peteg's blog

A Fish Called Wanda

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Late 80s John Cleese. A heist caper comedy. He and Michael Palin are funny enough and I wish he'd cut them both larger roles. I can leave Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis.

The Bourne Supremacy

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By giving your protagonist amnesia, you equip him with an arbitrarily extensible backstory. Here we get some sort of genesis and conclusion, replete with the good Americans cleaning up the bad Russians. Yeah right, says Pussy Riot, in Putin's Russia you're going to get the cops arresting cronies. The camera work is the epitome of the shaky style of that era (circa 2004) that makes a lot of it unwatchable without a handful of amphetamines. The dialogue is generally atrocious and Julia Stiles gets loaded with the worst of it. Joan Allen makes success look like a booby prize. Matt Damon is the best part of all of this. I got bored being shown what was amply implied.

The Bourne Ultimatum

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And that about wraps it up for Jason Damon. This is another genesis effort, where (cough) Stryker accepts a willing volunteer into his augmentation program, creating a beast that bites the hand that feeds. (I can see why people were disappointed with Wolverine now.) The dialogue is better than the previous effort, and Julia Stiles wisely keeps her trap shut for most of it, though promoting her to some kind of love interest / concerned citizen is implausible. Not the least plausible thing here, I grant, but one of the more gratingly incongruous. Won 3 Oscars? #183 in the IMDB top-250? David Strathairn must be hard up for cash; I haven't seen him in anything decent in a long while, and re-heating Brian Cox's role is surely beneath him. Oliver Stone saw so clearly that Joan Allen is Pat Nixon; I only got there afterwards. I was a bit disappointed that one of the assets wasn't Jason Statham.

The Bourne Identity

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I think Albert suggested this series wasn't too bad; I'd been avoiding it as an anti-fan of Matt Damon. He's OK here though there's not much happening; all I saw was a tired predictable repetition of things we've seen before. I can't get excited by car chases and all that, not when the outcome is so clearly determined in advance. It's not terrible, just boring, and perhaps fired up the Americans as it is set in Europe. Julia Stiles struggles, as does Franka Potente as some kind of gypsy. Clive Owen plays a cypher. Brian Cox plays a cliché, which was disappointing as he has been excellent elsewhere. Chris Cooper is the same as always.

Strangers on a Train

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Held up as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces. I feel certain I've seen this before, from the meeting featuring a pitch-perfect psychopathic Robert Walker to the establishment and later denouement. I found it a bit too narrowly drawn; the motivations of the main characters are totally banal and they never stop to think about alternative courses of action (such as talking to the cops), which when tried do go over successfully. Rated #136 in IMDB's top-250 and bracketed with other classic noir that I've seen already.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

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I saw this dialogue-heavy victory lap in the now-defunct Australia Cinema in Orange back in 1991. Kim Cattrall ponces around like it's Sex in the City and Christian Slater has a minor cameo. It's a lot more straightforward than I remembered.

The Flight of the Phoenix

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Richard Attenborough, James Stewart. Nothing much happens until it has to, which is the exact opposite of modern film making. A bunch of colonials are helping Libya exploit its oil, and when their plane to Benghazi crashes in the desert we get a series of character micro-studies and as-needs-must engineering. Christian Marquand explained France's stake in Vietnam to Willard in Apocalypse Now.

Pandemic

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I got Pandemic for Sandy, for her birthday last month. I thought it would be interesting to try something cooperative, unlike our usual fare. Albert, Sandy and Adrian and I played it at Albert and Sandy's place before dinner, which was a veggie risotto cooked by Albert, with much black tea.

Our first game went a bit cockeyed as we infected 3 cities per epidemic, and looked at the fresh (not discarded) card piles. We won relatively easily, with the Researcher (Adrian) and Dispatcher (me) combination working well, and the Medic (Sandy) keeping things under control. The Scientist (Albert) didn't seem that useful.

Our second game, after dinner, had Albert as the Operations Manager, Sandy as the Researcher, and me as the Medic. We played closer to the rules this time, but again it was an easy win; we scraped home with two breakouts left. Perhaps it would be more difficult if we didn't show our cards to each other. The rules are pretty clear once you have an idea how the game works.

Quite fun but enough analysis paralysis that one game is enough for a night.

Jon Gertner: The Idea Factory

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The subject of not one but two reviews at the New York Times, this is putatively a rational reconstruction of Bell Labs' successful pipeline that took basic research into the massive telecommunications network we have these days. We get a potted history featuring the major players and the major early discoveries and developments (the transistor, information theory, masers, ...), with a special focus on foibles and colour. Unfortunately the author, being a business journalist, is not too savvy about the technical details ("the Unix programming language"), and the book doesn't meet the potential of its topic.

The emphasis on colour robs the book of some relevance; the most risible example is eclipsing William Shockley's early technical successes with his poor abilities as a manager and his later fixation with the genetic determinants of intelligence. What deserved far more attention was how anyone managed to get him to cooperate in the first place. The book also rushes the main narrative thread, which could have situated the prevailing attitudes about AT&T against the economic and social conditions of the day. Why did the U.S. Department of Justice under Nixon (1974) decide it was time to split the company up? I would have thought that Bell was still contributing to the Cold War, and greed-is-good was so 1980s.

These days it seems clear that Bell's original goal of universal connectivity has more-or-less been achieved and delta improvements in engineering will take care of what's left to do. I guess we see the results of monopoly busting in the slipping quality of U.S. internet (at least according to some metrics) and the slow roll out of the internet in Australia. (Then again, I don't know if Australian Telecom / Telstra ever engaged in much research beyond the adaptation of technology developed overseas.)

Most frustrating to me was that computer technology doesn't receive much discussion; I wonder why AT&T's post-breakup computer ventures did not succeed. Anyone with an interest in the area knows of the complete mess that UNIX was in the late 1980s, and the legal wrangling that continues to the present year, which is at least somewhat due to the breakup of AT&T. The book takes an overly narrow focus on the modern tech giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook), ignoring IBM (one of the few with a sizable research division engaging in basic research, and a historic competitor of Bell Labs), and only mentioning one other industry (medicine, and not pharmaceuticals). The materials companies like Dow, 3M or Corning that were pivotal in scaling up some of the research are missing too.

I would have preferred a proper, more thorough, history of Bell Labs, and a more rounded discussion of the role of such industrial research labs. Why doesn't the U.S. government get up on its hind legs and explain its role in innovation to the people? How can the market be kept at bay while long-term research is undertaken? How are these organisations to reconcile allowing researchers to follow their curiosity with the companies' long-term commercial development needs, as Bell Labs did so successfully?

The Artist

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I didn't get into it. Somehow rated #174 in the IMDB top-250, though I can understand the Oscars as Hollywood loves movies about itself. Bérénice Bejo is drop-dead but her acting is clunky. Like Hugo, this is nostalgia dressed up as innovation.

Anthony Lane, Stephanie Zacharek, and Dana Stevens weigh in.

The Dark Knight Rises

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At The Ritz with Albert, who kindly waited to see it with me. Sandy came along for a drink beforehand. It was about what I expected. The story flowed quite well though the carefully-paced character development of the first two hours was spoilt by the underthought action scenes and seige of Gotham. (The problem with Nolan is that he gets so much right that the flaws are magnified.) Bale is a bit more emotive here, and Tom Hardy was great. Hathaway had big shoes to fill in following Pfeifer as the cat, and she has never been foxier than she is here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was mildly disappointing with a flat performance; Brick this is not. I had higher hopes for the climactic scenes after an impressive build-up; all we got was a series of deus ex machina.

Reviews by Anthony Lane and Dana Stevens. Presently number #13 in the IMDB top-250 list.

Flushed Away

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With Loan. Saw it back in 2007 at the cinema. Not bad.

The King and I

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At The Muny in St. Louis with Loan. This is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical canvassing some reassuringly familiar patronising colonialism. In brief, the quasi-civilised King of Siam needs the advice of a widowed Englishwoman to combat the ambitions of an expansionist England. The production lost some momentum after the interval with the romantic sub-plot, and the climactic King's illness initially reeks of a stratagem to lure Anna back to the fold.

Both of the leads were very good: Kevin Gray as the King, Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna. I had another pint (or so) of Schlafly.

Ratatouille

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With Loan. I had seen fragments of it before, perhaps on TV. Very good. #207 in IMDB's top-250.

Pirates! (or, Gilbert & Sullivan plunder'd)

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At The Muny in St. Louis with Loan. The Municipal (open air) Theatre is a strange old institution built on some kind of American egalitarianism; there are free seats up the back, and $US70 ones down the front. We sat just in front of the freeloaders in $US10 seats which were a long way from the stage.

This was a well-produced musical, and was kind of fun, though it was hard to stay interested after the interval and a Schlafly beer. (The nights have been quite hot in St. Louis.) The plot was the usual knowing romance / pirate mythical bullshit, with knowing winks to the audience insert to make it palatable to modern crowds. I wonder when the U.S. will recognise that pirates were the terrorists of their day.