Short Story: “Thank You For Using Forced Honesty Assassinations”

This is a flash-fiction story I wrote that was originally published in From the Asylum, a good online mag that has been defunct for over ten years now. It’s rather short, so if I managed to place it somewhere as a reprint it wouldn’t fetch much. So instead of leaving it indefinitely on the shelf, I figured I might as well share it here.


Joel was sitting at a table with his co-workers in the company cafeteria—listening to Simmons’ humorless anecdotes about his daughter’s biker boyfriend—when the stranger in the dark suit approached him.

“Joel Pritchard?” the stranger asked.

“Yes,” Joel said, and immediately knew something was wrong. He had intended to respond with “Who’s asking?” The stranger’s voice had somehow pulled that simple “Yes” right out of him.

“Joel, do you care for most of your colleagues at this table?”

“Not…really,” he said. He wrenched his stare from the stranger’s gaze just long enough to make pleading, wordless eye-contact with Lawrence, who sat beside him. Lawrence gave him a clueless shrug and the stranger went on with his questioning.

“What of Mr. Daniels?” the stranger said, pointing to the grayed VP who sat across from Joel. “Or, specifically, what do you think of his wife?”

“She’d probably let us all screw her at the same time if we asked her to. She wouldn’t even need to be drunk.” He shuddered and tried to break the paralysis that fixed him to his chair. He heard Daniels gasp. The old man beamed his anger across the table and it stuck to the side of Joel’s face like hot tar.

“That’s all?” the stranger prodded.

“The money spent on inflating her tits would’ve been better spent on fixing her teeth—what the hell is this?”

Asking that last question left Joel’s throat sore. The words had been heavy and jagged, like he’d coughed up a giant, broken stone.

“Have you ever tried to kill a man?”

“No.”

“Have you ever given serious thought to killing a man?”

“Yes.”

“Someone at this very table?”

Yes.”

“Who?”

Joel hoped his withering voice would break before he could say the name.

“Lawrence.” In his periphery he saw his friend’s mouth drop open.

“Why Lawrence?”

“I got drunk one night and told him that I had tried to rape one of the admins at the company Christmas party six years ago. I was afraid he might tell someone.”

“And for that, you seriously contemplated killing him?”

Joel was reduced to nodding now.

The stranger’s mouth spread into a flat smirk. “Safe to say you’re pretty off in the head, huh Joel?”

Another nod.

“Likelihood of you keeping your job after this?”

“None,” Joel said, his voice strained and croaking.

“Likelihood of you killing yourself in the very near future?”

He sighed, exhausted. “Very high.”

The stranger gave a satisfied nod that indicated the end of questioning. He looked at the other men sitting at the table, offered them a polite valediction of, “Gentlemen,” and then left.

***

“Would you agree or disagree that our agent met your expectations?” the customer service operator asked.

“Definitely agree,” Simmons said. “He was even better than I expected. How did he do that?”

“Well, I’m not at liberty to discuss our agent’s methods, Mr. Simmons. But I’m glad to hear you were happy with the experience. Customer satisfaction is our number one priority. If you’re ever in need of our services again-”

“Actually, while I have you on the phone, I was wondering if you have any sort of preferred customer discount.”

The operator laughed. “Are you a man who collects enemies, Mr. Simmons?”

He smiled and looked out the living room window. A growling motorcycle pulled up in front of his house. Neither of its riders wore a helmet. The teenage girl on back of the motorcycle dismounted and gave the blond, heavily-tattooed driver a long, open-mouthed kiss before walking up the driveway toward the house.

“Nuisances more so than enemies,” Simmons said.

Continue Reading

Netflix List Blitz: ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG

FYI :Rules of the Netflix List Blitz

  1. I’ll watch and write about every movie currently on my list. Pretty simple first rule there.
  2. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t think of any movie I’ve ever seen that started off horribly for more than twenty minutes and then ended up being worth the watch. A slow start or lull is fine, but if I get a sense what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  3. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  4. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random.
  5. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. (Given my propensity for longwindedness, don’t bet too much on that last one.)


“I don’t have GPS on this phone.”

This is what Ruby–our leading lady–says to her unseen friends via said phone in the opening scene of Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. Her friends are trying to give her directions, you see, but Ruby, a Chinese-American toy designer from Los Angeles, is struggling to keep up with the directions they’re giving her as she’s not especially familiar with Hong Kong. Also, her phone doesn’t have GPS.

This movie was made in 2015. This young, successful woman has a modern smartphone and is traveling abroad in one of the world’s busiest and biggest cities / independent territories, and she has, perhaps for the unreasonable challenge of doing so, brought with her one of the only touchscreen phones on the planet that apparently doesn’t come equipped with GPS.

Note that she doesn’t say, “My phone’s GPS is being an asshole right now.” That I could believe. There are occasions when my phone goes haywire trying to pinpoint my location, or which direction I’m facing, or what part of town I’m on. I’m guessing many people could relate to that. Would it be a contrivance for Ruby’s phone to start acting up right when she needs it to guide her to where she needs to go? Sure, but it’s still more plausible than the idea that she’s out here in the world, in a foreign land with a layout she’s apparently quite ignorant of and made little effort to learn about (the place she’s trying to get to, Lan Kwai Fong, is apparently a fairly popular place in Hong Kong), with an iFone 6 – Sans GPS Edition.

At this point, a mere three minutes into its runtime, Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong was already facing an uphill battle to win me over.

A handsome young American expat business-dude, Josh, overhears Ruby’s plight and instead of saying, “Your phone doesn’t have GPS? What kind of wild nonsense is that?”, he offers to walk her to the place where she’d meet her friends. So there’s our “meet cute” moment, brought to us courtesy of Ruby’s inexplicably inadequate phone purchasing decisions.

From there, the movie sort of condenses the plots of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Josh and Ruby roam the lovely city, chatting and getting to know one another, doing another couple the favor of taking their picture before getting their own picture taken in kind. Pleasant, budding romance stuff. This goes well until Josh reveals he actually has a girlfriend whom he’s very freshly unhappy with. As in, he left her back at a bar during her own birthday party because she was flirting with other dudes so he could basically get passive aggressive revenge by flirting with Ruby and getting drinks with her at another bar. Ruby, agitated but taking things better than you might imagine, jabs Josh before leaving him at the bar, saying, “I feel sorry for your girlfriend.”

To which Josh replies, “Oh yeah, well… none of this would have happened if your phone wasn’t ludicrous bullshit!”

And I mean, yes, he’s a somewhat deceitful prick, but his logic there is pretty inarguable.

Cut to a year later, Josh–having quit his job to become a writer, freeing himself to be beardy and disheveled–runs into Ruby by chance on a ferry. She has now moved to Hong Kong for work. Josh is still with his girlfriend, and Ruby has a boyfriend of her own. So of course–of course–these two lovely people get all walk-around-flirty again. The Cantonese-fluent Josh helps Ruby not get screwed over by a mildly shady tailor making a suit for her boyfriend and Ruby is overly impressed that a guy who’s lived in and done business in Hong Kong for several years “speaks Chinese.” Ruby and Josh then have their fifth “Well, I should get going, bye / Wait, actually let’s stay together and hang out some more” moment in the film. We are barely thirty minutes in.

At this point, as silly as I’m finding much of this, and as much as the overly witty, too-cute and/or on-the-nose dialogue and too-earnest soundtrack is wearing on me, I’m actually starting to like these actors  enough to sort of root for these characters. Then again, as I believe I’ve mentioned before on another write-up, I’m kind of a romantic sucker. The idea of strolling about a beautiful big city and building on an attraction you feel to someone you barely know will always be appealing to me, even when it involves two characters being unfaithful pricks to their others waiting for them at home.

I feel it’s worth noting, though, that during one conversation, Ruby brings up a couple that works in her office. The man is white, the woman is Chinese, and they initially had a language barrier to overcome when they started dating, so they brought a translator–an actual human being, not an app–along on their first few dates. And as she describes this couple I’m thinking, “Why can’t I see that movie? That sounds like the quirky, feel good, interracial romantic comedy of the year!”

Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is passable fare. I’ve certainly seen better, and I’ve seen much worse. The acting is fine, and the views are often lovely. Our characters are brought together in a contrived in a careless, unnecessary way that gives you an early heads up as to value placed on the writing in this movie, but if you’re into this sort of romantic flick, it’s not a waste of time.

Up Next: A (presumably) significant change-up with the film adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s Cold in July

Continue Reading

“The Horrors of Travel”

Some of the scariest works I’ve read or seen didn’t come from a work of horror fiction, but from books about and accounts of historical disasters. The description of the sea suddenly overtaking an already flooded Galveston Island during the hurricane of 1900, as written in Isaac’s Storm, is as chilling as it is succinct. There are parts of Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire that are at least as terrifying as anything in the most affecting horror novels I’ve ever read.

While the above artwork from an issue of Harper’s Weekly, printed in September of 1865, isn’t supremely frightening, it is undoubtedly macabre. “[G]raphic, but by no means extravagant,” is how Harper’s described its illustration. The nonfiction book The Angola Horror–a recounting of the 1867 train wreck that occurred in Angola, New York–introduced me to “The Horrors of Travel.” The short article that accompanies the picture mentions the 1865 explosion of the steamship Sultana, and the drawing appears to reference it in the lower right hand corner.

In the upper left corner is a burning ship that might not to be a reference to anything specific, but the article is focused on accidents that occurred in 1865, even if it only mentions one by name. There were two other major maritime accidents that occurred in 1865: the Brother Jonathan sank off the coast of California, killing 225 people (92% of its passengers and crew) in July , and in August the SS Pewabic collided with her sister ship and took at least 100 people down with it in Lake Huron. The Sultana disaster was the deadliest maritime accident1 in world history to that point, and would remain so for at least half a century (depending on how one classifies the Halifax explosion).  It remains the deadliest maritime accident in United States History. The Brother Jonathan sinking was the tenth worst in U.S. history, and the Pewabic disaster was the fourth worst to occur in the Great Lakes. From April to August, a country that was barely exiting the Civil War witnessed three major marine shipwrecks occur along the West Coast, the Great Lakes, and in the Mississippi River, near Tennessee. So while there was no major incident involving a burning boat in 1865, it’s understandable that Harper’s would want to include one more dramatic image of a foundering vessel in this illustration, driving home the point that these incidents were taking place all over the country in a relatively compact time frame.

The train wreck references are a little harder to explain, given the article’s focus on 1865. The year saw no major, deadly railway accidents, although the head-on collision from the Shohola incident from a year prior might account for the crash depicted in top center of this illustration. The associated article makes no mention of a specific train disaster. Even without a more recent, major wreck to serve as inspiration, however, the specter of railway disasters–a relatively new and seemingly grislier spectacle at the time–still loomed so large that this illustration makes it a centerpiece steered by Death itself.

Continue Reading

The new “IT” Trailer isn’t half bad

The new full trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It came out today, and it’s a reasonably solid trailer. Nothing exceptional or new, no surprises, but we get some glimpses of some solid set pieces and what could be some effective scares. The carousel slide projector scene is deserved centerpiece of this trailer, and I like that the trailer (and possibly the scene in the film, that remains to be seen) ends without a full reveal of Pennywise’s face. It maybe should have cut off just a bit sooner, leaving it as more of a hint in the trailer, particularly if that’s also how the scene plays out (I doubt that, but it’s possible), but I’m nitpicking there.

There’s also a scene involving hands trying and failing to break through a door that ties directly to one of the more harrowing moments from the book that I don’t believe was in the first, TV mini-series adaptation of It (been a while since I’ve seen that series, so I could be mistaken).

Some people are fond of saying that it’s pretty easy to come up with a good trailer, even for a bad movie, but I disagree with this. Perhaps it should be easy, but I’ve seen enough trailers that range from pitiful to forgettable to disbelieve that churning out a solid trailer requires little thought or effort. This trailer has its shortcomings and is fairly predictable, and as horror trailers go, it’s nowhere near as horrifically, hideously memorable as the trailer for Sinister, for example. And its conventional approach means it can’t get within sight of the legendary, bizarre trailers for The ExorcistThe Shining and Alien. But it’s a solid trailer, nonetheless, and gives me at least an ounce of hope for the film, which means it’s doing its job.

Update: And now that a few weeks have passed and I’ve had a Pennywise-related nightmare, I might have to reconsider how memorable this trailer is. Something triggered the dream, after all. So well done, filmmakers, well done.

Continue Reading

Netflix List Blitz: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

FYI :Rules of the Netflix List Blitz

  1. I’ll watch and write about every movie currently on my list. Pretty simple first rule there.
  2. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t think of any movie I’ve ever seen that started off horribly for more than twenty minutes and then ended up being worth the watch. A slow start or lull is fine, but if I get a sense what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  3. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  4. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random.
  5. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. (Given my propensity for longwindedness, don’t bet too much on that last one.)


I try to take an inclusive approach to stories some may consider to be on the fringe of the horror genre. There is an unfortunate history of stories being labeled as thrillers or supernatural thrillers solely because they’ve been deemed “too good” for horror. There is an equally unfortunate history of horror fans excluding stories that they feel aren’t “really” horror stories, because, well, pick a reason. Not bloody enough (even though John Carpenter’s Halloween is practically blood free), not “scary” enough (even though scary is entirely subjective), has too much drama / comedy / tragedy, so on and so forth. I try to reject such exclusive approaches to genre fare because I feel it diminishes the genre, robbing it of some great movies for biased, shortsighted reasons.

I say all of this now because A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is considered by many to be one of the finer horror films to come out in recent years. And it is indeed a fine film. It doesn’t strike me, however, as a horror story.

The press release for the film labeled it a “vampire western.” Yes, I know, “Death of the Author” suggests that the people actually behind the making of the film (or, in this case, perhaps just the publicity) aren’t necessarily the authorities on what the film is or what it means. One of these days I’ll probably get into my many qualms with “Death of the Author” on here, but just because I don’t subscribe to that particular essay (or the “interpretation” of it that people who seemingly haven’t read the essay have taken to in recent years), I don’t believe that the Author Knows Best either. Despite what Ana Lily Amirpour may say of her film, it doesn’t strike me as much of a “western”.

Various people slapped a lot descriptors on this film, and the word “strange” or something synonymous shows up in several reviews. Maybe that makes me strange, because the film I watched wasn’t nearly as odd as I expected it to be. Vampirism aside, this would be a relatively straight-forward, well made crime drama. But, of course, you can’t simply set a vampire aside.

This is the story of a painfully lonely, distant woman whose condition understandably leaves her disconnected and bored with the world. She occupies her time listening to music by herself, scaring random little kids because it’s something to do, and maybe skateboarding down the street because hell, why not. That, and eating people.

Described that way, the vampirism could certainly be seen as a gimmick. She could suffer from a lot of other real world afflictions that would render her a lonely, distant, bored person. One of the great things about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is that the vampirism is treated as intrinsic to the character. Sure, it doubles as a metaphor for, well, whatever any viewer wants it to be a metaphor of at any given time, but for this character, her condition is meaningful to her. You couldn’t swap the vampirism out for clinical depression, for instance, without fundamentally altering the character. She’s not a vampire that’s really something else. She’s a vampire, and she’s also a person with a personality. She’s a valuable, worthwile lead character, in short. As is the young man she encounters and builds an uncertain relationship.

The young man has reasons to feel disconnected as well. He is wanting, he is struggling, he is also alone, and he is burdened by a heroin addicted father whose drug-related debts help kick off the story. The father’s pusher has taken the son’s prized car to cover the aforementioned debts. The son knows the exact number of days he worked and saved to be able to buy the car, and then in one night it’s taken from him through no fault of his own. He in turn resorts to theft to try to pay off what his father owes and buy his precious car back. Unbeknownst to him until he arrives, the pusher has encountered our vampire and met with a fate befitting a coked-up gangster-pimp who tried to seduce a supernatural bloodsucker.

From there the story is a slow burn, dark and patient and compelling. It never really tries to be frightening or even unsettling, though. In fact, it feels thoroughly disinterested in affecting or exploring fear. There is the one scene, where the vampire menaces the child, that might be considered tense or disturbing to some, but it feels apparent early on that it’s just a scene of a bored woman taking part in halfhearted bullying to make herself feel better–or just feel something–and to kill some time. It also plants the seed for a plot development later to come. But it’s not in any way interested in being frightful, and doesn’t need to be. All of this takes me back to my initial thought on this matter, as to whether or not it’s a horror story. Ultimately that shouldn’t matter much, except I do love my preferred genre, and I love for it to be able to claim good stories for itself. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is very good. But does a grim, dour tale featuring a vampire automatically make it a horror story? Doesn’t it need to be at least somewhat invested in attempting to horrify?

Well, I obviously don’t have the authority to give more than my opinion, rather than definitive “answers” to those questions. And in my opinion, while a story can absolutely be a horror drama, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has no evident aspirations toward being a horror story. But you won’t find me trying to correct anyone who wants to put such a quality movie in the horror genre. I would, after all, rather be inclusive.

Up Next: Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

Continue Reading

Netflix List Blitz: RAMS

FYI :Rules of the Netflix List Blitz

  1. I’ll watch and write about every movie currently on my list. Pretty simple first rule there.
  2. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t think of any movie I’ve ever seen that started off horribly for more than twenty minutes and then ended up being worth the watch. A slow start or lull is fine, but if I get a sense what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  3. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  4. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random.
  5. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. (Given my propensity for longwindedness, don’t bet too much on that last one.)


I used to joke that if Netflix was a store that sold household goods and you bought kitchen knives from them, the clerk would ask at checkout if you’d like to get stabbed. “Because of your interest in knives.” In short, their recommendation system had some flaws.

It’s improved somewhat over time, but it’s still imperfect. You still get some ridiculous “related” recommendations, particularly when it comes to movies or filmmakers currently not on the service (Blood and Black Lace isn’t currently available for streaming, but Black Mirror and Blacklist are apparently related, because we know all Black-titled movies look alike).

I write all of this because I’m not sure how the film Rams ended up on my list. Obviously I added it, but I can’t imagine why. Netflix’s personalized rating system gives it 4.5 stars, which means that it thinks it’s the kind of movie I would love, but the provided premise doesn’t move me one way or the other: “Two estranged sheep-farming brothers must re-open dialogue with each other if they want to save their herds.”Doesn’t sound like something I’d go out of my way to watch or avoid. I’d never heard of the film before, I’m completely unfamiliar with its Icelandic cast and director. Nordic farmer family feuds and reconciliations aren’t a subject I’m actively into. To come clean here, Rams almost made me cheat on the basic rules of this Netflix List Blitz just three entries into the series.

I primarily write horror stories, and generally read a lot of horror fiction, crime novels and historical accounts, but I’m also a sucker for a good relationship story, or even a sappy relationship story, sometimes. Love Jones is one of my favorite movies and I have a huge soft spot for improbable romance road trip indy flick Take Me Home. On the platonic side of things, I really like the quirky relationship-building of The Life Aquatic, the core friendship in Swingers sustains the film, the ending of The Straight Story breaks and warms my heart every time, and Fried Green Tomatoes hits me right in the limbic system. So while I’m at a loss for what might have made me add Rams to my queue (if I had to hazard a guess, wine is probably to blame), it’s not as if it had no chance of entertaining or engaging me.

So how did I like the film? Well… well enough. The premise alone is somewhat quirky, but also a bit darker than what Netlfix offers. One of the estranged brothers, Kiddi, is not in the best place mentally, which is emotionally taxing on the other brother, Gummi. The film has jokes, but overall it has a darker sense of humor than I expected, as well. In fact, it has a darker, bleaker everything than I initially expected. Visually, it’s deliberately wan, even during some gorgeous wide shots of the Icelandic countryside. And, similar to The Straight Story, there are overriding conflicts with regret and time itself, acting as an unstoppable tag team. While the former can be managed, the latter always gets the win. Some movies just make this more apparent than others. As for how apparent Rams makes it, well, I did say the movie was bleaker than expected…

Some day down the road, I think I’ll give Rams another viewing to see if I like it more than I do now. As it stands, it’s a solid film, and I don’t regret the time I spent on it, but for the most part it didn’t do much for me. But once upon a time, I felt the same way about The Life Aquatic before re-watching it and discovering a new favorite, and Rams has planted just enough promise in my head on first watch for me to think that maybe I just didn’t come into it in the right mood.

Up Next: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Continue Reading

Netflix List Blitz: HIGH-RISE

FYI: Rules of the Netflix List Blitz

  1. I’ll watch and write about every movie currently on my list. Pretty simple first rule there.
  2. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t think of any movie I’ve ever seen that started off horribly for more than twenty minutes and then ended up being worth the watch. A slow start or lull is fine, but if I get a sense what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  3. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  4. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random.
  5. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. (Given my propensity for longwindedness, don’t bet too much on that last one.)


In the middle of the movie High-Rise, there is a montage that takes the situation from screwed-up to truly desolate. Our protagonist, Laing, undergoes what seems to be a critical mental break, and the titular high-rise luxury apartment building he lives in devolves into a wasteland. At the beginning of the montage, Laing is using the rowing machine in the still-pristine exercise room. By the end, the gymnasium is a dark ruin, and a trio of quasi-civilized men hover near the seemingly oblivious Laing and discuss whether or not they should beat and/or kill him.

This montage is well-shot and well-acted. It also blows up the pacing in an already clumsy, misshapen movie, speeding us from point C to point X. It’s a mistake, and a bit of a microcosm capturing what went wrong with the film adaptation of High-Rise.

To be fair, and to be clear, High-Rise is not a bad movie. It is, however, thoroughly underwhelming, particularly considering its potential and source material. High-Rise is a “cozy” dystopian drama about the devolution of a small contained society within a specific housing structure where the wealthy at the high-end exploit the lesser occupants at the low end until chaos and revolt become inevitable. For those who’ve seen Snowpeircer, it’s roughly similar, and in its own way not that much less improbable, although there’s nowhere near as much overt action, the gap between the haves and have-nots is considerably shorter, and the true revolt that brings down the system is essentially initiated by the elites in control. It has a very strong cast, starring Tom Hiddelston, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, and Sienna Miller. It has no excuse for being less than good other than simply suffering a failure of execution.

I’ve never been of the mind that being mediocre is somehow inherently worse than being bad. If you forced me to watch one of two movies and told me Movie A was average fare, while Movie B was atrocious, I’ll take my chances with Movie A ten times out of ten. I understand that sometimes a genuinely awful movie can be a curiosity, but I believe that some thoroughly middling movies can also rise to the level of curiosity, because many of them are squandered opportunities. Count High-Rise among those films.

As the novel begins, so does the movie, in the aftermath of the crisis that has turned a lavish tower block, so complete with amenities that you almost never have to leave, into an eerily homeostatic living hell. Things are bad, beyond bad even, but they also appear to be locked in place somewhat. That is to say, we get the impression that things at least won’t get significantly worse any time soon, so the next step for the story is to flashback to when things were decidedly less hellish. The token fidelity to the structure of the source material here is a mistake. Some things simply work much better on the page than on the screen, and when that becomes apparent, ideally, you realize you need to take a different approach. The book is able to maintain a distance and mysteriousness that the film doesn’t even try to mirror. Ballard speaks vaguely of violence and confrontation in this opening, whereas the film shows us a dead body and decrepit conditions. The novel gives us a third person narrator, whereas the film has Laing narrating. But these differences are only a problem because of the initial, half-hearted effort to follow the structure of the book when there’s no need to. This isn’t simply a case of the movie being too different or too similar to its source material: it’s a case of the people behind the film not recognizing how best to bring this story to their chosen medium.

Ballard’s novel never feels unsure of what it’s trying to be, but the High-Rise adaptation is hemorrhaging insecurity from start to hamfisted finish. The movie ends with a Margaret Thatcher quote that, in context, acts as a critique that aligns with my personal sensibilities, but simply doesn’t fit with the story that preceded it. It’s there, it seems, to spell out the movie’s themes in case the viewer still wasn’t sure of them after everything they’d seen. As a guy who thinks subtlety in fiction is sometimes overrated, I’m hesitant to complain about something being unsubtle. This, fortunately, is beyond that; it is uncertain. A truly confident adaptation of High-Rise wouldn’t be inclined to include such an afterword.

In between the misbegotten beginning and ending, and all around the similarly ill-advised montage, we get scenes from a would-be thriller, a would-be drama, a would-be satire, and a would-be psychedelic art flick. Such a hodgepodge can be effective in some cases, when backed by sound ideas, but in High-Rise it contributes to pacing issues that bloat the movie. The film ends up feeling longer than its two-hour runtime, and it’s all the more noticeable given how lean Ballard’s novel is.

Again, courtesy of a great cast and the general, mechanical competency and professionalism of all involved, High-Rise isn’t a bad picture. But a film that fails to be even above average when it could have been great, well, as I said before, that’s not worse than being bad, but it’s still, in its own way, somewhat painful to watch.

Continue Reading

Netflix List Blitz: The Man From Nowhere

New Year’s resolutions are, of course, arbitrary. That doesn’t mean the start of a new year is any worse starting point for making a change or doing something you’ve been meaning / wanting / needing to do. I told myself I would write much, much more in 2017, and writing in my long neglected blog is going to be part of that increased writing output. That said, blogging doesn’t always come so easily to me. Sometimes it’s not a matter of procrastination, sometimes I just don’t feel like I have anything to write about. So, to help ensure that I will write frequently, I’ve decided to employ a ringer. I’m going to blog about my attempt to power through my never-ending unwatched Netflix queue.

I don’t have a DVD account anymore (does that even need to be said at this point?), so this is strictly a streaming queue. Like so many other people, I’ve let the Netflix list get unwieldy, to the point that I’m sort of relieved when something I’ve been meaning to gets dropped from Netflix’s streaming service. Well, starting today, I’m setting myself a benchmark. I will try to get through at least a couple of these per week, and will write something about each flick after I finish watching. I’m giving myself a couple of outs and setting up a couple of rules for this as I go along.

  1. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any movie I’ve ever seen where at some point I thought, “Wow, this is awful,” and then later thought, “Glad I stuck it out through the awful parts to get to the fantastic stuff.” It’s okay for a movie to start slow, or have a lull or dip or three, but if I get a sense at any time that what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  2. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  3. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random. And I suppose it essentially is.
  4. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Meaning that some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. Given my propensity for tangents and long-windedness, if we set the wordcount over/under at 400, the safe money would definitely be on the over. But there’ll probably be some occasions where I’ll keep things to a few paragraphs and move on.

With all of that established, let’s get to it. First up…

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE

There was a time in my life  when I went out of my way to watch any remotely notable Asian gunplay movie. I spent a couple of years fawning over John Woo, then I saw Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and chased any movie that could come close to giving me the feeling it gave me upon first watch. Then I spent a few years catching up to solid flicks such as Fulltime Killer and Shiri, appreciating them for what they were while part of me thought, “Nice, but you’re no Time and Tide.

At some point, my wild affinity for Asian action flicks completely subsided. The movies still looked relatively appealing to me, but I didn’t feel so compelled to watch them. I’ve added and subtracted (and re-added) The Man From Nowhere to and from (and to) my Netflix list two or three times. I add it because it looks good, and comes highly recommended. I subtract it because it feels like one of those movies I’m never going to be in the mood to commit to viewing. The solid 2-hour runtime didn’t help. Remember when action movies seemed to get right to the point, got in and out in90-minutes or so, an hour-forty-five tops? The Terminator is 107-minutes long and it has to establish a premise involving time travel and futuristic murder-droids and shit.

“But Johnny, what about Die Hard, and Terminator 2, and other rather long action movies from the 80’s and early 90’s.”

Bah. Begone with you and your facts.

The Man From Nowhere has one of those classic action movie premises where the bad guys mess with the wrong man. I love movies with that plot, if for no other reason than they remind me of the end of the 1991 Patrick Dempsey movie Run. After Dempsey’s bumbling character lucks into killing one last villain, the cop who’s spent the whole movie one step behind being helpful all night finally catches up to Dempsey, smiles at him and says, “They sure fucked with the wrong guy.” Uh, nah, Detective, sir, that’s not an accurate assessment of the way things went down. Dempsey’s character spends the whole movie accidentally surviving and accidentally taking out the criminals chasing him. It’s a surprisingly fun flick, but his success leaves his enemies relatively blameless, tactically speaking. You can’t fault the bad guys in Run for thinking that a guy who looks and acts exactly like the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love should be an easy kill.

The bad guys in The Man From Nowhere, on the other hand, have legitimately eff’d with the wrongest of wrong men to eff with. The primary villains of the film, two psychotic brothers with promising futures in the murder/narcotics/exploitation/evildoer business, don’t have direct run-ins with the hero initially, and are dismissive of a lackey who tries to tell them about how quickly and casually our hero, Cha Tae-sik, snatched a knife out of said lackey’s hand. Okay, fair enough, no bad guy ever takes a cowardly bastard lackey’s word for it when he tries to warn them that the hero is more dangerous than he initially appears to be. But then their chief lieutenant / hitman doesn’t dispute the lackey’s story, and also goes out of his way to comment about how calm Tae-sik was when the hitman shot someone else right in front of him.

I’ve never run a criminal enterprise myself, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about it, but I like to think that if I did run one, and the highest ranking murderer under my employment even hinted at warning me about some seemingly innocuous guy I may have made into an enemy, I’d have some follow-up questions. “Did he say he was coming after us? Did he mention anything about having ‘a particular set of skills’? Should we maybe not kidnap the little kid who’s the only person to befriend him and make him feel remotely human again?”

The movie has some similarities to John Wick, which means it has some similarities to Taken, which means it has some similarities to Man on Fire, which means it has some similarities to The Professional and probably several other movies and stories that predate all of the aforementioned. Hell, viewed from a high enough altitude, it has some very basic things in common with The Searchers. Tae-sik is a warrior with some disturbing things in his past–things he’s done and had done to him–and So-mi, the abducted girl, is his lone tether to humanity.

The big difference between The Man From Nowhere and the other movies I’ve mentioned is just how much more emotionally unashamed it is, and I say this as a compliment. As I watched the film, I realized just how much I had missed the naked melodrama of so many Asian action / crime thrillers that just doesn’t come naturally to most American/”Hollywood” flicks in the same genres. Those who’ve seen Infernal Affairs and its remake The Departed should know exactly what I’m getting at. For those who haven’t, or who’ve seen the latter but not the original, here’s a video that does a great job of highlighting the very different approaches to the same scene.

Naked, unashamed manipulation and emotion. I forgot how much I enjoyed that sort of thing in my action thrillers. The Man From Nowhere is a film very much in that same vein. It comes through in the stories and characters. Unlike his American counterparts John Creasy or Bryan Mills, Tae-sik, is apt to cry or tremble with fury or shock when the moment calls for it. When he sets up a villain to die with a timed explosive, somewhat reminiscent of Creasy’s actions in Man on Fire, he doesn’t preface it with a cool one-liner and then walk off without looking at the explosion. Instead he gives the villain a rundown of exactly why the horrible things he’s doing are may be even more horrible than they already appear to be. And he is seething. I like Man on Fire well enough, but outside of Christopher Walken’s “masterpiece” mini-logue, it’s got nothing on this flick.

By the way, about that horrible stuff that the villains are up to. So-Mi is one of many children who’ve been sold to the Chinese Mafia operating in Korea as “ants”–child slave laborers. They’re forced to act as drug couriers, money couriers and meth-lab workers, and when any of them eventually collapse from the exhaustion of running around town doing drop-offs and pick-ups and, you know, working nonstop around all of those horrible meth chemicals, they’re killed and harvested for organs to be sold on the black market. Which is already fucking appalling and leaves any action flick fan eager to see these bad guys get the shit killed out of them. Then Tae-Sik briefly takes things up to the border of horror story territory while lecturing the villain; he notes that with the children’s organs being involuntarily harvested and sold to different people in different parts of the country, their souls can never rest, and they’re forced to wander without peace or respite in death. With that in mind, it almost feels like the villains merely getting shot, stabbed and/or blown up to death are getting off a bit easy.

The Man From Nowhere performs one hell of a balancing act; it’s gruesome, it’s melodramatic yet affecting, it’s thrilling despite dour and largely humorless, it’s predictable but still builds anticipation. Save for one knife-fight near the climax that features some exhilarating first-person POV camerawork, the action is unexceptional, but it’s very well-executed, and worth your time if you’re an action-thriller fan. Had I not just committed myself to this “Netflix list blitz” idea, I’d be in the mood to spend a week or two catching up on all the Asian action flicks I’ve been neglecting. Instead, the next movie will steer me into somewhat surreal world of a “cozy”-dystopian drama.

Next up: High-Rise

Continue Reading

Today’s Short Story: “The Four-Fingered Hand”

Barry Pain’s short story “The Four-Fingered Hand,” initially published in 1911’s Here and Hereafter, is a great, swift tale that can be read on Project Gutenberg for free. You should, perhaps, read the story first, then come back to read this post because I’m going to dive into story details, including the ending.

Ready now? Let’s get to it.

If you read enough ghost stories, you know that supernatural omens and phantom harbingers are plentiful in ghostlore; banshees, La Llorona, black dogs, death coaches, The Flying Dutchman, and a host of others that I’m not naming, and plenty more that I’m sure I’ve never heard of. These entities and their freshly imagined stand-ins often pop up in horror fiction, because a being whose mere presence foretells death is ripe for producing frights. Given the familiarity of this character type, stories often add some twist to try to keep the audience on its toes, often utilizing dramatic irony that suggests predestination (the cursed person tries to avoid their death, only to accidentally cause their death through very actions meant to prevent it), or a plot turn involving a false presumption (the banshee appears, but the person sick in bed recovers, and someone else in the house ends up dead instead).

“The Four-Fingered Hand” has a simple, smart and horrifying twist on such a being. For any who didn’t take a moment to read the story, here’s a rundown: The titular, phantom four-fingered is a heriditary haint that used to appear to the forebears of a man named Brackley. Any sighting of the spectral hand was a sign to “stop anything on which he was engaged.” Brackley’s now-deceased grandfather, a wealthy man, would cease specific business dealings or cancel planned journeys whenever he saw the hand. In the story, Brackley spies the hand, but is persuaded by his skeptical acquaintance, Yarrow, to ignore the hand’s warning, which on this night seems particularly mundane and silly. The hand appears to be warning Brackley not to continue playing a game of cards. Brackley disregards the warning, plays cards with Yarrow and another man named Blake, and nothing horrible befalls him while playing.

And then Brackley excuses himself to his room, where he’s promptly strangled to death. An imprint of the hand that choked the life out of him remains on his neck for his friends to see, and that handprint is missing a finger.

It’s simple and, I’ll go ahead and gush here, brilliant. A warning and a threat may not quite be synonyms, but they’re very close cousins, and one very can easily be mistaken for the other. Take the following sentence: “Do as I tell you, or you will be killed by me.” Shave the “by me” off the end and you’re still essentially saying the same thing, but that omission can lead someone to misinterpret your intent.

As Yarrow tells another man at the end of the story, there’s no reason to believe that an apparition that seemingly appears to caution people against danger or give advance notice of impending, possibly avoidable danger is actually doing anything of the sort. It could be in business for itself, showing up for “unfathomable reasons” that they don’t bother to explain. We read and write often about such specters and treat them as though they must be stuck on rails, set on a path leading to a destination everyone has marked on their map. I love this story for providing the simple reminder that even a ghostly, maimed hand might be more than just a plot device. It might have a motive, and might not care to share that motive with the reader, or any other characters.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 6