peteg's blog

Popcorn Taxi: Killing Them Softly

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Albert suggested we go to this on notionally cheap-Tuesday at The Ritz, and so we did, with Sandy. It turned out to be a quite expensive pre-release screening and Q&A with with director, Andrew Dominik, and star Ben Mendelsohn. Dominik made Chopper so many years ago, and this is in a similar style. Mendelsohn turns David Wenham's character in Gettin' Square into a dognapping junkie somewhere in the late-George W. Bush U.S.

Contrary to expectations there is not too much violence, but what is there is quite graphic. Like Chopper there's plenty of random philosophising by all types of people. It seemed a lot less suspenseful though, and the plot blander as a underworld cleanup caper, a fleshing out of a Mr Wolf-from-Pulp Fiction sort of deal. Then again I may have been too tired to really get into it. Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt here. It is beautifully shot, just like Chopper was, and I need to see Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford now.

The Q&A was quite fun.

Anthony Lane seems to have liked it, though Dana Stevens suffered an allergic reaction.

Platoon

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Oliver Stone's first big Oscar winner. Charlie Sheen is semi-decent here, wandering around like a deer in headlights until he becomes Rambo. #144 in the IMDB top-250. Last seen in 2007.

Videodrome

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Another movie that lurked on the arthouse shelf back in the video days. An early 1980s Cronenberg, something like his later eXistenZ, though I came to it from Nixon via James Woods. Deborah Harry must have been near the peak of her fame here. Video kills the cable executive? Lots of splatter, long on assertion and hallucination. Excessive everything. In the tradition of weird ala David Lynch.

P. F. Kluge: The Master Blaster

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I picked this one up on the strength of a review in the New York Times. Titled Far-Off Island Where the American Dream Curdles, I expected to find an update on Hunter S. Thompson's state of Las Vegas, early 1970s. These days I guess it would be surprising if the American Dream is possible for anyone whose parents didn't buy it for them.

Saipan is, roughly put, a South-east Asian island where the locals got American passports in exchange for a military base. (Australians may be wondering how many marines we need to host in order to score a similar deal; perhaps it takes a carrier group.) Both the book and the review trade on the seemingly stagnant Saipan Sucks website and its slogan contest, which also has a scathing account of politics on the island. Geographically it is directly a long way east of the Philippines, and north of Papua New Guinea, quite near Guam.

There are five main characters, each recounting their part of the story in a cycle of chapters written in the first person. These three American men, singular American woman and Bangladeshi neo-slave are stereotyped would-be emigres who engage with the island and each other but not so much with the locals. The major native bloke, Big Ben, operates in the shadows and it remains unclear if he is anything more than an enforcer for island rentiers. The requisite dusting of sex and island romance is flagged from the early pages. It is not explained why the Chinese seamstresses can be rented by the hour (and by Bangladeshis, who are otherwise widely discriminated against). Things sort of fade away as realisation, necessity or deus ex machina set in.

Kluge ably captures why people fall in love with the island, and out of love with living there. I enjoyed it but felt let down by the promise of the spiky introduction for more cutting commentary ala Sarkhan et al. In an afterword Kluge divulges that he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Saipan in 1967-1969, which turns this into something of a Paul Theroux; however it is not clear that he speaks any language other than American.

I think the review in the Boston Globe is closer to the money.

E. Burdick and W. J. Lederer: Sarkhan

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Presumably encouraged by the public's response to The Ugly American, Burdick and Lederer concocted this follow-up novel in 1964. They return to Sarkhan, their fictional hybrid South-East Asian kingdom of harmonious Buddhist and Moslem agrarians, where the competition for influence between the Communists and the U.S. is embryonic. Again the great bureucratic machines of Washington are shown to be incapable of rising to the task or of interpreting information that conflicts with the narrative of the day. One would expect things to be much worse now with so many new fiefdoms minted after 9/11.

I quite enjoyed this one, perhaps because I don't read too many diplomacy-espionage-revolution thrillers. Graham Greene's genre probably died with him.

The Crow

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I last saw this back in 2004. Proyas produces a visual feast with sub-par dialogue, riffing heavily on the Goth sensibility of the contemporary Batman. (In the other direction Brandon Lee provides an antecedent for Ledger's Joker.) The soundtrack is a haunting memory of a diversity of early 90s indie bands.

Nixon

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A Stone reconstruction rolled out a year after they put Tricky Dick in the ground. There are some remnants of his Natural Born Killers hack-and-slash editing, and he does better when he sticks to the less speculative material. A Joan Allen segue from the Bourne thing and also Hopkins post-Lecter (first time around at least). Hopkins isn't Nixon but of a kind with the movie's conceits, just like Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon. I wonder if Pat Nixon was that steely in life. Paul Sorvino is perfect as Kissinger. I saw it in two sittings.

Bushwalk: Berowra to Mt Kuringai

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With Matthias. A cruisy walk on the eastern side of the ridge, down to Cowan Creek. We got varying estimates of the time it would take, but did it easily in about 6 hours with perhaps 90 minutes of idling. Beautiful day for it.

Mark Moffett: Adventures Among Ants

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I read about this book in the travel section of the New York Times a while ago, and bought a copy from Amazon while in the U.S. in July/August. Moffett got his PhD under Edward O. Wilson at Harvard in the 1980s, apparently by studying marauder ants in Singapore (and other places) in more detail than hitherto. As the cover blurb by the great Prof assures us, he is a fantastic photographer, so good he has been regularly commissioned by National Geographic. (You can find his pictures by searching for his name in the National Geographic Image Collection or at Google Images.)

This text is essentially a Paul Theroux-quality travelogue with a focus on ant novelties that consciously avoids overtly scientific nomenclature and analysis. As such it is far more accessible to a general audience than e.g. Superorganism, which has sat on my shelf for too long now.

An ant garden.

New to me were the ant gardens of Peru (and presumably South America in general) (p120), which are a multi-way symbiosis of two ant species and several kinds of plants. The ants manufacture a "carton" (papery) base (see the photo on the right) and grow specific plants there, which in turn seem to need the ants' ministrations to germinate.

The leaf-cutters and the weavers get a chapter each. Moffett tells us that the weavers in overhanging trees can pull individual (blind) army ants from their raiding columns on the ground, and moreover that the army ants exhibit a fear response if a weaver lands amongst them. I'd forgotten that the weavers also farm various small insects (aphids and the like). That there are only two species of weaver that dominate their respective habitats shows how successfully adapted they are.

Argentina apparently has spawned some ant super-species that are currently exterminating all other ant species in the northern hemisphere. The largest unicolony (a set of colonies with multiple queens that collaborate) of the "Argentine" ants stretches 2000km from Italy to Spain's Atlantic coast. Their strongest competitors are other ants from their region of origin, back in South America. One such, the fire ants, builds some pretty amazing rafts that helps them survive floots. There are several videos of these on YouTube. In contrast the driver (army) ants just drown.

I was disappointed that he did not include a photograph of an army ant bivouac. Clearly the nomadic army ants need to somehow vote on where to move to, and therefore engage in a process of "quorum sensing" (p244, references 16 and 17). We're told that cancer cells may use an analogous process for a similar purpose.

The Silence of the Lambs

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A classic from 1991 which I last saw on VHS (probably) and remember all too well. Hard to know what Hopkins did before this (Shakespeare? — ah, The Elephant Man), or after. Jodie Foster is pitch perfect and Oscar-worthy here. I need to see more Jonathan Demme films. Loan got this set as a film for a social work class, to what end I know not. #25 in the IMDB top-250.

Citizen Kane

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I haven't seen this in an age but still recall enough of the particulars that it would be barely worth rewatching if it weren't so hypnotic. #44 in IMDB's top-250.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

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Inspired by a true story, always the smell of a dodgy movie. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, 2004. A bloke losing his grip on life in Nixon's America decides to hijack a plane and slam it into the White House. (Delta Airlines, the insides of whose plane he covered in blood, is one of the few left standing after the post-9/11 shakeout.) I can't say I saw the point of it all.

A Game of Thrones (second edition)

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Jérémie suggested that we play a strategy game and chose this one, which he'd played before. We (Sandy, Albert, Ilan and Jérémie's friend Carola) organised to play yesterday at Jérémie's flat on Oberon Street in Coogee. We delayed to today so I could meet Iain (now in Perth) at the ever-popular Courthouse Hotel in Newtown.

We started some time after 2pm. It took about 90 minutes to set up and go through the rules, and we played through to about 8:30pm with some breaks. We decided to stop at about 6 or 7 rounds (of the scheduled 10), and set 5 castles as the winning mark. Combat often took ages to resolve, and it has the funny mechanic that losing armies retreat instead of being destroyed.

I found it quite complex with little opportunity for coalition building beyond some obviously mutually-beneficial non-aggression agreements. Mine was the Tyrell (rose) house, so I got stuck with no ability to play starred actions (which make up about a third of the possible ones) for what felt like ages. As we didn't muster until the third or forth round I felt I was just levelling-up. At round 6 or so I spent large and ended the game with all three thrones and hence lots of power to shape the rounds we didn't play.

These games require more of an investment than I expected. I guess I was thinking of something closer to Diplomacy, which I still haven't played.

Tabloid

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I quite liked Errol Morris's The Fog of War and was (I guess) expecting something of similar weight. However this one, about a tawdry tale pursued by the British gutter press in the late 70s about a woman who chased her Mormon boyfriend with excessive zeal, and who coincidentally got her dog cloned by a Korean company in the late 2000s, is ultimately quite vacuous. Perhaps it is marginally topical, given Romney's nomination by the RNC.