Tag Archives: Robert Pattinson

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HIGH LIFE (2018)

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DIRECTED BY:  Claire Denis

FEATURING: , , Andre Benjamin,

PLOT:  A scientist performs strange reproductive research on a crew on a mission to gather data about a black hole.

Still from High Life (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Its mixture of weird sex with celestial mystery is compelling and disturbing. High Life won’t be easily forgotten.

COMMENTS: History is colored by the struggles surrounding the expression of human horniness. Cinema is no exception. As sexuality is emotionally subverted or converted in art, whether romantic or pornographic, the message remains clear: it ultimately finds a way to express itself, regardless of individual morality. Sexuality can be thought of as a separate, living entity within us.

In High Life, the new space thriller from Claire Denis, there is a lot of sex, especially masturbation, that feels alien. The mixture of organic sexuality (represented here by a focus on bodily fluids) with classic sci-fi ponderings (i.e. black holes) provides a powerful and thought-provoking punch in the groin. Filled with bleak procreative grotesqueries, it delivers an emotionally rich cosmonautic narrative without once mentioning time travel. High Life contains enough original and confounding content to render it quite bizarre. It certainly deserves a deeper look.

It cannot be overstated how uncomfortable it can be to watch High Life. There is one scene midway through the picture that’s close to unbearable, and it certainly won’t fit to everyone’s taste. The sudden brutality of the violence is appalling, but it does serve a purpose. The discomfort that comes from viewing the unpleasantries is contrasted with central character Monte’s (Pattinson) paternal relationship with an infant, Willow, who is seen cooing and crying her way through the ship’s combination of banal décor and retro-futurist digitalism. Willow, herself a manipulated product of human fluids, is a symbol of life’s purity, inspiring monkish Monte to care for her. While his character is chaste and heroic, a sense of his moral authority is established as the choices and experiences of the other characters reflect their sexual natures. Here is where the movie gets very weird.

In High Life, sexuality is a physical and spiritual entity that signifies moral authority, which becomes a force that determines the actions of the characters. While we see all manner of bodily fluids voluntarily and involuntarily issue forth from the characters—including breast milk, urine, blood, water and (of course) semen—the events of the plot are staged as a battle of wills. As the crew approaches a black hole, things spiral out of control, and Denis links the chaos to the sexual behaviors or non-behaviors of the characters. The crew’s power dynamics, expressed through masturbation and sexual longing—along with their attempted manipulations of each other’s bodily fluids—demonstrate the range of outcomes from drives that can either push humanity forward or lead to destruction. The lingering black hole excavation subplot ties these relationships together through a powerful combination of brooding celestial images and a dark ambient score suggesting the human void of violence and manipulation is inherent in time and space. The sounds and images of High Life, while grounded in the iconography of classics like 2001 and Solaris, are breathtaking and original, reimagining a bleak universe inhabited by a moral consciousness.  A baby cries, alarms go off, dogs growl, multi-colored fluids are excreted, collected, and tampered with, as the central plot gives a shove and not a thrust.

The slowly-revealed plot concerns a group of convicts on a mission to gather data from the singularity of a black hole. As they proceed, an alpha-female scientist (a convict herself, played by Binoche) conducts experiments for the purpose of birthing the first child in space. It sounds simple, but the presentation of these events is a truly weird experience. Creepy masturbation, oozing fluids, violent outbursts, and that lingering shot of a pulsating black hole invoke a mixture of the nihilism of some unholy /David Cronenberg hybrid with the mystifying obscurity of . Anchoring the mayhem is Binoche and her sinister, witchy performance, her smirk belying pure deviltry with human frailty, while the black void of space accentuates the ensuing drama. High Life satisfies in spite of its unpleasantness, and the ending provides ambiguity for further discussion. It’s worth noting that the recent release of the first actual black hole image pairs nicely with the timing of this picture’s release. Ultimately, your ability to enjoy High Life will boil down to whether you enjoy being challenged and provoked—something a truly weird movie probably should do.  By that token, this movie deserves recognition and further discussion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… strange and wondrous, less a traditional sci-fi film than it is a seductive journey into the long, black night of death.”–Andrew Lapin, NPR (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julianne Moore, , , Evan Bird,

PLOT: The lives of several Hollywood insiders intertwine unexpectedly after the arrival of Agatha, a mysterious young woman who intrudes upon the lives of a wannabe screenwriter, a popular teen heartthrob, a self-help TV guru, and a successful but aging actress.

Still from Maps to the Stars (2014))
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its combination of Hollywood satire, ghostly apparitions, homicidal sensationalism, and heaps of incest does hit a few marks on the Weird-o-Meter, but Maps to the Stars doesn’t plunge into the depths of weirdness achieved in Cronenberg’s earlier, body horror-centric features like Dead Ringers and Videodrome.

COMMENTS: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) has been around show business all her life. Her mother was a popular actress made more notable when she died tragically in a fire while still in the prime of youth, and now a prominent director is re-imagining her most famous film, with Havana gunning for a supporting role as her mother’s imaginary grown self. At a crossroads in her career and still coming to terms with sexual abuse she suffered at her mother’s hand, Havana sees the sudden arrival of new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) as a sign and instantly takes her in. Meanwhile, teen sensation Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird)—only 13 and just out of rehab—is filming the sequel to his hit comedy Bad Babysitter, but finds himself upstaged by his child costar. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a New Age self-help therapist with a talk show and a sea of celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand.

In that unsurprising cinematic way, these and many other lives are intricately connected through family and work, and Agatha becomes both the glue that binds them and the catastrophe that unsettles them. The incestuous nature of mainstream filmmaking is thus satirized, but with a heavy dose of actual incest. It is never outwardly explained or analyzed, it’s just there, a stated and very present fact looming over every interaction. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner packs in every ounce of sensationalism worthy of a Star headline, from sex and abuse to drug addiction and murder, bluntly illustrating the complete breakdown of this family beset by mental illness but unable to cope with it while in the public eye. It’s all done with a slight sense of distance, with each character playing exaggerated versions of real people and the whole observed with a cool eye, so that we won’t feel guilty laughing. Much has been made of Maps to the Stars being Cronenberg’s “first comedy” (though the director himself claims he’s never made anything but comedies), and it is for the most part quite funny. Between Moore’s exaggerated California accent, Cusack’s self-help b.s., Agatha’s tall tales, snarky movie references, and the winking celebrity self-obsession, there is a lot to laugh about.

Of course, Hollywood satire is nothing new, but Cronenberg  gives it his own sick, twisted take, fusing Greek melodrama and tongue-in-cheek humor with inescapable darkness. The story is populated with ghostly apparitions that haunt Havana and Benjie, gradually moving in on their already-fragile psyches. The egoism and lack of empathy so many associate with the movie industry are made manifest in these people, and their punishment is poetic. Though removed from the body horror aesthetic for which he is perhaps still most known, the film is visually striking in its very deliberate framing of characters, its stark, modern interiors, its costumes-as-uniforms, and its jarring juxtapositions. (There is, however, one major visual hiccup in a self-immolation scene towards the end that I hope was a self-aware commentary on cinematic artificiality because the CGI was terrible.) The vicious but contained acts of violence are brutal and chilling, escalating quickly until it becomes clear there can be no easy way out for anyone, every character has essentially been digging their own grave from the beginning. The abrupt changes in tone and focus could be distracting, but the very talented cast takes it all in stride and manages to make it work, moved along by the thoughtful direction. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to a Cronenberg film expecting a nice, neat little package where everything works out in the end, right?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s something bizarrely funny as well as truly sad in the director’s vision of Rodeo Drive denizens and their heavily medicated affects.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COSMOPOLIS (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kevin Durand,

PLOT: A young financial genius is intent on taking his limo across Manhattan to get a haircut from his father’s old barber, despite the fact that the streets are gridlocked due to a Presidential visit, “occupy Wall Street”-type protestors are rioting, and there is a credible threat against his life.

Still from Cosmopolis (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Robert Pattinson’s disintegrating ride across Manhattan in a mobile cocoon is certainly odd, but it’s a tame and talky adventure from the man who brought us Videodrome and Naked Lunch. Far from being one of the weirdest movies of all time, Cosmopolis isn’t even the weirdest limousine-themed feature of 2012.

COMMENTS: Cosmopolis can be as cold and clinical as the routine physical examination billionaire Eric Packer requires every day, and the results as odd as the importance the examining physician ascribes to his asymmetrical prostate. Absurdly wealthy, Packer isn’t in the 1% of net wealth, he’s in the 1% of the 1%, so rich he’s not interested in buying a Rothko painting; he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel and move it into his apartment. He’s so rich that guys in Robert Pattinson’s tax bracket can credibly protest that his wealth is obscene. Able to buy almost anything he wants, he’s become jaded and now craves novel and dangerous risks; when he discovers one of his many lovers owns a stun gun, he begs to be tazed (“show me something I don’t know”). This need for new sensations drives his character’s journey as he crawls through gridlocked Manhattan, from a civilized and abstract uptown to carnal and violent downtown. Packer may be searching for authenticity, casting aside the trappings of wealth and becoming more focused on the body, but he doesn’t become more sympathetic. He remains very much an alien specimen, with speech patterns that are bizarre to us. Cosmopolis‘ semi-absurdist dialogue is its distinctive strategy. Characters discuss ideas like the metaphorical use of rats as currency, the way “money has lost its narrative quality,” and the lack of originality of Buddhist monks lighting themselves on fire. Packer holds that last discussion with an adviser with the title “Chief of Theory,” played by Samantha Morton, reading her lines like she’s delivering a lecture for a book-on-tape. It’s not just Morton who’s stilted; throughout the film the style of conversation is ridiculously unnatural, with participants incapable of following any philosophical avenues to the end before detouring onto a side street. And it is a very, very talky movie, with Packer essentially interviewing a series of lovers and employees one by one, mostly in the cool blue light of his limo’s electric interior. The exchanges are so clipped and mannered that when Paul Giamatti, a certifiable working-class madman, strides into the movie, his commonplace insanity is refreshing. Giamatti’s monologues are ever-so-slightly more deranged and rambling than the other players, but unlike Packer’s blasé platitudes, they are delivered from a place of passion and pain that the young billionaire envies. Cosmopolis is a talky, symbolic and obliquely philosophical movie, for sure, and it will turn most viewers off. But, in its confused way, it does reflect our current psychology of income-gap anger and financial-apocalypse anxiety.

Cronenberg adapted the script from Don Delillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, which is not generally considered to be one of the author’s better works. You can’t fault Robert Pattinson for trying to break away from his Edward Cullen persona. Accepting a role in a David Cronenberg art film seems a good start at distancing himself from his image as a sparkly pretty boy. Although Pattinson isn’t bad as Packer—his drained and anemic pallor physically fits the billionaire’s character—unfortunately for him, Cosmopolis did not turn out to be the prestige movie the actor had hoped for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…I took a strange pleasure in submitting to this movie’s stilted but weirdly poetic rhythms. But I freely acknowledge that for others, enduring Cosmopolis may be less fun than a backseat prostate exam.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who advised “There is definitely some weirdness going on in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Mostly a dialogue-driven weirdness for sure, but still…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LITTLE ASHES (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Paul Morrison

FEATURING:  Javier Beltrán,

PLOT:  In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,

Still from Little Ashes (2008)

soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.

COMMENTS:  A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair.  Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order.  Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer.  Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script.  Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator.  We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists.  Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force.  Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice.  Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach.  These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.

I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou.   It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times