Tag Archives: High Life

The Lighthouse

18 Oct

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“The Lighthouse” is a senses-riveting immersion, aurally awash in the sonorous sounds of the sea, the pelt of torrential rain and the soul-shaking roar of the title structure’s bullhorn. It’s also brilliantly composed in austere black and white, in a retro-cropped format (practically, a neat square at 1.19:1) by Jarin Blaschke, who also shot director Robert Eggers’ debut, “The Witch” in 2015. “Roma,” another bold black and white gamble, walked off with the Academy’s best achievement in cinematography last year – and rightly so – but I must say, much of what Blaschke and Eggers conjure up here is more vital to their film’s core and registers an overall surpassing grade. Hard to imagine, but yes, it’s that stunning.

The narrative the ambience hangs from isn’t quite as sure, but what’s to worry when you have Willem DaFoe and Robert Pattinson? The setup, based on writings by Melville and sea-obsessed others of the era, has two men keeping the flame on a remote isle somewhere far off the New England coast. It’s circa 1890, so there are no cell towers; there’s also no Morse code from the island should something go wrong. The pair are dropped off on the rock for a four-week shift. Dafoe’s Thomas is a salty old tar, Pattinson’s wide-eyed Ephraim the newbie in his charge. The order of things gets laid out early on: Thomas does the all the attending to light, which is kept under tight lock and key, as well as the cooking, while Ephraim pretty much does the backbreaking rest – scrubbing the floors, hauling heavy loads of coal across jagged rock outcroppings, emptying the piss pots and painting the structure from a rickety harness that would make any OSHA official cringe. 

Thomas proves to be an Ahab-like taskmaster, though just what his white whale is never surfaces. The first rub between the mates comes over the consumption of booze (Ephraim won’t partake) and later the quality of those scrubbed floors. What Eggers begins to simmer here (as he did in “The Witch”) is a slow descent into madness as things fall apart, with faint hints of perhaps something bigger and more divine at play – fog-impaired siren sightings, booze-addled images of sensually writhing tentacles and even the incarnation of Neptune himself. The existential horror story gets triggered by a vociferant gull with all the brio and menace of the devil-eyed goat Black Phillip in “The Witch,” and the arrival of a nor’easter that could hold up their relief by weeks, if not months. The stranding ultimately becomes an opportunity for the actors to really dig in and Act – and boy do they, as alcohol, sexual tension and stormwater rain down upon the splintering shingles of their characters’ relationship with the mystery of the lighthouse tower and Thomas’ journal (also conspicuously under lock and key) ever pulling at Ephraim.

The chemistry between the two, well at the top of their games, couldn’t be any more perfect, and it’s a pretty physically taxing slog, to boot. Pattinson, so good in such offbeat, gritty ditties as “Good Time” (2017) and “High Life” this year, pours himself into the part, never flinching as torrents of wind-driven rain or fecal matter pelt his face. But this is Dafoe’s flick, his mercurial changeups and old sea dog affect behind a beard so thick and mangy it rivals that of Edmond O’Brien’s old coot in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), sells and seals both the authentic air of the period and the reality-warping mayhem. 

The film’s finest moment, echoing the “Indianapolis” scene in “Jaws” (1974), has the marooned liquored up and singing and dancing gaily. In the cloistered quarters, the choreography and execution are pure bravura. Of course there’s no shark to break the interlude, just the specter of loneliness, haunted pasts and the unmistakeable boundary of taboo. Other cinematic borrowings from “The Shining” (1981) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) may raise a brow, but are otherwise unnecessary distractions. 

The other bright spot is the titular structure itself. The isle-perched beacon looks a legitimate relic, 150 years old, but truth be told, it was erected to house Eggers’ haunted hall of personal demons. There’s also some eye-grabbing visual effects with the use of white burning light and an eerie score by Mark Korven that deepens the whole, beguiling experience. Like Pattinson’s deep space cruiser en route to a black hole in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” “The Lighthouse” is less about liftoff or landing and more about the tormented sojourn.

Aniara

18 May

‘Aniara’: Another trip to deep space goes awry, a getting away from it all that demands escape

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Much of this sleek Swedish sci-fi flick may feel borrowed from the recent, grim “High Life” from the unlikely source of Claire Denis, but its roots go back to the similarly named 1956 poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Like Denis’ contemplation on loneliness, lust and what constitutes law and righteousness beyond the outer limits, “Aniara” dumps us aboard an outer space cruise ship occupied by souls from wildly varying social strata. The vast voyager comes replete with discos and gourmet eateries, but it is not a vacation, not by any means. Those aboard are en route to a Martian colony because Earth has become uninhabitable.

Not long into the journey something goes bump, and The Aniara gets knocked off course and on a trajectory out of the solar system and into deep space. The initial projection of two years to get the engines back to full capacity and get back on course comes as a bit of a bummer – it was supposed to take three weeks to get to Mars – but hey, they have unlimited algae, so all’s good, right? No. Plans don’t go accordingly, timelines shift, cults form and society devolves into chaotic semi-lawfulness. Think Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel “High-Rise” (2016) and you’d have the right idea.

It’s a piquant setup and something of an existential exercise, pitting hope against the torturous throes of not knowing. As adapted by first-time feature filmmakers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, the time-hopping narrative orbits around a strawberry-haired woman blessed with the gender opposite moniker of MR (Emelie Jonsson). MR proves quite the gravitational point; she’s the tech who runs the mental relaxation room known as Mima. The small, seatless amphitheater’s something like your favorite bar and bartender without the hangover – kind of: While resting in an inverted yogi Savasana pose, waves of flame shoot across the ceiling of Mima while visitors in their hyper-relaxed state take walks along the beach or a stroll through a verdant forest. In short, they get to go to their happy place. As the reality of return becomes increasingly glum, the demand for Mima spikes. And even there, the prospect for virtual escapism begins to become something of a shop of horrors.

The catch with “Aniara” becomes its overly ambitious scope, which begs for the razor eye of a master (say Kubrick or Tarkovsky); Kågerman and Lilja get the grandness and wonderment of the universe beyond right, but their chapter-esque jumps in time tend to break apart what came before. MR ultimately pairs up with fellow female crew member Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), so there’s something at risk emotionally and we’re reassured that true human companionship bears more value than a visit to Mima – phew. Years out, as prospects gray and the suicide rate skyrockets, folk still party like its 1999, engage in ritualistic orgies and even bear babies. Is it sustainable? It turns out space is a very cold place to contemplate time.

High Life

15 Apr

‘High Life’: Sending convicts to a black hole, occupied by pursuits only sometimes solitary

 

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Way up high, what’s that in the sky? Looks like a metal shipping container with rocket boosters glued on. A bit hokey indeed, but would you believe me if I told you “High Life” was the first English-language film from French auteur Claire Denis, and it’s a sci-fi adventure? Strange but true, though in fact there’s very little sci-fi-ish about the death-row deep-space mission that’s more about colliding personalities and strange sexual dances in dark places. Yes, in outer space no one can hear your orgasmic cries of ecstasy, but that’s mostly because they happen in a sealed box. (More on that later.)

The crew of that shipping container – the “7” – are all criminals (“scum, trash and refuse”), rocketing toward a black hole while radioing back to command their findings. Kind of. The one thing they do seem tasked with is the prospect of reproduction in outer space. The men must fill cups in a booth (it looks like a photo booth in a mall, but is not to be confused with the formerly mentioned “box”) and are given precious sleeping pills for their effort. The women are impregnated occasionally, but the birth of a child usually proves fatal for mother and infant. All this is orchestrated under the watchful and controlling eye of Dr. Dibs (the eternally eternal Juliette Binoche), who, in her tight nursing uniform, seems to be the closest thing to a commanding force aboard a ship with the feel of a basement boiler room or padded-cell dormitory. One crew member won’t share his seed, Monte (Robert Pattinson, who pleasingly keeps getting further away from his “Twilight” origins), and seems more in control of his own fate than others on the 7.

Given the lethality of childbirth and the fact that this is a crew of social marauders and murderers relegated to the deep, lawless abyss of space, what could go wrong? A primal carnage works its way through the 7 about midway through the film (as well as a realization that the narrative has been moving in time hops), with much of the violence meted out being raw retaliation, or the culmination of adamant disagreement. Folks aboard seem more interested in their two pounds of flesh and sleeping pills than any destination or technical issues that could imperil them. Of all the wacky internal violence, only one of the acts is sexual in nature – mostly because the 7 is equipped with a “fuck box,” a high-tech Shaker booth of sorts. We visit the Orgasmatron device only once, as our fair Dr. Dibs takes her turn. Inside there’s a well-endowed Sybian device, with trapeze handles to add you your bucking pleasure. Binoche, with a flowing, glorious mane of dark hair, is framed from her bare milky back, an image of Lady Godiva riding off into the dark night of endless pleasure.

Clearly Denis is operating under the creative influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s sci-fi classics, “Solaris” and “Stalker,” potent blends of psychological thriller and adventure into the unknown. There’s even the unmistakable image of a body floating in space eerily similar to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) suspended in the cold dark outside the hull of a rebel cruiser in “The Last Jedi.”  It’s hard to imagine Denis borrowing from such commercial fare, but there it is. Overall, the unthinkable mix is a jumbled delight. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” this could have been set in any confined locale – a sealed tier in a parking garage, a cabin atop a snowbound mountain, an ocean liner stranded at sea or even a ginormous freight elevator during a power outage – and the result would be the same. Denis is one of the most maverick female filmmakers out there, in good company with Kathryn Bigelow, Lynn Ramsey and Debra Granik, and adds her hard feminist fingerprint to “High Life” as she has in great films such as “Trouble Every Day,” “Beau Travail” and “White Noise.” Her latest adventure  isn’t quite on par with those films (you can still catch several at the Brattle Theater as part of “The Good Works of Claire Denis” series) but it is a riveting psychological odyssey from launch to climatic nadir.