peteg's blog

The Last Tycoon

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Elia Kazan's final film. More Anjelica Huston and, well, everyone: Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Theresa Russell, Donald Pleasence, Tony Curtis, Dana Andrews. Robert De Niro leads. Pinter adapted the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. This is Hollywood gazing deeply into its 1930s golden-era navel: a boy wonder producer gets lucky and unlucky in love while the boss's daughter looks on. It starts slow but warms up a bit, edging towards There Will Be Blood before drowning in alcohol. The fun bits are Ingrid Boulting putting up a fight against De Niro's attentions, and Communist Nicholson also taking it to De Niro physically. De Niro has the odd effective scene alongside some clangers where he appears lifeless.

Vincent Canby.

Avatar

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I was told in 2009 that it was pretty good in 3D at the cinema. A decade later I'd say it's still a (psychedelic, immersive) visual feast and everything else is beside the point. The plot is completely formulaic and events follow events briskly. The people are essentially a smoogery of Amerindian cultures. I doubt Gaia is coming to save us on this world. I felt I'd seen it before (coarsely The Matrix) and after (roughly Endgame) without that mattering a whole lot. Sam Worthington was better than he ever would be again. Zoe Saldana was somewhere in there.

Dana Stevens tried for an internet metaphor. Roger Ebert went in boots and all. Manohla Dargis.

Promising Young Woman

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Excess Carey Mulligan completism. She's having a moment. Good work publicist. It's a #metoo/millennial riff on the timeworn femme revenge flick; a sort of Hard Candy, Alexandra’s Project interpolant with Harley Quinn aesthetics and attitude, and perhaps a touch of Gone Girl. I couldn't get too excited by the premise so I spent most of the time trainspotting the cast. It was great to see that grab of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. It's due for a revival, even as morning TV for people older than me who still watch TV. After a while the excess references to blackout drinking and sleeping around evoked American Pie, with the link being that Mulligan's mother is Jennifer Coolidge, aka Stifler's mom. I was perplexed to see Clancy Brown as her father. It runs on tracks parallel to Twin Peaks (the movies, not so much the TV shows). In the middle the Dean of the med school made a semi-interesting observation about vulnerability that was quickly occluded by absolute moral clarity. The "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" pivot/break is completely predictable at the 1hr15m mark, so formulaic it hurts. As events at the US Capitol proved the very same day I watched this, fantasising about agency has its limits.

Jeannette Catsoulis.

Local Hero

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In two sittings. I've had the soundtrack for ages but never seen the movie. (The ABC used to use Knopfler's Going Home as intro music to something, I think; in any case, it lodged in my brain like The Beatles.) Well it's a quirky, whimsical, earnest attempt to be agreeable, to find the common ground between locals with beautiful scenery and global capital, here represented as various parts of Scotland and a Texas oil company. Corporate head Burt Lancaster is almost unrecognisable until he speaks. I loved his fascination with cosmology, and the Texan drawl of the receptionists was almost just-a-moment Office Space. The boffins were funny. Pete Capaldi chases the mermaid Jenny Seagrove. Peter Riegert is too American everyman for me to remember.

Roger Ebert at the time. He gestures at Bill Forsyth's earlier feature. Janet Maslin.

El Topo

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Took a few sittings to get through. Can't say it did much for me. Prior I figured it to be mostly a low budget narrative-free derivative of the spaghetti Westerns and it did little to convince me otherwise. Roger Ebert indulged it at the time and again in 2007. Vincent Canby was more sceptical. Manohla Dargis in 2006.

Blood Work

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An Anjelica Huston jag from The Dead. Clint Eastwood directed, produced and starred. It's one of his weaker efforts, with all the seams showing; something like Dirty Harry in retirement, trying to make a Zodiac or Se7en. He sure has a way with the ladies. Unfortunately it's all too transparent; I wasn't very invested and still had it figured by halftime.

Roger Ebert liked how it built up, just like a railroad.

The Dead

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And yet more John Huston completism. A costume snapshot of a party in Dublin in early 1904 amongst the musical set, revolution nascent. A James Joyce short provided the raw material and daughter Anjelica Huston lead in his final directorial effort. It's mostly dialogue; the archaic, elliptic, elegant wordiness had a bit too much grace, filigree and indirectness for me to entirely grasp in my torpid state. Donal Donnelly is familiar from his later turn as the nervy chain smoking archbishop in The Godfather Part III.

Roger Ebert at the time: three stars, upgraded to four in 2005. Vincent Canby loved it.

No Way Out (1950)

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A Joseph L. Mankiewicz jag of sorts from Mank. Also Sidney Poitier's feature film debut, as a County doctor charged with keeping injured criminals alive until they can try to kill him, because how else are you going to bank this busted conceit? Entirely black-and-white in most senses.

Wise Blood

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John Huston completism, and a Brad Dourif jag from Dune. How to be a preacher in post-bellum Georgia, including a counter demonstration. Perhaps it inherited its heavy handedness from the novel. I enjoyed the odd moment, such as the early repartee between Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton, whose daughter Amy Wright somehow thinks Dourif is a meal ticket. I was bored by Dan Shor's country bumpkin. Ned Beatty does well as the all-American in the religion business. The ending was a bit of stereotypical spinster desperation, and just maybe an influence on a young David Fincher.

Vincent Canby's review put me in mind of Dwight Garner when the material is soporific, perhaps trying to occlude the gushingly positive review of this movie and novelist (Flannery O'Connor) in the second half. Francine Prose for the Criterion Collection in 2009.

The Passionate Friends

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Excess David Lean completeism. To her eternal regret an Englishwoman chooses money, comfort, success in the form of a Toff husband over her true love, a uni lecturer everyman who succeeds on his own terms. Set on either side of WWII. She's played by Ann Todd, who looks to me like England's response to Ingrid Bergman. The men are Claude Rains, in decline after his major turns in Casablanca and Notorious, and Trevor Howard who was in The Third Man the same year (1949). I didn't get the point of this movie; was it a warning to the new Eves, the women who wanted or reasonably expected self-possession after their sacrifices for their country, that they shouldn't get ahead of themselves? That the upper classes suffer also in their way? That money can't buy you love but can lead to endless encounters with your object(s) of desire? Surprising me, H. G. Wells wrote the novel this is based on.

I guess it was a strange time in British cinema, when they had technique but not yet the raw material from the likes of Beckett and Pinter (who softened things up for Mike Leigh) or the guts and funding for Lawrence of Arabia. I think the Ealing comedies — and Lean's Hobson's Choice — were more successful than these dusty dramas. Then again, I wonder what Lean might have done with The Remains of the Day.

Terrence Rafferty on a Lean retrospective in 2008.

Amor Towles: Rules of Civility.

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Kindle. I was always going to circle back to Towles's debut after his masterful A Gentleman in Moscow. Unfortunately this is more of a generic The Great Gatsby with a dash of Great Expectations and a side of The Talented Mr Ripley. The first-person lady always seems happier when she finds her evening free, but of course if you're a social climber you've got to be out observing all the fine markers of class stratifications in late-1930s NYC that may help you avoid joining all the men going the other way. Many are faking it until they've made it alongside the old moneyed, it being read that you and everyone wouldn't be anywhere else or playing any other game. Towles reveals himself as a fan of guns, and the gutter press; I thought our heroine was going to end up at the New Yorker and not a glossed-up New York Post or Gawker. Pretty much every chapter pivots on a timely coincidental encounter. He's very opinionated about other writers — thumbs up for Dickens, Hemingway, Russians, Thoreau. It passed the time OK.

Liesl Schillinger adroitly gestures at the cliches and avoids assessment, doubtlessly the right strategy for a New York lass in a publishing orbit. Goodreads generally loved it, though some ladies were not persuaded that Towles did justice to his narrator's voice. Viv Groskop: these are the greatest hits of NYC.

Jodorowsky's Dune

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Before David Lynch there was outre Chilean director Jodorowsky. It's the early 1970s and he wants to make the canonical scifi/messianic cinema that would have eclipsed 2001 and precluded Star Wars. This doco is entirety a woulda coulda shoulda sort of thing. A lot of the artists and artistic concepts did get recycled into other projects apparently (Alien, for instance). I dunno. I still have to see El Topo.

Jeannette Catsoulis enjoyed this indulgence of a gargantuan ego.

Blow Out

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An interpolant of The Conversation and No Way Out with 100% less Gene Hackman and excess de Palma. Travolta leads as a soudman who accidentally records a political assassination. Perhaps it was every woman's dream to be manhandled by him in 1981, for otherwise there is little to recommend this. Some misdirection is used to string things out, and towards the end the plot entirely falls apart until we're hit with a downer of an ending. Nancy Allen has her moments, looking at times somewhat fetchingly like Maggie Gyllenhaal. John Lithgow was a serviceable psycho as a young man.

Roger Ebert gave it four stars as a smoogery of American political conspiracy theories, as does Vincent Canby. He tells me Nancy Allen was Mrs De Palma at time (IMDB says from 1979 to 1983).

Dune

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Having read the book it was time to revisit David Lynch et al's attempt to film it. The cast is stellar: there are Lynch's long term collaborators (Kyle MacLachlin, Jack Nance, Everett McGill) and some big actors (Patrick Stewart, Jürgen Prochnow, José Ferrer, Max Von Sydow) who must have been sold something else entirely. Also a Sean Young jag from No Way Out; she looks far younger here than in Blade Runner, which was released two years earlier in 1982. Yes it's clunky and maladapted, the accents are all over the shop, but every so often Lynch does have a bit of fun. Ten to fifteen years later it would've gotten the three-movie The Lord of the Rings treatment, and I could've watched Lynch mine spice for more than a few seconds. Perhaps he should've made it into a musical. I feel he directly recycled some motifs and brainfarts into the Twin Peaks revival.

One star from Roger Ebert. But I didn't find it so much worse than Star Wars; perhaps we're so used to CGI now that any analog effects are welcome. Vincent Canby didn't make it past the introductory exposition, and fair enough too. That article is more about summarising the state of scifi movies in 1984; prophetically: "If Dune suggests anything — which I doubt — it's that we are retrogressing toward the future." Janet Maslin, also at the time.

No Way Out

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Second time around, more Gene Hackman, who doesn't get a lot to work with. It's a classic 1980s thriller set in Washington. Kevin Costner leads in his moderately wooden, smirky way. Sean Young, so girly. Will Patton, so psycho. There are also some culturally exploited Maori in the middle. The framing interview is intended to be mindblowingly twisty I guess; I didn't bother to think through what outcome benefited the interlocutors the most.

Roger Ebert dug it. Vincent Canby did too. Satire? Maybe.

The Royal Tenenbaums

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Second or third time around. I remembered the actors (Gene Hackman was the draw) but none of the plot. Wes Anderson's style is mostly there. I felt noncommittal throughout.

Roger Ebert. I take it as read that Owen Wilson is never sincere. Ebert is otherwise right: all the major characters seek attention to excess, neurotically. David Edelstein endorsed it along similar lines.

Catherine Lacey: Pew.

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Kindle. I was looking forward to another bout of Catherine Lacey internalism and was somewhat disappointed to be lead directly off the property instead. We meet the entity to be imminently known as Pew wandering into small town Southern USA and immediately drawing current-day identity political lightning, being something of a tabla rasa that other people freely write on. If (s)he/they had been Australian, she'd be a Terra Nullius, exhibiting the impossibility of self containment in spite of modest want. The individuals in the community, and sometimes the collective, do inscribe, unreliably, but Lacey's underdrawing mostly leaves us reinforcing our own prejudices. (I could see the relevance of identifying a gender but not a race; sure, the town is split black/white, that's customary in the USA, but what has skin colour got to do with the mechanics of helping someone in the first instance?) Ultimately the unbearable lightness of Christian charity evaporates in a forgiveness festival that goes as you'd expect if you took the horror movie tropes to be merely providing this otherwise (literally) quotidian work with a pulse. Some pages of description are absolutely cinematic: the old lady with the eyes and the shaking hands, identifying Jesus returned. I saw Agnes sitting at the gas station, lucid, capacious and comprehending, and Tammy in NYC with a Latvian parallel.

Nicole Flattery quotes Lacey explaining what she's doing, picks out some of the cinematic bits, and bemoans the lack of humour. I don't disagree but was more prepared to accept a Pew without volition. She concurs with Dwight Garner that Lacey's previous two long-form efforts (Nobody is ever missing, The Answers) are superior. Chris Power tries to be respectful with the pronouns. I've never found Lacey to be an "economical writer"; I'm drawn mostly by her iteratively-deepened elliptic style. Fiona Maazel.

The Conversation

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Second time around with this Gene Hackman / Coppola thing, the latter's followup to The Godfather. Back in 1974 people really had to work hard to surveil; nowadays we'd be shocked, shocked I say, to be told that it's unwise to plot murder in a public square. Hackman's character epitomises the sweating of details while the main game eludes. I might've been disappointed if I hadn't known what to expect.

Vincent Canby calls out some poor plotting. Roger Ebert was impressed at the time, and again in 2001.

Killer Joe

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Forty years after The French Connection, William Friedkin directed this Tracy Letts adaptation of a Tracy Letts play. Matthew McConaughey leads. It's a modern Southern Gothic, set in Texas, as graphically and luridly imagined from Chicago before #metoo. Clearly they all went to see The Killer Inside Me and thought they could do better, but really they couldn't. There's no point to it.

Roger Ebert. Dana Stevens. A black comedy? She isn't sure. If this had been more chop I'd have followed her pointer to Bug, by the same people but with Michael Shannon.

Ned Beauman: The Teleportation Accident.

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Kindle. I conclude that the best thing Beauman has done was his most recent, and the first of his I read — Madness is Better than Defeat. This is set in pretty much the same era but indulges a weakness for pillorying ze Germans, especially the artistic ones. Beauman's leading man (never ours) goes from Berlin to Paris to L.A. on the trail of a McGuffin in the form of a young lady, encountering various deceptions along the way. The characters are sketchy and the reader quickly learns not to invest much effort in anything as there's a lot of "but actually" retconning in between the stale humour and adolescent sexuality. Beauman clearly wanted to be Martin Amis when he grew up but it's too late for that now.

The reviews at Goodreads sum it up well: the plot would embarass Scooby Doo.