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High Life (2019)

The one movie more of my friends have cited as their favorite of 2019, besides Avengers, is a small little indie that left theaters as quickly as it arrived. High Life is a challenging, provocative science-fiction movie by French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), making her English-language debut. High Life is set in the deep of space with a crew made up of prisoners serving life sentences. We follow Monte (Robert Pattinson) along with a baby and we’re left to determine how they got here. The following two hours will explore the hazards of space, the fragility of man, and the weirdness of French people.

I knew I was in troubled territory when the movie spends a whopping 18 minutes (18!) to set up that Pattinson is alone in space with a baby and everyone else on his crew is dead. I understand establishing a mood, a day-to-day sense of the grunt work operations this guy has to do to stay alive, but this is simply excessive latitude to convey the same information. It was a bad indication of what was to come.

Fortunately, the movie picks up as we transition into the flashback of life with the crew and the growing anxiety and tensions that would seal their doom. I was waiting for some taut tension. We know they’re all prisoners serving life sentences so I also expected some combustibility with them trapped, together, for years on end, and subjected to strange experiments. I expected some prisoners to lose their minds into madness and others to be distraught and others to be excitable. What I wasn’t expecting was that everybody would simply be masturbating the whole time or raping each other. There’s a hard turn into explicit sexuality and the movie starts to resemble a more insidious soft-core flick. There’s a masturbation room though its overall importance escapes me. Juliette Binoche’s character is performing fertility experiments and has her eyes set on a specific DNA combination. This leads to some bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious moments where she stalks the halls with syringes of sperm. The psycho-sexual aspect of the movie feels like it should be more important but Denis doesn’t seem to be articulating its importance, only using it as an excuse for characters to act on their carnality as if this is commentary on the human condition alone and without context. “Sex is the only freedom,” she says, as if this is a unique observation.

I suppose there’s the concept that these people have been disposed of by larger society, jettisoned out of the solar system in the name of scientific discovery but perhaps just as a means of cleaning out Earth’s prison population. These people are all atoning for something, or so we’re told, and you would think the existential solitude and knowledge that they will likely never see Earth again would be a prime starting point for some really interesting and introspective examinations on these people, their conceptions of themselves, and their actions and place in the universe. We get little glimpses of this but mostly the other characters are kept at an unreachable distance; they’re strangers to the audience, so when they start being dispatched one-by-one the emotional response is simply that of indifference. Another character we never got much of a sense of is gone. Oh well.

The characterization by Denis and her four other co-writers (five people wrote this!) keeps everyone underdeveloped with the exception of our protagonist, who seems to be the model for the character journey the movie was setting up. He’s trying to live a life free from urges but ultimately comes into care of a little baby. Their father/daughter survival could be the stuff of great drama that pushes his character into uncharted realms. Unfortunately, once Denis has killed off everyone the movie zips ahead to the baby now as a teenager and then it abruptly ends in what seems like a suicidal confrontation of oblivion that could have just as likely happened at any point. It feels only so much an ending because there are credits afterwards.

This is going to be much more metaphorical and subtextual science fiction, so I was waiting for the eventual themes to emerge, and I just kept waiting. The first 18 minutes is watching Pattinson play take-your-daughter-to-work-day on the space ship. The next hour is almost a mad scientist drama with a bunch of expendable characters meeting unfortunate ends. There’s also a lot of sexual violence here. Once we get caught up in the timeline, the last twenty minutes is pretty mundane until one final fateful decision that we established earlier is the physical equivalent of suicide. That’s about it. It feels like pieces of more meaningful ideas and conversations are left as scattered detritus, demanding that an audience not just put the pieces together but also project their own meaning onto that puzzle. I don’t mind a movie that makes me work but there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being empty and vague. I don’t know what Denis and her movie is trying to say and it’s generally hard to follow when we don’t get to know people and situations before jumping around in time. There’s definitely a vision here, but to what?

High Life often looks gorgeous, with large swaths bathed in moody lighting and artfully styled shot compositions. A masturbatory “dance” into something dream-like feels like what would happen if David Lynch tried his hand at erotica. The performances are rather blank as if Denis had precious little to explain about their characters. There’s a stretch where they’re all highly sedated as well, which only makes them seem like slightly sleepier versions of who we have seen up to this point. Pattinson has really impressed me with his recent indie output working with eclectic artists, especially his live wire performance in 2017’s Good Time as a hapless criminal trying to get out of an increasing mess. Pattinson burrows into his character’s monastic aim in an attempt to tap into something deeper. It just isn’t there, so he looks longingly at the stars, thinks furtively about his past, and goes through his routine. These people too often feel like vacant shells of human beings, zombies walking the corridors in habit. The only other actor worth noting is Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) who gives it her all, especially during a masturbatory sequence that reminded me of a riding bull. Get ready for lots of extreme closeups of her pubic bone as well.

High Life feels like Annihilation in space but even lacking that movie’s attuned sense of purpose about mankind’s relationship with nature and its general indifference to us. It fails to come together for me into something more cohesive or engaging or just even understandable. This is operating more on a metaphorical level than a hard science level, though the asides with black holes are depicted with intelligence. Mostly I was watching the movie and I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in. There’s a dispirited collection of ideas and images and a general lack of hurry to get around to saying little with clarity. It’s frustrating because the movie has so much potential with its premise and setting and different narrative pieces, but ultimately it feels too lost in space when it comes to larger meaning and substance.

Nate’s Grade: C

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

When news broke that Hollywood was going to make a live-action version of the much-beloved 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, fans were understandably nervous and excited. The original movie was a major hit that crossed over into the mainstream much like Akira, another movie Hollywood has long been trying to bring to life (run away, Jordan Peele!). People got extra worried when they heard that Scarlett Johansson was going to play the main character and cries of “whitewashing” were hurled across the chasm of the Interwebs. The “white washing” charge, which in context is possibly misapplied, might have been the smaller worry. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake is missing just about everything that made the original a standout. It’s a ghost, if you will, of its former, superior self.

In a cyberpunk future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is an android fighter working for a special operations group tasked with taking down cyber criminals. The Major was injured in a terrorist attack and her brain was placed in a robotic shell (looking like ScarJo is one of the upgrade features). Every so often she gets hallucinations of events she cannot recall. After an encounter with the hacker criminal Kuze (Michael Pitt), a fellow android, she begins to doubt the true intentions of her superiors and what they have told her.

If you’re a fan of the original Ghost in the Shell, you might be depressed from what the live-action Hollywood adaptation does to its noteworthy source material. If you’ve never seen the anime, then you might find some scraps of entertainment to be had in what is essentially a drizzly cyberpunk product dumbed down for the largest mass audience that would be adrift with any minor hint of ambiguity. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell is not a good movie and it’s an even worse Ghost in the Shell movie. First off, we don’t need live-action versions of superior animated films just to have them, and this same statement goes for the equally underwhelming Beauty and the Beast remake. Just because a film lacks “real people” does not mean it is missing some crucial element, and I bristle at the notion that animated films are somehow inherently inferior or not “real movies.” With that being said, Ghost in the Shell will invariably disappoint fans of the original anime. There are visual signifiers and shots that it mimics with fealty; it’s just the overall story, characters, narrative complexity and mystery, and everything else that lacks that same level of fealty. Who cares if the main character is a shell of herself because, hey, they recreated this one shot fairly accurately, and that’s why we go to the movies, right?

Whereas the original was thoughtful and trusted the intelligence of an audience, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell resorts to explaining everything all the time, and even that it does badly. This is a muddled and frequently incoherent plotline, and the magnitude of its ineptitude is even higher considering how stupidly obvious the screenwriters make every twist and turn. This is the most obvious, simplistic conspiracy you could possible write. When Major wakes up in the opening scene and is being told what happened, the audience should already be alert with suspicion. This secret conspiracy goes in the most obvious direction (the good guys might not be the good guys after all) in a manner that should be transparently obvious to anyone except those unfortunate souls who have never seen another movie before in their lifetimes. So much of the plot is the untangling of this mystery, the Major’s real back-story, who the true villains are. To make it as obvious as possible and still devote so much time is not a good decision. The movie is constantly tagging characters to explain all exposition, leaving no subtleties to chance. The sadder part is that the plot is still muddled for long stretches even with all this handholding to straighten things out for the neediest.

The world building and themes are kept at a distance, further denying the movie depth and substance. With any science fiction world, let alone one borrowed from other famous cinematic influences, it’s important for the viewer to get a sense of how the world operates. This can be done with small moments and larger moments, enough to properly contextualize this brave new world. With Ghost in the Shell, we’re told that mankind has become increasingly intertwined with machines and that cybernetic enhancements are en vogue. Except we never see this in the outside. We see loads of floating hologram advertisements, an overblown visual motif, but outside of our three main characters, this aspect that they felt merited inclusion in text before the movie gets underway is weirdly absent. It makes the characters feel less like they belong in an environment that makes sense. The larger themes of self-identity, the nature of humanity, and the questions over body autonomy are glossed over with the faintest of observations. Major is discovering her identity, but it leads her to what may be the most tired of conclusions. You would think having a robotic body would create some sort of existential reflection. You would be mistaken. Sure, Major feels unsure of herself and out of place, though why should she since we’re told man-robot hybrids are all the rage in this vague future landscape. I’m surprised someone didn’t just start explaining what the title meant at any given point.

The movie feels entirely surface-level and that’s where it has one redeeming value — its visual presentation. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) is an above average visual stylist who benefits from strong production design and cinematography. At least the visual aesthetics could keep my attention, even if part of that attention was occupied in playing a compare-and-contrast game with certain scenes. The special effects are suitable and stylish enough, borrowing more than a few elements from the original. The action sequences are relatively muted, occurring in bursts but never really developing further. There’s an initial attack, then a response, and sometimes a chase, but that’s about it. The tech also doesn’t seem to factor in the combat. The strike team has the ability to communicate telepathically, but if they can do this why would they ever turn off this secret channel? It’s also lazy as it means we can just focus on filming scenes and record whatever dialogue we need later, as if the screenplay was incomplete.

The 2017 Ghost in the Shell live-action version is a disappointing cyberpunk thriller that pays lip service to its source material, copying the movements but losing sense of the substance and soul. I’d advise people to merely watch the 1995 anime instead or the TV series that followed. It all feels like an expensive, slick, yet peculiarly ramshackle production that loses sight of the bigger picture by worrying at every turn whether a mainstream audience is going to need help understanding the most obvious. Johansson can be a great actress, which is important to remind yourself because she goes on kickass heroine autopilot with this movie. The action is short and inadequate, the visuals are impressive albeit derivative to the source material and its myriad influences, and the story has nuance, ambiguity, philosophy, reflection, and general substance replaced with a generic conspiracy structure that renders much uninteresting. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell doesn’t quite go to the insulting derisive lows of the Dragonball Z live-action remake, but it’s certainly not a good use of anyone’s time, and that includes you, the audience.

Nate’s Grade: C

Dan in Real Life (2007)

What is it about advice columnists that make filmmakers want to turn their lives upside down? I suppose there’s some karmic twist seeing someone who instructs others fall on their face when it comes to living their own life. I can readily think of several movies, mostly in the romantic comedy and sentimental weepie genre, that all involve an advice columnist who has their life torn asunder by fate. I suppose the extra dose of irony seems less cruel when dished out to someone who, supposedly, has all the answers. Dan in Real Life is an observant and enjoyable movie that centers on the stumbles and joys of the life of cinema’s favorite whipping boy.

Dan (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist raising three daughters on his own. His wife died years ago from an undisclosed illness and ever since he has been trying his darndest to be the best, if not slightly overprotective, dad. His oldest (Alison Pill) is eager for the car keys, his middle daughter (Brittany Robertson) is defiantly insistent upon her undying love for a boy, and his youngest (Marlene Lawston) is the kind of tyke that provides sage wisdom in time of need, usually at the very end of the movie. The lot of them head out to the family home along the Rhode Island coast to spend the week with the extended brood. Dan sleeps in the laundry room, is hated by his spiteful daughters, and forced into a blind date thanks to his concerned parents (John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest).

While Dan is out trying to decompress he stumbled across Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore. They spend hours talking, well Dan does, and suddenly the rain cloud over his head seems destined to fade. He stammers to tell his family the good news when he discovers that his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), has brought his new girlfriend to meet the folks and it’s, surprise, Marie. Dan respects his brother and tries to control his feelings of desire but still cannot help but flirt and pine for Marie, who is all too aware of the under the radar advancements.

I’m actually somewhat amazed at how well Dan in Real Life plays out in real life. The idea of a big family get-together as a source of comedy has been done to death, and this clan exists in an exaggerated world popularized by movies where families have spirited games of charades, robust sing-a-longs, and then perform a talent show complete with decorative furnishing. The family’s emphasis on togetherness plays out in expected wacky scenarios that would be regularly seen on TV sitcoms, but it is refreshing that an entire film based around an annual family reunion instills no fraternal bickering or bitterness. That’s got to be something new, and again, potentially a pure product of the cinema. Dan in Real Life has familiar staples and walks some dangerously sappy territory but the film manages to surprise and amuse because it all comes back to being character-centered. There’s a great scene where Dan is hiding in a shower and Marie is forced, in order to maintain the rouse, to step naked into the shower with him. Dan is thrown into some contrived situations, like the shower scene, but it is his wounded, deferential sensibilities that save him and also save the film from movie-of-the-week trappings.

Director/co-writer Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) knows how much anguish Dan can suffer before pulling back, and it gets to a point where Dan starts to seem like a comic Job (that might be redundant). Of course, like most sitcoms, lessons will be learned and wisdom will be doled out thanks to full and honest communication, and Dan in Real Life is no different in that regard. There’s a level of believability to the film that helps ground it even during the familiar sitcom moments, like the late rush to testify one’s feelings of true love.

Carell isn’t a stranger to drama or comedy with some painful underpinnings to it, just look at his work in Little Miss Sunshine or the brilliant awkwardness of TV’s The Office. He’s very effective at communicating the exhausting exasperation of raising a trio of feisty females. There are some tender moments and Carell plays them well. He just has a physically natural look of sad befuddlement with his droopy yet piercing eyes and those bushy brows, so he knowingly underplays broad expressions and gestures and this works exceedingly well with the film’s un-sensational tone. When Dan does unleash the wilder, sillier side it’s usually a culmination of his pent up feelings; being denied happiness that appears within reach. He is a quietly becoming unwound as he tries to squash the feelings he doesn’t want to extinguish.

Binoche is a famous French actress who has an Oscar to boot, but she is simply radiant in this film and makes her character a prize worth perusing. She has an adorable sense of displacement and she and Carell exhibit a nice chemistry. Even in the tight timeframe, both the plot (3 days) and the film’s running length (93 minutes), Binoche manages to make us believe that someone could fall in love with her so easily.

Dan in Real Life is laid back, affable, and a sweet homespun comedy that escapes the sitcom trappings it very easily could have fallen prey to. What makes Dan so winning, ultimately, is how quietly and unassuming it goes about telling a familiar story of a sad man taking his first steps toward happiness. The movie has a gentle nature to it and succeeds thanks to an effective Carell performance and a really great turn by Binoche. Dan in Real Life is a feel-good drama that seems primarily aimed at adults, at least those with a working knowledge of the terrors of teenagers. This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking but it is heartfelt, somewhat moving, and very easy to like. My advice: give this movie a chance and prepare to be surprised.

Nate’s Grade: B

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