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On Blu-ray/DVD: HIGH LIFE (2019) and THE PROFESSOR (2019)

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HIGH LIFE
(France/Germany/UK/US/Poland - 2019)


HIGH LIFE, the latest film from French auteur Claire Denis (CHOCOLAT, TROUBLE EVERY DAY) is an arthouse/sci-fi journey to the end of the universe and the kind of mainstream audience-alienating pisser-offer that's become synonymous with distributor A24. But even they knew to keep this one at a limited level, topping out at 146 screens at its widest release. Not unlike SUNSHINE or INTERSTELLAR if directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, HIGH LIFE is certainly like nothing else you'll see in 2019, and it even switches between aspect ratios (1.66:1 most of the time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1) for maximum cineaste cred. Denis doesn't make it easy: the pace is extremely slow, and it takes time to find your bearings, with the opening of the film actually being the middle of the story, with non-linear editing and cutaways to various points past and future eventually filling in the blanks like an early Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film with a touch of the significant passage of time of Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. The opening act is focused on Monte (Robert Pattinson), the lone remaining original member of the mission, and his infant daughter Willow, as something catastrophic has happened and Monte releases the bodies of several dead crew members into the forever nothingness of space. Denis cuts back and forth, revealing that a crew of death row convicts--among them Monte, Tcherny (Andre Benjamin), Boyse (Mia Goth), pilot Nansen (Agata Buzek), and Mink (Claire Tran)--who were assembled and given a chance to "serve science" on a journey to a black hole at the end of the universe in the hopes of harnessing a new energy source. It seems like a fool's mission, as one Earth-bound scientist (Victor Banerjee) even states that they won't even reach their destination in the lifetimes of those back home. But problems arise: captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger) suffers a stroke as a result of radiation poisoning and is put out of his misery by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a deranged scientist who takes command of the mission and is obsessed with performing reproductive experiments and harvesting healthy fetuses, and isn't above sedating and raping a male subject to get the semen sample she needs.





In addition to the copious amounts of cum on display, nearly every bodily fluid and discharge puts in an appearance, including blood, piss, snot, breast milk, and menstrual blood. That's not to mention "The Fuck Box," a recreational masturbation chamber where the crew goes to let off some steam (and for Dibs to collect more specimens; seriously, there so much onscreen jizz in this that it probably qualifies for its own SAG card). Perhaps the most frequent Fuck Box flyer is Dibs herself, who rigs a contraption that gyrates in a mechanical bull-like motion as she rides a large silver dildo emerging from the center of it. Binoche leaves little to the imagination with her fearless performance here, and it's surprising that this managed to avoid an NC-17. HIGH LIFE isn't all about shock value, and the striking imagery of bodies floating in space, the sounds, and the overwhelming claustrophobia really stay with you even if the story proves frustratingly impenetrable at times. It feels like a more pervy Panos Cosmatos space movie at times, and another offbeat project for Pattinson, who also sings the closing credits song. Obviously, HIGH LIFE isn't for everybody (it would've been great to see this in a packed theater and count the walkouts), but it's a bold, original film that's an instant cult item and will no doubt take several viewings to unpack everything that's going on. (R, 113 mins)




THE PROFESSOR
(US - 2019)


With his financial issues and the back-and-forth allegations and protracted legal battles with ex-wife Amber Heard, it's hard to tell from day to day whether Johnny Depp has been officially cancelled, but Lionsgate seemed to err on the side of caution by dumping THE PROFESSOR on VOD nearly two years after it was shot. Blatantly transparent Oscar bait for Depp, the film casts him as Prof. Richard Brown, a tenured Lit lecturer at an upscale university who's just been given a stage four lung cancer diagnosis. Facing the option of having maybe a year with treatment and six months without, he opts to live his remaining months to the fullest. Encouraged by his wife Veronica's (Rosemarie DeWitt) extramarital affair with asshole university president Henry (Ron Livingston), Richard goes all in--drinking in class, asking students for weed, raw-dogging a waitress in the men's room of a campus bar, and even accepting an offer of a blowjob from an admiring male student (Devon Terrell). He only confides his terminal illness to his colleague and best friend Peter (Danny Huston), and is unable to break the news to either Veronica or their teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young). THE PROFESSOR was shot under the title RICHARD SAYS GOODBYE, which may give it some connection to writer/director Wayne Roberts' debut KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, which played the festival circuit in 2016 but wasn't commercially released until it went straight to VOD in June 2019, a month after THE PROFESSOR. It's always amusing watching characters give zero fucks with nothing to lose, but too much of THE PROFESSOR plays like a disease-of-the-week take on AMERICAN BEAUTY, whether it's Olivia forced to listen to the passively aggressive combative dinnertime conversation between Richard and Veronica, or Richard threatening to blackmail Henry if he doesn't grant him permission to take a sabbatical. Livingston is saddled with a completely unbelievable character, never more so than when he sees Richard smoking a joint while lecturing his class outdoors, and harumphs "Is...is that a marijuana cigarette?!" like he just wandered in from REEFER MADNESS. Depp has some good moments, but the drama becomes more forced and implausible as it goes on. It's nice to see perennial sneering prick Huston in a rare sympathetic role, and Zoey Deutch is charming as one of Richard's students, but THE PROFESSOR just feels too rote and too familiar and a couple of decades too late to be borrowing so much of AMERICAN BEAUTY. (R, 92 mins)





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