The Nice Guys is a fun noir lark

I was pretty excited to see The Nice Guys based solely on pedigree. Writer/director Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon, which still holds up thirty years later, and more recently Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a fantastically funny Hollywood noir with a sharp script and subversive eye. The Nice Guys looked like it would pick up the ball where KKBB left off and run with it, except this time as a period piece. The Nice Guys definitely feels familiar from Black’s previous work, and is still a ton of fun, but feels much more minor. This maybe is due to the higher expectations that come with a higher profile, but while all that makes Black’s previous films works is in high gear here, some of his baggage is amplified too.

As in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon, The Nice Guys is a mismatched buddy comedy through and through, with Russell Crowe’s no-nonsense goon Jackson Healy paired with Ryan Gosling’s worst-PI-ever Holland March (although unlike those previous movies, there’s not a Christmas tree in sight). The Nice Guys gets some great mileage out of the detective’s relatively hands-off approach to case solving: they mostly luck their way into any clues, or anything that comes close to giving them an upper hand. March in particular is stunningly incompetent for a protagonist, with his alcoholism being played simultaneously for laughs and pathos, but never giving him a major Sherlock Holmes moment to justify his ineptitude. In a different movie focusing on the players with more agency in the goings-on, they’d be an amusing Greek chorus commenting on the lunacy. Said lunacy involves smog-protesting hippies, the Detroit auto industry, and big porno, allowing it to paint its own portrait of 70s LA that mostly avoids lights-camera-action moments despite film being a major part of the puzzle.

The two detectives are accompanied by March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who is a nice presence at the start but quickly becomes the precocious child detective trope Black used so distractingly in Iron Man 3. Holly gets some good Harriet the Spy moments in, but either exists to be in distress or to exhibit insane overcompetence. She also ties into the movie’s most insufferable theme, where it stops every so often to talk about being a good person. It’s most notable towards the end (and fairly funny the first time it pops up), and its heavy-handedness sucks the air out of the final sequence.

At the end of it all though, The Nice Guys is worth seeing because, if nothing else, its really funny. A lot of the good stuff is in the trailer, but there’s plenty more here to enjoy. In particular, Ryan Gosling is a revelation. The bathroom door scene in the trailer is the most obvious example, but he has a knack for physical comedy and playing the clown, and the movie takes full advantage of it. It makes him scream and fall a lot, sure, but it also feels completely of a piece with the character he and Black craft through the dialogue, one who shares his daughter’s antipathy of her friend Janet and seemingly can’t get through an insult with an reductio ad Hitlerum. Russell Crowe is nicely laid-back in the straight man role, letting his physicality do the work and avoiding going full ham. The Nice Guys has a bit of a problem creating memorable side characters, despite the presence of Keith David and Kim Basinger in the margins, and its two main villains, Matt Bomer’s John Boy and Beau Knapp’s Blueface, are both disappointing, but some weird visual flourishes are certainly memorable (although some, notably a bee incident, are a bit too much). The Nice Guys is a bit of a disappointment for those who expected Black to come up with a stone-cold classic, but its a fun way to kill an afternoon.

B-

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The Nice Guys (2016)
Dir. Shane Black
Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, and Kim Basinger
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

The Nice Guys is a fun noir lark

Into the Forest is an intimate, feminist, and melodramatic portrayal of the collapse of society

How easy is it for modern society to go up in smoke? Fiction would have you believe that zombies would do it, nuclear war would do it, disease maybe, but do we need to go that far? If we pull the plug on modern society, and just take away electricity, can we survive? If we still think it will come back any day now, will we stay sane? Into the Forest takes place in this world, where the power suddenly goes out on two sisters living a bit off the grid with their father. Even though there’s no otherworldly threat looming, with the rumours tending towards more believable ones like terrorism than aliens, it doesn’t take long for civilization to undo itself.

But Into the Forest is only tangentially interested in that, and is much more about the relationship of two sisters in near-isolation from the rest of the world. While its basic setup could have easily made for a thrilling film, Into the Forest is much more intimate. There are moments of suspense, but this is far from The Walking Dead, and while its vision of how easily the world can turn upside down (“It’s the Wild West all over again,” one character remarks) is compelling, it doesn’t dwell on the details as much as others would. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, with some neat subtle touches (mostly in how the screens look) and some awful, not-so-subtle touches, likepeople walking around without power, saying “LIGHTS ON” in vain (I guess the Clapper came back), but could just have easily taken place in the present day. If its being sold as a sci-fi apocalypse flick, moviegoers may be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the methodical character drama it actually is.

The two sisters, Nell and Eva, are played by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood respectively. The way the two play off of each other feels very natural, with the standard squabbling but also inborn protectiveness. Eva is a dancer, which lends itself to some really fantastic shot opportunities that director Rozema exploits fully; it would be excessive were they not so entrancing to watch, lending a sense of kineticism to whatever they are being cut against (Nell’s pre-apocalypse hobby of studying for the SATs is considerably less exciting to watch). The focus is entirely on the two women front and centre, with men filling the sidelines representing one-note features of masculinity: protectiveness, aggression, and hopeless naive romanticism. Notably, every speaking role outside of the two leads and faces on video screens is a man, allowing us to project the entirety of femininity onto the leads. Leaving the baggage of representing all women aside, Page and Wood deftly portray the two sisters who have to mature from reasonable-minded college-aged folks to full-fledged adults, with all the roadbumps on the way. Both characters take similar journeys in the broad strokes, but remain distinct with very believable arcs, a testament to the actors, writing, and directing.

However great the central characters are, the movie is a bit too melodramatic for its own good.  The musical cues in the movie always seem to go for big and obvious, and montages of grief and misery are used more than once. Every big moment is heavily foreshadowed in ways that are clear the second the moment occurs, which is a bit distracting but also helps to process it all. But while the movie fumbles a few big moments by going over the top, it admirably doesn’t let them fade away into nothingness. The instantaneous emotional response vanishes, but leaves its mark on the characters, changing them in obvious ways when triggering topics come up, and in how they generally interact with the world after traumatic events.

The house becomes a character into itself, sometimes acting as a metaphor for the mental state of the characters (notably when pieces of it close off), sometimes representing the decaying state of society post-event. It helps that its a beautiful, charismatic lodging, which makes its transformation into something more primal a touch eerie. What the house is supposed to represent is not-so-eloquently posed to the audience over and over, and factors into a less-than-satisfying ending (more on that in the spoilers). Despite the ending going a bit off the rails, placing metaphor above narrative, Into the Forest is a brisk 100 minute character study that held my attention throughout and acts as an exceptional star vehicle for Page and Wood. It’s sci-fi doomsday backdrop gives it bones, but its spirit belongs to sisterhood.

B

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Into the Forest (2016)
Dir. Patricia Rozema
Starring Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)

  • SPOILERS: Eva’s child being male may seem arbitrary, but a big deal is made of the gender, and it does continue the trend of only having men in the film outside of Eva and Nell. What is there to read into that? I suppose it can be read as a comment that, not only can women survive on their own, but that men are incapable of even existing without them (Eli’s implied death fits here too, although that’s a stretch).
  • MORE SPOILERS: In the final sequence, Nell and Eva burn down the house to go into the forest (hey, that’s the title!). While Eva justifies it briefly as covering their tracks, there really is no good reason to leave behind a pile of ash rather than a shelter that they can either use for storage even with the black mold, or a home for the next poor sap to walk by. It’s clearly meant to represent something rather than as an actual plot device; if the house represents the decay of society, is burning it down an act of finally leaving the concept of modern society behind altogether? If it represents how they have closed themselves off from the environment, does burning it show them opening up to a whole new world, finally free of the pain and loss of the past? Does it read as them finally fully reaching independence, able to get by without any support from their parents who thoroughly haunt those grounds? A bit of everything? Regardless, the fact that it really only works metaphorically rather than literally took me out of the movie at the very end, and burning it really didn’t add anything that letting it collapse wouldn’t aside from a small bit of catharsis.
Into the Forest is an intimate, feminist, and melodramatic portrayal of the collapse of society

Weezer’s The White Album is an absolute blast

Pretty much everyone agrees that Weezer took a pretty sharp nosedive as a band at some point over the twenty years since their initial one-two punch of their pop-defining The Blue Album and the defiantly weird Pinkerton, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what changed. The lyrics have always been eye-rollingly cheesy with the cadence of an aunt trying to be hip, whether on their best songs (such as “I’m the epitome of public enemy/Why you wanna go and do me like that?” from Pinkerton’s “El Scorcho”)  or worst (“Just follow the smoke; they’re bringing bottles of the goose/And all the girls in the corner getting loose” from Raditude’s “Can’t Stop Partying”, probably the worst Weezer song of all time). Partially the difference comes from interpreting their cheesiness as a weak, uninspired attempt at creating memes and quirky videos (a la “Pork And Beans”) or just something natural out of the brain of Rivers Cuomo (a la “Buddy Holly”), and their more recent work has definitely skewed towards the former. Partially due to less-inspired lyrics and partially due to a simple lack of the distinct pop hooks that define them, Weezer’s losing streak is the stuff of legend.

That turned around a fair bit with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End. It had its share of cheese, sure, but rather than trying too hard by bringing in Lil Wayne, Cuomo just got weird, with power-pop songs about punk-ass redcoats (“The British Are Coming”) and Stephen Hawking (“Da Vinci”), while revisiting his relationship with his father as a muse in the most effective way since “Say It Ain’t So”. If that was a promise that Weezer was trying again, The White Album is damn sure fulfillment. Nearly every album since Pinkerton is described (at least in the moment) as their best since Pinkerton, but The White Album truly forgives Make Believe, Raditude, and Hurley with half an hour of the most exciting, involving, and distinct power-pop Weezer has ever made.

More than perhaps any other Weezer album, The White Album feels very much like an album rather than a collection of jams. While a summer album isn’t the most surprising thing for the band, they stick to the concept, vaguely tracing a summer fling from start to the inevitable decline, from the its-gonna-be-alright hopefulness of the opening cut “California Kids” to the acoustically driven closer “Endless Bummer”, which proclaims “I just want the summer to end”. It helps that the album is a tight 34 minutes, and perhaps outside of single “Thank God for Girls”, every song feels immediately at peace with what comes before and after it. Whenever it seems to be approaching overt happiness, it is immediately undercut. On “Girl We Got a Good Thing”, a Beach Boys-inspired sunny-day song about lovebirds is suddenly interrupted with a sharp power chord and the declaration “You scare me like an open window”.

Mercifully gone are talks about homies trying to front, and The White Album continues Everything Will Be Alright In The End’s trend of eclectic (although not necessarily obscure references), ranging from hare krishna love of “Girl We Got a Good Thing”, Mendel’s peas on “Wind In Our Sails”, and Dante’s Inferno on “L.A. Girlz”. Even lead single “Thank God for Girls”, the redheaded stepchild of the album, is a neat play on gender roles, the ostensible love interest being praised as big, strong, and “energetic in her sweaty overalls”. Most importantly, the songs are just catchy and memorable in way that harkens back to The Blue Album. “King of the World” is an arena-ready anthem, “L.A. Girlz” is the “Buddy Holly”-esque power-chord driven blast we’ve been missing for twenty years with the , and “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is wonderfully woven mix of key changes and guitar crunch. “Do You Wanna Get High” would’ve been absolutely at home on Pinkerton, and “Endless Bummer”s hey-heys conjure memories of the hip-hips of “Island in the Sun”. It’s definitely familiar Weezer, but it feels fresh all over again, and tracks like the piano-based falsetto jam “Jacked Up” show that their new tricks aren’t all misfires.

It’s hard to call The White Album a great album per se, as it surely isn’t an innovative masterpiece like it would have been 20 years ago. However, it clearly shows that there is gas left in Weezer’s tank, and that they’re still capable of sounding fresh by simply being themselves. It’s a hugely enjoyable album, even if mostly a throwback. If it can’t get out of the shadow of Blue and Pinkerton, it should at least be able to get out of the shadow of what came after. The White Album is not just a good album by post-2000 Weezer standards; it is legitimately front-to-back recommended listening.

B+

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Weezer [The White Album] (2016)
By Weezer
34:05
Available on Spotify, Google Play, and other services

Best Tracks: Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori, L.A. Girlz, King of the World

Weezer’s The White Album is an absolute blast

Review Roundup: The return of Saul Goodman, M. Night Shyamalan, Baumbach/Gerwig, and Ethan Hunt

The Visit (2015)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Olivia deJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, and Peter McRobbie

The Visit has been hailed as a minor return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll agree, in that for once the faults with the movie have absolutely nothing to do with the writing or story, which is actually quite great for relatively disposable horror (more along the lines of 2010’s Devil, a fun little movie that he was involved with but didn’t direct). The setup, where two kids stay with the grandparents they never met and find that they’re dangerously out of sorts, is workable, and the twists the story takes are legitimately fantastic. It even finds a believable, narratively satisfying, and often funny use of the found footage conceit, by making granddaughter Becca a budding documentarian. However, its far from scary, its scares often literally arising from an old lady jumping in front of the camera and growling. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t need to, but there’s potential for some very unnerving work here. M. Night picked a bad time to attempt to develop a sense of humour.

Grade: D+

Mistress America (2015)
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, and Heather Lind

Stories about aimless twenty-somethings in New York are a dime a dozen, but Noah Baumbach proved that he had an eye for it with 2014’s Frances Ha. As if trying to top that film, Greta Gerwig’s character in Mistress America is the cartoonish epitome of self-actualizing success-or-bust entitled go-getter culture, known in all the clubs, claims to have numerous writing ideas, and has big ideas of opening a earthy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. If the American dream was once comfort, Gerwig’s Brooke instead treats it as a whirlwind checklist. It’s utterly unreal, and the fascination she inspires in her college student soon-to-be-sister played by Lola Kirke is earned. When the two of them embark on a quest to save the restaurant, Mistress America’s second half plays as a giant single-stage comedy, with characters zipping in and out in hilarious fashions (looking at you, Karen). It has a distinctive rhythm to it, especially in its dialogue which sounds very staged but gives the movie its own voice. It’s a highly enjoyable, endlessly quotable romp, and I look forward to watching it again when not on an airplane.

Grade: B+

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
Dir. Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner

The Mission Impossible movies as of late seem to be reliable critical and commercial performers that I’m unable to really get into, despite appreciating the fantastic stunt work. Rogue Nation is no exception, and even the stunts aren’t as impressive as they have been in the past. An underwater sequence that was supposedly very difficult to shoot never inspires a level of thrill to match the effort, although a subdued high-wire act at the Vienna Opera works quite well. The subplot involving the dissolution of the IMF is tired, as is Alec Baldwin’s haughty CIA boss stock character. The main villain is forgettable, ineffectual, and cliched, ringing too many familiar beats from Spectre-style organized supervillainy without having any fun with it. Most despressingly, Tom Cruise is finally starting to show some age. Thankfully, Simon Pegg remains a fantastic secondary presence, and newcomer Rebecca Ferguson has astounding screen presence as Cruise’s British undercover counterpart. Scenes with her come alive in a way the rest of the movie just doesn’t. Maybe give the franchise to Ferguson and Pegg, and put the rest of it back in the stable.

Grade: C

Better Call Saul, Season Two (2016)
Showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Jonathan Banks

Better Call Saul obviously had big shoes to fill, and has established itself throughout two seasons as less reliant on action and big climaxes than its parent. It mostly succeeds in this, thanks to maintaining Breaking Bad’s habit of inventive cinematography and crafting some slow-building greatness in some of its main characters, namely Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler and Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill, both of whom have a much more interesting presence here than in Season One. However, Better Call Saul seems to behaving a problem creating memorable characters in its supporting roles. While the odd supporter makes an impression, such as Jimmy’s film student lackies or Chuck’s gopher Ernesto, it still relies very heavily on bringing in familiar faces from Breaking Bad to fill its world, particularly in Mike Ehrmantraut’s side story. Mike’s story is generally a problem despite being interesting, as it stubbornly refuses to integrate into the main action. But even Jimmy/Saul’s story in season two has its faults. It opens by effectively undoing the end of the previous season, only to spend a half-season building to the same point (in an admittedly more natural way). Odenkirk is still fantastic, and the camera work and family-based storyline make Better Call Saul a very worthwhile watch. Check out Polite Fight over at The AV Club for some great in-depth analysis of the shot construction of the show, while only occasional devolving into conspiracy theory.

Grade: B

Review Roundup: The return of Saul Goodman, M. Night Shyamalan, Baumbach/Gerwig, and Ethan Hunt

Green Room is a smart and brutal thrill ride

There are places in the world that, despite the money they may offer, you simply shouldn’t go. The punk band The Ain’t Rights find that out the hard way when, desperate for cash, they take a payday gig from a skinhead bar, the type to talk about their lifestyle as a movement as opposed to shits and giggles. The band previously says they don’t have an online presence because it goes against their ethos; their hypocrisy of taking a gig for a gang of neo-nazis is rather swiftly punished. A peek backstage makes them witnesses to a murder, and catalyzes a tense situation with the band on one side of door and an untold number of neo-nazis on the other. As a calm voice on the other side states, and every event leading up to it foretells, this won’t end well.

Green Room is the second color-named movie about scary violent white people by Jeremy Saulnier, and if you liked previous movie, the exceptional Blue Ruin, Green Room is certainly highly recommended. That being said, Green Room is far from a retread, even though Saulnier certainly has consistencies in his style. While Blue Ruin was a meditation on the futility of revenge, Green Room is first-and-foremost a thrill machine. With a classic claustrophobic horror movie structure, Green Room works in shifts, starting as a suspenseful game of wits between the band and the unspoken threat of violence on the other side of the door. When things take a turn for the violent, they do so mercilessly. To say more would spoil the surprises the movie has in store, but suffice to say that nails were bit and shocks were had.

Just because its more of a genre film than its predecessor doesn’t make it any dumber though. The gore will be a bit much for many, but its not quite gratuitous in a torture porn sense. For every line crossed, consequences occur, and characters react in deeper ways than simple hysterics. While it has a horror movie setup, no obvious idiot moves are made, and those that are less-than-genius are quickly and brutally paid for. Interestingly, the movie hides little from the audience, giving a fair amount of screen time to the neo-nazis as well as they try to solve their problem with as best a cover-up strategy as possible. While it loses some of the claustrophobia the movie might have had by sticking entirely with the protagonists, it results in a neat balance, where no one is an unreasonable mastermind but no one is required to play the fool either.

What’s most surprising perhaps is how the movie takes few shortcuts in how it portrays the skinheads on the other side of the door; sure, most are nameless, faceless monsters in red shoelaces, but many are given moments that deepen them beyond sociopathic killing machines. Imogen Poots’ Amber finds herself similarly trapped and in over her head, but by being the first to truly comprehend their situation is also able to be a real force in the fight back. Blue Ruin star Macon Blair’s in-charge-at-the-wrong-time Gabe has an honest-to-goodness character arc that never slips his poor decisions under the rug but also shows a level of remorse that’s more than token. It makes it a bit disappointing that Patrick Stewart’s club owner Darcy never really elevates above the stunt casting, although that casting definitely pays off in his early scenes as a disembodied voice promising a peaceful resolution.

Green Room is effective as more than just a genre thrill ride, but its so effective as a genre thrill ride that almost nothing more needs to be said. At 95 minutes, it’s a lean, mean, and rewarding trip through hell, confirming Saulnier’s place as one of the most exciting directors in the business. It’s violence will be testing to some, and the tension unbearable to all, but its done in a way that’s never cheap and often innovative (particularly towards the end). Strong stomachs are required, but Green Room is worth the stress.

A-

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Green Roon (2016)
Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • SPOILER THOUGHT: Green Room seems to effectively have four acts: the necessary introduction, a paranoid thriller in the green room, an out-and-out horror movie sandwiched between two escape attempts, and a revenge thriller to cap it off, starting with one of the bandmembers declaring themselves Odin while bashing a machete against the floor. Each of the three modes works well, and the lines between them aren’t arbitrary. The horror movie starts when the band makes the decision to make a run for it, and the revenge thriller starts when they decide to change the rules of the game. Their decisions have consequences, for good or for bad, and the movie feels very deliberate because of it. Shocks are there, but none of the random, out-of-left-field, lets-mess-with-the-audience sort.
Green Room is a smart and brutal thrill ride

High-Rise is one screwy movie

Taking place nearly entirely in a large apartment complex, the lower classes confined to the first floor engage in civil war with the upper classes at the top. Given that synopsis, you’d be forgiven for making comparisons of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, where the lower classes at the back of a train engage in civil war with the upper classes at the front. However, where Snowpiercer played this metaphor obviously to focus on delivering pulp thrills, High-Rise is considerably more abstract. While its visuals are often indelible and its interpretation debatable, on a narrative and character level, its completely incoherent.

While the class warfare angle is played up, perhaps the more interesting angle is its commentary on isolationism. As some critics have pointed out, High-Rise is based on a British novel from the 1970s; the high-rise maybe isn’t meant to be a model of society, but rather of a particular island nation? When the characters are no longer willing to leave the high-rise to interact with the outside world, supplies vanish, power is shut off, and anarchy ensues. The lower class get it first, but the upper class suffer soon after, using their brief head start on the rest of the building to host lavish parties (aristocratic wigs make an appearance at one point), with an emphasis on orgies because why not I guess. Civil war is played up, but its based on promises not being kept to the lower class; “We pay the same fees” implies a shot directed at communism, but perhaps its meant to be read as “We take the same risks”.

The meaning behind the movie (and the book its based on, I’m sure) is interesting in its specificity, and maybe plays better to a British audience. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the behaviour of the individual characters is incomprehensible. The broadstrokes come across fine, but its difficult to get invested when the people on screen act to strictly serve plot functions rather than of anything resembling their own volition. Tom Hiddleston’s psychiatrist is a nonentity despite taking up the majority of the screen time, while Jeremy Irons’ top-of-the-food-chain architect never feels fully formed. As a leader who starts a chain of events that he cannot stop while sitting in his crumbling tower, he plays it awfully coy. Luke Evans comes across best as working-man Wilder, oozing charisma until the plot decides to chew him up and spit him back out in the final third. The women of the movie, despite being given a somewhat empowering moment at the end, get it the worst; Sienna Miller’s plot function is nebulous, although at least she gets one fantastic highlights-reel moment involving a steak. Elizabeth Moss’ presence as Wilder’s pregnant wide Helen is more confusing. Perhaps her role unlocks this whole movie, but as it stands, she seems incredibly wasted.

High-Rise isn’t without immediate pleasures though. It’s garbage-strewn halls in the latter half are a visual treat, even if the day-to-day of it all is a mystery, a sort of fuck-it-I-guess dystopia. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are a few laughs to be had at the absurdity of it all. It has perhaps the most ABBA references of any film this side of Mamma Mia. But it can’t help but feel alienating when it completely ignores the human side of it. Academically, High-Rise is maybe interesting. As an absorbing piece of fiction, it falls quite flat.

C-

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High Rise (2016)
Dir. Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons
Rotten Tomatoes (63%)

High-Rise is one screwy movie