"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

The Lighthouse: A Review

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

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Not worth seeing in the theatre…you can wait til it hits Netflix or cable to check it out.

The Lighthouse, written and directed by Robert Eggers, is the story of two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake and Ephraim Howard, who struggle with the isolation and solitude of their job. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson as Ephraim.

Director Robert Eggers burst upon the scene in 2015 with his ingenious horror film, The Witch, which was set on a remote farm in 1630’s New England. The Witch was a piece of devilishly terrific film making that used craft and artistry to breath life into an ancient tale. The Witch was not perfect, but it was well-crafted and highlighted the great potential of Eggers as auteur.

The Lighthouse has been much anticipated, by me and other cinephiles, because of the great promise shown in The Witch and because of the intriguing casting of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two committed actors. I was very excited to see The Lighthouse, so much so that I went on opening day to see it as soon as I could.

Sadly, my excitement for The Lighthouse diminished with every passing flash of its monotonous warning beam of light. The Lighthouse tries to be so many things and yet ends up being nothing at all. The film is a very ambitious project, but the bottom line is that it simply fails as a cinematic endeavor.

The biggest issue with The Lighthouse is that it is neither entertaining nor artistically enlightening. The film certainly boasts all the atmospherics that would enable it to be a quality film…great setting, terrific acting and solid black and white cinematography…but the narrative is so thin, rushed and indulgently incoherent that when it is all over the film simply wisps away like dust blown off an old photograph, never to be thought of again.

I’ve heard The Lighthouse described as a horror comedy, which strikes me as painfully inaccurate and woefully inadequate. People describing the film as a comedy are only doing so because they are so befuddled by it they think it must be a joke. The Lighthouse is not a comedy as there is nothing funny about it, and if it is meant to be a comedy it is even worse than I think it is.

I would describe the film as a mythological horror thriller, which in theory should be right up my alley, but even with that awkwardly specific yet expansive moniker the film fails to deliver the goods. It certainly touches upon some things, particularly the mythology aspect, that could be very interesting, but it doesn’t do so in any sort of interesting way and ultimately falls decidedly flat.

Eggers’ direction on The Witch was stellar, but with The Lighthouse he flounders trying to set narrative focus. The film meanders and never gains any dramatic or horror momentum and then hits an unearned hyper-drive that leaves coherence lost out at sea. The unwieldy ambition of the film ends up sinking the movie and leaving it a rotting hull on the ocean floor, which you’d think would be an indication of a fascinating story to tell, but here we are stuck with a pretty mundane sea shanty that gets sunk by its own inadequate telling.

Dafoe and Pattinson actually do some pretty solid work on The Lighthouse, but the narrative is so diluted their efforts are all for naught. Pattinson, in particular, has really grown into a quality actor, as evidenced by his work in this year’s High Life, and he gives his all as the junior lighthouse keeper. It will be interesting to see what he is able to do with the much trod ground of Batman when Matt Reeves takes the helm for the next installment of that cash cow franchise.

Dafoe is always a committed actor, and he does his most Dafoe-eqsue work in The Lighthouse as the ornery, pseudo-Ahab, Thomas Wake. In last year’s At Eternity’s Gate, Dafoe literally gobbled up dirt as Vincent van Gogh, and in the Lighthouse he once again indulges in the same mineral rich diet, devouring soil like he does the scenery.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots a nice black and white in a claustrophobic aspect ratio, and the film does look gorgeous, but his framing fails to accentuate the narrative or psychological sub-text, and the visuals end up feeling muddled and muted. In this way Blaschke’s beautiful black and white is equally as empty as the story and film it is wrapped around.

In conclusion, I really wanted to love The Lighthouse…but I didn’t. For all it has going for it the film simply doesn’t work. If you are really interested in seeing it, my recommendation is to save your money and wait for it to hit a streaming service or cable. If you really want to have a hauntingly good movie-watching Halloween, skip The Lighthouse altogether and watch the super-creepy and effective, The Witch.

©2019

High Life: A Review

***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.

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.

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.

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

The Lost City of Z : A Review

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

Estimated Reading Time : 4 minutes 58 seconds

My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SKIP IT. If the film intrigues you, see it on Netflix or Cable.

The Lost City of Z, written and directed by James Gray based upon the book of the same name by David Grann, is the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest to find an ancient lost city in the Amazon in the first part of the twentieth century. The film stars Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett with supporting turns from Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson.

The Lost City of Z is a great story, but a sub-par film. I have not read the book it is based upon, so maybe it is more successful as a companion piece to the book, but it fails as a stand alone cinematic enterprise. 

The problems with The Lost City of Z are numerous, but the most imperative issue is that it is thematically and structurally unsound. The movie never quite figures out what it wants to be and therefore tries to be about too much and ends up being about nothing. Is it a film about colonialism? Imperialism? Patriarchy? The suffocating rigidity of British society? The perils of chasing glory? Losing ones family by trying to save it? There are lots of choices to make, too many, and thus the film wanders from one topic to the next never fleshing any one out to any satisfactory depth. 

In terms of structure, the film's narrative is sprawling and poorly constructed which makes the movie feel interminably long and unconscionably meandering. A common pitfall for bio-pics is that the director feels compelled to show as much of the hero's life as possible, which almost always ends up a cinematic disaster. By showing everything we end up understanding nothing. No drama can take root and flourish when a film is so busy recreating events to manufacture the broadest and most vast of stories. This bewildering filmmaking decision is furthered by poor editing in which many tiny storytelling threads are revealed but none of them are pulled, resulting in a rather scattered movie going experience. 

Director James Gray is very good at making movies that SHOULD be good, but never are. His filmography is littered with noble failures and misfires. The Immigrant, for example, looked great but wasn't a great film because its story was all over the map. The same is true for all of Gray's other films. He must be phenomenal at making film pitches in studio offices, because he is not very good at making the actual films.

What struck me the most about The Lost City of Z was how poorly shot it was. The film's topic brings to mind many other much better films, like The Mission, New World and even Apocalypse Now. The biggest difference from those films though is that they were simply gorgeous to look at. The Lost City of Z's visuals are as murky and muddled as its storytelling. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji are never able to exploit the staggering beauty of the jungle to their cinematic advantage. When the film opens in Ireland and England, the dreary visuals are to be expected, but the transition to the Amazon never brings with it an expansive stylistic shift to a broader color palette. The films photography starts off suffocating and claustrophobic and stays that cinematically myopic throughout, which is a terrible artistic error. 

Gray and Khondji are also unable to create any sort of visual texture throughout the entire film. I kept yearning for the dazzlingly simple work of Emmanuel Lubezki in Terence Malick's New World. Lubezki and Malick were able to use natural lighting to propel their story and draw the viewer in to a visceral experience shared with the lead characters. Every slight bump in the bark of a tree or in the White men's armor was accentuated to a dazzling degree. In contrast, Gray and Khondji deliver a flat and stale picture of the Amazon, one of the most beautiful places on earth. One need only watch Roland Joffe's The Mission to see how a filmmaker can make the most of such a stunning setting. 
 

Charlie Hunnam plays lead character Percy Fawcett. Hunnam is best known for his starring turn in the FX motorcycle gang show Sons of Anarchy. Hunnam is remarkably handsome, of that there is no doubt. He certainly looks the part of a movie star, and I was definitely rooting for him heading into the film. But about mid-way through The Lost City of Z it occurred to me, Charlie Hunnam simply lacks "it". Some people have "it" and some people don't, and I am afraid Mr. Hunnam is of the latter group. This is a big year for Hunnam, as he is making his big push for movie stardom with The Lost City of Z and King Arthur to follow quickly on its heels. I think Hunnam will be unable to carry a film because he simply is not charismatic, magnetic or compelling enough to do so. He isn't a bad actor, but he certainly is not a great one. His technique in The Lost City of Z seemed to be little more than whispering most of the time. He never demands the audience watch him, and is unable to lure the viewer in to his intimate and private world. There is an artistic wall around Hunnam as an actor, and it keeps him safe and secure but cold and distant from his audience. 

Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson play Fawcett's wife and comrade respectively. Miller is an actress I never really think about, but she is always very good when I see her in something, and The Lost City of Z is no exception. Miller is impossibly beautiful, and her bone structure is a thing of perfection, but what makes her really note worthy is the power she is able to generate in her stillness. There is no wasted or extraneous movement from Miller, just a focused stillness that brings with it a palpable magnetic force. 

Pattinson is a pleasant surprise as Costin, Fawcett's aide in his journey into the Amazon. Pattinson is unrecognizable with a giant beard covering his well known face. He creates a genuine and intriguing character that gets swallowed up by the film's epic ambitions, which is a shame, it would have been wiser to mine the Facett-Costin relationship for all it was worth. 

In conclusion, The Lost City of Z is a major disappointment. No need to waste your hard earned dollars seeing this film in the theatre, but if the idea of it intrigues you as it did me, then wait to see it for free on cable or Netflix. I have heard it said of the film that "they don't make movies like this anymore", there is a reason for that, because movie's like this aren't very good. There is a truly great film lurking in the bowels of The Lost City of Z, but director James Gray was unable to discover it. Much like the film's protagonist, we as viewers are left agitated by the dreams of glory and beauty that lie unearthed deep in the heart of the Amazon and of the film. The Lost City of Z is a lost opportunity, and seeing it would be a fruitless journey of self-deception and anguish for any who dare to begin the quest. 

©2017