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: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

*****

Amongst the many beasties that have come to define horror, vampires have inspired some of the more respectable and emotional exemplars of the genre. However, it usually happens that any insight offered by these films works purely on a level of subtext. Most bumps in the night have no modus operandi beyond death and grue, so intelligent discussions are backgrounded; zombies want to eat brains, not use them. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about vampires but, next to its heavily-accented and caped kin, it is not a vampire film. They may drink human blood, but the protagonists of Jim Jarmusch’s latest are first and foremost to be admired. They are wonderful creatures, blessed with intelligence beyond normal boundaries and the faces of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Lucky them.

The myth of the vampire has existed for centuries and it has developed certain rules and narratives over time. In most versions, they require blood to survive, they must avoid direct sunlight and a stake to the heart is certain death. Jarmusch is a singular auteur, but the closeness with which he cleaves to the established lore is admirable. Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) are vampires and lovers, living continents apart and forever in fear of detection and the sun. He lives in a rundown corner of Detroit creating snippets of classic hard rock; she hides out in Tangiers, enjoying the company and remembrances of fellow bloodsucker Christopher Marlowe (yes, THAT Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt). After an extended period of separation, broken by chats on Skype, Eve ventures to the States to be reunited with Adam. Even the undead need to be loved, y’see?

Adam is a musician, creating great samples to be played at the local underground circuit in Detroit. To avoid detection he passes himself off as a reclusive music genius, which sits fine with his sole external contact, fawning producer lackey Ian (Anton Yelchin). Jarmusch’s genius links the vampire with another perennial outsider, the artist. Adam is forever distant from the word around him; apart from his vampiricism, he can’t come to terms with technologies and a society evolving at a rate far quicker than he would have been used to centuries before. He has the usual challenge of finding sustenance (leading to some hilarious interplay between Adam and Jeffrey Wright’s unscrupulous haematologist), but also can’t use or share his gifts in the same ways as before. Sensing his isolation, Eve heads to Detroit for a joyous reunion. There’s a tenderness to their embraces that belies previous incarnations of vampires as hyper-sexualised nymphos.

Horror is fertile ground for the imagination, but it is also a pigeonhole. Only Lovers Left Alive transcends the tropes by making the vampire both respectable and identifiable. Adam and Eve may seem all-knowing, but their immortality is a fragile construct. Blood and good company aren’t always easy to find. It’s also good to know that even the undead have to cope with family troubles. Adam and Eve’s reunion is interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a spoilt brat who’s more Bling Ring than Bela Lugosi. This could be all too much for Adam to bear; even vampires are changing their style. Eve’s ice-cold wisdom contrasts sharply with Ava’s here-and-now loquaciousness. Vampires are a product of their time, and when you can’t fit in with the present you can’t hide in the shadows any more.

From all this you can probably discern that, despite the blood-suckers, Only Lovers Left Alive is very much a Jarmusch film. Its humour is dark and witty, and its pace is measured and unhurried. That said, if ever a film was to win over Jarmusch’s critics, this might be it. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the pacing only accentuates the elegance of Hiddleston and Swinton’s features and performances. Despite all this and another great soundtrack, Jarmusch’s latest is a most unlikely elegy, not to anything specific but to the past. Tangiers is all crumbling Moorish arches, whilst the real decay of overstretched modern Detroit is vividly realized. Richer, livelier times have given way to death, whose stench infects the darkened lighting schemes and dour colours in every frame. We all resent the passing of good times, and thus we should all find something to love in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Review: Avengers Assemble (2012)

Director: Joss Whedon

****

On their first meeting in Avengers Assemble,  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), in his Iron Man guise, looks at Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) costume and asks in his trademark sardonic tones, “What is this, Shakespeare in the Park? Dost thy mother know thou wearest her drapes?” This can either be a neat nod to Kenneth Branagh, director of Thor, or just one of the many examples of one-liners and put-downs that distinguishes Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble as the funniest of all superhero movies, and a gloriously entertaining start to the summer season.

Between them, the movies that set up Avengers Assemble (that is to say, Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) have earned almost $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office. To say expectations are high for Avengers Assemble is an understatement. But is there a risk that all these capes and weapons jostling for screentime could be a case of too many cooks? It would be if we didn’t know them already. Even though the preceding movies were just introductions and setups for these guys, it does help to have all the backstory out of the way (Watching those films is optional, but most of the Avengers’ audience will have seen at least some of them anyway). Writer/director Whedon keeps the narrative relatively lean as to keep the set-pieces and massive KABOOMS coming. Shallow? Not when it’s this much fun!

The basic plot follows on from the ending of Thor. Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seeks revenge on Thor for his banishment from their otherworldly home of Asgard, and decides to bring an extra-terrestrial army to conquer Earth so he may rule the planet. If you’re not braced for how silly that sounds, Avengers Assemble is just not for you. Then again, you probably knew that already. When the scope of Loki’s threat becomes apparent, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is forced to bring together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and master assassins Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). When they are together, the sparks fly. Whedon applies both his sparky wit and in-depth fanboy knowledge to the dialogue, which is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. As our heroes bitch and snipe, they have to remember to compose themselves when vast amounts of inter-dimensional proverbial hits the fan. Indeed, the banter is emphasized by DP Seamus McGarvey, whose work on more dialogue-heavy films (Atonement, We Need To Talk About Kevin) lends itself to capturing Whedon’s ripostes and double-edged barbs.

As for the guys delivering the funnies everyone, from Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson to Johannson’s previously underused Black Widow to Captain America, gets their chance to shine. However, the most memorable performance is Ruffalo’s, as we finally get a definitive take on the less-than-Jolly Green Giant as he smashes through buildings, enemies and even some of his teammates. His appearance is the crowning glory on a MASSIVE third act rout as Loki brings his minions into New York to scare mankind into surrender. The newly-christened Avengers zip through the city chasing and being chased by all manner of otherworldly creatures. The action is cleaner and more memorable than any of Michael Bay’s Transformers, as our heroes are never lost amongst the barrage of CGI monsters and collapsing buildings. Avengers Assemble barely pauses for breath; you’ll either be on the edge of your seat or chuckling away contentedly.

If you’re looking for great emotionality or social commentary from your superheroes, you’re best to wait for The Dark Knight Rises. If you like your superhero movies to be frantic and fun, your flying battleship has come in (Seriously, there’s a flying battleship in this thing!). Marvel’s best film since X2 is simply, supremely, ridiculously entertaining.

Review: War Horse (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg

**

Ooh arr, ooh arr! Certain accents lend themselves to exploitation and/or mockery in film and TV. The Devon accent that features in War Horse cannot but bring to mind simpler places and simple tastes (Combine Harvesters, anyone?). This is quite apropos since, in its emotions and themes, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is as simple and unchallenging as films come.

This review could have been written with the kind of affectation like the ones sported by the likes of Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson, but that’s a little too much to ask of a reader. Any’oo, there’s a poooor ‘orse, and ‘e gets taken awaigh from (alright, THAT’s enough!) his  young owner Albert (Irvine, surprisingly devoid of blemish for a farmhand). The horse, named Joey, was purchased at great cost by Albert’s father (Peter Mullan at his most restrained) much to mother’s (Watson) vexation. Throughout the film, Joey becomes an instrument of defiance and an object of affection for whoever possesses him. Joey is bought as a foal, and Albert raises him to be a fine young stallion. As usually happens in these things, the pair are separated at their finest moment by the outbreak of World War One, and Joey is taken by the army for the war effort. Irvine is a fairly bland lead, but Joey proves quite an engaging character. One could hope they dispense with the human characters as the film goes on. Alas, that would be just too daring.

What begins as a painfully unchallenging depiction of friendship between man and beast becomes a morally simplistic journey across Europe, as Joey goes from French battlefields to German battalion to Belgian farmhouse. Along the way, Joey encounters people who aren’t so much characters as moral standpoints and/or plot devices. There’s the dashing British army captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to get Joey back to Albert in one piece (The army is no place for idealists!). There are the brothers in the German infantry (Leonard Carow and David Kross) who take a shine to the horse; and then there is the Belgian man and his granddaughter who fall in love with the horse and try to hide him from the approaching German army. This hideously cutesy portion of War Horse sees the wasting of the mighty Niels Arestrup as the grandfather; he was in A Prophet, for chrissakes! Give him some grit to work with! Then again, this is a Spielberg film that was co-written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Love Actually); simplistic sentimental gushing is the order of the day. The moralizing reaches a low point when a Geordie soldier and a German soldier emerge from the trenches and unite to free the horse trapped in wire in No Man’s Land. ‘ear that? An ‘orse ended the war! Ooh aarrrrr! In the meantime, why not play a kind of bingo game with the vast number of brilliant actors wasted in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances. Liam Cunningham, David Thewlis and Benedict Cumberbatch are worthy of a lot more than they are given in War Horse.

For all the condescension in the tone and plot of the film, War Horse looks and sounds great. The recreations of the battlefields are grim and dark, and provide some of the grit sadly lacking in the characterizations. A scene in which Joey runs through the trenches is breathtaking. John Williams’ score is expectedly-but-brilliantly rousing, and DP Janusz Kaminski makes the verdant hills of southern England look green and lush. However, when we glimpse Joey stare off into a none-more-perfect sunset towards the end of the film (It’s a Spielberg film; don’t take this as a spoiler!), you’ll need to check your blood sugar levels to make sure the overt sweetness of War Horse hasn’t induced diabetes. Ooh, and indeed, arr.

Review: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Director: Terence Davies

****

Terence Davies, as a director, is devoted to classic filmmaking techniques, even though he uses them to tell very affecting stories that are surprisingly resonant. The Deep Blue Sea opens on the façade of a house in London in 1950. The camera cranes up slowly and elegantly to a first floor window where Hester (Rachel Weisz) stands. She draws the curtains, and then proceeds to open the gas on the fireplace and attempt suicide. A classy sweep gives way to a bitter pill; suicide isn’t a modern phenomenon, and contrasting the unconscious Hester to the creak of the floors and flowery wallpaper may jar with some. Mr. Davies, you have our attention.

Davies’ previous works, whether the bittersweet Distant Voices, Still Lives or the love-letter documentary Of Time And The City, are unashamedly bathed in nostalgia, both in their technique and their setting. Davies was only five in 1950, and he found himself growing up in a strange time in which Britain struggled to define itself. Still scarred by the war, Britain found itself torn between the crippling memories (and debts) of the past, and the enthusiasm of youth for the future. Such is the dilemma Hester faces. Her marriage to Sir William Colyer (Simon Russell Beale) is comfortable and affectionate, if lacking in excitement. The enthusiastic and charming air force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) is everything William is not: young and devil-may-care, if also hot-headed and temperamental. It’s very familiar territory, not least because Terence Rattigan’s source play has been filmed numerous times previously. However, Davies (both writer and director) and his cast know better than to let this well-written piece descend into déjà-vu. Everyone here is playing to their strengths. Weisz brings the appropriate mix of sensuality and muted elegance to Hester, which grows into a weighed-down sense of regret as events unfold. When we meet her first, she has already separated from William and moved into Freddie’s little flat. As events collude against her, Hester’s regret increases. Regret is the backbone of The Deep Blue Sea, and it’s painted all over Weisz’s pained expressions. Hiddleston flits from giddy to fiery temper with shocking ease and Beale underplays everything to the point where his speech veers on a comforting whisper. Very different men, but both with their advantages and their problems.

Cigarette smoke creates a nostalgic haze in every frame, as Davies’ attention to detail comes to the fore. Despite only a handful of locations, The Deep Blue Sea never feels artificial. Davies nimbly negotiates Rattigan’s prose from stage to screen, avoiding most every pitfall that could leave it feeling staged. Also in evidence is Davies’ canny ear for a good tune; Barber’s ‘Andante’ from his Violin Concerto becomes a notable leitmotif. Like that particular piece of music, The Deep Blue Sea is full of heart, but is never overwhelming or bombastic. It’s a patient and measured bit of elegant filmmaking; it’s proof that passion need not be visceral or angry to make an impact.