HIGH-RISE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Images, Strong Sexual Content/Graphic Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

HighRise poster

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Written by: Amy Jump

(based on the novel HIGH-RISE by J.G. Ballard)

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy & Keeley Hawes

A film adaptation of HIGH-RISE has been in the works for decades. The project passed through many hands and was originally thought to be unfilmable. Despite the odds being stacked against him, director Ben Wheatley took the reins of J.G. Ballard’s novel with a screenplay written by Amy Jump (who also happens to be Wheatley’s wife). It should be noted that I had read Ballard’s novel before walking into this movie and I was still taken aback numerous times by on-screen shocks, unforgettable moments, and a consistently uncomfortable tone. This oddball dystopian-ish sci-fi thriller is sure to gain a steady cult following over time, wind up the subject of many film theory essays, and serve as one hell of a unique ride!

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Searching for a fresh start in life, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) decides to move into the 25th floor of an illustrious high-rise apartment tower. The building is extravagant in its layout and has everything you could possibly want available within its walls. These accommodations include: swimming pool, roof garden, school, spa, gym, and even, a supermarket. There’s practically no reason to leave and after one man plummets to his death from the 39th floor, residents become more reluctant to venture into the outside world. A class system forms in the building, with the most powerful residing on the highest levels and the poverty-stricken surviving on the lower floors. As the tower deteriorates (frequent power failures, no running water, clogged garbage shoots), so do its residents. The high-rise becomes a forty-story battleground for a literal class war.

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HIGH-RISE’s script follows a handful of main characters through various levels, but disturbing deeds and darker than dark humor are equally present in a number of the film’s subplots. The lack of a consistent main story might turn certain viewers off. The film doesn’t give you a likable protagonist, but that’s sort of the point. This is basically LORD OF THE FLIES relocated to a high-rise apartment tower. Speaking of which, this movie’s atmosphere is unnerving in part because it feels like an alternate version of the ’70’s. Completing this illusion are a few tongue-in-cheek song selections, including two covers for ABBA’s S.O.S. (one of which is used to highlight an especially disturbing sequence). The detail put into every inch of the high-rise setting is breathtaking as it seems like you’re gazing into another world, one that’s simultaneously familiar and eerie. One might argue that the high-rise tower itself is the real star of the movie and sets most of the action in motion.

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Even though the main character is wealthy and has a medical degree, Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing as an everyman. He’s obviously supposed to represent the middle-class and doesn’t necessarily want to get involved with the ever-growing chaos in the building. However, we see his attitude slowly shift as the film moves forward, captured wonderfully in a particularly chilling montage. As Laing’s upstairs neighbor/love interest, Sienna Miller is great as single mother Charlotte Melville. This character wasn’t given too much thought in the novel and has more time dedicated to her here. The same can be said for the characters of lower-class pregnant mother Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), snobby actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and sadistic top-floor resident Ann Royal (Keeley Hawes).

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Jeremy Irons is somewhat sympathetic as Anthony Royal, a top-floor architect who stands out from the horde of murderous aristocrats. The most memorable of these high-society monsters is gynecologist Alan Pangbourne, played to teeth-snarling perfection by James Purefoy. Finally, Luke Evans steals every scene he’s in as lower-level Richard Wilder, who becomes a literal social climber as he begins to scale his way to the top of the building. Wilder is arguably the film’s main antagonist and his frequent rage-filled outbursts are equally amusing and frightening to behold.

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The structure of HIGH-RISE can be split into two distinct halves. The first half slowly builds tension and unease, while developing the story’s many characters along the way. We see petty squabbles become borderline fist-fights and witness injustices between floors (lower levels suffer from power failures, rich dwellers have a fancy private elevator). Then we get the 39th floor incident (already mentioned in my summary) and things go to hell in a hand-basket. Charlotte notes that “It’s as if everybody suddenly decided to cross some line,” and she couldn’t be more correct. Viewers craving mayhem with manners will find their thirst quenched by sophisticated madness in the last hour.

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HIGH-RISE is not necessarily pleasant or easy to watch (nor should it be), but it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, wholly unique, and disturbing as bloodshed is treated with a casual indifference. A child calmly munches on corn flakes whilst watching a man brutally beat another man to death over a bucket of paint. People casually walk by a swimming pool littered with floating corpses. Hulking piles of garbage bags become prevalent in every shot as the building slowly falls apart and many residents decay along with it. Even though I had read the novel before watching this movie and knew what to expect, I was constantly being thrown for a loop in very good ways. HIGH-RISE is definitely not for everybody. People will love it and just as many people (if not more) will absolutely hate it. I imagine that fans of experimental and counter cinema will appreciate the dark genius of this film. I surely won’t forget my visit to the HIGH-RISE and plan on returning many times in the future.

Grade: A+


Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Richard II poster

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Written by: Rupert Goold & Ben Power

(based on the play RICHARD II by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, James Purefoy, David Morrissey, Rory Kinnear, David Suchet, Tom Hughes & Clemence Poesy

Previous reviews on this site might reveal that I’m a big fan of Shakespeare. The HOLLOW CROWN series of films had been kicking around on my radar for quite some time. I sort of skipped past them for one main reason. Out of all Shakespeare’s works, I feel that his history plays are some of his weakest. After all, Shakespeare is known for writing long stories of bloodshed and despair (in his tragedies) as well as big laughs and hilarious misunderstandings (in his comedies). Histories seem to be the ultimate appeal to high-brow crowds of Shakespeare’s time, sort of like how obvious Oscar bait movies are obviously…well, Oscar bait and aimed at current viewers. Who knows how well they will hold up over time? That doesn’t necessarily make Oscar bait or Shakespeare’s histories into bad stories, but it does put a slight damper on them when the competition promises original stories that will take us to crazy places.

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Richard II enjoys his high-maintenance kingly lifestyle. He’s a cocky ruler with a pompous ego and does immoral things to get what he wants. One day, Richard is presented with a dispute between two royals and in a hasteful decision decides to let the two men, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, duke it out in a joust. However, in an even more poorly made last-minute decision, Richard cancels the joust and sentences both men to banishment (Henry for six years and Thomas indefinitely). This proves to be a dire mistake as Richard II becomes notorious among his countryman, especially after stealing away property and wealth from Henry’s newly deceased father. An uprising is coming. The pompous Richard has always appreciated the position of power, but neglected the actual responsibility that came with it. We watch as one king falls and another rises in his place.

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Proper adaptations of Shakespeare have always demanded ridiculously huge expectations for performers involved. HOLLOW CROWN’s first TV movie carries a remarkably strong cast. Each actor elegantly brings their roles to life in what feels like Shakespeare crossed with a slightly less violent version of GAME OF THRONES. Ben Whishaw elegantly carries the title character as a corrupt, villainous scoundrel who in time regrets his poor decisions and fears for his life. Whishaw’s line delivery is impeccable and lends a sense of brief comic timing during a couple of moments. A great example of this arrives when John of Gaunt (played by a brief, but strong-as-ever Patrick Stewart) dies. Richard (who has strongly disliked John) makes a seemingly sincere pause of emotion, before changing his tone completely (“So long for that”) and jumping immediately into seizing John’s possessions. The rest of the cast includes Rory Kinnear as the rising Henry, David Morrissey as a Duke fed up with Henry’s ways, and an all-too-briefly glimpsed James Purefoy.

Great Performances: The Hollow Crown - Richard II

For a made-for-TV movie, RICHARD II certainly boasts higher production values than one might expect. Attention to detail has been given to every set and location. Stunning beauty can be studied in each of the period-accurate (one could assume) costumes. The cinematography makes this look like something that might have played in theaters (for a majority of the running time, anyway). Occasionally, a couple of technical flaws can be spotted. These mainly come in the camera work during the scenes where Richard confronts his traitorous countrymen. However, these are few and far between. This adaptation also gets graphically violent with one painfully sustained death scene as well as plenty of severed heads to go around. This isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. The pacing can drag, even for a slightly condensed take on the source material. All that being said, the bard’s words and dialogue still shine with a power that few can match. Great speech after great speech are what mainly make this film worth watching and these words are further boosted by great performances and professional production values.

Great Performances: The Hollow Crown - Richard II

RICHARD II is not exactly Shakespeare’s best work. It’s not even his best history play (RICHARD III takes that title for me). However, HOLLOW CROWN’s production of it is certainly worth watching for fans of the bard. Somehow, I found myself shocked at how beautifully written and profound this dialogue still remains over four centuries later. This movie is a long one (running over two hours with a couple of patches that drag) and it has spots that show the signs of a made-for-TV film (though most of the scenes might convince you that this should have played in theaters). Great performances, attention to detail, and nice period setting ensure that RICHARD II is an enjoyably powerful adaptation.

Grade: B+

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