peteg's blog

Anomalisa

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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.

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.

Susan Barker: The Incarnations

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Kindle. So-so; some good bits, many bad bits, much that is hackneyed, and too much sex that distracts from her larger story. There are elements of Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. Some observations are shallower than Kim Huynh's. There is a larger China out there, outside the bedroom, and I wish Barker had spent more time in it.

Simon Winchester at the New York Times.

Hail, Caesar!

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The latest from the Coen brothers, a return to screwy Hollywood comedy, a step away from character studies, despite Josh Brolin anchoring the thing and appearing in all the best scenes. Some fall completely flat; I'd say it comes out fifty-fifty. I'm less convinced by Scarlett Johansson than ever. Clooney struggles a bit here. Alden Ehrenreich is a find, playing a reassured, unabashed Southern hick. Tilda Swinton's character is lifted directly from The Big Knife, and overall there's less on offer here than in Maps to the Stars. ... and was that really Christopher Lambert?

Manohla Dargis. Francine Prose.

Jarett Kobek: i hate the internet.

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Kindle. On the strength of Dwight Garner's review in the New York Times. Kobek is scathing about the "social media" internet in a tendentious, categorical style that reflects what he loathes. I wonder if he is aware of The Sellout; there he would find a deeper engagement with race in California. Almost all the tropes of geekdom are slaughtered here (Heinlein, Doctor Who, ... — collectively branded juvenalia) and blamed for the infantilisation of emotion and conflict that one finds on the anonymized internet. (Indeed this is something of a book-length expansion of the greater internet fuckwad theory.) Hardy's Jude the Obscure and A Clockwork Orange get some grudging respect. Google's executes are likened to the Greek (or Roman?) pantheon. The closing riff on Galt's overlong speech in Atlas Shrugged is quite funny; I can hardly wait for the women-only internet called for there.

I wish he had spent a bit of time thinking about the rest of the net, where plenty of communities get along just fine. The key, of course, is to come together around non-trivial mutual interest and to tolerate other people's quirks. I guess that involves some loss of anonymity.

Unfortunately Kobek's earlier Atta does not appear to be available as an ebook.

Wings of Desire

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I have been meaning to see this since forever, and I guess re-reading Salman Rushdie's spray against co-writer Peter Handke was enough to tip me over the edge. This is Wim Wenders defining art house cinema circa 1987, doing Nick Cave's career a favour or too along the way. The black-and-white/colour mashup was a bit heavy handed, as was just about everything else. To enjoy this you have to indulge Peter Falk and the aforementioned auteurs beyond the demands of most artworks (and reason). I found the ending unsatisfying, the philosophizing empty-headed, the understanding of what peace takes to be absent. Just how plausible is it to meet the woman you've been creepily (ectoplasmically) stalking for days at a Nick Cave concert that you both walk out of? ... and for her not to be creeped out? Humans über alles, oh my, think of the people please.

Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs.

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Kindle. On the strength of Fiona Maazel's glowing and indulgent review in the New York Times. This covers similar territory to Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown (which I read but did not write up?!?) and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mahajan aims to show how various people get entangled in and affected by small-scale terrorist activities; specifically bombs in marketplaces in Delhi that kill fewer than a hundred people, and happen often enough that they are quickly forgotten by the city and country at large. Stripped of its local colour, things go as you might expect. The ending is somewhat limp. Modi features here in his earlier guise as governor of Gujarat.

I don't think any of these books are very insightful about the origins of terrorism.

Salman Rushdie: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

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Kindle. Continuing my recent digging through Rushdie's oeuvre, I thought I'd try his latest novel. Unfortunately this one is even worse than his immediately previous effort, which at least had the benefit of some kind of historicity. This outing is something of a retread of his biggest success, Midnight's Children, but ruined with a comic book (or comic-book movie) structure: too many characters too shallowly drawn, so many useless; a trivialization of the universe of morality; thinly-masked lifting of current-day events and culture; ultimately too repetitious and just not funny. He paints New York City in grand Tom Wolfe style. Again he fails to rise to his own standards by not increasing the scope of the imagined world.

Some minor observations: Zabardast, while being an "awesome" sorcerer, is not Slartibartfast: even the iPhone knows the latter. Dunia sometimes appears as Christ in her indiscriminate affection for (some) humans. It is unclear why she is deemed "good" (apart from fighting for humans) or that she is a reliable vehicle for the side of "reason" as Rushdie presents it. No-one, apart from the gardener Geronimo, creates much of anything. Sex strikes are certainly in fashion.

Marcel Theroux.

Knight of Cups

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A new Malick, and so I had see it. This dreams pretty much the same impressions as To The Wonder while being even more internalized. The occasional bouts of cinematographic beauty are due to Lubezki. Christian Bale is going through some existential crisis which involves many, many women and much idle debauchery/consumption, none of which really engages him. Perhaps Bale was as bemused as the audience. Imogen Poots channels PJ Harvey in The Book of Life, and Portman McAdams from To The Wonder. More twirling, but in Los Angeles this time, and not the fields of gold of American myth. The message of the movie as I understand it is: have a baby, get over yourself.

A. O. Scott. Anthony Lane.

Batman v Superman

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With Tigôn at a small theatre at CGV near the airport, 2pm. 105kVND each. The sound was poor so I missed almost all of the expository dialogue; the locals, of course, could read the subs. Approximately as bad as the reviews suggested, and I doubt anyone could follow this without knowing pretty much how it had to go. The vibe was entirely deus ex: give up, puny human, unless you too can avail yourself of inherited wealth or alien technology, preferably both. People are only good at base conniving.

A. O. Scott. Sam Machkovech.

Inside Out

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Yeah, a Pixar animation from last year. Notionally the young girl Riley (looking a lot like Marissa Mayer) is driven by a coterie of five emotion-personalities. I don't think that (all of) those emotions are canonical, or even interesting. (Where is fascination ala David Bowie?) These inhabit headquarters, which struck me as being the I/O tower in Tron. I didn't recognise Kyle MacLachlan as Dad. The credits were the best: the bus driver is all Anger (which is easily the best of Riley's emotion-personalities too), and nothing is driving the cat.

Dana Stevens got right into it. Is she really saying that this reductionist trivialization of emotion is somehow the height of insight?

Sonia Shah: The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years.

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Kindle. I found this via a don't-read-it review of Shah's new Pandemic. (Reviewer Laurie Garret is a fellow science/health journalist and has similarly done the TED circuit.) Abigail Zuger's review tells you all you need to know; in summary it's good, and from here down I'm just picking nits.

Malaria apparently has a complex yet robust lifecycle that has resisted all sorts of efforts at eradication. This suggests it is worth looking at from a systems point-of-view. Shah canvasses only some of this in a single chapter, and even graphic-phobic me would have benefited from a diagram. I would also have liked to hear more about how the disease plays out in humans, for my main fear of it is the possibility of permanent brain damage.

Much of the latter parts of the book are straightforward rants against celebrity helicoptering (e.g. Bono doing a George W. Bush-style victory declaration) and cyclical funding for science (go tell the Australians). Her reasoning becomes unhinged at times; take this, for instance from the final chapter:

The entire economy, it is said, would have to break down in order for malaria to resettle in developed nations such as the United States. And yet mosquito-borne West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis have spread unchecked. In 2002, California had a single case of West Nile virus; in 2003, there were three, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By 2004, there were 779 cases nationwide; in 2005, 873. In 2008, there were more than 1,300. The economy survives, despite it.

Malaria is probably not sexy right now.

This book somewhat reminded me of Pisani's, but does not exhibit the latter's hands-on insider knowledge. Shah notes the potential synergies between HIV and malaria.

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The plan was to sleep on the train from Nha Trang back to Hồ Chí Minh City, but some people broke the Ghenh Bridge at Đồng Nai. Coverage:

Salman Rushdie: Step Across This Line, Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.

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Kindle. I bought a hardcover of this when it came out back in 2002 or so. Since then I've really gone off Rushdie; the two novels he subsequently published were quite drecky. I have yet to read his memoir Joseph Anton or the recent Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Here Rushdie is the king of the false dichotomy, and engages in so much, too much, tedious self-aggrandizing. He is, as always, at his best weaving in the classics, but also often terribly blinkered and uninsightful. His absolutism and inability to engage with Amartya Sen-style multi-faceted identity is particularly on display when he talks about Peter Handke (essay from May 1999), who is surely capable of capturing beauty whatever his political leanings. Similarly for religion.

To re-read this now is to be reminded of the halcyon days of the late 1990s, when the (Western) world seemed to be heading in a more peaceful direction, fueled by post-Cold War optimism. Tony Blair was still somewhat decent, and the aspirations for peace in Palestine not completely stymied. Musharraf stank, yet to become indispensable.

The best parts of this book are some of his essays for the New York Times. On Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

He loved his country, too, but one of his best poems about it took, with lyrical disenchantment, the point of view of the alienated exile. This poem, translated by Agha Shahid Ali, was put up on posters in the New York subway a couple of years ago, to the delight of all those who love Urdu poetry:

You ask me about that country whose details now escape me,
I don't remember its geography, nothing of its history.
And should I visit it in memory,
It would be as I would a past lover,
After years, for a night, no longer restless with passion,
With no fear of regret.
I have reached that age when one visits the heart merely as a courtesy.

Amelie

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With Tigôn. I last remember seeing this in Melbourne with Hui Nie, and perhaps I saw it at the cinema back in 2001. Still rated #75 in the IMDB top-250.

Chicken Run

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With Tigôn, over several nights. It's a lot more straightforward than I remember, but just as funny.

Chiraq

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Spike Lee goes to Chicago and tells the locals how he wants it to be. Yes, it's a reworking of Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and somewhat muddled therefore. Cheerfully, brashly crass and sometimes fun.

Manohla Dargis. Salamishah Tillet.