Thursday, March 31, 2016
How often have you come across this staple of lazy film criticism: “the city/vehicle/otherwise-inanimate-object [delete as applicable] is a character in its own right”?
Far too often, right? And it constitutes really bad reviewing, right?
Good. Glad we got that out of the way. In Ben Wheatley’s ‘High-Rise’, adapted by Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, the apartment block is a character in its own right.
‘High-Rise’ is a masterpiece of set design with a punctured bile duct rather than a beating heart driving the two-hour act of aesthetic implosion that constitutes its narrative. Early scenes have Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) prowling the lobby while his boxed-up possessions are crated in. Laing rocks a conservative suit and a grey tie that seem utterly in tune with the soulless brutalism of the high-rise block. The camera prowls just as elegantly, as if DoP Laurie Rose were out to redefine the concept of architecture porn. Already, though, imperfections lurk behind the high-rise’s buttoned-down façade: a single bleb of paint spoiling an otherwise perfectly glossed wall; a couple of angles out of true; a touch of rust on the hob in Laing’s minimalist kitchen. By the halfway point, the mask has slipped entirely and the societal ugliness inherent in the level-based class system has manifested as corridors full of rubbish bags, garbage chutes clogged with filth, lights and elevators failing, smashed glass, piles of rubble, public copulation and acts of what Alex the Droog would refer to as “the old ultraviolence”. The poster for ‘High-Rise’ explicitly homages ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and there’s more than a hint of Kubrick at his most coldly cynical in Wheatley’s mise en scene (not to mention some deliberate nods towards the Starliner Tower in David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’).
Or to put it another way, ‘High-Rise’ starts as architecture porn only to veer off suddenly and shockingly into the realms of architecture snuff. Wheatley keeps things slow-burn for the first third, assiduously mapping out the power structure and introducing Laing to a roster of oddball residents, from belligerent TV documentary-maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) – lower level – to the flirtatious and socially mobile Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her nerdy polymath son Toby (Louis Suc) – mid level – all the way up to the penthouse suite and the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his brittle trophy wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). The metaphor for British society is obvious from the outset and Wheatley adds a good 20 or 30 minutes to the running time in hammering the point, sometimes in wincingly laborious fashion. His talent for visual storytelling is downright precocious, so it’s a shame that the pace is slowed and the dark drama dissipated by a cluster of scenes in which characters sit around and spout thuddingly literal dialogue. 90 minutes was all ‘High-Rise’ needed to be.
Having said that, the film gets more right than it does wrong. The period detail and evocation of the 1970s is spot on. Clint Mansell’s score is a thing of beauty and I’ll be adding the soundtrack to my collection ASAP. The cast are very good, with Hiddleston on excellent form, Miller giving a performance that’s worlds beyond the set-dressing she’s usually called on provide, Hawes taking material that could have been clichéd and turning Ann into a nuanced and almost tragic character, and Evans – who I liked in ‘No One Lives’ and thought was dreadful in ‘The Raven’ – snatching the Man of the Match award with a swaggering, visceral turn that put me in mind of Oliver Reed at his fiery best. Jump – for all that her script drifts intermittently into wordiness – "gets" Ballard in a way no-one has apart from Cronenberg with ‘Crash’.
Wheatley – as you’d expect of the man who directed the genuinely disturbing ‘Kill List’ and the genuinely hallucinatory ‘A Field in England’ – isn’t afraid to go full on in depicting the total breakdown of social order. Minor unfairnesses, verbal standoffs and a laddish invasion of a posh soiree so the children of the tower block can have a pool party soon escalate into orgiastic destruction and rampant self-interest. For all that Wilder has a poster of Che Guevara in his apartment, you can’t even call it class warfare. The only solidarity seems to be among the women, either the blue-bloods who rally around Ann or the much put-upon wives with whom Helen socialises. Charlotte, meanwhile, occupies the middle ground in every sense of the expression and the truth about her loyalties and her son’s parentage don’t emerge until late in the game.
If there are agents for the building’s sudden collapse into chaos, they are Royal’s thuggish aide/bouncer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) – whose repeated line “you won’t be needing that” becomes increasingly prescient, – and the reactionary Wilder, who sees the high-rise’s hierarchy as documentary gold for his next project. Laing, meanwhile, drifts through the film as often little more than an observer. For a while he seems like the untainted resident whose moral rectitude might be the yardstick for the audience’s response to the ever-more frenzied onscreen acts. Or maybe not: with blank indifference, he nudges an oikish colleague towards an act of suicide; parlays with Royal to the point of toadying; and goes native as completely as anyone else. The difference is that while Wilder or Simmons’s enthrallment to the building triggers machismo impulses, Laing’s response is placid, almost zen-like. In the midst of the basest displays of (in)human behaviour, Laing begins to feel at home. It says something that while everyone else is happily doling out beatings, torching vehicles in the car park or engaging in joyless group sex, the only real altercation Laing has is with someone who tries to steal from him a tin of grey paint.
The film is ultimately about what society tries to make of us, what we want to make of ourselves, the psychological impulses that drive us (particularly the self-destructive ones that usually end up in the driving seat) and the dangers that occur when mindscape and landscape overlap. The nastiest concept the film serves up – and it’s perhaps the only theme that isn’t bludgeoned by the script into literalism – is that fact that any of the residents could leave at any time. They’re not trapped in or by the building; they just need it. The building is the necessary framework wherein their trappings can be shed. All, ironically, except Laing’s. He clings onto that suit and grey tie till the end.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Whereas Pixar’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ starts with a fantastic concept – the comet that should have rendered the dinosaurs extinct misses the earth and dinosaurs gradually evolve to develop the power of speech, cognizance of the family unit, and a facility for agricultural self-sustainability – then proceeds to do absolutely sod all with it, Disney’s ‘Zootropolis’ establishes its anthropomorphised civilisation so rigorously in terms of backstory, geography and inventive world-building that its breathless first act is liable to leave you dizzy.
Basically: we’re in a world where animals talk and have created a recognisably contemporary society based on trade, upward mobility and lifestyle aspirations; a world where predators and prey co-exist peacefully if suspiciously. The lion might not be lying down with the lamb, but it’s odds-on they work in the same office building. In fact, there’s a lion in City Hall – Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) – and he’s ably, if nervously, assisted by a sheep, Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate).
It’s thanks to Lionheart’s Mammal Inclusion Programme that naïve but fiercely determined rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is able to join the Zootropolis Police Department, albeit in the face of cynicism and prejudice. Not that Hopps, for all her talk of inclusiveness, isn’t just a little species-ist herself, particularly when it comes to foxes. It doesn’t help that, first day on the force, she’s played for a sucker by vulpine con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). The Mammal Inclusion Programme is a curious wrong note in a script that’s otherwise whipsmart: every animal in the ZPD – indeed, every animal in Zootropolis itself (unless I missed some bird life or reptiles) – is a mammal.
This flub notwithstanding, ‘Zootropolis’ plays its cards perfectly as it settles down from its plot-free but exhaustively immersive transitioning of Hopp from her hick small town roots to the bustling capital city by way of a gruelling training montage at animal police academy, quickly becoming a follow-the-clues procedural Hopp, royally pissing off Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), is given the traditional 48 hours to solve a missing persons case, with the caveat of an unceremonious ejection from the force should she fail. When her first clue brings her back into Wilde’s orbit, she loses no time in turning the tables on him … and this is where the film really starts to get interesting.
Let me reiterate that ‘Zootropolis’ is a Disney film. Its first act is imbued with the kind of gently improving moral messages – everyone’s equal; never give up on your dreams – that you’d expect from the studio. And yet even these themes are tempered by jolts of reality. Hopp’s liberalism is challenged from the outset after an assault by a delinquent fox, while her dreams of making it as a police officer in the big city are oh-so-gently chiselled away at by her ultimately well-meaning parents. “It’s okay to have dreams as long as you don’t believe in them too much,” Hopp’s mother counsels at one point, one of several slaps in the face that ‘Zootropolis’ delivers to traditional Disney aesthetics.
So: Disney but not quite Disney, yeah? Disney with a bit of the stuffing knocked out of it after a backstreet scuffle. Now factor in these narrative developments: (a) having successfully beaten Wilde at his own game (“it’s called a hustle, sweetheart”), Hopp demonstrates no qualms in blackmailing him in order continue her investigation; and (b) with Hopp so new to the ZPD (not to mention unpopular enough with Bogo) that she’s effectively operating without resources, the rule book goes out of the window from the outset; indeed, by the time she encounters Mr Big (Maurice Lamarche), in a scene that’s gratuitously accurate in its lampooning of ‘The Godfather’, the rule book doesn’t just go out the window but straight into the sewer.
Between stoner witnesses, unreliable witnesses and witnesses who get the frighteners put on them in a favour Hopp accepts from Mr Big, our intrepid lupine heroine puts together a case that Rumpole of the Bailey would get thrown out of court with one withering turn of phrase; but this is Zootropolis and her efforts are rewarded … but elevation to the media’s poster bunny for law enforcement comes at a price: fear spreads through the city, old prejudices come to the fore, and Hopp’s nascent friendship with Wilde is severely tested.
‘Zootropolis’ constructs its slow-burn crime thriller narrative from meditations on racism, media manipulation, moral compromise, and the politics of fear. It references not only ‘The Godfather’ but ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’. The overriding theme is that the pursuit of one’s dreams will necessarily entail messy mistakes and some degree of failure. And that animals of different species (i.e. people of different races/cultures) will more often than not treat each other shittily.
This is a Disney film, folks. A Disney film that’s finally decided to quit sugar-coating it.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
I was toying with the idea of structuring this review around my reading of ‘Hail, Caesar’ as ‘Barton Fink’ meets the gospels, but that would involve identifying Judas’s stand in and therein lies a major spoiler. Let’s just say that an oft-referenced but never seen studio boss is the Coen Brothers’ absent God, Scarlett Johannsen is the Virgin Mary and studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is Everyman and the film itself a chronicle of his long dark night of the soul.
Or you could possibly make a case for Mannix as Jesus, particularly in terms of his temptation, but I prefer the idea of naïve cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenrecih) as Christ, which would seem to work in context of his deliverance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) – a man who falls among, if not thieves, then writers … and communist writers, to boot.
Either way, the film starts with an image of Christ on the cross and ends with a purposefully hackneyed pan up to the firmament, so we’re definitely in religious territory. Mannix has his most soulful conversations in a confessional, and grabs prayer beads and silently implores the Almighty for guidance at his moment of greatest uncertainty. Granted, outside of his faith he happily slaps around anyone whose peccadilloes might bring the studio into disrepute, complicitly pays off kidnappers and deals with rival sibling gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) with the aplomb of Machiavelli, but at heart he’s still Everyman, his path is a difficult one and his decisions don’t come easily.
Religion has always bubbled away in the background in the Coens’ filmography, be it John Goodman’s pseudo-Satan and the corridors of a fleapit hotel as an entryway to hell in ‘Barton Fink’, or the mass baptism in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, but it wasn’t until ‘A Simple Man’ that the theological truly shouldered its way to the forefront. ‘Hail, Caesar’ offers a scene of four religious spokesmen trading ecumenical verbal bitch-slappings that manages to say more about religion than ‘A Simple Man’ does in its entire running time.
Or I could be misconstruing things entirely and ‘Hail, Caesar’ is nothing more than an excuse for Joel and Ethan to restage some of their favourite scenes and genre tropes from the golden age of Hollywood. God knows, they certainly stuff enough of their own back catalogue into the blender. The obvious points of reference are ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’: such narrative as ‘Hail, Caesar’ scrapes together (the film happily introduces all manner of characters, situations, subplots and symbolism only to completely forget them again) is basically a conflation of those two earlier films. But plenty of other moments from the Coen back catalogue are included.
It would, in fact, be very easy to write off ‘Hail, Caesar’ as the Coens doing sloppy, second-rate Coen copyism, but that misses out on how entertaining the whole big stupid shaggy dog story is. How entertaining and how intelligent. Weaving McCarthyism, socio-political debate, economics, faith, doubt, moral elasticity and spiritual angst into the fabric of its (un)reality, the Coens’ script is an exercise in Big Concepts played out against a deliberately superficial backdrop. Oh, and it’s laugh out loud funny for a good 80% of its running time.
A plot synopsis would be a self-defeating exercise, so I’m not going there. Analysis of individual performances? All over the place, from Clooney being spectacularly in on the joke and owning every scene he’s in, to Brolin effectively anchoring the film without actually doing anything he hasn’t done a dozen times already, to Jonah Hill in a cameo that proves that once you’ve worked for Scorsese you can blag your way into any prestige production, to complete unknown Ehrenreich basically writing himself a cheque for his entire Hollywood career in one magnificently conceptualised performance. An extended scene where Ehrenreich’s total rube and Ralph Fiennes’s snootily sophisticated director play off each other is pure delight on a level the Coens haven’t delivered in a good few years.
It’s a profoundly deep film and utterly throwaway at one and the same time. It’s about a lot of things and adds up to something slightly less than sweet fuck all. There’s a scene of the communist writers at rest, two of them demurely completing a jigsaw together, only the last piece doesn’t fit. That’s the whole film, right there.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
‘The Forest’ has two things going for it which promised much: an opportunity for Natalie Dormer, an underused and often miscast performer, to demonstrate her range in a dual role; and a narrative hook inspired by Japan’s actual “suicide forest”, Aokigahara. About 18 months ago on this blog I reviewed Santiago Stelly’s 21-minute documentary on the forest and the propensity of the suicidal to make it their “goodnight Vienna” spot of choice; it’s a calm and eloquent documentary on a deeply unsettling subject that’s remained with me.
The prospect of the appealing Dormer in a psychological horror movie with Aokigahara as its setting was irresistible. And for the first hour of its 93-minute running time, it seemed to deliver.
The opening is a textbook exercise in economical storytelling, setting up privileged American Sara (Dormer) and her unpredictable, emotionally unstable twin sister Jess (Dormer). Alerted by Japanese authorities that Jess has disappeared and that the last sighting of her was close to Aokigahara, Sara flies out to Japan despite the assurances of chinless wonder boyfriend Rob (Eoin Macken) that everything will resolve itself. Adrift in a totally alien culture, Sara struggles to piece together the minutae of Jess’s life. Dormer is extremely good at balancing Sara’s confusion and frustration while suggesting a tenacious inner strength. On paper, Sara is a pretty thankless role – the conceptually more interesting Jess is given little screen time – but Dormer’s performance, understated and nuanced, makes her an empathetic and appealing heroine.
Seeds of folklore and superstition that inform the latter stretches of the film are liberally scattered in an effective scene where Sara visits the school at which Jess taught English. The pupils react hysterically, taking Sara for Jess’s ghost.
Continued narrative economy whisks Sara to Aokigahara, where she encounters Australian journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who listens empathetically to her story and promptly realises he’s got a fucking great human interest article on his hands. Bartering with Sara for the rights to said article – and inveigling a shedload of expository background information on her relationship with Jess – Aiden introduces her to Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), an unofficial sort of park ranger who makes sweeps of Aokigahara looking for either the recently deceased (whose position he marks so their bodies can be recovered) or those who are still undecided (Michi does his best to dissuade them from ending it).
At this point, director Jason Zada starts making wholesale borrowings from the Santiago Stelly documentary and ‘The Forest’ takes its first lurch towards a massive quality control downscale. Some cod psychology about the psychic connection between Sara and Jess has already come into play, and a bit of ham-fisted backstory about a family tragedy that Jess witnessed but Sara didn’t is horribly realised in the film’s first truly bad scene.
Unfortunately, things get worse. The decision – presumably a sop to the US and UK markets – to make Aiden the companion to Sara’s long dark night of the soul in Aokigahara rather than the thematically more appropriately Michi more than indicate that he’d have been a fascinating, grounded and pragmatic foil to Sara’s increasing susceptibility to the forest’s supposed demons. As it is, however, we have Aiden as possible-saviour-possible-villain depending on how screwily the forest demons are messing with Sara’s mind at any given time.
Then there’s the revelation about the tragedy that defined Jess’s self-destructive tendencies. It’s the cheesiest of melodramatic reveals that would have required Sirkian levels of histrionics to even attempt to pass itself off to an audience with a collective IQ of more than a single figure. As it is, Zada delivers it with such boilerplate indifference that the film doesn’t so much go off the rails as recreate the Tay Bridge disaster. A twist involving Jess and a last-minute scare moment that might have been effective in the late 80s don’t help matters either.
‘The Forest’ is one of those screamingly difficult films to review: it starts so promisingly – not earth-shatteringly great or iconoclastically different, but good enough in all the fundamentals that the audience has every reason to expect that it’s going to build and develop and play off in a way that will be truly effective. That it doesn’t is galling enough; that it has to reach for quite so many clichés in order to patch together a finale that nonetheless spirals into abject mediocrity is a kick in the teeth.
I can’t in all honesty recommend ‘The Forest’. Which is a pisser, because I want to. I want its damned good first hour to be enough to offset the shit sandwich of its last 30 minutes. I want to herald it as a vehicle for Natalie Dormer’s talents. I want to champion it as the underdog of this year’s horror releases. But it is so determinedly awful in its closing stretches that I can’t. A shame: its setting and its star deserve better.