FilmSpace: High Life; The Hustle; A Dog's Journey

Film critic Calum Cooper examines some of the week’s additional releases, including Claire Denis’ thought provoking new sci-fi, a drab remake of an 80s comedy, and a dog film that’s corny but rewards the right audience.

High Life – ★★★★☆

As I type this review, I’m still processing what I really thought of Claire Denis’s High Life. I know I liked it, but the extent to which I liked it is something I need more time to discover. It’s more of an experience than it is a traditional story, but then again many of the best films out there are. It feels arguably scattershot, but there’s such conviction in its refusal to bend to convention that I find it hard not to admire the film in some way, shape or form. Perhaps I’m simply not experienced enough as a film reviewer to be tackling it, but I shall try my best regardless.

High Life is a farfetched tale that serves as the springboard to wide, grandiose ideas. A blend of sci-fi and horror, the film is told in a non-linear fashion. It sees death row prisoners placed on a spaceship, hurtling into deep space to investigate a black hole. They hope to find alternative energy via this black hole. Among the prisoners is Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mild-mannered man who is eyed closely by the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche). As the film journeys closer to this black hole, tensions rise on the ship between the crew members. I would go further but the less you know about High Life the better.

Many will know Pattinson specifically for the Twilight films, but his career since leaving that franchise demonstrates considerable range and risk, from Good Time to Cosmopolis and now this. He’s one of finest actors working today, and High Life showcases even more of Pattinson’s raw capabilities, as his subdued expressions and controlled mannerisms mask enormous regret, burden, and fear. Binoche and Mia Goth as a fellow prisoner are great too, but Pattinson is the powerhouse performance here.

At its core, High Life seems to be an allegory on humanity and its capabilities of survival. It showcases the worst of humanity through its listing of the variously deplorable crimes the ship’s inmates have committed, with just as many repenting as stubbornly refusing to accept responsibility. However, the sinister setting of outer space takes pages from the books of films like Solaris, using it as a hostile environment as a means to find the inner humanity of the characters forced into such a horrifying, mystifying ordeal. Dire possibilities exist both in the vast unknown of space, and on board the ship itself. Areas like the garden, possibly a reference to Eden, may provide some solace, but nowhere in truth completes the human spirit or protects us fully.

It feels arguably scattershot, but there’s such conviction in its refusal to bend to convention that I find it hard not to admire the film in some way, shape or form.

The non-linear structure adds to this. If the film opened right away with an explanation on the ship’s crew being death row inmates, it may have affected our judgement from the get go. By showcasing strife first, followed by context, and then ultimate resolve, it allows us to connect with the inner traits that make these characters human. Traits such as stubbornness, pride, and vulnerability are all weights to our progress, but can also be essential tools to survival, as this film demonstrates. In other words they can be seen as keys to life as much as our need for companionship, security, or, as this film often examines, sexual desire.

But it’s the film’s visual prowess that sticks out the most. Reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it uses dialogue fleetingly, preferring to tell its story through visuals, however grand or mundane. The winding, dark hallways of the ship that Pattinson wonders alone at the start of the film reveal as much as Binoche’s monologues towards the centre of the film. Each visual is used to convey character emotions, narrative tones, and thematic depth in stellar fashion that fascinates.

However, I appreciate that this is not a film that will work for everybody. Parts of it threw me off as well. Sometimes the visual splendour of the film is so out there that it leaves us with confusion, possibly even frustration, at what is really going on. An argument, albeit one I don’t agree with, could be made on the film being style over substance, as ambiguity and individual interpretation play critical roles in how Denis presents the film with its explorations on the unknown for better and for worse. Yet, it is one of those films that plays by its own rules and isn’t afraid to let audiences make up their own minds on what it is truly about. That alone wins my respect if nothing else.

The Hustle – ★★☆☆☆

One of the most underrated comedies out there is 1987’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It starred Steve Martin and Michael Caine as two con-men, one amateur and one professional, betting against each other to con the same person. It’s essentially two scummy people trying to one up each other, and the results were hilarious. It was a remake of the 1964 film, Bedtime Story, with Marlon Brando and David Niven, and now it has seen another remake with The Hustle, a gender-reversed version starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson.

The plot is virtually the same: Wilson is a small-time con artist who pulls off mundane scams, yet remains boastful. This changes when she comes into contact with Anne Hathaway, who externally appears to be a sophisticated rich woman, but is in fact such a terrific con-artist that she has managed to acquire millions, as well as employees and luxurious accommodation. She briefly takes Wilson on as an apprentice, but the two eventually butt heads, deciding to bet on who can swindle $500,000 off of a young tech entrepreneur (Alex Sharpp) first.

Following such a successful formula and anchored by two talented leads, as well as serving as Chris Addison’s directorial debut, you would think this would amount to at least a passable bit of comedy. However, there’s something sorely missing with The Hustle. It’s a vacuous film that’s far too short on both laughs and originality, even with its remake status disregarded. It’s not even bad enough to get needlessly angry over. It just exists; a stasis that’s probably more demeaning than if the film had been purely horrendous.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels worked primarily due to the chemistry between Martin and Caine, who both brought their A-games in their bids to outdo the other. Here, only one half of the duo worked for me. Anne Hathaway is legitimately quite funny in a good chunk of scenes. She has a very conniving personality that’s masked by sophistication and pompous displays of wealth, a mask that starts coming off the more desperate she gets to win the bet. I can see where the comedic possibilities lie with this character, and Hathaway embodies it well.

It’s not even bad enough to get needlessly angry over. It just exists; a stasis that’s probably more demeaning than if the film had been purely horrendous.

But Wilson’s comedic prowess seems more astray than ever. I will defend Pitch Perfect until my dying breath as comedy gold, but Wilson seems to be playing yet another incarnation of Fat Amy, the role that brought her to stardom. She’s cocky but clumsy, overconfident but secretly insecure. Wilson is usually such a joy to watch, but this shtick is getting really old really fast.

There also isn’t anything unique about this new film, other than the genders being reversed, which isn’t that exciting of a change, especially when the potentially enriching messages of women taking back power from exploitative men are pushed aside in favour of stunning dresses and scenery. The story is an almost carbon copy of the original, meaning there’s no surprises in the slightest. And the humour is either recycled or worse watered down. For example, one of the funniest scenes in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels involves Caine repeatedly whipping Martin’s legs with a wire. The comedy comes from the excruciating pain Martin struggles to hide otherwise his cover gets blown, as he has faked being wheelchair bound. Here, Wilson fakes being blind instead, and Hathaway performs various grotesque acts to test this. Because there’s no physical pain to mask, as anyone can control whether or not they flinch with enough practice, the scene is nowhere near as funny, coming off as uncomfortable rather than amusing. Come to think of it, that’s an effective way of summing up the film as a whole.

To be brutally honest, I considered not reviewing The Hustle at all. There’s nothing substantial to say about it. It’s as superfluous as the fake identities our con-women use to their advantage. It doesn’t do anything that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels didn’t already do better, and what few genuine laughs or feminist messages it does possess get lost in the maze of awkwardness that is its sense of humour. It goes without saying at this point, but I’d recommend Dirty Rotten Scoundrels instead.

A Dog’s Journey – ★★★☆☆

Movies like A Dog’s Journey are impervious to criticism. It makes no difference what I or anyone else says in terms of its quality. It’s got cute dogs and a story that’s ridiculously easy to digest. For some that’s all a film like this needs, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In this case, it doesn’t do much in terms of memorability, but is also completely harmless, and decently sentimental.

It’s a sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose; a sequel that I’m surprised exists. Not because its predecessor was especially bad (although it wasn’t very good), but because I don’t know anyone else other than me who even saw the film. Either way, the central character is a dog named Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad); a dog who must’ve been the Avatar as he was constantly being reincarnated, living several lives hoping to reunite with his original owner Ethan (Dennis Quaid).

This film takes place years after its predecessor, where Ethan’s young granddaughter CJ is taken away by his daughter-in-law, a woman stressed and anxious about the future given past circumstances. On Bailey’s deathbed, Ethan asks his dog to look out for CJ when he next reincarnates. Thus, over the next few lifetimes, the dog searches for and watches over CJ as she grows from a child into womanhood.

What makes this film easier to invest in than its original counterpart is that its story is much clearer. Because Bailey was constantly getting reincarnated and living different lives with different sets of characters before, it felt like we were watching four/five mini-films crammed into one. Here, the dog in question has a single goal and is centring himself round one specific character – CJ. Therefore the motivations have plenty of clarity and are better to engage with.

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Furthermore, the characters are reasonably easy to sympathise with. They’re about as cookie cutter as they can be, but they serve the story for what it is. Their roles and personalities are rather exaggerated (e.g. the antagonistic characters are overly despicable), but the simplification is a welcome change from the cluster of plot and characters that was the previous film. It allows us to follow the story more thoroughly while our fun-loving scamp runs around good actors playing characters with moderately interesting arcs and stories, even if they are nothing especially nutritional.

If you’re looking for things to dislike there’s plenty. It’s about as cheesy a flick as you can get. The writing is overly emphasised in terms of sentimentality. The jokes are pretty lame, sacrificed in favour of a dog being cute. The cinematography and music is overly saccharine, and the plot is about as routine as they come.

But, it is cute. Movies like this leave me conflicted as my cynical nature points out all the problems, but my softer side pushes that to the side because dog. In all seriousness though, I do think the film somewhat works despite its corniness for its accessibility allows it to promote themes of perseverance and reaching out to family. Again, it’s standard, but its presence does create some genuine heart within the film, however sappy. It ironically has more of a purpose than A Dog’s Purpose.

To be honest, you’ve probably already made your mind up on whether you’ll see this film or not. If you think it looks like your cup of tea then by all means go for it. For myself personally, I thought it was fine. Not something I’d put on again, but it’s hard to be fully cynical about something as easy-going as this. I’ll probably have forgotten about it this time next week, as I see it more as a cutesy distraction than anything else. But, you know what, sometimes that’s all an audience needs. What else can I say? It is what it is.

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