peteg's blog


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IMDB top-250 completism: this one is #201. Halflife had to lift their post-apocalyptic aesthetic from somewhere, and nothing does post-apocalyptic like Soviet Russia mid-apocalypse. Andrei Tarkovsky is more famous for the lesser-rated Solaris, which seems to canvas a similar concept: what happens when we get close to something that can satisfy our deepest wishes? I found the dialogue in this movie to be excessive and pretentious; it is easy to ask the deep questions and make something of the "essentially" human, but it is much harder to show it in combination with a story that makes something of what cinema is good for. The cinematography is not very inspired and overly heavy on motif.

There are some surprisingly good discussions about this movie on the IMDB discussion boards. I just wish it had made me care.

Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi

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Mark Hamill doesn't really do it for me as a dramatic lead, and it's clear that Harrison Ford worked every facial muscle he has at every opportunity. The whole thing is a bit ludicrous, and long on the hokum. I realize now that I never got much into the Star Wars aesthetic, which is the most inventive thing on offer here.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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I feel like I've seen the same thirty minutes or so of Star Wars a million times as a kid. Maybe it was always Return of the Jedi; I know I saw Star Wars for the first time when it was re-released at the Sydney cinemas in 1997. I didn't recognise anything beyond the iconic images of this one, but it still felt overly familiar.

The Wages of Fear

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First half with Tigôn, who fell asleep. Last seen about six years ago. Still #179 in the IMDB top-250.

The American Side

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On the strength of Ben Kenigsberg's review at the New York Times. I guess he's their go-to for B movies. I like a good noir but this one needed a better script. As a myth, Tesla is right up there with Ben Franklin.

Far from Men

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Erina mentioned this one. Viggo Mortensen is a reclusive but not lonely French-ish non-colonial in revolutionary Algeria. The cinematography is worthy of a spaghetti Western. Apparently based on something Camus wrote. I quite enjoyed it at times.

20,000 Days on Earth

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Nick Cave's job is to make this into something more than an ego project, and unfortunately he fails. Oftentimes he sounds like he wished he was Don Walker (one lyric goes "Flame trees line the streets") but it is clear he never smoked enough. That he is stuck on the surface is clear from the voiced ontro, where he talks about the truth as something that emerges, pushing through his veneer rather than revealed by it. (I always thought his schtick was more for effect than truth.) His motifs remain the childhood Goth classics, the God versus the Devil kind of thing that has recently yielded up Batman v Superman and not Tom Waits. I'm sure they're brewing up the next Nick Cave in rural Victoria even as I type this.

... and yes, I know he did write at least one timeless track.

The film is beautifully shot but stuffed with fakery (see the IMDB comments for examples). I came away wondering what he was trying to get at, and why he didn't say it with a tune.

Karan Mahajan: Family Planning.

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Kindle. This is his first novel and I prefer its manic comedy to the studied quasi-objective fatalism of his recent The Association of Small Bombs. There is a sequence in the style of i hate the internet and some forward pointers that the author was happy to let dangle. Why does he have it in for Bryan Adams? (Doesn't he know that Rick Astley is the person to mock?) He is at his funniest when toying with the politician's large family: the eldest is nicknamed "Torn Condom", the "father of the nation" is charged with creating a constituency. The family's power dynamics are lovingly detailed, like Mahajan was almost there. The ending just strangely falls away.

Here he is in the wilds of the internet with Practice.

Sudden Fear

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Over several nights. Another highly-rated Jack Palance. This noir flags badly somewhere around the middle after a first half of innocuous generic romance. Things pick up in the last twenty minutes. Joan Crawford anchors the thing.

Pankaj Mishra: The Romantics

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Kindle. I've been meaning to read this one for ages, just to see if Mishra makes more sense in transparently fictional form. This one is overstuffed with too many underdrawn characters, and amounts to little more than East meets West in the East, which thereby opens up the East to the East. Set in Benares, sacred city of the Hindus, and fascinated by the Himalayas, the chief worry is that Mishra is really just engaging in autobiography and fantasy. The idea that we live between illusion and the void may have been news to Rushdie. There are also far too many references to Continental literature for the whole enterprise to grab me.

Akash Kapur tries to talk it up.

Graham Greene: The Confidential Agent

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Following a pointer from Rushdie's memoir. All you need to know is at Wikipedia. I would say this is not his finest outing, though it has its moments.

Captain America: Civil War

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3:40pm session, Galaxy Cinema Nguyễn Trãi, 60kVND. Fairly packed with young Vietnamese, some of whom talked throughout the movie, but not too much. It's so damn loud anyway, and it's not like the nuances of the dialogue are so very important. I guess this is another one of those fantasy matchups, but to this foreigner it smelt mostly of thin-skinned American exceptionalism. Gwyneth Paltrow took a break from this one, as did Hemsworth and Ruffalo. I wish Elizabeth Olsen was in more serious stuff. I could similarly listen to Paul Bettany all day, but his character is curiously useless given how powerful he's supposed to be. (The opposite applies to Scarlett Johansson, who is mostly ornamentation in these movies.) Daniel Brühl looked familiar but from what I do not know (perhaps A Most Wanted Man). It's OK, though some of the camerawork was way too shaky for me.

A. O. Scott.

The Professionals

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A non-spaghetti Western. Notionally for Jack Palance. Somewhat farcical.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton

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Kindle. I got a bit sick of trying to find something new to read, and if there's one thing about Rushdie, it's that he's easy to plough through. Unfortunately I did more ploughing than enjoying in this overlong, overly repetitious and ultimately tedious memoir. Most of it is an account of the fatwa years, but Rushdie does not bother to provide much context for it; you are not going to learn anything about the larger issues of the day here. Indeed much of this I read recently, in Step Across This Line — that material has been lightly edited and emended for this vehicle.

Rushdie is a fine writer (becoming less so with time; call this a portrait of an artist in decline) but his claims to intellectualism are thin. His is often empty rhetoric; this is his argument that even if God did exist he'd be cool with it all:

However, even if You are Ghazali's God, reading the newspapers, watching TV, and taking sides in political and even literary disputes, I don't believe you could have a problem with The Satanic Verses or any other book, no matter how wretched.

... and of course his infatuation with Hitchens shows he's more in love with words than ideas. What did Clune say about Super Mario World? Rushdie is a long way from engaging with multifaceted identities ala Amartya Sen (et al), and his responses to Le Carré ("My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity") are almost entirely ad hominem. Often he sounds like his own worst enemy: as absolutist and unreasoned as an Ayatollah.

There are too many loose threads and incoherencies here. Are there safe houses or are there not? (Of course there are.) Did he incur large expenses for the public or did he not? (Of course he did.) Why did he convert to Islam after the fatwa? (How was that ever going to help anything?) His arguments for freedom of expression are typically vapid extremism and often sound equally like arguments against copyright; there is nothing as nuanced as Tim Parks on Charlie Hebdo here. I guess the final nail in the coffin is his surprise at how shallow and self-absorbed Padma Lakshmi is. It doesn't make a lot of sense to call her (or their relationship) "The Illusion" while maintaining that they were, in fact, madly in love at various times; if they felt it, it was real. There is no other objectivity on offer.

Pankaj Mishra at the Guardian. One of the more annoying things about this book is that Rushdie does not distinguish Sunni from Shia, which would have helped show how isolated Iran really is (as we all now know). Where were the Saudis in this fiasco? Zoë Heller argues that Rushdie has grown smaller with time.

Thieves Like Us

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Altman. Keith Carradine, roughly the same time as he did The Duellists. Also a very young-looking Shelley Duvall drinks a lot of Coke and smokes but doesn't inhale. A character study of three bank robbers, two of whom get what they want and then what New Deal America decides they deserve. Not really my thing.


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A stop-motion from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Michael Wood's review at the LRB sold it to me, alongside David Thewlis's voice work, but unfortunately the artefact as a whole does not measure up to the former's musings and the latter's ability. The picture of GWB in the manager's office is slightly hysterical. Mostly, however, banality rules the day, and I fear that that was intended. The animation is top-notch. I think the cardinal rule for puppet sex is that it has to be ridiculously funny, like in Team America.

Paul Beatty: Tuff

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Kindle. Somehow this put me in mind of Murray Bail's Holden’s Performance, which I haven't read for an age. I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as the other two by Beatty that I've read (The Sellout, The White Boy Shuffle), probably because I am less interested in and sympathetic to the rhythms of NYC street life, hard, harsh and unforgiving as it is. There are moments of Tarantino here; a black rabbi, why not... and the lead is really a ghetto thug whose thuggishness is quietened but not occluded by the extensive accounts of domesticity and mateship. The sumo wrestling is cool, but as for Tarantino, cool violence is nothing like insight. Wearing.

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris)

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Second time around. Tigôn didn't get into it so much, I think because she's a dog person... but she did find the dog scenes amusing at least.

The Jungle Book

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At CGV Liberty Central (corner of Pasteur and Lê Lợi, Hồ Chí Minh City) with Tigôn at 19:40, 120kVND each plus a large Coke and popcorn. Dinky little theatre, with subtitles; somewhat unusual as most sessions are dubbed, which makes sense for a kids' movie. (The very young children in the crowd had no hope without parental assistance.) We went as there are simply not many films showing right now.

The short story is that there are some good bits, and the CGI oftentimes convincing. The child actor is the weakest link, though the excellent voice work regularly masks this. I was disappointed when Walken, hitherto so successfully channeling Brando in Apocalypse Now, became a song-and-dance ape in a temple that looked like it had been in some other movie.

Manohla Dargis talks more about Disney's 1967 outing than the current one, as does Sam Machkovech, who also looks forward to the Andy Serkis-directed version from Warner Bros. Anthony Lane also noted the hat-tip to Apocalypse Now. Also Christopher Benfey.

Sam Quinones: Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic.

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Kindle. The New York Times reported that it won an award, alongside Beatty for The Sellout. This is a fine piece of investigative journalism that needed a sterner editor. Quinone tells the story of how "heartland" America got addicted to heroin, via the gateway painkiller OxyContin (I now understand the drug spam) and cognates, and the Mexican suppliers from Xalisco, Nayarit. The latter was my main reason for picking this up: a vertically-integrated transnational operation with a built-in conflict resolution mechanism is a little bit fascinating. (Everyone knows everyone back home, so cheating and violence can lead to severe repercussions for loved ones.) It is amazing that they can engage in non-lethal competition in a traditionally ultraviolent enterprise; for instance, the various cells apparently lend drugs to each other when supplies are low, and just-in-time deliveries (etc) keep their activities below the excitement threshold of the DEA and friends. So this is somehow a free market of drugs (decreasing prices, consistent and high purity, convenient service, robust) that has avoided capitalism's antinomies thus far. But of course profits are huge and the markets are still expanding.

I now also understand what a pill mill is, and why Paul Le Roux got into it. I just wish the text had been half as long.