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Posts Tagged ‘Elisabeth Moss’

One of the ways of spotting a remake is that they often have much more on-the-nose titles than modern movies: names like The Magnificent Seven are really not fashionable these days, unless of course they carry significant recognition value. Such is the case when it comes to a movie like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. There have been so many adaptations and other productions derived from H.G. Wells’ original novel that, ironically enough, nearly everybody must have seen one: there’s the 1933 version with Claude Rains, the Soviet version from 1984, the TV show with David McCallum, Memoirs of an Invisible Man with Chevy Chase, the other TV show with Vincent Ventresca, Abbott and Costello meet the Invisible Man, the other other TV show with Pip Donaghy, The Invisible Woman, the other other other TV show with Tim Turner, and so on.

That said, the notion almost seems to have fallen into abeyance since Paul Verhoeven’s typically restrained take on the story, in 2000’s Hollow Man – the only production openly acknowledging Wells was 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which still took pains to make clear that it featured an Invisible Man, not the Invisible Man – well, I suppose lawyers have to eat the same as everybody else. Whannell’s Invisible Man doesn’t actually credit Wells, which is odd given that the title character has the same name as the one in the novel, also because this is supposedly the latest entry in the very-long-running Universal Monsters franchise.

Unfortunate readers unable to afford therapy may recall The Mummy from a couple of years ago – a badly botched update on another classic tale, supposedly intended to launch a new shared universe featuring the bandaged one, Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, Dr Jekyll, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on. (You may even recall Dracula Untold from a couple of years before that, which was also intended to do the same thing, before being stricken from the canon for somewhat unclear reasons.) Well, so underwhelming was The Mummy‘s reception that Universal canned the whole idea and have gone back to doing individualised stories featuring these characters. This is, therefore, not the promised update featuring (one presumes) the voice of Johnny Depp, but something rather different.

The film opens in a lovely, super-modern cliff-top house, from which we find Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) making a clearly long-in-the-planning surreptitious nocturnal departure. Apparently her boyfriend, top optical boffin Griffin (Oscar Jackson-Cohen), is an oppressive controlling nightmare, and Cecilia just can’t take it any more. So off she sneaks, in a lengthy and actually rather tense sequence.

She ends up staying with James (Aldis Hodge), a cop who’s a friend of her sister’s, and slowly starting to lose the tension and anxiety which living with Griffin has left her with. The process of her recovery is expedited somewhat when the news breaks that Griffin has committed suicide, leaving a considerable wodge of his fortune to her. Now she can start to live again, can’t she?

Well, of course she can’t. Odd things start to happen around the house – objects appear and disappear inexplicably, someone starts sending emails from Cecilia’s laptop, her drinks are mysteriously spiked with a strong tranquiliser. Cecilia’s friends and family are sympathetic, assuming that her ordeal has resulted in her becoming a bit frayed around the edges. But Cecilia suspects something else – could Griffin still be alive and much closer to her than anyone suspects…?

Griffin is indeed the name of the Invisible Man in the original novel, but that’s the beginning and the end of any resemblance to H.G. Wells – the plot is different, the emphasis is different, even the invisibility works differently (which does have a genuine impact on the story). Possibly as a result of this – and this is going to sound like a joke – the Invisible Man himself is sort of a marginal figure in his own movie, with Jackson-Cohen getting strikingly little screen-time. The focus is always on Elisabeth Moss, with the original scientific romance retooled as a fable about paranoia and stalking.

Which is all very well, but the structure of the story requires a long, slow aggregation of events before Cecilia figures out she has an unseen stalker somewhere in her vicinity. Whannell dutifully goes through with this, but the problem is that while Cecilia is thoroughly confused, for the audience there is no sense of mystery or suspense – the movie is called The Invisible Man, after all, and you would have to have your refractive index set very low indeed not to be able to work out what’s going on. There is some pleasure to be gained from watching Whannell do his thing – the direction in this movie is pretty good, with Whannell particularly keen on a shot where the camera suggestively drifts off to focus on an apparently empty corner of the room, the implication being that it is actually occupied – but the first half of the movie does feel rather laborious.

It perks up a bit once Moss finally puts two and two together, and various scenes where cast members get to do their ouch-I’ve-just-been-punched-by-someone-invisible acting ensue. The story becomes rather involving as Cecilia’s straits get progressively more and more dire: you do start to wonder if they’re planning to go really dark with the ending, for once.

Well, obviously I can’t go into details, but I regret to say that the mid-film recovery does not last. The Invisible Man does have a functional and reasonably satisfying climax – the problem is it goes on for another fifteen or twenty minutes after this, attempting to contrive a startling twist ending. To be honest, I felt it fumbled the conclusion rather badly: this is the kind of twist which just doesn’t hang together in any real way, doesn’t even make a lot of sense on its own terms, feels deeply suspect in all kinds of ways and only really serves to make the film longer and less satisfying. The rest of it is hardly brilliant, but it’s the ending which comes close to capsizing the whole undertaking.

Shame, really: Moss is quite good (although I note the proposed spin-off, a remake of The Invisible Woman, is down to be a vehicle for Elizabeth Banks, as producer, director and star), the direction is inventive, and the supporting turns are also decent. But the script just isn’t quite up to scratch. It probably scores points with the Progressive Agenda Committee for finding a way to be so female-focussed, but there doesn’t seem to have been any real consideration of what an audience’s expectations are for a film called The Invisible Man, or how such a film should function. Not quite as bad as The Mummy, probably, but Universal continue to serve their monsters very poorly.

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Ben Wheatley is a director who has been making a name for himself for the last few years, more often than not working on low-budget genre movies of various kinds. In hindsight it looks like a dead cert that the mainstream was always going to come calling on him – you could argue this happened when he was recruited to direct two high-profile episodes of the BBC’s premier Saturday night sci-fi-comedy show – and with a talent as singular as this, the question is always whether they’ll be able to retain what makes them so special under the unforgiving eye of major studio oversight.

Well, I think we have something of an answer, in the shape of Wheatley’s adaptation of the noted J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise, which has received the widest release of any of his films to date. The book was published over forty years ago and has arguably proved quite influential ever since, but all previous attempts to be bring it directly to the screen have foundered.

high-rise-poster

From what we see and hear on-screen, the film retains the very-near-future setting of the novel – which in this case means some point in a 1976 that never actually happened. Tom Hiddlestone plays Laing, a doctor who as the story starts is just moving into an exclusive new housing development, a huge tower block that seems to exist at a remove from the rest of civilisation. He soon befriends several of the other residents (played by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans) and even makes the acquaintance of the architect of the building (Jeremy Irons), who lives in seclusion at the very top of the tower.

Initially all is well in the high-rise, with all the inhabitants enjoying the various amenities at their disposal. Soon, however, tensions start to build over seemingly innocuous things – access to the swimming pool, demands upon the building’s power grid – and these snowball into disputes that soon spin out of control. Open hostilities soon break out between the different social groups, as the amenities fail and the building sinks into squalour and misery. Where will it all end? One thing is certain: despite the architect’s great hopes, life in these towers is far from paradise…

Well, the high-rise itself may not be quite as rectilinear as Ballard himself envisaged (honestly, if you had a drink every time Ballard uses the word in the novel you’d probably pass out within the first few chapters), but in every other way this seems to be to be a highly impressive and very faithful adaptation. The structure of the book survives intact, which I didn’t expect, and if the characters remain a little more articulate throughout their degeneration, that’s only to be expected. The central conceit of the novel – that within the civilised exterior of the tower block, horror reigns, something which the outside world remains totally oblivious of – is also preserved, although this is remains something you have to kind of go with.

Anyone unfamiliar with the novel might be expecting a sort of narrative-driven action-horror somewhat in the vein of The Raid, as Laing and his companions battle to survive against the other tribes of the high-rise, but this is really not that kind of a film. The focus is much more on the way that all the inhabitants are complicit in the savage anarchy that consumes the building, willing participants, and the way that it is an oddly more honest expression of the normal social forces at work in modern society. One of the brilliancies of the book is the way that it isn’t really a clumsy metaphor for the class system – everyone is very middle-class, a doctor or an architect or something in the media.

The emphasis on mood and small details of character appears to be a perfect fit for Wheatley’s own sensibility: few directors can bring encroaching madness to the screen with same degree of carefree nonchalance, and naturally he gets very nearly free reign in that area here. The film’s excursions into surreal black comedy also suit him perfectly – at one point a group of senior residents, dressed in blood-stained rags, have a committee meeting where they discuss driving out the lower inhabitants, converting the lower floors into a golf course, slaughtering the building’s animals for food, and lobotomising troublemakers, and it’s impossible to see where Ballard’s vision ends and Wheatley’s begins.

Wheatley brings it all to the screen with his customary skill and control of sound and image. (One unexpected but rather brilliant touch is the use of ABBA’s S.O.S as a musical motif throughout the film, although one wonders if Benny and Bjorn were quite aware of the images their masterpiece would be playing on top of when they allowed its use.) Seeing the story brought to the screen in quite this way also brought home to me just how influential it has arguably been – you can surely see elements of High-Rise in Cronenberg’s Shivers, and also in the nightmarish city-block dystopia of the Judge Dredd strip.

One curious amendation to the novel comes at the very end of the film, when part of a speech by Margaret Thatcher is heard, praising free-market capitalism. Prior to this point the film hasn’t been explicitly political at all, although you can certainly see how Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ beliefs could be relevant to the goings-on in the high rise. That said, it feels as if it’s there just to drive a point home, but the actual point remains a little obscure, and one wouldn’t usually expect something quite so on-the-nose from Wheatley or his regular co-writer Amy Jump.

Whether this qualifies as a serious wobble or not is probably down to your personal taste and political views, but the rest of the film is very impressive – perhaps a bit too cerebral and artful to totally engage the emotions, but made with enormous skill and intelligence. Followers of both Ballard and Wheatley should be very satisfied with the end product.

 

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