peteg's blog

Paul Theroux: Burma Sahib. (2024)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. I've had a soft spot for Theroux since reading his Dark Star Safari a long time ago and more recently about his gaggle on Hawaii. I was wondering what he would do with George Orwell's early life after Dennis Glover's take on the other end. I haven't read Burmese Days and have long forgotten the famous essays about shooting an elephant and hanging a man. I thought Theroux did a decent and unsentimental job of showing how Blair may have survived and passed his time in Burma as a policeman but there are many loose threads. What motivated him to join the imperial police service in the first place? Did he have a choice of destination? How did he get into Eton and how did that affect his social relations? Most perplexing to me was how his Uncle Frank could spend a lifetime in Burma and not realise how socially unacceptable (Theroux asserts) his Eurasian daughter is.

As you'd expect it's mostly well written but there are a few bits that needed another round of editing and tightening up. It's mostly engrossing; the repetition and sense of going nowhere evokes tedium quite effectively. Some themes — the half-castes, the commercial morality of the British Raj, a loneliness assuaged only by sex (and later writing) — are overdone. It's not entirely clear why Blair needed to experience the pointy end of colonialism to understand its essential bankruptcy or what exactly caused him to pivot from complicit servant to critic. The concluding segue into the slums of Paris and London made far more immediate sense. I struggled with Blair's mortification at not participating in the Great War: surely he was too young.

William Boyd at the New York Times. Darcy Moore, more critically, nails down what's fact, what's fiction and what's erroneous. Lara Feigel: let's hear from the minor/marginalised players. Goodreads. Orwell has roared back into the cultural consciousness since (at least) 2016 and there's no sign of a let up yet.

Coming to America (1988)

/noise/movies | Link

Inevitable despite my general disinterest in Eddie Murphy. For the record it is Vanessa Bell Calloway as Imani Izzi who utters the magic lines within the first twenty minutes. They have no impact on what follows.

The setup was tired in the 1980s: Prince Murphy of Zamunda is unhappy with the bride (Calloway) organised by his father King James Earl Jones. Mother Queen Madge Sinclair seems content with her setup but encourages her son to be modern and find a bride in (where else but) the U.S.A. We are moved to Queens, New York for many japes, filler and scenes that are cliched and often do not work. Father John Amos of the eventual lucky lady Shari Headley runs a McClone. Her character and dialogue are so obviously constructed by men. Samuel L. Jackson has holds up their restaurant in his own idiosyncratic (and now well-known) way. Factotum Arsenio Hall often eclipses Murphy.

Siskel and Ebert: Gene says funny, charming, etc. Roger says hackneyed, old-fashioned, "the script is a lethargic retread", the treatment of women is shallow. Both agree the leads deliver fine performances. Vincent Canby: the "screenplay [...] seems to have escaped its doctors before it was entirely well." It is lame that there's no followup to Calloway's disobedient response to Murphy's injunction to disobey him. Apparently this was Murphy's attempt to branch out.

The Bikeriders (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

The things Michael Shannon makes me watch. He plays a ruffled, dented and essentially bemused biker who belongs to the original cohort of Tom Hardy's Vandals motorcycle club out of Chicago once upon a 1960s. Things go to hell when the blokes returning from Việt Nam bring the horse back with them, but unobserved by the reviewers, "The Kid" (Toby Wallace, similarly dead eyed and creepy in The Royal Hotel) who eventually does Hardy in is not a vet. This suggests the culture of the day was already rotting on vectors not explored here.

Along for the ride is Damon Herriman who can bash out these roughened characters all day, any day with any accent you wish, and laconic Austin Butler who was apparently Elvis recently. Notionally Jodie Comer narrates but is too self-absorbed in her affected, annoying performance (that accent/voice that wanders, that vapid character, those calculating eyes that don't match the facial expression) that put me in mind of Meryl Streep. (I grant that she is less inert than she was in The Last Duel.) And that's Norman Reedus from The Boondock Saints, channelling Dennis Hopper by gibbering on a chopper. Hardy shuffles along as the same old mumbling hood.

There are absolutely no stakes and everyone dies! — or should have died but just got injured or disappeared for a bit or whatever. Too many scenes fall flat. And have we not seen all of this before in classic American cinema: The Wild One, Rebel without a Cause and (not) Easy Rider? Or Hunter S. Thompson's book Hell's Angels of 1967? Was the world also gagging for a reheat of this genre? The insatiable thirst for retro has consumed everything forward looking.

I haven't seen anything by writer/director Jeff Nichols before this. The reviews are so universally fawning they must be about some other movie. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. "For the most part, the main performers have the highly polished sheen of most contemporary American actors, Michael Shannon's Vandal, Zipco, and some artfully gnarly teeth notwithstanding; like the movie itself, they're designed to please and do." OK ... Luke Goodsell: tragic masculinity, Butler as James Dean or Mickey Rourke (Rumble Fish came to my mind, The Outsiders to his). "In a supporting performance that might be the movie's best, longtime Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon captures the conflict as an old-school burnout adrift in a new world." Mean Streets. Ambition and execution are far apart. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Austin Butler during the Australian promo tour. Violent? I think not; there's not even a menacing atmosphere. Butler and Comer do not have any romantic scenes. Comer aimed to clone original source Kathy Bauer. It's a bit Scorsese. It's a hetero/homo love triangle. And so on and on. Most concur that it's a bright shiny dog but endorse it anyway.

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972)

/noise/movies | Link

Very early Wim Wenders. Based on a short novel by Peter Handke which I felt was a long way from his best work. We follow an intemperate goalie (Arthur Brauss, Cross of Iron) of German extraction (?) on tour in Austria. He gets sent off for venting at the ref (offside!) and heads into Vienna to catch a few flicks. Idly he picks up and murders a cinema cashier (Erika Pluhar) after she plays at choking him with her necklace (in a forewarning to today's kids perhaps). After that he escapes into some kind of previous life with a country innkeeper (Kai Fischer) who now has a young child where he displays no disconcertion whatsoever. Are we to take that to mean that all goalies are cold-blooded calculating sociopaths?

So much of what we're shown is banal. The much-remarked influence of American culture on post-war West German culture (see also Paul Beatty) is closely observed. He drinks a lot of what struck me as room-temperature beer in long necks, cranks all the jukeboxes and flirts with every woman he meets. Not one of the series of disjointed scenes amounts to a vignette.

As in other works of the era all the women are beautiful, single and willing, even if they have kids. The Passenger gave its women more agency and did a far better job at evoking an atmosphere. It's difficult for me to credit this work as much of an achievement given Paul Verhoeven's efforts soon after, and in another direction, Werner Herzog's.

Peter Bradshaw in 2018: five stars and a lengthy summary. Goodreads tried to read the book.

The Passenger (1975)

/noise/movies | Link

Second time around with this Michelangelo Antonioni-directed/co-written flick. Jack Nicholson leads as a British/American war correspondent. He's looking for a war in the deserts of northern Africa in his classic Land Rover Defender but only turns up a mysterious European man with a heart condition at their hotel. The man's death prompts him to adopt the man's identity and undertake a grand tour of mid-1970s Europe (mostly in Spain) with Maria Schneider (of Last Tango in Paris) in tow. This, of course, proves fatal.

Antonioni's camerawork is often interesting though I didn't always understand what he was showing me. The flashbacks are very smoothly executed. Bras seem to be in short supply. The plot is a bit gnarly at times as it is unclear how Nicholson's pursuers (including wife Jenny Runacre) could have such specific knowledge. Overall it does reward a close watch.

Roger Ebert: retrospectively three-and-a-half stars in 2005 with much pointing to Blow Up. Once again those huge yank tanks on ancient European streets. The lack of plot means it's all in that intriguingly complex final shot. He claims he wrote a negative review at the time. Vincent Canby.

A Hijacking (2012)

/noise/movies | Link

Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm who has made more hay as a scriptwriter for Thomas Vinterberg (Submarino, The Hunt, Another Round). He was also involved in Mindhunter.

Things go as it says on the tin: in the mode of realism we're shown a boat somewhat close to Mumbai in the Indian Ocean. The cook (Pilou Asbæk) unloads a series of Chekhovian devices — he'll be a few days late home, they're low on drinking water, he misses his wife and daughter — before the titular hijacking occurs off-screen. The whole show is intercut with scenes in wintry Denmark where the CEO of the shipping company (Søren Malling) is shown to be a master negotiator.

This initial framing is promising enough but not cashed very well. The Englishman hijacking expert (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) does not explain to us how these things typically go and so we have no way of assessing the progress of the negotiation or the CEO's performance except by watching the movie's runtime expire. His piratical counterpart Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) has a few good scenes but a limited strategy (give the-pirates-not-me more money or they'll start the killing). Therefore and despite the odd bit of threatening-with-a-gun and epistemic gaps — what happens to the rest of the crew? — the whole thing is insufficiently tension-inducing. The concluding scene on the boat is ridiculous but perhaps clarifies Omar's relationship to the pirates.

The acting is solid. The jittery cinematography is tired.

A. O. Scott. Paul Byrnes.

Kaveh Akbar: Martyr!. (2024)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Prompted by Francine Prose's review in the New York Review of Books.

Briefly Iranian-American poet Cyrus Shams goes from his squalid bedroom in an Indiana college town to NYC in the hope of drawing artistic inspiration from a terminally-ill Iranian-American woman's dying-in-public installation. Unfortunately there's just too much repetition, too much unnecessary fleshing out and recycling of well-known-from-the-internet tropes (e.g. the Overton window, Marina Abramović's performance art). It's very much of the U.S. East Coast: art galleries, openings, pan sexuality, addiction, everyone everywhere pining for NYC. We're shown a woman on a plane that is shot down by the USA but we later realise that this was only for the purpose of actively misleading us. The pivotal loss of cabin pressure is ineffective when it comes; the critical moment is blown by excessive preceding dithering and would've been better left ambiguous. Too many assertions are tendentious and weak: "a meaningless life meant a meaningless death" is feebly proffered and immediately retracted. I guess it sounded too good to be killed.

I did enjoy this one specific observation (leaving aside its crass inaccuracy):

The whole Abrahamic world invests itself in this promise: Don't lie, don't cheat, don't fuck or steal or kill, and you'll be a good person. Eight of the ten commandments are about what thou shalt not.

The other two involve keeping the sabbath and honouring one's forebears. Arguably only the latter has a liveness aspect and the rest are safety properties.

Prose was far more forgiving of Akbar's structure and writing, positing "we have probably not been reading Martyr! for its mysteries and its plot [...] but rather for the immersion in his enjoyably hyperactive sensibility." Goodreads. I'm still waiting to extend the addiction lit canon beyond Trainspotting and White Out. Humour is key.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

Eventually inevitable after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Notionally for Liz Debicki who did have some fun in her brief time onscreen. It's a lengthy derivative dog that consists of entirely stock pose-and-expound, talk-while-walking, putatively comedic group infighting and action set pieces that are visual spaghetti. The plot is Wolverine-adjacent: origin, (willed) amnesia, finding-a-family, destruction of nemesis. Chris Pratt reminds us it's an overdetermined McGuffin hunt every half hour, reliably. Zoe Saldaña's character is histrionic and incoherent after playing it so cool in previous outings. Chukwudi Iwuji often hints at what could have been. I was surprised at the conspicuously specious swearing given that it's a Marvel feature rated PG-13. The putative animal abuse is pure, worthless exploitation.

Jason Di Rosso talked to Chris Pratt and director/co-writer James Gunn. Peter Bradshaw was sad to see GotG go. Shane Danielsen loved it and outs himself as a comic book fan. This is multiverse blowback. Douglas Adams! I think not. Maya Philips: not a movie for comic book fans; in fact "may only be for completionist fans." Trauma bait. Knockoff Dr. Frankenstein (a theme of 2023).

For all that it is highly rated on IMDB; perhaps only the fans went.

Tron (1982)

/noise/movies | Link

nth time around with this early Disney CGI classic. As always I wish they'd made it hang together a bit better than it does but who can complain with an aesthetic this good? — and it's great to see Jeff Bridges enjoying himself so much in those days when computers were amusing.

It seems that director/co-writer Steven Lisberger has blessed another instalment (Tron: Ares) due in 2025. Can it be worse than Tron: Legacy?

Roger Ebert: four stars but not a great movie! "[A] technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun." Excellent special effects. "[T]he overkill of Dolby stereo (justified, for once)." — oh my. Janet Maslin. Not so brainy, "a gloriously puerile movie" but also "very promising in its way." "Beautiful [...] but dumb."

Wild At Heart (1990)

/noise/movies | Link

nth time around with David Lynch's fairly linear riff on The Wizard of Oz. IMDB tells me it won him the Palm d'Or at Cannes 1990. Nicolas Cage as an Elvis wannabe (and yet claiming individuality via that snakeskin jacket) opposite a very hardworking Laura Dern. I wish Isabella Rosellini had a bigger role; it's like she was just getting started in those few scenes.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars. "Understand that it's not the violence I mind. It's the sneaky excuses." Ebert from Cannes. "Underneath the flash, it was simply too sad; to applaud it would be like cheering a drunken clown while knowing he really was an alcoholic." Essentially Russ Meyer (!). Vincent Canby. Rossellini "[had] yet to get a good part in a respectable American movie."

Hit Man (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

The latest co-written/directed thing from Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused). This is as close to his Before romances as I've ventured. Prompted by Brian Tallerico's TIFF take; he was spot on about Knox Goes Away but not this one.

Dorky University of New Orleans liberal arts prof Glen Powell, teaching the Nietzschean furnish-your-interior classics, moonlights with the local police department as some kind of surveillance guy. No, it does not clone The Conversation but instead morphs Powell into a fake hit man for stinging purposes, sort of like how things go for the uncannily similar but far superior Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3. The obvious next move is to pair this hotted-up persona with some characterless hot-stuff-with-a-dodgy-ex (Adria Arjona) in what is presented as a contractually all-sex relationship. He's clearly into her for her mind. After that things go as formula says they must. It's ridiculous and a little fun but too thin at feature length.

Having an actor play multiple roles appears to be having a moment after the multiverse proved sterile and/or unprofitable. The recurring Greek chorus of coworkers got tedious fast, telling us what to think, keeping us on track, insinuating we're stupid but actually saying the material is weak.

Widely reviewed; is there really so much pent up demand for crappy romcoms? Dana Stevens. A con-artist thriller. That repeated montage of sting-arrest photo-courtroom got stale fast. Minor... but high-calibre? Four stars of five from Wendy Ide. "[The] pairing [...] matches George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez locked in the boot of a stolen car in Out of Sight for incendiary sexual chemistry." Also four-of-five from Peter Bradshaw. Coen brothers! I think not.

It didn't bother the female reviewers that Arjona is so vapid. Hats off to the marketing team.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. (1932)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Inevitable after listening to Pendulum's Coma too many times. One day I'll get around to watching Coming to America.

Not what I expected. It seemed to echo Swift by satirising utopianism in the style of early earnest scifi (e.g. H. G. Wells). I thought it'd be more incisive. Defending the production of high art by pointing to Shakespeare as the English zenith made no sense as it implies nothing of significant value was created between 1616 and 1932, and if that's the case it cannot motivate getting off the happy-masses path. Huxley's take on man's relationship with God is crap, mere reductive teleology. Most of the scenarios are so shallowly drawn I couldn't think of it as a dystopia. The characters' emotional infantility is appropriate but also a cop out.

The book sits strangely high on many best-novels-of-the-twentieth-century lists and is more interesting to read about. Wikipedia: there were many charges of plagiarism, the moving-picture adaptations all suck, it got censored (obviously for the sex; the call-to-arms as such is inoffensive pap), how it compares to George Orwell's timeless 1984.

About Dry Grasses (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

Prompted by Shane Danielsen putting it on his best-of-2023 list. Second time around with co-writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan after Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. In two sittings due to length, ruining the minor characters in the process.

The scenario has an art teacher (Samet, Deniz Celiloglu) in what he expects to be his final year of mandatory teaching service at a remote village in Anatolia, Turkey. Istanbul beckons, he thinks, but before then he has to navigate a claim of inappropriate contact by two female students (age 13 or so, insinuating Lolita) and, more perilously, a love triangle involving his flatmate (Kenan, Musab Ekici) and a woman (Nuray, Merve Dizdar) from the nearby town, both also teachers. The other thing everyone says about this film is that Samet has lost hope and Nuray revives it but Samet has the vibe of a character that can cynically, selfishly mope anywhere, that he was and will be just as exploitative, unstable and unhappy wherever he goes. Ceylan leaves a vacuum where Samet's interiority should have been, and so much is left vague and unresolved that close attention to details of plot and characterisation goes unrewarded; better to look for the changing facial expressions and count the falling snowflakes.

There's some beautiful photography of white-topped mountains and so forth that made me feel so cold for the vast (3h 17m) runtime. The love triangle goes predictably and there is far too much talking in too many overlong scenes and not enough showing; the big climactic session on the couch where life philosophies are unpacked and dissected is rife with cliche and lacks the punch and insight of (even) the door test. But I guess when conditions are so brutal outside you've got to make do with what you've got.

The "weariness of hope" punchline is so trite and far less poetic than Milan Kundera's "the unbearable lightness of being" from further west, decades ago, under an even more repressive regime. It's a strange marketing slogan to revive so soon after Obama left office (taking all hope with him?) and during these doldrums of Biden. I found it impossible to invest in any of the characters or analysis.

Danielsen's review from Cannes 2023. I wasn't as riveted. Carlos Aguilar: four stars at Roger Ebert. "Neither hope nor despair should be fully believed." The bombastic scenes were ridiculous. "In reality, nothing is as glorious or as terrible as it seems, not even the landscape itself." — I beg to differ. Justin Chang: "languid steppe-by-steppe pacing and long, luxuriant, exquisitely sculpted conversations, but [...] also nimble, alert, and alive" — I guess this is philosophy for movie reviewers. The Chekhovian device does not go off! James Quandt surveys Ceylan's works and provides a more circumspect review. The intrusion of reality/movie making with about 44 minutes to go is indeed a clanger.

Slow (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

Prompted by a four stars of five review by Wendy Ide and sign language.

In present-day Lithuania a dance instructor (Elena, Greta Grinevičiūtė) and sign-language interpreter (Dovydas, Kęstutis Cicėnas) meet cute at her class for deaf students. We're shown this after a provocative opening scene where Elena demonstrates her lustiness with a random man; perhaps we meet him more fully later. There's also a song by a Lithuanian pop group that put me in mind of Fallen Leaves. Soon enough they go to his brother's wedding but from there the deaf parts fall away and the focus is on the hearing people, much like CODA. It doesn't even try for an interesting sound design ala Sound of Metal.

The other novelty dominates as the couple couples up: he claims to be asexual but still desirous of the other aspects of a relationship. I don't think this concept was handled very well. Compared with Emma Watson's "self partnering" (which I take to be essentially a happy, unabashed and knowing singledom) they seem deluded from the start: she's so obviously sexy and while he claims to not be physically into her the mechanics are not an issue and yet she cannot accept his attempts at pleasing her. She's not that into it because she thinks he isn't; perhaps the straightforwardness of Dovydas prevented a more interesting exploration. Instead it seemed like he wanted mateship (would he have partnered up with a man?) and they both seem a bit emotionally immature (or learning how to love if you prefer). The normativity makes things a bit boring, especially when he drunkenly proposes that she take lovers. That put me in mind of Breaking the Waves and its far higher stakes.

Elena does have some funny lines. Her mum is a real bitch and given to some nasty body shaming. (Elena is a ballerina with the wrong shape, making me wonder if the whole thing took Leonard Cohen's Heart with No Companion too seriously.) She is self-aware but presents as a closed book beyond her obvious physicality and often seems to be a blank canvas for Dovydas to project himself onto. (He sweetly says "we’re going to Maccas" after meeting her mum but that's his comfort and we don't learn about hers.) He's often shameless.

I didn't enjoy the cinematography very much. Too often it's in tight when I wanted to see what the groups are doing, or some other thing just off screen.

Beatrice Loayza at the New York Times wanted his sign language and her dancing to communicate more passion. Rebecca Liu. Peter Sobczynski: three-and-a-half stars at Roger Ebert. He elides the actual beginning of the movie which suggested something broader than is supplied. Hollywood would've done it so much worse.

Force of Nature: The Dry 2 (2024)

/noise/movies | Link

The things Eric Bana and Jacqueline McKenzie make me watch. The dire IMDB rating and the original instalment should've warned me off but I did want to see how much help Bana has been to Hugo Weaving in reviving local film industry. I suspect the answer is not a lot: Weaving seems to be more involved in larger international projects (with international distribution) whereas Bana's appear to be utterly provincial and involve co-writer/director Robert Connolly who seems to suffer from T.V. productionism.

The plot is simple: a group of corporate women (and separately men) go for a team-building exercise in the Dandenong Ranges (presented as the Victorian Alpine but really a suburb of Melbourne) and one of them doesn't come back with the others. Anna Torv, last seen by me in Mindhunter, was tasked with riling everyone up while also being everyone's victim. Deborra-Lee Furness (recently separated from Hugh Jackman) played her boss and Richard Roxburgh tried to find his inner David Wenham as the boss's domineering husband. Bana's job was to untangle the stories while McKenzie looked on; her character is quite superfluous and that's no way to treat an actor of her calibre.

The dialogue was really bad and the plot really sketchy. Which is a shame as the ingredients are decent enough.

Three stars of five from Luke Buckmaster. Two stars of four from Sheila O'Malley. The three-track was a real drag.

The Sympathizer (2024)

/noise/movies | Link

Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with Kiều Chinh (that probably basked in the afterglow of Alice Rohrwacher's) and being reminded that Park Chan-wook was a major contributor to the production (while quietly ignoring the recent evidence that he is far better at movies than TV). Also for Melburnian lead Hoa Xuande (who I found out later was in Careless Love). My low expectations from the novel were reinforced by the dire IMDB rating (about 7/10 and dropping rapidly).

Briefly: it goes mostly as I remember from the book. We're in the final days of a never-been-cleaner Sài Gòn before heading to mid-1970s Los Angeles with some erstwhile members of the ARVN and associated entities. Our narrator-hero "The Captain" is a spook with divided loyalties. It never settles into any particular genre, swerving amongst sitcom, parody/satire, (b)romance, heavy serious drama, spy thriller, social commentary and so on while never being as clever as it needed to be. Was the point to be excruciated?

The general failure to grip is no fault of the cast, for the most part. Xuande is fine in the lead and I was pleasantly surprised by Sandra Oh's performance as an Oriental Studies secretary (lame though her character is). Fred Nguyen Khan was great as Bon, perhaps because his was the most bullshit free of the main roles. David Duchovny! Oh my. And then we get to Robert Downey Jr, who is always about the same. I imagine he watched Alec Guinness's antics in Kind Hearts and Coronets and figured he too could handle the multi-role thing. Well, news flash! He can't. By episode four Park has ceased to direct and RDJr has slipped his leash; what is essentially a clone of Hearts of Darkness could just possibly have functioned as a homage to the recently-passed Eleanor Coppola if it was in any way funny or inventive. Further souring the deal is the faint whiff of Tropic Thunder where everyone was younger and better at high science.

Wikipedia suggests that Park was not the first Korean filmmaker to go to Việt Nam. I was a little surprised to find that John Woo wasn't the first from Hong Kong; his Bullet to the Head is structurally very similar (too similar) to this. But of course the creators of The Sympathizer mostly drew on Sergio Leone's immortal Once Upon a Time in America. They passed up more opportunities than they took to play with identities ala David Lynch despite this setting being a very natural home for that conceit.

While it's great that so much of the dialogue in this mainstream American (HBO) production is in Vietnamese it didn't occur to the creators that the Vietnamese themselves may have wanted to talk about something other than the war (or that we too might want to hear them talk about things other than the war). The following graph from Harvard's Growth Lab illustrates the rise in complexity of Việt Nam's economy alongside the (relative) decline in Australia's for context:

Australia v Vietnam economic complexity

The Sympathizer is so safe, so conservative, so far from the crass but raw danger of (Australian, don't mention the war) Romper Stomper of 1992. It says so much less about Vietnamese culture and the immigrant experience than Andrew X. Pham's Catfish and Mandala from 1999 and Nam Le's The Boat of 2008. It disallows the nuance of foreigners' accounts of living in Việt Nam and engaging with the locals such as Dana Sachs's memoir from 2000. Viet Thanh Nguyen, writing in 2015 and executive-producing now, is still just riffing on those (Western) exploitation flicks of the 1970s and 1980s that we all enjoy so much. It completely fails to grapple with the country and its people's development, aspirations, achievements and, of course, complex, opaque and troubling-to-the-West politics. (Coincidentally I was in the country when those lines crossed.)

Can we expect a sequel? Perhaps Nugyen is still occupied with figuring out how to follow up The Committed.

Reviews seem to be uniformly positive. I rest my case.

Civil War (2024)

/noise/movies | Link

Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Never Let Me Go). For Kirsten Dunst. It's dire.

Notionally California and Texas have gotten organised against the East Coast with Florida going its own way. War photographer Dunst and three other old-school journalists take a road trip from NYC to Washington D.C. to interview the President who is not expected to survive the month. All this must be intentionally improbable — in contrast to more serious works like, for instance, Omar El Akkad's — and the set pieces so derivative that I couldn't figure out what Garland was trying to say. There's certainly no novelty in it.

On the source materials: the episodic nature of the trip upstream is so obviously Heart of Darkness and therefore Apocalypse Now. Many of the set pieces are direct lifts of either actual Việt Nam War footage or movies (man set on fire, summary execution, etc.). To some extent Stephen McKinley Henderson's infirm adrenaline addict reminded me of Matthew Modine's Joker from Full Metal Jacket. (The summary execution of the soldier/sniper at the top of the stairs here is a sanitised echo.) Things got a bit Team America (humourlessly) when they fragged the Lincoln Memorial. (I don't know who "they" were. It really doesn't matter.) And so on.

There are plenty of dumb bits. Dunst is the last character to be killed by the numbers (c.f. The Order of Death) and her lack of self preservation — crash tackling but not going down with young on-the-make Cailee Spaeny — was ridiculous. Her real-life squeeze Jesse Plemons is effective in bloodless Breaking Bad mode which is to say he didn't get out of first gear.

Garland may've been chasing a concept (that I couldn't discern) but shooting photojournalists shooting the war is redundant: they were and are already platformed and many wrote memoirs (e.g. Tim Page). It's all been done before and done far better.

The American reviewers somehow took this dross seriously. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. Wow. "Rarely have I seen a movie that made me so acutely uncomfortable." "A happy ending is impossible." — but isn't that the nature of all wars? Dana Stevens. "The point is less plausibility than viscerality." A Year of Living Dangerously. "But the fact that the carnage these reporters are documenting is homegrown shifts the inflection significantly. Suddenly it's impossible to exoticize or otherwise alienate ourselves from the bloodshed onscreen, which makes us ask ourselves what we were doing exoticizing it in the first place. This effect of moral immediacy is Civil War's greatest strength, and the reason it feels like an important movie of its moment even if it isn’t a wholly coherent or consistently insightful one." — somehow the actual everyday violence in the U.S.A. just isn't real enough.

Joe (2013)

/noise/movies | Link

More Nicolas Cage completism. Apparently this was a return-to-form after some dire pay-the-bill action movie roles. The title and subject — a volatile hard-drinking man who by helping a vulnerable boy so obviously puts himself on the path to destruction — suggested My Name is Joe to me.

This is a mostly-humourless piece of Southern realism. (There is some humour in the fine details of Cage's performance: "make a pain face ... then smile" for instance.) Cage's character is so selfless he'll give away his last cigarette, his lighter and engage in ultraviolence to no particular end. He just has so much to give. He organises a crowd of (possibly ex-con) Black men to (illegally?) poison trees which are to be replaced by a plantation. This might be a metaphor for the state of the culture. Indeed the whole thing is so unmodulated we know things are going to end in a burst of morally indubitable brutality from the get-go. How else could it be when the only sane man in Austin, Texas is insane?

We never find out why that German Shepherd at the brothel is such an arsehole. Gary Poulter, playing the boy's father, looks and sounds like some of the men in Twin Peaks.

A critic's pick by Stephen Holden. A punishing exercise in Southern miserablism. Quasi biblical. Four stars of five from Peter Bradshaw. Director David Gordon Green once was "the heir [apparent] to Terrence Malick".

Poor Things (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

Inevitable after its heavy marketing over the awards season. In two sittings in the hope the plot wasn't as mono dimensional and determined as it is. Not for me.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos who also directed Emma Stone in The Favourite which was also co-written by Victorian Tony McNamara. Based on a novel by Alasdair Gray. The bulk of it is recycled. The sets have an artificial aesthetic like older Jean-Pierre Jeunet (e.g. The City of Lost Children) but do not achieve his or Wes Anderson's coherency. Perhaps this is a rip off of Barbie (unseen by me). The mixed creatures reminded me of Mars Attacks! — if only there was anything as priceless as Sarah Jessica Parker's chihuahua. The cinematography is a mix of black-and-white and colour in the style of The Wizard of Oz (also used by David Lynch in his Season 3 of Twin Peaks) with various distorting lenses.

There is so much unsexy sex. The essence of Emma Stone's role is a woman who has never been a girl. This apparently licences her to play a Candide who constructs the best of all possible worlds. We're told time and again that she's curious and desirous of experience and yet all she appears to learn is related to sexual matters; she's as monomaniacal as your average billionaire. The placement of books by the American pragmatists (Emerson) in her hands is mere gesture and affect. I guess it's a take on identity too, palely imitating David Lynch and not Face/Off. Her creator Willem Dafoe plays a solemn, simplistic Scots surgeon/experimenter/Frankenstein with far less imagination than Gene Wilder's neurotic effort in Young Frankenstein. Mark Ruffalo is disappointingly stagey and not great as a plummy English playboy. Ramy Youssef's character was rubbish. Yes, it was probably all intentional; I know the clearly signposted this-is-funny-laugh-now elements were. The entirety left me cold.

Very widely reviewed. Dana Stevens. A nature-v-nurture experiment. Sex brings colour to this world. Refreshing and revolutionary ... really? Ruffalo's ham starts to grate when he starts to whine. Manohla Dargis. Gleefully clever with sour laughs. Breaking the Waves. Michael Wood. Five stars from Peter Bradshaw. Vivisectional! — but not in a way Patrick White would recognise. A steampunk-retrofuturist Victorian freakout, more referents; more briefly, a recycling. Shane Danielsen. A neat reversal on Shelley, making Dafoe visibly the monster — but really just externalising Frankenstein's moral deformity in the original. Symbolic sex. She's into socialism because it's more honest. The cityscapes look like they were assembled by A.I. And so on. All seem to agree that it is a very derivative, very synthetic production.

Amor Towles: Table for Two: Fictions. (2024)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Towles's followup to The Lincoln Highway. The writing is often as elegant as his earlier efforts but none of these shorts are fantastic. In order:

  • The Line. Queuing was a big part of life in Moscow after the revolution and looking at how people queue can tell us a lot about a society. (Similarly for toilets and therefore for toilet queues.) Things get confusing as the bloke eventually waits multiple days for an exit visa interview and somehow communicates with the bloke he's in the queue for which presumably calls for another placeholding queuer. (Initially Towles takes care of these kinds of details but steadily loses resolution as Manhattan approaches.)
  • The Ballad of Timothy Touchett. Poor behaviour in the NYC rare books market. The resolution involves Paul Auster who died recently.
  • Hasta Luego. Community-supported alcoholism in NYC.
  • I Will Survive. A prolix domestic drama with a very minor payoff; at 20% of the length it would've been punchy. This is perhaps Towles expressing some permissible doubt about the totalitarianism of human centricity (in cities).
  • The Bootlegger. Social mores come unstuck and a moralising/OCD Wall St money man gets some comeuppance at a concert series in Carnegie Hall. Bach's Cello suites star; these had a moment a few years back.
  • The DiDomenico Fragment. An American dynasty has been parting out a DiDeminico masterpiece (of the Annunciation) for generations until one member decides it's time for a heist.

The hard-boiled novella Eve in Hollywood (a mild reworking of what I read previously) is superior to the shorts. I conclude Towles is better at length and just maybe his new stuff is not as good as his old stuff.

Hamilton Cain at the New York Times. Goodreads.