Review of First Man (The News Lens International)

A few weeks ago, my full review of First Man (2018) was published at The News Lens International. Check it out here!

Fear and Loathing in Outer Space: High Life (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, Can human life be created in space? The answer is always no, because of irradiation—almost always.

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A Tale of One City: Widows (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

A heist film is usually focused on the heist: who’s the mark, what’s the take, who brings what skills to the table, what goes wrong, and (with the rare exception) how do they get away with it? Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018) turns all of that on its head, giving us a heist film about a band of unskilled reluctant criminals stealing for someone else from a place they have to determine for themselves. The plan of this particular heist is pretty straightforward; it’s everything else that’s hard. And that “everything else” encompasses the very idea of the city of Chicago.

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When God Gives You a Suicide Vest: First Reformed (2017)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

Writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring a subtly powerful Ethan Hawke as whiskey reverend Ernst Toller in a dark night of the environmental soul, may not succeed on all fronts (for example, I have issues with two scene transitions that cut away too early), but it works its magic where it counts: It’s a textbook case, literally, of Schrader’s concept of transcendental style. Schrader tries to portray a world in which supernatural grace can intervene at any moment. To do so, he uses static and flat compositions, understated acting, grayscale colors (cinematography by Alexander Dynan), and no music cues (to a certain extent substituting Toller’s quiet voiceover monologue) to craft a muted everyday existence—until it suddenly isn’t, at which point all these elements rush back in. The poster for the film conveys the same idea.

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Thoughts on Hunter Killer (2018)

Don’t think for a second I don’t recognize that Hunter Killer (2018) is chock full of clichés. Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) ascends from the rank and file to captain his first submarine on a mission to investigate a missing US sub, which they find sunk alongside a Russian sub. Unable to contact Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the US sends out a Navy SEAL recon team, which discovers that Zakarin is being held captive in a coup led by war-hungry Defense Minister Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). Naturally, the two plotlines are combined to form a rescue mission for Zakarin. Despite numerous resemblances to The Hunt for Red October (1990), the characters are never as round, and the strategy lacks the feeling of high-stakes tension, despite the high stakes. Yet if you can look past the weak but functional script by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss, this film is enthralling enough.

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Thoughts on Mountain (2017)

Mountain (2017) is a feature-length video essay, directed by Jennifer Peedom and mostly shot by Renan Ozturk, on the symbolic relationship between human and mountain. Walking in, I was prepared for the mountain porn—the gorgeous, absolutely stunning vistas and panoramas and drone shots—but I was not prepared for just how much this 74-minute-long film effortlessly includes: mountaintop (motor)cyclists, skiers with and without parachutes, tightrope walkers, shots of individual snowflakes (turns out they’re not flat), lava, nosediving helicopters, vertigo-inducing helmet-cam shots of regular and free solo climbers, an athlete wipeout reel, and a critique of extreme sports online branding and of mountain tourism. Not to mention the poetry of Willem Dafoe’s narration, reading from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind. It’s truly an awesome experience.

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Found Footage: Shirkers (2018)

Shirkers ([1992]) was going to be Singapore’s first indie film, a road movie set in Singapore (!) about the quirky adventures of teenage assassin S., made by teenagers Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique under the mentorship of White guy Georges Cardona—a charismatic man of mysterious background who directed the film, and who absconded with the raw footage after it wrapped. Shirkers (2018) is a documentary about this series of events, prompted by the rediscovery of the footage in pristine condition after Cardona’s death. Alas, Shirkers the narrative feature wasn’t to be, as the audio tracks are still lost, or were deliberately disposed of. But that’s okay: Shirkers the documentary is already full of creative magic.

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