Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 13, 2016 9:28 pm 
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Choreographing chaos

We are living in a world that's growing less democratic, so the long-delayed filming of J.G. Ballard's Seventies novel with its class-conflict theme is not inappropriate. Whether Ballard's typically chilly and high-concept treatment is totally relevant to any time or place is uncertain; anyway, Wheatley and his usual collaborator Amy Jump have transformed it in their own way, although it might have been nice if they'd let more of their old wince-inducing brutality seep in to add edge. It's set in a cluster of tall new buildings where the rich live at the top and income declines as one goes down and it's turning to chaos, not a revolution so much as madness induced by the strange disorder of the building itself.

Wheatley really changes with every film, but may necessarily seem less himself in an adaptation from a famous writer that's glitzier than ever before, much more elaborate, and with name actors. For me it takes some getting used to because while it is a more expensive production with rich and beautiful mise-en-scène, it lacks the bite of Wheatley's more raw previous fims, which had more in common with David Michôd's Animal Kingdom, whereas this reminded me of Gilliam's Brazil. What unfolds is an elaborate spectacle containing many dry ironies.

The film opens on a scene of apocalyptic squalor, with the hero in a space that looks like a party disrupted by a mass of hooligans, roasting the haunch of a dog on his balcony. We flip back to three months earlier when everything is relatively pristine. At the center there's Tom Hiddleston. He is a suave, immaculate mannikin as Laing, a rich single neurolotist, a new arrival at the high-rise first seen very fit in the buff; Jeremy Irons always in white as Royal, the indifferent, off-hand and lordly architect and boss of it all who resides in the penthouse, Sienna Miller and Eizabeth Moss assured in important feminine roles, both drawn to Laing.

Right above Laing's 25th-floor flat is Charlotte (Miller), a randy boho single mother (when she sees naked Laing she calls him "an excellent specimen") with a brilliant young son, Toby (Louis Suc). Several floors below is angry, ambitious, heavily sideburned documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans) with his heavily pregnant wife (Elizabeth Moss of "Mad Men," looking beautiful and flashing an English accent). As the social order in he building degenerates, seemingly touched off by malfunctions of everything, Wilder becomes a crazed revolutionary leader, half-man, half-beast; eventually the whole scene will be of bestial violence.

A revolutionary order is established with the imperious detachment of Royal whose wife (Keeley Hewes) rides a white horse on the elaborate roooftop garden garbed as a shepherdess, à la Marie Antoinette.

When things start getting crazy about halfway through its two hours, the film is up to it. But are we? That is the question. The film delivers the novel's growing chaos so elaborately that it's cloying and pretty confusing to watch. Ballard's usual cold, lucid spareness has been lost in the interest of a grand and glorious squalor that is intermittently enjoyable but confusing. Wheatley & Co. have moved to a higher level, for sure. Their earlier features, Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, all but the last, a strange period film that shiftied gears, were lean, mean, highly focused depictions of English mayhem and nastiness. One misses that in High-Rise. Chaos is hard to choreograph. But there's a world of talent here. The film is beautifully shot by Wheatley regular Laurie Rose, bringing to life Mark Tildesley's handsome and original production design. Clint Mansell's score is effective at giving a sense of the places and things coming to menacing life. And everyone is good, the constant wrangling of crowds working as in the aforementioned Brazil.

Reviews have been very mixed. Will Self, who was a friend of Ballard, has a very favorable piece about the film in The New Statesman. The Guardian has three pieces: Henry Barnes is not unkind, but rates it only 2/5 stars, while both Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode are admiring and both give it 4/5 and made it their film of the week. Upon its 6 April Paris release French critics haven't been so favorable (AlloCiné press rating only 2.7 based on 21 reviews); Metacritic has come up with a fair but not brilliant 62. They cite Stephen Dalton's rather nice compromise from Hollywood Reporter that sums things up pretty well for me too: "an ambitious, brilliant failure." Which means it must be seen even if in part it may frustrate; and it may be much savored later in bits.

High-Rise, 119 mins.,"shunned" by Cannes (Dalton), debuted at Toronto, with other fests, including at the end of the cycle San Francisco and Tribeca 20 Apr. and San Francisco (30 Apr., Castro). Distributed by Magnolia, US Internet release 28 April 2016., theaters 13 May.

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