20 March 2016

Review: High-Rise

(Dir: Ben Wheatley, 2015)

I am going to start this review by making a comparison to the horror director Eli Roth. Bear with me. Roth hasn't actually directed many films, but those he has have been somewhat revered in horror circles, and he is very active from a production side with his name attached to many pictures. I quickly learned that he is not a good director or writer, and that almost every film he is involved in I just don't like. Yet despite this I kept coming back for more and was genuinely excited about watching his recent return to the directors chair for The Green Inferno - the possibility of him transplanting the nihilism of his Hostel films into a modern take on Cannibal Holocaust seemed the perfect fit. Surprisingly it was this edge that it ended up lacking, whilst inevitably suffering from the usual poor storytelling, yet it was still watchable and is his best film to date. But that is faint praise for a film which, in my eyes, barely scrapes an average 3 star rating.

The reason for this comparison is that this is almost exactly how I feel about Ben Wheatley, with the difference being that he is far more skilled from a visual perspective, and the much wider critical love surrounding his films. There's no need to rehash my intense dislike for all of his past films, but the proposition of High-Rise actually excited me - not just because of the cast (Tom Hiddlestone! Jeremy Irons!), and not just because the concept of the story is interesting, but mainly because this was an adaptation of a JG Ballard novel. I may have never attempted to read any of his work, but there was something appealing about the expected dystopian vein and a general sense of something "a little bit out there". But more than anything, Wheatley's biggest flaw as a director is his inability to tell a story in a coherent or remotely engaging way.  Whilst his previous films have all been original, tackling something with an existing plot and structure offered the chance for him to deliver a far better film than usual. In my head that was the theory at least.

From a storytelling perspective, High-Rise is a bit of an incoherent mess. Whether that complaint should be leveled at Ballard, or Wheatley and his scriptwriter Amy Jump, I can't answer with certainty, but as Jump has written all of Wheatley's films there's clearly a theme here. Regardless, when adapting a novel you should be able bring out a core line of plotting to focus on. The overarching story about social hierarchies is obvious, as are the allusions to the downfall of Rome as the decadent orgy and the proletariat's agitation rises. The metaphors and ciphers are plentiful throughout, which is intriguing at first, but becomes rapidly more tiresome as hopes of any sort of interesting plotting to hold onto vanishes. Yet there is still much of interest taking place - the set design is superb placing us in a weird eighties London, whilst I couldn't help but think of the towers in Dredd. It's never boring to look at as the camerawork, editing and general visual aesthetics constantly offer excellent eye candy, whilst the use of sound and music adds to the all round weirdness - the Portishead cover of ABBA's S.O.S. is creepily sublime despite the obvious metaphor overload. The acting itself is solid and it's quite frankly really well cast, with Hiddlestone and Irons being the obvious highlights, whilst Luke Evans and Sienna Miller are strong in their own unique roles.

High-Rise is Wheatley's best film, but as I said above about Roth, that's faint praise. As a visual experience it utterly delivers, but lacking a coherent story to lead us through the miasma means it outstays its welcome a long way before we reach the end. It's always on the cusp of wanting to take us on a fascinating journey, but seems content to tease us instead, and then beat us around the head with metaphor and over-done dystopian weirdness. That's not to say there's not interesting and funny stuff here, but it's clear you need far more skilled hands to tease out the essence of Ballard, as David Cronenberg managed with Crash. I disliked that film upon watching it at the cinema, but upon repeated viewings I really got it and it got to me (perhaps age helped too). I guess we'll see if High-Rise inspires the same desire for perseverance, but right now I'm not holding out much hope.

19 March 2016

Review: The Hateful Eight

(Dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

At this point in his career it's become a pretty indisputable fact that Quentin Tarantino doesn't know how to make a bad film. Certain people may not find a specific film to their tastes, but they are all strong films in their own right (including Death Proof - a point I'm very keen to defend when required). The Hateful Eight doesn't deviate from this path, and works in large part by stripping everything down to the core of what Tarantino does.

This is a film of conversations, and how the twisting tangle of words can lose you in the duplicity at play. There are but two real settings for these conversations, and in both you are left to work out the intentions of those who appear and who to really trust. And fortunately its not made easy, mostly thanks to casting. We all know Samuel L. Jackson can switch on a dime, and those versed well enough in film know that Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins and Tim Roth can never be trusted. Or can they? Kurt Russell is thoroughly enjoyable as the lead (proving here as in Bone Tomahawk that he is so suited to Westerns), and brief moments of uncomfortable violence towards Jennifer Jason Leigh's Daisy Domergue aside, leaves you rooting for him to make it out alive. And she is very good, having fun in this role whist never letting on to her true intentions. For once the language is toned down somewhat, despite the increase in derogatory racial epithets which, for better or worse, make it more accurate to the era. It's just a shame that sometimes there's a bit too much mumbling.

Even though all appears to be as it should, the film really would have benefited from a structural shake up. The way it approaches its second half (for those who saw the 70mm roadshow version that's post intermission onwards) leads to a less satisfying denouement than had it been more open about certain story elements earlier. It doesn't help that Tarantino really does need to learn how to self edit now and again, as it rolls on longer than necessary. However the intermission was gratefully received (sorry all those who saw the normal theatrical cut and didn't benefit from this) without ruining the mood or momentum.

Visually this is a beautifully shot film, but the 70mm Ultra Panavision
shooting / projecting feels like a gimmick. The novelty of doing so meant an overabundance of establishing scenery shots to show off the cameras when really this is a film focused on people talking in a room. Sure it allowed for different choices in framing shots, but it's hard not to think that Django Unchained would have benefited much more from this widescreen stylistic choice. I can't say the 70mm projection added much to the experience, aside from the "fake authenticity" of recreating an old school Western through the flicker, pops and crackle of actual film passed over light, though perhaps this was the fault of the cinema projecting it (Odeon Leicester Square in London)? If memory serves the 70mm projection of The Master added more visual quality, yet for me nothing beats the 70mm IMAX projection of The Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar, with the scenes Christopher Nolan shot in that format remaining some of the most stunning I've ever seen on a big screen. But it's commendable for Tarantino to try. And he got a fantastic score out of Ennio Morricone, which adds gravitas and waves and waves of portent.

The Hateful Eight is typical Tarantino. It's certainly not his best work, meaning it sits comfortably in that middle ground of his still defined as very good. A bit more self-editing and an improved structure would've helped greatly, but as ever it excels thanks to the cast and the dialogue. One thing all the focus on the revived shooting technique seems to hide is that this is the closest he has come to writing a theatrical play yet.