peteg's blog

The Tall Man

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The whole Palm Island incident stinks. The cinematography in this doco is fantastic (thanks Germain McMicking) but the story is about as depressing as it gets.

Is Tony Koch the last reality-based journalist at The Australian?

Gil Scott Heron: The Vulture

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Gil Scott Heron is a master of the short form, and every so often this novel sets off a keen observation with a sparky jag. It's something of a murder / mystery /Trainspotting-ish / real-life set in the projects of New York City in the late 1960s, but not the overall triumph the author thought he had when he hit the pause button on school to write it at age 20. It's more dealing than using, amongst the Blacks and Puerto Ricans, and sometimes the prose has the rawness of a first draft. He doesn't imbue his women with much character. Dropping the phonetics of the hood on the page doesn't add much, and there is some severely trying polemical poetry somewhere close to the end. The earlier Black politics comes off better though the events seem to avoid The Man's causality.

My Blueberry Nights

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Wong Kar-Wai goes to the U.S. and the local talent turns up to play. As one would expect, the plot is weak but someone thoroughly ruined it by having Norah Jones voice some platitudes between acts. (It may actually be a subtle, deep and penetrating commentary on American values by the Hong Kong set masquerading as a patronising, annoying and entirely banal series of life lessons learnt by an uninspiring ingénue.) It was good to see David Straitharn and Rachel Weisz here, but Jude Law was the only one who succeeds at inflating his character, in his case with boyish English (and I must say, twee) charm.

The cinematography is incredible, as always. Darius Khondji previously shot Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Se7en (amongst others), and Pung-Leung Kwan worked a lot with Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle on their earlier visual feasts.

The Servant

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A Sarah Miles segue from Ryan's Daughter. She is so young here, her character all giggles, and this is not her best outing. Pinter wrote the screenplay. It's the nightmare of the upper classes, being supplanted and debauched by their servants. The final act doesn't make much sense.

This is England

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Second time around, with Albert and Sandy at their place.

The Good German

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Steven Soderbergh remakes Casablanca with Clooney and Blanchett ("We'll always have Berlin") in 2006. Tobey Maguire is execrable. I liked the brogue of the barman (Tony Curran). Unfortunately the whole thing is mediocre.

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Mid-morning snorkel at Gordons Bay with Ben. Not many fish. He got in with trunks only. I had the spring suit. The water got warmer as we got away from the beach. Strange weather, supposed to be fine but with a lot of high cloud.

Alien: Resurrection (Special Edition)

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More aliens dreck. This one is even less excusable than the third one as Jean-Pierre Jeunet already had Delicatessen (which I must have seen back in the VHS days) and City of Lost Children under his belt, and Amelie was next (after a four year hiatus). Perhaps this was the cost of moving to Hollywood.

The plot/narrative/character logic/everything here is completely feeble. "Let's go here and get killed!" is really what they're saying. Winona makes a fetchingly vulnerable (proto emo) robot, and the sexiness that was supposedly intended in the original Alien is loosed here. Apart from that it's really just Dancing with Dinosaurs in the director's trademark sepia. I liked the Terminator-style shot of a trashed Paris at the end which set it up for a crossover with Moulin Rouge, with Nicole Kidman starring as the decreasingly human sprog of Ripley. The sets will get cheaper and cheaper until the entire movie is just a series of negative-space portraits.

Overall the series makes little sense, and happily trades coherency for cheap thrills. I wish I'd seen these before Prometheus as I would have toned my hopes right down.

Alien3 (Special Edition)

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More Alien dreck, this time directed by David Fincher. I guess this is the one that convinced everyone he could direct; the cinematography is the best part of it, apart from some of the action being atypically incoherent. The plot, characters, etc. are totally risible, and naming Weaver as a producer makes it look like she had to drag everyone to this superannuated GI Jane thing from the early 90s. This special edition is overlong and not at all inspired or engaging. There is a drinking bird on the gaoler's desk.

Aliens (Special Edition)

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Apparently I did see this one back in 2007. In many ways this is James Cameron doing his corporate/industrial dystopia Terminator-one-and-a-half thing; the aesthetic is very similar. In contrast to that franchise, here everyone is incompetent except Ripley (and that includes the aliens). The captain of Red Dwarf (Mac McDonald) has a small role as the leader of the colony that gets annihilated. This special edition is overlong at two-and-a-half hours. Rated #59 in the IMDB top-250.

Alien (Director's Cut)

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It's the late 1970s. Man has stopped going to the moon but now goes to the stars using ancient computer technology (was that an Apple ][ with an 80-column card in the first bit?), flourescent lights and a total relaxation of the smoking regulations. The Nostromo is the Blue Dwarf, long lost sister ship of Red Dwarf... or did they just repaint it later, and add some humour? All I learnt here was that even John Hurt was young once. (He was really great in 1984.)

I certainly haven't seen this before. The sets are excellent. It is difficult to watch it now as it has been pilloried, parodied and generally ripped off so thoroughly. There are so many incoherencies, and it really is just a thriller, and not sci fi; the universe is almost entirely a mystery, and everyone likes a blank canvas to project onto.

Spoilers, for both of you who haven't seen it: the cat makes it. There are Drinking Birds on the breakfast table when they wake up. Rated #41 in the IMDB top-250.

Les triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville)

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More French animation, this time for the dog crowd, especially those who like their mutts to bark at things. The hook was effective up to a point. Well drawn. Loads of exaggeration; I think Belleville is supposed to be the U.S., featuring obese people, cluelessly helpful boy scouts, hamburgers, a Statue of Liberty (or Gluttony?), the Mafia, etc. — though I think the newspapers are still in French, and in one it says it's the French Mafia...

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris)

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A French animation that is doubtlessly subverting feline minds everywhere. I enjoyed it more than Dana Stevens did. The cat does get all the good lines (even though he has a non-speaking role).

Fantastic Mr Fox

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A Wes Anderson segue from The Darjeeling Limited. Someone reviewing his latest movie suggested this might be his best. I don't know about that but the dialogue is the same as everything else he's ever done.

Prometheus

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In 3D at The Ritz with Albert and Sandy at 4pm on this rainy long weekend. Well, I guess it could have been worse. I had limited expectations but had hoped Fassbender would do something awesome. Instead it was a familiar retread of the old themes with many tired reveals and cop-outs along the way; perhaps we're getting to the point that movies are made like Zynga games, all reactionary psych 101. It reminded me a bit of Moon; a plausibly engaging conceit that is well-made but gets overwhelmed by other flaws. I have absolutely nothing invested in Ridley Scott or Alien(s, etc.) so I'll leave it there.

Captain Blood

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While watching this matinee masterpiece from 1935 I started to wonder if Chris Barry learnt his acting from these early Errol Flynn efforts. I grant that Rimmer is a quite distinct character but there is a similarity in the face and a certain amount of "smoke me a kipper" Ace Rimmer in Flynn's Peter Blood hamminess. Flynn is quite a bit younger here than in Kim and it is clearer why the knees of his long-term co-star Olivia de Havilland are weak; she puts up a fight for implausibly long before surrendering to his good cheer in the final scene with a solid slice of knowing ham.

As far as pirate movies go this tops Johnny Depp's efforts for social realism and plot depth. Might be hard to franchise though.

Control

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Better the second time around. Samantha Morton puts in a reliably egoless performance, and Sam Riley as Ian Curtis is even better than I remembered.

Dana Sachs: The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

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Again I succumbed to the temptation of raiding ANU's extensive collection of books on Asia held in their Menzies Library. (Incidentally the UNSW Library is also named after Sir Pig Iron Bob.) I prevailed on one of the beautiful librarians to find it for me, and in doing so she edified me that their "large" books are separate from the rest, and I had only been looking at the large ones. I am sure it makes sense to use the same numbers for both.

I was trying hard to avoid this book for so many reasons; perhaps particularly because it is a latter-day second-hand account of wartime relations between the U.S. and Việt Nam, unlike (say) Balaban's, which (to my mind) served a clear purpose. Brutally put, this isn't Dana's story to tell. Still, I found her translations and earlier memoir to be super bits of writing, and her motivations certainly impeccable, so I dived in.

In brief, Operation Babylift was a mass evacuation of war "orphans" at the end of the American/Việt Nam war, in the days preceding the much-feared Communist apocalypse of April 30, 1975. The logic of the babylift was as tortured as that for the entire war, and the book touches on some of the issues from a mostly American perspective. This is a bit frustrating as Dana has the background to explain the political, religious and cultural divisions of the Saigon of the day, and to make deeper sense of why the Buddhists and native Catholics were apparently not as fazed by the imminent Communist takeover as the foreign Christian charities, who panicked or were overtly baby-hungry, and generally not scrupulous about the paperwork and adoption critera. (She identifies Holt International as pretty much the singular ethical international operator.)

The children who were evacuated in Balaban's account had severe medical emergencies and benefited from sophisticated care in the U.S. (generally unavailable elsewhere in the world at that time). That they returned to Việt Nam after a few years was a condition of their leaving in the first place, and was made completely clear to the foster families who took care of them while they were in the U.S. His first-hand witness of the events is more valuable than this researched work, which sometimes degenerates to cutting-and-pasting from the historical record, and extended quoting of the memoirs of two of the women central to the babylift: Rosemary Taylor and Cherie Clark. Dana shows no evidence of reading Balaban's account from twenty years earlier.

Structurally this is modern fly-on-the-wall Bob Woodward style reportage. The facts are peppered with the fake first-personism of "She didn't even stop to wipe the mud from her face" and other colour that merely pads the book out. The biggest problem is that the stories — mostly anecdotes and valuable for that — are sliced up over several chapters, which leads to tedious repetition. (Each episode of the story includes a recap of the earlier installments; "Previously on Babylift...", and I lost track of the loose ends I wanted resolved.) Lockhart got it right: say your bit then let the players say theirs.

Dana's motivation for this project was that she saw a photo of a 747 full of babies from 1975, and she got funded to visit various orphanages with some of the children who returned to Vietnam to look for their families circa 2005. There is limited historical perspective here beyond the observation (p162) that there was a moratorium on adoption after World War II as the Red Cross saught to reunite families. The obvious parallel to draw in Australia is with the stolen generations of Aborigines, who were subject to presumably similar motivations. The baby hunger was again in evidence in Haiti after the earthquake, where people were kidnapping children and getting busted for it. The Israeli Operation Moses (etc) is portrayed in Live and Become as something like the babylift, all chaos and separation. I'm sure there are more. What is common to all is the good intentions of the operators, the murky legalities, the cultural divides and moral complexities. While it would be too much to ask for a contextualisation of the experiences of the children and families affected by all these events, the motivations, legality, etc. of the babylift operators could have been more extensively situated against what happened before and since.

This is a topic I'd never try to write about; it's too fraught. It's like the old philosophical chestnuts that we ponder for a while, before we get bored and shrug, which in this case is not really adequate. What is in the best interests of a child? I have a limited idea about what this might be within my culture and outside a warzone, but it becomes so tangled when one considers the Việt Nam of the 1970s and 1980s: an impoverished Confucian culture where the elders are venerated and not the youth, where the extraneous extended family members become domestic servants (etc. etc.), where the bright lights of the West have come and gone. Is "the best interests of the child" even be a criterion that traditional Vietnamese culture would accept?

We are also left wondering how the Vietnamese diaspora viewed the babylift children, and whether the Communist regime allows them a right-of-return. (Their official response to the babylift was to portray it as kidnapping, and someone more adventurous than I would doubtlessly draw parallels with the situation of the American POWs.) Dana wrote a novel about this very topic (If You Lived Here) which I cannot face after reading this.

It turns out that there was already heaps of literature on this event, including many first-hand accounts and films; ask Google or start here.

The Thin Man

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I can't remember why I dug this one up. A ho-hum black-and-white mystery with a high IMDB rating. The best part is the interaction of the leads, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Ryan's Daughter

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A Robert Mitchum segue from Out of the Past, and incidentally Sarah Miles had a minor part in BlowUp. This is epic David Lean completism on my part; apparently Madame Bovary went to Ireland circa 1916, approximately contemporaneously to the Easter uprising, married a school teacher and found frolicking with an English war-damaged Major to be more fun, thereby earning the opprobrium of the townsfolk. I guess there are similar grand themes as in Doctor Zhivago, though here the plot is more evenly spread thoughout the extensive runtime.

The priest (Trevor Howard) gets all the good lines, especially the final sendoff. Rumpole (Leo McKern) is the publican. Excellent cinematography. Trademark lack of subtlety. Matinee fare.

Blue Velvet

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A David Lynch classic that also sat in VHS format next to Three Colours and Down By Law back in the 1990s. Apparently I haven't seen it since then. He's on the road to Twin Peaks here, though Kyle McLachlan looks unbelievably youthful. This is Dennis Hopper's other signal crazy-nuts-intense performance (the first being Apocalypse Now).