernatural space horror” subgenre (e.g. Alien and its various offspring), High Life aligns better with the “existential space dread” subgenre that’s been exemplified in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. The films opens with astronaut Monte (Pattinson), alone in an austere space ship but for a sole baby. From there, we flash back to the earlier days of Monte’s space journey – including scenes with the crew that originally joined him – and learn how he ended up where he is.

There are no easy answers or zippy plot points in High Life. There are, however, a lot of bodily fluids. Denis does not shy away from how strange and sometimes grotesque the baser aspects of human existence can be. And then, of course, she magnifies them for narrative effect. The result makes for a pretty uncomfortable watch. Not because High Life is extremely explicit or gross, but because there is a boldness to how unblinking it all is. Only someone with as steady of an eye as Denis could interweave all of that with the film’s more bizarre aspects in a way that feels believable.

There is a sadness to High Life, as well. Denis seems very interested in examining the effects of loneliness, isolation, and exclusion (which, as the film seems to suggest, are certainly all separate things). And Pattinson, shaved head emphasizing his interesting but intense features, proves to be a great lead to help convey this.

Things are presented ambiguously enough that I think everyone will take different things from the viewing experience. It’s also a film that enthusiastically invites rewatches; personally, I don’t feel confident enough to say that I “got” everything that High Life is doing (or aiming to do) on first viewing.

Perhaps thanks to the film’s lack of explanation, there was also something about it that felt a bit incomplete by the end. Denis’ vision is undeniable, and on a literal, shot-by-shot basis, this is a stunning film to look at. However, I do usually prefer a little more clarity in the narrative when it’s a film with such a large scope.

Now that I’m a couple days out from watching and have had a chance to let things percolate, though, I think I appreciate it more. It’s a film that’s less about the viewer’s scene-to-scene reaction, and more about the feeling they’re left with at the end, and during the days after.

Certainly don’t go into High Life looking for answers. But if open to the sometimes-uncomfortable questions it poses, you’re likely to find a rewarding (if slightly befuddling) end to the journey.

10 Films Directed By Women Coming Out in April 2019

Girls of the Sun

While there’s obviously still a lot of work to be done in terms of diverse representation in filmmaking I do find it encouraging, when looking at the upcoming film releases for April, to see how many are directed by women. Even five years ago, I highly doubt there were ever 10 female-directed films in total coming out in a month, let alone 10 that look great.

Here are some suggestions for what to look forward to next month.

High Life (April 5)
It would feel wrong to start this list with any other movie when April features the release of a new film from French master Claire Denis. High Life marks Denis’ first filmmaking foray into the English language, and stars Robert Pattinson as an astronaut (!) who finds himself in a rather unorthodox situation out in space. The somewhat befuddled (but mostly positive) response from last fall’s festival circuit only makes me more excited.

Edge of the Knife (SGaawaay K’uuna) (April 5)
Co-directed by Helen Haig-Brown and Gwaai Edenshaw, Edge of the Knife (SGaawaay K’uuna) is the first film made solely in the Haida language. (Haida is an endangered language spoken by the Haida people who live in Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia in Canada.) It tells the story of a Haida man wracked with guilt who begins a supernatural transformation, and it takes inspiration from traditional Haida folklore.

It’s been wonderful to see attention drawn to Edge of the Knife here in Canada, as art made by and about Indigenous people is often vastly underrepresented. I’m not sure what sort of release it will get internationally, but Edge of the Knife opens in Toronto on April 5.

The Wind (April 5)
All I needed to read was the first part of The Wind’s description on Letterboxd: “A supernatural thriller set in the Western frontier of the late 1800’s”. It’s directed by first-timer Emma Tammi, and based solely on its promotion, it’s given me vibes akin to The Keeping Room and Brimstone. That said, female-directed horror films about women often have a very unique feel, and I’m certainly intrigued to see what Tammi has crafted.

Unicorn Store (April 5)
Though Unicorn Store started playing festivals in 2017, I suppose Netflix has picked a strategic time to release this directorial debut from Brie Larson (who also stars in the film). Initial response was a bit mixed, with some critics dismissing the film as too cutesy for its own good. But Larson has proven to be savvy and bold in her role choices as an actress, so it’ll be interesting to see how that will translate for her behind the camera as well.

Little (April 12)
Starring Issa Rae and Reginal Hall, Little looks to follow a long tradition of body swap/age-change comedies like Big, 13 Going on 30, etc. This one following Jordan (Hall), a stressed-out adult who transforms back into her younger self (played by Black-ish’s Marsai Martin). With any luck, it’ll be just the sort of vehicle its leads deserve.

Girls of the Sun (April 12)
Girls of the Sun, from director Eva Husson, played as part of the Official Competition at Cannes last year and finally makes its way to North American theatres this April. Following an all-female Kurdish battalion defending their town from extremists, it looks to be a powerful and harrowing tale of female resistance.

Rafiki (April 19)
Having undergone an extensive battle in her home country of Kenya (where officials at first banned Rafiki for its lesbian content, but ultimately reversed the decision), director Wanuri Kahiu finally gets the opportunity to bring Rafiki to North America in April. It was a favourite on the festival circuit last year and looks to be a must-watch on all fronts.

Fast Color (April 19)
I adored Julia Hart’s debut feature Miss Stevens, and she now returns with what looks to be a low-key sci-fi indie. Starring the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Fast Color is about a woman who possesses special powers. This one looks great, though in fairness, I’d probably be jazzed for Hart’s next film no matter what it was. 

Little Woods (April 19)
Starring the power pairing of Tessa Thompson and Lily James, Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods earned strong notices out of last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It tells the story of two working-class sisters who’ve taken up illegal practices to earn a living. Trying to leave it all behind them, they find it more difficult than expected to get back on the straight and narrow.

Someone Great (April 19)
Also coming straight to Netflix this month is Someone Great, an ensemble lady-led comedy starring Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, and DeWanda Wise. Coupled with a supporting cast that includes Lakeith Stanfield and Rosario Dawson, there’s certainly going to be a lot of talent on display, if nothing else. This sort of comedy doesn’t always hit, but when it does, you can get something great like Bridesmaids.

Review: Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier

Even in the few hours that have passed since I saw this movie, there are some aspects of it that I like considerably more than I thought I did, and some considerably less. In the end, though, it all sort of balances out to the general reaction I had while watching Triple Frontier, which is that it’s… okay.

The premise is a fairly well-worn but reliable one: five former special ops soldiers (Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal) combine their skills to pull off a large-scale heist in South America. They rationalize it by saying they’re taking what they “deserve” and what the military did not provide them with. And they do so by stealing the money from some legitimately bad people. However, given that the heist itself takes place pretty early on in the film, you can probably guess that things don’t quite go as planned.

Triple Frontier does get points for mostly avoiding the swagger-y, brainless pitfalls that many an action movie before it has stumbled into. There are certainly cliched situations here, but the film also takes the time to explore the moral repercussions of the violence that the quintet of leads inflict. On the whole, there is a thoughtfulness and a critical eye that adds a very welcome layer of complication.

So the script does provide some compelling ethical quandaries. But, boy, does it also feature some clunky dialogue. This is surprising coming from co-writers Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, each of whom have earned Oscar nominations for their writing in the past. (And, in Boal’s case, a win!) This is especially apparent with Hedlund’s character, who we learn little about apart from his penchant for yee-haw one-liners that sadly give the actor little to work with.

Some of the rest of the cast fares better. Isaac and Pascal, in particular, are super charismatic and seem to understand the somewhat tricky balance of tones the film is going for. This is not a film highly focused on character development (proven by a pretty bland “getting the band back together” opening half hour) and I’d argue that no one is at their best here. But the cast is still seasoned and make it all fun enough to watch.

Chandor’s handle on the action, though, is really the high point of this film. In the hands of a lesser director, Triple Frontier would almost certainly have that cheap look and feel of a low-grade action flick. Instead, Chandor translates the gravity of what is happening through the use of precise, clear directing during the action set pieces. There are probably fewer action sequences than some people will go into it expecting, but the ones that are there (and, in particular, a gripping late-stage car chase) are so well executed that the film is wholly satisfying from that standpoint.

In the end, Triple Frontier could have been excellent but made some compromises along the way. Especially when it comes to the script. It’s handsomely made (including some nice cinematography from Roman Vasyanov), though, and if it sounds like your kind of movie it’s certainly still worth a watch.

February 2019 Favourites

I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to say about February, as it’s the shortest month of the year and was a busy one for me personally between projects at work and hanging out with friends. But as I thought it about it, some clear highlights emerged. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve been watching and listening to this month.

Never Look Away

At the Cinema: Never Look Away

February was a big Oscars catch-up month for me, and one of those films that I caught up was Germany’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Never Look Away. For the uninitiated, this thing is over 3 hours long, so sitting in the theatre for that long felt like an event in itself. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that the 188 minutes flew by, I did really like the film. I’m also glad that I got to experience it in the theatre setting where you can avoid distraction and submerge yourself in what’s happening onscreen.

First Man OSTMusic: film scores

Speaking of Never Look Away, while watching it I really took note of the Max Richter score, which was lovely (even if I didn’t think it was always perfectly congruous with the film itself). This sent me down a wormhole of finding other Max Richter scores, and then compiling a playlist of samples from some of my favourite recent film scores. (If anyone happens to be curious, it can be found here.) All of this also led to the realization that Justin Hurwitz was robbed of an Original Score nomination for First Man. (“The Landing” is a personal fave.)

Podcast: Armchair Expert with Jake Johnson (Feb. 25) and Jason Mantzoukas (Feb. 11)

Armchair ExpertI’ve been dipping in and out of Dax Shepherd’s podcast, Armchair Expert, for a few months now. Generally I find it enjoyable, though (as with most conversational podcasts) I find the mileage varies depending on who the guest is. This month Shepherd had two excellent episodes thanks to guests Johnson and Mantzoukas. Both are actors I like but never knew anything about beyond what we see of them on screen. In the podcast setting, both proved to be thoughtful, funny, and open guests. If nothing else, listen to Jake’s episode for his story about the time he went to a party at Natalie Portman’s house.

Harmony HallSong: “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend

I love Vampire Weekend, and Vampire Weekend is back with a new extremely catchy, upbeat song. It’s perhaps a bit more straightforward (dare I say “basic”?) than a lot of their previous music, but it’s a promising first glimpse from their upcoming album. And I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it.

James Blake live

Live Music: James Blake at Sony Centre, Toronto (February 27, 2019)

I devoted a lot of time last month to gushing about James Blake’s new album, Assume Form, and that’s continued to be on heavy rotation for me in February. But the real treat was getting to see Blake live in concert. It was my first time seeing him live, and he actually exceeded expectations. His voice sounded amazing (only aided by the Sony Centre’s great acoustics) and he proved to also be a more dynamic performer than I anticipated. As well as performing most of Assume Form, he made my night by including “Love Me in Whatever Way” from his previous album, and “A Case of You” as a nod to Canadian icon Joni Mitchell. All around a fantastic show.

Top 5 first-time watches of February

  1. Never Look Away
  2. Free Solo
  3. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  4. Incredibles 2
  5. Vice

Review: Live Action Oscar Shorts

In my quest to watch as many of this year’s Oscar nominated films as I can, I checked out a screening of all five of the Live Action Short nominees. The results were… depressing!

That said, I did like 4 of the 5 films, to varying degrees. Below are my brief thoughts on each, in the order I watched them.

Mother

Mother (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Spain)

Perhaps the ideal use of the short film format, Mother tells an economical story in a trim 18 minutes. It’s self-contained and propulsive, ratcheting up the tension by using a single shot for the majority of its runtime.

The acting is solid, selling this story of a mother who receives a call from her young son who’s been left by himself in an unknown location. Of course, things only escalate from there, but we always stay on the mother’s end of the line so the viewer is similarly left in the dark of what exactly is happening.

I would have liked a bit more character development to make it easier to get emotionally invested. But the slick filmmaking provides plenty of narrative stakes on its own.

Fauve

Fauve (Jeremy Comte, Canada)

Comte’s short is easily my favourite of the bunch, telling the story of two boys who are out exploring on their own and get into far more trouble than they expect. The child actors are excellent and Comte’s camera is patient, giving the film an extremely naturalistic feel. The story unfolds at the perfect pace, building to a subtle but emotionally impactful ending.

There is an artistry to Fauve that sets it apart from the others, and I’d be extremely interested to see what Comte could do with the feature-length format. He has a knack for visual storytelling. Because while like most of the other shorts in this programme Fauve is grim, it never wallows and instead earns its somberness. I would be surprised if this one won the Oscar, but it would certainly be worthy.

Marguerite

Marguerite (Marianne Farley, Canada)

The category’s second offering from Canada, Marguerite is actually the most uplifting of the bunch. Which is an interesting thing to say about a film that follows a dying elderly women thinking about the great regrets of her life. But there is a hopefulness and warmth to Marguerite that actually makes it quite lovely. There are only two actors in the film (Beatrice Picard and Sandrine Bisson) and both are wonderful, lending a lot of emotional heft to the proceedings.

The film’s character intimacy is its great strength. Less strong is the pacing, which feels a bit shaggy even at only 19 minutes long. While emotionally affecting and overall a strong showing, it felt like there was just one small element missing.

Detainment

Detainment (Vincent Lambe, Ireland)

I can almost always find a way to at least justify a film’s existence, but that’s not really the case with Detainment. Tackling the distressing true story of two 10-year-old boys accused of murdering a toddler, it comes across as not only exploitative (which would be bad enough) but also artless. There’s no real visual style, atmosphere, or narrative tension (beyond the general sense of dread stemming from the subject matter) to be found.

The bright spot (if you can call it that) of the film is the performance by Ely Solan as one of the two boys, the doe-eyed Jon. It is an unsettlingly excellent performance from such a young actor, to the point where it made me wonder about the ethics of putting child actors into such a disturbing (yes, fictional) situation.

There simply isn’t a reason for this movie to exist. It’s one thing to be bleak. It’s another to use real-life tragedy for shock value and do nothing more with it.

Skin

Skin (Guy Nattiv, USA)

I have mixed feelings on Skin. Partly, I think it suffered for being the last of the five shorts shown in the programme, forced to follow up all the grimness that came before. But more than that, I think it just goes overboard to make its point. The subject matter (concerning a racially-based hate crime in the small-town southern USA) is no doubt important. But while I think (?) the heavy-handedness is intentional (meant to be allegorical rather than taken at face value), the stereotypes and oversimplification of the complex themes is a bit hard to stomach.

That said it is beautifully shot, and the story flows well. The acting is also strong – Jonathan Tucker and Danielle Macdonald are experienced and talented enough to imbue some intricacy to what would be otherwise very one-dimensional characters. If only the story itself had an ounce of nuance.