High-Rise

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump


While watching High-Rise I was very much reminded of Lord of the Flies. Like Golding’s celebrated novel, High-Rise depicts the collapse of civilisation and the ascendancy of disorder, savagery and anarchy. However, while Lord of the Flies was in essence a portrait of the darkness and evil that exists in all men’s hearts, High-Rise is a social commentary that raises themes of class, technology and power. The apartment complex where all these characters live is one where flat assignments and relationships between neighbours are determined by social status. The inequitable distribution of such necessaries as water and electricity speaks of the economic situation of the 70s, the decade Ballard wrote the novel, which remains very much relevant today. The residents of this building are isolated from the rest of the world and suffer from severe detachment and alienation. It is a film that speaks of a bad situation getting continually worse with no hope of restoration in sight.

Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a young doctor, moves into the 25th floor of a lavish tower block where he finds himself both seduced and bewildered by the way of life. Governing this building is its architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who rules from above in his penthouse apartment, unreachable to those who are not invited or summoned. Amongst Laing’s neighbours are Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a loyal advocate for Royal, and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker determined to expose the injustices exercised within the building. Through them Laing discovers the belligerent tension between the occupants of the upper and lower flats and bears witness to the complex loyalties and acts of provocation that result. As the situation grows more volatile it is only a matter of time until chaos erupts and the state of affairs is destroyed through violence and bloodshed.

High-Rise is set in a dystopic future of the 2000 A.D. kind that the writers and filmmakers of the 1970s might have imagined. Nearly the entirety of its story is set in the imposing tower with its dark interiors, oppressive architecture and intricate layout. Wheatley makes marvellous use of his setting and conveys an acute sense of being trapped and confined. The tower block was specially designed to be self-sustaining, complete with its own gym, swimming pool and shopping market, and so there is seldom a reason to step outside into the empty landscape. At one point two characters step into the parking lot only to discover that they’ve long since forgotten where they’ve left their cars. Through the use of montage Wheatley is also able to convey a sense of disorientation as the situation in the tower grows more explosive. We know that this chaotic breakdown takes place over the course of three months but our sense of time becomes distorted as the days meld into one another. Wheatley’s depiction of the horror that unfolds as chaos and disorder become rampant is unrelenting in its brutality and stunning in execution, particularly one sequence involving a kaleidoscope.

Hiddleston delivers a top-notch performance as an outsider slowly conforming himself to the way of life in the tower block. On the surface he is calm and immaculate but there is a hint of melancholy and madness that is gradually brought out by the increasingly unstable environment he has inhabited. Initially he seeks to achieve some form of balance between the two opposing classes, forming friendships with those below and arranging trysts with those above and is very much the observer to the catastrophe that is inevitably to follow. The rest of the ensemble is a collection of peculiar characters following a conformist way of life that is doomed to collapse. Evans shines as the deplorable, misogynistic Wilder whose quest to challenge the higher ups and expose their tyranny somehow makes him as close to a moral voice as a twisted world such as this can produce. Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss both provide highlights as single mothers of different social classes who become exasperated by this way of life and its subsequent downfall.

My main problem with High-Rise is that by the time the third act started I was ready for it to be over. So exhausting was the film’s constant violence, wild characters and disturbing subject matter that I, along with other members of the audience, was utterly drained as the film approached its climax. Perhaps this was intentional on the film’s part, to weary me with its relentless nature in order to drive its point home. This film has a clear point to make about society and is unmistakable in its approach. The film ends on a similar note to John Carpenter’s The Thing where, just when you think it’s all over, it leaves you with a hint that the worst is yet to come. Even though I felt that the film did lose momentum towards the end and thought that the narrative struggled at certain points, High-Rise is overall a well-crafted film with challenging themes that packs a real wallop.

★★★★

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Burnt

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Riccardo Scarmacio, Sam Keeley, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson

Director: John Wells

Writer: Steven Knight


The tortured genius is a subject that often gets tackled in films from Amadeus to Good Will Hunting right up to Steve Jobs (the film I intend to write about in my next review). The idea of a deeply flawed individual who possesses an extraordinary capacity for brilliance provides so much room for tension and conflict that the drama practically writes itself. It has proved to be such a fascinating topic that four of last year’s eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture, including the winner, featured stories of tortured geniuses and artists. However, just like with any other subject, it is all too easy to produce a generic take on this idea. There are films that often present their protagonists as ‘tortured geniuses’ without providing any profound insight into the ‘torture’ or the ‘genius’. They want to allow these protagonists to achieve some form of redemption in spite of themselves and rely on tired clichés and convenient developments in order to do so. The result is a bland, predictable story of a tortured genius that isn’t compelling and a redemption that isn’t earned.

The tortured genius in this case is Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), a gifted chef with self-destructive tendencies who returns from his self-imposed exile to run a restaurant in London. He assumes the post of Head Chef in a restaurant owned by his former colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl) and sets out to recruit his other former colleagues to join his culinary dream team. This proves difficult as many of these chefs still resent Adam for crimes that he committed back in the day. Amongst them is Reece (Matthew Rhys), a three-star Michelin chef (compared to Adam’s two) who antagonistically refuses to ever work with him again. Adam also recruits as his number two Helene (Sienna Miller), a sous-chef of unrealised talent. With a talented team and an advanced kitchen at his disposal, Adam plans to introduce a nonconformist menu of radical methods and unblemished taste in order to earn his third Michelin star.

The problem I had with this film is that it knows what kind of story it wants to tell but doesn’t have the commitment to follow it all the way through or the ambition to dig beneath the surface. We get that Adam is a talented chef with a volatile temper and a weakness for drugs, alcohol and women, but his characterisation beyond that is underwritten and underdeveloped. We are never given a deeper understanding of the motives driving his action or of who he is beneath his abilities and weaknesses. The film’s tendency to manipulate the circumstances around him undermines the evolution he undergoes as a character. I wasn’t at all compelled by his journey because he was never required to make any real risks or sacrifices. He makes a decision not to indulge in any of his vices in order to live a healthier life but is still allowed to get with the love interest anyway. The film throws in a generic moral about how he doesn’t need to succeed in his goals in order to live a fulfilling life but then allows him to succeed in his goals anyway. The film even allows him to succeed in spite of himself since his failures are consistently saved my some lucky twist of fate. Therefore the redemption he receives at the end of this film simply isn’t earned because it doesn’t come at any real cost to him.

Although I did not find myself drawn to the story or the characters, I did think the cast as a whole did a fine job with what they were given. Bradley Cooper is allowed to be loud and explosive in a Gordon-Ramsay-like way in this role and proves himself equal to the task. Sienna Miller continues to be woefully underused in her films and delivers a commendable performance as a generic love interest. Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy and Matthew Rhys also provide notable performances as their respective characters with Brühl in particular clearly enjoying himself. The film even features minor roles for Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson, both of whom deliver far more than the material provided for them. I must also say that the food in this film does look nice and I imagine would be very appealing to any foodies watching the film.

This film is simply uninspired, lacklustre and dull. It offers a familiar story with familiar characters that have been done a hundred times before and doesn’t bring anything new. The most enjoyable part for me was watching the food being cooked because at least then there was something interesting for me to look at. Beyond that and maybe a few laughs here and there was nothing in this film that captivated me or caught my interest. There was some great talent behind the making of this film, not only with the actors but also with the director and screenwriter. John Wells is a formidable director who has done good work on TV and Steven Knight is a marvellous writer. While the talent involved was enough to prevent this film from being downright terrible, everyone who worked on it is capable of producing something better.

★★

American Sniper

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Jason Hall


American Sniper has been praised by some critics as this year’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and, like those films, it has run into its share of controversy. Much of this controversy stems from the film’s ideology and from the debate over whether or not the film’s subject Chris Kyle deserves to be hailed as a hero. With 160 confirmed kills Kyle has been declared the most lethal sniper in American military history. Some have declared him to be a hero, allocating him with the nickname ‘Legend’, while others have denounced him as a murderer. Left-leaning critics of the film have branded it a propaganda piece that glorifies war while right-leaning supporters have acclaimed it as a celebration of the US troops and the hardships and sacrifices they have to endure on a daily basis. Personally I’m less interested in the political aspect of this film and more interested in the human aspect. Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle, has stated that the film was intended to be a story about one man and his internal struggles. That is the film that I wanted to see as I entered the theatre.

The film starts off with an incredible opening scene where Kyle, who is perched on a rooftop in a warzone on the lookout for any potential threats, spots a woman and a young boy entering the site. He fixates upon them, waiting to see what they plan to do. The young boy is handed what looks like an explosive device and Kyle is suddenly faced with a difficult decision. He has seconds to decide whether or not to fire knowing that there will be dire consequences if he makes the wrong choice. He must weigh the ramifications of taking a child’s life against the potential threat posed to his nearby allies and make a split-second decision that he can never take back. Each agonising second that passes is tenser than the last as we wait to see what Kyle will do. It is an opening that instantly grabs your attention and immediately provides the audience with an outline of the inner conflict that will torment Chris Kyle throughout this film.

The film then goes into flashback mode as we see scenes from Kyle’s childhood in which his father teaches him how to shoot and imparts upon him a lesson about how all people are either sheep, wolves or sheepdogs. He is adamant that both of his sons shall grow up to become sheepdogs, i.e. men who stand up to bullies and who help those in need. Cut to a few years later, Kyle is living in Texas as a rodeo cowboy. He spends his days drinking beers with his brother without a worry in the world until one night when he sees the news coverage of the 1998 US embassy bombings. In that moment Kyle feels the call of duty and immediately enlists in the US Navy to become a Navy SEAL. I imagine that Eastwood was trying to appeal to a sense of American patriotism in this scene, and perhaps he succeeded (I’m not American), but to me this moment came across as a bit corny. To the film’s credit it does manage to diminish the supposed glamour of joining the armed forces with its brutal training montage.

Afterwards we see Kyle in a bar where he meets his future wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). Throughout this film Miller does do her best with the material she is given, but she simply isn’t given much of a character beyond being Chris Kyle’s wife. They fall in love and get married just before Kyle is deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He excels as a soldier there and builds up a considerable kill count, but it soon becomes clear that the war is having a distressing effect on him. Whenever he comes home to see his family, he isn’t really there as he is still being haunted by the war. He is still driven by a strong sense of duty and refuses to leave the Navy until he believes that he has done enough.

Bradley Cooper does a commendable job of portraying Kyle and the trauma that he experiences. The film makes a strong attempt to depict Kyle as a hero by emphasising how he is haunted not by the lives he has taken but by the lives he failed to save. However my major gripe with this film is that it never really gets under Kyle’s skin. The film does a good job of showing the inner struggle that Kyle suffers but never really tries to uncover a deep understanding of it. The film seems more determined to revere Kyle as a hero rather than view him as a human being. Therefore the sum of his inner conflict simply amounts to him caring too much. This may make for an admirable character but it also makes for a simplistic one.

American Sniper is overall a stirring film with some great moments, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by the lack of a compelling character study. I couldn’t form an emotional bond with Kyle as a character until at the very end when we are shown the archive footage of his memorial service at the Cowboys Stadium. That, for me, was a strong emotional moment because it was actually real. The rest of the film, as decent as it was, never really felt like a real story. Perhaps this is because it was clearly made with a strong ideological motive in mind that was pretty difficult to ignore. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a such a purpose in a film, whether it be politically, morally, or patriotically motivated, I just felt that it got in the way of what could have been a better film.

★★★