Tag Archives: Film

High-Rise is a deliciously cynical elevator ride through hell

[This review was originally posted at Nerdly as part of my London Film Festival coverage.]

First we’re given a glimpse of the end: Tom Hiddleston’s neurosurgeon Robert Laing calmly sifting through the filth-strewn hallways of his tower block, encountering a dead man with a TV smashed over his head…and cooking a dog’s leg. This is director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s subtle way of telling us that this isn’t where we’re going as a society, despite High-Rise ostensibly being a period piece; it’s where we are right now, and we better get comfortable.

Discomfort is the main order of the day, though, as Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s dystopian novel about climbing the social ladder is given to mayhem from pretty early on without order. Upon moving into the titular tower block, the reserved but disciplined Dr. Laing is quickly introduced to the hierarchy of the building by Sienna Miller’s neighbour Charlotte: the obscenely wealthy live at the top, throwing decadent parties, riding horses and maintaining gardens; the middle classes are in the centre, their sizable apartments half-filled and hallways becoming venues for petty squabbles about rubbish disposal; and the poorer residents occupy the bottom, trying to scrape a living to support their children and afford service charges for power that is often switched off at a whim.

Initially wanting only to keep himself to himself, Laing quickly becomes entangled in the politics of his building. The two main ideologies at war are represented by Luke Evans’ philandering filmmaker, perpetually drunk and rowdy, and Jeremy Irons’ architect Royal, who built the blocks that now pepper the skyline and hopes they will act as a catalyst for change. The only problem is that, living on the roof of the building as he and his nostalgia-obsessed wife (Keeley Hawes as both peacock and caged bird) are, he’s oblivious as to what kind of change will actually happen.

After a number of ugly incidents mar the uneasy peace between the different levels, a full-on gang war breaks out between rich and poor (and eventually, when food grows scarce, between everyone), though Laing attempts to stay apart from the madness. Hiddleston plays him with a masterful restraint that steadily cracks to reveal both his distaste for the hedonistic upper classes and undeniable desire to be on top. Most other characters don’t try so hard to mask their feelings: Charlotte casually ends a sexual encounter with Hiddleston after he tells her he “thought we were doing this” by saying, “we’ve already done it”; Ann Royal calls Laing a dilettante to his face after he arrives at her powdered-wigs costume party in black tie. Though High-Rise offers obvious villains, its archetypes are completely intentional, the escalating debauchery (and, more shocking, acceptance) of everyone’s actions all serves to illustrate a black-tongued, comical critique of society and is all the more intoxicating for its directness.

All of this is filmed in claustrophobic close-ups by Wheatley & co., especially in the corridors where most of the anarchy takes place. Flats are havens for the characters like the elite, who relax in orgiastic ignorance while the distant angles and classical versions of pop songs (shout out to Abba’s SOS, which receives two hilariously subversive covers) serve to separate them from the reality beneath their feet.

But Laing’s home, too, is his sanctum santorum, one which he devotes a disturbing amount of time and energy to decorating. He’s trying to achieve material perfection, right down to the clothes he wears (and insists he must keep on, even after having sex with Elisabeth Moss’s heavily pregnant Helen), and by the end it could be argued that he’s achieved just that. One great success of Wheatley’s direction is to make Laing a compelling lead without becoming hero or villain – in a film where almost everyone commits ugly acts, the man who stands and waits for the dust to settle is both the smartest, coldest and dangerous person you could hope to meet.

High-Rise is out in UK cinemas today.

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Sex and death are the gin and vodka of spy movies, especially since James Bond punned his way onto the scene. Their connection is mostly slight and subtextual, the suggestion being that the (usually male) protagonist is always teetering on the brink of their mortality and has to make the most of what little life they might have left. By cheesily coercing some naive girl or gleefully sadistic warrior woman into shagging them, naturally.

In Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond has sex with two women immediately after killing one or more dangerous men:

  1. The first is Monica Bellucci as Lucia, a grieving widow having returned home from her husband’s funeral. Bond quickly dispatches the men without blinking, to which Lucia tells him that he’s scarcely bought her five minutes.
    “Just enough time for a drink, then,” he sleazes. They barely manage a sip of champagne before he’s all over her, and the next scene shows Craig getting dressed after the two have had sex. He doesn’t have much interest in her now, which is nothing new.
  2. The next is Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann, a supposedly brilliant psychiatrist who still decides to attach herself to a professional killer. She had initially pre-empted Bond’s advances, but he didn’t actually seem all that interested.However, after she and 007 manage to throw a burly henchman off a train, they lay on the floor, trying to catch their breath after the fight. In a moment that wouldn’t be out of step with a Zucker Bros. movie, she turns to Bond and asks, “What do we do now?” before the film cuts to the pair of them rolling around in their cabin.

“Same old Bond,” you might think. But contrast this with the opening scene, in which he accompanies a woman, Estrella, to her bedroom where she takes to the bed, expecting him to join her. Instead James is out the window with a machine gun, skipping along the Mexico City roofs like he’s got a date with destiny. He even tells Estrella he “won’t be long” when she asks where he’s going. Scant minutes later he’s taken out several baddies(not to mention a couple of buildings too) and is happily chucking pilots out of helicopters.

Bond’s carnal desires have nothing to do with his sexuality any more. It’s not about women or men; it’s about murder. He has so entangled the processes of killing and screwing that he literally can’t have one without the other. That’s what gets his blood up: to him, killing is sex (to quote Mason Lang from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles: “every scene is a sex scene”), and the shag is a post-coital cigarette.

He isn’t interested in Estrella because he hasn’t gotten off yet.

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A Few Words On The Act Of Killing

From my Letterboxd review, which contains spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen The Act of Killing yet, I suggest you stop what you’re doing and watch it. Right now. Here’s why I want to force it upon you:

“The final scene of this documentary involves its lead subject standing in the place where he used to torture and kill people, retching over and over, having just come to emotional terms with the horrific acts he perpetrated almost 50 years ago. As he bent over a low wall, guttural noises escaping from his throat, all I could think was that I wanted him to just throw up already. But he didn’t. He was never going to satisfy me by blowing chunks on screen.

And that says it all; in The Act of Killing, nobody gets what they want. We never get to see these monsters – who, horrifyingly, turn out to be real people – brought to justice for the genocide they committed in 1965. We see them acknowledge what they did, sometimes only partially, sometimes with mixed feelings, but never an admission of guilt, which a lesser documentary would likely demand of them.

But just as we are unsatisfied, so too are the subjects of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film. They’re the ones in power, yes, but they’re haunted by nightmares of the atrocities they were part of, and even if they project themselves as hard-as-nails bastards, it’s evident the whole thing is an act. They set the stage for themselves half a century ago, and now they have to perform it for the rest of their lives, whether they can handle it or not. They may not confess it, but they’ll never escape it. And that’s the best sentence anyone’s going to get.

A film of tremendous bravery, beauty and genuine importance, The Act Of Killing ought to be essential viewing for every human.”

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Blue is the Warmest Colour

I saw Blue is the Warmest Colour in a packed Picturehouse cinema the other day. It was impossible to go into that film – as is the case with pretty much every movie at present – without being all too aware of the hype and pseudo-controversy that surrounds it, and as such it was pretty difficult not to be disappointed by much of it, though the combination of being sat on the second row from the front in a subtitled film and said film having a 180-minute running time may have contributed to a certain exhaustion I felt by the time the credits rolled.

A primer for those not in the know: Blue follows lead Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a French high-schooler and ravenous eater, over the course of several years as she experiments with her sexuality and falls in and out of a very intense love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a slightly older woman.

That’s more or less it, and the trailer gives you a pretty good sense of the tone – if not the pace – of the thing:

I’m not going to go into any great detail, but I’ll just mention where I think Blue is the Warmest Colour works best and where I think it fails.

Good things first: the film is most alive, vibrant and emotionally engaging when there’s conflict on screen. Whether it’s Adele getting into a fight with a former friend over her closeted lesbianism outside the school gates or Emma forcing a tortured confession of adultery out of her soon to be ex-lover, never more than in these scenes does the movie feel like it’s got a full-blooded, racing pulse and makes me need to know what happens next. Of course, it makes sense – story is conflict, as the old maxim goes.

Which is why great swathes of the film don’t work quite as well, being given as they are to languorous passages where nothing of great import happens…very slowly. The heightened moments are too few and much too far between to work as effective punctuation in between the extended lulls. Adele might be eating spaghetti with her family while they watch TV, for example, or we might be treated to one of the many graphic, overlong sex scenes between her and Emma which, after the first minute of the first one – don’t further the story or tell us anything new about their relationship. These scenes actually end up being so long that the context of where they belong in the story and just become short, exquisitely shot sex movies.

I suppose that might be the point of them after all – the characters are so lost in each other, both emotionally and physically, that we fall into that world as well – but I really never felt like I knew either of the central characters well enough to get that intimate with them and was left feeling pretty cold by these sequences. Add to that my creeping concern that the director (Abdellatif Kechiche, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ghalya LaCroix from Julie Maroh’s comic) is much more interested in Adele’s body than her mind and Blue is the Warmest Colour takes on an unnervingly pervy perspective at certain points: Adele is constantly shown in close up, often eating insatiably (at one point she even tries to consume Emma’s hand); similarly, we’re subjected to several scenes that contain little but Adele dancing to music for minutes at a time; and opportunities for gratuitous nude shots are taken without hesitation, e.g. the leery vertical pan of the lead’s whole naked body as she showers.

There’s merit to the film, for sure: I admire the naturalism of the performances and the construction and deconstruction of a relationship are well-told, even beautiful at moments, but it all too often feels like being beautiful is the aim of the game instead of something with more substance.

At one point, a male character talks about the “mysticism” of a woman’s experience during sex, comparing it to a transcendental moment of bliss and something profound. The female characters present scoff at this, but I suspect that Kechiche aligns his beliefs much more with the former than the latter and can’t help but feel that another director – most likely a woman – could have created a much more accurate representation of female sexuality.

As a final thought, I’d like to offer up Frances Ha as a much shorter, richer and genuine exploration of female relationships, both with other women and men. Written by its star, Greta Gerwig, and director, Noah Baumbach, the story it tells feels much more on the same level as its characters, dealing in their mundanity, neurotic failures and minor triumphs with warm humour and pathos rather than – like Blue is the Warmest Colour – attempting to give epic weight to drab family dinners and keeping an oxymoronically scrutinising yet distant eye on its players.

The two certainly wouldn’t play together well as a double bill but are well worth comparing, especially given that there’s a much more complete story told in Frances Ha‘s 90 minutes, half the length of Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s appropriate that the film’s original French title translates as The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2* given that it’s got about as open an ending as you could ask for and really feels like it could do with a proper conclusion…not that I’m asking for (or even really interested in) a Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight-type continuation here.

Actually, here’s my final final thought: there’s a great movie hiding in Blue is the Warmest Colour, but a skilled editor – like Michaelangelo staring at a hunk of marble – would need to cut at least an hour out of the film to find it.

*Such a pretentious title. Why two chapters? Why does a life only warrant two instalments? Fun fact: Julie Maroh’s original comic (which is actually only credited as “freely inspiring” the film) translates to the movie’s English title, which to me stinks of Kechiche wanting to take even more ownership of the project than he already had. But that might just be me.

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So there was this short film shown at the Toronto Film Festival a lot of sites were buzzing about in late September that I only clocked the other day because I’m terrible at keeping up with film news and who looks out for short film buzz from major festivals anyhow?

Anyway, it’s called Noah and it’s a 17-minute long student movie (written & directed by Walter Woodman & Patrick Cederberg) about internet relationships, and in spite of everything I just said, it’s actually pretty compelling. It takes an interesting conceit – showing everything from the perspective of the protagonist’s Mac screen – and does a pretty effective job of replicating young people’s attention-disordered experience of using the internet while also managing to tell a coherent, if flawed, story.

Check it out here if you’re interested (but two signposts: there are Spanish subtitles because none of the original embeds I found worked any more; and Chatroulette features in the second half, so be ready for dick):

There you have it. What did you think?

I thought it was, at times, a scarily accurate reflection of modern social interactions and felt just as uncomfortable being a voyeur to Noah’s online activities as I was kind of fascinated. I’ve never hacked another Facebook account before but I can certainly relate to the kind of social paranoia that’s produced by only seeing manufactured snapshots of other people’s lives. That’s mostly why I left the other day, in fact.

The characters felt real enough, even if their actions and dialogue weren’t immediately relatable (Noah’s chat friend Kanye’s trollish patois especially made me want to hurt things), and the filmmakers do a fine job of building a sense of escalating dread until the central Pandora’s Box of a revelation which evokes a kind of cold betrayal, the likes of which are reserved for discoveries made in shoeboxes full of love letters or, indeed, private message threads.

I didn’t enjoy the last half as much as the first as it seemed to absolve Noah of his mistakes and suggest that he wouldn’t need to look outside of his computer for companionship or even his next relationship. Also, the resolution of the plot thread involving Dylan was lazy and seemed entirely tacked-on to facilitate…I’m not sure what; sympathy for Noah that he made a dumb mistake?

/Film quoted filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg as suggesting Noah could be “this generation’s John Hughes movie”, which I find very hard to swallow. Sure, there are the awkward, uncertain interactions between teenagers and a believable world for the young characters to inhabit, but the final conversation and resolution felt so much more insincere and frankly pretty cringeworthy than anything JH ever did (Maid in Manhattan aside).

Hughes’ films had their leads change into better, wiser people and make startling realisations about who they were and what they wanted, but no-one actually changes or acknowledges their own behaviour in Noah, which might actually be why it’s such an interesting (and slightly frightening) piece of work.

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Hilarious Teen Sex Fantasy

So I reviewed a Norwegian teen coming-of-age sex comedy kind of thing called Turn Me On, Dammit for Nerdly. It was pretty good, and my piece on it is one of the funnier things I’ve written for the site, I reckon:

Realistically I think I still enjoy these stories because, despite having been legally adult for quite some time, I still haven’t quite come of age yet and can still find something to relate to.

In Turn Me On, Goddammit, that thing happens to be the sexual fantasies of a 15-year old Norwegian girl. Okay, I think I might have lost some of you there. But stick with me.

You can read it here. If that kind of thing turns you on. My first collaborative comics-review post with Jack Kirby should be up today or tomorrow, which I’m kind of excited about, if only because my writing will likely be elevated by Jack’s infectious enthusiasm and economic wit.

[Oh, and I did finish that first draft the other week. I’ll post something about it and my writers’ group’s reaction tomorrow.]

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Things Mark Has Written Recently

Does what it says on the tin: here are a bunch of things I’ve written for Nerdly (née Blogomatic 3000) in the past week or so.

Warriors of the Steppe: Myn Bala review, in which a bunch of Kazakhstanis fart about on horses and some people related to Genghis Khan get stabbed a bit.

Baise-Moi review, in which a couple of French sex workers go on a lust- and booze-fuelled murderous road trip and nobody learns much of anything in a movie made thirteen years ago that looks like something Scorsese might have shat out as a teenager. Except that probably would have had some subtext. And a bunch of crucifixes.

Knightriders review, in which George A. Romero makes a movie in which medieval knights (in Pennsylvania) joust each other on motorcycles and nobody dies. Well, okay, one person dies. But there aren’t any zombies or crazy people. Well, okay, there’s one crazy person.

[It’s you if you don’t want to watch this movie by now]

Panel Discussion – X-Men: Legacy, in which I talk about a great new comic that doesn’t particularly feel like an X-Men comic or even a Marvel book. You should read it!

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Trailer Porn

I wrote some more things about Stoker for Blogomatic 3000. They might be interesting to you, if you’re interested in interesting things. Don’t know what I’m talking about? This movie, that’s what:

For contrast’s sake, here’s a trailer for the director’s last movie:

Thirst is quite, quite brilliant, and I’m interested to see how much overlap there is between the two movies when I rewatch it tonight. Really smart, inventive vampire movies are few and far between these days, alas.

Dumb realisation that just hit me: Park Chan-Wook made a vampire movie and followed it with one called Stoker. I’m sure it’s coincidence, but that might just make it more interesting. Psychic connections and all that.

Oh, and one thing I left out of my Stoker review: Nicole Kidman was great playing an uptight high society wife simmering with repressed sexuality, but through conversations with Tariq we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s largely due to the fact that she’s been playing that character for a while now (see: Eyes Wide Shut, The Others, etc.).

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Cold, darkly comic, unnervingly romantic: these descriptions can be applied to most of Park Chan-Wook’s back catalogue. So can themes of broken families, revenge and the haunting nature of the past. He’s an auteur filmmaker, if you’re the kind of person who believes in auteurs. All those elements can just as easily be extracted from Stoker, but this film stands apart because Park made it in English, set in the US and featuring western actors…although three of the cast are Australian, which is kind of closer to Asia so I guess they’re not really western?

Hell, you get the picture. It’s a movie about rich white folks, which is the broadest departure for Park. What isn’t a departure, apart from the list above, is his eye for interesting composition, fetish for textile patterns and striking blocking in action and high-tension sequences.

So why go see it if it’s just the same as all his other stuff? Well, it’s not. Despite all the similarities it’s still as compelling and unsettling and unexpected as anything else he’s done before. I won’t go into the story here, because that’s really not what this film is about; it’s about the tone, and Stoker‘s will make you feel a little bit sick in the best way.

(Oh, and the language gap? Not even a bit of the problem. The dialogue is stilted in places, but that’s much more to do with the characters and is pretty much the point. Nothing to worry about.)

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The Short Film Experiment #2 – Notions

So it’s a CHASE MOVIE.

Reasons to make a short chase film:

1. I’ve never seen a live-action one before, and I’d like there to be a really good one out there.

We should bear in mind that I am a criminal underviewer of short film in general and have probably seen >1% of all the short films out there on the interverse. But that said, I have seen a bunch, and none of them was a kick-ass chase movie.

2. Chase scenes in features are a) usually pretty damn cool and exciting and b) reasonably hard to pull off successfully. If I’m going to be telling you all about this process, I might as well make it a challenge. I’m not saying it would be necessarily easy to make a Coffee and Cigarettes-style dialogue-heavy vignette (for one thing it could be really boring, as per reason 3). But it’s certainly less likely to reduce more than half of the on-set crew to tears and/or fits of rage*.

3. More than half (made-up statistic) of all short films suffer from a lack of visual flair, which is sad and irritating because you’d imagine that with a significantly shorter running time than a feature you would want to pour every stylistic technique you’ve got into that single-figure timeframe.

Again, it’s not guaranteed that the film’s going to look interesting or be in any way compelling, but it certainly forces you into a situation where you know it will definitely look absolutely rubbish unless you up your game.

4. Chase scenes make perfect sense as short films to me. The goal of the main characters is clear: either they want to catch somebody (or something) or not get caught themselves, and by the end they either do or don’t. Some action movies just stretch this premise over 100 or so minutes and add nuances of plot and character amid varying action set-pieces, but when it boils down to it, The Bourne Identity is a chase movie, as is Vanishing Point – some would argue the chase movie – and I don’t think it’s too crazy a notion to suggest that pertinent points of either flick could be condensed into a killer chase short.

5. Chase scenes that drag on suck, as do short films. The lesson for both? Brevity rules. So that’s what I’m going for.

Good reasons all, I’d say. In the interest of transparency, here are the key ideas I’ve come up with for the story so far:

  • A couple.
  • A bathtub.
  • A clothesline.
  • Some nudity.

And that’s it. There are other, less clear images of running and yelling and falling but I’m sure you already saw that coming, you smart buggers.

I guess we’ll next talk when I have a clearer idea of who/what/where/why. I’m toying with the idea of writing an outline – a short (less than a page) prose synopsis of the flick which I sometimes like to do if the idea isn’t already crystal clear in my head – but I think I’d rather go from story ideas to the first draft to give more a sense of progression. And besides, writing chase scenes in prose can be really bloody boring unless you’re Cormac McCarthy.

‘Til  next time, folks.

(Yes, the rubbish title stays. For now, at least.)

*Actually that depends on how much of a Jim Jarmusch fan you are, I guess.

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