peteg's blog

Wuthering Heights (1939)

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A Laurence Olivier jag from Marathon Man. A classic costume drama in luxurious, Oscar-winning black and white. I read the book a long time ago and recall only its skeleton.

The story proper starts with some excruciating child acting overlaid with the kind of upbeat American music intended to evoke paradisial sproghood. After that the chronology gets a bit difficult to follow as the adult actors/characters do not visibly age, and so I experienced the rest as a series of set-piece encounters between the star crossed lovers which amount to little more than cliché: either the actress playing Cathy (Merle Oberon) was really bad, or the character doesn't translate to the screen, or her accent was off, or something. Olivier's Heathcliff is to the manor borne by currents of American wealth (represented by fine clothes, a horse and a continuing absence of manners). Servants apparently last forever. There are dogs everywhere. Eventually Cathy carks it for the convenience of the plot, releasing us too from its death grip; I'm glad I didn't have to sit through another generation of these characters.

I remember vaguely feeling that the novel doesn't justify the assertions that Heathcliff is dark, evil, etc. by his actions, at least by modern standards; in other words it was all nineteenth-century fake news. Similarly the source material had a kind of virginal perfection to it that slips through the fingers of the vacuous, grasping idle classes here. John Quiggin grimly observes that we're all going to have to get with that program now.

The Enemy Below

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Robert Mitchum completism. Once again it's World War II and the Greatest Generation is showing us how it's done, this time in colour and without excess moralising. Mitchum captains an American destroyer that encounters a German U-boat in a region of the southern Atlantic within a day's sailing of Trinidad (i.e., nowhere). After some vintage stagey posturing in a slow first movement we get a taut chess match with some nice work from Curd Jürgens as the U-boat captain. It's nowhere close to Das Boot but the special effects did win the 1957 Oscar. Mitchum is at peak everyman here: war is just what blokes do. Jürgens anachronistically opines that it has become all too mechanistic.

The Yakuza

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A Robert Mitchum jag from recent things. Before Kill Bill rendered Japsploitation obsolete there was this effort, vintage even in 1972. After some sketchy setup in L.A. the main players move to Tokyo for what I took to be a series of cultural education scenes. The pace is soporific. Yank tanks on the streets of Japan? Running guns to the Yakuza? Transparent twists? Cultural appropriation? They get down to business in the last third and finally let us go do something else.

The Yakuza side of things is all twisty with rules, honour, customs, swords, violence personalized, family, etc. The American side is classic extremist vengeance: let's not concern ourselves with those great Western tropes (law, justice, monogamy, etc. — especially the etc.) for we have the guns. Fortunately the local fixer reassures us that the local cops care less than we do. Director Sydney Pollack has form for this sort of exotic vacuity.

Roger Ebert at the time. For some reason Wikipedia has tons of details.

Marathon Man

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A strange thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. If I got this right, in 1976 Hoffman was tortured and half-killed by Nazi "White Angel" Olivier (in a switcheroo from The Boys from Brazil), up in NYC from Uruguay to cash his diamonds personally after his daigou brother's fatal car accident involving an equally obnoxious Jew. As far as I could tell this was entirely pointless as Hoffman was no more involved than black ops agent William Devane made him; I mean, Devane's entire role seemed to be to talk the plot to him and us as an in-frame narrator. Marthe Keller played the Marta Hari, literally, but woe, she cannot control her emotions. Before we got to that Hoffman's brother Roy Scheider swanned around Europe for quite a while doing god knows what. Why Olivier walked the Holocaust-survivor-filled jewel markets of NYC expecting impunity eluded me. And so forth. I grant that the acting is solid.

IMDB rates it 7.5/10 but it's a lot more vacuous than that: the moral is to keep a loaded automatic handgun in your desk draw at all times, especially if you're a history grad student at Columbia.

Roger Ebert was similarly defeated.

Crossfire

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A bad boy Robert Ryan jag from The Outfit, Robert Mitchum from the Chandlers, Gloria Grahame from The Man Who Never Was. A heavily moralising noir from 1947. Some soldiers meet some people at a bar, a couple of murders ensue, the bad guy did it. Don't be racist, OK. The plot is more talked than developed. Robert Young did put in an enjoyable performance.

The Outfit

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Robert Duvall, and somewhere in there, Jane Greer. A buddy revenge flick: Duvall gets out of the can, his brother buys the farm, he and old partner Joe Don Baker dismantle the operation that they blundered into. His main squeeze Karen Black isn't allowed to get too much in the way of the men and doesn't hold a grudge against some vintage chauvinism. Robert Ryan smolders. I didn't follow all the salients. Nicely shot. Loads of muscle cars. 1973.

Vincent Canby: "a 30-Year-Late B Movie From M-G-M". Roger Ebert saw more in it, somehow. He's right about the shady car dealers.

The Big Sleep (1978)

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Robert Mitchum reprises the role of Philip Marlowe; Sarah Miles, paired with him in Ryan's Daughter, plays a jazzy weekend. The classically labyrinthine Chandler story is streamlined and relocated to England, which at least allowed for a stellar British cast. So many foxy ladies: Joan Collins fends at a dodgy bookshop, while Candy Clark stars in what they're selling out back. Jimmy Stewart is the mostly dead Big Daddy. Oliver Reed threatens but never follows through. It's very poorly rated on IMDB, but not that bad; I grant it gets a bit Midsomer Murders at times. Some of it familiar but I'm pretty sure I haven't seen it before.

Roger Ebert liked it less than Mitchum's previous effort. Janet Maslin was also unconvinced.

Farewell, My Lovely

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Robert Mitchum plays Philip Marlowe. This one was made in 1975 but has its gaze firmly on Bogart's 1940s: there's loads of neon and arty cinematography. The customary overly-complex plot is neatly tidied up in the last 5 minutes. Charlotte Rampling appears as a foxy young thing. Jack O'Halloran is somehow mesmerising as the almost wordless Moose Malloy. The IMDB rating doesn't do it justice: there's a lot to like here.

Roger Ebert got right into it at the time.

The Long Goodbye

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Third time around, another four years later. Altman, Elliott Gould, what a fun and perfect intro: a hungry cat climbing all over him at 3am in old Los Angeles. Writer Sterling Heydon (cloning Hemingway) looks like Nick Nolte with screwed up eyes, a sandpaper voice, histrionics. Quack Henry Gibson propped up the bar in Magnolia many years later. The plot gets talked out in the closing ten minutes or so, and again I'm pretty sure I have no idea what's really going on, but it doesn't matter. Arnie appears in one of his first roles.

IMDB points me to other Chandler adaptations of that era (1970s). Mitchum!

Roger Ebert: three stars at the time, four stars in 2006. Vincent Canby.

The Animatrix

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Apparently there's a fourth Matrix movie in the works, which prompted me to dig up this one which I hadn't seen despite it being from 2003. It's entirely, unimaginatively, meh; the stories are told to far more effect in far fewer words in the live-action movies.

Brazil

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Second (or more) time around with this Terry Gilliam classic from 1985. It's all so very 1984, replete with totalitarian tropes that become more the lived experience by the year: domestic terrorism and the state's responses, the suspension of habeas corpus and detaining people without notification, the use of government databases to chase romantic partners (eternal, I'm sure), extreme kleptocratic nepotism, endless ducts, faulty heating and so forth. All this goes to show that the real bureaucrats and crony capitalists lack imagination. Then again the working-class Buttles live in what is now a palace, not a human filing cabinet or a concrete box in the sky. Gilliam has an actual bug confusing official identities and we get similar mistakes and more in our robustly electronic world.

There are loads of famous names in the cast, none particularly well used. Some of it is quite fun, with the odd awesome bit of dreamy cinematography. Things stall when the plot needs developing.

Janet Maslin got into it at the time. Roger Ebert not so much.

The Flight of the Phoenix

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Second time around with this somewhat amiable stranded-in-the-desert Jimmy Stewart vehicle from 1965. It's not entirely gripping. I wonder what they were doing between the bouts of frenetic effort. It's not that boring either.

Bosley Crowther found it all too implausible. Of course it is, but come on. I grant him that shooting the camel and not eating it was lame.

The Man Who Never Was

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A Clifton Webb jag from Laura, in colour in 1956. A somewhat fussy World War II military procedural that tries to become a thriller in the third act with an IRA angle. The English (or the Brits, or whoever, but definitely the English) are looking to mislead the Germans about the location of their pending invasion of the Continent; anywhere but Sicily will do. Clearly the only thing that will work is is to inject a dead Scot onto a Spanish beach, loaded with papers. Wikipedia has all the details. Gloria Grahame can't hide her accent; I wasn't sure if she was supposed to be American or a local girl; the soporific pace gives you heaps of time to worry such details. Cyril Cusack is a familiar Irish everyman.

Bosley Crowther at the time. Should have been even more black-and-white, he says.

Laura

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Second time around with this Preminger / Gene Tierney 1944 black-and-white classic. I enjoyed it just as much, and like Roger Ebert couldn't remember whodunit; it somehow doesn't matter. He's also right that it makes little sense. Clifton Webb camps it up in fine style.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

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Opening day at The Ritz, 4.30pm, Cinema 1, downstairs 6 rows from front, 10 AUD. Supposedly a 35mm print but I can't say I noticed. Perhaps a third full. Upstairs was open too.

Tarantino's latest is nostalgia for America's glory days of the late 1960s, a sort of whitewashed greatest hits for MAGA types to aim for. Men were men, cars were Cadillacs with fins that got three miles to the gallon, women were dreamy, and you could light up anywhere. (The cigarette ad over the credits was deeply weird.) Murder was still random but violence was generally more personal than today's mass shootings. Di Caprio and Pitt buddy it up. Westerns, Spaghetti and American, are showered with various cackhanded honours. Robbie eventually gets upholstered and doesn't move like a pregnant lady. The Chekhovian devices are legion (a dog, tins of dog food, Robbie, ...) but none fail more dismally than an acid-laced cigarette, except perhaps for Pacino as a movie executive. It's amiable, ingratiating, introspective, self-absorbed, and has you wondering if Tarantino can go the (lengthy) distance without graphic violence; he almost makes it. At times the vibe is Altman: Short Cuts or perhaps Nashville, but without the masterful long takes.

I was bored throughout.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. J. Hoberman. Widely reviewed elsewhere.

Philip Caputo: Hunter's Moon.

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Kindle. On the strength of Bruce Barcott's review in the New York Times. It goes as he says. A geography lesson for me: the small towns and highways of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Written in rotating first and third person, but the voices all sound about the same. Elegiac. Lots of guns and danger but surprisingly little present-tense violence, at least if you consider nature to be red in tooth and claw. Remaining men together?

Griffin Theatre: City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt.

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$20 Monday rush ticket plus $4 for the pleasure of booking online just after midday. Packed. More than two hours with an interval. I got there after a late lunch, some hacking at Waverley Library and a birthday freebie coffee at the dear old Verona.

Briefly, NIDA-grad and proud Wongatha (?) man Meyne Wyatt relocates Erskineville Kings to his hometown of Kalgoorlie: he's off shooting a culturally-appropriating ad (change the date, lamb barbeques unite) when his father passes, bringing him back to the lowlevel antagonism of family with brother Mathew Cooper (who was in The Season) and dutiful sister Shari Sebbens; his mum never emerges from the house. There's some dreaming to evoke the backstory and promote the attractions of initiation, a wagtail to tell us bad news is on the way, much Blackfella kvetching leavened with much local inflected humour. The cataclysmic ending was weak.

Jason Blake. And many others.

...And Justice for All

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Third time around with this funny but shallow legal procedural farce. A Jack Warden jag from Everybody Wins. Pacino has a few good moments, as do each of the other cast members I guess. Christine Lahti has the thankless job of talking the plot. I recognised Jeffrey Tambor from The Death of Stalin, and perhaps Craig T. Nelson from that other Pacino legal vehicle, The Devil's Advocate.

Roger Ebert was unimpressed at the time; Vincent Canby even less so.

Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters: Game of Mates: How favours bleed the nation.

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I want either less corruption, or more chance to participate in it.
Ashleigh Brilliant

Kindle. I'm late to this party so I'll keep it brief. Co-written by one of the Club Troppo stalwarts and released back in 2017, this depressing book outlines how much of Australia's common wealth is being soaked up by what we might call network effects amongst the well connected. They observe that it's a perennial problem and that the gains were spread more widely in the days before Hawke and Keating. The examples are generally well chosen — property development, superannuation, universities, etc. — though I think the tax system could have used some scrutiny. The diagnoses seem about right. Their Rawlsian approach of comparing this country's status quo with world-best practice is valuable. Attempting to bust myths is futile.

I'd pick many nits if I was more timely. Their defences of klepto everyman James from attacks on his character are juxtaposed with stuffily moral language. I don't understand why foreign experts would be any more immune to threats to their career than any other public servant. They doxx quite a few users of the revolving doors, which struck me as a bit impolite. I'm skeptical about the experiments they perform and behavioural economics in general. Their prescriptions could be summarised as: put a price on everything. A better book on the mechanisms at work here is Al Roth's.

Very widely reviewed locally. Peter Martin has a very depressing graph that generalises what I was told a while back, viz that the way to make money in this country is to run a government-mandated monopoly. The more circumspect reviewers cast doubt on this and every other point in this book, which is to say, it's business as usual.

2019-08-29: Tamsin Shaw observes that, for mates, it's free markets until you've made your pile then government-mandated monopolies forever after. She does well until she blithely asserts that American (wannabe) oligarchs made their piles legally; might that not be a case of protectionism, and the old saw that behind every great fortune there is a great crime? Legal at the time, of course. Antitrust?

Everybody Wins

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#31 on David Stratton's list of marvellous movies, and by far the worst so far. Written by Arthur Miller as a play and adapted for the screen. Nick Nolte leads as a credulous and sex-starved private dick (Stratton says TV journalist) who is readily suckered by the far more worldly Debra Winger when she asks him to spring a friend incarcerated for a bogus murder conviction. Will Patton does a special kind of menacing but ultimately vacuous crazy. I'm not sure there's a point, but if there is, it's better made in David Lynch's small-town efforts, with Blue Velvet already having set the pace and Twin Peaks not far into the future.

Stratton claims this was an original screenplay but Wikipedia concurs with IMDB.

Vincent Canby at the time.

Foreign Correspondent

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A Hitchcock jag. Not great. It's 1940-ish and wooden, credulous, flat reporter-lead Joel McCrea is sent over to Europe by a NYC newspaper to sort out those foreigners (future Americans?). Laraine Day does as well as she can as the girl to be gotten, alternating passivity with sassy repartee. The ending is as pure a pitch for war bonds as you'll find. Canonical Englishman George Sanders at least seems to be enjoying himself. The Latvians cop it in the neck, as do the Dutch at times.

Bosley Crowther got into it at the time.

Strangers on a Train

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Second or third time around for this Hitchcock classic. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect (and not just for 1951), as is the continual search for the horror in the familiar and omnipresent. Yes, the plot is farfetched and it's not entirely clear why things go as they do. It seems to have fallen out of the IMDB top-250 since I last saw it in 2012.

Roger Ebert in 2004. He tells me Farley Granger was also in Rope. Bosley Crowther was more skeptical at the time; I feel he'd be a lot more thankful if it was released now.

Road to Perdition

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Third time around with this perplexingly poor movie, and I still don't remember a thing — except that American Jesus Tom Hanks goes out dumb. The cast is stellar (Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Dylan Baker in yet another thankless role, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ned Rifle Liam Aiken), cinematographer Conrad L. Hall got an Oscar for his beautiful compositions, but the whole is not much. It's winter 1931, somewhere out in Midwest Irish gangstaland where we're supposed to know prohibition is allowing the speakeasies to do huge business. Two — no three! — sons and the patriarch, and the over-patriarch and so forth try to convince us that the ultraviolent Hanks is doing the decent thing by murdering people so his own family can eat, and later shielding his son from needing to do similar. It's a busted premise. I don't think director Sam Mendes is entirely to blame for its lifelessness.

Roger Ebert. Stephen Holden.

George Saunders: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

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Kindle. Brief and not very frightening as it reads like a fascist scarer of days long dead. Having one group of oppressed people being saved from their oppressors by another group oppressing the oppressors is lame. Conveniently the Führer-figure spontaneously combusts during the intervention. This is the first Saunders effort I've read, and I can see how he might appeal with some funny stuff in the small.

Eric Weinberger is dead right that this sounds like a work out of time.

From Here to Eternity

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Black and White, 1953. An adaptation (bowdlerisation) of a James Jones novel (just like The Thin Red Line), cut to be a US Army promo. A Deborah Kerr jag; strange to see her so young. She does OK with the little she gets to work with. Join the army, get posted to Hawaii... Donna Reed is there waiting for you! IMDB suggests this is the one that Sinatra got his mates to make an offer for that could not be refused. Montgomery Clift does his best as an individual who is a lifer in a collective. Burt Lancaster has a limited range and is exposed here. The famous sexy beach scene was very brief. It concludes with the fallout of the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Oscars all round.

Daniel Nieh: Beijing Payback.

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Kindle. Millennial Chinese gangsta: two sons (just like Madness is Better than Defeat!) separated by an ocean combine to sort out the dregs of their father's business arrangements after his assassination in San Dimas, California. In life he was a legit restaurant magnate, and in death something else. (No, his name is not Robert Paulson.) After some setup in collegetown USA the violence unfurls in Beijing with the denouement via a minor plot flounce back to where it started. The loose ends are left dangling, perhaps in the hope of a deal for a sequel.

This is probably the ethnic lit that Nam Le warned about. The whole thing is overly complicated if the reader ever stops to think, which is not helped by excess discussions of plausibility and hand wringing. It periodically disintegrates. Like David Halberstam, Nieh takes it as axiomatic that the USA is all things to all people, with a US visa being the ultimate bribe. The French journo is a cliche (Bernand Fall?). The femmes are feeble: Nieh cannot inflate sister Jules — sometimes describing her undergrad-level analytic putdown vitriol rather than, you know, just writing it — or sexkitten Wei (an East-meets-West sexpert just like the halfcaste in The Singapore Grip who dominates after taking the initiative, dating this work to now). The vibe is more Hong Kong than mainland, with a nod to the eternal Infernal Affairs and Joe Ide.

For all that I enjoyed it on its own terms. Lauren Wilkinson sold it to me with her review for the New York Times.

An Affair to Remember

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There must be something between us, even if it's only an ocean.
— Cary Grant to Deborah Kerr.

French playboy Cary Grant picks up bar singer Deborah Kerr on a boat from Europe to NYC in colour in 1957. I enjoyed her performance here about as much as in The Night of the Iguana with some snappy dialogue and reversals. The plot goes as you'd expect, which is to say it's annoyingly artificial at times and cloying at others. Another love-letter to mid-1950s American uppercrustiness: marry into it if you can. IMDB tells me it was a remake of Love Affair, also directed my Leo McCarey.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

David Halberstam: The Making of a Quagmire.

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A memoir of his time reporting from Sài Gòn in the early 1960s. So much felt familiar; perhaps he reworked similar material into The Best and the Brightest. I came away thinking that he didn't manage to square the data he dug up, his own analysis and his contention that the USA had to fight this type of communist-containment war, i.e., support regimes and cultures that had little in common with the USA; he falls prey to exactly the same pathology he documents. The postwar European situation is used for contrast but not much is made of the interventions in Korea and Japan. While his Pulitzer-winning journalism was surely a first cut at history, this book had little effect on LBJ's decision to commit American bodies to the quagmire and takes us not very far now. The ongoing war in Afghanistan shows that nothing was learnt. Again the USA does not seem able to successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency, or define a face-saving victory and exit. Again the self-deception is ludicrous. Again the backing of a local strongman did not bear fruit.

That period (1962/63) was a good time to meet John Paul Vann on his way out the door, but apparently too late to get to know Lansdale.

Bernard Fall at the time (1965).