High Rise (2015, dir. Ben Wheatley)

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The feeling of being alienated from a group perceived as “better” can elicit the most raw of emotions. I see it in my students when one thinks they are not only being excluded from a clique, but believe they have become an object of ridicule. Ben Wheatley’s latest film, High Rise presents characters in this situation, but also places the audience there as well through intentionally obtuse storytelling styles.

Based on the darkly satirical novel by J.G. Ballard, the film centers around Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a doctor who has purchased an apartment in a revolutionary new high rise complex. The building is mixed income, with the poorest residents living on the bottom while the wealthiest reside above the clouds on top. Laing floats somewhere around upper middle class and is very much excluded from the exclusive, extravagant parties in the penthouse. There’s also Royal (Jeremy Irons), the crippled architect of the building who seems to simultaneously loathe his fellow aristocrats while never desiring to visit those at the bottom. Finally, there is Wilder (Luke Evans) a roughneck documentarian that lives in the squalor of the bottom floors. Very suddenly life devolves into tribal warfare among the occupants, resulting in murder, rape, and finally roasting the dog.

Ben Wheatley is a director I have come to love in the last few years, My first exposure to his work was the dark comedy Sightseers, the story of a star crossed couple who bond through murder. This was followed by A Field in England, a psychedelic horror story set in the midst of the English Civil War. This year I finally managed to visit his first major work, Kill List, a horror film about the tragedy that befalls a hitman. All of his work is complex and challenging, often upsetting, but ultimately rewarding for the ideas they put forward.

From the first moments of High Rise it is apparent we are entering a world resembling our own, but not. When the full heft of the madness goes down we lose all contact with the world outside of the high rise. It’s very easy to start to wonder how the external world would react to the brutality going on inside. But the film is not attempting to ground itself. This is Swiftian satire that is going to clobber you over the head with most extreme exaggeration of the ideology it wishes to rail against.

Every visual aspect of the film is perfection. The 1970s are wonderfully reproduced and then twisted into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Mark Tildesley, the brilliant production designer behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is responsible for taking these mundane spaces and transforming them into grim abattoirs.The most chilling aspect of the film is how easily the characters transition from annoyance with others misuse of the garbage chute and jockeying for prime parking spaces to planning raids on lower floors and abducting residents to force them into servitude.

It would be easy to take High Rise as a meditation on the corporate gentrification going on in major cities across the United States and in London. Or it could be seen, as the film teases in its final moments, as a prelude to Thatcher era class warfare. But I see the source material and director Wheatley’s take on it as deeper and more contemplative of our most primal and basic selves. High Rise is a film about the default tribalism society falls into when a crisis overtakes us, and how those who endure and retain some semblance of dignity must step away from the crumbling world around them.

 

Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. The Russo Brothers)

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It is an inevitability that you’re going to immediately compare Captain America: Civil War to Batman v Superman. Their core is simply heroes fighting heroes, but it is fascinating how differently they tell their stories. The obvious winner in the clash of these films is Civil War and the reason is apparent: An ideological distinction between sides is developed and debated so that when the fists fly there is an actual reason.

If you haven’t watched the previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) then it would make Civil War a fairly impenetrable film. Like the comic books that inspired these films, they are essentially soap operas in spandex. Despite the perilous possibility of falling into high camp, Civil War balances its over the top battles with well written and developed discussions on the nature of responsibility and consequences.

After a long run of 9/11 scale battles, the governments of the world wish to reign in the Avengers. A plan is presented that would tie the team to the United Nations. This means they would not act unless the UN passed a resolution allowing them to do so. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) has been feeling guilt over his role in the Ultron debacle and wants to sign right away. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is hesitant to give his autonomy over so quickly. It makes sense, Steve is the product of a nation’s desire to create a human weapon. Everything goes south when Steve’s old partner turned Hydra killing machine, Bucky is implicated in a terrorist attack. The heroes choose sides, battles take place, and the film turns the superhero formula on its head by ending not in a battle through a city but in a brutal, and surprisingly emotional, battle between three heroes in Siberia.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Spider-Man name drops Empire Strikes Back mid-way through the film. In the same way that Empire served to disrupt and reshape the status quo of the Star Wars universe, Civil War is out to accomplish the same goal. The purpose of the Avengers is in question. The relationships of heroes that joined together under tenuous circumstances are torn apart. The film sets up many questions but doesn’t provide answers. I suspect those answers will be the next two Avengers films the Russo Brothers are set to direct.

There are so many new and interesting elements introduced in this film. What I liked about them was that they didn’t come across as shoehorned by the studio to set up future films. Think of the Thor vision scene from Ultron and how it hamfistedly worked to get us thinking about his next film, rather than add to the film we were currently watching. Black Panther, played brilliantly by Chadwick Boseman, has a full character arc that affect the plot of the film in an important way. Helmut Zemo changes up the big bad supervillain formula the films have follows thus far. By the end of the film, it’s hard not to have conflicting feelings about his actions and their reason. Plot threads have valid conclusions while still hinting at future stories.

The one issue a film like Civil War can have is the feeling of character bloat. While new faces like Spider-Man feel like they get enough attention and development in relation to their purpose, I was a little let down by how little we learn about Scarlet Witch. Scarlet’s role in the story is fairly crucial, her actions are the inciting incident that lead to the conflict in the film. She’s fresh to the MCU, having only seen her in Age of Ultron previously. It would have been nice to see her character fleshed out more, but that would have been hard to do because of the previously mentioned overflowing cast list.

Civil War is a step in the right direction for the MCU. Critics and viewers has begun speculating as of late that the franchise’s luck was going to wear out soon, but I think there is a lot of story potential still left. The Russo Brothers are a great replacement for the Whedon-led Avengers. They directed the best Marvel film to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and I feel confident in their ability to give a different, more grounded take on these characters. Previously, the next two films were planned to be the two part Infinity War, a massive coming together of all the franchise elements. Recently the Russo Brothers announced the two films would not be directly connected and I think that was a smart choice. Keeping each film’s plot tight and singularly focused will keep them from falling into the trap of Batman v Superman, where previewing the next films became more important than telling a good story in the present.

Why Lost Worked And Its Wannabes Don’t

While its finale brought out strongly differing opinions, its impossible for anyone to say that Lost didn’t have a massive influence on the television landscape. It was the kind of television show that encouraged you to obsess about every last detail. Every episode left the viewer with questions and hints at the truth that laid at the end of the entire series. While, the writers decided to focus the ending on wrapping up characters’ emotional arcs instead of combing over the minutiae of the mystery, I felt very satisfied. What the rest of the television producing world took away from Lost’s success was that they needed to cram their shows with as much mystique as possible.
Continue reading “Why Lost Worked And Its Wannabes Don’t”

2012 – 10 Movies I’m Looking Forward To

With 2012 comes a deluge of new films. I’ve noticed that as summer movies top the anticipation list for me, they are never the films that make my favorites list. Its likely because we’re made aware of the big budget films and have to actively seek out the smaller films that this is so. Well, here are films that I think have the potential to rise above the rest of the garbage.

Cloud Atlas (May 4th)
The Wachowskis (Matrix, Speed Racer) and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run, Perfume) have teamed up to put David Mitchell’s Booker Prize winning novel on the big screen. Coincidentally, I am about a quarter of the way through the novel and am interested in seeing how they adapt it. The book consists of six narratives that telescope out to the middle of the book, and then telescope back in, making the first narrative the bookends. Each narrative is revealed to be read or experienced in some way by the main character of the following narrative (i.e. Story 1 is a diary, which the character in Story 2 stumbles across). Should be a mind blowing experience.
Continue reading “2012 – 10 Movies I’m Looking Forward To”

End of 2011 Part 4 – Miscellaneous Favorites

Favorite Album – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming/M83
Runners Up: Bon Iver/Bon Iver, Helplessness Blues/Fleet Foxes, Father, Son, Holy Ghost/Girls

In a world where the phrase “epic” is often overused on pieces of art not worthy of it, M83’s latest double album is just that. EPIC. I’ve frequently had this writerly idea of the fictional interpretation of Los Angeles as a perpetual neon twilight glow spread out to the ocean. This album is that in the form of sound. This is the culmination of the best of Depeche Mode and the gaudiest French synth-pop. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was the most inspirational album to me in terms of writing this year.

Favorite Gadget – iPad 1
Runner Up: X-Box 360

I bought my iPad at the end of last year, and it has become the most used gadget I own by far. As a teacher, it is an invaluable tool for ease of access. There’s a laptop assigned to me, but that stays in one place, while the iPad lets me send the daily roll in the morning, no matter where in the room I am. When the class goes into the halls and we have to stop to wait for our turn at lunch or PE, I keep the kids quiet and focused with a Math problems app. During grade level meetings, I pull out my capacitive stylus and take handwritten notes. Best device ever.

Favorite Console Video Game: Batman: Arkham City
Runner Up: Torchlight

Much like Arkham Asylum, Arkham City makes you feel like Batman. The combat controls are perfectly smooth, so even a novice gamer can pull off amazing strings of combos. The story is very cinematic and the voice acting is perfection. It helps that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returned to voice Bats and Joker respectively. My hope is that Rocksteady Studios is given the full DC Comics license and can develop more games like this one.

Favorite App (Game): Order and Chaos Online
Runner Up: Sword and Sorcery

I was a World of Warcraft junkie from 2008-2009. Ever since I had to suspend my account to focus on school and work, I’ve an MMO itch. Gameloft, a developer notorious for simply ripping off popular console and PC franchises for the iOS, released this game in the spring and it works. Not as detailed and rich as WoW, Order and Chaos has enough customization that is provides a mobile fix for loot and level addicts like me. While it seems Blizzard will never port WoW to the iOS, this will be a welcome reprieve.

Favorite App (Non-Game): Kindle/Stanza
Runner Up: Zite/Read It Later

There’s some naysayers about the rise of the ebook, but I think its a great thing. There will always a be a market for physical books, but digital books are so much better. On my iPad, I am carrying around about 400 books. This ease of access has gotten me back into reading much more than when I was limited by one book to carry at a time. This time next year, thanks to the iPad, I’ll have a top 10 fiction list.

End of 2011 Part 3 – Top 10 Favorite Narrative Films

As I have done every year since 2005, I keep a list of every film I watch for the first time in a year. Here are the ten films that topped my list:

10) Super 8 (2011, dir. J.J. Abrams)

This was my most anticipated summer movie and it definitely delivered what I wanted: a return to the  wonder filled Spielberg-ian cinema of the late 1970s/early 1980s. It wasn’t a perfect film in terms of an tightly written script, but it was a technically strong film. It also showed Abrams deft hand at recognizing the core elements of a style of filmmaking. I’d like to see him attempt to recreate other iconic mainstream directors’ styles in the future.

9) Blood Simple (1984, dir. The Coen Brothers

This was the only Coen Brothers film I hadn’t seen and I had avoided it for a long time. From production stills I was wary due to the very 80s specific production design. Being so used to a more stylized approach in their modern work, I assumed Blood Simple would be an inferior work whose purpose was more to develop what would be their future style. Was I wrong! Its as if these two men were born with an inherent ability to make perfect films.

8) Dogtooth (2010, dir. Giorgos Lanthimos)

I only became aware of this film with his Oscar nom in the Foreign Language category and was a bit apprehensive at first. What I discovered was a dark allegory that perfectly captures life in a “free” society. Depending on your perspective the film is about governments or the church or authority in general. Its also a great example of the strength of quiet European cinema. The events that unfold in the final minutes will linger with you longer than the majority of films coming out in your local cineplex.

7) Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars von Trier)

I am not a von Trier fanboy, more I admire the idea of what he attempts. I enjoyed Antichrist but didn’t fall in love with it. Melancholia is a different story. I expected a subversion of the sci-fi genre, but what it is here is actually a more faithful ode to science fiction literature than film. This is a short story made film, a perfect example of the fantastic being used as an overlay for a human story. It also has some of the most beautifully composed shots you’ll see in a film this year, particularly the opening montage.

6) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978, dir. Steven Spielberg)

This is another of those films that got away from me for a long time. I was very glad I watched this mere days before Super 8, as it got me in the perfect mood for that film. It also reminded me of what an amazing filmmaker Spielberg can be. Since the 1990s, he seems to have become a different filmmaker. While the work he does now isn’t terrible, there is a nostalgic side of me that misses the cinema of wonder. His films now seem more horrific (War of the Worlds, Minority Report, AI) or experimental (The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, War Horse). Part of me would like to see this Spielberg come back one more time.

5) Rubber (2010, dir. Quentin Dupieux)

You will not see another film like this in your life: A tire comes to life and proceeds to go on a telekinetic killing spree in a world wherein the inhabitants seem to know they are fictional. There is very little to say about this film other than, just got to Netflix and watch it.

4) Red, White, & Blue (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)

This film is the perfect antidote to the mindless torture porn horror craze that seems to be a large part of cinema these days. The opening acts of the film are torturously slow and methodical. But there is a reason why we are introduced so completely to the three main characters. When the violence begins it doesn’t let up and it devastates the audience. Everyone is guilty, yet everyone could plausibly claim innocence. A horror film that will truly haunt you.

3) Amer (2009, dir. Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani)

This almost wordless homage to the Italian giallo horror genre is one of the most beautiful looking films I saw all year. The film follows one woman from childhood through adolescence to adulthood using the framework of classic 70s European horror. Its incredibly interpretive and hypnotic. I popped it on one Sunday afternoon, expecting something that would simply serve as background noise. I quickly dropped everything I was doing and was fully absorbed.

2) Drive (2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

I first became familiar with Refn when I saw Bronson (2008) and was fairly impressed. Little did I expect a film of this level of style to emerge years later. Drive was able to capture the atmosphere games like Grand Theft Auto pray they can. Everything about the film felt exactly right, as if all LA Noir type films must be set in an 80s synth inspired environment from now on. It was particularly nice to see Bryan Cranston and a highly out of character Albert Brooks.

1) The Tree of Life (2011, dir. Terence Malick)

Tree of Life is a perfect example of film as art. First, its an incredibly personal work that shows how, as an artist becomes detailed and specific, they in turn become universal. Secondly, it has produced highly passionate and differing reactions. Its the sort of film that upsets some viewers because it asks them to participate on an intellectual level, something many films today do not. It does this, because it respects the audience’s intelligence. Malick is almost more of a composer than a narrative filmmaker, and he produces some very sweet music.