RETRO REVIEW: HIGH-RISE Aims High with Ballard Adaptation, Falls Low …Maybe

Posted on: May 12th, 2016 By:

high-rise-poster-ben-wheatleyHIGH-RISE (2015); Dir. Ben Wheatley; Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss; Opens Friday, May 13 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

When the credits rolled and the lights came up on HIGH-RISE, I wasn’t sure what to think. The audience around me murmured and shifted. The film didn’t seem to go over well on them. As I left the theater, one guy asked someone (the crowd?) repeatedly “Did you like that film? Did you like that film?” In the parking lot, I overheard two women trying to make sense out of it.

So, yeah, I think I liked it.

HIGH-RISE is an intentional provocation, an agitprop object. This thing has weight, texture, depth. A century ago, people tried to burn the screen after movies like this, movies that acted as angry screeds about the increasing stratification of the classes. HIGH-RISE acts as a period piece, but couldn’t be more perfectly suited to our times. Wow, this film is mad, and it makes a solid case that we all should be madder.

Based on the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel that was long considered unfilmable, HIGH-RISE plays out like an uppercrust LORD OF THE FLIES, with an insulating luxury apartment building standing in for the far-flung desert island. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a desirable young doctor whose search for solitude prompts him to move to the 25th floor of the ultra-modern building that offers all the amenities of the outside world, from swimming pools to supermarkets. At first, Laing’s new environment seems like a utopian paradise full of endless parties. People from all floors mix and mingle, despite the economic divide. You see, the lower floors are for the families and the poor, and it’s these people hit the hardest when the power begins to short out. It happens a little at a time, and then all at once. The building’s architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), offers no good explanation, and as the resources begin to dwindle, the utopia crumbles as the residents turn on one another.

2016_11_high_riseYou may be asking why the residents don’t just leave the building as it stops sustaining them? This is where we approach the novel’s unfilmable reputation. Those looking for a clean narrative like LORD OF THE FLIES or even SNOWPIERCER might find themselves thrown by HIGH-RISE’s allegorical approach. The residents do leave. They go to work. Occasionally. But when the day is over, they race back to the disintegrating nightmare of their vertical world. Dogs become food. Roving bands of the well-to-do raid their neighbors for cocktail onions so that the party can continue. Laing himself becomes intent on simply finding the perfect paint color for his apartment while the bodies pile up in the pool. The allegory is that capitalism and human nature itself is the root of the evil, and it never occurs to the citizens of the block that there might be another way.

hiddleston-xlarge_trans++3hVEJul2WVJXEjB3JWusSHndML-fnbpvlkWcWvKdhwUDirector Ben Wheatley has developed a reputation for off-center oddities, including 2013’s A FIELD IN ENGLAND, in which a group of men crossing a field becomes a trippy psychedelic mash. Wheatley (and his wife/writer Amy Jump) proves to be a great fit for this material, choosing to emphasize mood and meaning over the particulars of plot, which could never have come together satisfactorily without sacrificing some of the story’s deep symbolism. In this building, it’s not so easy that the rich prey on the poor, but that when the chips are down, they all prefer to eat each other. The only sane way to navigate this new world is to paint yourself into your own carved-out corner and hope to god it doesn’t come crashing through your door.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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30 Days of the Plaza, Day 14: New Mythic Movies Series Sprinkles A Little Neil Gaiman/Charles Vess STARDUST at The Plaza Thurs. June 14

Posted on: Jun 13th, 2012 By:

By Tom Drake
Contributing Writer

STARDUST (2007); Dir: Matthew Vaughn; Based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; Starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Ian McKellen, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro ; Mythic Movies Series presented by the Mythic Imagination Institute and prologue to Faerie Escape Atlanta convention at the Plaza Theatre, Thurs. June 14; 7:30 PM; Discussion following led by Lisa Stock (SNOW, GLASS, APPLES); $10; trailer here.

Short Version: A philosopher once asked, “Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?” Pointless, really… “Do the stars gaze back?” Now *that’s* a question.

Medium Version: THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) for a new generation. The Village of Wall stands between the world of Fae and our own. One day a star falls, and a capricious girl Victoria (Sienna Miller) sends a young man named Tristan (Charlie Cox) on a quest to bring it to her. So he does. And in the process finds everything he never knew he wanted, for while on our side of the wall, a star is a ball of super-heated gases, on the other side of the wall, the star is a beautiful girl Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is not so keen on being brought back across the wall.

Maximum Verbosity: What is a mythic movie? One might as well ask “what is a myth?” – for which one can consult a dictionary at any time. But the short version is that a myth is a story that works itself into our collective unconsciousness, that tells of a society (including our society) and becomes a part of who we are. In this postmodern world, the myths of many cultures work our way into the American melting pot. Why else would a Greek God like Zeus still be known to every man, woman and child of a civilization that is thousands of miles away from Greece and only claims a small population descended from that region?

Airship Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) dances with star Yvaine (Claire Danes) in STARDUST. Paramount Pictures, 2007.

The stories themselves have taken on a timeless quality and teach lessons that we learn and incorporate into our lives, very often without even knowing it. Fairy tales have been quite popular of late, and there is a reason for it. Most all of us learned about them growing up. But not all fairy tales come from the Brothers Grimm. Around the turn of the century, a series of fairy tale collections gathered by Andrew Lang based on color, THE RED FAIRY BOOK or THE GREEN FAIRY BOOK, graced many bookshelves around the world and were based on a world of Fae very different than the mildly mischievous Tinkerbell who makes the children fly in Disney’s PETER PAN. These Fae are beautiful, dangerous, insane, alien and haunting.

STARDUST is a tale inspired by these kinds of tales and does so with such perfect mimicry that it might as well be one. It has all of the class elements of the fairy tale, of course, including witches, magic spells, a crown to be won, romance, a heroes’ quest and unbearable loss. But it carries with it the innovation and freshness that modern fantasy diaspora provides – a world that makes sense in Fae with a ship that catches lightning and magic that acts much like science does here. Neil Gaiman (the author of the illustrated book upon which the movie is based) is an excellent writer, but the reason he enjoys such popularity is because his tales capture the epic feel of ancient myth with modern language in a way that makes them as meaningful to us today emotionally and creatively, as the older mythic stories were for the original people who were awed and inspired by them in the first place.

On the surface, STARDUST is simply a fun movie. It just wasn’t marketed very well, but it has a slow, small cult following that grows a little bit each year. The characters are very human, and you find yourself rooting for our hero Tristan, especially since at one point or another, we have all done something stupid to impress a girl (or, in reversed circumstances, a guy). But stupid though his task may be, he is bound and determined to do so. He is not only in love, and to a lesser degree his personal honor is at stake, but as he finds the star, alone and so far from her sisters, shining in the heavens above, he begins to have a change of heart. And a change of heart is what all great love stories are about.

Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) in STARDUST. Paramount Pictures, 2007.

On a deeper level, of course, all kinds of things are going on. The true value of sibling love, or rather the lack thereof is often manifest, and the mistakes of our predecessors are often echoed again and again. We often do incredibly stupid things because that is simply the way we have done them. There is the treachery of power, and how, once tasted, we will do almost anything, no matter how vile to retain it. And how of the many flavors of power, physical attractiveness is the most fleeting and superficial powers of them all. STARDUST is a story of what being beautiful truly means, a coming of age tale, and also deciding what it really means to be who you want to be.

And all of that is what makes STARDUST not only a “mythic movie” but an excellent one, for it teaches on many levels. Jim Henson (DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH) also was a master of this. He entertained children, but also entertained the adults at the same time with jokes that only they got. Gaiman tells an exciting story, but weaves in lessons as timeless as the stars they honor, and you enjoy letting him do it.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. It is fantastic in every conceivable way, and this Thursday at the Plaza Theatre, you will get a very rare opportunity indeed: to see it in a historic art-deco (REAL) cinema with an appreciative crowd. The odds of you wanting to own the DVD after seeing it are very high. See the movie.

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