peteg's blog

Bonnie and Clyde

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Ranked #222 on the IMDB top-250. I can see the genesis of Natural Born Killers here but not much more. Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman... they're better elsewhere.


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General Buck Turgidson survived the Strangelove nuclear holocaust to lead the U.S. Third Army to a loud but fairly bloodless victory over the Nazis in World War II. Francis Ford Coppola was one of the writers, and there are elements of Godfather bombast, pomp and ceremony here. At almost three hours, it is gripping in a is-anything-going-to-happen sort of way, and I guess that's enough of a reason for it to be #225 in IMDB's top-250.

I found it vaguely amusing that this aggrandising propaganda, of the omlette-making variety, was made in the late 1960s when the American people's support for the war in Vietnam was seriously flagging. Patton's logic of continuing from Berlin to Moscow is impeccable: we're going to have to fight them anyway, so let's do it while we've got the army there...

Stand By Me

/noise/movies | Link

Classic coming-of-age, parked at #161 in IMDB's top-250. The acting is very good, the narrative arc all-American. I can't believe it's based on a Stephen King novel.

Don Walker: Shots

/noise/books | Link

I've been meaning to read this for more than a year, and having done so wish I'd gotten to it sooner; Walker did a good job reading it for Radio National, but I prefer reading to (non-conversational) listening. Even so, some parts compelled me to pause and recall his smoke-cured voice.

The book is disjointed and impressionistic, recounting a caring childhood but a tough beginning to his music career, which is probably inevitable no matter the talent. He is clearly a private person, quiet, reflective, and unapologetically elides any detail that he doesn't want to share. There's a solid class consciousness throughout, and that while the scene makes for easy women, letting them go is not so easy. Tucker's Daughter is now so much more than a upward tick on Ian Moss's slide into history.

His stories about his first career, about being trained as a theoretical physicist and cranking the aerodynamics of bombers in Adelaide, are great, tinged with something like lifelong regret that that side of him was stunted in its development. Perhaps all physicists are failed rock musicians. Sexual desperation on the train running up the east coast is pure 1970s.

The way he talks about regional Australia is hardly unique — Malouf has done a good job too, Winton maybe. The Cold Chisel fans may be let down by the lack of specifics. God knows what he runs on, for he sounds like he gave up on hope sometime before 1975. There is a lot of violence here too, with Walker himself somehow detached about it all, not above it, not in it, perhaps disgusted that those who can aren't creating.

Review: SMAGE.

The Ninth Gate

/noise/movies | Link

A millenial hellraiser from Polanski. I expected a lot more from him and his cast — Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Frank Langella... how could it be this empty? It is robbed of any suspense by the trivial pattern amongst the texts, the deus ex girl appearing just when she needed to, and a total failure to innovate on the stereotypes of the occult. I am sure fans of this type of junk have pored it over and discovered all sorts of symbols and references, deeper meanings and bullshit, but I think the ending nailed it: hollow and two hours too long.

Yes, I feel ripped off. More so now that I find that Polanski wasn't taking it very seriously either. Sheesh, why make this tripe when you can do so much better?

Frankie and Johnny

/noise/movies | Link

A Pacino and Pfeiffer rom with some com in New York City. I have no idea why he signed up for this one: his character is unusually soft headed and there's no chance for any kind of glory. Pfeiffer tries hard to be a lower-class waitress but is too beautiful to credit with any of this stuff. Perhaps her gay BFF was innovative in 1991, now it just seems tired.

I found it funny in a ludicrous kind of way.

Andrew X. Pham: The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

/noise/books | Link

I finally bought this from the UK version of Abebooks. The pound is worth so little these days that it is cheaper to buy that way than directly from America. As always, the postage was twice the price of the book, ultimately costing me something like $AU14.

Here Pham tells the story of his father Thong; unlike his earlier Catfish and Mandala, he deals himself a very minor role, and makes not much of their relationship. The three wars are the occupation by the Japanese during World War II, the first Indochina War, against the returning French colonials, and the American War. The book dovetails with Pham's earlier stories, ending with his father free of the re-education camp, of the catfish, so to speak. The climax is (rightly) the family's move south in 1954, paired with Thong's release.

It is as well-constructed as his earlier work, with the same paired-stories structure and relentless pacing, occasionally scintillating prose and more often than not manages to perfectly capture the settings. I reckon the best parts deal with the end of the mandarin era, the squeeze the land-owning gentry were in between the Việt Minh and the French; roughly, there was no way for the nationalist but not communist people to get on board, with the gentry forced to placate both sides when the guerilla insurgency got going. Pham's ancestors were the patricians of the Tong Xuyên Domain, a place beyond Google's ken, apparently somewhere between the coast and the capital.

Hà Nội is not rendered so well, and little is said about the other classes, apart from some prostitutes from the villages; Lockhart's translated tales The Light of the Capital do a better job there. I was fascinated by his account of Sài Gòn in the days before and after its fall/liberation as it is the sort of thing I could read entire books about. The scenes from the American War are well-handled and the corruption made manifest, though the potted history might be a bit dodge; who cares about the facts though, this is about the people.

The book provides no real insight into the motivations of the new regime, focussing on the seemingly senseless acts of revenge that are (of course) what sticks in the memory. The absolutism of the Việt Minh may have been necessary for them to secure power, and possibly also for them to win the war, but its lack of flexibility, its inability to encompass those stuck in the middle after WWII or those disenfranchised after 1975 was a real liability; fittingly Pham closes with the image of brother pitted against brother, the cleaving of the family, the most un-Vietnamese thing ever.

Incidentally the somewhat progressive Communist cadres, such as Võ Văn Kiệt, do get some recognition in this book, albeit accompanied by the stench of nepotism. Near as I can tell the only road named after this bloke is in Quảng Ngãi, and seems to go nowhere.

The Ghost Writer

/noise/movies | Link

I've read way too many reviews while waiting for the incredibly-late Australian release of Polanski's latest effort. I liked The Pianist and Chinatown, though I can't remember much about either. I spent my birthday freebie at the Verona, the 9pm session.

I guess this is an attempt at a classical political thriller, ala Chinatown or All the President's Men, but it only really succeeded in reminding me of how dire the new movie scene has been for so many years. It was good to see Rents out and about, with David Tennant hair, and it was a relief that he got the majority of the screen time. Kim Cattrall is indeed quite flat, and Brosnan is miscast; he never relaxes into the role. The plot unfolds in a revelatory way, but never really makes us care, for conspiracy theories are the currency of Dan Brown novels. Perhaps they need to be local, ala Chinatown, to be worth thinking through, or incredible but rooted in fact ala the Nixon escapades. At least the editing and cinemotography are coherent, though I couldn't call it beautiful.

Reviews: Dana Stevens, Sandra Hall, Denby at the New Yorker.

Glengarry Glen Ross

/noise/movies | Link

Pacino flogs real estate with Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey. It's not bad but it doesn't really go anywhere. Mamet wrote the play and the movie is therefore dialogue-heavy.

The Panic in Needle Park

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An early Al Pacino, from 1971. Bleak, fairly soulless, a not-at-all Trainspotting take on a completely insular heroin scene in New York. The movie provides no reason for people to do drugs; simply they are addicts and have no moral fibre. It is a product of its time, I guess. Pacino is OK playing a low-grade shell of a hustler. His next role was Michael Corleone.

Stephen Vitiello: The Sound of Red Earth at the Sydney Park Brickworks in St Peters.

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I heard about this installation on the ABC news last night. It's funny how the spaces that the Sydney working man of fifty years ago sweated in have been turned into places of art, especially of this kind. Three of the old kilns have been resurfaced, with red clay, sand and dirt, that serve as the only visual entertainment for this attempt at capturing the sounds of the Kimberley. Perhaps it is immersive but as there is nothing to focus on, and very limited seating, it is difficult to linger.

Some kind of progress.

/hacking/nixie_clock | Link

The controller for the nixie clock is ridiculously complex, given how many buttons the remote control has and the combinatory explosion of modes it can be in. Ergo the attraction of Esterel, the venerable imperative synchronous language that is supposed to nail exactly these problems.

The only publicly-available tools for Esterel are from the crusty old v5.92 distribution of circa 2000, which presumably occurred before Gérard Berry et al tried to commercialise it. [*] Fortunately for me, Tim has tried them out recently and demonstrated that they're not too crusty for my kind of purpose.

Up to now I've spent more time than I should doing the boilerplate, and am only just getting started on the controller proper. It is difficult to work out the architecture ahead of time, given how much of neophyte I am with the language. The system interfaces are pretty good, and it seems possible that one day I could run some of this code on an AVR.

I meant to say that Rob gave me a remote that works fine with the ts7250. I think he got it to control MythTV. It's quite nice, and the HID driver in Linux has been very cooperative.

[*] Well, there is also the Columbia Esterel Compiler, but it hasn't seen any development for many years now.

Little Miss Sunshine

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Better than I expected, and deservedly at #237 on IMDB's top-250. The whole thing is held together by Olive, which allows the adults to get on with being stupid and funny. Perhaps they were the family Muriel grew up to have. Toni Collette is solid, as is Steve Carell.

Bridges of Shangri-La with Pete R.

/noise/games | Link

I managed to draw against Pete this time, despite him plying me with three beers. The two-player game is wearing thin, it must be said; roughly the game comes down to how many of your opponent's pieces you can tie up as students in unreachable villages, and if you can leverage a "private" bridge, where she or he cannot place a student and hence blow the bridge. We also had an arms race, where two maximally-populated villages faced off across a bridge. This looks like a who-moves-first loses thing, but towards the end of the game having some extra pieces really helps, if they can be placed, so losing seven students is not so bad.

AVR programmer and demo board from Sure Electronics.

/hacking/avr | Link

For many reasons, mostly not so good, I want to get the gear needed to hack some kind of microcontroller. After working on Andrew T's microphone board, and assembling the Bulbdial kit, I'm pretty sure AVRs are the devices to use, though I expect others will swear by PICs. In both cases there are way too many to choose from.

I plumped for an implausibly cheap programmer and USB / LCD / atmega16 demo board from Sure Electronics, hoping they would be happy with each other. Sure has an eBay shopfront, but it is cheaper to order from them direct. They screwed up my order a bit, giving me an LED controller or something in place of a power supply. I decided to wear that, as the postage was cheap and delivery rapid — Hong Kong Post airmail in about a week [*].

Things look promising. The board has a lot of stuff on it — a USB port, a temperature sensor, the LCD panel, and most importantly, all the ports broken out. Unfortunately it uses a Silicon Laboratories CP2012 chip to talk USB, and their driver for Mac OS X is pretty terrible, inducing kernel panics at critical moments, like device disconnection. Apparently there is a Linux driver now. The Windows driver is fine.

The programmer and board aren't totally happy with each other though; my first attempts at scraping programming info from the board failed, with the sort of errors that made me think the programmer was fine but the board recalcitrant. Fortunately one of the wise heads at AVRfreaks told me to remove the LCD board, and sure enough magic happened.

The plan is to prototype things on this board and then construct final versions on veroboard; the hope is that the other AVR chips are close enough to this stock atmega16 to reduce porting to a formality.

[*] Upon closer inspection I found that they got my order spot-on. The power supply is half of some kind of LED driver board, the other half being some kind of PIC, and hence the board is a lot larger than I expected. It has a different part number to what I ordered.

Tron (1982)

/noise/movies | Link

I last saw this somewhere between 2003 and 2005, I think, as I remember buying the 20th anniversary edition DVD in Sweden. This is solid 8-bit movie making with a workman-like plot that is thankfully unobtrusive. The aesthetic remains awesome, being in some ways the internal flipside of Bladerunner's, and there is just the hint of the Dude in Jeff Bridges' performance.

I can't wait to see how they butcher the sequel.

The Year of Living Dangerously

/noise/movies | Link

A young Mel Gibson goes to Indonesia in 1965 and gets the girl (Sigourney Weaver in this instance). He is so wooden, perhaps yet to slip out of Mad Max mode, and she so girlishly giggly that the romance is totally implausible. The focus is certainly on the Westerners, mostly boorish colonialists, the Indonesians being there just for colour.

With no knowledge of the history, I learnt little here and had some difficulty following what looked to be the big plot points. Peter Weir may be taking an anti-colonial stand (in 1982?), but it has been done better elsewhere. Linda Hunt got an Oscar for her portrayal of the mysterious photographer Billy Kwan.

The Liberals can the internet filter

/noise/politics | Link

Apparently the small-l Liberals have prevailed and the tubes won't be getting filtered in the near term. This effectively neutralises the issue as far as the election goes, for Labor cannot possibly muster the numbers in the Senate, so Hockey et al can only hope for more votes because they're making the right noises; he made a simple coherent argument in favour of the old model, of free filters running on people's local machines.

Nevertheless I am still putting Conroy last, even if it takes me half an hour to number the Senate ballot.

More worrying is the proposed expansion of spying powers, the recording of internet histories, and so forth, being driven by the Attorney-General. I liked McClelland's early noises about something-or-other, but he has morphed into a latter-day John Ashcroft.

Set and Citadels with Albert, Sandy, Pete R., Ilan, Nitzan.

/noise/games | Link

This fortnight we played at Ilan and Nitzan's place in Maroubra. We started with Set, where one has to find three of the twelve cards on the table that, for each of the attributes, are either all the same or all different. (The nesting of quantifiers was hard for us new players to grasp, but became intuitively obvious after a few rounds.) The patterns are sometimes difficult to discern and it takes too much concentration to be a very social experience. Apparently there is a whole class of games like this.

After that we had a full game of Citadels, using just the basic characters. I ended up winning but not very convincingly; it seemed to be a waste of time to pick up cards, as the magician wasn't a very popular choice for everyone else. I think I used it for more than half my turns, collecting just a little gold and building as soon as I could. It took maybe two hours to finish.

David Halberstam: Ho.

/noise/books | Link

I picked this one up on a whim from the UNSW Library. Halberstam had a lot of insight into the American side of the Vietnam War, and seemed willing to learn from those who understood the Viets, such as Graham Greene and Paul Mus. As a quick sketch of Hồ Chí Minh so soon after he died (this 117 page book was first published in 1971), it is not bad. However he touches on then glosses over so much history that his assertions on just about every other topic are too glib. The origins of the North's People's Army deserve better treatment (I expect Greg Lockhart sets the pace here), the connections with Mao and Russia are elided (who made the tanks used by the North?), and the life of the people in the North under the new Communist regime is not canvassed at all. It is not clear what the problems were with the old Mandarin system; indeed, given the ruthlessness ascribed by Halberstam to Ho it may have been just another rival power base that needed to be suppressed.

Given this lack of depth, Halberstam opens himself up to charges of whitewashing the Communist regime's activities, though he probably intended to focus on their nationalistic motivations and avoid the stereotypical hysteria over the red bogeyman. This is something he dodges much more successfully when analysing the American political and war machinery. From what I've seen, those who criticise him do not appear to grapple with the nationalism versus Communism distinction.

Two Hands

/noise/movies | Link

I saw this at the Verona when it was released in 1999, and apart from Rose Byrne, remember not much else about it. Ledger cuts a swathe through the high-profile Australian actors of the day: Bryan Brown is third-rate playing a gangster and this isn't even his best or final effort at it. Tom Long is typically flat, and David Field so transparently posturing. It tries to keep too many balls in the air, and pulls up empty. Perhaps its legacy is as a launchpad for Ledger, and a platform for Powderfinger's biggest hit.

In Bruges

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#191 in the IMDB top-250. I didn't get into it at all; too much is telegraphed, the characters are lame, and I'm not a fan of any of the actors. The much vaunted subtlety and totally artificial morality left me cold.