peteg's blog

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

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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 for so long. Chukwudi Iwuji often hints at what could have been. I was surprised at the specious swearing given it's Marvel and rated PG-13. The putative animal abuse is pure, worthless exploitation.

Jason Di Rosso talked to Chris Pratt and director/co-writer James Gunn. 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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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 suggest something broader than is supplied. Hollywood would've done it so much worse.

Force of Nature: The Dry 2 (2024)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

El Conde (2023)

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Co-writer/director Pablo Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón make Augusto Pinochet into a literal vampire (Jaime Vadell) and shot him in fabulous black-and-white. While potentially quite fertile they don't seem to know where to go so they introduce a nun (Paula Luchsinger) who, with a dispensation from the Church, has designs on both The Count and his loot. Notionally she's there to help The Count's five grasping children obtain their inheritance. Things burn slowly until a flurry of biting and backbiting, somewhat hastened by an underdeveloped Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet and in flashback Sofía Maluk), hurries the conclusion. It's heavy on symbolic references — I'm sure I missed most of them — but few have telling consequences.

Edward Lachman's cinematography is gorgeous. (He also assembled The Velvet Underground and shot Mildred Pierce and Howl and so on.)

A New York Times Critic's Pick by Amy Nicholson. Cheeky. The Count is hiding out in Patagonia. Doesn't have a satisfying resolution. Shane Danielsen. Alfredo Castro is indeed good as the loyal White Russian manservant. A saggy middle and a slightly-out-of-control end. Carlos Aguilar.

Winter Kills (1979)

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Prompted by Peter Sobczynski giving it a four-star review in 2023. J. Hoberman reviewed it at the same time; apparently its rerelease was sponsored by Tarantino. Based on a novel by Richard Condon (Prizzi's Honor, The Manchurian Candidate), directed and co-written by William Richert. The project pulled a stellar cast but squandered them by being overly difficult to follow.

The framing story is straightforward: more than a decade after his brother, the President, is assassinated, straight man Jeff Bridges (RFK, sort of) gets dragged into a series of set-piece conspiracy theory expositions. Initially the tone is dead serious but by the time we meet John Huston, playing Pa Kegan (Joe Kennedy), things are definitely screwy. (He has most of the good lines here. He gets his blood changed six-monthly with the kids from Amherst. He spent 11M USD to install his son in the White House — what a bargain!) This prepares us for Sterling Hayden hunting Bridges off his property with tanks and other World War II surplus vehicles and munitions. Eli Wallach played a handsy small-time fall-guy hood straight and deadpan. Anthony Perkins didn't get out of first gear as a psychotic expositor in a panopticon. Belinda Bauer had a When Harry Met Sally scene with Bridges. Liz Taylor in a severe cameo. It's never clear why anyone would help Bridges, why he's investigating, if this is a spoof, a satire or something else, if there's a point to it at all.

I can only wonder what it could've been if Huston had directed it; we get the odd whiff of his far more coherent The Man Who Would Be King.

Janet Maslin. Vincent Canby at length at the time. Roger Ebert (half everything) and Gene Siskel (very confusing, unfairly harsh on the Kennedy family). Wikipedia has all the details.

The Goldfinger (2023)

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Writer/director Felix Chong hit the big time when he wrote Infernal Affairs. Twenty years later here he is, repaying Scorcese's cloning of his masterwork by cloning Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street with the two leads of his earlier hit. Over a few sittings.

Tony Leung leads as an engineer turned property speculator in late 1970s to mid 1990s Hong Kong. He falls into a pot of money and becomes more crooked as time goes on, staying ahead of the law and keeping them away from his shady backers while attracting a bunch of amoral operators who love money. Andy Lau heads an ICAC taskforce that spends a decade or more trying to fry Leung. Things move dutifully from set piece to set piece with little to no explanation of anything. I found it difficult to follow the financial shenanigans. Much is made of sticking it to the Brits who (confusingly) do not seem particularly unhappy about it. There's a massive loss of momentum once we get to the courtroom scenes.

Leung has almost no lines (just punchlines) and spends most of his time pulling a variety of faces, most of which are variants of smirks. Andy Lau is mostly inert and is saddled with too many completely thankless cliched scenes with the wife and children. Anthony Pun's fancy cinematography is all smooth surfaces and soulless CGI.

Two stars of five from Wendy Ide. Cath Clarke: also Goodfellas. Two stars of four from Peter Sobczynski at Roger Ebert's website: also Goodfellas. (The smooth editing got me thinking of Casino.) Incidents don't amount to a story.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

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Some days you're just looking for a competently-executed escapist popcorn flick. This isn't one. It makes no sense — merely moving from one CGI set piece to the next — and the dialogue is excruciatingly bad. Much of it is impossible to follow if you're not steeped in recent Marvel lore. This might be forgivable if the imagery was any chop.

On the plus side, with half an hour to go, director Sam Raimi went all Evil Dead silly with a zombie Benedict Cumberbatch. (There's also a Bruce Campbell cameo.) But we've seen all that before.

A. O. Scott: dutiful fan service. This multiverse is so much less witty and imaginative than Everything Everywhere All at Once's. The best bits are the 1980s Raimi bits. Elizabeth Olsen is scary because she is so sad. Wikipedia: 294.5M USD of hot mess.

Mr. Klein (1976)

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And yet more Alain Delon completism. He leads here and also produced. The clear frame — an indifferent Frenchman buys art cheaply from Jews fleeing German-occupied Paris in 1942 — opens a mystifying tale of fatal stolen identity. Is it revenge or merely opportunism? The ladies don't even pretend to put up a fight with Delon but he barely notices them coming or going. Michael Lonsdale plays his lawyer.

I felt I missed some key scenes or wasn't parsing things quite right. It probably needs two goes to pin down all the details.

Vincent Canby. A metaphorical mystery melodrama. Less about the plot, more about identity and obsession; shades of David Lynch perhaps. "Mr. Delon is not aging especially well. Other actors with careers as long as his acquire, over the years, a lot of useful baggage in the form of associations to earlier performances. Mr. Delon has traveled a lot but his baggage is empty." Ouch.

Lone Wolf (2023)

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Domestic (t)errorism in Melbourne, July 2021 — which Wikipedia suggests was a time of lockdowns. The whole thing is so bad, so completely flawed. It's exactly what Brophy meant by Australian movies having TV production values. Hugo Weaving continues his heroic one-man project of reviving Australian cinema (c.f. The Royal Hotel etc.); I just wish he'd be more discerning in his choice of vehicles.

Righto, the framing conceit is that this is found footage which of course the makers cannot sustain for more than a few minutes. It's notionally based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (which I started and didn't get far into). The story is set in the tawdry, archaic fringes of sex shops, anarchists and huge, cheap Melbourne flats. The idea is to co-opt the local malcontents into committing a "victimless atrocity" that will improve the reelection prospects of the minister (Weaving). (The most inventive thing here is the choice of target, putting me in mind of Jarett Kobek's far superior Atta.) The first act is a self-admitted humdrum domestic drama while the second slides into a pure mess. Were they aiming for The Interview?

The central flaw was a mediocre script with poor dialogue that elicited poor performances from everyone. There's a dumbness to the main characters which made it hard to care what happened; it's a crass dumbness, not a comedic one like in Chris Morris's Four Lions or a knowing one like in The Castle. One has to feel for Stephen Curry whose best (or even decent) roles are long gone now. And the concluding scenes, well, they show a Tennant Creek you've never seen before.

Wendy Ide must've watched something else. None of the characters are sympathetic! I got the pointer from Chris Abrahams and Melanie Oxley who did some soundtrack work. It was funded by Screen Australia and the MIFF Premiere Fund. One can only hope that Albo's industry policy picks better winners.

Elliot Ackerman, James G. Stavridis: 2054: A Novel. (2024)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Some days you just want to read a competently-executed airport novel and instead you pick up a sequel significantly worse than its predecessor. Ackerman is deep into negative rewards now.

I've forgotten the specifics of what happened in 2034 but that turned out not to matter. What's at stake in 2054 is more-or-less what's at stake in 2024: a presidential assassination sets off January 6 militia activity and the military fragments along ideological lines. Kurzweil and his one-man creation of "The Singularity" are mentioned regularly but not analysed. Its use as a plot device is woefully underbaked. A major character from 2034 presents as Wintermute and these authors have all the problems William Gibson faced in the early 1980s: cyberspace can be accessed from everywhere but these guys only understand zooming around in meatspace. Just go read Permutation City already.

Perhaps it's supposed to be more about the themes or what isn't explicitly spelt out; they make and repeat many assertions unsupported by argument. The "blood and soil" trope is deployed to explain the recruiting of an ethnic Chinese/American citizen corporate woman by the Chinese Communist regime via a redundant Nigerian cutout and yet the same essentialism does not apply to the American or Indian characters. This isn't plausible for people whose parents were killed or bullied by the state — just look at the huge Chinese diaspora, especially the departure of so many from Hong Kong over the last 30 years, the Irish, the Russian emigres, the Poles and Nordics. Consider the name Hendrickson! In any case there's a far more sophisticated take on national and political loyalties in The Sympathizer. Are the authors demonstrating the inability of America to understand Asia or learn from history?

Their history is all key man, that there are a few choke points that can control the application of knowledge. At scale this may be so (developing nuclear technology for instance) but as the army of digital nomads and the hackers working for nation-states well know, much can be done remotely with widely distributed teams and hardware. The future may have no locus to nuke, no individual or tractable group to assassinate, no Assange to serve as a warning to the others. Perhaps that's what happens in 2074.

Their solution to America's problems is to install a wise military man (an Eisenhower?) for a limited-duration reset and (literally) marry China and move to Vermont. (The whole process is undemocratic but somehow placates the various mobs.) The Supreme Court is totally absent and they don't explain how the power-mad institution was tamed between now and then. The veteran in a wheelchair is an obvious nod to Oliver Stone (a plea to direct the movie version?) and Ron Kovic. The rising country of India (so important in 2034) does not feature. There's some Herzogian madness on the Amazon ... and a touch of The Boys from Brazil as they approach their heart of darkness/enlightenment. The gambling is tiresome.

Hari Kunzru at the New York Times did say it wasn't much chop. Goodreads was generally disappointed.