I Got It at the Library: High-Rise

Recently I was watching Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise.

Adapting Ballard novels for the screen is always a challenging proposition. Even the great David Cronenberg had problems with his notorious 1996 adaptation of the Ballard novel Crash .

Now director Ben Wheatley and his co-conspirator Jump have tried their hand. U.K. film-maker Wheatley does have a gift for highly visual (and often disturbing) imagery but despite that and committed performances by a British A-List cast that includes Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, Aussie import Luke Evans and America’s Elizabeth Moss it was hard to tell what was driving the alleged plot.

high-rise poster

I guess one of the things Mr. Wheatley was aiming for was a broad satire on class distinctions (the idle rich live in sumptuous spreads at the top of the building and the struggling lower classes live in the lower part of the building and understandably want to move up) but that whole thing was done better (and more coherently) in South Korean film-maker Joon Ho Bong’s Snowpiercer. 

To paraphrase Will Shakespeare (or whoever wrote Macbeth) “Tis a tale written by an auteur, full of sound and fury, signifying something.”

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Oh, What a Feeling ……

Recently I found myself with my ass on the grass near a shopping mall.

There were  two cop cars (with policemen inside them – putting a lie to the cliche, Where is a cop when you need one?), an ambulance, two young women (one looked genuinely concerned, the other one just looked bored, both were attractive, I couldn’t help noticing) and an older gentleman with a cel phone. Gee, my very own crowd scene!)

The world was spinning around me. In a previous lifetime, I might have quoted the vintage Crowbar lyric, “Oh, what a feeling, what a russhhh!” Unfortunately, I had not consumed any alcohol and I haven’t smoked anything in years. So it was kinda alarming.

The doctor at the local Emergency informed me that I was suffering from vertigo. And not the kind you get from watching too many Hitchcock movies.

Interesting. And to think I used to pay good money to feel like this.

No, not that vertigo































Asian Action Flick: The Original Is Still the Greatest!

I’ve learned two things while watching The Raid 2 (now streaming on Netflix): 1) “Pencak Silat”, a term used to denote a certain type (or types) of Indonesian combat style (or styles) may be the most polite form of martial arts.

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A single combatant (among an army of bad guys) lines up to test the skills of our hero (Iko Uwais), only to be crippled within seconds. Then, another combatant steps to the plate, only to be crippled within seconds. And so on … 2) Once a young director (Welsh-born director and enthusiastic advocate of martial arts Gareth Evans, in this case) has seen his original  become an unlikely commercial and artistic hit (The Raid: Redemption even played at several prestigious film festivals) he uses what is presumably a bigger budget to stage even more fights and, of course, a car chase (no action flick worth its body count is complete without it.) The frightening thing here is that the writer/director has stated in interviews that The Raid 2 is the movie he wanted to make in the first place – except he didn’t have the money.

Raid - poster

So The Raid:Redemption had to be confined to one building. It was that compression of action combined with tight editing, unique setting (Jakarta, Indonesia) and introduction of novel fighting skills that arguably made The Raid:Redemption such a respected box office hit in the first place. To make the same film again, but  even with more fights,  the obligatory car chase and an expanded plot (Our hero now takes on the criminal kingpins of the Jakarta underworld) did not bode well at the box office for the filmmaker … despite the favorable critical and audience rating on rottentomatoes.com.

Maybe I am old school but a bewildering number of fight set pieces stitched together with a semblance of a plot (John Woo’s Manhunt also got a nod of approval on the RT site) does not a great action movie make.

And while I am on the subject. how come the most charismatic action stars these days are all young Asian guys like Donnie Yen, Tony “Ong-Bak” Jaa and the aforementioned Mr. Uwais?

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Iko Uwais In Action

(If you want to include Asian women in this line-up. how about Ziyi Zhang or the great Michelle Yeoh)  Probably cuz they do can execute the most complex,choreographed fight scenes and look cool doing it. (Although the coolest star of them all, for my money will always be Chow Yun-Fat.)

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Writer/director Gareth Evans

John Woo’s Manhunt: Not a Killer Film

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“Manhunt” (currently streaming on Netflix) plays like a remake of “Hard-Boiled” (with Chinese actor Hanyu Zhang and Japan’s Masaharu Fukuyama as reluctant team-mates, replacing Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung) – with a few of Mr. Woo’s other, better films from his ’90s heyday thrown in for good measure. (Yes, there are white doves , one of Mr. Woo’s trademarks, but no Chow Yun-Fat this time around). Perhaps reviving “Hard-Boiled”  is not as cynical as it may seem. According to various sources, a remake of Mr. Woo’s Asian action classic “The Killer” is in the works (by film-maker Woo, of course)

The alleged (and only barely coherent) plot seems to be just an excuse to string together a series of action set pieces (Mr. Woo’s specialty) including a galvanizing speedboat chase (hmm! think I saw something like that in a Bond picture). The dialogue careens crazily (and for no apparent reason) between English and what I can only assume is Chinese and Japanese. (I am informed that most Asian exports utilize this practice but I still found it distracting. Thank NF for subtitles!)

Back in the Nineties Mr. Woo had highly paid Hollywood heroes like John Travolta and Nicolas Cage working for him and Quentin Tarantino raving about his skillz as an action auteur.

Woo - Broken Arrow

Then came “Windtalkers” and “Paycheck” and suddenly John Woo didn’t look so golden.

Oh well, there was always the burgeoning Asian market. But after several period dramas (the Red Cliff and The Crossing series) John Woo is back in America lensing action sequences that defy gravity and heroes that never seem to perish despite multiple wounds.

Critics with fond memories of the original “The Killer”and “A Better Tomorrow” and/or Hollywood hits like 1996’s “”Face/Off “and 1997’s “Broken Arrow” give this film a passing grade (67%) but the audience (14%) was less than enchanted.

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And in this case I’d have to agree with the audience. Although, considering where Mr. Travolta and Mr. Cage’s careers have migrated in the meantime, perhaps a re-teaming with John Woo may be a good idea for all three.

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John Woo

A Sort of Book Review (But Not Really): LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

Being obsessed with my own mortality, perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders may not be the best choice when I decided to take a break from mystery novels, my literary equivalent of “comfort food”. However, I had read a lot of favorable press  on the Saunders book and I was curious.

Bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhists, is a kind of existence between death and rebirth. The Lincoln of the title refers not to the town car but U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself.

The novel, which takes place during one momentous night in 1862 in  a Washington DC cemetery, depicts President Lincoln, unaware of the fact he is being watched by ghosts, grieving at the graveside of his young son, Willie, who has died of a fever. 

Lincoln - cover

And here’s the kicker: the ghosts who serve as narrators for the majority of the novel are not  aware they are dead. (Any relation to the current administration is strictly a matter of chance.) The ghosts refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and the planet they inhabited while alive as “that other place”. There is a middle-aged man who was about to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; a conflicted homosexual brooding about a lost love, an elderly clergyman and a coarse and rather vulgar husband and wife duo  (There are other ghostly voices, too,  including the late Willie Lincoln!)

Let me be honest or as I  refer to it, my literary equivalent of hara-kiri. 

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George Saunders and his best-selling book

I was unfamiliar with the works of George Saunders. Judging from some of the names on the back of the book, though, Mr. Saunders is a short story master (Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel). No less a literary luminary than Dave Eggers wrote that Mr. Saunders is  “… no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity.” (in other words, “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” or something like that) and Zadie Smith claims” not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny.” (Her claims may be”greatly exaggerated.”) The publishers have also recruited such literary lions as Khaled Hosseni, Lorrie Moore and (gasp!) Thomas Pyncheon to write blurbs on the back cover of Mr. Saunders’ debut novel.  So who am I, a mere English major, to argue about Mr. Saunders brilliance, both as a short fiction master and a novelist?

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Incidentally. a website called openculture.com (which I am familiar with) has assembled a collection of Mr. Saunders’ vaunted short fiction, The New York Times online video section has a ten-minute video inspired by Lincoln in  the Bardo, a feature film version is in the works (good luck with that! ) and interviews with Mr. Saunders are available online on various sites including youtube. 







But then it might have been Fettucini ….

I recently saw Da Nada (oops! sorry! wrong film) … I mean, La Strada at one of those Free Film Nights sponsored by the local library. Giulietta Masina as the naive waif stuck in an abusive relationship with a loutish circus strongman played by Anthony Quinn is both adorable and heart-breaking (it is easy to see why director Federico Fellini fell in love with her and asked her to be his wife.) And I hafta think it was a shame Mr. Quinn couldn’t summon up the same passion and regret his character shows in that classic final scene in La Strada in some of his later Hollywood vehicles.

There must have been a problem with the subtitles, though. Because although the film I saw was in Italian with English language subtitles, there was a swarthy Mediterranean type next to me who kept laughing at dialogue I didn’t think was particularly funny. Like I said, there must have been a problem with the subtitles.

Or …

It May B All Greek 2U: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Judging from some of the comments online, not everyone “gets” the films by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and his screenwriting partner, Efthymis Filippou.

I’ll admit it. Watching the twisted family dynamics in Dogtooth (Oscar nominee – Best Foreign Film – 2009) was kinda bizarre.

The duo’s follow-up film, The Lobster (Oscar nominee- Best Original Screenplay- 2017) is even harder to figure (Colin Farrell, playing against type, is a lonesome, socially awkward bachelor, who checks into a special hotel where residents have 45 days to find a mate among their fellow guests or be transformed into an animal of their choice. His brother, who failed the test, has been turned into a dog.)

The latest effort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Winner – Best Screenplay – Cannes Film Festival- 2017), is, I am informed, inspired by Greek tragedy. Mind you, a person would have to be sharp to pick up on this. The title of the film, as it was explained to me, dates back to Iphigenia in Aulis by the 4th century BC playwright Euripides. And, of course, there is a random reference to Iphigenia in the screenplay.

Deer - poster

One critic has suggested that Lanthimos has traded in “theatre of the absurd” for “theatre of cruelty”. Certainly Sacred Deer is a heavy watch. (Even Colin Farrell, portraying a heart surgeon who makes a fatal mistake , has told an interviewer that he was “f—-ing depressed” while shooting the film.)

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Colin Farrell in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

The cast also includes Nicole Kidman.

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Does this woman have a portrait in the attic a la Dorothy Gray? (Or is that Dorian). No matter.  She gives a deeply committed performance as usual.  Barry Keoghan (you may have spotted him in Dunkirk) is especially spooky.

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The film starts out slowly at first and gradually tightens like a noose around your neck on its way to its remorseless, chilling conclusion. Yikes!