Then Playing — High-Rise; Daughters of the Dust; The Sign of the Ram

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015). I have only a passing familiarity with the writing of J.G. Ballard, but I suspect his brand of dystopian social satire is best left on the page. That conclusion is fortified by High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of a nineteen-seventies Ballard novel. Grinding through a story about a self-contained, seriously stratified society in a London skyscraper that descends into chaos, Wheatley’s film is fussily stylish and smugly enraptured by its own blunt-force commentary. Due to the rigidly enforced class divisions that are central to the story, the film occasionally feels like a riff on Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer without the wit and ingenuity. Some talented actors are saddled with characters that are too vague or simplistic to invest with anything resembling humanity. As a documentarian whose is targeted by the building’s overlords and perpetrates his own barbaric acts, Luke Evans overacts like there’s a prize for irritating excess and he’s determined not to let his ringer castmate Elisabeth Moss best him.

Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991). The debut narrative feature from writer-director Julie Dash is assured a place in cinema history as the first full-length film directed by a Black woman to be distributed nationally in the U.S. (That this milestone wasn’t reached until the nineteen-nineties is, of course, appalling.) Beyond the trail it blazed, Daughters of the Dust is worthy of attention because it’s tremendous, a lyrical, insightful work of piercing emotions and uncommon visual elegance. On the last last point, Dash and cinematographer Arthur Jafa mostly use natural lighting to create images that are downright rapturous, establishing an aesthetic that others have tried but few have mastered. (French director Céline Sciamma might be Dash’s truest successor.) The story centers on a Gullah community living on an island off the coast of Georgia in the early part of the twentieth century, when U.S. slavery was recent enough to haunt memories. With sensitivity and acuity, Dash considers the pull of family and legacy as the pull of progress beckons. Filled with exceptional performances by actors who had few chances to further demonstrate their skills in the film community of the moment — Kaycee Moore, Cora Lee Day, and Barbarao are especially strong — Daughters of the Dust is a formidable demonstration of the way that actively diversifying who gets the opportunity to create art leads to thrilling treasures.

The Sign of the Ram (John Sturges, 1948). This gloomy drama merges Gothic horror with scuffling film noir. Based on a then-recent novel by Margaret Ferguson, The Sign of the Ram is set in an imposing English estate on a craggy plot of land high above crashing waves. There are a lot of people moving in and out of the space, all of them susceptible to the insinuations and machinations of Leah St. Aubyn (Susan Peters), the household matriarch. Peters was making a return to screen acting after a layoff of several years following a hunting accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down, and she tears into the role with the vigor of someone too long deprived of the opportunity to express her art. She is intensely sharp in the role, subtly but clearly signaling the character’s thought process as she reacts to situations and adjusts her psychological manipulations accordingly. She’s at a level that the rest of the film doesn’t reach. Director John Sturges is too flat-footed in his approach, deadening a plot that cries out for florid abandon.

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