Watch this movie: High Life

This one’s a tricky recommendation.

It’s not often that I like revolting movies, movies that are repulsive for the sake of being repulsive, movies that are obviously trying to shock you.

But here I am.

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High Life is a recent sci-fi film by French director Claire Denis. It stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as travelers on a spacecraft on a one-way mission to harness the energy of a black hole. And perform experiments.

The twist? There are two. Number one: all onboard are death row convicts. Number two: the experiments involve trying to bring a baby to term in deep space.

That all sounds like a run-of-the-mill sci-fi plot. High Life is definitely, absolutely, 100% not. Like I said, it’s revolting. It’s graphic. There should be a whole list of trigger warnings attached. Every trigger warning ever invented.

But it’s also beautiful. Beautifully shot. Beautifully scripted. Beautifully acted.

I was never a Twilight fan. I watched the first one in German and that was enough. But Robert Pattinson is one hell of an actor. His character is reserved (mostly) and mysterious enough to not be annoying.

Juliette Binoche is a madwoman in every sense. The rest of the cast are all great — intense and hateful — with the exception of Andre Lauren Benjamin (aka Outkast’s Andre 3000), who plays a convict full of regret for what he left behind on Earth.

High Life is not for everyone. Some scenes were straight-up sick. Still, this movie is one hell of a trip.

Read this book: The Space Between the Stars

“Life is its own point. It’s just a series of moments, some of them memorable, some of them not. There’s no redemption but what we’re prepared to grant ourselves. No point when we’re finished becoming what we’re going to be. There’s just this breath, and the next one, and the next one. Each of those breaths, each of those moments, help shape us.”

The Space Between the Stars

This bit of gorgeous nihilism is to me the heart of Anne Corlett’s sci-fi novel The Space Between the Stars, the story of a group of plague survivors: the .0001 percent or so of humanity spread across several worlds who were not turned to dust.

I didn’t plan on reading a book about a plague, not right now. Living through a much milder one than in this book is about all I wanted to do with anything plague related.

Once I started reading, it was hard for me to stop.

The Space Between the Stars is centered on Jamie, a thirtysomething veterinarian who is estranged from her long-term boyfriend, isolated from her own historical grief, and the only survivor on a small colony world.

Or so she thinks.

Plague stories can go in several directions. The Walking Dead was once my favorite TV show. Now just a droning, repetitive PSA that humans can be monsters too (ok, I get it!). When Jamie finds other survivors, I was expecting some Walking Dead-ish human vs. human confrontations.

Not so much.

I won’t get into spoilers, but a search for survivors–and her boyfriend–takes on some twists. Not too many, though. The Space Between the Stars is not a hard sci-fi novel (spacecraft can traverse great distances in unbelievably short spans of time). It is also not a thriller.

Instead, it’s more of a character study. On that note, I found Jamie wholly unlikable. She is prickly. She snaps at people. She is self righteous. She’s a horrible communicator. But Corlett does a great job in showing some of the whys, and also showing how maybe Jamie doesn’t like being so flawed. So, while Jamie is unlikable, she’s relatable, if not quite sympathetic.

The Space Between the Stars is not perfect. There were things I couldn’t relate to–as an American, I don’t get the English obsession with class, which was one of the themes of this book. And I wished the sci-fi was amped up (several scenes felt too present day, and not set a century or two in the future).

Still, I was glad to be along for the ride. The writing was beautiful (almost to the point of distraction), and Corlett hit all the right emotional notes. By the end, I wanted to stay in that plague wrecked world just a little while longer.

New Doctor Who Ups the Stakes

My ongoing obsession with the BBC classic series Doctor Who continues.

Doctor WhoLast week the 11th season of the (new) Doctor Who began. This season features three big changes: a new Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, a new head writer, Chris Chibnall, and three new companions.

Having seen the first episode, I can’t wait to see how the new season develops with Whittaker in the title role. Whenever an actor assumes the role he (and now she) brings a fresh take on the Doctor. Usually it takes a few episodes before they find their footing. Chris Eccleston’s loopiness sparked right away. David Tennant and Matt Smith both brought a boyishness to the role that took a little time to grow on me. I never ever warmed up to Peter Capaldi’s overly dour take on the Doctor.

Whittaker was thoroughly charming. There were some rough parts to the season opener–she’s overly giddy at times–but she has a warm confidence that telegraphs a strong future.

There’s one other change that’s more subtle but I think more important. The Doctor’s companions often serve as an audience stand-in. The companion, usually female, is full of wonder and amazement and learns and grows as she travels the universe with the Doctor, surviving one harrowing adventure after another. Danger is at every turn, but no companion in the new Who era has ever truly died.

Rose was exiled to an alternate earth (still alive).

Martha became a Torchwood soldier (still alive, I think).

Poor Donna Noble survived, though only because she had her memories of her adventures erased.

Amy Pond and Rory both survived, though they were banished to the past.

Clara Oswald, well, she died. But then the Doctor did his timey-wimey stuff and snatched her away just before the moment of her death. I didn’t get it either but I loved Clara so I was happy.

And then there’s Bill Potts. Turned into a Cyberman. That’s death, right? No. Another timey-wimey thing where she becomes an immortal puddle or something.

With each companion the danger and risk is heightened, but true consequences are denied.

Not so in this season’s first episode. We were presented with a cast of four potential companions: police officer Yasmin, determined bike rider Ryan, his grandmother Grace, and Grace’s husband Graham. While fighting the big bad tooth-faced monster with a name that sounded like Tim Shaw, one of those four potentials dies.

Like, really dies. Buried and all.

Not only that, it was the FIFTH human death shown in just this one episode.

Doctor Who is nominally a children’s show. Yes, characters die, but less often than you’d think. And never, until now, a (near) companion.

Does this mean that any of the three remaining companions could die this season?

Hopefully, and not because I want to see them die, but because I want to see stakes that matter.

 

 

 

Watch This Movie: The Girl With All The Gifts

Melanie-The-girl-with-all-the-giftsYou think every zombie story has been told?

Well then you haven’t seen The Girl With All The Gifts.

First off, HUGE DISCLAIMER, this started out as an acclaimed book by M. R. Carey, one that I haven’t read. Instead I took the lazy way out and saw the movie. No excuse, but there it is.

So back to the story.

Imagine a tale told from the point of view of one of the monsters, only this monster isn’t all monstrous, and she doesn’t see herself as a monster. That would be Melanie, a young self-aware and cunning (not crazed) creature.

But, alas, Melanie is a monster. One of the Hungries, as their called here, victim of a plague caused by a fungal infection. (Note: the secret of Melanie’s origin is one of the more disturbing in the realm of horror.)

The Girl With All The Gifts opens with her trapped in a military camp among other similar kids. Soon that camp is overrun, and Melanie is among a core group of humans who escape. Together they romp through a ravaged landscape in a desperate attempt to survive, and hopefully defeat the infection before it destroys humanity.

Throughout the movie Melanie is both hero (because of her humanity) and villain (because of her nature), which makes for a thrilling and unexpected ride. For those zombie lovers out there, the zombies are wickedly fast and creepy as hell.

The Girl With All The Gifts is about a child, but this is not a children’s movie. It’s scary and unsettling and well worth your time.

Rogue One: The Second-Best Star Wars Movie

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If you’re a Star Wars fan, then you’ve seen Rogue One, the latest film in the franchise and a sort of standalone movie. (If you’re a Star Wars fan and have NOT seen Rogue One, then you’re not a fan — sorry.)

I went into the viewing with low expectations. Why the hell would they make a standalone film? Money, of course. Disney is milking their cash cow. Fine, that’s their right.

My low expectations were totally wrong. For me, Rogue One was the second best of all the Star Wars movies. It was expertly plotted, with a sharp cast who were all believable. Rogue rogue-one-3one managed to capture the slightly dated atmosphere of the originals while keeping a modern tone. The action was very well paced, and the special effects took a backseat to storytelling.

There were two action sequences that I found unbelievable. One involved inhuman jumping. The other, holding on for life in the pouring rain. Both impossible! But for an action film, such is expected.

Other than that, it was fun as hell. We also got Darth Vader and Princess Leia! I’m not complaining.

So here’s my list of the top Star Wars films so far:

empire-strikes-back

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Rogue One
  3. A New Hope
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Return of the Jedi

Oh, and I’m not including the prequel trilogy. I like to pretend those crappy movies never existed.

jarjar

 

 

 

Sensuality, Shakespeare and Stranger Things

Where the hell has Winona Ryder been?

Like half my friends, I just finished binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-part sci-fi/horror series that’s partly a homage to the 1980s. Overall it was very good, both addicting and entertaining, once I was able to slide into the story.

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A lot has been made of the fact that Stranger Things is set in 1983, and the directors took great pains to ground the series in that time frame. The senses are constantly distracted by elements from the early ’80s — from music to the clothes and hairstyles to the decor of the houses.

I appreciate the effort, but it was overkill, too much of a good thing, and it distracted from the story. Having been alive and aware in 1983 I kept finding myself questioning how accurate it all was, and it seemed too dated.

Luckily, in a stroke of brilliance, they cast Winona Ryder as the lead. She played against type — the woman who made her name as a quirky everywoman played a worried, desperate, and unstoppable mother.

Winona

Winona Ryder is about my age, and when I was younger a lot of guys I knew had crushes on her. But to me she always seemed unformed. She a girl, not a woman. I didn’t get the attraction, and I never followed her career.

Winona_RyderIn these intervening years she’s had some not-so-secret difficulties, as we all have. And when I look at pictures of her now — she’s hot. She’s a woman now, a fully formed adult with all the complications that brings.

In Stranger Things Ryder was effective not just for her acting, but because, in contrast to the set, she was not stylized. She was gaunt and frail. Ryder’s pixie quality was a strength here, as we saw a woman who’s been beaten down by life in many ways but keeps fighting.

Coincidentally, last week I saw Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. One of the actors listed in that play was David Harbour as Achilles, a rambunctious warrior torn between his fellow soldier/boyfriend and a woman he pines for back home.

Harbour, unfortunately, dropped out two days before I saw the play. He tore his Achilles tendon during a performance (you can’t make that up). However, when I started binge-watching Stranger Things the next day, whose name pops up in the credits?

David Harbour, as Chief Hopper.

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Like Winona Ryder, he brought a physicality that rooted the show. In one of his earliest scenes he’s outside shirtless smoking a cigarette after a hard night of drinking. He’s pale with a paunch. He’s tired. He’s hung over. And he’s real in a fully relatable way.

Watching Stranger Things was a totally different experience than watching Troilus and Cressida. Compared with television, it’s harder for me to lose myself while watching a play. I’m hyper aware of the fact that it’s fake. Troilus and Cressida was hard-charging. The actors were loud and physical. There was constant movement — touching, scrapping, fighting. The play used these sensory elements to draw me in.

Stranger Things, while fun, was using the sensory elements of 1983 (or a close approximation) as a wink to the audience, and it was distracting. Luckily they cast Winona Ryder and David Harbour as their leads. They were natural, and by using their physicality to ground the show, they ended up saving it.