(On Cable TV, January 2017) I read J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel so long ago that I had no real expectations for the movie adaptation except “go ahead and do justice to the source material’s insanity”. Yet I was disappointed. The first half-hour of High-Rise is simply fantastic, as our protagonist moves into a high-rise apartment building that’s nearly a world upon itself. But there’s madness in the building, and it doesn’t take the unsolicited advances of his upstairs neighbour to figure it out—before long, the building has stratified itself in upper-versus lower classes, with violence and anarchy (and, heaven forbid, uncollected heaps of trash) being the new normal. The setup is terrific, but the execution of the premise less so—basic world-building details don’t make sense (the decision to set the film in the seventies gives and takes away), the film seems to lose itself in less interesting subplots and our protagonist eventually seems to be nothing more than a bystander to a brutal social breakdown. While he eventually copes with it (as shown by the brilliantly deranged first scene), the film literally doesn’t go any further. The satire is unevenly handled and while some of the quotes are delicious, the film itself seems to be looking for something to do in its second half. Too bad; High-Rise has a sense of surreal anarchy that occasionally works well. At least there are a few good performances in the mix. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t do much but looks good doing so, while much of the same can also be done with Sienna Miller. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Moss does have a more challenging role. This is my first film from writer/director Ben Wheatley and while I’m not completely displeased by the results, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk that will lead me to seek out the rest of his filmography. In the meantime, High-Rise doesn’t embarrass the source novel, but it doesn’t do it full justice either.
(On Cable TV, January 2013) The example set by Alfred Hitchcock still looms large over the entire suspense genre, but as the years go by the filmmaker seems to be remembered more as a cultural icon than a man. That makes him ripe for a re-interpretation: The Girl uses the director’s troubled relationship with actress Tippi Hedren as a way to explore his weaknesses and the result is damning. Here, Hitchcock is portrayed as an unapologetic harasser, blending unwelcome advances into the power dynamic between director and actress, abusing Hedren under the guise of filmmaking as a way to take revenge against her unwillingness to play along. The Girl is obviously told from Hedren’s point of view –Sienna Miller spent some time with Hedren in preparation for her role, and Toby Jones seems fully committed to presenting an increasingly unlikable portrayal of the director. For a TV (BBC/HBO) film, the film has acceptable production values and decent direction. Both Miller and Jones turn in good performances, and film enthusiasts will appreciate both the recreation of The Birds’ shooting process alongside an unusual look at the dynamic between actor and director. While Hitchcock’s portrayal here is one-sided (numerous other associates of the director have spoken against the film; the competing Hitchcock biopic is said to be more sympathetic), it’s certainly not uninteresting. As such, the film warrants a look even as a dramatized exaggeration of real-life events: we may not know the true story, but the way it’s presented here is enough to make anyone wonder about what went on in 1960s Hollywood.
(In theatres, August 2009): Nobody expected much from a summer action movie adapted from toys and directed by Stephen Sommers. Still, is it too precious to ask for an entertaining experience from start to finish? G.I.Joe is occasionally fun and amusing: Elements of the first act dare to include over-the-top outrageousness (including a mysterious force relying on government-grade high technology) while the middle-act Paris sequence is an extended rollercoaster of an action sequence. For guys, it’s hard to be left indifferent by a bespectacled Sienna Miller as sexy-evil Baroness, or (to a lesser extent) Rachel Nichols as Scarlett. Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid is obviously having fun chomping on General Hawk’s cigars, and there’s at least one crazy/cool shot of an elevator ride through the G.I.Joes’ HQ. But even those simple pleasures fade fast when the film seems obsessed to sabotage its own assets: The action highlight of the film takes place in Paris, but even that sequence fails to fully engage with the audience when it runs at a continuous high speed with concordant CGI overload. The entire third act, despite enough CGI to cost twice the price-tag of two District 9 put together, is dull enough to put anyone to sleep, with only its own dumbness (“They’ve blown up the iceberg! It will sink to the bottom of the ocean!”) to provide comic relief. Worse; the Baroness character loses a lot of interest when she’s revealed to be brainwashed and, as such, really a good girl. Boring. The movie as a whole is classic Sommers, but the latter-day incoherent Sommers from Van Helsing rather than the genre-savvy Sommers from The Mummy. Enjoy the ride, but don’t be surprised if you end up asking when it will finally end.