Out on Friday 18 March
Ben Wheatley and Tom Hiddleston welcome you to a concrete jungle. Bill Murray and Zooey Deschanel go on a musical tour.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of High-Rise, Rock The Kasbah, The Pearl Button, Marguerite, Risen, Norm Of The North, and The Boy.
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If you enjoy shots of dogs leaping to safety from flaming near-doom in disaster movies, steel your eyes. It’s no spoiler to say the mutt sizzles in this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel from Kill List/Sightseers director Ben Wheatley. As a paw is spit-roasted, the point is well made: faced with extreme material for his first adaptation, biggest budget and biggest cast (not his only hapless hound, mind – RIP, Sightseers’ Poppy), Wheatley doesn’t flinch.
Wheatley and screenwriter/wife Amy Jump’s Ballard riff is unrulier than Crash, David Cronenberg’s take on Ballard’s other supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novel, also produced by Jeremy Thomas. But Wheatley and Jump pull off a similarly seamless author/filmmaker hybrid, honouring the novel while making it their own highly cinematic beast.
The result drew mixed festival reviews, but roll with its anarchic satirical punch and you’ve got rare meat: a Brit-film of singular vision, blackened wit and dog-toasting audacity, cooked with such brio that its flaws seem like acceptable casualties. As the dog cooks, we meet Tom Hiddleston’s Dr Robert Laing, a seemingly vacant neurologist reclining on a Brutalist tower-block balcony in mid-’70s London.
As placid as he seems, one of many clear mergers of the Ballard/Wheatley/Jump mindsets is established as the voiceover comments, “Now that so many residents were out of the way…” Hell is often other people in Wheatley/Jump’s films, from the singing Christians in Kill List to the fellow holidaymakers up for the chop in Sightseers. Here, the resentment is largely class-based, a point emphasised as we rewind three months and Dr Laing moves into the isolated tower’s 25th floor.
With his charm, looks, slippery personality and copious medicinal know-how as pass-keys, Laing floats between classes and floors. Just above him is Sienna Miller’s free spirit Charlotte Melville; down below, there’s arch-revolutionary documentary-maker Wilder (Luke Evans) and his class-strapped clan, pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and watchful son Toby (Louis Suc). Way up on top is the architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who designed the tower as a “crucible for change”, a kind of “experiment”.
If Irons’ roles in Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly provide a roundabout link to Cronenberg, so does a med-school scene where the skin of a cadaver’s head is peeled away in a kind of metaphor for society’s thin surface.
The results of Royal’s experiment also recall the dabblings with sex parasites in Cronenberg’s tower-block ‘splatire’ Shivers, where orgiastic chaos bloomed. As power cuts and class-sparked clashes over swimming pools stoke rage in High-Rise, society’s lid blows and apocalyptic rioting erupts, with Che Guevara-loving Wilder its enthused advocate and Dr Laing our amoral eyes.
In Ballard’s spirit, Wheatley and Jump play out this scenario as a retro-futurist sci-fi allegory. Ballard was writing about the near-future in the mid-’70s: Wheatley and Jump smartly stick with a period they know well. The overflowing bin bags, broken bottles, nasty sideburns and swingers’ indulgences reek of late-’70s Britain, even before a familiar prime minister’s voice intones over the climax.
If that final nod is faintly on the nose, one or two performances also stumble. Whether it’s the effect of asking a large ensemble to evoke the chaos of a kids’ party ‘gone a bit Game of Thrones’ or not, a couple of comic turns overstate their grotesque case.
Yet the core cast are electric. Hiddleston is terrifically nonchalant (and quite a mover) in a role that links a Wheatley/Ballard theme: the psychosis behind British reserve. Miller makes bright work of Charlotte, Moss’ neglected wife is touching, the Oliver Reed-ish Evans is seedier than a ’70s ’tache and Irons oozes curdled aristocracy. And he gives good press-ups.
Wheatley and Jump’s flair for comic incongruity and deadpan dialogue is equally well pumped. Recalling the camping/killing collisions in Sightseers, weaponised tinned goods are deployed in an all-out supermarket civil war. A child scoffs cereal as he watches a man brutalise another over paint tins; as hell erupts, someone casually remarks, “There’s some very unhappy bunnies bouncing around.” That skewed sensibility extends to some fabulous surreal flourishes: horses and goats roam a top-floor garden paradise.
Even as the plot turns choppy, eye-watering marvels of artful detail keep its grip sharp. Mark Tildesley’s lavish production design ranges from mouldering fruit bowls to posh parties decadent enough to cause a French revolution. Indelible money shots include a kaleidoscope of death and a suicide plunge, while the music is practically an extra character. Clint Mansell’s deliciously jaunty, drunk-baroque score ingeniously offsets the darkness; equally startling is a lush ABBA cover by Bristol torch-noir titans Portishead.
As Portishead’s Beth Gibbons coos her ‘SOS’, the cry for help comes too late for the dog. But anyone who likes their cinema off-piste should ignore the sniffier reviews and give Wheatley’s call the chance it deserves: a good shot at some cult love.
VERDICT: Wheatley, Jump, Hiddleston and co occupy Ballard’s towering inferno with brazen style. If the plot wobbles precipitously, chalk it up to the high-rise ambition of a genuinely wayward Brit-film one-off.
Director: Ben Wheatley; Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Keeley Hawes; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016
ROCK THE KASBAH
Based – so loosely it barely counts – on Setara Hussainzada, the first woman to sing on Afghan Idol, Barry Levinson's straggly sort-of-comedy is staggeringly misconceived.
Showing little confidence in what should have been its central character (Leem Lubany) it relies on Bill Murray's seedy Kabul-stranded talent manager, Bruce Willis's grumpy merc, and Kate Hudson's career prostitute to tell a supposed story of female emancipation. Extracting humour amid all the car bombs and arms deals would require Herculean levels of charm, which not even a particularly unbothered Murray summons.
Director: Barry Levinson; Starring: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Scott Caan, Leem Lubany; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016
THE PEARL BUTTON
Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán delivers a stunning companion piece to his 2010 film Nostalgia For The Light, continuing his exploration of the effects of Augusto Pinochet's ruthless dictatorship.
Examining Chile’s relationship with its coastline, Guzmán links poetic observations about the life-giving nature to the horrors of Pinochet's regime, including the dumping of bodies into the surrounding sea. The film doesn't flow as well as its major theme would suggest, but it does hint at a truly devastating conclusion: how needless those events were given Earth's insignificance in the ever-expanding cosmos.
Director: Patricio Guzman; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016
Tone-deaf opera lover Florence Foster Jenkins – subject of an upcoming biopic starring Meryl Streep – is also the inspiration for this lavish French period piece about a rich French aristo labouring under a pathetic self-delusion: that she has the voice of an angel, rather than that of a strangled cat.
Xavier Giannoli's comedy has beaucoup de fun at the expense of its heroine (Catherine Frot), whose misplaced faith in her non-abilities is indulged by her cheating hubby (André Marcon), cynical butler (Denis Mpunga) and a society steeped in sniggering hypocrisy. By the end, though, she'll have you crying like Pagliacci.
Director: Xavier Giannoli; Starring: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016
Released just in time for Easter, Risen retells the resurrection as police procedural, with Roman army tribune Clavius (a miserable-looking Joseph Fiennes) having been tasked to track down the missing body of Christ.
It's a novel take on a Biblical classic, but CSI: Judea only lasts for about 30 minutes before Clavius discovers "Yeshua" (Cliff Curtis) alive and grinning. It's here that Kevin Reynolds' (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves) film becomes a blunt tool, one that abandons both drama and originality in favour of preaching to the choir. The end result feels like an old, cheap TV movie.
Director: Kevin Reynolds; Starring: Tom Felton, Cliff Curtis, Joseph Fiennes; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016
NORM OF THE NORTH
Norm (Rob Schneider) is a heart-of-gold polar bear who just happens to be able to understand and speak English. Uncovering a plot by greedy land baron Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong) to build condos in the arctic, naturally he trundles off to the big city with his lemming pals to make things right.
Norm's loony little sidekicks are a clear attempt to cash in on Minion-mania and the plot is essentially every '80s family flick ever made, but the warm familiarity charms more often than it grates. A harmless kids' toon that’s probably the least annoying Schneider vehicle in years.
Director: Trevor Wall; Starring: Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016
The Walking Dead's Lauren Cohan takes a leap from the small screen to the lower rung of Hollywood horror with this dopey monster-doll creeper from The Devil Inside director William Brent Bell. Cohan plays an American nanny taking on a job for an elderly English couple.
She's as bemused as the viewer when she finds out the child is actually a life-sized porcelain doll; even more so when it starts laughing and chasing her round the house. Some decent jump scares here and there, but the best part of the whole ordeal is watching Cohan keep an admirably straight face through this nonsense.
Director: William Brent Bell; Starring: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Ben Robson, James Russell Read; Theatrical release: March 18, 2016