High-Rise

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J.G. Ballard’s seminal work, published in 1978, has long sat alongside a slew of equally influential novels that, upon first release, were deemed ‘unfilmable’. Prime examples include William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The former, a flawed curiosity piece, was shot in 1991 by David Cronenberg; the latter by Terry Gilliam without a shred of lucidity to keep it on the rails. Even Ballard’s own Crash fell into a similar category; again it was Cronenberg who finally took a shot at this ‘difficult’ novel, producing a fascinating but divisive mini-masterpiece of perversion in 1996. High-Rise has long remained in formidable defiance of adaptation attempts however the time has finally arrived. It’s now been audaciously brought to life by one of modern British cinema’s brightest lights, Ben Wheatley, and his partner and regular screenwriter Amy Jump.

The early scenes of High-Rise (2016) are curiously off-putting and alienating, immersing us in a weird retro world with a colour scheme and production design that draw attention to themselves in unfortunate ways. Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose find interesting ways to negotiate us through the maze of this scaled-down, closed-off society in miniature but it takes half an hour before we’ve come to grips with the off-kilter aesthetics. Initially, the world contained within the high rise is very much commensurate with the pristine, idealistic conception of its creator Royal (Jeremy Irons) who inhabits a floor on his own, replete with full-scale garden and other outlandish features. But human nature has a horrifying way of insinuating itself into any perfect design and before long tiny indicators of trouble begin to emerge, the first cracks developing into monstrous apertures that leave no room for repair.

Anyone familiar with High-Rise will know that it’s notorious for detailing the grotesque devolution of our species, of stripping back – with acidic fervour – the veneer that separates humankind and our civilised façade with our baser instinct which, as Ballard posits, given a chance to sniff the air and investigate, will almost certainly run amok. The world into which Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is deposited has a self-contained, hyper-reality to it; the world beyond only appears, tangentially, like a mirage hovering on the horizon, removed and coldly distant.

Ballard’s story sounds a bleak and dire warning for our race; in providing a stark and defining metaphor for our propensity for a rapid descent into savagery, he only hints at emotional vestiges underlining the contamination beyond a generalised anger and outrage at the inequality of this mini-society’s striations. The excellent Hiddleston proves to be the most accurate approximation of Laing you could imagine; there’s nothing particularly sympathetic about the man, but then he was never intended to be anything but a contextualising presence. In essence he serves as the primary witness and eyes of the audience. As we’re greeted to the subversion of order, cordiality and civility, they bottom out and begin feeding the savage, autonomous tendrils that swarm and submerge the high-rise into a primitively recast system of privilege and attainment.

The many supporting roles are all superbly cast, with Luke Evans especially effective as Wilder, one of the devolution’s chief catalysts, an outsider whose quest for visceral thrills denied him by the respectability and civility of the high-rise are key to kick-starting the crossing of the line into barbarity. Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy and Peter Ferdinando are other standouts though Wheatley has assembled a genuinely flawless ensemble. Special mention should also be made of Clint Mansell’s mesmerising score which ranks amongst his very finest, perhaps even topping his work for Darren Aronofsky in the way it intelligently and intuitively taps into the darkly evolving psychological aspects of the high rise’s inhabitants and their gratuitous capitulation to disorder as the new order.

Almost out of necessity to serve the story’s essential truthfulness, the film provides a provocative spectacle, though the ugliness and contemptuousness of the increasingly outrageous violence will become unpalatable and too hard to stomach for many. However, for much of its length I revelled in the faithfulness of Wheatley’s vision and if it does drag on, even to repetitive excess, it’s ultimately a minor failing of what is a creatively daring attempt to cinematically render a story that has lost neither its appeal nor social relevance.

Sing Street

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At the dawn of the pop video era, Dublin teenager Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is riddled with typical teenage angst. A bully, Barry (Ian Kenny), has honed in on him at his new school, whilst at home the marriage of his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) is sitting on a knife’s edge amidst constant bickering. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) possesses a peerless knowledge of popular music but rarely leaves the house, wallowing in self-pity and the agony of musical dreams that he refused to chase down.

Then Conor spots a mysterious girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), in a building across the road from school. Looking far older than her years, with the poise and demeanour of a model waiting for discovery, he’s instantly smitten and attempting to impress his new mate Darren (Ben Carolan) he crosses the social divide and begins an awkward conversation. He invites her to be the star of his band’s next video clip. Only trouble is Conor doesn’t have a band. And so a rapid-fire recruitment kicks off, with rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) to first to be consulted; soon a makeshift bunch has been rounded up with Darren assigned cameraman duties.

Sing Street (2016), John Carney’s third straight musical feature is almost as good as his earlier two, the Oscar-winning Once (2007) and his American-set follow-up, the wholly underrated Begin Again (2013) which featured inspired, uninhibited performances from Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Sing Street fits comfortably into Carney’s CV but it’s a welcome, feel-good variation on a theme. The fondness for the era shines through, especially in constant references to the music of the mid-80’s like the explosion of British glam rock and the influential medium of the freshly utilised video clip.

Walsh-Peelo, in his first feature role, is incredibly assured and his naturalness on screen is a reflection of the young performer’s background in stage and television performances. His bandmates have all been cannily cast; each is given brilliant one-liners or physical gags that enhance their endearing, outsider status – the kind of status that many might reluctantly admit to feeling a recognisable affinity with. The glamourous Boynton has a genuine on-screen magnetism too. Raphina is a fascinating character, part ingénue, part tragic, revealing beauty mixed with a credibly deglamourized vulnerability as her emotional core is exposed by life’s bitter failings.

Carney’s themes are unoriginal ones but, attached to the lives of appealingly real characters, they’re not without resonance: ardently chase down your dreams, believe in a right time to take your chance in life or be condemned to carry the burden of regret forever. Stacked with hilarious asides, visual gags – the final footage of the band’s first, alley-shot clip is a side-splitting classic – and even some raw, 80’s inspired pop songs that believably bring this band’s spirit to life, Sing Street is wonderful entertainment of the purest sort, an uplifting tribute to heedless young love, rebelliousness, revelling in new experiences, and the music that matters to its generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Day

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Irony and hardship often arrive simultaneously, a fact that Aid Across Borders workers can fully appreciate in Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s sublimely crafted A Perfect Day (2015), his first English-language Spanish film. Working in a remote part of the Balkans to free a corpse from a well and thus eliminate the threat of water pollution for the locals are Sophie (Melanie Thierry), B (Tim Robbins) and their leader Mambru (Benicio Del Toro). They soon learn all about the incongruency of humour inflicted by a turmoil that you either laugh at or cry in the face of.

A broken rope just as they near completion of lifting the bloated cadaver from the well leaves them exposed by their lack of resources. Attempting to procure another with the aid of their translator Damir (Fedja Stukan) turns into some ordeal as resentment and distrust from local communities keeps them at arm’s length. Along the way they encounter strategically placed dead cows in the middle of the road that may or may not be concealing explosives. They also pick up a young boy, Nikola (Eldar Residovic) who they save from bullies, and receive extra assistance from another Aid worker who also happens to be Mambru’s old flame, Katya (Olga Kurylenko).

Hypocrisy at higher levels of decision making and the often untenable separation of logic from a solution because of infernal reams of red tape form a significant part of the screenplay by Aranoa and Diego Farias, based on a novel by Paula Farias. But these become secondary to the characterisations which carry the film, providing it with texture, form and empathy in the shape of a fully fleshed out ensemble whose interactions are always dramatically engaging and often bleakly humorous. There are few dramatic flourishes or suspenseful moments or even a countdown to a major resolution. But A Perfect Day is no poorer in any way for this lack of attention to conventionality. It makes up for any superficial shortcomings with delicate, humourous interplay and a great deal of heart.

Aranoa’s lone dubious creative choice may be in saturating the soundtrack with a barrage of rock tracks though it’s hard to deny that certain choices, even if unsubtly deployed, prove effective. The acting is first-rate with the testy relationship between Mambru and Katya accounting for many of the film’s best scenes. Robbins has his best role in years as the carefree B, whilst Thierry is given a few memorable moments as the group’s newcomer, alternating between outrage, fright and bemusement at her co-workers’ often less than unorthodox methods of operation.

 

A Bigger Splash

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Luca Guadagnino’s relatively nondescript early films gave little indication of the level of artistry he displayed with 2009’s I Am Love. Providing a sumptuous, sensory overload, this masterfully orchestrated drama was compelling on many levels, including in its performances, led by the fearless Tilda Swinton, and its brash, if often overbearing use of carefully chosen music by John Adams. Now, six years later, the director’s delayed follow up A Bigger Splash (2015) arrives with high expectations attached.

On a scenic, volcanic Italian island, a barely-able-to-speak glamour indie rock star Marianne Lane (Swinton), is resting her over-strained voice whilst holed up in a villa with younger boyfriend Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). But now her former producer, good friend, and occasional lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) is flying in from the mainland with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Fanning) for a visit that will fatefully upset the locals’ dynamic and bring the past into collision with the future.

In general, Guadagnino’s film delivers in recreating some of the stylistic flair of I Am Love. Though less excessive in aesthetic obsessions, the film immediately grabs hold and the exotic locale and sheer bravura of Fiennes’s uninhibited performance take it to another level. There are moments when the love triangle aspect of the plot flirts with enticing elucidation. Deep undercurrents of unease threaten to break through to the surface though often, just when Guadagnino seems on the verge of taking these characters to the brink of a shocking transfiguration, he frustratingly pulls them back into a more conventional shape. His offbeat, diverse musical choices often strike distractingly discordant notes as well, though Harry’s very physical sing along with a Rolling Stones track is inspired in its wild extroversion.

Guadagnino’s trio of actors all make a deep impression with the more subtle nuances evoked by Swinton and Schoenaerts just as impressive as Fiennes and his brash externalisation of Harry’s base desires and emotional greed. Fanning is all cool glances and icy aversion but her relative mediocrity, thankfully, has little bearing on the trajectory of Guadagnino’s drama.

The chief failing of David Kajganich’s screenplay – based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine – is its wretched inability to find a satisfying ending. In fact, the final half-hour, beyond the staging of a key event, almost seems to have been ad-libbed or, at least, hastily devised mere moments before shooting, so haphazard and fluid are its tone and structure. It’s a bit of a mess actually, and seriously detracts from what had been, until that point, a mostly riveting, self-contained chamber drama alive with unpredictability.

 

Room

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Many hostage dramas build to a suspenseful point of no return, using a potential escape as a cathartic resolution beyond which little is used to explain or detail the real-world readjustment of any survivors. But it’s after this point that the storyteller’s most difficult task begins in earnest. Emma Donoghue, adapting her own much-read novel for the big screen, achieves an almost perfect separation of within and without perspectives. Instantly we’re immersed in a starkly realised scenario as Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are held captive inside a single room by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a man we know little about and see only in glimpses, initially, from the perspective of Jack who is made to hide in the room’s cupboard whenever the man enters.

The opening hour of Room (2015) is disconcertingly intense and claustrophobic. In a sense, it becomes hard to downshift away from once the narrative is opened up and a more conventional post-trauma analysis is delved into. Mostly, this is achieved by Donoghue with a degree of believable acuity, and without overturning the distress and complexities of the pair’s return to the real world with emotionally overwrought machinations. A moving though subtle, never pandering score by Stephen Rennicks also helps maintain the film’s emotionally even keel.

A couple of moments do come close to the brink of upsetting the fragile tone but Larson formidably grounds Joy with a credible level of distrust in superficiality as normality when seen through the blunted eyes of a survivor. Tremblay is a marvel too, making a deep impression in what must have been an exceedingly challenging role for such a young actor. There’s a solid support cast led by the ever-staunch Joan Allen as Joy’s distressed and unequipped mother. William H. Macy is sadly neglected however as Joy’s father with his couple of scenes creating a tension between he and his daughter that’s never appropriately addressed and curiously left unresolved.

Room remains resolutely engaging throughout even if its opening hour, despite its limitations, is its strongest. Much of the credit for this can be given to director Lenny Abrahamson. His early Irish films, Garage (2007) and the flawed but fascinating What Richard Did (2012), earned him a much higher profile project with his previous film, the brilliant Frank (2014). The promise of these earlier works is now confirmed with Room, in which he’s able to negotiate a tiny space for an hour and yet never allow the storytelling to become bogged down by an exaggeratedly compressed environment or, later, yearning for a simple understanding of the true notions of freedom and happiness.

The Bélier Family

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Sadly we’ve become accustomed to the bulk of the French film industry’s output bypassing our shores. Thankfully, a yearly two week festival dedicated to a diverse sampling of recent work continues to make inroads. Other than that, however, the trickle of French films granted general release here has mostly thinned down to a handful of quaint, whimsical, unchallenging crowd-pleasers and ones usually prefaced with dazzling one-line summation from unheard critics proclaiming each film’s heart-warming, life-affirming qualities.

The Belier Family (2014) is no exception; championed by the common folk in France who flocked to it in droves, the film arrives with an impressive range of rave reviews attached. Surely, then, it must have something special going for it? In fact, other than the winning lead performance of big-screen debutant Louane Emera, a former contestant of a French reality tv talent show, the only noteworthy aspects of The Belier Family concern how boring, clichéd and utterly stupid it is. And probably highly offensive to people with hearing impairments I’d imagine.

Depicted in the truly awful The Belier Family are the lives of a deaf husband, Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and wife Gigi (Karen Viard); their teenage son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) is also deaf. Only 16 year old daughter Paula (Emera) is able to hear and she shoulders much of the work connected to the running of the family’s farm, liaising with the locals with the buying of stock and selling of their dairy products at the local market. When she almost inadvertently reveals a wonderful singing voice in music class, she’s encouraged to develop her talent by flamboyant teacher Thomasson (Eric Elmosnino). However Paula is ashamed of her ability, fearing that to pursue it further would mean neglecting from her domestic duties, thus putting their livelihood in jeopardy.

Apparently all deaf people are idiots with restrictive world-views and resentful of anyone – including their daughter – who can hear. So does The Belier Family inform us – time and time again. The film’s relentless, one-note, dumbed-down provincial comedy is so pedestrian and mindless you’d think it was concocted by sparring 14 year olds trying to outdo one another with crudity and obviousness, the concepts of subtlety and wit as alien to their consciousness as the intricate technicalities of brain-surgery. Rodolphe’s attempts to become Mayor are especially laughable, though the dim-witted nature of the narrative struck a nerve, it seems, with the French who obviously split their sides at such laugh-riot scenes as Rodolphe’s interview with local press and his simple plea before a congregation of locals to vote for him despite displaying nothing but idiocy as a platform for his election campaign.

Karen Viard is actually one of my favourite French actresses of the last 20 years. Here, however, she achieves the truly unimaginable in lowering the notion of ‘overacting’ to excruciatingly awful new depths – and without ever uttering a single word in the film. Her absurd gamut of facial expressions and reactions, her overuse of physical gestures are so inappropriate, unbelievable and phony that I was actually cringing with acute embarrassment nearly every time she was on screen. Damiens, another otherwise talented performer, is also left to wither in the margins as director Eric Lartigau’s film takes the road most obviously travelled at every crossroads.

One fine, genuinely moving scene, as the film reaches its inevitable crescendo, partly redeems – though doesn’t come close – to saving it. In the wind up, Paula, you won’t be surprised to learn, gets to sing before judges and her parents at a serious competition and it’s a wonderful showcase for Emera who’s allowed to flaunt her vocal talent. Everything else about this trite and offensive film however, a film painfully lacking aspirations that might allow it to rise above the realm of generic cliché, is utterly irredeemable. Its themes of obligation to family and ties that bind versus following your true path in life have been handled in far more interesting and complex ways in so many other films. Here, simplicity is the only means Lartigau and his screenwriters have at their disposal to sketch their paltry notions of comedy and drama – notions thwarted at every turn by insensitivity towards and cluelessness about the very subject that should have been closest to their hearts when depicting the Belier family.

Far From Men

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With its measured pacing, subtly revealing characterisations and rich historical contextualising, David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men (2015) powerfully evokes our common humanity without ever resorting to bluster or overstatement. This marvellous film is a moving examination of identity in a land where national pride can mean different things to different people. One man’s interpretation of nationality can jeopardise the life of another as humble Algerian village school teacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) discovers when he’s lumbered with the task of transporting a man Mohamed (Reda Kateb) from a small village, accused of murdering his cousin, to French authorities. Despite the pretence of justice taking its course, Daru understands that he’ll he leading Mohamed to a brutal, inevitable demise.

In some senses this is a road film as the two men are tethered together against the backdrop of a harsh, unforgiving, war-torn landscape in Algeria in 1954. Daru’s roots are Spanish but he’s considered a local by the French and yet forever an outsider by the locals. Trapped in a wavering middle ground, he finds himself hamstrung by political perception as he and Mohamed weigh deeper into murky waters in which the threat of being set upon by various parties becomes more real with each passing hour.

Mohamed is suffering from his own internal turmoil; his fatal act is justified as a necessary means of survival against a grain-stealing cousin. But his other cousins want only retribution and the certainly of an endless blood feud beginning chases him through all of his sleeping and waking hours. There’s another group on their tail too, with a local positive that Mohamed is the same man whose been killing men in the vicinity. Daru believes otherwise and aims to get Mohamed to his detination to ensure he’s only prosecuted for the crime of which he is definitely guilty.

There are so many wonderful layers to Oelhoffen’s film which is actually based on a short story by Albert Camus. From innocuous beginnings the narrative soon begins to deepen as Daru and the initially silent Mohamed begin to compromise and open up to one another in order to survive. Quiet, contemplative moments are shot through with perilous encounters which, against their better judgement, strengthens their resolve. At one stage the pair faces certain death when captured by Algerian officers but evade disaster when Daru is offered to the advancing French as a hostage and the pair are spared in the wake of the subsequent slaughter.

The two main actors are remarkable. Mortensen continues to enhance his reputation of one of the finest practitioners of his craft. Moving between larger American roles and more interesting, artful European work, he’s never anything but magnetic and in the most effortless kind of way too, bringing fascinating shades of light and dark to every interpretation. He’s matched by the wonderful Kateb here as the guilt-racked Mohamed who is trapped between a rock and a hard place.

The resolution is sublime, regardless of how you might imagine it will end. The pair’s final scene together is full of tenderness and one of the most moving scenes in any film this year. There’s so much to admire about Far From Men, a film that comes awfully close to perfection. Oelhoffen’s screenplay is perhaps most remarkable in its determination to distil simple but emotionally wrought moments that capture the essence of our humanity into torturous moral choices. Refusing to trade, commendably, in easy solutions, it becomes a truthful, moving reflection of real life with all its ardour, despair, complexity and ambiguity.

 

 

Far From Men is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment. HERE for full details.