peteg's blog

The A-Team

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I vaguely remember the TV series from my childhood. Sharlto Copley often steals the show — the Braveheart recreation is first-rate, as is the scene where they steal a camera from a press conference, which seems like a lift from District 9. I wonder how broadly South African humor translates. It's passable pass-the-time fluff.

World Music Wednesday at Old Town School of Music

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While looking for sufi music in Chicago I came across this free-but-give-us-$10 concert. Not knowing (and not being told) any better, I stumbled upon Lincoln Square, which is directly north of the school; the Chinese near the Brown Western L station is ridiculously cheap, the K√∂stritzer Black bier at the little M√ľnchen Chicago Brauhaus was tasty, the music a bit much. That part of the city has density like the cities I'm used to, and they speak litres there.

Anyway, the gig started a bit after 8pm. The Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall is quite pleasant. It's set up more like a jazz club than a recital hall, and the crowd behaved similarly: lots of chatter during the performance. The musicians were three guitarists: Zoran Starcevic and his sons Nikola Starcevic and Zeljko Starcevic (I think), who covered a range of styles that I'm insufficiently familiar with to comment on. I guess I was expecting Félix Lajkó, or at least a violin. Their riff on Deep Purple's classic riff put me in mind of Four Play's infamous efforts from 1998. Their other gimmick was for all three to play a single guitar. Lots of skill on display, but not quite my sort of music; there were two songs I enjoyed but I didn't get their names.

As for the sufi music: there is some on there in a couple of weeks' time. Probably fusion, as that seems to be what Americans like to do. In the meantime I bought Coke Studio (Season 4) off iTunes for the awesome Kangna by Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and co., familiar from the opening scenes of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

A Night in Old Mexico

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What was Robert Duvall thinking? That's the last time I'm trusting Daniel M. Gold, writing at the New York Times. The whole thing is risible.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Slim pickings on this Memorial Day long weekend, with X-Men scaring off all competitors. I can't say I was particular keen to see this one after the first outing. Still, I couldn't say no to some air conditioning and vegetation for $5.75 (almost cheaper than freedom, what with all this inflation) at Logan, 2:30pm session, in merely 2D. I had a light and expensive lunch at the nearby farmers' market: "back bacon" (= eye of the bacon rasher) and a banger on a bun for $10.

This is all about the details, or observation humour as Tyler would say if he was actual. The structure was a tedious retread of the previous one; the variation is in the response to the surveillance state of twenty-first century America / Earth, and the conflicted loyalties that engenders, filtered through a suitable flying McGuffin. The action sequences are pure spaghetti camerawork, to the point where I now just wait for the camera to stop shuddering, or alternately close my eyes and wait for the dialogue to resume. Robert Redford has Paul Newman's pasta sauce in his fridge. Samuel L. Jackson has his famed lines from Pulp Fiction etched on his tombstone. Captain America's notebook is full of cultural detritus. Frank Grillo is solid but nowhere as good as he was in Warrior. Emily VanCamp looked scarily familiar, as if she was mining Jodie Foster's oeuvre; I guess I just saw too many ads for Revenge at some point in my life. Both she and Scarlett can't button anything past the sternum.

Abstractly Captain America poses two central problems: his powers and intellect are so limited that most action sequences must feature him doing hand-to-hand stuff, and the shield. Where does he stick it when he's not using it? What happens if it doesn't boomerang? etc. etc. Marvel does not solve these well here.

I got thinking that The Wind Rises (which I also saw at Logan) could only get away with a non-origins-of-a-superhero story of creation by balancing it with romance, disability and war, i.e., all the tricks in the book. Here, as there, creation is mostly to do with the technology the military uses to enforce conformism / security. Maybe I should be watching Silicon Valley.

Dana Stevens has it about right, which is reassuring as she got it wrong on the first one. This is the better of the two. And to completely spoil it, it's certainly got a sequel.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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An age ago I saw The Wolverine with Dave. This latest outing does not live up to the post-credits sequence we saw. I went to the 5:30pm 3D session at the AMC River East 21, for $17 (= $16 plus a $1 convenience charge — I bought ahead of time as I thought it might be packed. 6pm was packed, 5:30pm not so much.) As is traditional, I sat four rows from the front in a decent-sized theatre. The movie failed to quell the Russians behind me, which just about sums it up.

The exposition at the start was tiresome. Show us! ... and as plastic is the god of the 20th century, why isn't there an equivalent of Magneto for plastics? Would he be a good or bad mutant? (I'm not going to entertain the idea of a she, though they'd have an actress ready to go in the form of January Jones.)

As with all of Bryan Singer's XMens, this one is very derivative; it's like he gets to go back and remake all the scifis of his childhood. Here we have Terminator 2, right down to McAvoy instructing Jackman to "show him". The metallic skeleton, the general indestructability; clearly Arnie should have played the older Wolverine. Now that would have been an irresistible teaser! Fassbender is annoyingly bland as the young Magneto; perhaps this was what he did in 300. So, McQueen to direct the teaser, with Arnie. McAvoy is quite good, and Peter Dinklage too; more screen time for the latter would have been very welcome. Ellen Page is all Hard Candy to me: a little too much Gen Y absolutist shrug/smirk under a cute button nose. Jennifer Lawrence plays a much softer Mystique than Rebecca Romijn's almost-silent one. Jackman is a passenger, for the most part, which was annoying. I liked seeing Shatner on the teev; it reminds me how far we've failed to come.

The plot is pretty crap. There wasn't much laughter at the funny bits, such as Wolverine failing to set off the metal detector. The best scene was in the Pentagon kitchen, no question, as observed by both A. O. Scott and Dana Stevens. (Dana gets it wrong on so many of the details that I wonder if we were watching the same movie. For instance: McAvoy puts down the needle under Jackman's steady gaze; Fassbender never goes near the XMansion as far as a I recall. Oh, I see — she thinks the die is cast a bit earlier. That stranger wasn't naked, nevertheless.)

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, after work

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I'd been meaning to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art for a while. Entry is free to Illinois residents on Tuesdays, and they only demand a postcode as evidence. I enjoyed Alexander Calder's chat mobile and the bird. Nelson Leirner's Untitled from the series Right You Are If You Think You Are, 3, 2003 shows Australia to be a land of puppies, and New Zealand of Santa Claus, which I interpret to mean that he is ignorant of the history of both places; as a work of political commentary it fails to get much right outside South America (perhaps). They had a large Isa Genzken retrospective upstairs. I liked her "readymade" multiband World Receiver.

Carlotta Gall: The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.

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I got suckered by a review in the New York Times; here's another one. Suffice it to say that she was very brave to report from that region, and many of her accounts are vivid and valuable. Unfortunately I was expecting perhaps a second cut at history, and thought she would spend more time on her central contention that the U.S. needed to curb the I.S.I. and/or Pakistani Taliban. I also had trouble tracking all the actors, which is complicated by her often mentioning people only once or twice, and using a few too many dangling pronouns. She tries to be fair, often. Her account of bin Laden's residence in Abbottabad is the best part of this book.

Ahmed Rashid ably summarises the situation in the way I wanted to read about it. He casts doubt on many of Gall's inferences.

Sofar in Chicago

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It's been a while since I went to a gig. The Chicago chapter of the Sofar internationale kindly admitted me to their gig, which ran from 5pm-ish to about 7pm. I got chatting to a sweet couple from Texas, who relocated to Chicago for school and are now expecting. The venue was pure Chicago hipster, as one would hope/expect. They had three bands in a five-song-each format: Marrow, Living in Pretend, and Future Monarchs. The last was clearly Brit-inspired, slaughtering their point with a cover of the Beatles's Martha My Dear (and not Tom Waits's).

God's Pocket

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At the Music Box Theatre, 7:30pm, $10. Presumably Philip Seymour Hoffman's final outing. He must have wanted this made as he produced it too. Christina Hendricks does the vacuous unsatisfied beauty thing quite convincingly. Eddie Marsan is a greasy little mortician; I wish they'd cast him in a more challenging role. John Turturro has a bit of fun. It's small-time gangland stuff, with a dash of the godfather and some humour that doesn't quite stick. They make it seem like God's Pocket is a neighborhood of Philadelphia, but what would I know.

The Art Institute of Chicago, after work.

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The Art Institute of Chicago is open until 8pm on Thursdays, so I figured it was time to exercise the membership that Pete R. so thoughtfully bought me and go see some art. Apparently the Modern Wing turns five tomorrow. I enjoyed the Picassos and Matisses, especially The Serf by the latter. Their very small collection of neon is in storage, but they did have some of their Light and Space works out. Craig Kauffman's Le Mur s'en va I (spelling?) was kind of cool.

Amongst the Americana, American Gothic pulled the largest crowd. I enjoyed Jackson Pollock's Greyed Rainbows more than I expected; it's a take it to the limit kind of work, so abstract and impressionistic that it can't be considered pretentious. It's too large to take in holistically.

A Streetcar Named Desire

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This one has been on the backlog since I saw Summertime in the Garden of Eden last year. I didn't realise just how little it takes to satirize Williams's masterwork, or how much better those boys were than Vivien Leigh. This really is horrorshow gothic. I liked Brando but as for most of his career, he looks like he's coasting. I'm sure there's plenty to pick apart here, if one cares to.

Lawless

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More Tom Hardy, this time in a Nick Cave adaptation, directed by John Hillcoat. The Proposition this is not; it is closer to The Assassination of Jesse James. Shia LaBeouf is by no means the worst here, and even grows a little endearing as he fumbles with Mia Wasikowska. Jessica Chastain has a few scenes of wide-eyed cluelessness (the actress, not her character), and like her, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman are wasted. It's the usual schtick from Cave, all blood guts and unforgiveness; doesn't he know that even Clint is capable of some moral depth these days? The Chicago references are banal.

Warrior

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I've eyed this one off a few times, due to Joel Edgerton being the lead, and the present Tom Hardy binge tipped me over the edge. It's highly rated on IMDB (8.3, #143 in the top-250) but that just goes to show how popular MMA / UFC / human cockfighting is. The plot works hard to make something of all the violence, and somewhat succeeds, but not prettily. Nolte got an Oscar nomination for his part. Hardy mostly channels de Niro's Bull in his prime; it is not a particularly original effort from him. Frank Grillo was a bit of a find — his naturality as a trainer made me think of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and indeed he was coached by such a person.

Douglas Coupland: Microserfs

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This one is much longer than Generation X. It has some good bits, but also enough meh bits to end up in a kind of neutral balanced Zen state; kind of like these Microsoft refugees. As with its predecessor I'd read it back around 2002 in Melbourne, and I didn't remember much of it; I don't remember much of it now, a day later. Many of the giblets served up by Coupland are mainstream geek tropes now, and so I have to wonder if he reflected the culture or lead it. For instance, he is quite specific about a Linux configuration that is quite familiar to me from 1996; was he was prescient or lucky in picking Linux as the winner of the free-ish Unixoid wars? Ultimately this is less about Microsoft than about Valley geekdom when jwz bashed out the code that made him famous. It is probably more satisfying to just read what he has to say.

Locke

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At the AMC River East 21. $12. I saw the short for this there a few weeks back, and for some reason Tom Hardy's Welsh (?) lilt pushed my buttons. I expected some kind of mystery, but really that gets exploded inside the first quarter or so of the movie. From there it is a long slow wind, down a path that is excruciatingly inflexible and not entirely human, despite the invocation of the essentials. The cinematography is top-notch (clearly inspired by Wong Kar-Wai / Christopher Doyle) and Hardy is similarly great, but the limitations of the set — man-in-car-with-cell — make it difficult to get too excited about it all. Writer/director Steven Knight wrote Dirty Pretty Things, so he has form.

Dana Stevens got into it, as did Manohla Dargis.

Douglas Coupland: Generation X

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Lacking my laptop and much inspiration, I also extracted this from the Chicago Public Library. I enjoyed it at times. The indulgent whimsy is laid on pretty thick; clearly this contains the seeds of Fight Club, as has been observed by culturati since forever. Palm Springs sounds like one of the outer rings of hell, one so far out you start to wonder if it isn't heaven. Or maybe the other way around.

Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing

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I extracted this one from the Chicago Public Library. In many ways it is a companion to (a converse of) his earlier Twilight of the Assholes, which collected his cartoons of the Bush years. This is almost entirely essays, and some are good. There is a lot of verbiage in all of them, which is a bit unexpected as his cartoons are so pithy. A lot of his writing is available from his website too.

Only Lovers Left Alive

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I don't think I've ever seen a Jarmusch at a cinema. (Ghost Dog is the only possible exception that comes to mind, but history does not record it.) I trekked up to Landmark at 2828 Clark, which must be near the uni in Lincoln Park. It's a classic 1980s-or-so US shopping centre: hollow, ramp on the edge (just like the Guggenheim!), about eight (half-)floors, an exposed lift. The cinema takes up something like the top three floors and is easy to miss. The theatre itself was nondescript.

On the other hand the movie was great. It dragged at times, which I think was entirely intentional, and fired up every time Tilda Swinton was in the frame. I haven't been that partial to her since the late 1990s for long-forgotten reasons; here she is perfect. Be patient and get into that hipster groove. This is Jarmusch exploring post-financial-fatality Detroit, just as he keenly observed New Orleans in Down by Law. I was initially worried that the row of wisecracking blokes who plonked next to me might talk the whole time, but (perversely?) they fell silent after the shorts. Colour me weirded out.

A. O. Scott at the New York Times.

Later I plonked $10 for the soundtrack off iTunes. It's better with visual accompaniment, or after ten or more listens. One of the high points is the exotic singing of Yasmine Hamdan from Lebanon, supposedly in Tangiers, which could only be classified as world; it made me wonder where Peter Gabriel was in all this. Actually it made me think of two things: David Lynch doing (in essence) a film clip for This Mortal Coil's cover of Song to the Siren in Lost Highway, which I rate as one of the most cinematic things he ever did, and the indescribably transcendent sufi music that opens The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Jarmusch's effort is not as good as these, but his instincts are sound.