This week’s round-up offers pleasing variety and not a single title I wouldn’t recommend to some degree. Let’s start with the oddest of the lot, “High-Rise” (2015 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 120m / $29.98 BR / R), based on a novel by J. G. Ballard. Doctor and medical school lecturer Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a recently completed high-rise that offers so many amenities it is practically a self-contained society (and socially stratified with lower and middle class occupants located accordingly – in essence a gated community). Banks and grocery stores are on site so residents need only leave the building to go to work – something many of them stop doing (even Laing contemplates starting a private practice comprised of the tower’s residents). The most luxurious apartment, on the topmost floor, is occupied by the architect, Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons); it boasts an impossibly large “garden,” practically the grounds of a country estate, spacious enough for his wife to go horseback riding in.
But the hedonistic good life (which includes mate-swapping and posh cocktail parties cum orgies) all too soon disintegrates with power failures and store shelves not being restocked. Residents turn on each other, fighting over the dwindling supplies and engaging in homicidal class warfare. As the corpses and trash pile up (“Nothing that can’t be swept under the carpet,” declares Royal) the occupants descend into nigh savagery. As with the dinner guests in Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” none of the residents even considers leaving – or perhaps they are somehow unable to and so descend to dining on their pets rather than leave and find a grocery store. (The building is also peculiarly isolated from the outside world; no police ever arrive to investigate the death of one tenant who plunges almost 40 stories to his death onto a vintage Mustang convertible.) Yet it is not the actions, per se, that distresses the supposedly better-heeled denizens of the upper floors – “He’s raping people he’s not supposed to,” one character says of another.
This is not an easy film and so it is hardly going to be to all tastes (of course very few films truly are). The frequent blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashbacks and flash forwards disjoint the narrative and it’s not always clear what is really happening and what is fantasy (is the footage of Laing boogeying down a hallway with a bevy of air hostesses real or a dream sequence?). It might be best to let everything, no matter how surreal, play as it lays; Ballard’s novel, as with most of his work, is allegorical, after all. The film likewise doesn’t attempt realism; it may be baffling – possibly to an infuriating degree – and loaded with odd unexplained touches but it is also strikingly photographed and splendidly acted (it may also reveal much more with repeat viewings, something my deadline did not allow). For those up for challenging material, “High-Rise” is a feast. Even those who might hate it can’t dismiss it and may even find it lingering long in their memory.
Less complex but more enjoyable in a conventional way is “Meet the Guilbys” (“Paris – Willouby” – 2015 / First Run Features / 80m / $19.95 / NR), a kind of French version of “Little Miss Sunshine.” The titular characters are an extended family with both husband Maurice (Stephane de Groodt) and wife Claire (Isabelle Carre) on their second marriage. The household includes one shared child, his daughter, her son and her freeloading brother – a writer who does not write and who breaks up with his long-time girlfriend rather than move in with her and assume some financial responsibilities. The death of Claire’s father (from whom both she and her brother have been estranged for years after he left their mother for a younger woman) sends this often squabbling crew on a road trip for the funeral in a not entirely trustworthy van. The events may not always be laugh out loud funny, but they are invariably amusing – though you might more than once wish you could slap the brother upside the head.
It‘s a realistically messy family presented in Arthur Delaire’s and Quentin Reynaud’s film. Maurice is a teacher who faces possible reassignment to a school well away from Paris; his anxiety over this has led to erectile dysfunction that causes Claire to suspect infidelity. His daughter is in an openly rebellious stage, and the son has a serious crush on his stepsister. The youngest daughter has a fascination for cows following a stop in The Valley of Lost Cows after which she undertakes to shoplift a plush version of a bovine. That action, added to an unpaid hotel bill, lead to a surprising repercussion as the crew rushes to the funeral of the unloved paterfamilias (there is, after all, a will to be read and possibly money to be had). All this delightfully amiable action culminates in a surprising revelation that will leave only those phobic about subtitles less than totally charmed.
Also hailing from France (and Belgium and mostly filmed in Antwerp) is the slow-boil revenge thriller “Dark Diamond” (aka “Dark Inclusion,” “Diamont noir” – 2016 / First Run Features / 115m / $19.95 / NR). When Pier Ulmann (Neils Schneider), a blue collar worker who moonlights as a thief, finds his father has dies penniless and in a shared room (Paris, by the way, has much nicer such accommodations than Lebanon), he determines to reintegrate himself into the family and their diamond business and orchestrate their financial ruin in retaliation for his father’s disinheritance. Not surprisingly there are complications, not the least of which is his discovery that his uncle and cousins are not quite the monsters he has imagined. He discovers he has a gift for diamond cutting, but his assignment in the workshop leads to his hatching a plan involving his old comrades in thievery that will bankrupt his family.
That it will also wreck the man who owns the diamond cutting establishment leads to distinctly mixed feelings about carrying out his plot for retribution. Arthur Harari’s film is a cerebral thriller – no car chases, no explosions, not even any gunfire until the very end – and that, coupled with a lack of variety in pacing in its understated approach, may make it a tough slog for those who demand a more adrenalin fueled exercise. Holding things together somewhat is Schneider’s low-key intensity that suggests raging fires burning just below the surface and the question – as in “Hamlet” – of whether he will ultimately go through with his plans. The complexity of the family dynamic, with uncle and cousin at odds over the future of the family business, and Pier falling for cousin Louisa prevents things from becoming too static. And you will learn a lot about diamond cutting and the gem trade. Ultimately I’m not sure it’s quite enough to hold viewer interest completely for almost two hours.
“Sunset Song” (2015 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 136m / $26.98 / R) is also perhaps a tad too long and leisurely for its own good, but I’d be sad if a single beautiful frame went missing. Adapted by director Terence Davies from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel, it covers six years during the late 1910s in the life of Scottish lass Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn). One of several children to a tyrannical farmer (Peter Mullan) who, for all his purported socialist leanings thrashes his eldest son for taking the lord’s name in vain (he names his horse Jehova) and is otherwise a brute. Said offspring soon departs, mother takes poison and father suffers a stroke (you might find it difficult to repress a cheer) and soon after shuffles off his own mortal coil, leaving Chris in sole charge of the family farm. Though she had nursed hopes of becoming a teacher, she finds she is one with the land – and the film’s visuals are an exultation of Aberdeen’s fields, forests, mountains and lakes.
Chris does not remain alone, however; Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a young man who’s made cow eyes at her during a communal supper, proposes and they wed. Things are blissful for the devoted young couple until The War to End All Wars comes about and Ewan is conscripted. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Chris will find herself alone yet again. Yet this film isn’t about loneliness; you sense at the end that Chris will not only endure but triumph – and this in an age when women were distinctly second class citizens, subject to beatings, marital rape and multiple (sometimes fatal) pregnancies. There are similar themes here to “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Gone with the Wind” (though unlike Scarlett O’Hara, Chris can do just fine without her man and only her own version of Tara). Splendidly acted and ravishingly beautiful to behold, “Sunset Song” should appeal to fans of both films – and even to those, such as me, who are wildly indifferent to the latter. A friendly word of warning, however: There is one very graphic scene of marital coupling that seems quite out of tone with the rest of the film and some may find shocking. This film is rated R for a reason.
Equally old-fashioned in its storytelling approach (and Cthulhu help me I do love good old-fashioned storytelling) is the biopic “Genius” (2016 / Summit / 104m / $19.98 / PG-13), which relates the tempestuous relationship between editor Maxwell Perkins (who also guided F. Scot Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to publication) and writer Thomas Wolfe (“Look Homeward Angel” and “Of Time and the River”). Wolfe wrote mammoth novels, works that were even longer and more unwieldy before Perkins winnowed the wheat from the chaff and brought structure to them (and even at that Wolfe was considered a major influence on the freeform writing of such Beat authors as Jack Kerouac). Wolfe veered back and forth between venerating Perkins for making him a success and castigating him for cutting so much material (at one point in the film Wolfe, played by Jude Law, tells Perkins, played by Colin Firth, that Tolstoy’s novel would simply have been called “War” had Perkins gotten his hands on it). In truth, Wolfe’s writing was far more experimental than what emerged after Perkins’ red pencil had its way but it’s questionable if it would have found such a large and enthusiastic readership. (In 2000, a reconstructed “Look Homeward Angel” was published and declared superior to the edited version.)
“Genius” is immaculate filmmaking in its look, its reconstruction of the period, its direction – by Michael Grandage – its editing, its intelligent scripting – by John Logan adapting A. Scott Berg’s book – and especially in its casting. Firth and Law offer mesmerizing performances and they are matched – in unfortunately smaller roles – by Laura Linney as Perkins’ wife Louise, Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s older (and married) lover, Aline Bernstein, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Hemingway; there’s not a lacking performance in the entire cast. Nor is there a single false step anywhere along the way. Did Perkins and Wolfe really converse in such literate dialogue exchanges? It feels absolutely right for these two literary giants and that’s all that counts. While the title may be taken to infer to Wolfe, the film itself leaves room for speculation that Perkins may have been a genius in his own way. Certainly – at least as the movie’s characters go – each is incomplete without the other (I suppose that makes this an intellectual bromance). Thoughtful and intelligently about people and ideas and, despite its serious subject matter, it’s vastly entertaining, poetic and moving experience.