Thursday, 7 April 2016

High Rise Review

I finally got a chance to see High Rise! This arthouse actioner starring Tom Hiddleston is truly Lord of the Flies on acid.... hit the jump to read my review!

I've been looking forward to this one for almost a year now. J.G Ballard's text has been a source of constant amazement and wonderment to me for the last while - it provides a different sort of experience to other novels. Chiefly, in it's writing style. Ballard writes the novel as a documentation, as an account of the horrific events that befall a single high rise building from its opening to its present (in some 1970s future). This documentary style (Ballardian writing in general) leads me to believe that it is the perfect source for a film adaptation. Repeatedly, critics have referred to the 'unfilmable' source material - which makes no sense to me. Rather, I suspect that critics are taken to reading other critiques, and emulating the 'foreplay' as it were (the introduction to the film). In my opinion, High-Rise has extreme cinematic potential - the novel's descriptions acting almost like a set of stage directions.
Stanley? Is that you?

I've seen the film twice now. Once with a close friend, and once with a group of people. And both have been very different experiences. I'd certainly urge anyone whose interested to see it twice, and to be able to fully experience the visual marvel that this movie is. But story wise, I'd recommend you read the source material first. Ballard's novel(la?) does a far better job of telling his story: that of societal breakdown in small increments. Wheatley deals what I'd rather refer to as a sort of companion piece. A visual orgy of excess which revels in the fetishistic and negates a large amount of the substance. That's fine for me.... the divisive question at hand, however, seems to be is it fine for you? Because High - Rise's spate of 1 star, 2 star, 3 star, 4 star, and 5 star reviews suggests critical opinion is a little more than mixed. I'll explain the problems later, and on the same note why they most certainly aren't problems for me.
One of very many ultraslomo hallucinogenic scenes...

So onto the story. High Rise is all about the central conceit. Peripheral matters are just that: peripheral. So, in a way, our main character is the building (a metaphor touched on just a tad too much during a dinner conversation which may, or may not, be Ben Wheatley indulging a little piss take of his audience). This work is certainly a piece of two main acts; the before, and the after - with a bridge in between. The before is an exercise in style and opulence: a chronicle of a luxurious building and its ridiculously wealthy inhabitants. Laing (Hiddleston) moves into the building to 'Invest in the future'. An ever-so-slightly ham fisted metaphor of a face being pulled of a skull ensues (gruesome is the word). Parties, sex, drugs, and a lot of nudity continue for the next while - as mounting minor tensions threaten to bring war between subsections of the middle-class occupancy. Perhaps the strongest force in orchestrating these conflicts is the perpetually unsatisfied Wilder (Evans), a Thatcheresque miner who has a 1980s chip on his shoulder. As is the nature of the story, there's no clear turning point (well, there is in the book I suppose), but Wheatley clearly feels the need to exemplify mass change via a sort of bridge.

I know I've already said it.... but surely this must be you Stanley?

Exactly how long you like your bridges will determine how much you enjoy the narrative of the film. If you're looking for the Oresund - a documented step by step explanation of carnage - you'll be sorely disappointed. What you'll get is more of a small footbridge over a stream - a kitschy, accelerated montage of decay that never pauses to explain itself at all. Like I said, read the source material and you'll be fine. So fine, in fact, that I never observed this little inconsistency until the second viewing. "That was good but I had no clue what happened" was the response of my companion the first time round. Hence: the bad reviews. A story-less mess would be the apt title for such a negative review. But, in any case, I am inclined to disagree (more on that later).

The second part of the film is perhaps where Wheatley has the most fun. he's built the sets, and revelled in their majesty - but he takes even more delight in trashing the living shit out of them. Cream shag carpets become caked in mud and gore, beautifully symmetrical supermarkets are beaten to a pulp, and a glistening 30th floor swimming pool becomes a fetid swamp of filth and dead bodies. The residents begin to turn on themselves: shooting, stabbing and raping each other. An ultra-slow-mo fall from one of the highest floors provides a disturbing interlude - and an interesting subplot that isn't present in the original story.
Poor Jeremy Irons: he doesn't even get a mention in this review... He is, however, fantastic!

So if you're looking for substance then you've come to the wrong place. But why do you need substance? Don't laugh: it's a serious question. Drive had no substance, Gravity had no substance, Mad Max had no substance, and, lets face it, 12 Years a Slave had no substance; but the critics lavished these films with 5 star reviews. As long as a film has requisite style and craft, it can be a great film. People seem peeved that High Rise lacks the social satire of the book. I see this as quite dim-witted, given that the book itself has lacked social satire presumably since the latter 20th century. It only works in the context of rapidly increasing high rise developments and rampant capitalism which trailed off before the 90s. It is, instead, a kitschy retrofitted piece that is interesting for it's style -  and biting within it's frame of reference. So, indeed, is Wheatley's film: imagine it screening in the 70s and you'll have a heart attack. More than that, at the height of Trellick's growing infamy, it'd be considered distasteful to say the least. It is, dare I say it, far more biting than Ballards writing within its time. It deserves the same respect on that front.
Prepare for the cringe...

But now? In the current climate? Well it's a visually stunning, audacious piece of excellent design. And that's all it needs to be: to watch an excellent and perfect structure be destroyed over the course of a film is about as cathartic as it gets: the slow death of an organism as it's cells turn upon it. Just as Ballards book was to me a couple of years ago. The same exhilarating experience - forget the 'satire'. Naturally, you'll need the stomach for 2 hours of non-stop nihilism, violence, and distressing images; but it's a Wheatley picture so you should already know that by now. In fact, despite a lot of the violence being implied, it's so bleak that a member of my group the second time around left before the end. In many respects, I don't blame her. It is a film with such gorgeous visuals that I didn't realise myself, until I left the Cameo feeling somewhat empty, the impact that it could have.

How to sell it? A defining phrase came to mind the other day: if you wan't to see another Kubrick film, see High Rise. The spirit of the late, great, mainstream auteur lives on in the production design and symmetry of Wheatley's work. One could be forgiven for thinking that High Rise was actually a Kubrick picture. In fact, if I was presented with it and was told the director was the man himself - I would be liable to comment that High Rise was a picture that could be made by none other than Kubrick himself. Rather, High Rise is a film that only Wheatley could make. And it's the most interesting mainstream breakout of the year so far - unless you count the impending Hardcore Henry wide release as a 'breakout'. Working on a far smaller budget, only 2011s 'Sightseers' provided any real commercial interest at the box office, and even then it was limited. Now? He's working with some big players like Tom Hiddleston, on big sets, with wide releases (including a limited stint in the US later this year. And the controversial critical response has made Wheatley the talk of the town. What's more, he has another film out later this year - Free Fire - with it's own cast of prolific stars. Fingers crossed for a decent set of reviews and box office receipts - and here could be a hot-property director. Hiddlestons fans are well known for being some of the most committed in the biz - so I doubt High Rise will suffer from a mediocre box office. It's exciting to watch such incredible talent rise from obscurity to fame. Let's just hope he continues to avoid mainstream compromise: High Rise is not a film for mainstream audiences, yet it appears to have fallen right into their laps.
One of the spectacular party scenes in motion.

Cliff Martinez's soundtrack is a phenomenal blend of 1970s synthesizers, and brooding classical beats that border on the edge of insanity. And, of course, that Portishead 'SOS' cover that you've all heard about? Well it's absolutely stunning. Quite possibly the centrepiece of the film, the song is played in full, at full volume, over a montage of misery of the highest order. It's supreme, and supremely secretive - in the way that you won't find the song anywhere (not even on the soundtrack album). Only by watching the film itself can you hear it! I think that's pretty cool indeed....

And the acting is absolutely flawless. Throughout the whole film, there appeared to be only one line delivered in a convoluted fashion - that of Wilders wife during an early party scene. It's actually a promo clip for the film if you want to check it out: where she says 'people generally don't care what's happening a few floors above or below them'. I don't know what it is about that line, but it just made me cringe in my seat. But like I said, apart from that, I couldn't fault it. The use of a child star trope thingy added some squirmy awkwardness ("the future" blah blah), but his acting was superb - it's just my dislike of child actors in general that caused the problem.

Overall, it makes more sense to describe the whole affair as an experience. But not an experience as in Gravity, or Hardcore Henry - more of an Inherent Vice type vibe. Imagine you're at a pool party in 1970s London... you take inordinate amounts of LSD and everything just kinda gets fucked up weird... there's a big orgy and then everyone starts to get violent... think the beach (Garland's not DiCaprios) with added hallucinogenics for good measure... you're almost there.... ah fuck it, just go see it!
By this point, everything's gone to shit...

There we have it: High Rise is a visual phenomenon: a bleak marvel of cinematic excess that parties away in it's on visual misery with extreme slow motion, multiple montages, and Kubrickian sensibility. Story wise, it's a sandwich short of a picnic. But hey, bring some alcohol to the screening, chill the fuck out, and get ready for the most explosive mainstream head-trip of the year. Just don't expect to be happy....
High Rise gets 4 stars!

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