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