peteg's blog

Scorpio (1973)

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Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster completism, prompted by the Delon retrospective in NYC presently. Aging but not yet decrepit secret-agent lion Lancaster tasks young Turk (and cat fancier!) Delon with one more assassination in photogenic Paris. Afterwards the CIA decides it's time Lancaster retired and who else for the job but his protege Delon? The ladies get pro forma bit parts — there are some sweet but inconsequential scenes between Delon and his sister Mary Maude, and Gayle Hunnicutt and Joanne Linville are asked to do a little bit more — as things generally go as Cold War spy game movies do.

On the plus side it works fine as a time capsule of Washington, Vienna and Paris at the time, and Delon's feline affinity surely cannot be fake. (There are some great cats including a street cat that he chooses as a gift from his girlfriend.) Some of the dialogue is amusingly sharp and the ambiguity of Lancaster's loyalties works to some extent. (Clearly he is loyal to individuals and that is reciprocated.) Paul Scofield has the screen presence to play a Soviet spymaster and makes the most of his limited screentime. The CIA as embodied by John Colicos is implausibly inept.

Delon and Lancaster were paired in The Leopard ten years previously, in 1963. I'd say this continued Lancaster's late-career renaissance which I think we can date to The Swimmer in 1968.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars: dissipated, tried to do too much. But the screenwriters David Rintels and Gerald Wilson wrote some good dialogue! Too similar to director Michael Winner's earlier The Mechanic. Roger Greenspun: Lancaster and Scofield are buddies from the antifascist days. I didn't think it was so bad. IMDB trivia: at the time of filming the production company stayed at the Watergate coincidentally with the famous break in. Lancaster performed his own stunts — I'm sceptical though Delon obviously does. I found Lancaster's blackface/Afro priest hilarious.

Dashiell Hammett: The Collected Dashiell Hammett (1929 to 1951)

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Kindle. As addictive as I expected. Having read all his novels it was time to plough through the shorts. The Continental Op ones did get a bit shallow at times but you have to admire his stamina. The final short The First Thin Man ends on a cliffhanger which makes complete sense when you read at Wikipedia that's it an early draft of The Thin Man.

Most anomalous is the short Tulip apparently first published in 1966. Hammett put all his styles into it and something new; the scattered autobiographical elements, the sharp observations and lack of sleuths suggest an attempt at renewal that didn't eventuate.

Dick Locthe in 2000. Claudia Roth Pierpont in 2002.

Dune (2021) and Dune: Part Two (2024)

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I needed a refresher on the first part as it's been about two-and-a-half years since I saw it. It strikes me now as mostly pose and expound but even so is an improvement on its successor. Notionally I was watching the second part for Florence Pugh but she has an inert, almost nonspeaking role. Christopher Walken does too and yet he somehow out acts Chalamet despite being powerfully, frailly immovable at 80 or so. I felt Flo was as poor a choice for princess material as Rebecca Ferguson was as a concubine but at least Ferguson got to move a bit.

Again the cast is vast and sometimes well used. However the whole show is very derivative of the last few decades of mega movies (I'll spare you an enumeration). It's lengthy and squanders that length with excess repetition; the dream/forecast sequences could've been trimmed down which would've left more room for general story/character/whatever development or a toilet break/intermission. Javier Bardem repeatedly entreating Chalamet to slay him really resonated with me: let's get this over with! Josh Brolin again did what he could with a numpty character; how did they make his smuggler so much less than Han Solo? Austin Butler may yet grow up to be Ryan Reynolds. Dave Bautista is so completely unmodulated it must have been the fault of director Denis Villeneuve. Stellan Skarsgård phoned it in; if they'd got Tom Cruise back into a fat suit instead it would've been worth every penny.

Leaving so many loose threads dangling only make sense if there's going to be a third part. (The scowl on Zendaya's face at the end says there obviously must be a third part.) Introducing mega actresses Léa Seydoux and Anya Taylor-Joy in brief almost-cameos would only be worthwhile if they have larger roles in a third part. There's going to be a third part.

At this point I'd say David Lynch's effort was superior. The main failing here is with casting Chalamet as the lead: the producers needed a Paul who was a bit fruity like Peter O'Toole or Kyle MacLachlan (or Sting without his shirt) or a man who doesn't look so childish next to Brolin and Jason Momoa. Jostling with that for first place is the mythology of the spice which we're shown none of: Bardem, despite having partaken of it all his life, is now a broken-down man, while the Jedi mind tricks of the female cult are acquired by training not (just) drugs. The visions (including those of Paul's sister) are a long way from the spectacle of 2001 or The Tree of Life. And so on and on.

Widely reviewed of course. A critic's pick by Manohla Dargis. Dana Stevens: "each really constituting one-half of a full story arc" — I don't think so! She mistakes gesture for foundation. If the book is from 1965 it is obviously drawing heavily from Lawrence of Arabia. "Like Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga..." — please, let's keep it polite. Jake Wilson: "Neither a zippy adventure nor a metaphysical mind-bender, this Dune has the heaviness of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic." And a partial enumeration of lifted materials. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Melbourne-born cinematographer Greig Fraser (and I don't remember a thing). And so on. Overall it's just that it's new.

Whisky Galore! (1949)

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#5 on a random Guardian list of Ealing comedies. The fictional island Todday in the Outer Hebrides runs out of whisky in 1943. This is relieved by the running aground of a ship carrying 50,000 cases of the stuff. The local home guard is lead by uptight Englishman Basil Radford who wants to prevent the wily (Scots) locals from recovering the goods. He is easily evaded. Somehow Joan Greenwood is deemed the co-lead with Radford despite being only involved in some minor romantic stuff with sergeant Bruce Seton. It's well constructed but pedestrian with a lot of filler between a few genuinely funny bits.

Wikipedia. Somehow it got remade in 2016.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

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The name is Lee, Bruce Lee, and this was the last of his leading-role features for me to catch up on. I hadn't realised just how much Brad Pitt ripped off his persona in Fight Club and similarly how literally Tarantino lifted much of this for Kill Bill.

The plot is a train wreck. Notionally Bruce and other martial artists are drawn to an island off the coast of Hong Kong for a tournament. Everyone has their reasons for being there, told in dissolved flashback, but the premise doesn't survive Bond-adjacency. John Saxon co-leads as a suave Sean Connery-esque American gambler with debts and scruples who happens to know Jim Kelly from the American activities in Việt Nam from six years prior. Kelly gets all the ladies because Bruce is too busy taking care of business as instructed by his Shaolin-descended master.

The climax is unsatisfying perhaps because it is unclear master villain Kien Shih can take it to Lee; there's a lot of in-close shots and choppy editing in all the fight scenes. What's with the missing hand? — things got pure Wolverine at the end. The Brits turn up too late to do anything useful. I had to wonder who'd be dumb enough to be a stunt man in a Bruce Lee flick in 1973. There's some great cinematography especially of Hong Kong harbour; it's a bit of a time capsule like Melville's take on roughly contemporaneous Paris.

Everything is at Wikipedia. An early blaxploitation! Once again Jackie Chan is apparently in there somewhere.

The Way of the Dragon (1972)

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Bruce Lee's third time leading a feature and far better than the first two, probably because he also wrote and directed. Famous for its climatic fight with Chuck Norris in the Colosseum in Rome.

As always the plot doesn't make a tonne of sense. Bruce gets sent by Nora Miao's uncle to help her out in Rome where the restaurant she just inherited is under pressure from the local hoods (mafia). She wanted a lawyer but for flimsy reasons everything is settled with martial arts and so Bruce is her man. He once again disappoints her in the love business. There seems to be a rule that you only get one go per murder method (why not try again with guns?) and that the Chinese form(s) dominate Karate. Secretary Ping-Ou Wei is very camp, very weird.

Roger Ebert: two stars. The version I saw apparently cut all the translation crap that stuck in his craw. #58 on the Golden Horse list of the 100 Greatest Chinese-Language Films. Excess details at Wikipedia.

Fist of Fury (1972)

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Bruce Lee's second feature where he's in the lead. Learning from the first one there is some attempt at creating a mythos: we're taken to 1900s Shanghai, to the international settlement which is under strict Japanese influence, where someone has the great idea of killing Bruce's teacher. The inevitable ensues.

The version I saw was dubbed with terribly plummy English accents. Bruce just doesn't sound like that! Perhaps the idea was that this major flaw would hide all the other major (or even bigger?) flaws. The plot is overwrought and illogical. There's way too much exposition and too many scenes that progress nothing. Things sagged every time Bruce is off the screen, which was far too often. On the plus side he's a bit of a clothes horse: I liked the white suit he turns up in.

An excess of information at Wikipedia. Jackie Chan is supposedly in there somewhere. Dubbed into Noongar in 2021! Wow. Chairman Mao watched it three times!

The Big Boss (1971)

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Bruce Lee's first major movie in a lead role. All the details and more at Wikipedia. Briefly he leaves Hebei to go work at an ice factory in Thailand and soon enough the local Big Boss is disappearing his coworkers (some of them cousins?) after they discover opiates in the ice. (I read recently that the Afghan Taliban has figured out that there's more money in a different kind of ice than opiates.) All the ladies make distracting eyes at him and he wakes up in a henhouse. But the ladies do help him out, which is more than he gets from most of his male cohort. His mum sent him along with an amulet to keep him from fighting but of course it doesn't last long. On the other hand not a lot happens for most of the movie.

The scenery is occasionally gorgeous and some of the cinematography is decent. The editing is clunky and there are distracting continuity issues. It's somewhat fun on its own terms but lacks the exotic mythos that the more recent Kung Fu movies go in for; there's nothing to think about here. The titles and credits, the negative space portraits owe something to Sergio Leone.

Knox Goes Away (2023)

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Boomer Memento. Michael Keaton directed, produced, starred. It's not Birdman but I'll grudgingly admit that it has a few moments. The plot has Keaton's aging assassin suspect his once-prime dual-PhD'd brain of degeneracy but he needs to do one last job before he can retire. (It is briefly and dutifully suggested he's actually cleaning the gene pool on Al Pacino's commissions but the morality is unnuanced and irrelevant.) Whatever those plans were are immediately derailed by family issues embodied in son James Marsden and grandsprog Morgan Bastin. Perhaps Keaton was trying to suggest a path to redemption for his demographic cohort.

I did not enjoy Suzy Nakamura's performance as a police detective or any of the police procedural stuff; it is entirely pro forma, very cliched, and she just ejaculates her lines, pretending to be clueful or clueless as the plot requires, as the boys junior to her steal her thunder. Pacino has some fun in his minor and mostly inert role; there's a cute scene at the end where he slow dances with his entirely age-inappropriate squeeze Sasha Neboga in what might be a homage to Scent of a Woman. She's a ballet teacher. I wish they'd fleshed her character out — she's shown as solid and it is implied she has her reasons for doing what she does — but this is a sausagefest where all the men take solace in generic Eastern European women having rejected or been rejected by the local ones.

Jeannette Catsoulis's Critic's Pick sold it to me. Robert Daniels was far less impressed. Brian Tallerico at TIFF 2023: frustrating. "Keaton is such a stoic performer, a phenomenal actor whose low-key energy can sometimes be deployed to great impact by the right filmmakers. Interestingly, I don't think Keaton the Director knows how to direct Keaton the Actor."

Police Story (1985)

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The highest rated of Jackie Chan's own movies at IMDB. He co-wrote/starred/directed but IMDB trivia claims there was at least one stunt he didn't do himself! It seems clear that secondary-squeeze/moll Brigitte Lin did at least some of hers but I have to wonder about the commitment of main squeeze Maggie Cheung: she's ridiculously young and one-dimensional here. I'd say her acting fell short of the exemplary standard set by Doyle in Comrades: Almost a Love Story.

The plot doesn't really hold together too well: everyone seems to know where to find the bad boys, Brigitte seems to know nothing, know too much and is too willing to return to her much older sugar daddy (Yuen Chor) despite him trying to bump her off after Chan's efforts to protect her. The computer printouts could, you know, be printed out again ... but then Chan would've needed to find some other excuse for his batshit climactic stunts. The early set piece at the shanty town on a hill was also just too much.

There's a lot to enjoy here. The best bits were the small touches like when the police mass to go take down the rogue Chan over many seconds of screen time and begin to depart ... only to scream to a halt, as if someone turned their electricity off, when he turns up at headquarters. His clowning is first rate. The making-of footage during the closing credits is excellent.

Vincent Canby in 1987, patronisingly.

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)

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Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan and by far the highest rated of his efforts at IMDB. He was one of the talking heads in the Christopher Doyle biopic Like the Wind. Doyle appears as an English teacher who draws massive smiles from all his students, perhaps due to his use of inappropriate teaching materials or the eternal presence of a drink in his hand. Not much is asked of his or his Thai prostitute girlfriend Michelle Gabriel's acting skills. Jingle Ma did the cinematography and it's great in tight but I wanted to see more of the rooms more often.

Maggie Cheung is luminous in the lead. She's fetching even in her 1980s Maccas garb and two coats for a cold Lunar New Year's Eve. Notionally she and her fellow mainland-escapee Leon Lai are fated lovers but it takes the whole movie for things to work out. He's a bit too inert with a shy smile that sort-of works but he generally lacks her expressiveness. I guess this reflects the tentativeness of his character but it never stopped me from wondering why Maggie couldn't do better. Irene Tsu is great as Aunt Rosie: she has a fixation on William Holden who I only know as an older bloke in Network. Eric Tsang rounds out the leads as the avuncular, accommodating Triad (?) boss. He doesn't need to get out of first gear.

The plot is basically the romantic parts of Doctor Zhivago: both move to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s and eventually become friends in a commercial/transactional way at a then-novel Maccas. He lives with his aunt in a brothel and nobody seems to batt an eyelid about that. There are quite a few nice touches along the way and a few clangers too. The final movement is a love letter to mid-1990s NYC.

I watched it over many sittings as it's pretty shallow and quite enjoyable. I wish the subtitles had been clearer about which language the characters were speaking (Cantonese or Mandarin) as it would've added some depth. There's no violence (c.f. City on Fire).

Lawrence van Gelder for the New York Times. Unbanned on the mainland in 2015. Maggie deservedly cleaned up at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse.

The Monk and the Gun (2023)

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A gentle and mildly comedic critique of modernity from Bhutan. The country's claims to fame are that it is the happiest in Asia (or the world, or wherever, depending) and that it underwent a (unique?) bloodless transition to parliamentary democracy in 2008 at the instigation of the King. The rural people are mostly happy with the existing arrangements but the monk of the title knows that change is inevitable. The bureaucrats and their hirelings are just cogs in the machine.

The cinematography makes a lot of the landscapes in that way of tourist commercials. (Did it make me want to go to Bhutan? No, too hilly.) This style of storytelling put me in mind of Hal Hartley: a touch rueful and so out of step with these increasingly brutal times. Then again the whole thing is a bit of a backhander to the USA: you can keep your revolutions, violence and democracy but we're always open to more phallic stuff.

Manohla Dargis also picked up on the pokes at the West.

Drive Away Dolls (2024)

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Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with director/co-write Ethan Coen and wife/co-writer Tricia Cooke. It's a bust but I can't say I wasn't warned: they did mention it was a 1990s retro thing and the rating at IMDB is dire. Cooke made it clear she was revisiting her coming-of-dykedom on the east coast of the USA during the 90s; the scene where the younger version of the repressed half of the couple (Geraldine Viswanathan, Australian) pervs on her nude (female) neighbour is purportedly autobiographical. Margaret Qualley plays the mouthier side, notionally a free-and-easy Texan. (I don't remember her from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.) The story lifts some tropes from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, spelling out things that were more effective when left implicit in the original material. This fantasy insistence that what the auteur says goes for these ancient pop-culture provocations is tiresome, but I guess it's little different to the increasingly common expropriation of imagination by cinematic adaptations (cf the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Lord of the Rings, etc.). Or one woman's referentialism is another man's appropriation. There's a bland cameo by Matt Damon as a family-man senator, a slightly more interesting one from Miley Cyrus and too much of the politics of the day — Ralph Nader, Chelsea Clinton — that nobody cares about now.

The humour left me cold, as did the music. (Diana Krall? Please, Bob Dylan put a permanent kink in You Belong To Me for Natural Born Killers in those very same 1990s.) The politics of agency ain't great either: the girls try to make a go of their escapist road trip but the boys get on top and it is only chance, ego, intemperance — the essence of the male? — that allows them to take their ill-gotten funds and get hitched in Victoria-of-the USA Massachusetts. No spoiler: things are so strait there's never a chance of won't-they.

Another reason for watching this was that to find out if the Cohen brothers can function separately. It doesn't look good for Ethan: Joel went off and made Macbeth with wife Frances McDormand as I suggested someone do. It can't be any lamer than this.

Manohla Dargis: a leaden romp. Colman Domingo lights things up as a gangland boss. Other reviewers seem to have watched something else or succumbed to the marketing. As Dana Stevens said of about another movie, this ain't Thelma and Louise.

That Day, on the Beach (1983)

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Christopher Doyle's first feature-length cinematographic effort. Inevitable after watching the recent bio/doco/interview. He did earn his award albeit not for the innovation he spruiked: there are plenty of (standard, Western) progressions from wide/setup shots to closeups, and I doubt they were operating under any pressure from the Taiwanese authorities. Co-written and directed Edward Yang.

This is a lengthy (2 hours 46 minutes!) intricately-structured soap opera. The shallowness of the story — at times I could hope for the depths of the later The Remains of the Day and Once Upon a Time in America — is such a let down given this prolixity, masterful shifting of chronology and the evident commitment of all participants.

In brief it documents some of the breakdown of traditional family structures in Taiwanese society, specifically the passing of a medical clinic and profession from father to son and women being tasked with unifying dynasties, causing restive unhappiness in the younger generation. The son (Ming Hsiang-Tso) caves, suffers and inflicts suffering on his one-true-love girlfriend (Terry Hu) who flees to Germany to study piano. His sister (Sylvia Chang) flees to Taipei to take up with her sort-of boyfriend (David Mao). She ultimately finds some kind of liberation but the framing story of the two women meeting again 13 years after the pianist fled is strange: so much of the story is irrelevant to her, especially as she has a big concert that evening.

The wheels totally fell off for me when Chang asks Mao's mistress/office wife (a foxy on-the-make Yan Feng-chiao) if she loves him. At this point we're pretty sure Chang doesn't: an early scene has a wilful school friend (Lee Lieh) advising her that Mao is a sure thing that will never leave her, and he proves to be her ticket out of the family strictures. Soon enough they argue in that way married couples do and she wants him to spend more time with her but his diagnosis seems about right: she's under occupied and should've acquired more skills. (It's unclear how competent she is in her foreign language as the one boss she has is unimpressed with her work. The flower arranging is presented as nothing more than a housewife hobby.) And perhaps he does force her to take responsibility for her freedom after the mysterious happening on the beach.

I found it hard to be sympathetic to these characters with such vacuous lives. I didn't and don't know what would have made them function better; this pursuit of happiness farrago proved too amorphous despite all the layering. Speaking of which, all the ladies sport Princess Di's signature feathered hairdo except for Chang when she decides she might need to find a new man. Also they tend to start smoking when things aren't going well.

Cinema Omnivore: I too felt that Terry Hu was squandered. We hardly hear about her time abroad. And what was with the frosty Germanic personal assistant? Nick Kouhi. Pat Graham: familiar from countless Barbara Stanwyck sagas of the 50s (!). And so on.

Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man. (1934)

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Kindle. Private dick Nick Charles retires to San Francisco upon marrying sassy west-coast lumber heiress Nora but returns to NYC to dodge Christmas social obligations. There, of course, old entanglements suck him into a murder mystery and you've got to wonder if these people are any better than those the couple were avoiding. Hammett uses very effective first person narration and gets in some cracking lines. Nora is a fun interlocutor but I felt her character could've been rounded out some more. I'd say it's the best written of his novels but that might be sacrilegious as it's not in his signature hard-boiled style. It struck me as wildly inventive at times and then I remembered The Maltese Falcon.

Having completed his novels I took a look at his biographical details at Wikipedia. I'd just say I didn't see a lot of politics in these books.

Goodreads. I saw the contemporaneous film a decade ago but don't remember a thing. Roger Ebert gave it four stars as a "great movie". Apparently it has five successors.

Like the Wind (2021)

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I've been meaning to watch this since I read that it was featured in the Sydney Film Festival in 2021. It's mostly an interview with cinematographer Christopher Doyle intercut with some other talking heads and grabs of his work. The Doyle aspects powerfully reminded me of why I watch his movies: so much improbable ethereal beauty, too much of it no longer found in reality.

Director Ted McDonnell does a decent job of assembling a cross section of Doyle's work. The interview itself was a riveting but inexhaustive ramble and left me wanting more biographical details. Digging into the pointers provided to other encounters it seems that he cannot be steered; see, for instance, this chat with Nick Newman (2019-12-06) or another back in 2014 or yet another from 2014. (In contrast he seemed to be on-message with the BFI in 2019.) After getting busted for thieving too many books from a Glebe bookstore (he claims to prefer reading to watching movies) he departed Australia on a boat at age 19 and ended up in late 1970s Hong Kong in his late 20s. Four months of Chinese language study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong was all he could afford (it was for ambassadors he says) so he headed to Taipei. Soon enough he shot That Day, on the Beach and won a best-cinematography award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in 1983 and we're off to the races. They shot Chungking Express in his apartment! "Biggest mistake!" he says, but he still lives there.

For a variety of reasons I wonder who the equivalent is in Korean cinema and what Doyle thinks of that scene — and it's a bit strange this movie doesn't go there given how the locus of Asian cinema has shifted over the past two decades. There is no discussion of technique or technology. It's unclear there's any baton passing though he is working with young directors. Everyone wants to know why he split with Wong Kar-Wai.

Robert Moran at the Smage: COVID delayed Sydney's turn to bask in the twenty-year anniversary of In the Mood for Love. He's from the Shire! (Cronulla) Some dry humour about his cataract removal operation. 2020 was 2046. I can't tell if he's joking about an Oscar but there's no doubt he has a healthy self regard. Filmink (2021-10-28). His attitude towards film school is the same as Herzog's as is his advice: go forth and make films. A joint interview with director McDonnell. Anne Rutherford: did Doyle's optimism about Hong Kong's cultural scene survive COVID?

Twitter says Doyle married director Hei Wen in Australia three weeks ago. And it turns out there's no shortage of interviews with him on YouTube: In the Mood for Doyle (2007) suggests he's a Leonard Cohen fan (specifically Anthem) and still has the same apartment. There's a visit to Chungking Mansions! And so on.

A Bronx Tale (1993)

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Sonny: Alright, listen to me. You pull up right where she lives, right? Before you get outta the car, you lock both doors. Then, get outta the car, you walk over to her. You bring her over to the car. Dig out the key, put it in the lock and open the door for her. Then you let her get in. Then you close the door. Then you walk around the back of the car and look through the rear window. If she doesn't reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in: dump her.
Calogero 'C' Anello: Just like that?
Sonny: Listen to me, kid. If she doesn't reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in, that means she's a selfish broad and all you're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. You dump her and you dump her fast.
— If only I'd known about the door test before now.

Robert De Niro's first directing effort; he had another go with The Good Shepherd a decade later but that's been it so far. I think he was fine as the actual bus-driving father of a kid growing up Italian in the Bronx but really the star and lead is Chazz Palminteri (soon enough huge in The Usual Suspects) who adapted the thing from his one-man play (!) — which would've been something to see.

Growing up in the hood... remind me where I've seen that before. The east coast may have a totally different vibe (here there's baseball but no basketball which might just be saying that Italians aren't big on the latter) but is just as lethal (not just on the colour line but also from the organised crime). There are many good bits but it's also a very familiar coming-of-age story; perhaps the twinned fathers complement each other just a bit too perfectly, each giving solid life lessons that leach the danger from the scenario. (Contrast it with the boy's excursion into the black neighbourhood where things get a bit Spike Lee.) The late cameo by Joe Pesci is somehow gold. I was disappointed to see that the younger cast, handled so well by De Niro, did not go on to bigger things. There wasn't much for the women to do.

Now that I think about it, the door test doesn't seem too well conceived as he was driving a convertible. And how about for a motorcycle?

Roger Ebert: four stars. It would've been great if they'd fleshed out Palminteri's neighbourhood mafioso some more. There's a scene of charred bodies that put me in mind of Once Upon a Time in America. Janet Maslin. The a cappella Doo Wop singers on the street. Mean Streets.

Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key. (1931)

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Kindle. Again Hammett adopts and is more successful with third-person narration. This time around the main character, always addressed by his creator using his full moniker "Ned Beaumont", is a political svengali / consigliere who outsources the private dickery. His boss Paul Madvig runs a city somewhere not too far from NYC. There's some extreme violence in and around the speakeasies of the day. The central thread — the killing of a Senator's son — seems tepid in comparison to the other events, and its resolution is icy cold. He gets off the odd cracker of a line but I wish he'd found room for an interlocutor as he did in The Dain Curse; we get a bit too much mouthing off by drongos.

Goodreads. Wikipedia tells me the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing drew on it.

Nowhere to Hide (1999)

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What is it with Koreans and their trains! There's Snowpiercer and Train to Busan of course, but before those there was this exercise in all-style-no-substance from Lee Myung-se. I have no problem with that in principle — I'd be happy to get with the program — but here the most stylish bit is the intro.

Notionally a police-procedural noir, it's really a series of set pieces lifted from other movies and wildly reworked. There's a huge debt owed to Sergio Leone (soundtrack, negative space, outdoor spaces, intertitles, ...) and the hard workers in Hong Kong (such as John Woo who the lead is named for). The spirit of Tarantino haunts some of it though he'd never go with such a weak script. I watched it in about four sittings so I can't remember what the motivation was for the epic police search for some criminal mastermind. Lead Joong-Hoon Park ultimately takes an epic beating from him (Ahn Sung-ki) in the rain, in a train yard, in a scene that may've been lifted shot-for-shot in a Matrix sequel. I found the Trainspotting-esque legging-it scenes to be the most amusing.

Prompted by Mike Hale in the New York Times in 2019. Peter Bradshaw in 2001: a bit John Woo, some Ridley Scott. Elvis Mitchell. Stephanie Zacharek: Wong Kar-Wai. The second half is more conventional than the first. City on Fire.

Kuolleet lehdet (Fallen Leaves) (2023)

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Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with lead actress Alma Pöysti and thumbs-up review. Jury Prize winner at Cannes 2023. Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki is widely feted but I don't know why.

This is about being single and unskilled in middle age and getting an unexpected shot at joining the (axiomatically) happily coupled up. Pöysti and candidate bloke Jussi Vatanen are not exactly in the precariat — the scenario is more old school in there always being industrial work and social support in a Nordic monoculture. There are no families, no Ken Loach social activism or commentary, no politics apart from the war on the Ukraine on the radio; this pair are just lonely in the timeworn way. As Leonard Cohen used to say, there ain't no cure for the lovelorn except perhaps by going to these sorts of movies.

The style is arch like Hal Hartley; I suggest his closest is The Unbelievable Truth with Adrienne Shelly and Robert John Burke. The humour is amusing but very very dry and the whole show continually teeters on the brink of cliche. Their first date is Jarmusch's Bill Murray / Adam Driver zombie flick, at the Ritz of course. The posters out front must be Kaurismäki's faves: Fat City (!), some Brigid Bardot classic. The punchline is that she dug it.

There are many scenes of the bloke and his mate bantering. There are fewer scenes of the women talking, but when they do they express the stale "all men are rotten" tropes. (The men are not as unsubtle; they do not slag the women off as a class. Or is it that the Finnish ladies share no common flaw? I ascribe this unevenness to Kaurismäki and felt it marred the scenario beyond repair.) She wants him to be different in some way (from the other men in Helsinki?) but it's unclear that he is or can be. Apparently smoking is still OK but drinking is not. She cuts her losses by rescuing a dog.

Di Rosso observed that this gets a bit David Lynch by embedding musical performance in the film. I'm pretty sure Jarmusch did this too somewhere. It reminded me a bit of Lukas Moodysson (Bara prata lite? — nothing brutal) or von Trier (nobody gets anything but don't give up just yet!). There's a dash of Amelie: the romantic lost, the relentless search, serendipity. It's OK but slight, mostly gentle, pointless. The cinematography functions but doesn't wow; Helsinki does not receive her close up.

Glenn Kenny: four stars. Manohla Dargis made it a Critic's Pick. Lives of quiet desperation. Brief Encounter. Peter Bradshaw: four stars of five. An Affair to Remember. Absurd and cartoony.