peteg's blog

Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest. (1929)

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Kindle. I found it a bit strange. Having been hired out of San Francisco to investigate a murder, our unnamed first-person narrator decides for reasons unknown to clean up Personville (or in a Looney Tunes accent, Poisonville) which is apparently not too far from Ogden and Salt Lake City in Utah. It has all the tropes: the busted police department, the mob, the godfather, the gamblers, boxers, a solitary femme fatale, many shootups/outs, love triangles and so on. There are a few elements of Basic Instinct. Despite terminal issues with their operation the mob doesn't send help. As far as I remember Hammett doesn't develop a few of his named, notionally central characters: Lew Yard for instance.

The narrator always seems to know more than he's told us and that gets annoying. The episodic resolutions reflect its serialized form and suggest that Hammett made it up as he went along; the ultimate ending is nothing very special. I think his use of the third person and tighter control of the overall narrative arc in The Maltese Falcon was more successful.

Goodreads. The source of many a movie.

Creation Stories (2021)

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It's like they got some of the old Trainspotting team together (again) for another go-round of the good old early days of eckies and house music. In some ways it's an obvious complement to 24 Hour Party People — gestured at here via a slagging off of Joy Division who weren't signed with Creation Records.

Ewen Bremner plays Alan McGee and does what he can with what a script that is bereft of fun. You can see Irvine Welsh's and Danny Boyle's fingerprints on some of the stock scenes, especially the toilet fixation and sombre family moments. Thomas Thurgoose gives the numpty performance that you'd expect from his mien, which is a massive step down from what Shane Meadows got out of him. Suki Waterhouse's performance as an American journalist goes against the grain of the whole project. So many scenes just don't work. And who said failure was an orphan? — the list of producers and people in producer-adjacent roles in the opening credits is endless. But most devastating to the whole thing: I'm guessing you could count the number of people who want to revisit Britpop, Oasis, New Labour, Tony Blair (etc) on one hand.

Glenn Kenny: reverb set to high. Simran Hans: two stars of five.

Un Flic (A Cop) (1972)

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More Melville completism. This one is notionally about Alain Delon's Parisian policeman but of course more screen time is spent on the heists. The demimonde is cursorily drawn and essentially embodied by Catherine Deneuve. She appears to share herself with Delon and arch crim Richard Crenna but the whole thing is entirely sexless despite the acres of flesh on show at her nightclub. In colour.

Both heists are more pedestrian than those Melville has showed us before (e.g., Le Cercle Rouge). Initially we're on the Atlantic Coast at some deserted condo with just one thing open: a bank. (It put me in mind of Louis Malle's Atlantic City, perhaps also because Deneuve has some of the aspect of Susan Sarandon.) Notionally they're after the mountain of payroll cash but how can that be when there's nobody around? The special effects for the second heist (on a train entered via a helicopter) were not very convincing. Crenna spends most of his time in that sequence getting dressed... who would bother now? Nothing is made of the mountain of white powder he recovers; perhaps it stands for the changing of the times.

Delon did OK as the dissolute cop. There's a beaut interlude where he serenades Deneuve on the piano at her club, where the movie gestures at what could've been. The ending is a bust, much like Le deuxième souffle: everyone was too smart to be that dumb.

Le deuxième souffle (Second Wind) (1966)

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And yet more Melville completism. This one was highly rated at IMDB, but then again most of his films are. In black and white. "Souffle" is apparently also a word in English for something breath related and not about the dessert.

This one is lengthy and not as sharp as the others of his I've seen. It's a heist flick (surprise) where the main character (played by Lino Ventura) is a prison escapee (surprise). Notionally it's about police brutality (Parisian Commissaire Paul Meurisse is a bit above it all but Marseilles Inspector Paul Frankeur knows the value of a good phone book) and a man wanting to restore his honour whatever the cost. "Manouche" Christine Fabréga runs a night club (surprise) and seems more enamoured of her brother than any other man. But the character portraits are not so strong here and I couldn't bring myself to care.

Strangely the crims now drive a large Mercedes and not a yank tank.

Mo' Better Blues (1990)

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More Spike Lee completism, prompted by Wesley Snipes. He's solid in a minor role and takes it to Denzel Washington every chance he gets. The rest of the cast is also very good excepting perhaps Lee himself as always. In an early scene he's acted off the screen by a passive Washington but the whole thing is redeemed by Lee's inability to hide his smirk or grin: he's so stoked to have pulled these stars. And soon enough he gets to indulge his love of a good pile-on (which he soon expanded to feature length in Jungle Fever).

The story centres on Washington's jazz/blues trumpeter making a living at a Jewish-operated nightclub run by John and Nicholas John Turturro. Snipes plays the saxophones, Giancarlo Esposito is on the piano. The musical interludes cut things up like School Daze. When not at the club he somehow manages to satisfy two ladies for a while until they get sick of being in the way of his trumpeting. Cynda Williams wants her singing career and she wants it now and isn't too bothered if Snipes proves the better vector. After some violence provoked by Lee's gambling compulsions Lee regular Joie Lee resists the damaged Washington's hard word but in a 25th Hour-ish outro it all comes full circle. That ending is lame, too much like a cast party.

I struggled to understand the point of it beyond what's on the tin: this is black music but the crowd is white. Fair enough but in 1990 I suspect the crowds were at R'n'B and hip hop gigs someplace else. There's also the time-honoured observation that the souffle doesn't rise twice, and it seems, contra Leonard Cohen, that you can get a girl back by begging ... though perhaps not on your knees?

Roger Ebert: three stars. Uninspired. Vincent Canby in meta-review mode: a response to Clint Eastwood's Bird. Not in the same league as Do the Right Thing. Washington is a professional, a working man, just like the boys in White Men Can't Jump. Lee felt the need to defend his Jewish characters. And so on.

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon. (1930)

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Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: "Well, Wilmer, I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but — well, by Gad! — if you lose a son it's possible to get another — and there’s only one Maltese falcon."

Kindle. Prompted by the Bogart adaptation and the lack of promise in anything newer on the stack. First time around with Hammett. It's mostly a novel-length character study of Sam Spade which is more show than tell; I guess these were the days before things got so psychological. He doesn't do much more than show up, cogitate (we don't get to hear his thoughts) and provoke other people to tell him more than they want to — in other words it's essentially a script for a talkie. There's a lot of detail in the descriptions and apart from the incessant smoking all of it points away from casting Bogart. Set in San Francisco.

Immediately afterwards I read Hammett's Spade shorts A Man Called Spade, Too Many Have Lived and They Can Only Hang You Once. None are as good as the novel but all passed the time. Hammett is addictive but perhaps not that satisfying.


Punch Drunk Love (2002)

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Third time around with this P.T. Anderson misfire. I've softened on Adam Sandler after Uncut Gems but even so there's not enough going on here. Things are perhaps oversimplified by Emily Watson's lack of a character: she's keen on him and that's that. More Philip Seymour Hoffman might've helped, or Luis Guzmán. Still too many pratfalls?

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars, probably because this was Sandler's most modulated performance to then. IMDB trivia: Anderson got the best director award at Cannes 2002 but missed out on the Palme d'Or. A. O. Scott: a Critic's Pick. Peter Bradshaw gave it just three stars of five: a strange, insubstantial little film with so many problems. A love story made from neon candyfloss.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

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The first of Melville's features and of course inevitable after Le Doulos. It's another black-and-white noir set amongst the contemporary gambling dens of Montmartre. The heist this time involves the Casino Barrière in Deauville which Google suggests is about 200km away.

Roger Duschesne has the classic dial, presence and gambling compulsion to lead. He drives a massive yank tank convertible (a Packard I read) and keeps the police at a comfortable distance while notionally schooling his protege Daniel Cauchy with help from friends and enemies in the demimonde. One of Bob's opsec axioms is that women are never to be trusted (excepting Simone Paris's barmaid) but street walking Isabelle Corey's foxy nonchalance puts the lie to that. The bulk of it is agreeable and somewhat workmanlike until things unwind in a satisfying final movement.

Roger Ebert: four stars as a "great movie" in 2003. The scene where the high-tech safe cracking is intercut with a panting German Shepherd was endearingly weird. Vincent Canby made it a Critic's Pick in 1981.

David and Lisa (1962)

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Yet another pointer from Matthew Spektor. Directed by Frank Perry and adapted by his wife Eleanor from raw material provided by Theodore Isaac Rubin. Both got Oscar noms for their efforts. Black and white. On the pile for quite a while.

Keir Dullea plays a teenager who thinks that being touched by another human causes death. He's otherwise quite rational so I wondered why he couldn't cure himself by observing that he always survives contact at least as far as we're shown. His parents park him in a home for psychological movie making not too dissimilar from the one where Hitchcock squandered Ingrid Bergman. There he has the incredible fortune to meet Janet Margolin who conspires with him, chastely, in mutual cures.

I enjoyed the bit players the most despite all the inmates being far too old for their roles. Blonde Coni Hudak rolls her eyes at pants man Jaime Sánchez (a prototype for the Fondz or John Travolta who went on to big things) while hoping for more from Dullea. As for Dullea this is essentially a dry run for his canonical performance in 2001; you can see why Stanley Kubrick picked him as he turns on a dime from detached earnest inertness to fiery contemptuous aggression and back again. He looks a bit like the classic photo of Alan Turing too, which doesn't hurt. Margolin works hard to show us the girl lost in her head. The sculpture scene at a museum is a bit heartbreaking.

Bosley Crowther: "crudely but courageously played".

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms. (1929)

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Kindle. Not as good as For Whom the Bell Tolls. As the tin says Hemingway takes us autofictionally to the Italy v. Austria front of World War I. The first-person narrator is an Italian-American ambulance driver/organiser who doesn't get much driving in. He's keen on the ladies and gets an English rose interested; initially he puts up a fight emotionally (let's just get physical) but the nurse's self-deluding/abnegating chatter and submissive willingness wears him down. (She regrets not having got it on with the now-dead love-of-her-life.) After Hemingway exhausts us with lengthy and recurring bouts of the idleness and boredom of war, they end up in Switzerland, eventually Montreux. This isn't something I'd usually wish on anyone but the parts adjacent to Italy and France do sound civilised. It's readily affordable if you have a family that keeps sending you money to feed your alcoholism and obliviousness. There's a touch of Samuel Beckett in his self talk.

Goodreads. Yep, the girlfriend was a doormat, which made me expect more parallels to be drawn with Twilight. Not a love story. The connection the narrator has with Doctor Rinaldi is well drawn.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

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And yet more Wesley Snipes completism. I've previously ignored him as I had no interest in his later-1990s action-Jackson work that I had heard about. Apparently this put him and Woody Harrelson on the A-list. Tyra Ferrell is solid as Snipes's wife, as is Rosie Perez as Harrelson's too-smart squeeze. It's mostly an amusing take on the pickup basketball scene at and near Venice Beach in L.A. — played mostly for money, sometimes for hustles, entirely for the amusing trash talk. The beach itself does not feature. The plot is little more than fortune-made, fortune-/girl-lost and is not that successful at finding relevance for its strong women.

Ron Shelton wrote and directed in a similar way to how John Singleton handled Boyz N The Hood. I guess the equivalent of Ice Cube there are the NBA stars here. Drugs and guns are present but downplayed, just there in the background.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Men at work. Janet Maslin: a benign atmosphere. The folk wisdom is hokum. IMDB trivia: must've been a fun shoot.

Jungle Fever (1991)

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A bit of Spike Lee completism which I'd avoided previously due to the low IMDB rating. A Wesley Snipes jag from Witness. He's got a lot more to work with here and is a lot better for it. Tyra Ferrell from Boyz n the Hood flirts with an otherwise unlucky-in-love John Turturro who is the subject of many pile-ons. She had a big 1991. Also same-old Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Robbins, Brad Dourif, Frank Vincent, Michael Imperioli, a very young and histrionic/druggy Halle Berry, an antique Anthony Quinn (who I'll watch do anything). The theme song is by Stevie Wonder. Spike Lee's squeeze Veronica Webb has a Shar Pei!

The excess of ingredients cannot make up for the lack of ideas. The central conceit is in the title: for unspecified reasons happily-married-with-young-daughter architect Snipes decides to bonk temp Annabella Sciorra on his drafting table late one night. The remainder deals with the fallout with a variety of hot takes and underbaked explorations of the support networks and sexual politics. What would I know but I got the impression it was more Southern (Ossie Davis as the preacher-father, the stories of Italians getting lynched for dealing with Blacks in Louisiana, ...) than 1980s NYC.

So yeah, not a patch on Lee's sharper work on similar topics from the same period (e.g. Do the Right Thing).

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. The central romance doesn't work but the surrounding stuff does. The Taj Mahal ("It's like the Trump Towers for crackheads around here") sequence is pretty good. Samuel G. Freedman at the New York Times.

Dwight Garner: The Upstairs Delicatessen. (2023)

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Kindle. Notionally an autobiography / bibliography by New York Times books man Garner with a side of food. I remain thankful for his pointers to Paul Beatty, Atticus Lish and especially Francis Spufford but since 2015 he's given me mostly bum steers, and so it goes here: after an amusing introduction things rapidly bog down in gobbets engineered for short attention spans.

Perhaps the central flaw for me is that a lot of it falls into the uncanny valley of having been almost read before: much of the material (quotes and opinions) appeared in his New York Times reviews. He tends to return to the same authors a bit too often, specifically on the topic of Asian cooking where he leans heavily on Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer, The Committed — where's that final entry in the trilogy?). I guess Garner's project here is very similar to Andrew X. Pham's A Culinary Odyssey: My Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors, and Memories of Southeast Asia which (at least) has healthier aspects. As far as I remember African cooking isn't mentioned. Australia is represented by Les Murray.

He is similarly limited in his account of coffee: too many words are spilt on Starbucks. I saw no mention of the best of the South: the soups (I have fond memories of jambalaya and gumbo). I wanted to hear more about growing up in West Virginia and Florida. There's no posturing with typewriters or fountain pens — it appears his book duties are hard sedentary labour. He remains an unabashed fan of Chistopher Hitchens. There's a bit too much social and dinner party chaff, characterization-by-product.

Jennifer Reese had the thankless task of reviewing it for the New York Times. Goodreads.

Ferrari (2023)

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Michael Mann's latest and a fair way from his best. I felt the topic — a bunch of events in a tumultuous year of motor racing/manufacturer Enzo Ferrari's life — falls into the uncanny valley for me: either you're a fan and know all about it or you're not in which case nothing seems all that significant. It doesn't function as a biopic.

Adam Driver leads in his second effort at playing a famous Italian (his first being in House of Gucci, unseen by me). It was very weird to pair him with decade-older Penélope Cruz whose vastly more capacious emotional range unbalanced more than one climactic scene. Mistress Shailene Woodley's accent wobbled all over the globe. It is hinted that the drivers have personalities. Most of the movie is mere filler in between Cruz's scenes, especially the well shot but strangely airless car race. The ending is abrupt.

I had to wonder why Mann didn't try to find more Italians for the main roles; I guess he needed American stars to secure funding.

Widely reviewed of course. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Mann last year and, while being very chuffed to do so, concluded Mann didn't land this one. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. She dug the racing scenes. Sandra Hall: "[Driver's is a] performance which effectively answers all those who have criticised Mann for not casting an Italian actor." I don't agree! "And in the end, Ferrari himself is not as fascinating as Mann thinks he is." Luke Goodsell. Wendy Ide: Driver is "curiously muted and bloodless." Dead right. And so on.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

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Apparently I saw this about twenty years ago. Prompted by the realisation that Larry Fishburne was in it (and didn't he get fat soon enough!). His role is Cuba Gooding Jr's dad and their thread is pure father/son how-to-be-a-man, putting me in mind of Moonlight though things are more violent here but not graphically so. All the neighbourhood mothers find the pair irresistible. Angela Bassett does fine in very little screen time as his mum. There's something powerfully inert in Ice Cube: he wasn't going anywhere and nobody is touching his brother. The cast is generally well used and excellent.

The story is getting out of the South Central L.A. ghetto (adjacent to or coincident with Compton) with a side of getting into your girl's pants (Nia Long's in this case, who puts up a Catholic fight as she was taught to do). Things move fluidly from event to event with some great details: a postman arrives with the mail after a mother breaks up her brawling boys, played be writer/director John Singleton. He constantly injects these jarring normalities into the gangland. And also things that just jar, like helicopter search lights.

I enjoyed it immensely up to the last 30 minutes or so when the logic of character and male friendship gave way to the needs of plot.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Janet Maslin: a critic's pick (!). It inevitably invited comparisons with Spike Lee's east-coast Do The Right Thing.

The 39 Steps (1935)

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Prompted by a mediocre article on "ethical espionage" by Tamsin Shaw, which was about state-based intelligence agencies and did not mention the role of whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Julian Assange, or journalists in general. Also some idle Hitchcock completism.

In black-and-white, of course, and as well made as you'd expect from the master. Given the date I figured it for one of his first but actually it's about a third the way through his feature film career. (IMDB trivia says twenty-second of 69.) Unfortunately the story was weak: a MacGuffin (spoiler: it is immaterial what the MacGuffin is) took lead Robert Donat from a raucous entertainment hall in London to the Highlands of Scotland on the Flying Scotsman ... or was it the Highland Express? ... and back again in a motorcar. Notionally Canadian, he snogged every woman he encountered though his costar Madeleine Carroll needed to be handcuffed to him for most of their encounter. She got into it towards the end, despite being married (?). Hotelier Helen Haye was chuffed to indulge a young couple so much in love.

Much of it could've been sponsored by the tourism board of Scotland except for the handling of some Scottish tropes. Crofter John Laurie humorlessly and faithlessly demanded money in return for protecting Donat from the police; I had expected some finesse or reliability there. His unhappy wife Peggy Ashcroft pined for the streets of Glasgow. I did not understand the origins of Godfrey Tearle's Professor or why he ended up in such a remote locale, trusted by the cream of the local society — so much for the canniness of the Scots.

Based on a book by John Buchan. Widely loved at the Guardian. Thomas Dawson: five stars, "arguably director Alfred Hitchcock's finest British film." There have been a few stage productions of it this century.

Last Stop Larrimah (2023)

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I picked this one by mistake, thinking it was by the ABC journos who made "Larrimah" synonymous with "missing man Paddy Moriarty" via news stories, books, podcasts, miniseries, whatever. Nope, this was American director Thomas Tancred looking for the next Crocodile Dundee or Gates of Heaven. I'll bet he hasn't even watched the cane toad docos.

I haven't been following the story closely but I don't think there's anything substantially new here. Perhaps the archival footage dredged from the vaults of the ABC? Tancred presents the town essentially as a freak show and then tries to add poignancy as individuals succumb to cancer and old age. Ultimately it's just sad — there's no redemption, just a good old hate from each of the players and a dash of bewilderment from the newcomer mechanics. And the people are not that interesting. I have to wonder what the Czech couple now running the pub were fleeing.

Steve Vivian at the ABC, always happy to help with the flogging of a dead horse. Nicolas Rapold: poorly structured, gamed the presentation of crucial evidence. The town is dead guys, the story done, just let it be.

The Limits of Control (2009)

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This one has been on the pile since it got released, partly because the reviews were dire. I watched it in two sittings but not for any particular reason.

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch brings us to Spain. Mysterious lead Isaach De Bankolé (dial strikingly familiar but I'm not sure from what) then takes us from Madrid to Seville and on to Almería, stopping off for coffee (two espressos in separate cups) and cigarettes (other people smoke) vignettes initiated with an instantly irritating "habla español" refrain and featuring an exchange of old school matchboxes, some containing diamonds. We don't actually see him ever finish the two espressos, and as he's mute for almost the entire running time it's unclear what we're supposed to learn from these scenes. Given that his interlocutors are named actors (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Bill Murray) things fall into an uncanny valley of too much talk, not enough character, no overarching narrative and no action. Bankolé echoes Forest Whitaker in Jarmusch's earlier and far more successful Ghost Dog by having a creed, albeit one so minimally sketched it may as well not exist. This is all very annoying as there is plenty to make something out of excepting the fundamental conceit.

Otherwise there are some good shots of airports, trains, plantations, mountains — as you'd hope for from cinematographer Christopher Doyle. There's the odd burst of sonic excellence to go with his moving images. Overall I did enjoy it, albeit idly as Jarmusch completism.

Roger Ebert: half a star. Even Clint Eastwood's Man with no Name had more to say. Dana Stevens. Pretentious! Manohla Dargis. Everyone was so bored.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. (1899)

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Kindle. Standard Ebook edition. Perhas the third time around with this classic. The ambiguities, inspecifities and vagueness bothered me less though I still got stuck on such basics as whether Marlow was specifically commissioned to remove Kurtz — we're not exactly told but that's all he does. I was a bit more prepared to accept Conrad's game of personifying extractive European colonisation in the Congo and therefore was less put out by all the claims made about Kurtz that are not substantiated, such as his oratory powers.

There's also the question of locations and routes. Obviously we start on the Thames and Marlow proceeded down the west coast of Africa, past the erstwhile French colonies, and up the Congo River to the Belgian outposts that were accumulating ivory. I expect the sepulchral city was and is Brussels. I was at a loss as to where his boat left from, it being French: Brussels, or perhaps Marseilles? It struck me that the company he worked for was overly dependent on other organisations and people for getting dirty work done.

The Orson Welles broadcast from 1938 is available at the Internet Archive. I'd forgotten that Patchett's State of Wonder is a reimagining.

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar. (1968)

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Kindle. Second time around. I couldn't help noticing how much William Gibson cloned for the last two-thirds of the Neuromancer trilogy. Apparently this belongs to the genre of social science fiction.