Claire Denis' amazing film HIGH LIFE debist this week.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
They Shall Not Grow Old
Best Film Opening:
FAR: THE STORY OF A JOURNEY AROUND THE WORLD (Germany 2017) ***
Directed by Gwendolin Weisser and Patrick Allgaier
The fantasy disappears and the experience begins: so says the character in the film as she touches for the first time - an elephant in India. The dialogue immediately asks the audience which would be considered more important, fantasy or pleasure?
The film begins with the title: “The First Year”, where the feet touch the ground. The couple, Gwen and Patrick, the subjects of the film are on their way, singing to Bulgaria in what appears to be a cab. It is revealed late that the subjects are hitchhiking around the world, first leaving Germany towards Bulgaria and soon in in Kazakhstan. Armed with a tent, noodles and tomato sauce, they make their way through third world countries like Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China These are vast lands that often has no vegetation. This journey is interesting to the viewer as one seldom sees the deserted landscapes of these lands. But they are beautiful. With every hitchhike, the couple are told different stories and they learn lessons. It is a freedom that requires a lot of energy.
The camera follows the couple on their journey around the world. One can tell that there is a third person involved as well - the cameraman. A few scenes are re-enactments, as are quite obvious like the one where a car is stuck and later the car shown unstuck, being driven off. But at one point, the unseen cameraman is heard asking the couple he could help push the car.
The voiceover occasionally jumps to the future. Gwen and Patrick will have a baby one year from then in Mexico. Four years, one of the hosts will become a guest at the couple’s place in Germany. The doc attempts to inform audiences of the surprises life. Not every person would embark on a journey as gruelling as this one. It requires a different kind of person - one that will put their riches and things of the world and enjoy freedom.
The film contains a very positive attitude and free-spirit. The voiceover is provided by both Patrick and Gwen. They often praise (never condemning) the different people (Iran and Pakistan) and their hospitality despite their stringent rules and laws. Iran has the death penalty for homosexuality and bans drinking yet the Iranians are the most inviting.
One of the film’s big surprises is the beauty of Pakistan. The film informs that the country has been given a bad deal because of a few extremists. Pakistan is the couple’s favourite country and the magnificent landscape of the country reveals the reason.
In the same way as this world journey might not be for everyone, neither would this doc. This doc is mostly in German and runs at a lengthy 120 minutes, many segments of which contain lots of travelogue. A lot of time is spent revealing the different peoples, their culture and their ways living. But for those who wish to embark on the journey of viewing this film which occasionally soars to ecstatic heights, the reward is well worth it.
Ultimately, the film shows that people, no matter where they come from, are good. Recommended viewing for President Trump!
THE GRIZZLIES (Canada 2018) ***1/2
Directed by Miranda de Pencier
The film opens with the stunning wintry landscape of the Arctic North. A good-looking indigenous teen is seen with his dog. He shoos the dog away and points the barrel the rifle that he is carrying at the base of his mouth. The shots fired. The words on the screen then informs the audience that in 2004, Nunavut has the highest suicide rate in North America. The film itself contains three youth suicides.
Director Miranda de Pencier proves in this beginning sequence she knows how to engage her audience. The result is an engaging film based on a true story that serves as a feel-good night out at the movies.
THE GRIZZLIES (the name of the school’s lacrosse team) is an inspirational drama about a group of Inuit students in the Arctic where, in 2004, suicide rates were the highest in North America. The main protagonist is rookie teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer). He is shown naive as hell, arriving in the small Nunavut town of Kugluktuk, totally culturally unaware of the Inuit ways. The students are also suspicious of him. Russ does not give up. But, upon embracing the sport of lacrosse, the teens evoke change in the teacher, themselves and the community. The film feels like TO SIR WITH LOVE with the lacrosse sport set in the Arctic instead of the United Kingdom.
The story includes problems faced in general by indigenous youth. The drinking, drug taking and physical abuse are all topics that are included in the story.
The film is true to its indigenous roots. Over 600 kids from the Arctic auditioned for roles, including two 2019 CSA nominees (lead actor Paul Nutarariaq and supporting actress Anna Lambe) and up-and-comer Emerald MacDonald, all of whom play students. The actors have experienced many of the same challenges as their characters, bringing a level of authenticity and sensitivity to the screen. A good point to admire is the fact that one third of the film’s crew is Inuit.
Tantoo Cardinal plays Janice the beleaguered school principal, with all the malice she can hold. “The students might not show up in class as they might have other priorities. We try to accommodate them as far as we can” “I will whip them into shape,” says the new teacher to which her reply is: “You don’t have to talk up to me, just do your job. The other local non actors also do a fine job especially the young actress playing a student, Miranda.
The film features original music by Indigenous hip hop artists, including 2019 CSA winners Dan General (DJ Shub), Thomas Lambe (666God), Adam Tanuyak (Hyper-T) for their song “Trials”.
Though critics might sneer at the film trying so hard at pushing the right buttons to be a feel-good movie, THE GRIZZLIES works well as a feel good film. Unsurprisingly, it picked up audience awards at Calgary 2018 and Palm Springs 2019. De Pencier also won the 2018 DGC award for directorial achievement of a feature.
HIGH LIFE (UK/France/Germany/Poland/USA) ****
Directed by Claire Denis
Claire Denis’s films take on the recurring them of human conflict in different scenarios. In her first and in my opinion best film CHOCOLAT, Denis looked at what happens to black and whites in a confined space in Africa. In BEAU TRAVAIL, the foreign legionaries were examined for their actions and behaviours and in her latest, HIGH LIFE, the audience takes a look at astronauts (some of whom are hardened criminals) confined in a spaceship as they interact with each other.
The results of her latest film is a mix between genres, Denis' style which makes for one of the most intriguing films of the year. And Denis delivers in HIGH LIFE - a mix of horror sci-fi and human drama where anything can happen and does. The film can be described as a mix between Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and perhaps a little Ridley Scott.
The film is set in the near future. A spaceship proceeds on a mission to find a new energy source. Its destination: the black hole within closest reach of Earth. The ship’s crew is a collection of dangerous prisoners with nothing left to lose. The first scene has Monte (Robert Pattinson), the only crew member awake, rigorously tending to the computer and life-support system to keep everyone alive as they hurtle through deep space. Monte is also caring for a baby daughter who was born on board — an anomaly that is just the first sign of the chaos to come. As Monte's self-discipline slips, the crew awakens and conflicts erupt.
The crew are as unpredictable as their travels through space. The horrors are the unknown - both in space and of the crew’s personalities. The curiosity of the travel through the black hole works. The molecular cloud that kills one crew member is particularly horrifying to watch. As for the action of the prisoners, the film includes two rape scenes and a very violent beating.
The film boasts two stars, Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche who both play nasty characters. Binoche plays a doctor who rapes one of the astronauts under sedation while he gets a hard on. Another character also commits rape and is beaten to a pulp. This is also one of Denis’ most violent films.
The atmosphere and production sets of the spaceship are stunning and one admires Denis for the marvellous futuristic look in her first futuristic film.
Make sure to stay for the end credits. The song “Willow” (also the name fo the baby girl in the film) is a haunting and beautiful piece that deserved to be listened to in its entirety.
Denis moves her film in a non time linear manner so the story flashes forward and back quite often. The film might be a bit confusing at first till one sits down and pieces the puzzle together. With that, it must be stated that HIGH LIFE should be seen a second time in order to appreciate the film’s worth. And the film is well worth it.
LONG DAY’S JOUNEY INTO NIGHT (China/France 2018) ***
Directed by Bi Gan
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is the title of the famous Eugene O’Neill play that takes place in a day of family squabbling - the day being just like any other day in the life of that family. There is nothing in common with director Bi Gan’s film and the Eugene O’Neill play, except for the title and that the days are long and hard for the film’s protagonist.
The film has an hour long 3-D version, so be reminded to pick up the 3D glasses. The 3-D sequence, which made the film more well-known occurs when Luo, the central character enters a movie theatre and puts on his 3-D glasses. When this happens, Luo enters a different world where progress in life can be attained.
The movie plays an important part of the film. Life is mixed with truths and lies but movies, as Luo mentions (in voiceover) is all fiction.
Gan’s film flits through dreams, reality and imagination, often with blurry images thought the past, present and dreams. It is occasionally hard to follow as the main character Luo shifts through through different times and reality. Bi’s film has a loose storyline in which nothing much happens.
The story follows Luo, a n aimless drifter who moves around the Chinese city of Kaili (Director Bi Gan’s first film was called KAILI BLUES). Different people cross paths with him. There is the dead friend who likely got murdered for his gambling debt, the dead friend’s mother (a cameo appearance by Sylvia Chang), a dog, a boy (Hong-chi Lee) he plays ping pong with and a girl, Kaizhen who he chases.
The film’s blurred and saturated images immediately reminds one of the films by Wong Kar-wei. though not as good, since Wong often had Christopher Doyle to do his cinematography.
For strict cineastes who enjoy moody atmospheric films in which nothing much happens, LONG DAY’S JOUNEY INTO NIGHT will satisfy.
The film has a special limited engagement at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and other cinemas around the city.
SIR (India/France 2018) ****
Directed by Rohena Gera
In the bustling city of Mumbai, India, Ratna (Tillotama Shome) works as domestic live-in maid for Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), a man from a wealthy family. When the film opens Ashwin, whom Ratna address as SIR throughout the film, has just returned home after his wedding had been cancelled. Ratner and the other help are all recalled back to work, all wondering what had happened to their boss. A glance at a TV show Ashwin is watching reveals some transgender program, implying that Aswin might be gay. But it turns out that he is straight but not ready for marriage. Although Ashwin seems to have it all, Ratna can sense that he has given up on his dreams and is somewhat lost… On the other hand, Ratna who seems to have nothing, is full of hope and works determinedly towards her dream. Ratner’s dream is to become a fashion designer. Ashwin’s is to be a writer. Ashwin has written half a novel when he was in America studying. As these two worlds collide and the two individuals connect, the barriers between them seem only more insurmountable.
SIR is a film about chasing once dreams with a dash of romanticism added. But the film, though a crowd pleaser unfolds in an unconventional way in an unconventional setting that is at times astounding as audiences are often unaware of the cultural differences of people in India. The film is shot simultaneously in Hindi and a bit of English.
The film’s best moment occurs in the scene where SIR tells his maid, Ratna to go follow her dreams. It is a moment of transformation in the life of SIR or Ashwin where the defeated man suddenly sees hope in life to the point that he is now encouraging the one who had always been following her dreams.
The film also reveals the difference in class systems, especially for India where there is a different caste system. A maid can never marry her employer not only for difference in wealth or social standing but because it is totally forbidden. The secretly budding romance thus takes a completely different turn in this Indian story.
SIR is a film that ends in ways both predictable and unpredictable. At least it does not turn up the traditional happy Hollywood ending. It ends at a point where the two protagonists each enter a new stage in life where anything can happen. And this is the wonder of life - and with all its surprises.
SIR turns out to be a beautifully told feel-good Cinderella story set in Mumbai that is enhanced by its culturally rich atmosphere. An entertaining and surprise gem opening this week!
The film has won two major awards at Cannes including the prestigious Critics Week Grand Prize and numerous Audience Awards in film festivals around the world where it was shown including Amsterdam, Oslo, Portland, Minsk and Cabourg.
TEEN SPIRIT (UK 2018) **
Directed by Max Minghella
The film’s setting is the Isle of Wight where a Polish family of single mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) and shy 17-year old daughter Violet (Elle Fanning) who dreams of pop stardom etch out a difficult living. Violet enters an international singing competition as an escape from her small town and difficult family life. Her days are spent doing chores, waiting tables, and attending secondary school, where she keeps to herself. Violet surrenders to song and enters a competition. She befriends Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a once-celebrated opera singer who hears Violet and knows she's something special. He declares himself her manager and trainer, accompanying her as she tries out for a popular televised musical talent program called Teen Spirit. The film is totally cliche ridden and filled with predictable plot points right up to the very end of the film. Fanning is fantastic in the role, who almost saves this bland crowd pleaser. The contestants on the TV series “America Got Talent’ perform much better.