peteg's blog

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.

Roy Scranton: War Porn.

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Kindle. A while back John Quiggin pointed at an article by Scranton in the New York Times, calling it "[an] excellent piece on the redemptive power of war (a huge factor in the enthusiasm with which so many entered the Great War)." Its opening is pure Khe Sanh, and this book expands those first three paragraphs into something of a fragmentary memoir. Strangely, refreshingly, this is not a movie script.

Scranton has several angles on the war in Iraq, and struggles with those beyond his direct and constructed poet-warrior experience. The scene where a dog bites an Iraqi maths PhD student is closer to Wolf than reality, if only because everyone knows you don't go near blood-crazed animals. War has often been characterized as mostly tedious boredom punctuated by bursts of existential panic, and getting lost while driving around to ultimately no end made me think that Scranton was a bit late, or not invited, to the Generation Kill party. The ending takes things to the peace-time limit, perhaps intending to demonstrate how unenlightening encounters with violence are, or that some develop a taste for the extreme, or women sometimes get more than they ask for, or whatever; by then we're too deep into exploitation territory to have much confidence about his intent. Much of the writing is incoherent: at one point a heaving bosom yields a slow breath, and the interstitial text is often unreadable. No one cares about the Dow Jones. No one.

The central problem with this book is that it focusses far too closely on violence. Yes, the violence is ugly, it doesn't redeem, it cannot enlighten, and saying this forcefully is valuable. However most people don't need to actually go to war to understand that. What he omits, and is perhaps difficult to see from the rank of private in the U.S. Army, is all the other stuff that's going on. The above-mentioned article contends that the "chief virtues" of "[the US Army] troops ... are obedience and aggressiveness." That is probably the case, and yet many have learnt deep lessons in the midst of war. Here's a brief list:

One could go on. I liked the title of his Learning to die in the Anthropocene, and am very sympathetic to that view, but having read this and the introduction of that I think I'll give it a miss.

Joshua Buhs spills more words on this than I could be bothered too. Michiko Kakutani equivocates and gestures at Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke as some kind of benchmark.

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.

Aimee Phan: We Should Never Meet.

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Kindle. I've had Aimee Phan's name on my to-read list for so long that I can't remember why. This is a fictionalization of various aspects of Operation Babylift from 2004, pre-dating Dana Sach's effort by about seven years. I had similar doubts about this as I did that, and really only ploughed through it because it's short, and there's always the hope that the next loosely-connected short-story will hit paydirt. However the angles seem recycled from earlier works, and even from one story to the next; for instance, a young girl from the Delta abandons a feted marriage to become a nun in an orphanage in wartime, and a pediatrician leaves husband, child and career to tend to abandoned mixed-blood babies in Sài Gòn from 1972 to 1975, vastly stretching the two months she promised her erstwhile family. OK, so orphans wreak havoc on women's relationships, and abandonment is a layered beast.

The scenes from the OC are perhaps closer to Phan's direct experience, viz the predation of the young Vietnamese migrants on the older, keeping it within the community for mostly obvious reasons. Some conservatism is rendered, but none of the drug trafficking (etc) of the Australian equivalent (Cabramatta) that tangles up the men in other cultures. I always put the violence down to excess time in refugee camps and knowing nothing but war for those formative years, but that doesn't work for these orphans. Phan seems to retreat to generic themes of loveless childhoods, an explanation just as applicable to those who stay home.

The Wolverine

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Three years later and indeed they have not fulfilled the promise of that mid-credits scene.

Wolf

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A stinker from 1994. Great cast, solid production, many failings, starting with the sheer pointlessness of it all. Jack Nicholson, again directed by Mike Nichols, sometimes looks like Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, and what a shock: he drives a Volvo 240 with a roof rack (!), more recklessly than I ever did. Pfeiffer is solid, though not too much is asked of her. Plummer has fun as an arch evil robber-baron. Spader rounds out the main characters with some vintage creepiness. Even Morricone's score doesn't cover itself in glory.

Graham Greene: Doctor Fischer of Geneva.

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Kindle. A very pedestrian short from Greene, circa 1980: the first-person narrator marries a very rich man's daughter, and the rich man has a sadistic streak. The narrator is English and doesn't ski, but his wife does. That's about it.

Ann Patchett: Commonwealth.

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Kindle. An account of blended, broken families stretching fifty years. Patchett writes well and the thing is ably, intricately constructed, but she has too many characters on the table to satisfyingly draw them all. Piling on the events is a poor substitute, as she more-or-less admits by observing that beautiful mother Beverly has no personality of her own. The chapters come in Pulp Fiction order, and the palliative scenes are less imaginative than those of Magnolia.

Carmel Bird is right that the gun does not go off. Curtis Sittenfeld at the New York Times.

Death in Brunswick

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A Daniel Pollock segue from Romper Stomper. His role is very small here, and this is a long way from decent. Zöe Carides was so young and winsome in her faltering attempts to bootstrap an acting career. Sam Neill looked a lot like Hugo Weaving, and didn't quite fit as the leading man. John Clarke had hair and dug graves for a living. His locution remains immortal. It's not very funny or anything in particular: Melbourne circa 1990, lots of fibro housing, gorgeous Greek girls a novelty, ethnic gangs a problem, violence a bit unpredictable, mothers smothering sons. I dunno, maybe nothing has changed, certainly little has been learnt.

Steven Sherrill: The Minotaur takes his own sweet time.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break while migrating to Sweden in September 2003. Well, here we are thirteen years later, somewhat wised up, and if there was magic in that conceit then, it is exhausted now. Sherrill mostly passes up the possibilities of a quiet meditation on the modern age, perhaps because he focuses so closely on a Pennsylvania I had no priors about. The events are sparse and mostly generic.

Allan Gurganus got into it for the New York Times.

The Night Of

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For Riz Ahmed, and John Turturro, and I guess Bill Camp too. A long well-produced but underwritten HBO miniseries mining a familiar vein: did he or didn't he violently murder a girl he just met? The scriptwriters try to reduce that to who-cares, and what they serve up instead is perhaps an advertisement for a second go around if it weren't for the sheer exhaustion of Turturro's bottom-feeding lawyer and corporate newbie Amara Karan. (I was a little surprised that her Hindi went over so well with a Pakistani family, but what do I know.) Glenne Headly is solid as the soulless crusader lawyer. I didn't really get into any of the jailbirds or the cops, apart from Camp's ruminative retiring detective. The characters kept me going but the early hope for the plot evaporated as diverse themes kept being pushed to the fore. I see James Gandolfini was involved in the production just before his passing; had he lived this may have been something even more open-ended and diffuse, like The Sopranos, rather than a mess that is implausibly semi-resolved.

What I really want is for Ahmed to do something that doesn't start with him being victimized. Ultimately it just fades away.

Carl Hiaasen: Razor Girl.

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Kindle. This is a bit of a crime caper which spins out of control while the author amuses himself with capsule biographies, reality TV and general craziness in southern Florida. I found myself laughing at it (mostly wondering how he expected to get away with the repetitive corniness, the formulaic humour) and with it in equal measure. Nothing really sticks though: the characters tend to stereotypes and coincident is manufactured as needed.

Janet Maslin. I'm a little surprised that she didn't react to the objectification of Merry, and to a less extent, Deb. Terrence Rafferty. Both are fans of his earlier work, and led me to believe this would be more fun than it was.

Charles Yu: Fable at the New Yorker.

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A short I missed from earlier in the year. Maybe I should resubscribe to their RSS feeds.

Magnificent 7

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Odeon 5, 3:30pm session, $11.00. I guess I was hoping for a superhuman effort from Denzel, and he somewhat delivered (when he could) with some mildly amusing dialogue. Chris Pratt perhaps exemplified the generic soullessness of this movie with his absurd posturing (was he trying to be cool?). Going by the short they put on before, he seems to have eclipsed Bradley Cooper in whatever demographic they target. The town is indeed destroyed in order for it to be saved, even though it starts seriously diminished from the previous rapes and pillages. The whole project is archaic, and mutilating the theme music I remember from my childhood doesn't make the slightest difference.

Manohla Dargis damned it faintly.

Peter Corris: The Dying Trade.

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Kindle. Peter Corris blogs as the godfather at The Newtown Review of Books, and tends to bang on about a Sydney that is dead to all bar those with sweet timing and/or an inheritance. His prose is workmanlike (taking a cue from academic writing; I think it may be genre) and he goes to the limit with similes. I don't know if the plot really held together, and the deductive logic seemed driven more by the need of geographic variation than soundness. There are tons of cliches and the odd greasy touch up that feels forced and obligatory. He gestures at the airport novels of the day (Forsyth) but passes up the opportunity for criticism. I guess if you were bored with the academy in the mid-70s after a PhD in history at the ANU, bending big-city crime writing to the Australia of the day was a pretty good way to go.

Romper Stomper

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A middling entry from the golden years of Australian movies that I remember from my youth, which in retrospect was more about tax breaks than halcyon artistic days. I was prompted to dig it up due to the (ex-Footscray, now Western?) Bulldogs winning the flag for the first time in more than fifty years, and have always held this one up as Russell Crowe's best performance, in that he seemed as natural here as Nicole Kidman was in To Die For. Well, perhaps not. Geoffrey Wright leans heavily on A Clockwork Orange and the Hong Kong kung fu fantasies of victimhood of the local Vietnamese community. I just noticed that one of the girls (one of those given very stilted dialogue) took her fashion cues from Harley Quinn. There was a lot of pain here for Daniel Pollock as Davey. Dan Wyllie looks young and clueless. I've always had a soft spot for Jacqueline McKenzie, hamming it up here a touch as a spoilt epileptic schoolgirl.

Everyone is so young! ... but it doesn't add up to a lot. The small amount of dodgy skinhead philosophizing seems redundant, as most are clearly in it for the lifestyle. The material is stretched too thin, and none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Some elements got reused in This is England, such as the underage skinhead getting his end in, which makes this seem less a record of a particularly unpleasant Melbournian subculture than a generic exploitation flick.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes.

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Emily Eakin at the New York Times sold it to me, and now I'll have to read his earlier The Welsh Girl too. She's right that the first of the four stories about the Chinese experience of America is the strongest, perhaps because Davies invests so much in his invented central character whose privileged position allows a wide exploration of the Chinese diaspora and sundry railwaymen of late nineteenth century California. The others are more fictionalized history, of Anna May Wong, film star; Vincent Chin, murderee, written in hand wringing Remains of the Day style; and of adopting babies in present-day China. The prose is solid but doesn't achieve the crystalline precision of Atticus Lish, which makes things seem less necessary.