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Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Victoria

Directed by: Sebastian Schipper

Produced by: Jan Dressler
Christiane Dressler
Sebastian Schipper

Screenplay by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Sebastian Schipper
Eike Frederik Schulz

Starring: Laia Costa
Frederick Lau
Franz Rogowski
Burak Yigit
Max Mauff
Andre Hennicke

Music by: Nils Brahm

Cinematography by: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Editing by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm

Studio(s): MonkeyBoy
Radical Media
Westdeutscher Rundfunk

Distributed by: Senator Film (Germany)
Adopt Films (United States)
Curzon Artifical Eye (United Kingdom)

Release date(s): February 7, 2015 (Berlin International Film Festival)
June 11, 2015 (Germany)
October 9, 2015 (United States, limited)
April 1, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 138 minutes

Country: Germany

Language(s): German

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $3, 191, 971 (only ten territories accumulated)

Today's film up for review is Victoria, the German picture from director Sebastian Schipper, which gained a fair amount of international attention for being shot completely in a single continuous take. It was actually my Dad who flagged it up to me a while back, so even though I saw it about a month ago and am only getting round to reviewing it now, it has been on my radar for some time. Widely acclaimed and receiving several gongs at the 2015 German Film Awards, including Best Feature Film, it was one of eight films shortlisted by Germany for submission into the 88th Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film category, but was disqualified because of the high percentage of English dialogue, which we'll get to in a bit. It was released in the United Kingdom back in April of 2016, and so therefore it is eligible for me to review. Story goes that Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish girl from Madrid who has recently immigrated to Berlin, does not speak the German language well or know anyone in the city, is working for a meagre wage in a cafe, leaves a nightclub around four in the morning and bumps into a group of four young men who were denied entry to the club. They invite her for a walk, an informal guided tour of the city, steal some alcohol, smoke some weed, and quickly become acquainted with one another. However, behind the happy-go-lucky exterior appearances, something deeper, darker and more sinister is going on with the young men, and by virtue of association Victoria is drawn into a plot which will make this an important night for all of them. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, I'll just get out there and address the elephant in the room: the cinematography in this film is absolutely extraordinary. Now I might be biased, given that I'm a champion of the long take, most famously Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse was my favourite film of the year whereas my friend absolutely hated it. The whole one-take thing has been done before, but recently it has become somewhat in vogue with Birdman having won Best Picture a few years ago, but the work here by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is on another level altogether. Notwithstanding the technical mastery, which shows a deep understanding of imaginative, cinematic storytelling through the techniques employed, but the outright physicality of being able to accomplish this is really something. It's almost a performance in itself to be able to hit all of these beats appropriately, capturing everything that is going on onscreen. It's also much more remarkable when you take into account the restrictions placed on the production. Sebastian Schipper was forced to film a 'jump-cut' version in order to get financiers on board, in case he couldn't get the 'true one-take,' but after that was filmed over ten days, the budget only permitted three attempts at the single take, the third one of which is the final film. The fact that there are all of these exterior influences, with so many different things going on, any one of which could have caused the thing to fall flat on it's face, and yet somehow it remains seamless, is an incredible feat beyond any technical wizardry. Another part of what makes the film so immersive are the stellar performances by the cast. The four young men, 'Sonne' (Frederik Lau), 'Boxer' (Franz Rogowski), 'Blinker' (Burak Yigit) and 'Fuss' (Max Mauff), are all well-fleshed out and characterised. Each of them are distinctive and unique in their own ways, with different personalities and reactions to the predicaments they end up in. Some people will respond more positively to ones over the others, and vice versa, but I found them all to be a likeable charismatic band of misfits. At the centre though of course is the titular character in a superb lead performance from Laia Costa. I thought that she was absolutely empathetic and charming, projecting the energy of a free-spirited young woman whose life is at present unfulfilled, beautifully communicating to the audience that this is very much a multi-faced individual who despite having a determined streak and the spontaneity to do something wild, is also not without elements of fragility, carrying around with her the crushing sense of her hopes and expectations having been defeated by life. She does all of this with eloquence, not only with her multi-linguistic skills, her dialogue flawless despite English not being her first language, and the beauty of her expressiveness. Costa takes a challenging role and makes Victoria not only one of the best protagonists in recent film memory, but also makes her come across as something not on the written page, but as a real human being. That indicates a vivid and instinctive understanding not only the character but of how acting can operate when at its best. Also contributing greatly to the overall proceedings is the score by Nils Frahm. For years, the musician, who mixes electronic and classical music and has a unique approach to plying his craft as a pianist, held out film offers for "something real special." The Berlin composer not only brings his own stylings to the table, but he maintains the consistent flow and pace of the film. The score created by him and his team is the heartbeat of the picture, matching the mood and feeling of what is happening at that present time. As such, there are moments when the music comes to fore, and mixed with the cinematography and acting there are some truly transcendent moments which go beyond that of many other films, reaching higher levels and plateaus, so much so that although what is happening might be something fairly ordinary, all of these pieces together create a composite which makes it extraordinary. That to me is the true essence of art, and helping merge these things together subtly, editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm deserves a lot of credit. Although obviously the quality of each of these other elements is more in the forefront, behind all of this is required a smart editor who doesn't let them take away from one another. Finally, although to my shame I can't say I was aware of director Sebastian Schipper beforehand, I can certainly say that he now does indeed have my undivided attention. This is the work of a director of complete and supreme control, who understands not only the technical and logistical problems that need to be ironed out with a project which comes with such challenges, but also, like his lead actor, has a key understanding of the essence of storytelling. Wisely, the film's script was only twelve pages long and he gave the actors the opportunity to improvise their dialogue. As such, even though the film is masterfully choreographed, Schipper obviously mapping out with his DP all the necessary beats and whipping his actors up, preparing them all for the elaborate staging of the thing, it still feels authentic, almost akin to the great Italian neorealists or that of cinema verite. It's executed so well that, unlike a lot of other films with long takes that have me going "Wow, that was well-executed" or "Gee, that's creative lighting," I was rarely, if ever, consciously thinking about the craft, concerning myself primarily with the story.  Furthermore, the film also has a lot to say about life, dreams and relationships, with rich, dense thematic content that truly rings home. Victoria is a unique and wonderful film which does so much, hits so many beats. On the one hand, it's an escapist, almost romantic coming-of-age story, on another it's a straight genre film, dramatic crime thriller that is at parts wholly nerve-wracking and by all accounts it ends up being an essential work of high artistic value and transcendent quality. 

Now, as you can tell, I loved the film. That being said, there are a couple of things I have to flag up which I have to say aren't necessarily negative criticisms on my part but are elements that could detract from others' enjoyment that I have to take into account. I don't think that the so-called 'language barrier' is an issue, because for one thing if you have a problem with foreign-language films on principle for anything other than a learning disability you need to do yourself a favour and ingratiate yourself with the wider cultural stratosphere. If anything, it's a plus here, adding another level to the drama and intrigue, for if you are not a German speaker, you, like Victoria, have another degree of separation. I think that some people may find the whole one-shot thing a bit challenging to buy and not be able to disconnect it from notions of it being a technical gimmick as opposed to storytelling device. Also, at one-hundred and thirty-eight minutes, it's not like they've went and made a short, relatively accessible experiment that's about an hour-and-a-half long. With this running time, you do have to put yourself down and invest the time into watching this one. Don't get me wrong, it's totally worth it and a highly rewarding experience, but the fact that you have to do it could be off-putting for some. 

Regardless, with those things levelled and laid aside, Victoria is a masterpiece. To me it is a representation of what is good about cinema and art in general, how it can move you, how it can make you think, take what it has to say and carry it about with you. It's an excellent example of the experiment spirit being played out and executed with deft awareness and a keenness towards cinematic storytelling. It follows a series of patterns, no little action not having consequences for the bigger picture as a whole, the single take paralleling this sense of synchronicity and it all being interconnected. In every major department, from the performances to the cinematography to the editing, the musical compositions and the direction are all of a high standard, and the passion that these artists have invested into producing this work can be felt with the final product. I absolutely loved this film, and have seen many of the other great works that have come out this year, I think that this may very well be the best film released in the UK in 2016.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.7/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - In stitches (trolling people on my Facebook in between writing this has given me great amusement)

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - David Brent: Life On The Road

Directed by: Ricky Gervais

Produced by: Ricky Gervais
Charlie Hanson

Screenplay by: Ricky Gervais

Starring: Ricky Gervais
Ben Bailey Smith
Andy Burrows
Tom Basden
Jo Hartley

Music by: Ricky Gervais
Andy Burrows
Chris Martin (contributions)

Cinematography by: Remi Adefarasin

Editing by: Gary Dollner

Studio(s): Entertainment One
BBC Films

Distributed by: Entertainment One

Release date(s): August 19, 2016 (United Kingdom)
February 10, 2017 (United States)

Running time: 96 minutes

Country: United Kingdom

Language: English

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $5, 511, 343

Today's film up for review is David Brent: Life On The Road, a comedic mockumentary movie written, directed, produced and starring Ricky Gervais in the title role. David Brent is the character that, despite a long career of numerous ventures, Gervais is perhaps still best known for, having played the part in the mockumentary sitcom The Office, which of course since it's run ended in 2003 has had a long-lasting life of it's own, and has inspired a whole franchise, with versions of the show being developed in the United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel and Sweden. Also, I may as well just get out of the way that I am a fan of Ricky Gervais' work, in case you think there are any leanings or bias' here. He has emphasised during promotion for the film that this is "not an Office film," but instead explores "much more into his private life... and we really get to peel back the layers of this extraordinary, ordinary man." So, story goes that Gervais' David Brent is now a sales rep for a bathroom supply firm Lavichem, with colleagues who have a mixture of reactions to his antics, from sympathy to good humour to disgust and outright anger. Brent decides to take a month's unpaid leave, using money from his pension to assemble a band, and cover the costs of a tour to pursue his dream of being a rock star. Simple premise, m'kay? Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, Gervais' performance as David Brent is spot on. I know, I know, some of you are probably thinking I'm being a fanboy, and maybe I am (just a little bit), but it is a genuinely great performance. We know that he can handle comedy, and Gervais is a master of the execution of his own particular brand in this genre. He has great delivery and excellent timing of his lines, but he's also a great physical performer, conveying a lot through his body language. One of the things which he does well that isn't highlighted often enough, and is done well in this film, is his ability to turn it up a notch and be somewhat serious for a bit. He stays true to the idiosyncrasies of the Brentmeister, but we can see, especially because of his physicality, the light shining through the cracks in his impenetrably enthusiastic facade. He shows his signs of weakness through small gestures, and lets the audience see that this is a classic case of the tears of a clown. Then he recovers himself, and bounces back into being jolly in an almost bipolar manner. That is the mark of a great performer. As I have indicated earlier, this is a very funny film. There are obvious comparisons to be made with This Is Spinal Tap as we see things go tits up with Brent in a number of different situations over the course of the film, this ramshackle band playing some outrageously bad music. Gervais wrote most of the music, with contributions from Andy Burrows, who plays the drummer in Brent's Foregone Conclusion band, and the songs are a great balance of being catchy and listenable but also cringeworthy and deft parodies of a variety of influences. Incidentally, Ben Bailey Smith, who plays Dom Johnson in the film, seems like a real talent, both from a musical performance and acting standpoint. The social situations and the awkwardness of everything that's occurring makes for something both relatable and humorous. That doesn't mean that it is one of those comedies without gags, because it has many. If I had to gauge things with a proverbial Laughometer, it would be high, because I was pretty vocal throughout the film. There's some wonderful dialogue in the film that is just music to my ears, given my own tendencies as a dialogue-heavy writer. But it's not all just one-liners and humorous sketch-scenes. This brings me to another point, in that Gervais writes comedy which feels more real and empathetic to the world around us rather than the over-the-top guff that over-saturates the comedic market, particularly in the American market. All of what is happening in the film is going on for a reason, and contributes to the overall story and the message that it is trying to convey. In a world full of rubbish like Fifty Shades Of Black and Dirty Grandpa, it's nice to see that someone still has a sense of remaining grounded, knowing when to pull back and show restraint. So many comedic performers who have this degree of artistic control over their material tend to over-indulge themselves (I'm looking at you, Adam Sandler...), but Gervais is the opposite case and if anything it makes the humour feel refreshing. This is a charming, heartwarming, and very, very funny film.

That being said, and I'm not going to attack this because I do rather like it, there is one issue that does detract from it's overall quality. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's great, but it isn't a masterpiece in the way that Ricky Gervais has done before alongside Stephen Merchant with The Office or Extras. Heck, it's not his best movie either (that would go to the horrendously underrated and overlooked Cemetery Junction, which I reviewed all the way back in 2010). I know that Gervais, for all of his no-BS approach, is an artist whose works are full of sentimentality, and while that itself is not a problem, indeed, it's part of the charm of his work, ultimately it tends to make things at times predictable. Okay, I'm looking at it from a standpoint of someone very familiar with his work, but I think that many of those who would be unfamiliar could still see the development of the story coming a country mile away. I'm not going to be snarky and make some stupid attempt at punning wit on 'Foregone Conclusion' seeing as I like the film, and because frankly some other lesser critics who've went for the easy joke have probably done it about four or five times already. Just saying... Anywho, what it boils down to I think is that while the dressing around it is strong, so they came for the large part get away with it, it doesn't change the fact that it's a fairly rudimentary story that we have seen done umpteen times before. As well done as it is, no amount of good material can hide that.

So, those are my thoughts on David Brent: Life On The Road. While I stand by my reservations regarding the predictable and rudimentary base that he is working from, Gervais has crafted a great comedy. As a performer, he excels, he has a great understanding for humorous situations and as a director shows a restraint uncommon among the contemporary powerhouses in comedy. As such, it ends up being a pleasant change of pace from the dreck that we are force-fed day in, day out. It's charming, heartwarming and very, very funny.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.1/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Good good (everything's good good these days! These reviews used to take forever. Now with all the energy I can bang 'em out in a couple of hours and make time to do more shit later on work wise!)

P.S. Thanks Ricky for the inclusion of David Bowie's Fashion. I miss him too.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Produced by: Charles Roven
Deborah Snyder

Screenplay by: Chris Terrio
David S. Goyer

Based on: Characters from DC Comics

Starring: Ben Affleck
Henry Cavill
Amy Adams
Jesse Eisenberg
Diane Lane
Laurence Fishburne
Jeremy Irons
Holly Hunter
Gal Gadot

Music by: Hans Zimmer
Junkie XL

Cinematography by: Larry Fong

Editing by: David Brenner

Studio(s): RatPac-Dune Entertainment
DC Entertainment
Atlas Entertainment
Cruel And Unusual Films

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Release date(s): March 12, 2016 (China, Beijing premiere)
March 25, 2016 (United Kingdom and United States)

Running time: 151 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $250 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $873, 260, 194

Today's film up for review is Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the follow-up to Warner Bros' Superman reboot Man Of Steel, but really, as the second film in what is now known as the DC Extended Universe (they are clearly patterning this after Marvel's successful model), is essentially a kickstart for their plans for getting together the Justice League. Just to give this a bit of context, although it grossed over $870 million, a whopping figure by any standards, it was still considered to have under-performed at the box-office (at least, perhaps, by the Marvel and Disney billion-dollar standards), suffering a historic dropoff in first to second weekend grosses and most notably, it was absolutely savaged by film critics and while more casual audiences may have enjoyed it, I can say that a lot people were also very disappointed. Me being me, because I don't really get excited about big movies anymore, I end up watching them in my own time, but I remember when this came out all the hype around it and my Facebook just blew up with various friends of mine getting genuinely angry about this movie. Along with the likes of Dirty Grandpa, it's a leading contender at the Golden Raspberry Awards this year, and to cap this little devil off, I really didn't like Man Of Steel and have a testy relationship with Zack Snyder as a filmmaker at best. While I like 300, I think he mishandled Watchmen and the only time he was ever given the responsibility of coming up with an original project he presented us the abomination that is Sucker Punch. So, with all this in mind, and avoiding it for about eight months, I have to say much as I tried to be open-minded, I went in almost prepared to hate this one. Long story short, because there is a lot of story, in the fallout of the destruction in Metropolis caused by Superman (Henry Cavill) in his battle with General Zod in Man Of Steel, he has become a controversial figure, and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), based in Gotham City and who has been operating for two decades as vigilante crime-fighter Batman, sees Superman as a potential threat to humanity. At the same time, Superman's alter-ego Clark Kent learns and is appalled by the methods of justice employed by Batman, and seeks to expose his identity. I'm not going to go into all of this, but it's a bit of obvious, through various convolutions involving Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), United States senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), Russian terrorist Anatoli Knyazev (Callan Mulvey) and more, plus the mysterious presence of an all-observing antiques dealer by the name of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to quote Phil Lynott, "there's gonna be a showdown." What? Come on, I mean, it's in the title, get it? Good!

To start off with the good about the movie, although you might be of the opinion that I'm going to crap all over this one, I surprised myself watching it by finding that I was at certain parts actually enjoying it. By the time I'd finished, I said to myself, "you know what, it wasn't all that bad. It was decent enough." I think that the addition of Chris Terrio to the writing side of the film was a smart move. Much as I think David S. Goyer has done some good work in the past, his best work often comes from working with others. Man Of Steel was a solo job, and it turned out to be a complete and utter snoozefest. What Terrio adds to this movie is a sense of the exploits of these fantastical characters existing within the real world. It can be choppy at times, but you can tell that here they are really going for something with the thematic content, to explore the moral and ethical implications of what is occurring over the course of the film. Speaking of depth, I think that Henry Cavill has improved leaps and bounds in his part as Superman/Clark Kent. I was, admittedly, rather negative on his depiction of Supes in Man Of Steel, thinking has was dull and charmless, but he seems to have grown well into the shoes of the character, and carries himself with more confidence and weight, so good for him. I think that for all the negative press concerning his casting in the buildup to it, Ben Affleck was a good choice for Batman. His older, world-weary and slightly out-of-touch interpretation is a different version of the Caped Crusader than we've seen before on the big screen. The presence of Affleck gives legitimacy to the role, both from a mental and a physical standpoint. Other cast members are good in a supporting capacity, such as Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Holly Hunter and especially Jeremy Irons, whose casting as Bruce Wayne's long-suffering butler Alfred Pennyworth may be among the smartest moves made in the entire production, because every time he's onscreen he's great. Also, for all of my negative feelings levelled at the oftentimes too glossy, music-video feel that Zack Snyder enforces upon him, some of Larry Fong's work here is very good. Admittedly, there are the odd silly bits of gimmickry, but left to his own devices to shoot a film Fong can do just fine, because there are some gorgeous pieces of cinematography. I'm specifically thinking of colour contrasts and shot composition in scenes like Superman's congressional hearing. Some of the action sequences too look good and are engaging, so the film is not without it's stylistic flourishes. The score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is an interesting combination of two contrasting styles battling it out with one another not dissimilar to the conflict going on in the movie itself. Zimmer is, of course, one of the great masters of traditional film composition, but as we've seen through his career, not above expanding his horizons and experimenting with new soundscapes. As such, there's a harmony between him and Junkie XL, who outside of his work as a DJ and multi-instrumentalist has made a name for himself over the past few years in film composition, which is strangely intriguing aurally. It'd be interesting to hear what they can come up with in the future. I'd be a liar if I didn't say that there were times I was impressed by the overall production value of the piece. I can't really fault it from the standpoint of visual effects, production design, costumes, props, make-up/hair and stunts. It's a big, $250 million film, and, as it should be, the efforts of those who have laboured long and hard in those departments, have been put it up on the screen, so that's another positive. All in all, these strengths were enough to keep me relatively interested. It was a very pleasant surprise given all the negative things that I had heard about, I was at different genuinely entertained. 

That being said, while I don't think that it's as outrageously bad as everyone else says it is, I can't go so far as to say that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a good movie, because for every bit as good as it can be, it is in equal measure an unholy mess. I alluded to it earlier in the synopsis that there was a whole lot of plot, and while it may be easy to dismiss that as the perspective of a lazy writer, the fact is is that not only could I have spent ages writing down anything resembling a basic outline, but that I also had to thoroughly scour the Wikipedia article to be sure that what I was writing was correct. There was so much plot that I had forgotten whole characters and sections of the film! Normally that is the stage when you kind of perk up and think "gee, maybe this is kind of overkill," but it keeps going, and going, and going, and going, and... you get the picture. Obviously, the drive is to lay the groundwork for the DC Extended Universe ASAP but it gets a bit out of hand, and you get the impression that cutting out certain subplots could have trimmed that waistline a little and brought the gluttonous two-and-a-half hour running time down to two hours (though of course, Snyder being Snyder, has instead went the other way and brought out a three-hour 'Director's Cut' out on DVD, whatever the hell Director's Cut even means anymore). Another point I'd like to bring up is that I thought that the whole interpretation of the Lex Luthor character was a real misfire. Now, Jesse Eisenberg is a perfectly capable actor, but the way the part is put down on the script is to have him modelled after the wave of the young, entrepreneurial tech wizards of the information age, but with a case of a determined, egomaniacal streak bordering in sociopathy. Unfortunately it comes across as a less-controlled, more blown-up version of Eisenberg's brilliant turn as Mark Zuckerbeg (who from what I understand is a lot nicer a person that his onscreen depiction). I know that's a fairly unoriginal comparison, but the fact is is that it does not feel right, I feel it doesn't fit into the mix of the overall proceedings. Speaking of which, one thing that did make me cross was the choppy editing. Admittedly, I'm sure a lot of this is written on paper in the script this way, but what needs to stop is all this cutting away in the middle of action sequences to other things that are occurring simultaneously. At least, if you're going to do it, time them appropriately, so that you're not distracting and detracting from what's happening. Instead, I found myself at various points waiting for them to cut back to whatever particular development I was more interested in. I can only imagine that poor David Brenner, being given such an insurmountable task of trying to make logical sense of all of this ended up like Bob Geldof's Pink in Alan Parker's film of The Wall, making strange designs out of different completely unrelated objects on the floor of his apartment. Finally, although this is a clear improvement on Man Of Steel (in retrospect, I actually think that film was worse than the 4.0/10 rating I gave it back when it came out. It was rubbish), it's all over the shop, and that's because of Zack Snyder as a director, and because of Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder as producers. Admittedly, it'd be hard for this mess to be faultless, but I think there is something there and that a more capable filmmaker could have handled this property much better. Snyder instead is incredibly over-indulgent throughout, wanting to do too much but as a result not getting a much of anything done at all. I know obviously that Deborah Snyder (his wife) and Charles Roven trust him enough to deliver a competent movie, but competence simply isn't enough and if I was his producer I'd be slapping him on the back of head and telling him to knock it off with some of that crap. We want great films, not competent ones, and it genuinely bothers me when someone like Snyder has his name emblazoned on the marketing material, trailers and posters as a 'Visionary Director' when real artists like Guillermo del Toro have had to struggle for four or five years at a time to get a project off the ground. Okay, rant over!

Well, as you can see, I've had a fair amount to say about Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Normally, a film of this standard wouldn't have registered as particularly significant to me, but because of it's high profile, the divided (at best) reception and the very nature of the beast itself, it stands out as an exception to the rule and is worthy of debate. Perhaps that is yet another positive. And, yes, I know some people might not be happy with my thoughts on this one, but I don't think it is a bad film. It's an unholy mess with a ridiculous amount of over-convoluted basil exposition nonsense, has a major character/villain whose interpretation is botched, choppy patchwork editing that can't do enough to hide the over-indulgence of Zack Snyder as a filmmaker, but it's still a decent film. It has two solid central performances, Chris Terrio's addition to the creative team keeps it grounded in a sense of reality amidst some admittedly preposterous moments, it looks good enough, there's an intriguing score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL and there is a high standard in the overall production value. It's all over the place, but at best it's a mildly entertaining romp.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.3/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Hungry (that's what it said in my review for Man Of Steel. Not in the physical sense this time, but mentally I'm hungry, always.)

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Dirty Grandpa

Directed by: Dan Mazer

Produced by: Bill Block
Michael Simkin
Jason Barrett
Barry Josephson

Screenplay by: John M. Phillips

Starring: Robert De Niro
Zac Efron
Zoey Deutch
Aubrey Plaza
Dermot Mulroney
Julianne Hough

Music by: Michael Andrews

Cinematography by: Eric Alan Edwards

Editing by: Anne McCabe

Studio(s): Billblock Media
Josephson Entertainment
QED International

Distributed by: Lionsgate

Release date(s): January 22, 2016 (United States)
January 25, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 102 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $11.5 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $99, 930, 262

Today's film up for review is Dirty Grandpa, a film which in the relatively short life-span it's had since it's release last January has already notched itself up quite the notorious reputation. It has has earned itself absolutely scathing reviews from critics (Mark Kermode even went so far as to name it his worst film of 2016), and with five nominations is one of the big players at the upcoming Golden Raspberry Awards. However, it was a profitable picture, making nearly $100 million off of an $11 million budget, so studio executives will probably use that as some phoney excuse to add to the whole 'critics don't know anything about audiences argument.' What I always say to that one is that just because people went to see the film doesn't mean that they liked it, just look at Batman V Superman - Dawn Of Justice (a review for which will be coming soon). Okay, context out of the way, story goes that Jason Kelly (Zac Efron), a corporate attorney with an attractive but uptight and demanding fiancee Meredith Goldstein (Julianne Hough), attends his grandmother's funeral, where he reunites with now-widowed grandfather Dick (Robert De Niro). Much to the chagrin of his wedding-planning fiancee, Dick, who used to share a close relationship with his grandson, wishes for Jason to drive him from his home in Georgia to Boca Raton, Florida. However, as we find out, this is all part of Dick's plan to fulfil his dying wife's wishes that he get back out there and live life to it's fullest, and so Jason and Dick end up on the road, getting involved in all manner of shenanigans. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, and I have to say there is a certain degree of good, I like the principal actors. For those who don't know, I kind of hero worship Bob De Niro for the performances he gave in films by Martin Scorsese and his continued success since then. Even recently, though few and far between, he's done some good work in the likes of David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook and Joy. Also, I like Zac Efron quite a bit and have a real fondness for the High School Musical films. The two leads also share a solid onscreen chemistry that in itself leads to some of the film's better moments. Also, I think that Zoey Deutch (who really seemed to break out in 2016), although not given much to do, is sweet and rather endearing in her part as Shadia. Furthermore, I do have to say that for the first forty or fifty minutes of the film, although I recognised it's inherent outrageousness and attempts to appeal to the shock factor, I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn't sliced bread, but there were some funny individual scenes, particularly in the interplay of the exchanges between De Niro and Efron. 

That being said, it's a shame that one of the greatest actors ever to grace the screen and a young actor more than capable of holding his own, who'll no doubt have a fine career of his own, degrade themselves in such a manner by starring in this film. As I said, I did kind of enjoy it at first, but I got to a point with the movie, and I can tell you where exactly it was, it was with the entry of the Keystone Cops into the fray, that I realised, amidst a ghastly, absolutely hideous scene, this series of face-pulling snarky remarks which feels more like a dreadfully drawn-out collection of outtakes from the gag reel, that the film had roughly an hour left in it. It was then that I realised I was in for the proverbial bumpy night, and not a Bette Davis bumpy night, but a trainwreck, which for those of you who haven't seen Dirty Grandpa is one of the only fair ways of being able to give you an idea of just how bad it gets. I hope that Michael Andrews got paid a decent amount of money for his work, because he's a talented composer and the poor bastard deserves it for having to sit through this and write music for it. Still, no amount of money can hide the disinterest in the sonic soundscape of murder-by-numbers musical compositions which simply follow the lines and connect the dots together. There's nothing to distinguish it any way, and it's one of those scores that feels the need to attempt to subconsciously cue us into laughing. Poor form. Also, for all the flash and flourish of the camera work and the locations, it's still a fairly ugly film to look it. It just doesn't look like any of these characters are inhabiting anything that closely resembles the real world. Ultimately, the real sinners here are the producers, writer and director. It's scary to think not just that people actually spent time concocting this sort of thing up, but that people shovel this shit out to audiences and consider this a movie that is considered to be in a presentable and completed form. It's a badly-stitched together patchwork of sketches at best. I alluded earlier to the drawn out scene involving the Keystone Cops, but there's about four or five instances of this in the film, turning a throwaway one-liner/gag into a two/three-minute scene, which brings me to my other point. Now I left this for a while before reviewing so I could appropriately gathered my thoughts. I did think that the running time was a problem, but I was shocked to discover that it was closer to my coveted one hundred minutes than two hours, because it certainly felt every bit of two hours. The filmmakers who are largely responsible for the templates of contemporary mainstream comedy, the ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker) trio and John Hughes, stuck stringently throughout the 1980s to the eighty-ninety minute mark, Hughes cutting his films down from two-and-a-half and, in the case of Planes, Trains And Automobiles, a three-hour workprint, and their movies are none the worse for it. I know it's a sore spot and a bit of a bone to pick with me, but I'm getting cross with watching movies with overlong running times. It's one thing having some inherent flaws, but this is a worrying trend in contemporary cinema. 

There were certain things I liked about Dirty Grandpa, namely the chemistry between Robert De Niro and Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch's work and the fact that for the first forty or fifty minutes it's a relatively funny film, but boy does it go off at the deep end. It's not as consistently bad as, say, Fifty Shades Of Black, but it's still an utter dirge of a film. It's a shameful, gross, nauseating piece of work. It's scary to think that this at one stage made the Black List, because if it was anything resembling a quality comedy at that stage, it certainly isn't any more. Grot!

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 2.1/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Sweet

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - The Neon Demon

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Produced by: Lene Børglum
Nicolas Winding Refn

Screenplay by: Mary Laws
Nicolas Winding Refn
Polly Stenham

Story by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Elle Fanning
Karl Glusman
Jena Malone
Bella Heathcote
Abbey Lee
Christina Hendrick
Keanu Reeves
Desmond Harrington
Alessandro Nivola

Music by: Cliff Martinez

Cinematography by: Natasha Braier

Editing by: Matthew Newman

Studio(s): Gaumont Film Company
Wild Bunch
Space Rocket Nation
Vendian Entertainment
Bold Films

Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Broad Green Pictures
Scanbox Entertainment
The Jokers

Release date(s): May 20, 2016 (Cannes Film Festival)
June 8, 2016 (France)
June 9, 2016 (Denmark)
June 24, 2016 (United States)
July 8, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 117 minutes

Country(s): France
United States

Language: English

Production budget: $7 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $3.4 million (estimated)

Today's film up for review is The Neon Demon, the latest film from director Nicolas Winding Refn. I've been a fan of Refn's work since I saw Bronson back when it was first released and have seen and reviewed every film he has made since. As such, I've got to see over an extended period an artistic evolution of sorts as a filmmaker. He followed Bronson with Valhalla Rising, a tremendously underrated and challenging work reminiscent of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God as a descent into the seven circles of hell. Then of course Drive came along and while it is a movie that hipsters fawn over, the fact is is that whether or not you like it, there's something quite special and singular about it. I for one thought it was a masterpiece when it came out, and retrospectively my opinions have went up even more so. Two years later, with more the autonomy to do what he pleased, Refn made Only God Forgives, which instead of being the Drive Part 2 that many audiences were expecting, ended up more along the lines of Valhalla Rising. A baroque odyssey in the Bangkok underworld, I remember watching this in the Queen's Film Theatre, and as well as certain individuals sneering and laughing throughout, there were a few walkouts, so reactions were very polarising, and of course it got booed at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but everything gets booed there anyway. So here we are after a longer period of time between features, and Refn (now billing himself as 'NWR,' almost a form of turning oneself into a brand) presents us with The Neon Demon. It stars Elle Fanning in the lead role of Jesse, a sixteen-year-old small-town girl who moves from Georgia to Los Angeles to follow her aspirations of becoming a model, and we see her and what happens as the story unfolds when she enters the industry. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, The Neon Demon is an extraordinary work in terms of the art of it's aesthetics. From a visual standpoint, it's absolutely breathtaking. Beautifully shot by Natasha Braier, it has that distinctive quality we associate with Nic Winding Refn films, with lots of colour contrast and evocative lighting. The framing of the shots themselves, their composition, is immaculate, playing around not only with technique itself but the central narrative. Also, the mise-en-scene, with the wonderful costumes and production design, is not only reminiscent of what we see (or at least, what I see as a layman) of the fashion world, but is an accentuated, almost hyper-realised version of that world. It's also one of those films that see many different elements have a sort of co-dependency, in that if you remove one of them from the overall piece, the whole thing could come crashing down. As such, the visuals and the story they are telling are backing up by the editing of Matthew Newman. I mentioned the shot composition as being immaculate, and the same can be said for the timing of Newman's editing. Contrary to the opines of many others who saw the film, I don't feel that these scenes were drawn out too long. Instead, we were inviting to bathe in their opulence, these amazing sequences existing not necessarily in the literal narrative of the piece, but that of a psychological, more representative form, similar to the ideas Timothy Leary espoused as regards to his theory of the Reality Tunnel, which in itself, could applied to our perception of the film as a whole. Through the editing, we are able to experience all of these thoughts and feelings. Equally, the film is backed up by an amazing score from Cliff Martinez. His third consecutive score with Refn, it's strange to think that he was the studio's choice to score Drive over Refn's Johnny Jewel (who would play a large part in that soundtrack anyway) because his compositions work so perfectly with the director's aesthetics. Notwithstanding the fact that he understands the fundamentals of using ambient, electronic music as a minimalist storytelling device, he knows how to crank it up when he needs to. There are some breathtaking extended sequences consisting of no dialogue whatsoever, instead just a perfect blend of sound and vision, and this is where Martinez really flourishes. His music becomes the narrative driving force, taking us on a journey that challenges our conventional perceptions, to take things in beyond objective consciousness, becoming instead that of the subjective. It is through these scenes that I think the film really shines and gets across the true essence of what is trying to get at. The film also features a strong central performance from Elle Fanning, who in recent years has shot up as one of the most intriguing young actors in Hollywood, and here she delivers I feel her best work to date. Her character of Jesse has a relatively simple arc, but the way in which Fanning more or less transforms herself, not through any great physical change but over the course of the film through subtly adding layers to Jesse, is a joy to behold. Taking advantage of her natural gifts, she has the intelligence to convey all of this through facial expressions and body language. Much of what is remarkable here is how this is all conveyed through the unspoken, not having to resort to petty amateur dramatics in order to try and hook the audience. She won't win any awards for this performance, and it's a shame really that she hasn't even been up for consideration, but mark my words, I wouldn't be surprised to see her have a major awards season sweep with the next five to ten years. Incidentally, speaking of performances, although it's only a relatively small part, Keanu Reeves is terrifying as Hank, the sleazy manager of the motel that Jesse is staying in. Once again a case, like Albert Brooks in Drive, of casting against type, before we even see Hank, we can tell from the voice behind the closed screen door that he's an irritable, aggressive bastard. Then when we do see him, he comes across as vulgar, intimidating, shrewd and manipulative. Reeves, a man who has made a career playing likeable action heroes and who comes with a reputation as one of the nicest people in Hollywood, conveys all of this in what I assume is less than ten minutes of screen time. That is the mark a good actor. Finally, Nic Winding Refn himself is the last person who should be applauded, both for the conceptual premise and his direction. What he has plotted out is a provocative, decadent look into the fashion world, while also juggling a story that falls somewhere between a melodrama like All About Eve and the twisted beauty of Dario Argento's best films. For all of this and his previous film polarising and dividing people, I personally feel that he is one of the most unique and gifted filmmakers of his generation. There is no one else out there making films like this, and instead of following the runaway success of Drive with any number of projects which could have given audiences what they wanted, he has continued to challenge and provoke us with his engaging artistic endeavours. In many instances, I think The Neon Demon is his most difficult work from a casual viewer standpoint, but on the other hand I was gripped and couldn't tear my attention away from it. I remember texting a friend (who really didn't like it) after watching it saying that Refn has went further down the proverbial rabbit-hole. Well, if this is what it feels like down there, count me in!

As you can tell from my waxing lyrical, I thought The Neon Demon was a great movie. Like Arrival though, I have arrived to The Great However, because for all that is good about it, I do not feel the film to be a masterpiece. It has a lot going for it, but the one thing that I feel detracts from the overall experience somewhat is the script. There are three credited screenwriters, playwright Polly Stenham, Mary Laws and Refn himself, and unfortunately while the central premise is strong, the screenplay itself is not. Thankfully Elle Fanning has plenty to do with the character of Jesse, but the same cannot be said for that of the rest of the cast. The characters on the written page are fairly two-dimensional and I'm sorry, really I am, because you've got Jena Malone, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote who from a visual standpoint are perfectly cast in their parts, but making their characters prone to extreme emotional ups and downs does not make them fully-rounded. It's a shame really considering how strong the main character is, but everyone around her is lacking in depth. Furthermore, the dialogue in the film is more or less perfunctory, in that it doesn't sound like anything that would come out of anyone's mouth. Even though it sparsely used, it lacks the kind of poetry that was achieved by Hossein Amini's script for Drive, instead coming across as forced and befuddling. I actually had a think about this, because The Neon Demon has been on my mind a good bit since I've seen it. Last year, I became enamoured with the films of Kenneth Anger, particularly the Magick Lantern Cycle, who for those you haven't seen them (and please do, they're incredible), does not make features but makes shorts with little or more generally no dialogue, instead having this remarkably ahead of his time aesthetic which blends sound and vision through extraordinary visuals and the films' score/soundtracks. It has had such an impact on me that I've mulled over the possibility of completely changing the direction of my own long-pending short film. I think if Refn, given all of the extended wordless sequences reminiscent of the likes of Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome, went the whole hog and made the thing as a silent film, it could have been a masterpiece. As it is though, faults and all, it's still a great film.

As you can see, I've had a lot to say about The Neon Demon. Ordinarily, a film with such glaringly obvious issues as it has with the characters and the dialogue in the script, and how this affects the actors' performances, would have severely detracted from my prognosis. That being said, in this case I will be making an exception, because I feel that what the film does well it does it to such a degree that it is able to somewhat negate the damage done by these faults. Warts and all, The Neon Demon is still a provocative, arresting and important film. While your opinions may not be the same as mine (indeed, I expect that some people will outraged, disgusted and offended by the film), I think that this Nic Winding Refn's latest is a significant work worth investing your time in.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.8/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Banging (this multi-tasking biz is becoming a lot more manageable than I thought it could be, because I am gradually eliminating all the factors in my life which mean little to me. It's good to be in control of yourself.)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Arrival

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Produced by: Shawn Levy
Dan Levine
Aaron Ryder
David Linde

Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer

Based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Starring: Amy Adams
Jeremy Renner
Forest Whitaker
Michael Stuhlbarg
Tzi Ma

Cinematography by: Bradford Young

Editing by: Joe Walker

Studio(s): Lava Bear Films
21 Laps Entertainment
FilmNation Entertainment

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Release date(s): September 1, 2016 (Venice Film Festival)
November 10, 2016 (United Kingdom)
November 11, 2016 (United States)

Running time: 116 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $47 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $160, 070, 580

Today's film up for review is Arrival, the critically-acclaimed science-fiction film by Denis Villeneuve which has received a fair amount of attention during the beginning of this particular awards season. Also a commercial success, it could be argued that this is the most high-profile science-fiction feature to come out since Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 masterpiece Gravity. Adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang's short Story Of Your Life, Arrival stars Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks, who is lecturing her university students when twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft arrive at different locations across the planet. U.S. Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits her to join his team, with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to make contact with the aliens, decipher their language, and find out why they have come to Earth. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, Amy Adams is terrific in the lead performance as Louise Banks. One of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, Adams has a quality that comes naturally to her, in that she is able, without getting too much into melodramatics, to conjure our sympathies. Her Louise Banks is quite clearly, a strong, confident, intelligent woman, but through Adams' work here we are constantly aware of the underlying trauma and grief that is central to the character. Adams conveys that through subtlety; small gestures with her body language, voice and facial expressions tell us everything that we need to know. Furthermore, as the film's protagonist, through which we see all that is occuring onscreen, does a splendid job of giving the film a sort of base, keeping things level-headed and grounded. The five-time Oscar-nominated actor will probably pick up her sixth nod for this complex, powerful performance, but I fear that, God forbid, she's going to end up like the new Leonardo DiCaprio and not win because it's a genre film. The Oscars have a historical bias against science-fiction, fantasy and horror, but I have for a long time held the opinion that the best parts, especially for female actors in contemporary cinema, are to be found in these films. Arrival certainly proves my point. Another thing I would like to praise the film for is it's technical attributes. When I was watching this in the cinema, I was constantly away of the scope and the spectacle of the piece, and there were moments when I was genuinely taken aback by it. I was under the assumption that it must be a film budgeted at over $100 million, and was surprised to see that it was made for $47 million, which is a fairly modest budget for a Hollywood science-fiction film. The visual effects are of a consistently high quality, and done in such an indiscreet way, without doing anything outrageous, that they don't detract from the drama in any way. Obviously, it being quite clearly a science-fiction film there are some things that are unfamiliar and clearly effects-driven, but for the most part everything is done so that despite having this alien quality, it still seems real and familiar. The same can be said too for the sound, which is at numerous points in the film utilised to great effect, especially in relation to the alien creatures themselves. Sound and vision are key ingredients as to how we too, alongside the characters, begin to surmise what is they are on Earth for, and whenever you start to implement these technical aspects into the film, almost so that they become key to the execution of the plot themselves that's the mark of a smart film. Praise must also garnered onto the cinematography of Bradford Young, who does a great job of, as I mentioned, capturing the epic scope of the film. I talked about space in my last review for High-Rise, but here it used in multiple way. We can feel the genuine size of the spacecraft, but not only that, in both the dialogues between the humans and those between them and the aliens, we are aware of the physical differences between the different species, and yet there is a sense of closeness, an intimacy to the proceedings, as they attempt to communicate with each other. It's a very delicate balancing act done well here. The editing too by Joe Walker should be highlighted, in that despite the obvious 'alien' nature of these spacecraft and creatures, everything fits seamlessly into the real world. None of this feels like a bunch of computer-graphics blobs of pixels being pasted in. Also, without saying much about the plot, which I want to avoid because it does involve spoilers if I go too much into detail, but while the film at times jumps between flashbacks and the central story, that even if it doesn't follow 'chronological' order, Walker effectively communicates to the audience the essential spirit of the story so that it follows through the path of a natural progression. I think part of what makes the film feel so big and perhaps bigger-budgeted, notwithstanding the obvious technical qualities, is the fact that it is a movie of big ideas that doesn't belittle it's audience but instead engages them with a thesis; it's not afraid to challenge them with big questions that they will take with them out of the cinema and think about long after the film's conclusion. Equally contemplative is the score by Johann Johannsson. I first became aware of his work through Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners, and once again he composes these beautiful, meditative piano pieces which not only accompany what is occurring onscreen, but encourage the audience to mull over and think about what they are seeing. He has the rare gift of being able to balance classical film composition with that of his minimalist influences, and that comes across here. Speaking of music, this film features masterful use of Max Richter's On The Nature Of Daylight to bookend both it's opening and beginning. Admittedly, I'm biased, given that I've been a fan Richter ever since I heard his work on Ari Folman's extraordinary Waltz With Bashir back in 2008, but this piece from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks has been used before in several films (I think notably of the mix with Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth in Martin Scorsese's horrendously overlooked and quite brilliant Shutter Island) and I have to say that this is the best I've heard it used. It's implementation into the film is excellent, and everything just fits perfectly. I loved this track beforehand, but now near enough any time I listen to it, Arrival comes to mind. Finally, although of course he has been working for a good while now, and has made a number of films in the States, this is the film that will firmly establish Denis Villeneuve's reputation for the next several years. It is a film directed with such resolve, assurance and confidence. Applying the same aesthetics for storytelling as he has in his other films, Arrival is at it's heart a dramatic piece that happens to involve science-fiction elements. Villeneuve metaphorically flips the image around, revealing a reflection of ourselves in the mirror, and it is upon this image that we must ponder. It's such a classically told, elegantly made and distinctive piece of work, and Villeneuve should be congratulated for making it work on all these different levels.

Now, much as I loved Arrival, and believe you me, I do, I have to acknowledge that there are enough negative criticisms I can level towards the film that, with my objective head on here, I have to conclude that it is just shy of being a masterpiece. I think there are two key problems to the film, on which I will elaborate: firstly, that I do not feel the supporting characters are not as well developed as they should be, and secondly how that ends up affecting the performances of those actors portraying them. Some people have been highlighting the dialogue as an issue with the film (there is a particular moment during the climax that I could see people grumble on about), but I don't see that as an issue. Unfortunately, while Louise Banks is clearly the central character, I still feel that those around her, namely Colonel Weber, Ian Donnelly, and Agent David Halpern (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) were developed well-enough. They may be supporting players, but I still want to have a sense that they are more than just characters page; I want to them to lift off the page, especially when you have one as strong as the central character. This also affects the performances of the actors portraying them. Whitaker, Renner and Stuhlbarg are all very capable actors who I have seen do excellent work, both in a lead and supporting capacity, so it's a shame that however much they try, they are still playing characters that are somewhat two-dimensional and end up feeling more like devices to work around the crux of Louise Banks, as opposed to people with their own story to tell.

That being said, while these issues I think deny it from the status of 'masterpiece,' Arrival remains in itself a remarkable film largely deserving of the accolades it is receiving. It has an excellent lead performance from Amy Adams, a consistently high production value, technical prowess, carries a lot of legitimate weight behind it's ideas, a haunting and powerful score from Johann Johannsson and assured, confident direction from Denis Villeneuve. Science-fiction is always something that is welcome in my books, but it's all the better when it is done with such grace and elegance.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.9/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Rejuvenated (I've more energy than I've had in years right now)

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - High-Rise

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Produced by: Jeremy Thomas

Screenplay by: Amy Jump

Based on: High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Starring: Tom Hiddleston
Jeremy Irons
Sienna Miller
Luke Evans
Elizabeth Moss

Music by: Clint Mansell

Cinematography by: Laurie Rose

Editing by: Amy Jump
Ben Wheatley

Studio(s): Recorded Picture Company
British Film Institute
HanWay Films
Northern Ireland Screen
Ingenious Media

Distributed by: StudioCanal

Release date(s): September 13, 2015 (TIFF)

March 18, 2016 (United Kingdom)
April 28, 2016 (United States)

Running time: 119 minutes

Country: United Kingdom

Language: English

Production budget: £6.1 million (approximately $8 million)

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $4, 152, 521

Today's film up for review is High-Rise, Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel.

I would like to begin this review by regaling y'all with a little story. I work on occasion with Extras NI, a Northern Ireland based agency who provide background artists (that is the industry terminology, not mine) for film and television productions. As such, I've worked for them on Game Of Thrones, and I have to say they are a terrific bunch of folks to work for, and if anyone in Northern Ireland ever gets the opportunity to work for them, do. At the start of 2014, I got a text from Extras NI for 'a high-profile production,' to be shot in Bangor, giving me the dates for four days work. Unfortunately, the latter two dates clashed with a music festival in my private security job, so I turned this down. A couple of months later, I went and bought Ballard's High-Rise in Waterstones, and was told at the till that they were shooting this in Bangor. Things clicked in my head, and on the boat trip over to V Festival at Weston Park in Staffordshire, a number of my colleagues who had been working security on the set told me about it and it sounded pretty cool, so I rang their office the next day. I had already missed two of the dates that I was wanted for, so I said on the phone that I'd gladly work for free or volunteer as a runner on those other two days, just so I could be able to gain from the experience of working on the production. Then I was informed, as pleasantly possible though, I might add, that they weren't just looking me for a standard extra part, but that they wanted me for one of four featured parts in the film, and that because obviously it had already been cast, production had started and I'd missed those two dates I was unable to participate. Needless to say I was shocked to hear that I had turned down a featuring part in High-Rise to travel to a job at Creamfields Festival in Cheshire, the shittiest of the shittiest festivals, with the most mud, least sleep, worst crowd, crap music and badly accommodated campsite (why was it that ours was the only one that never seemed to have any hay put down to deal with the mud? I should know, every day I had to walk through all the campsites for an hour, even after doing up to seventeen-hour shifts!) that you can think of. And of course, despite my making those decisions and sacrifices to my personal and professional life, I'm now being blackballed for refusing to work the holidays and being tarred and feathered as a disloyal worker, and yadda yadda yadda, everything's going fabulous there! Hey there, how you doin'?

Now that story time with Cal is over, let's get down to business. As I've mentioned already, High-Rise is Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, but producer Jeremy Thomas (a man who I've a lot respect for) has been trying to get this project up and going more or less since it's original publication in 1975. In the late 1970s, it was being developed with Nicolas Roeg and Paul Mayersberg, the directorial-writing collaborators behind Roeg's masterpiece with David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and later Eureka, and later in the 2000s with Richard Stanley and Vincenzo Natali writing and directing respectively. In 2013, Ben Wheatley became interested in finding out who owned the rights to the book, leading him to Thomas, with the two becoming collaborators and Wheatley bring his regular screenwriting partner and wife Amy Jump to adapt the book. In High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a twenty-fifth floor apartment of a luxury tower block, quickly beginning a relationship single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and becoming friends with documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily-pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). He also becomes friendly with the building architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives on the fortieth floor at the top of the high-rise with his eccentric and snobby wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Thus, Laing is perfectly placed as our protagonist, because for all of it's hype as the future of modern living, things don't go so well in the high-rise, as we see the residents become increasingly disinterested in the outside world, becoming instead absorbed in the tensions between each other, threatening to descend the whole building into chaos. Got it? Good!

Starting off with the good, I want to praise the general direction of the film, and I don't mean just the directorial work of Ben Wheatley, but also of Jeremy Thomas as producer. Ballard's High-Rise is something that was never going to be an easy, straight adaptation, but Wheatley and Thomas have ploughed on forward with a highly uncompromising flick. Wheatley goes all out, his interpretation of the text being less the scientific approach Ballard takes but rather we climb inside the minds of the characters inhabiting the high-rise. Everything is experienced through their eyes, and as such we too are invited into the delirium, the madness, the revery, the psychological descent/ascent of these characters from the trappings of modern society. Thomas deserves a lot of praise for backing Wheatley's very particular vision for the film, which doubtless is challenging for some viewers to swallow. A lesser producer could have said "no" and made a more run-of-the-mill adaptation. Another aspect I want to praise about the film is the visual aspect of the film, both in terms of the cinematography and the mise-en-scene. There is some great production design on display here, making the most of the film's small budget, replicating the brutalist structures that began to rise up in post-war England in the 1960s and 70s. Notwithstanding their look, there is also this sense of alienation that comes from the sense of space between the characters. Despite them all being neighbours and residents living in the same building, we can see that both physically and psychologically they are distant from one another. In that regard, Laurie Rose's cinematography also contributes to that sense of space. Yes, she does some great work with the actors, but even within close proximity of one another, it feels like there is a vacuum, a void, as though conversations are occurring over two opposite side of a river. This quality can also be put down to some strong performances from the actors. Tom Hiddleston is a great lead as Dr. Robert Laing. Not only is it a thoroughly dedicated physical performance, I mean, he really throws himself into it, but I think mentally he just gets it. He has the task of being the audience's voice of reason amidst all of the chaos going around him, trying to make sense of the proceedings, and yet we can see, slowly, in his own quiet way, Laing is living his own personal madness. Hiddleston does all of this with confidence and assured, tactful knowledge, knowing when to draw the line and when to go out. It's also the best performance I've seen out of Sienna Miller in a long time. Now, in fairness it isn't usually her fault, because as we've seen in films like American Sniper, she oftentimes ends up getting saddled with a lesser role to her male counterparts. Here, as Charlotte Melville, you can almost see her relishing something with a bit of substance, depicting Charlotte as stuck in the middle of wanting to hold on to her sanity but being drawn in by the allure of madness. Speaking of physical, Luke Evans is great in his supporting role as Richard Wilder. On the one hand, you have this loving, caring family man, but on the other he is at heart a complete and utter hedonist, and Evans completely embraces this. The last actor I'd like to praise is Jeremy Irons for his part as Anthony Royal. Irons' Royal is a dreamer who wants to create a haven for others, but almost inevitably ends up being distanced from them, despite his attempts to develop friendships with others. You also get the sense through Irons' performance that although he is having a moral crisis, struggling with conscience as he sits in his top floor apartment seeing everything he has planned go awry, that in his quieter moments he is still plotting, planning as to how he can use the situation(s) to his advantage. Irons is a subtle performer who can convey a lot through seemingly not doing much, through small gestures and tones. Finally, Clint Mansell's score is a fine accompaniment to the film. Not only is it able to convey the quizzical mystery behind the phenomenon of what is occurring onscreen through pieces with percussive and woodwind instruments, but in an interesting way when it head towards sections with more grandeur, once the strings kick in, it becomes almost a satirical commentary. You have this elegant, almost romantic at times music, and it acts as a juxtaposition to the debacles onscreen. It's a strong example of the things that High-Rise as a film does right when it is at it's best.

Now, while there was a lot I liked about High-Rise, I do feel that is also a film that has a number of flaws, ensuring that while it is a very good film, it's not the great film that it could have been or aspires to be. The first issue I would like to flag up is that while we have a great cast playing these characters, I never got the sense that they were anything more than just that, characters. It's not my favourite of Ballard's novels, to be honest (for that I'd have to go with Crash), and I think the original source material has something of the same issue, although to a lesser extent. I got this feeling that there was something missing, and it wasn't until the film finished that I realised what it was; pathos. I felt that the film was too cold and clinical in dealing with it's characters, and because of this I unable to engage what I feel to be legitimate emotional empathy with them. I was watching what was happening to them, or what they themselves were causing, but I didn't care for the outcome or the consequences of their actions. I think this is down to a director and screenwriter who (and I mean this with the best of respect, but it is a negative criticism nonetheless) are more focused on the thematic content. The characters feel like psychological devices used as a commentary on the socio-political thesis proposed, as opposed to fully fleshed people in their own right. Also, Wheatley and Jump also edited the film, and at just shy of two hours, it's too long. It could have been cut back by about fifteen or twenty minutes, bringing it in at a far brisker running time and not let it overstay it's welcome, especially for a film as full on as this one is. 

On another note, this sounds terrible to say in relation to this film, but there is another work I can recommend in the place of both this and the original source material. David Cronenberg's first major film Shivers is also set in a modern high-rise apartment block, and it's residents too start to turn on one another, in this case caused by a sexually-transmitted parasite. On the one hand, it's almost a straight genre flick, sex zombies abound (the original title was Orgy Of The Blood Parasites), but in that Cronenbergian way it also an intelligent commentary on contemporary society, and the beginning of his hot streak of 'venereal' horror films including The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers. Coincidentally, Shivers was also released in 1975, and it's interesting that an artist who cites Ballard as a major influence and would go on to adapt Crash in 1996, would out-Ballard the master at his own game.

I know that recommending another film in place of both the original source text and the film itself isn't exactly an endorsement, and neither are the negative criticisms I've levelled at it (the lacks of pathos in the characters, the editing/running time), but High-Rise is still a very good film. Yes, it's troubled, but there's still a lot to like about it. The general direction from Ben Wheatley and Jeremy Thomas as director and producer is daring and uncompromising, I appreciated and admired the visual aspect of the film from the mise-en-scene and cinematography standpoints, there are at least four strong performance from Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons and I really liked Clint Mansell's score. It's a troubling film, but I still think it is one worth checking out and seeing what you make of it.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.7/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool

P.S. Terrific use of Portishead's cover of ABBA's SOS (link below)!