Out This Week
High-Rise (StudioCanal, cert 15)
JG Ballard’s dystopian novels – Super-Cannes, Cocaine Nights and High Rise among them – tend to be long on premise, short on follow-through. That’s the case too in this film adaptation by Ben Wheatley, the British maverick director behind Sightseers. Set in an entirely allegorical high rise block, Wheatley’s film follows Tom Hiddleston – dressed as ever in his slightly over-tailored suit – as he arrives to live in the block where the more social status you have, the higher up you live. Just above Tom is foxy Sienna Miller, who is eager to lend Hiddleston her loins once she’s caught sight of his splendid body (extra status points for that) while he’s sunbathing on his balcony. Right at the top is the building’s architect – Jeremy Irons in another of his roles of haughty disain, and who better. While down in the bowels is rough oik Luke Evans, a horny-handed malcontent somehow involved in fomenting revolution. Subtle as a brick it may be conceptually, but High-Rise is beautifully done, the standout being the 1970s production design, all boxy cars, brown wallpaper and the obsession with shag pile. At first it appears that Wheatley is aiming for Clockwork Orange Kubrick, but as the film progresses and starts to lose narrative force, High-Rise starts morphing into something more like Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982), a state-of-the-nation drama whose sour, blunt satirical stabs never quite cohered into effective drama. In High-Rise, similarly, as if from nowhere, and for reasons we don’t understand, the lower orders are rising up against the guy at the top of the block and Hiddleston – a “brain expert” is how he’s amusingly described – is being asked to decide whose side he’s on. If you buy Hiddleston as a member of the comfortable middle classes, then the metaphor for “what’s wrong with this society” (a New Left position, essentially, the middle classes mistakenly identifying with the their rich overlords) might hold. But even so the feeling persists that there’s a 20 minute chunk of this film sitting somewhere on the digital cutting room floor. Entertaining enough, in other words, but what really was going on? Was that it?
Mustang (Curzon, cert 15)
Because Mustang is a film from Turkey – a country declared by its founder Kemal Ataturk to be a western-facing, non-theocratic state – and because it’s about five beautiful Muslim sisters being put under virtual house arrest after being spotted cavorting innocently with boys, it’s had an easy time at western festivals and arrives here garlanded with awards and an Oscar nomination. And for sure there’s a propagandistic purpose behind Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s drama following this family of sparky beauties with extravagantly free-flowing hair as they are, one by one, shoehorned into wife-and-mother roles and married off. “The house became a wife factory,” says the youngest of the lot, Lale, through whose eyes this story – more nuanced than you might initially expect – plays out. Which brings us to the matter of the cinematography (David Chizallet and Ersin Gok) and the soundtrack (Warren Ellis, of Grinderman and Bad Seeds fame). Both are achingly gorgeous and drip with the sort of honey you might drizzle over thick Turkish yoghurt. Is this deliberate, as a counterpoint to what we’re watching – girls being brutally driven to hospital when it’s suspected their virginity might be compromised – to make the dramatic point even more forcefully? Or is it more a suggestion that the world of the arranged marriage has its sweet side? One daughter, the eldest, Sonay, does actually get the guy she wants. Or are the wafty visuals and floaty sounds a representation of the dreamlike childhood which these girls are leaving? A bit of all three, I thought. Should you want to, you can take the film as an anti-religious tract, but really it’s more about conservative rural societies versus progressive urbanites rather than any “war on Islam”. And you can ignore that idea too, if you just want an entertaining film for the night, full of attractive young women, thick with fine acting and with a couple of genuinely tense plot twists that almost propel it into the realm of the thriller.
10 Cloverfield Lane (Paramount, cert 12)
So the word “Cloverfield” is in the title, which makes it an alien invasion drama, right? Not so fast. We meet the heroine – cool Mary Elizabeth Winstead – in her car, then again waking up in the bunker of John Goodman. He claims there’s been an alien invasion and that he hasn’t abducted her but saved her, that the air outside is poisonous, but not to worry since he has enough food down there to last them…. ooh, years. Backing him up is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), the guy who helped this “blackbelt in conspiracy theory” to build the bunker and who is down there of his own volition. So which is it – abduction or aliens? Alongside the name JJ Abrams on the production credits is that of Drew Goddard, a master of this sort of genre tweaking (he wrote Cabin in the Woods, most memorably). And that’s what 10 Cloverfield Lane is, a film plaing “guess the genre” with its audience. So, in other words, I’m going to reveal no more plot details. Winstead works well as a relatable independent-minded young woman, a notch up from the usual scream queen and the sort of role that Julia Stiles used to be the go-to for, and Goodman also reminds us why he’s in such demand – this is real tightrope stuff, with just a twitch or a slump of the shoulders he will give the game away. He never does. Though in retrospect… So, beyond its genre trickery what do we have? A well made, brilliantly played and efficient film with lots of procedural detail about Winstead working her way towards the truth. Ultimately, though, it’s a shocker that’s the equivalent of a newspaper article which can’t quite live up to its great headline. A high concept thriller that can’t get past its high concept because its high concept, in a sense, is all it’s about. Good, crafty, enjoyable fun on a bijou scale.
London Has Fallen (Lionsgate, cert 15)
Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were such similar films that it’s easy to get confused. In the spirit of public service, I remind you that Olympus Has Fallen was the one in which sidelined security guy Gerard Butler saved US president Aaron Eckhart’s skin; in White House Down it was Channing Tatum doing the same for Prez Jamie Foxx. Both were big and dumb but only one of them has made it to a sequel. No prizes. So here we are, and from the title you’d expect London to be the locus of the same level of collateral devastation that was visited upon the White House last time. Now, while there is quite a lot of that going on here, the film is actually not too interested in the death of lots of Londoners or the destruction of many a picture-postcard landmark. Because, hell, the US President (Aaron Eckhart again) is in town with his best bodyguard (Gerard Butler) and is under attack. A battlefield movie is the result, with the two men scurrying from foxhole to foxhole across the UK capital while bad guys takes potshots at them. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, and that’s because director Babak Najafi is in charge and he shows the same gift for action and pacing that he brought to Easy Money II (a sequel as good as, if not better, than an original). Beneath a command for switching points of view and a restless camera influenced by video games, Najafi has the gimlet understanding that the dumber a film is, the faster it needs to move. And boy is this dumb and fast. Also, Butler’s character has been tweaked to remove any shred of irony – never one of his strengths. Now he’s little more than a boiling bucket of testosterone of unparalleled masculinity – in terms of balls he outranks the president of the USA, and the clincher comes when a bunch of SAS guys (the toughest of the tough) turn up, order Butler to follow them, but instead end up falling in behind him, because his aura of manly command is just too impossible to gainsay. Add in the reacharound scene that’s been edited out, surely, and it’s the world’s first covert-ops gay action movie. Politics students will enjoy Butler’s cogent assessment of the bigger situation that’s playing out on the streets of Blighty – “Why don’t you guys just pack up your shit and go back to Fuckheadistan or wherever you’re from,” as he says to the leader of the terrorists seeking payback for the killing of his family by US drone. Yes, dig deep and there is actually a surprisingly nuanced appraisal of recent US foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East. But mostly you’ll be watching our hero doing stuff like sticking a knife in an enemy’s eye socket or trapping him half in-half-out the door of a car as it speeds towards the brick pier of a bridge. Ouch.
Anomalisa (Curzon, cert 15)
There are two conceits in Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s latest nervous breakdown as cinematic entertainment. The first is that he’s used Disney’s rotoscope technique (see Snow White) – as did Richard Linklater in his drug-drama Waking Life – to create a two-dimensional, dull, affectless world. The second is that all the featureless characters in this bland world of smalltalkers are voiced by Tom Noonan. It’s the flatlining exteriorisation of the interior life of a customer services guru that we’re watching, one of only two people in the film not voiced by Noonan and played by David Thewlis as a professor in Cincinatti to talk about his book How May I Help You to Help Them. Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a guy bridling against this sea of beige and desperate to reconnect to some, any, sort of feeling. He calls an old flame and when she turns up she is also voiced by Noonan and so Michael suggests the only thing that might break his mental logjam – whether it is him or them, we’re never entirely sure. He suggests sex. The old flame, still bitter about the break up years before, and possibly expecting dinner and a show first, tells him to sling his hook. At which point he meets Lisa, who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. “Anomalisa”, he calls her, because she is a bright, lively anomaly in this sea of acquiescence, though her name also suggests anomie, and this being Kaufman (who wrote Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, most pertinently), the name is probably mirroring Michael Stone’s lawless mental state – he’s hardly a good guy, and for all his woe-is-me moping his modus operandi is to use people and then ditch them – How May You Help Me to Help Me (which is, let’s face it, what corporate customer relations are really all about). But never mind all that, is the film any good? Well, watching a depressed man walk towards nervous collapse has its fans, but I’m not one of them, though Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson’s vision is bleakly entertaining, and the pair of them throw in an undressing/seduction scene that is entirely gripping because it’s so believable. Watch the film once and be beguiled. I doubt you’ll want to watch it twice.
Couple in a Hole (Verve, cert 12)
Like Snakes on a Plane, here’s a title that explains the plot of the film. A couple in a hole. Kate Dickie and Paul Higgins play the pair, a Scottish couple in France, we later deduce, after Karen (Dickie) gets ill and John (Higgins) heads into town to buy medicine. There he meets André, a helpful Frenchman (Jérôme Kircher) and the two make a very tentative bond. This Scottish couple may well be living in a hole in the ground in the woods but it soon becomes apparent that only she really wants to be there; he is there to be with her, because he’s a loyal husband. This strange small drama becomes a four-hander when we start getting glimpses of the Frenchman’s home life and of his wife Celine (Corinne Masiero) – “Why are you going to see them again?” she asks him mysteriously. “Them?” “Again?” All is eventually revealed. Director Tom Geens keeps his cards close to his chest in terms of plot and is similarly downbeat in his sunless shooting choices. It’s the scenes between John and André that make the whole thing worthwhile, as two intensely wary men pace around each other unsure whether to commit to friendship – men, huh. Beautifully done. The same care hasn’t been taken with the women, though, and both Karen and Celine could be put in a box marked “moody, distaff, weaker sex”. Hell, Karen’s the one who wants to live in a hole in the woods, even with winter coming on – you don’t get moodier than that. So what’s it all about? Well that would be telling, but moodiness of one sort or another is what Geens is dealing, and with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow providing the soundtrack there’s more than enough on offer. Though as things move towards a conclusion, the action speeds up, a hint of giallo hysteria is introduced and things slide towards 1970s horror – it all hinges on a twist. You can almost imagine Ken Russell being involved. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
Papusza (New Wave, cert 15)
Here’s a biopic about the gypsy poet Bronislawa Wajz that’s so straightforward that someone, at some point, thought if might become a bit more enigmatic, more interesting, if its chronology were fiddled with. How many Polish gypsy poetesses do you know of? So why either Joanna Kos-Krauze or co-director husband Krzysztof decided it was necessary is beyond me. However… it’s the story of a girl born in poor-but-happy gypsy poverty, discouraged from any book learning because that wasn’t the gypsy way, but doing it anyway, and much later in life being discovered by Jerzy Ficowski, an outsider whose anthropological survey of gypsy life throws up this gem, Bronislawa (Jowita Budnik, as an adult) aka Papusza. Shot in a beautiful, austere black and white which nods to the Polish New Wave and the compositional austerity of Carl Theodor Dreyer, the film is marred by its noble intention not to demonise gypsies. Instead it winds up romanticising them – sure, they’re naughty, these gypsy people, but in a rascally sense, nothing more. Things pick up considerably when the film isn’t either showing the simple marvels of a life connected to rude nature, or enumerating the many injustices that gypsies suffer, and instead focuses on Papusza’s march towards becoming an author, her growing confidence, her conflict with her gypsy roots. It’s also a secret love story – and here it is heartbreaking – of Papusza’s unwavering passion for Jerzy, who has a wife but possibly feels the same for her. But like most biopics about artists of any sort – musicians, occasionally excepted – what we don’t really get is a feel for the poetry, what drove her to write, what was Papusza’s inspiration.
© Steve Morrissey 2016