peteg's blog

Marcy Dermansky: Bad Marie.

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Kindle. More chick lit, I guess, this time focussing on a girl with poor impulse control, an eye firmly on the moment, somewhat intent on outrunning the past while nurturing some maternal instincts in some beautifully captured scenes. France comes in for a solid pasting, accused of superficiality and even worse at controlling impulses than Marie while being so much less honest about it. Mexico is a place that once enveloped and rehabilitated Americans, who have now exported enough development that the natives are resentful. Paradise lost, you know. The one significant male character is a slave to his biology and past. I liked it but it has the tinge of a guilty pleasure.

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl.

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Kindle. Strip mining Davies's output, going back from his recent set of shorts The Fortunes to this, his first novel. Clearly proud of his Welsh heritage, Davies unpacks aspects of the World War II experience from various perspectives, mostly set in a small quarrying and farming village. Again the writing is fine and it all comes down to whether the stories speak; the extensive research is mostly lightly worn, and sometimes wrought into imagery I found painfully visceral (Chapter 22, a doctor responding to an implicit request for an abortion):

"You're thinking you can blackmail me, perhaps, but in the first place I don't care, and in the second place no one else will either. You know what I have in there? A ward of blokes just brought in on a hospital ship. Pulled out of the North Atlantic. Torpedoed. Know how cold those waters are? Man's lucky to live ten minutes. Know what kept them alive? All the oil burning on the surface. I've fellows in there with the hair scalded off their heads, and frostbitten toes. You think they give a toss what I’ve done in the past?"

The girl herself is mostly acted upon, as are, I guess, all the characters. Rudolph Hess plays a framing role. There's a lot going on here, perhaps too much.

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Vale, Leonard Cohen.

Fargo

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One more thing to add to the long list of things out of Minnesota. I first saw this a long time ago.

The Accountant

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Odeon 5, 3:15pm session, $11.00. I saw the short a while back and thought I'd give Affleck another chance in an acting role. Well... he did OK in his Vietnamese chilli sauce t-shirt, popping Zolofts and bad men, but was severely let down by the script. I got thinking quite often that Adam Sandler may perhaps have done it better, or that Affleck could be the Arnie of the twenty-first century if only he got on top of the one-liners. JK Simmons pulls his usual schtick. This is the first time I've seen Anna Kendrick on film, and I can't see the appeal. John Lithgow is OK but embodies nothing. The entire thing is a mashup of what's come before: some American Sniper gun action (and also some Arnie-level carnage), Batman-style dual identities, autism cliches (see Rain Man and Cube and ....), the occasional outsized consumerist Scarface edifice, run-(Raymond)-run! from Fight Club, Our Kind of Traitor-style accountant-to-the-mob, etc. In brief, it's entirely derivative, but you can see what they were trying to do, just outside the frame. Enjoy.

Stephen Holden.

Marcy Dermansky: The Red Car.

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Kindle. If this is chick lit, perhaps I should read more of it. Dermansky breathlessly concatenates a series of events that levers a self-doubting writer our of her early 30s awfulness in Queens, where she got hitched to Austrian fellow-writer Hans for visa reasons, and back to her Californian mid 20s. The cast from about that time reassembles and there is sometimes the opportunity for a doing-over. The car of the title is somewhat lethal, and its ultimate fate involving a Japanese beauty flicked the switch a little too neatly to Murakami for my tastes. Dermansky does a good job with the characters, though most of the male ones feel predatory, a tad vacuous, a bit under drawn, as is perhaps her intention given that her femmes are hypersensitive to their attention. Are the narrator's contradictory thoughts a matter of tense, or of not making the right or sufficiently fine distinctions? Somehow it's not irritating when Dermansky does it.

Daniel Handler at the New York Times.

Ge Fei: The Invisibility Cloak.

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Kindle. Carmela Ciuraru at the New York Times sold it to me in her brief review. Canaan Morse's translation is a little uneven, charmingly so, almost as if he intermittently chooses to forget how Chinese maps to English. Some images and idioms that are presumably amusing and possibly enlightening, maybe even transgressive in the original, and I guess a footnote or two may have helped for us culturally impoverished types. I enjoyed it as a wander through present-day Beijing with an amiable narrator living a straitened existence as a craftsman of high-end audio equipment; such audiophilia is something I can't endorse or condemn. The fluid segues come to an overtly abrupt conclusion in the last chapter or two as things move a little too quickly for satisfaction.

Just to nitpick a bit: Ciuraru's review is wrong about Cui living with his sister and her husband; he lives in her apartment while she resides in their dear departed mother's.

Apparently this is the first novel by Ge Fei to be translated into English, but now Penguin Australia also has his Flock of Brown Birds available. I'll try to get to it soon.

Interview with the Vampire

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I saw this back in 2009. Since then I learnt (from my roomie in Chicago) that Anne Rice is the patron saint of American vampire pulp. I don't remember it being this banal; Brad Pitt is at his blandest, and Tom Cruise hams it up. Antonio Banderas, I don't know. The plot is holey, and I don't really get why Christian Slater wants to be or is chosen. Kirsten Dunst is so young.

Fatima Bhutto: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

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Kindle. More fiction from Pakistan: generational separatism in Mir Ali, near the frontier with Afghanistan. Towards the end I realised this humourless text had more in common with Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs than with her countryman Mohammed Hanif's brave and funny A Case of Exploding Mangoes. In the small things would have been improved with a solid edit. The ending is far too abrupt: whatever happened to the baby? Why did Hayat and Aman Erum collaborate to sell out Samarra? Or were they intending to blow up the Colonel? I wasn't invested enough in this book to think too hard or be bothered by any inaccuracies. I don't think there's anything spectacularly imaginative here.

Fundamentally I guess I want a book that doesn't capriciously hide things from me. I don't mind a flashback structure that unfolds details, but I have little patience for omissions that are supposed to generate tension. Perhaps that's why I don't find crime fiction very satisfying.

Lorraine Adams spills a lot of words on it for the New York Times. As she observes, it helps if your grandfather is Benazir Bhutto's dad, even if he was hanged by Zia back in 1979.

Triple 9

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A Casey Affleck segue from Gone Baby Gone, and Chiwetel Ejiofor from Doctor Strange. Anthony Mackie is stuck somewhat uncomfortably between the Will Smith and the Denzel Washington ways of doing things; I wish he'd have a crack at his own schtick. Woody Harrelson is mostly in exploit mode. Kate Winslet's Russian accent wanders quite often. Gal Gadot doesn't do much. It is tiresomely predictable. I'm waiting for John Hillcoat to realise that the old ultraviolence isn't enough.

Manohla Dargis pretty much nails it.

Gone Baby Gone

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Second time around.

Denis Johnson: Jesus' Son.

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Kindle. A mercifully short collection of mashed up fragmentary shorts. Nothing much here for me beyond the odd funny line. Apparently there's a movie. Between this and some snark about it in the Atlantic, I may not bother with Tree of Smoke now.

Heat

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Parked at #121 in the IMDB top-250. I enjoyed it but at almost three hours it doesn't quite pay for its sprawl. Pacino takes things over the edge a bit too much. De Niro is mostly solid but not really taxed by his character; at least he calms Pacino down some of the time. The soundtrack is awesome.

Doctor Strange

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At the Odeon 5, 6pm 3D session (the only one for the day), $20.50, about ten people. This is a visual overload, an entirely predigested mashup of stuff that is hardly worth enumerating. Story-wise we get yet another genesis arc with some bogus time metaphysics, a bullshit mythos, and "death makes life meaningful" screeds that are beneath contempt. When will the guys running Marvel realise that once you are this powerful there is no need for physical violence? I guess they are appealing to a geek consciousness that still pines for physical actualization. Shrug.

Breathlessly: Australia is amusingly not covered by the shield. The abundant forced humour got few laughs from the sparse audience I was with. The cloak is a nod to demented cat videos. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid. Tilda Swinton lives off that dark energy, but not as well as she did in Detroit. She would make a good Tripitaka in a Monkey Magic reboot (and surely it's time). Her fights reminded me of Yoda's inadvisable scenes in the Star Wars pre-boots. Chiwetel Ejiofor mostly remembers what movie he's in but sometimes can't help over-emoting. Strange is presented with a false dichotomy of being either a narcissistic neurosurgeon or a badass superhero; why couldn't he be both? It felt like a real missed opportunity to explore his transition from man to superman; Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen is the superior character. Otherwise we could just, you know, skip the genesis part. Kathmandu looks like somewhere to be.

In summary: we've seen it all before. I don't know why Marvel doesn't hire a Korean director, which reminds me that Park Chan-wook has a new one out (The Handmaiden.) Given the geographical split, they could've had a nice mashup: Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong, Hal Hartley for NYC, Mike Leigh in London, Tim Burton everywhere else. That's a movie I'd pay to see.

Jake Wilson observes director Scott Derrickson's lifting from Harry Potter, and Inception. The rest of my usual movie review sources are yet to drag their bones to the cineplex.

... and that about wraps it up for The Sequence.

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I've been playing The Sequence on and off since I read the touch arcade review about a year ago. It's mostly fun but some puzzles are a bit too arcane. A huge break from it made it finally possible to nail the last two puzzles in the "core sequence." Those in the sandbox are a bit easier, and finding unimaginative solutions only took a couple of days of sporadic play.

The Town

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Second time around, and still enjoyable. The IMDB forums suggest it is a pale imitation of Heat, which I do not remember.

Amie Barrodale: You Are Having a Good Time.

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Kindle. A Japanese-inflected, zany-like-Tina Fey, Carver-influenced bunch of not-too-uncomfortable shorts. Barrodale, like Scranton, cites the Hagakure:

I told him that my family has been metropolitan for many centuries.

"Come from samurai."

"Samurai," he said, "so then, like me, you are already dead."

I guess that's the trope of the times. She plays some modern-ish games, like hiding the gender of a character to the end of a section, that put me in mind of Patrick White; I'm not sure the effort expected of the reader is respected though.

Nicholas Mancusi at the New York Times.

Mojave

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A recent Oscar Isaac, who is unfathomably awful. William Monahan has form as a scriptwriter (The Departed amongst others) but has somehow composed a complete fiasco here. Mark Wahlberg is in full-on Mark Wahlberg mode. Garrett Hedlund has apparently been decent elsewhere. There's more fun to be had in the slagging it cops on the IMDB forums than the movie itself, which is not to say it's so bad it's good.

Raymond Carver: Short Cuts.

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Kindle. Like everyone else, I enjoy Raymond Carver shorts. My main problem now is that he is too anthologised, and so I end up mostly re-reading things. This particular thing is a compilation of some from the two I've read before and Where I'm calling from and A New Path to the Waterfall, and is apparently a cash-in companion to Altman's movie of the same name.

Spartacus

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Over three sittings. I generally like the old epics, and am not short on patience right now, but this is quite bad. Did Kirk Douglas do anything decent? (OK, Paths of Glory.) Something of a Laurence Olivier segue from Bunny Lake is Missing by way of Douglas's ego. I enjoyed Charles Laughton's performance the most; Peter Ustinov's smarm comes just a little too easily. (Wow, he got an Oscar for that?) I'd say this was a formative lesson to Kubrick as he tightened things up from here on out.