High Life (2019) – Review

Bewildering, penetrative sci-fi.

Endless blackness, an infinite stretch of both everything and nothing, mesmerizing but (literally) suffocating in its incomprehensible scale; the existential terror of High Life’s surrounding twinkly cosmos looms like an unconquerable inevitability. But famed arthouse director Claire Denis, making her English-language movie debut, imbues her unlikely sci-fi effort with more than fear of the unknown.

Floating far, far away from Earth, a crew of Death Row inmates is sent on a near-suicide mission to extract energy from a whopping black hole. But the ship’s doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has other ideas; battling her own demons, she wants to harvest the men’s semen and impregnate the women. But Monte (Robert Pattinson) isn’t game to make a deposit to the wank-bank.

Although, the film opens, presumably, after this gestation operation, with Monte looking after an adorable little baby; screaming for her dad as he works on the outside of the craft (the physics of Denis’ void are unique; bodies float over opening titles but a spanner drops like a pebble). The first half-hour is entrancing; dazzling cinematography from Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk evokes the lucid neon of HAL’s brain and the lingering malevolence of the Overlook Hotel’s haunted corridors (smoke pervades hallways like blood from the elevator).

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© – A24

There are shades of other wonderful features here: a glorious green garden is reminiscent of the environmental isolation of Silent Running; the team’s objective is similar to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, although tonally disparate. But as the narrative opens up to the other inmates, Denis’ opaque trip turns extraordinarily carnal.

“It’s called a taboo,” Monte says at one point – High Life certainly falls into that challenging category. Taking us back to others onboard (a terrific ensemble, including Mia Goth and André Benjamin), we’re transferred into a sensually charged prison, where bloodlust is normal and the risk of rape (both male and female) is prevalent. While its mood is similar to that of Under the Skin and thematically in the same ballpark as Children of Men, it’s a mind-bending, unique experience – quite possibly the horniest space expedition to hit cinemas.

The composition of every frame is impeccable (the way Denis commands dread from a gaze is chilling), and the pace is calculated; stretches of ominous inactivity are punctuated with violent vignettes. For the cast, it’s not exactly breezy fare, but they manage to shine; Pattinson puts in an engrossingly fractured performance, navigating his way through with a natural gravity (particularly as the film heads towards its conclusion). Binoche makes the bigger impression though, terrifying throughout and stopping the show with a barnstorming, intensely visceral, almost-occult solo sex scene inside the facility’s “fuck box” (with a heart-thumping score from Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples), akin spiritually to 2018’s Suspiria – indeed, “it’s a whole other rabbit hole”.

But like Guadagnino’s remake, High Life can be an easier film to admire than enjoy. The script allows itself to lean on exposition instead of letting mystique take the wheel; but at the other end of the spectrum, its frequent ambiguity doesn’t always inspire cohesion. Worst of all, towards the end there’s an abhorrent scene with dogs that is so overtly horrific, so difficult to stomach, it made me upset to the point of being physically ill.

But in a complex tapestry of ideas, Denis’ direction is quite remarkable. The content is troubling, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll likely be craving a cold shower. The filmmaker purposely tests your patience, drags you through the depths of morality; but it’s undoubtedly indelible. Plus, there’s a triumphant snippet of ‘Flower of Scotland’ that granted me merciful elation before the nausea took control.

Human nature and Mother Nature come to blows with uncomfortable consequences in this disturbing, mystifying sci-fi odyssey.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – Review

If each month of every year had a gravestone, April 2019 would have “Part of the journey is the end” etched on it. The final season of Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame – the two biggest events of all time in their respective mediums. Hype can be both friend and foe in the tumultuous build-up (particularly when spawns of Satan leak footage), but the directing Russo brothers have proved themselves to be dab hands in this particular pop culture arena. And, with this masterful, galvanizing conclusion to more than 10 years of movies, they’ve provided fans with the rarest thing of all; a true end.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sets the scene: “Thanos did exactly what he said he was gonna do, he wiped out 50% of all living creatures.” The film picks up after the catastrophic events of its finger-snapping predecessor, and survivors’ guilt is rife. Team members have turned to self-help groups, others to exacting vengeful violence on those who made it out alive who perhaps don’t deserve to be, and a few are trying to push on through the grief and preserve that oh-so-cherished “suit of armour around the world”. The fact is, they now know what it’s like to lose, to feel so desperately that they’re right, but to fail nonetheless.

Appropriately, the first act of Endgame is indeed a somber affair, right from the ultra-downbeat, perfectly pitched opening scene; a painting of post-trauma life for our very human heroes, with hurt dripping off the canvas as they strive and struggle to do something with the world that’s left. It’s no spoiler to say that Tony (Robert Downey Jr) and Nebula (Karen Gillan, who’s “only a tiny bit sadistic”) are stranded in space from the off, following their final boss stint on Titan. But, as Steve Rogers says: “Some people move on, but not us.” Through an absolute fluke, there’s a small chance to do something; and that’s when the madness really begins.

It’s a long film, 181 minutes to be exact. But it feels much, much shorter; similarly to Infinity War (but entirely different in tone), there’s a brilliant momentum through the acutely paced vignettes of the story, allowing for deep-cutting character work and 10 years of plot threads to finally tie together (Tony and Steve’s precarious relationship is a highlight). If the first third burns, the second dazzles. Like a victory lap of the MCU’s triumphs, the directors and writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, orchestrate angst, wonder and poignancy in all the right moments, their love for these icons shining through every reunion and callback. Only a few moments stumble; a certain character’s alcoholic arc loses its charm, the comedy is occasionally clunky, one moment of intended welly is hampered by a scrappy structure and a shot reminiscent of Black Widow, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) team-up in Infinity War is cool but contrived.

Thanos was the twisted protagonist of the last outing, but here he peeps in and out, delivering signature grandiose, purring dialogue in calculated doses with lingering dread (“I am inevitable,” he says, smugly). It’s the best showcase of the cast’s acting talents so far. Some members, naturally, aren’t afforded as much of the spotlight but still do well with what they have (Gillan’s underrated Nebula, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Don Cheadle’s Rhodey and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel). The stars are undoubtedly Evans and Downey Jr: the former offering a broken, transformative performance that changes the character forever; the latter at his most touching and contemplative. Sarcastic and snarly but earnest, recalibrated like a fresh Iron Man suit.

It’s not all agony – the third act of this movie is a pure-hearted, unbelievable, fist-pumping extravaganza of stupendously geeky delights. The Russo’s weaponise nostalgia and fan-service and wield it like Thanos does his Infinity Gauntlet, delivering a feast of cathartic pay-offs you are absolutely not prepared for. The effects work here is vastly impressive, building upon coherent choreography and cinematography (brilliantly versatile work by Trent Opaloch, from awesomely giddy shots to honed-in intimacy) as Return of the King syndrome looms. Fights have a barnstorming, nervous energy, like the ruthless pressure of every encounter in 2014’s Winter Soldier. This is peak blockbuster: extraordinary entertainment that is as concerned with dropping your jaw as breaking your heart. With Alan Silvestri’s melancholic, rousing score in the mix to stir the anguish and pump the blood, by the time those credits roll, you’ll be booking your tickets for round two, three, four and so on. Is it the best MCU movie? Perhaps. The most ambitious? Certainly. A deserving champion to knock a certain trip to Pandora off its podium.

A spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime epic. Avengers, dismissed.

Rating: ★★★★★

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Hellboy (2019) – Review

A lousy, grotesque reboot. 

Not too long ago, The Kid Who Would Be King hit cinemas; a rollicking throwback to the Amblin adventures of old, full of whimsy and juvenile charm. If that Arthurian tale was Jekyll, Hellboy is its Hyde; a nasty, volatile reboot with an ugly penchant for f-bombs, violence and complete nonsense.

We open with a frenzied voice-over, painting a vivid but rapid history of the film’s villain; Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) – try not to yawn – who wants to kickstart armageddon to give birth to “a new Eden”. While she assembles a dismembered plan with the help of a crass hog-fairy (Stephen Graham), watching the odd episode of Love Island in the process (I’m not kidding), Hellboy (David Harbour) is placed on a collision course with the foe while discovering his lineage, with the assistance of psychic-of-sorts Alice (Sasha Lane), scar-faced soldier Ben (Daniel Dae Kim) and boss man/father Trevor (Ian McShane).

The film has a startling immediacy; in that, you feel Guillermo del Toro’s absence from the get-go. Once a gothic fairytale hybrid (fuelled by a love affair of monsters), now unsophisticated guff, the real horror in Neil Marshall’s hard-edged, maladroit effort is how off-putting it all is. The violence is extreme to the point of tedium; intestines are spilled, faces are ripped straight off skulls, bodies are ripped apart Bone Tomahawk-style. It’s almost comically disgusting, sparking bemusement rather than white knuckles (from a modest $50 million, less expensive films are definitely laughing).

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© – Lionsgate

Then there’s Andrew Cosby’s screenplay. Glimpses of potential are present (a horrific trip to another dimension stands out in its own twisted grimness) but brief amidst the stream of misplaced bad language and unforgivable logical inconsistencies. (We’re supposed to believe, for example, that Nimue’s body parts haven’t decomposed after multiple centuries.) There’s shoe-horned commentary on society and rudimentary attempts at humour that range from barely laughable to entirely ineffective (“Some dads get their kids lego’s” Hellboy says after being gifted a gun), all woven into an insipid, overly familiar story.

Harbour had big shoes to fill; a shame, really, that the film is such a disaster. He has the makings of a fit Big Red – the figure, attitude, scowl and odd bit of badassery. But not only is he not a match for the effortless transformation of Perlman, Harbour’s performance feels more formed by the layers of make-up, rather than aided by it. Other cast members don’t fare well either; McShane is picking up a pay cheque, and Thomas Haden Church shows up in a flashback as a bizarre, hilariously wooden Nazi assassin – he even says “Guten Tag” with a customary gunshot upon arrival.

It doesn’t add up. There’s solid talent involved; on music you have Benjamin Wallfisch, but his composition barely chirps through, and when it does, it’s often in aid of a gigantic tonal shift. Lorenzo Senatore’s cinematography is suffocated by an overwhelming use of CGI and red-fisted editing. And at the centre, Marshall’s directorial voice, felt in The Descent and the criminally underrated Dog Soldiers, does not come through the pungent smell of shit. The Kid Who Would Be King was tailor-made for 11-year-olds – Hellboy, in all its excessive blood and expletives, will probably be enjoyed by the same crowd for the wrong reasons.

There’s a parallel universe where Del Toro made Hellboy 3 – you can find me there.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) – Review

Mad Max: Fury Road on LSD. 

Once briefly a harmless jingle, inevitably becoming a near-perturbing earworm, 2014 was the year of ‘Everything Is Awesome’, thanks to the blockbusting ultra-animation, The Lego Movie. A wacko concept bound for critical dismissal defied the odds, both charming and wildly exciting, smartly written but hilariously silly. Through the success of a caped crusader’s solo outing and a not-so efficient Ninjago spin-off, we’ve arrived at the sequel, and what a joy it is.

Bricksburg’s time as a utopia is short-lived, after Duplo aliens invade, turning their happy world into a wasteland, aptly named Apocalypseburg. Amidst the turmoil and raised survival instincts is Emmet (Chris Pratt), an optimistic spirit planning out his life with Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) in a place ravaged of hope. However, when General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) and Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) kidnap the residents, Emmet is forced to buck up his courage, with the assistance of hero-figure, Rex Dangervest (also Pratt).

Lucy, Batman (Will Arnett on predictably brilliant form) and others are taken to the Systar System, where an impending marriage awaits them. The thing that really made the first film work was the fact it was high-concept animation; both visual entertainment and a heartwarming tale for families, a reminder to adults particularly that they were kids once, and as such, they should have some compassion to kids. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have penned both scripts, very much continue this theme, this time moving on to a brother and sister’s tenuous relationship when it comes to toys.

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© – Warner Bros

Whilst in the mix of all the brick-building tomfoolery and dimension-transitions, you never lose sight of where you are or struggle to comprehend the rules of the feature. It’s only when you walk out and try and explain it, you’ll find yourself bumbling around some convoluted explanation. That in itself is a remarkable achievement; doing something narratively bold and keeping in line with a solid message. The lesson this time round isn’t quite as punchy in the emotional department (although it is drawn out in a much different way than the first’s climactic turn), but as you’d expect from Lord and Miller, the jokes are better, thicker and faster.

The gags are amazingly varied and seemingly endless. From a vision of the Statue of Liberty à la Planet of the Apes, to Batman referring to his own three movies in production, to a knock at the earlier film’s female representation, to a wide cast of terrific cameos – Velma, Aquaman, Bruce Willis and, wait for it, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s a film that embodies the challenge of make believe and all the strange, imaginative set-pieces that can conjure. Only a small number of the jokes don’t land – Haddish’s villainous royal especially struggles to merge with the rest of the ensemble. But, similarly to the original, the self-referential, uber-meta jabs take form in both zingers and the fabulous, poppy soundtrack. Bringing together a range of artists, including the eagerly-awaited return of The Lonely Island, The Second Part has its very own memorable tune, appropriately named ‘Catchy Song’, with a central, recurring lyric: “This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head!” There’s also the best super-sad twist on a cheery song since Team America.

While Lord and Miller cheekily dissect Hollywood tropes both on and off screen, Mark Mothersbaugh (best known for Trolls) helms the film with a confident hand, helping to orchestrate dazzling, kaleidoscopic action sequences alongside his talented animators. The densely realised visuals are completely bonkers and surreal, but that’s the point isn’t it? The Lego series is an advancement of something as rudimentary as building a tall tower of bricks, an ode to the wonder of the creative side of the brain. And here, among the demented, nonsensically gleeful offerings is Pratt doing a fantastic Kurt Russell impression, skateboarding dinosaurs and Super Mario star-bombs. Name another kids film that riffs on Mad Max: Fury Road and homages 2001: A Space Odyssey while producing something entertaining for the whole family (but particularly the adults).

A surrealist, pop culture tornado that whirls you up and spits you out in a state of post-playtime delirium. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm