peteg's blog


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A Fassbender fix. Watched over a couple of days. Apparently I saw a production of Shakespeare's play, from which this is derived, quite a while back in Sydney. Lush, and would have been improved by a steadier camera more often. I always thought this had more to say about Lady Macbeth (here Marion Cotillard). Good to see David Thewlis, but as with all of Shakespeare's kings that I can remember, his character is a bit of a tool. Sean Harris can't quite steal a scene from Fassbender but does from everyone else.

Manohla Dargis.

Labor Day

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Some vague attempt at a Josh Brolin fix, and Winslet is usually solid. This is quite feeble however: Brolin is a cardboard-cutout perfect American dad, and Winslet a hollowed-out single mum. I don't know how it could be better given the escapee/romance premises. The director, Jason Reitman, did Thank You for Smoking.

Stephen Holden. Dana Stevens.

In the Mood for Love

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Wong Kar-wai's masterpiece. It's been a while.

Kevin Barry: Beatlebone

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Kindle. Charles Finch's review in the New York Times sold it to me. The style is poetic, the tone knowing, the persistent just-run-with-it cajolery sometimes annoying. The premise is that John Lennon gets a hankering to spend some time on his island in western Ireland in 1978, and I have to wonder how essential that is to anything as I missed any point the author was trying to illuminate. Would this story work with an everyman? (Probably not.) John has privileged access to the history of the land thereabouts, rife with ghosts and lost souls. The ranting (a mutant derivative of Screaming) was somewhat amusing.

See also Steve Earle at the New York Times.


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A late Hitchcock (1972). Colour, London, lushly photographed. The cast is solid, the plot a tad predictable: a man gets implicated in a series of lurid sex murders. I think he did a better job on Rope. Following David Denby's pointer from a while back.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Pretty drecky. Way too much action and a very thin plot. Trying to make something of all these mismatched characters is beyond anyone's ability, I fear. Robert Downey Jr is genuinely annoying here.

The Danish Girl

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4:10pm session at the CGV CT Plaza, near the airport, with Tigon. 210,000 VND for the both of us. There were more people than I expected. A spur-of-the-moment sort of thing; Ip Man 3 looked more appetizing but is in Cantonese with Vietnamese subs.

This story of one of the first people to attempt gender reassignment is unfortunately recounted in a vacuous style that is visually lush but fails to unfold inner lives; contrast with, e.g., Mr Turner. I don't fault the cast, who while solid often have little to work with; I didn't find Eddie Redmayne that evocative. Alicia Vikander is her usual brave self but starts on the doe-eyed martyr thing a bit too early. Amber Heard is fun in all her look-at-me unsubtlety, brief sparks breaking long periods of banality. Sebastien Koch, Matthias Schoenaerts are scaffolding. It is overlong. There are many nice small domestic touches early on that fade away as the plot is supposed to take over.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens.

Blade Runner

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It's been an age since I last saw this.

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Vale, David Bowie.

The Big Short

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On David S.'s recommendation. I started watching this one a bit late and absorbed the last half osmotically, in a state of semi-sleep. I was expecting it to explain the financial terminology and structures more. Steve Carell is very good. Ryan Gosling is funny.

Dana Stevens. A. O. Scott.

Kim Huynh: Vietnam as if...

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Kindle. The author is an academic at ANU, and holds a PhD in international relations. This is the first foray of ANU Press into fiction, and is available as a free download. I would suggest reading the outro (Postscript: The Other Turtle's Tale) before embarking on the five novellas: I took most of them to be unsuccessful (unfunny) satires, but having read that I get the impression that the author is actually sincere. There is the odd bit of colour amongst the mostly heavily-drawn characters and well-worn tropes. I would have liked to know just why, in the last story, granny needed to be dug up and reburied.

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

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Kindle. On Kate's recommendation. For mine the Booker prize has been the kiss of death for any book, with the sole exception of Rushdie's Midnight's Children. This won it in 2008. Adiga pays homage to Rushdie by adopting his timeworn episodic first-person narration with more digression than central thread. (It is also the same structure used by Beatty.) We get a series of daily diary entries, expressed as letters to Wen Jiabao, erstwhile Premier of the PRC, written from tech hotspot Bangalore and not some pickle factory on the edge of Bombay. The light structure and plot are merely vehicles for exploring the myriad issues plaguing modern India, many of which can be seen from the drawing rooms of Delhi, where this book loiters for some time, and some not. Gavaskar was in cricket team for some of the story, and Azharuddin, the captain at the time, is a Muslim.

Adiga is out to paint an unsentimental, occasionally hilarious, and provocative portrait of his mother country, aimed squarely at Westerners; there's no language masala here. Placing kill-the-rich-and-steal-their-stuff at the centre of it strikes me as a failure of imagination, which may have been his point. Drawing an equivalence between rooster coops and the mechanism for indenturing servants made little sense to me; the narrator's search for and achievement of lebensraum had more to do with his family being hostages to his misfortune than his relation to his fellow indentured servant. That his granny was a rapacious schemer made it so much easier to do what it took to get filthy rich in rising Asia, but I far prefer Mohsin Hamid's take on that. The election rigging was depressing.

Paul Beatty: The White Boy Shuffle.

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Kindle. Finished it off at Quán Làng Cát (on the beach at 2/2 Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Hàm Tiến) on a day when I hoped to be scootering somewhere west of Phan Thiết. The ladies at Diễm Liên would not rent me a motorized vehicle as the cops are apparently blitzing the place in search of some New Year lucre. (Diễm said the situation would remain until after Tết, though I am sure they will be renting scooters out to more insistent foreigners than I before then.) Similarly the ladies at Quán Làng Cát wouldn't sell me a tôm kho tọ (prawn claypot) for lunch as I'd had them too many days in a row already. On the upside they make a decent coffee and their hammock is somewhat comfortable.

This is Beatty's debut novel from 1996: a first-person growing-up-black-in-L.A. story, somewhat like his most recent effort, but with more emphasis on the growing up part. The Trek and the DnD echo Clune's recent Gamelife, though the surfing and conviviality of outdoorsy Santa Monica were beyond Clune's pasty-geek experience. Gunnar, the narrator, is nerdy, a poet, but also a basketball hero and therefore beyond it all. His account of his ancestry is hilarious. I don't know why they all had German names. The teleology of it all would have made Aristotle weep.

[...] I tried to appreciate Spock's draconian logic, Asimov's automaton utopias, and the metaphysical excitement of fighting undead ghouls and hobgoblins in Dungeons and Dragons, but to me Star Trek was little more than the Federalist Papers with warp drives and phasers. "Set Democracy on stun. One alien, one vote." I was cooler than this, I had to be — I just didn’t know how to show my latent hipness to the world.

The change in semesters brought new electives and a chance to make new friends. All the exciting choices, like Print and Electric and Wine-making Shop, were gang member bastions and closed to insouciant seventh-graders such as myself. During spring registration I stood in line behind sloe-eyed bangers and listened to kind liberal guidance counselors derail their dreams. "Buster, I know you want to take Graphic Design, but I’m placing you in Metal Shop. Mr. Buck Smith will know how to handle you, and it’ll be a good prerequisite for license plate pressing. You’ve got to plan for the future, Buster, ol' boy. Can’t be too shortsighted, Mr. Brown. Remember, the longest jail sentence starts with one day."

Clearly Beatty has read the DSM cover to cover, and finds (at least some of) it laughable. His neighbour/gangbanger cares so much about him that his gift on Gunnar's eighteenth birthday is a mail order bride. After milking the delivery of/marriage to Yoshiko itself for laughs, Beatty spins the arrangement out against type: the couple is happy and harmonious, somewhat due to Gunnar therefore escaping rampant objectification by the local ladies. There is more vivid racial commentary, rejection of the wisdom of the tribal elders (87%: "If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. Martin Luther King, Jr"), a meditation on suicide and perhaps an incitement to, an easy familiarity with brutality, and much else. He uses words the Kindle dictionary does not ken.

That poets will once again be universally recognised as opinion leaders and placed at the centre of the culture is a trope this book shares with Hal Hartley's contemporaneous masterpiece, Henry Fool.

The Two Faces of January

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Watched in the hope of getting the Oscar Isaac fix I didn't get from Star Wars. This is something of a The Talented Mr Ripley with Kirsten Dunst standing in for Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen doing his best to anchor things. The film is inexcusably flaccid, doubly so given the strength of the cast, the settings and that writer/director Hossein Amini ably adapted Hardy's Jude the Obscure for the screen.

He Never Died

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A Henry Rollins B-movie. He stakes out the no-man's-land between Eastwood and Arnie. It's nothing we haven't seen before — vampires choosing blood banks over killing, a solo jaded vigilante, a soaked diner waitress, the fast-talking over-familiar first-meeting-with daughter, etc. — amongst the TV revivalists. Violence seems to be meaningless to Rollins, which has its own weird fascination. The bad guys are deemed unworthy of motivation.

Neil Genzlinger at the NY Times.

John Benditt: The Boatmaker

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Kindle. The good weather at Mũi Né got in the way of chewing through the books of the year. An airy review at the New York Times was the draw, I think, which I take as evidence that its publicist is indeed as good as Benditt indicates in his afterword. Roughly put, this is a rifling through the lore of Christian versus Jew: we get a carpenter with grandiose notions, alcoholic and violent, irresistable to women, who refuses to participate in the creation of a new messiah after undertaking a heroic and under-described voyage from Small Island to the Mainland via Big Island in a boat of his own making. (He doesn't call himself the boatmaker for nothing!) The man learns about money, which has value as a matter of belief, and the unthinking predation of the Christians on the Jews. Somehow he comes to know that his purpose is to go back to Small Island and disrupt the monopoly of the boatbuilding tribe using the wealth of his met-her-in-Mainland wife's family. I learnt very little, and am left wondering if the author is trying to muscle in on Paulo Coelho's uplifting-neofable racket. The reviewer is dead right that all the twists seem preordained; it suffers from the common all-the-women-are-beautiful-available-and-willing etc. fracture in the universe, amongst many others.


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Kray brothers hagiography, but told from the perspective of Reggie's wife Francis. The voiceover turns it into some kind of morality farce. The movie doesn't know what it wants to be and all of Tom Hardy's yakka is for aught. Emily Browning cannot keep her Swinging London accent from sliding down Church Street to Neighbours. Just bad.

The Hateful Eight

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Tarantino's eighth. It ambles along but feels overstuffed with unnecessarily graphic violence and landscapes. The Morricone score was long on promise but short on delivery, and a casual browse of IMDB suggests these tunes are offcuts from earlier works. The actors are his usual suspects plus Jennifer Jason Leigh in egoless histrionics. The characters develop surprisingly far, but does he have a point? I got the von Trier vibe at times, but not the chills; this is something schematic, like Dogville, but nowhere as brutal. I think Tarantino could learn something from Moodysson's efforts.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. Anthony Lane.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Lotte cinema in Phan Thiết, 60,000 VND. I wanted to buy some train tickets at the station, so it seemed as good a time as any to see Star Wars as rebooted by JJ Abrams. I also got a coffee at the wonderfully kitsch Lâm Kiều and was bailed up by the entire wait staff for English practice... until the boss showed up. The main draw was Oscar Isaac. No-one goes to see Star Wars for the politics; this is all about moral clarity and not shooting first. I ended up feeling a bit emotionally exploited as the plot was mostly a reheat of the first one. Near the start, after the certainly-unintentional comedy of having First Order be the bad guys, there's some possibly-intentional comedy: the stormtroopers arrive and one that takes cover gets killed while another crouching in the open does not. After that I did my best to ignore what was front and centre in the frame — it's almost always what you expect — and look to the edges. Do all the Imperial stooges have English accents? The Republic forces seemed to be very multicultural. Carrie Fisher's scenes were pleasantly poignant; she carries her damage well.

#29 in the IMDB top-250, but for how long? Dana Stevens tells me that Mr Brick (Rian Johnson) is directing the sequel. I can only hope it's as twisty as everything else he's done. Star Wars noir, is it possible? (No, no, not the schwartz.) Anthony Lane sharpens his claws.

Dennis Lehane: World Gone By

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Kindle. Chowed across another two soggy days in Mũi Né. I was surprised to find that this is the first book I've read by Lehane, given how many of his works have been adapted into movies (even good ones). I ended up thinking of this story as an exploration of Robert Duvall's secondary character (Tom Hagen) from The Godfather: a consigliere of the wrong race, who dirties his hands with some of Michael Corleone's street smarts and family issues. Perhaps that was lazy on my part, but I felt it took very little imagination to read; I'm getting the impression that Lehane writes scripts and calls them novels. It is nowhere as funny, and far more patronising, than the book I just finished by Paul Beatty. The prose is flat, the similes and metaphors are tired, the humour is not very funny, and audience is presumed vapid.

To be blunt, everything here is reycled from the glory days of organized American crime and story telling, and often only lightly fictionalized. (Wikipedia has about as much speculation and innuendo as this book does, but no horse in the prurient deviant sexuality stakes.) The World War II backdrop (the Nazis forever the gift that gives to America's creatives); Batista's Cuba; the son Tomas wanting to be a U.S. solider, just like Michael, despite his father's argument that he's part Cuban and his country hasn't done a thing for him; the "you're not killing my child" histrionics, but with an immediate backdown; some get-on-the-plane dialogue, just like Casablanca and not Predator; tedious racism. You get the idea. There is some massively unsound reasoning about the existence of God (that doesn't even make for good rhetoric) and an attempt to co-opt alcohol fetishism ala Fleming's Bond.

Janet Maslin saw something in this that I didn't. Or perhaps it was the other way around.