"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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High Life: A Review

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***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!***

My Rating: 3.8 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. But be forewarned, even though it is in English, it is a very “French” film and is definitely at home in the arthouse. If you have conventional tastes in movies, this one is not for you, but if you are a cinephile defintely check it out in the theatre.

High Life, written and directed by French auteur Claire Denis, tells the story of Monte, a young man who is caring for a baby on a mysterious voyage into deep space. The film stars Robert Pattinson as Monte with supporting turns from Julliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin and Mia Goth.

Claire Denis, the writer/director of High Life, is the critical darling of French cinema and the American arthouse. Denis has a distinctive film making style that appeals greatly to film critics but that the general public often finds impenetrable. A good example of this is that her last film, Let the Sunshine In (2018), which starred Juliette Binoche and could sort of be described as a French/arthouse romantic comedy, has an 86 % critical score and a 29% audience score at the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

Part of the problem with Denis work, at least for American audiences, is that if you market a film as a romantic comedy, Americans will expect a rather simple Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan cute fest and not the verbose philosophizing, existential thesis that is Let the Sunshine In. Expectations play a big part in audience perceptions and thus in the ultimate success or failure of a film.

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High Life may face the same marketing struggle as Denis’ other films, at least in terms of the general public. High Life is being sold as a sort of action-thriller, science fiction, space movie…in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Alien. High Life is a lot of things, but action-thriller is not one of them, and if audiences are aware of that and understand how to digest the film, they may come away with a greater appreciation for it…because there is a great deal to appreciate.

High Life is not Alien meets 2001, but rather is a beguiling, at times bewildering, dark, moody, existential and philosophical meditation on the meaning of life and what it means to be a human. The film is Claire Denis at her very best, using her signature style to create a deliberately paced, deliriously claustrophobic, non-linear dream/nightmare that is intentionally disorienting.

The film opens with Pattinson’s character Monte caring for baby all by himself on a space craft. The film then unwinds and reveals the who, what, when, where, why and how this strange combination of Monte, a baby, and deep space, came to be.

Being a parent is hard. Being a single parent is a Herculean task. Being a single parent in deep space is a circle of hell that Dante could never have dreamed up. Monte’s struggle to care for this baby is palpable, and as the child’s cries pierce through Monte’s space suit to his core, they also cut viewers to the bone. This scenario of the deep space single parent and the vulnerability of an infant, intensifies the suffocating sense of claustrophobia and heightens the ominous sense of foreboding that permeates the entire film.

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Pattinson’s work as Monte is extraordinary. Monte is a psuedo-monk, struggling to control his human desires in order to, ironically enough, stay connected to his humanity. Pattinson gives Monte a very specific internal intentionality that illuminates his every action and drives him through every scene. Pattinson is an actor I never would have given a second thought to after those dreadful Twilight movies, but his fine work in the not so good The Lost City of Z (2017) made me take notice. Here in High Life he commands the screen without ever demanding attention, in fact, it is Pattinson’s use of introversion bordering on camera shyness that make him so intriguing and compelling in this role.

The rest of the cast do solid work as well. Juilette Binoche as the witchy Dr. Dibs chews the scenery like a starving women hurtling through the universe looking for her final meal. Mia Goth also does notable work as Boyse, a destructive and self-destructive anima figure, the polar opposite of Monte.

Claire Denis knows what she is doing when it comes to making movies, and High Life is a testament to that. The film is technically first-rate, as the cinematography, particularly the framing and lighting, as well as the editing, are superb but never overwhelm the tone and theme of the movie.

High Life is deliberately paced, and may be too slow for more conventional tastes, but I found the film to be captivating to the point of hypnotic. Denis’ ability to disorient the viewer’s perception of space and time was a master stroke that simulates for the audience the psychological, emotional and philosophical vertigo that Monte must struggle with and through as he goes along his hero/anti-hero’s journey.

High Life asks a lot of questions but gives no clear answers, which is maybe why I liked it. There were no easy escapes from the void of space or the existential issues raised. Ideas as varied as human value, spirituality, morality, physical purity, incest, humanity, witchcraft v. science, and even cats v. dogs, all come up in the movie and propel the philosophical narrative forward, backward, up, down and all around.

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At the end of the day, High Life, like most space movies, is really an homage to, and imitation of, Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. High Life is no 2001, but to Claire Denis’ credit it is a very distant, but worthy enough, cinematic step-cousin, as it wrestles with the same question of human evolution and being born into, and cast out of, the Garden of Eden with nothing but our humanity to guide and protect us.

Space is cold and forbidding, and the struggle to maintain life amidst that black void is colossal, but not nearly as gargantuan (or heroic) as the struggle to maintain humanity. Monte’s evolution…which may result in being reborn the Starchild from 2001 or left to an eternity in the empty void of nothingness, lies on the other side of a black hole. He isn’t sure he is ready to make the trip…are you?

If you have the courage, and the open mind, I recommend you set aside your expectations and conventions and make that journey with Monte. Yes, there are some bumps along the way, the most noteworthy being a rather odd scene with Juliette Binoche (you’ll know it when you see it - it was the catalyst for two sixty-something women in my screening to make a hasty exit) that serves a certain and minor purpose but which goes on for a distractingly and interminably long time. But if you can simply get into the rhythm of the film, and not try and figure it out as it washes over you but rather experience it and all of the good and bad that comes along with it, I think you may find it as satisfying a cinematic experience as I did.

Again, this movie is not for everyone…even though it is in English, it is a very, very French film, and it reeks of the art house, so if you simply cannot or will not overcome your cinematic conditioning for clear narratives and resolutions, then you should skip this one. But if you are feeling adventurous and in the mood to contemplate the meaning of life and humanity amidst the unrelenting sea of darkness that is space, then gear up, strap in and take the plunge. You may find you enjoy the high life.

©2019

Steve Jobs - A Review : Steve Jobs, 2001 and The Cult of Personality

***WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!**

MY RATING : SEE IT IN THE THEATRE!!

 

"THE TWO MOST SIGNIFICANT EVENTS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: THE ALLIES WIN THE WAR, AND THIS. " - STEVE JOBS

As I sit here at my MacBook Pro, with my iPhone by my side, writing a review of Steve Jobs, the film about the late founder of Apple computers, I have to confess that I really didn't know or care very much about the man prior to seeing the film. My ignorance and ambivalence about Jobs, yet my near complete everyday reliance upon his life's work, is a testament to the magnitude of his achievement and an indictment of me and my incuriosity.  Sadly, I am woefully unqualified to comment on the historical accuracy of Steve Jobs, but thankfully, I am moderately qualified to comment on the dramatic and cinematic worth of the movie. 

Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and adroitly directed by Danny Boyle, is an exquisitely crafted and impeccably acted film. The film stars Michael Fassbender as Jobs, and boasts very impressive supporting turns from Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Seth Rogan.

Michael Fassbender gives a fantastically magnetic and dynamic performance as Jobs. Fassbender is one of the best actors working today and his work as Job's is a tribute to his mastery of his craft and his enormous talent. 

Fassbender's performance is an approximation and not an imitation of Jobs, which is always a wise approach. As I am fond of saying, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but the least sincere form of acting"©. Fassbender focuses on the internal emotional reality of Jobs and not on trying to recreate the external appearance of the man. That is not to say that there are no outer manifestations of Fassbender's inner work, there are. For instance, Fassbender alters his voice as he ages Jobs. He hits an oh-so-slightly higher register as a young man and a lower one as an older man, it is done so subtly that it would be nearly imperceptible to anyone not looking for it (or trained in this sort of thing). It isn't a showy thing, but it is an extremely effective one, which is a credit not only to Fassbender's technique but to his artistic integrity.

Fassbender's Jobs is a shark (a symbolic power animal referenced in the film) which is always moving forward and never looking to the past. This manifests literally as Jobs constantly physically walking throughout the story, and figuratively as Jobs frantically running away from his past and his emotional wounds. Stasis is death to Fassbender's Jobs, and when he isn't actively trying to devour his opponents, his enemies or his feelings, he is unwittingly trying to avoid any notions of "regretfulness", a word strikingly evoked in the film by Jobs' daughter. This approach to life leaves Fassbender's Jobs as a single minded business/technological genius, with emotional blind spots the size of his gargantuan ambition. It is not Jobs struggle to conquer history and the tech world that makes the character so imperative, but rather his struggle to understand himself and his existential wounds.

I recently wrote about Jeff Daniels being mis-cast in a bunch of projects where I thought his work was sub-par, such as in Ridley Scott's The Martian and HBO's The Newsroom. In Steve Jobs, I was very pleased to see Daniels give a nuanced and poignant performance as John Sculley, the CEO of Apple and erstwhile father figure to Jobs.  This character, in the hands of a lesser actor, would have been easily overlooked at best or a two-dimensional disaster at worst. 

Kate Winslet plays Joanna Hoffman, Job's right hand woman and confidante, who is a force to be reckoned with. She gives a powerful performance that is laced with a delicate humanity, which makes her the perfect balance to Fassbender's humanity-challenged Jobs. Winslet is the consummate pro, and here she brings all of her formidable talents to bear in creating a character who is able to platonically and powerfully love Steve Jobs, but never be a victim to him.

Michael Stuhlberg and Seth Rogan also give solid supporting performance as Andy Hertzfeld, member of original Mac team and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, respectively. Although, I nearly fell over when I saw a talking empty-head on one of the cable news shows saying that if Rogan doesn't win an Oscar it would be a travesty. Rogan does a fine yet completely unspectacular job as Wozniak. I think that people often get unduly excited when an actor who has consistently been dreadful simply shows up and isn't as awful as usual. Rewarding mediocrity due to familiarity, or worse, confusing mediocrity with greatness, is often a result of lowered expectations and is sadly, a common occurrence across our culture, one need look no further than our politics with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or Hollywood with Matthew McConaughey and George Clooney for proof of that.

WALKING, TALKING AND DRUNKEN MONKEYS

I often find writer Aaron Sorkin's style, which I call "walking and talking…quickly", to be off-putting because it can be so mannered, deliberate and disingenuous. Sorkin's writing style is as if David Mamet and a drunken monkey with a political science degree had a baby that wrote a screwball dramedy with all of the fast paced, witty repartee that genre demands. In the hands of lesser directors, such as on Sorkin's HBO show The Newsroom, Sorkin's writing can be unbearable in it's overbearing self consciousness. But in the hands of a true craftsman and artist, like Danny Boyle with Steve Jobs, or David Fincher with The Social Network, Sorkin's style can become captivating, if not down right hypnotic. 

With Steve Jobs, Sorkin's true stroke of genius comes not in his dialogue but rather in how he structures the story. Instead of falling into the usual traps of the bio-pic, basically showing the highlights of the man's life, Sorkin structures the film like a stage play in three acts, where the characters talk about what has happened between acts but what wasn't shown to the viewer. It is all about how people react and feel about events, not about the events themselves. It is a brilliant way to mine the depths of characters and relationships for all of the emotional drama they are worth. It is also a tribute to Sorkin (and director Danny Boyle) that he respects his audience enough to not feel the need to spoon feed them the usual bio-pic nonsense but rather trusts them to be sophisticated enough to understand context without having it shown to them. Turning the story into a stage play for the screen creates a character study and not a bio-pic, and that is what makes it such a compelling and satisfying film.

STEVE JOBS AND 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

There is a little secret hidden in plain sight about where Sorkin gets his inspiration, whether conscious or unconscious, for the structure of the film, and it is pretty brilliant. The opening of the film shows an old black and white industrial-type of film where Arthur C. Clarke, famed science fiction writer and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, stands in a 1960's computer room surrounded by a gigantic computer that nearly fills the entire room and talks with a young man and a little boy about what the future will look like. Clarke talks of a future where people will have small computers in their homes where they can do work and order theatre tickets and the like right from their computer. It is cool to see Clarke accurately predict the future and to see the amazement on the little boys face at the unlimited prospects in his future. That scene tells us all we need to know about the rest of the film, and I was even wondering as the scene played out, if it would be revealed that the little boy was Jobs in his youth.

This opening scene is a clue as to the blueprint for Steve Jobs. Sorkin uses the exact same structure as Arthur Clarke's and Stanley Kurbick's iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that film is subtly referenced throughout Steve Jobs

In 2001, mankind's evolution over thousands of years is covered in three acts. In Steve Jobs, Sorkin uses the same three act, evolutionary leaping structure to show the emotional growth of Jobs the man,  and technological growth brought forth by his company. While Jobs personal evolution and his company's technological evolution are only over a two decade span rather than thousands of years, they are still making as gigantic a leap as mankind does in 2001. Seeing Steve Jobs make emotional evolutionary jumps that are the equal to 2001's thousands of years of evolution only becomes believable if we are sub-consciously attuned to the archetype of mankind's overwhelming need to evolve set forth in 2001

In 2001's first act, Kubrick shows us primitive man at the moment he discovers, with the aid of a mysterious monolith, his first tool, which he quickly turns into a weapon to kill his rivals. Act One in Steve Jobs opens backstage of an Apple product launch (the new age monolith!!) in 1982 with Jobs not even admitting to the paternity of his daughter, and denying the child and her mother, any financial support even though his worth is over $440 million. Like the ape-man in 2001 who uses the technological advantage of the first tool to bludgeon his defenseless enemies, Jobs uses his technological advantage to gain wealth and power which he uses to emotionally bludgeon his ex-girlfriend and the daughter he denies.

In Kubrick's 2001 we then make a jump of thousands of years into the future into Act Two where man is colonizing and living in space. Act Two ends with man discovering a monolith on the moon, which is really just a stepping stone to the great discovery revealed in Act Three. In Act Two of Steve Jobs, we are once again backstage at another product launch, this time for Job's new company NeXT, which he started after being fired from Apple. This tech company, NeXt, like the monolith on the moon in 2001, is really just a stepping stone. In Job's master plan he intends to use the NeXT launch to get back on top and in control of Apple. In addition, Job's daughter has grown a bit, and while he is beginning to take an interest in her life, he still isn't capable of truly loving her or emotionally understanding himself. In being blind to the inner complexes that drive him, Jobs is just like mankind in Act Two of 2001, which has not yet evolved enough to truly understand the intelligence they are chasing across the solar system, nor do they understand what drives them to chase it. 

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In Act Three of 2001, man and machine (the enigmatic computer HAL) travel into space in order to find the origin of this mysterious monolith near Jupiter. Eventually man and machine, in the form of HAL, do battle, with HAL fighting for supremacy and man fighting for survival. Man must overcome technology, his intellect, in order to integrate it and open up his true emotional self. The film ends with man having gone through a dramatic and personally apocalyptic evolutionary transformation and being reborn as the intellectually and emotionally advanced "Star Child".

In the third act of Steve Jobs, we are once again backstage at a product launch, this time for the iMac, which is a spaceship compared to the animal bone of Apple 2 that came twenty years earlier. In this final act of Steve Jobs, Jobs is finally able to overcome his drive for technological and business success and open his heart to his daughter. For the first time in the film he decides he'd rather start the product launch late in order to talk with his daughter, putting her emotional needs before his business needs. This is symbolic of his overcoming his intellect and his business drive and instead opening his previously underused heart/emotional drive. He then integrates his intellect and technology with his heart/emotion when he tells his music loving daughter he will invent a product for her which will carry thousands of songs, what eventually will become the iPod. Directly after that scene with his daughter, Jobs stands on stage at the product launch with lights and flashbulbs popping all around him. As his daughter looks on, Jobs is engulfed in a luminous glow of otherworldly light, symbolic of his final stage of evolution where he becomes the intellectually and emotionally advanced Star Child.

Steve Jobs, like 2001: a Space Odyssey, teaches us about human evolution on both the external/technological level, and the internal/emotional level. The journey at the center of 2001 is that mankind must go forth into deep space, both outer and inner, in order to truly understand our universe and ourselves. The self knowledge acquired on this galactic grail self-quest is what will propel us to through to our next stage of evolution. Steve Jobs teaches us this same lesson wrapped in a different mythology, that we must explore both our external/intellectual drive and our internal/emotional one. One cannot be a truly evolved human being if one doesn't strive to cultivate both outer and inner forms of development and growth.

"MUSICIANS PLAY THEIR INSTRUMENTS. I PLAY THE ORCHESTRA." - STEVE JOBS

Steve Jobs is one of those polished and elegantly crafted films that only master artisans could make. Danny Boyle's flawless and vibrant direction is the key to keeping Sorkin's dialogue, which can be unwieldy in lesser directorial hands, emotionally vital and palpable. Boyle's deft touch and meticulous attention to dramatic pacing, both of the actors and of the camera, create a mesmerizing, seductive and deeply gratifying film.

THE CULT OF TECHNOLOGY AND PERSONALITY

An interesting theme that Boyle explores is the idea of the cult of Steve Jobs. Boyle evokes a sense of the sacred and religious being present in each of the product launches. The audience in the auditoriums chant and move in unison, hungry for Jobs, their Pope, prophet and messiah to share with them his new holy revelations, shrouded on the altar of the stage, which will change their lives forever. Boyle also shows Jobs as being a tyrant and control freak who believes his power should always and every time be unquestioned. Boyle's Jobs has a whiff of L. Ron Hubbard about him, and there is a Jim Jones vibe lurking deep in the heart of both Jobs and his desperate collection of followers and fanatics, whose idolatry of Jobs could easily be turned into zealotry. This cult of Steve Jobs, could easily be the cult of any guru, be they business, technology, political or spiritual based. Boyle's glimpse into Steve Jobs, the man behind the myth, is a pulling back of the curtain to reveal the fragility at the heart of the man who yearned for, and was placed upon, the pedestal of genius.

In conclusion, Steve Jobs is a great film and is well worth your time and hard earned money. Go see it in the theatre, if for no other reason than to watch the theatre light up with iPhones coming alive after the film has ended. As enjoyable and well made a film as Steve Jobs is, audience members compulsively re-attaching themselves to Steve Jobs' technology the moment the film ends is more a tribute to the man's life and genius than any film could ever be.

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  ©2015