High-Rise *½|****

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise
Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name, High-Rise is a baffling mess of a film that begins with glimmers of promise that slowly give way to increasingly turbulent waves of disappointment and, ultimately, dissatisfaction. It works so hard to come across as a scathing social commentary about class warfare and urban decay but director Ben Wheatley doesn’t articulate any of his points with any kind of original perspective or even with much coherence in the first place. He seems almost willful in his attempts to muddle any possible character motivation or to obscure promising narrative threads for the sake of being “unconventional” in his storytelling. If that seems like a frustrating proposition, that’s because it certainly is.

We are introduced to Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) 3 months after he checks into a luxurious high-rise tower block, where living conditions appear to have descended into total chaos. We then flash back to the chronological beginning (a cinematic convention that I’m starting to loathe) to find Laing moving into an apartment on the 25th floor of the comparatively civilized complex. Beyond the favorable living quarters, the building also sports higher level amenities such as a built-in supermarket and even a primary school, ensuring that tenants hardly ever have to leave the premises.

Shortly after moving in, he strikes up a relationship with single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and a friendship with pregnant couple Richard (Luke Evans) and Helen (Elisabeth Moss). We soon learn of a hierarchy that exists within the high-rise, where members of the upper class, led by the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), are rewarded with higher level accommodations while those in the middle and lower class fare in the lower dwelling apartments. This disparity, along with continuous power failures that disproportionately affect the lower class tenants, causes dissension and outbursts of violence throughout the tower.

As the anarchy picks up, Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump concoct scenes that seem to have very little consequence or bearing on the tenuous narrative at hand. Unsurprisingly, repetitive shots of tenants (edited at an obnoxiously swift pace by Wheatley and Jump) engaging in drunken dances at wild parties don’t add up to an especially interesting story. Any advances to the plot, as when one character mandates that another character undergo a lobotomy, seem to come completely out of left field and don’t allow for any kind of engagement with the characters on an emotional or psychological level.

The high points of the film come down to spot-on, chic 1970s set design and Laurie Rose’s steely-eyed, often breathtaking cinematography but there’s not much to grab onto outside of aesthetics. Even the usually brilliant Clint Mansell can’t find his footing with a musical score that meanders through various genres without building any kind of memorable motifs in the process, although two instances of ABBA’s pop song “SOS” are used creatively in back-to-back scenes. There may be a method to High-Rise‘s madness but as long as the storyteller remains so unwilling to meet the viewer halfway, there’s no good reason to seek it out.

The Nice Guys ***|****

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys

After a brief detour in the superhero realm with Iron Man 3, writer/director Shane Black returns to his buddy cop movie roots with The Nice Guys, a hilarious new detective comedy set in the decadent playground of 1970s Los Angeles. Ryan Gosling stars as Holland March, a bumbling private investigator who crosses paths with thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) while looking into the disappearance of a young girl. Despite an initial confrontation between March and Healy that leaves the former with a broken arm, the two eventually pair together to find the missing suspect while also uncovering a larger criminal conspiracy in the process.

The plotting grows increasingly dubious as the story progress but clearly the film’s biggest asset is the powerful comedic chemistry between its leads, which is surprising given the past work from the two actors. Gosling has done some comedies before, most recently last year’s The Big Short, but he’s still most notable for his dramatic roles and as far as I can tell, this is the first time that Crowe has ever been involved with a comedy or at least had a comedic role. Both come across as complete naturals and form the kind of believable bond that’s so important for a movie like this to succeed.

Gosling gets the juicer role in terms of comedic opportunities and he does a near genius level style of physical comedy in scene after scene. Sure, he gets plenty of quippy one-liners and back-and-forth banter with Crowe but he shines most when he’s tasked with some truly outlandish choreography. The most clear example of this is a bathroom sequence in which March, in an attempt to ambush Healy, fumbles for his gun while simultaneously trying to hold open the stall door and extinguish a lit cigarette that’s fallen into his pants while he’s also sitting on the toilet. Quite a bit to manage.

Meanwhile, Crowe mainly plays the straight man to Gosling’s lovable goofball but he doesn’t take things so seriously that he seems out of place or uncomfortable, even during some of the more ludicrous turns in the story. An early voiceover establishes Healy as a man who hasn’t quite found his place in life yet and as someone who is trying to find the good within himself but Crowe doesn’t burden the character too much with issues of the past. Healy has just the right amount of groundedness to make March’s pratfalls seem even more ridiculous by comparison.

I shouldn’t neglect what could be the film’s secret weapon: a 13-year-old Australian actress named Angourie Rice, who plays March’s daughter Holly and serves as the closest thing to the movie’s moral conscience. She gives a confident and smart breakout performance and her character’s lack of cynicism amid troubling circumstances gives the story a more humanizing angle than it probably deserves. It’s about one or two re-writes away from being a much tighter and most likely a funnier film overall but as it is, The Nice Guys is fast, loose and plenty of good fun.

Born To Be Blue ***|****

Ethan Hawke in Born To Be Blue
Ethan Hawke in Born To Be Blue

The life and career of jazz trumpet legend Chet Baker was characterized by the kind of sublime highs and devastating lows that made an eventual movie about his story almost an inevitability. However, in the willfully unconventional music biopic Born To Be Blue, director Robert Budreau encapsulates these highlights and lowlights into a single redemptive arc that’s meant to exemplify the spirit of his subject rather that rattle off each detail of his life. Like last year’s superb Love & Mercy, it taps into the musician’s impulse of to create (and destroy) but also accepts the aspects of artists that are, to some degree, unknowable.

The story is told primarily from 1966, where Baker (Ethan Hawke) is cast as himself in a movie about his earlier years in jazz and an up-and-coming actress Jane Azuka (Carmen Ejogo) is cast as his romantic interest. Baker and Azuka begin seeing each other off-screen as well but at the end of their first date, an assault in a parking lot leaves Baker badly beaten and without the use of his front teeth. This setback forces Baker to effectively re-learn how to play his instrument and the film chronicles his slow recovery and hopeful return to the jazz limelight.

Baker’s longtime addiction to heroin is also a critical element examined in the film but rather than explain away the nature of his dependency, Budreau takes a refreshingly ambiguous stance on the role that drugs played in Baker’s life. In this genre, it can be commonplace for directors to chastise their subjects for their drug use but he instead embraces it as crucial piece of Baker’s being. A transfixing early shot of a tarantula crawling out of the bell of a trumpet serves as a haunting metaphor for Baker’s inner pain but the psychology behind his decision-making isn’t made as blatant as it could have been.

Hawke gives a similarly enigmatic and yet somehow also charismatic performance in a role that beautifully captures the wounded spirit of a perpetually driven artist. He gives us the sense that even Baker may not know why he wants what he wants but his unwavering determination to his craft is enough for us to root for him to reach his goal, no matter how elusive it may seem to be. Ejogo is also terrific not only as a woman who is Baker’s main source of support but also as a determined young actress with her own drive and career ambitions to consider.

The film’s faults come largely from Budreau’s tendency to let the story get in the way of these performances and also his adherence to a narrative structure that almost seems deliberate in its efforts to throw the viewer off course. In terms of chronology, the first ten minutes are much more muddled and meandering than they really need to be but thankfully, things get much more sure-footed as the story progresses. It leads up to a final scene that is nearly note-perfect and gives Born To Be Blue a fitting denouement to Baker’s troubled and ultimately tragic legacy.

Captain America: Civil War ***½|****

Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War
Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War, the latest offering from the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, is technically the third film in the Captain America series but given its inclusion of so many of the studio’s other superhero characters, it plays more like a semi-sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron (The Avengers 2.5, let’s say). As such, it’s the most narratively dense and potentially overwhelming Marvel movie to date but it’s also the most morally ambiguous and dramatically ambitious entry thus far. The important part is that despite the heaviness of the story and its themes, there are also counterpoints of levity and dazzling action setpieces that strike up a sound balance of enlightenment and entertainment.

The story picks up after the disastrous events in Sokovia from Ultron and following a more recent incident in Lagos that left unexpected civilian causalities, the actions of the Avengers are being scrutinized more thoroughly than ever before. The United Nations puts forth an act that calls for more oversight and regulation for those with “advanced abilities”, which Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) views as a sensible guideline of personal responsibility but Captain America (Chris Evans) sees as an oppressive measure of over-regulation. This ideological rift, among other factors, leads to a showdown between Team Captain and Team Iron Man (involving too many superheros to name here) that threatens to permanently tear the Avengers team apart.

Those uninitiated with the MCU and the events of the preceding films will likely be completely lost within the first 10 minutes of Civil War and even if you are a more-than-casual fan like myself, you may still find yourself misplacing certain characters or trying to recall previous plot points during its lengthy runtime. What’s important here is that directors Anthony and Joe Russo tell their story with respect to the intelligence of their audience regardless of how familiar they are with each facet of the Marvel world. Of course rigorous superfans will likely get the most out of the experience but even first-time viewers should find plenty to enjoy among the well-choreographed fight sequences and the reliable acting talents of the impressive ensemble cast.

One of the most refreshing elements of this film is the emphasis of accountability that has been breached in several other superhero movies before but not to the degree to which it’s examined here. On the basis of entertainment, we continually watch these characters lay waste to one major city after another but Civil War tactfully explores the residual effects that these catastrophes have on the ordinary people who occupy those affected areas. When the mother of a son who died in the Sokovia incident confronts Tony Stark after he gives an impassioned speech, it reaches a level of poignancy and groundedness that is uncommon among other films of this genre.

Without delving much more into the elaborate storyline, I should mention just how happy I was with the ultimate villain of this film. Between Age of Ultron‘s Ultron to Ant-Man‘s Yellowjacket (not to mention whoever the villain of Guardians of the Galaxy was), Marvel has been seriously lacking in the compelling bad guy department but Civil War brings about the most satisfying antagonist since Loki in The Avengers. In the words of Roger Ebert, “each film is only as good as its villain” and I’m happy to report that both are first-rate.

Keanu **½|****

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Keanu
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Keanu

Television comedy stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele make their film debut with an unbearably adorable co-star in the new action comedy Keanu, which isn’t without its intermittent charms but ultimately feels like a series of five-minute comedy sketches separated by noticeable gaps of filler. Key and Peele play cousins Clarence and Rell, the latter of whom finds solace post-breakup in a newly discovered kitten who he names Keanu (a possible allusion to the similarly-plotted Keanu Reeves movie John Wick). After Rell’s apartment is burglarized and Keanu is nowhere in sight, the two team up to infiltrate the feared 17th Street Blips gang when they learn that the group’s leader Cheddar (Method Man) may have kidnapped their tiny feline companion.

Right from the beginning, the film’s most obvious positive attribute is the flawless comedic chemistry on display between the two lead actors. After 5 consistently funny seasons of their acclaimed TV show, it’s comforting to find that none of the duo’s wit or timing has been lost in translation when making the leap to feature films. While the two aren’t aided much on the comedy side of things —Will Forte is horribly mis-cast as a clueless drug dealer and a second act cameo similarly falls flat— I was surprised how grounded and, dare I say, compelling the acting was from most of the gang member characters.

As is to be expected, most of the film’s laughs come from the fish-out-of-water premise that arises when these two laid-back guys hastily adapt their own “gangster” personas in order to earn the trust and respect of the 17th Street Blips. Key and Peele, along with director and TV series collaborator Peter Atencio, attack this central joke from just about every conceivable angle and approach subjects of race and class with the same level of intelligence displayed in the best sketches from their show. All of these elements are wrapped up perfectly in the movie’s most successful scene: an impromptu George Michael listening session initiated by Clarence, who gives a hilarious retelling of the rise and fall of the pop group Wham! to a car full of pensive young gang members.

Even though this film clearly isn’t aiming for a plausible or remotely realistic storyline, I do wish there was much more creativity with the storytelling and the style behind it. While the setup is simple, the steps that the story takes after it begin to get ludicrous in a hurry but not in a way that’s especially entertaining. Satirizing big action scenes isn’t necessarily a flawed concept (Hot Fuzz did this to tremendous effect) but when you do so without any sort of attitude or new perspective towards the source material that you’re spoofing, it just comes off as lazy and anonymous filmmaking. There’s no doubt that Key and Peele have a great comedy movie still in their future and my best hope for Keanu is that it does well enough at the box office to make that future possible.