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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

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First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

Solaris (2002)

A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.

Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.

It’’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’’s just that it’’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.

Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’’s conscious gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.

I’’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked beauty McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.

Soderbergh’’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Space Cowboys (2000)

Geezers in space? Consider it the John Glenn biopic. Clint Eastwood teams up with veteran actors James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones to save the world with the combined aid of Ensure and adult diapers. But these old-timers show some of the “youngins” what movie entertainment is really all about.

Back in the day when the Air Force was in charge of space related programs Clint and his team were the cream of their crop and scheduled to be the first men to enter the dark void of space. Unfortunately NASA was formulated and the boys got the boot for a cosmo chimp. Now 50 years later the earth is threatened by a falling Russian satellite with technology too ancient that only a select group of experienced men still know to this day. So NASA enlists the help of the very men it backhanded so many moons ago to be drafted into a space operation to halt the plummeting satellite.

For a good while Space Cowboys is a breath of fresh air from a veteran team of actors. The rivalry between Jones and Eastwood as well as the young healthy astronauts versus the elderly-shake-your-hand-at-Wal-Mart astronauts makes for great comedy. The entire core group of actors sparkle with terrific chemistry and on screen presence. They create a jovial fun atmosphere that makes the movie humorous and surprisingly engrossing.

Space Cowboys is not liver-spot free. The direction by Eastwood is often flat and very un-engaging. The entire Russian Cold War spy subplot borders on the absurd, and the romances with women that can be their daughters makes vomit rise into my throat whenever I see their leathery faces suck the life out of those young and nubile girls. When the gentlemen get launched into space the entire movie loses focus and forgets what made it before. The typical space rescue themes abound and you know before they get up there that one of them won’t make it back, and probably do something heroic in the first place.

For the most part Space Cowboys is a reminder that the elderly still know how to put on a good show, even if the last fourth is very lackluster. These cowboys can ride off into the sunset content for a job well done.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Mission to Mars (2000)

Mission to Mars begins with a team of astronauts making the first manned mission to the red planet. Unfortunately things go… um, bad, and thus with no knowledge of any survivors and the six month time period it takes to travel to Mars, NASA sends out a rescue mission. More things go bad.

The setting is supposed to be 2020, but everything looks exactly like 1980. In the future there seems to be heavy reliance on product placement. From Dr. Pepper, to M&Ms, to having the damn Mars buggy plastered with Penzoil and Kawasaki. Are these astronauts Earth’s interstellar door-to-door salesmen? I was half expecting them to nix the American flag and firmly plant one for Nike. Maybe the future’s just this way because they drink from square beer.

Director Brian DePalma unleashes fantastic special effect after another, but they can only sugarcoat the bitter taste Mars resides in your mouth. Mission to Mars is tragically slow paced, full of interchangeable and indiscernible characters, and begging for some kind of insight. Don Cheadle and Gary Sinise prove that no matter how great an actor you are, when you’re given cheesy sci-fi dialogue, it’s still cheesy.

The fault lies with the more than three screenwriters and DePalma himself. Plain and simple, DePalma has lost his touch. His good days (The Untouchables) are clearly behind him on his new downward slide. Mars in any other director’s hands would no doubt be different — and that’s no bad thing. DePalma’s style of appropriations rips off the earlier, better, and more insightful 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Mars is surprisingly and sadly devoid of any tension or suspense. The suspense was likely killed in the efforts to portray an “accurate and realistic NASA manned planetary exploration.” Yet the scientific inaccuracies in this “accurate” portrayal are far too numerous to mention – let alone remember all of them. You cannot have tension during a problematic situation when the score is blaring church organs!

One can suspend belief and enjoy movies but Mars is a listless journey toward sentimental other-worldly beings that just want a hug. The friendly alien thing seems to have been driven dry by now. Can we have them destroying our cities again? Pretty please.

Nate’s Grade: C

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Hey imagine if the acting troupe of our Star Trek pantheon were to be transported into space to helm a real spacecraft and duel with real aliens-who-look-exactly-like-us-except-for-a-bigger-forehead! Where do I enlist? Then why does ‘Galaxy Quest’ have so much dead space and sentimentality? Bones, answer me that! Galaxy Quest runs hot-and-cold for its duration of time. It’s like bath water you aren’t sure to jump into yet because it could change in an instant… so you wait. The inspired moments of Quest all revolve around the inanities of the television show when brought to life. But the creative moments are shortly overcome with the stomping of fanboy tropes. The jokes often run the gamut and you’d be best to wildly guess which ones will make you crack up and which ones will just make you shake your head. Not even spiffy effects and creature features can squeeze more zest from this uneven sci-fi comedy.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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