Review: High-Rise (2016)

Director: Ben Wheatley

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The story of a high-tech apartment block slowly falling apart under the weight of shoddy workmanship and crumbling expectations? Critics won’t find a more apt metaphor for reviewing High-Rise than the one supplied by the film itself.

Going through Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is like a journey though a 40-storey tower block, only in reverse, starting at the top. The plush penthouse is furnished and decorated sumptuously, but it’s only as we work our way down through the structure that the cracks begin to appear. The solid foundation on which all this is built is J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, a typically sharp satire on the manipulative effect of modern lifestyles. The various classes and cliques of an ultra-modern apartment block turn on one another in an orgiastic venting of primal urges. Based on that pitch alone, it’s clear that an adaptation was going to be difficult. It needed to be lurid yet sharp, a balance of which few directors would seem capable. When the project was announced, the fact that it was coming from the director of such violently esoteric works as Kill List and A Field In England was comforting. Perhaps this would do justice to the Ballard’s vision, a vision that producer Jeremy Thomas had tried to bring to cinematic life since the novel was first published. This structure is burdened with high hopes.

The first scene suggests success. The film opens, as does the novel, with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) tucking into the hind leg of a dog. His apartment bears the marks of a long descent from stress-free living into anarchy. Laing, a resident of the 25th floor, is our guide through the morass of a building that was to be a beacon of civilization, as per the designs of architect/penthouse resident Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Irons’ presence (Cast Irons? There’s a gag there somewhere…) and Ballard’s text can’t but evoke allusions to David Cronenberg. Alas, the comparisons do High-Rise few favours. Cronenberg made his own high-rise horror, Shivers, the same year that Ballard’s novel was released. Its vision of a tower block tearing itself apart in a frenzy is barmy fun, but not a lot has changed in the stakes of localized anarchy. Its polished surfaces and gleaming swimming pools can be seen in High-Rise, albeit as much a result of coincidence as influence, but it goes to show that the thematic richness of the novel may have been milked long before now. As if to hammer home the point, Amy Jump’s script locates the action in the late 1970s. This decision allows DoP Laurie Rose and production designer Mark Tildesley to show off their skills. The garish world of shag carpets and yellow kitchen panelling is illuminated by narrow windows and round-funneled lamps. It’s pitch-perfect design for the period, but the 1970s stylings insist on themselves to such an extent that any possibility of modern relevance is smothered in furs.

The greater, and more damaging, Cronenberg-Ballard connection is Crash. The Canadian auteur’s symphorophilic thriller is definitively jet-black, even darker than Ballard’s 1973 tome on which it’s based. The fact the film was made was impressive enough, but then there’s little that compares to Crash in its narrative or its transgressions. Ballard’s eerie architectural detachment can be seen in the works of many artists, from Bret Easton Ellis to David Fincher. The aggressiveness of Wheatley’s earlier works, Down Terrace and Kill List, suggest he could at least grapple with the savagery of High-Rise’s source novel. There’s no lack of bloodshed, but it all happens within an over-designed setting that has little purpose other than to call attention to itself. The affectations of High-Rise, whether the period setting, choppy acting or wandering narrative, deny the film the muscularity it needs to carry home any convincing themes. An early scene sees Dr. Laing giving his medical students a lecture on dissection. As he digs into a cranium, he cartoonishly peels off the face to reveal the skull’s structure. Tonally, this feels far closer to Wheatley’s comic sojourn Sightseers than it ever does to Kill List. The metaphors are there, but High-Rise feels too comic when it should deliver a killer blow.

As Laing, Hiddleston is our way into this complex full of complexes, but he’s perhaps a little too polished and chipper, lacking the menace to sell Laing as just another mind about to succumb to the ego. More watchable are Irons’ hammy omnipotence and Sienna Miller’s unchecked vampishness as Laing’s neighbour/lover Charlotte. The tower block is full of actors with potential, but the potential is only realised on occassion; for every solid Elisabeth Moss, there’s a hammy James Purefoy lurking nearby. The cast’s MVP is Luke Evans, delivering a star turn as Wilder, a lower-dwelling resident and documentarian determined to investigate why the tower’s residents are turning on each other. It’s apt that Evans’ performance is the strongest here; his character is the one in search of the truth, but his eventual failure in that regard is also the failure of High-Rise. There’s never any sense that there’s any good reason architecturally, psychologically or financially for Royal’s sky-high experiment to fail. The second act of the film feels less like a narrative and more like a long montage of power failures, fighting and looting. It all goes on so long that the third act rolls in like an inert piece of fast food, undigested and blatantly artificial. Ballard’s novel brought smarts and shocks; Wheatley barely manages the latter. By the time the voice of Margaret Thatcher crackles on the soundtrack before the credits roll, it’s become clear that High-Rise is stuck in a time warp. That might be a great cue for Portishead to deliver an oddly moving take on ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’, but it’s not enough of a hook on which to hang a Ballard adaptation. The lights are on, but this block’s been long since vacated.

Review: Dead Ringers (1988)

Director: David Cronenberg

*****

The finest horror directors know that the way to disturb and affect an audience is to take the everyday and the reliable and mutate them into something quite different. David Cronenberg is one such director, and Dead Ringers mutates notions of medical professionalism, bodily perfection and sibling rivalry into something wondrous to behold; a disturbing but touching tragedy of quasi-Shakesperian proportions.

Jeremy Irons has had many roles in bigger films, but few of his films are as good as Dead Ringers and few of his performances are as magnificent as the one(s) he gives here. In the dual role of twin gynaecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, there is a broad spectrum of characteristics, emotions and bizarre qualities on display, the ideal for any serious actor. Though two distinct bodies, these two are inseparable. They share ideas, tastes and desires, both material and erotic. Smooth Elliot is the seducer and, through a duplicitous switcheroo, allows the shy Beverly to get some of the action. It is this relationship, this slimy symbiosis, that allows them to function. When a patient, TV actress Claire (a stark and distant Geneviève Bujold), arrives with three cervixes and a desire for children, the twins’ reactions differ for once. Elliot want his way with her, but Beverly finds himself falling for her, threatening the twins’ very reality. Despite the creepiness of this relationship (not helped by Irons’ dulcet tones), this is Cronenberg at his most restrained, at least visually. There’s no gooey mutations or morphings (one nightmare aside), just the glances and exasperations of the twins and their bodily fascinations. In one scene, Beverly makes love to Claire tenderly, yet she’s tied to the bed with surgical tubing. Elliot’s influence is ever present and visible, and vice versa.

Irons is mesmerising, and he must be no less considering he’s in practically every scene of the film. He switches between the slick Elly and the retiring Bev with immense ease. In some scenes, it’s hard to tell them apart, just as the story demands. Even at the emotional heights of this crisis, the two seem interchangeable. Cronenberg and Norman Snider’s script (adapted from a book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland) never lapses either into farce or into complete body horror. This is first and foremost a tragedy. Bev and Elly depend on one another to an extent beyond fraternal love. Whether it’s a crippling lack of social definition beyond each other, or a genuinely psychotic fixation is left to the audiences’ minds. At one point, they tell each other the story of the original ‘Siamese twins’, Chang and Eng. Like those two, the separation of Bev from Elly could prove fatal.

Cronenberg shoots proceedings in darkened labs and sterile Toronto apartment blocks; considering the coldness of these settings, it makes the unfolding sadness all the more poignant. Moments of disturbing behaviour and the twins’ world collapsing around them are anchored by Irons’ performance and a beautifully understated score by Howard Shore. As the twins’ dependence on each other becomes more and more apparent, events build to a climax of unexpected empathy that you struggle to think of a moment in all of Cronenberg’s work to match it. Dead Ringers is undeniable Cronenbergian, but transcends the implications of that term to be a recognizably tragic masterpiece.

Review: Margin Call (2011)

Director: J.C. Chandor

****

The greatest and most catastrophic of events can start from the smallest and slightest of errors and miscalculations. When trying to get a grasp on the current economic crisis, a little perspective is required. Blowing up a balloon of debt and overpriced product is going to result in a horrific kaboom. In Margin Call, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) realizes it, but gets fired from MBS Investments before getting a chance to reveal it. Passing on his incomplete data to his junior Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) before leaving, Dale warns, “Be careful”. By the time Margin Call is over, it’s clear that it’s far too late to start being careful.

J.C. Chandor’s feature debut as both director and writer is a startlingly intelligent, complex and confident calling card. Most of its audience may have next to no knowledge about how investment or risk management works (this critic included), but Margin Call refuses to tone down the jargon, and is all the better for it. As Sullivan calls in his colleagues Bregman (Penn Badgely), Emerson (Paul Bettany, accent indeterminate) and his boss Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to analyze the data, one can cut through the jargon to the panic and exasperation on their faces. Quinto’s eyebrows arch, Spacey’s jowls drop and it’s not long before the bigwigs are coming in. Senior executives Cohen (Simon Baker) and Robertson (Demi Moore) begin a bitchfight to the bottom, whilst MBS head Tuld (Jeremy Irons) looks on in bafflement at the hell that is about to befall them all. Despite the fact that all these characters earn millions and enjoy the trappings of their gains, their sudden loss of employment and reputation reduces them to an identifiable human level. By reducing the start of the crisis to a 24-hour one-company microcosm, it make the recession more understandable and more unbelievable simultaneously. These multi-millionaires were supposed to be in charge! Who fell asleep at the wheel?! All take some blame, but the game ultimately becomes about who takes more than their share of it. The dialogue is replete with soliloquies and monologues, which gives the actors room to show off and flourish, and they seize it with both hands. Tucci, Quinto and Irons particularly impress amongst a generally engaging ensemble.

Given the grounded nature of the material, it’s not surprising to find that Margin Call is not a particularly cinematic experience. The cinematography and score are fine (though the sound mix sometimes overwhelms dialogue with music), but lack a Fincher-esque punch. Margin Call lives or dies on its cast, and may feel more at home on the small screen, but its message and clarity of thought deserve to be seen with a crowd, and its intricacies should be dissected over wine and good company afterwards. Margin Call offers much to chew on in a modest but distinct way.