peteg's blog

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto.

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Kindle. I've read a few of hers before, and Kate reckoned this was decent. As always Patchett can write, though that doesn't always add up to a story worth reading. Structurally we're in the same space as Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow: many upper class people are detained in the home of the country's Vice President by some revolutionaries from the jungle. The South Americans are drawn the best, or perhaps the American artist embodying opera, while the Russians and French are national caricatures. The Japanese salarymen fall in the middle. There didn't seem to be much feeling for the revolutionaries beyond lip service for the morality of their cause against a brutal regime. Stockholm syndrome (of course!) yields some odd coupling via some deft artifice; the excess of (transitive!) lurv is too narrowly drawn as a physical thing that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. The foreshadowing is excessive, with some of the setups repeated patronisingly close to the cash outs. One of her themes is that the skills people make money with are generally useless outside of our increasingly claustrophobic adult daycares. Another is the universal awesomeness of opera, which stood in need of as much justification at the end as the start, given this much dancing about architecture. The epilogue is confusing; when did all that happen?

Janet Maslin at the time. Goodreads has some thoughtful commentary.

John Brunner: Times Without Number.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner. Time travel only sorta works when causality is given a wide berth. Brunner being Brunner we instead get an incoherent mess of sociological whatifery: the Spanish Armada wins, England is colonised, and time (but not space) travel devices are elementary to construct. The fashion is medieval, though the Inquisition has evolved. Structurally it's three novellas anchored by a bloke who just happens to be there; in more capable hands it may have lead to such innovations as Douglas Adams's infinite improbability drive. The ending is as pat and Planet of the Apes as it must be, but with a novel contention: any timeline that discovers time machines has no future.

Dirt Music

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It's been an age since I've seen an Australian film, which this isn't quite; Tim Winton's book provides the raw material for two foreign leads to swan about W.A., and while Kelly Macdonald is always good company I've got to wonder if they cast Garrett Hedlund only because Thor was unavailable. Their accents are challenging. Her cadence is Scots I'd say, her locutions corr-blimey Australian school girl, while Hedlund doesn’t try too hard with the little he is asked to say. Both disintegrate opposite Australian actors. David Wenham is as cold as ice, retaining barely a smidge of Gettin' Square. Aaron Pedersen is inexplicably clunky, nowhere close to those halcyon days of Wildside.

The story as shown here is a 1980s throwback, like The Club, from when Australia was on the cusp of a professionalism already souring under that old and relentlessly violent grasping. (I'd say that things have further soured into shameless mendicancy.) In those days the wife was allowed to bridle at the chauvinism but not do anything about it, which is reflected here in the cars having more personality than the leads; Hedlund's beat up old ute is straight out of Erskineville Kings, an altogether better rumination on the laconic Australian male, while Kelly Mac implausibly scores a classic and pristine lime-green Holden shagger from Pedersen's bush mechanic. "Peg leg" Dan Wyllie drives a troop carrier up the W.A. coastline, the dream of many a millennial. The music is also entirely retro: a country version of Song to the Siren, Paul Kelly's Dumb Things.

The two-track structure is not very effective as the foreshadowing gives an undertow of unearnt tragedy to the whole thing. I felt the visual style was derived from Breath, at least when we get past the excess internalism of hotels and living rooms to the where-the-bloody-hell-are-we tourism commercial (Sam Chiplin will never be out of a job). There's no real sense of the town despite it being a locus for the fisherpeople generationally. The ending is atrociously hokey. One might be tempted to blame director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands, Buffalo Soldiers) for some or all of these flaws until one remembers that the source story was not that strong, Georgie not that great a character, and that Winton's prose does more for W.A. than any camera can.

Jeannette Catsoulis.

John Brunner: The Astronauts Must Not Land.

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Kindle. More thin Brunner, with a very thin conceit stretched very thin over some druggy imaginings of alien physiologies. He made bank on his word count here with a lot of repetition at the macro level; the first-person sentences seem finer than usual, which is a bit of a waste. The spirit is (once again) Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End alloyed with some South American exoticism / essentialism. It ends in a damp squib. As idealisation is what I do (poorly), I don't think there's a lot to philosophise about: it's entirely instrumental.

John Brunner: The Wrong End of Time.

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Kindle. Another thin Brunner. It's basically a reworking of 2001 where instead of going to Jupiter or Saturn the characters go from one invented U.S. city to the Canadian border. There's the usual sociological preoccupations, and he's quite happy to take the U.S.S.R.'s side of the argument back in the day. It's difficult to see how he made bank with this sort of derivative crap. I similarly can't believe that anyone would spill so many words on it.

John Brunner: The World Swappers.

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Kindle. And yet still more thin Brunner. This one was briskly written with some motivations too opaque at times to grasp. Matter transmission! called the transfax of course. Oh my. A secret society (read Second Foundation) tries to broker peace with an immature alien society. As is often the case the scifi dressing is completely auxiliary; his main interest is on the sociology, and these days he'd probably be writing historical fiction.

John Brunner: The Day of the Star Cities (aka Age of Miracles).

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner, proving that I am now impervious to learning. This time around some aliens install transit lounges on Earth and blow up all the nukes. With that as a premise it logically follows that Mad Max is beyond Thunderdome, the mice-men are cowed but the rat-men are dreaming of the stars, and the Russkies invade. Yes that's right, the nukes were keeping the peace. The opening police procedural is a bit misleading; this is not a noir. As usual in this space the meek have superpowers, or in this case, a valuable lack of cognition. The centres themselves are psychedelic trippy trip machines, just like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Do speak up if you’ve seen any of this before.

Juan Cárdenas: Ornamental.

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Kindle. A pointer from Nathan Scott McNamara in the New York Times. A first-person Colombian drug chemist refines a substance from a flower that makes the ladies go wow; shades of State of Wonder? Realising that baldly stating this premise is not going to carry a book, we also get psychedelic prose, love triangles, and some very weak commentary on what I take to be Continental philosophy. Overall, an exercise in style mining overly familiar tropes and not for me.

Suspicion

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A jag via Roger Ebert's review of Rosemary's Baby. Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine. Thin gruel I feel: a playboy marries an upright/uptight/unworldly sprog of a General. He continues to be a playboy, as much as he can in black-and-white 1941. I often couldn't tell if the penny was dropping for Fontaine or she was foxing Grant. In the end it didn't matter much at all.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

First Cow

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On the Oregon Trail with director Kelly Reichardt and leads John Magaro and Orion Lee, the latter of whom we meet naked in the style of The Terminator. These guys form a complementary entrepreneurial pairing in this bucolic setting, and attempt to build their fortune on donuts. The cow gets her time in the frame but has less agency than I'd hoped: all blame attaches to the cat. It's slow and sometimes finds its mark; there's a touch of Dead Man in the foreshadowing, the aimlessness, the musical interludes, the canoe on the river. Also Ewen Bremner and Toby Jones.

A. O. Scott watched it so you don't have to.

John Brunner: Entry to Elsewhen.

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Kindle. More even shorter Brunner; I still haven't learnt. The drugs and conceits run thin here. I did enjoy the concluding No Other Gods But Me a bit, as a riff on Scientology perhaps, up to the butchered ending which was unusually poorly written. The first Host Age is a topical pandemic thing with a busted epistemology (we'll know how to travel in time but we'll forget most of medicine), and the second Lungfish is millennial discontent at being ejected from all they know. Not the worst of his I've read recently.

John Brunner: To Conquer Chaos.

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Kindle. More thin Brunner. You'd think I'd learn. Near as I can tell this is a mild yet wordy variant of Planet of the Apes: an artificial biological sapient goes insane and the humans regress technologically. There's little to redeem it as it goes nowhere for far too long. Brunner calls time on this fiasco before resolving many loose ends; for instance the girl does not get the boy, and the green stuff remains purely a plot device.

John Brunner: The Repairmen of Cyclops.

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Kindle. The last of what he must've hoped would be a much longer series. This is Soylent green refracted through the horror of involuntary parting out of bodies. There's a touch of USA-style coca-colonisation and the United Nation's smurfs. I just wish his characters weren't right all the time.

Ghostbusters II

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With Jacob and his kids. Bill Murray reels off some great face gags and lines. It's been a while since they've made a movie this silly and fun.

John Brunner: The Avengers of Carrig.

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Kindle. Goodreads told me that this was part of a series, somewhat related to the last one I read. It's mostly fantasy, a dragons-and-damsels sort of thing, and thin Brunner at its worst. A few twists (and not the paltry revelatory style) may have made it worth reading.

John Brunner: Polymath (aka Castaways' World).

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Kindle. More thin Brunner. Goodreads reckons this is more chop than the last one, and they're right. Here we're served a North Korea/South Korea setup (making me wonder if there's a plateau and a river there) that underpins a pioneering/disaster recovery superman plot. Brunner (as always) is more interested in social commentary than the scifi; the resource limitations he imposes are more for the sake of the story than plausible. For instance a star going supernova is surely not a matter of hours.

John Brunner: The Rites of Ohe.

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Kindle. More thin Brunner, and more mediocre. At best this is some thin criticism of staid cultures (Britain) and the futility of finding solutions in ancient, "god-obsessed", death-culture India (Buddhism). While there may be something in that the superficiality here grates. In other ways the converse of Asimov's Second Foundation, a failure to launch in spite of promise, is championed. The repetition does not improve things, and clearly Brunner was struggling to make bank.

Stan Parish: Love and Theft.

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Kindle. Sold by Adam Sternbergh's review in the New York Times. I don't usually read thrillers, and having finished I'd say this is solidly in the Oceans territory, including a femme crossover, where all women are beautiful and available and willing, and all men are handsome-ish and carry an MMA undertow. The writing is fine for these purposes, though he could have left out the common exotic (the finance son predictably, inevitably hooks up with the party DJ daughter) and the Spanish dialogue that adds little. We spend perhaps 80% of the story waiting for a production. The ultimate twists are disappointingly transparent. Locations are chosen seemingly at random. It did pass the time. Michael Mann to direct the movie, or maybe he already mostly did.

/noise/beach/2020-2021 | Link

On Jacob and Barb's advice I aimed for Diggers Beach and missed; I slavishly followed the directions of Google Maps which took me instead to Charlesworth Bay Beach. It's a beaut spot. The water was roughly 20C and the air perhaps 23C, sunny and warm with a light swell. The rocks are mostly obvious but there were some non obvious shin scrapers. I dried out on the sand after, then did a bit of work in the back of the troopy.

The Tenant

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A Polanski jag from Rosemary's Baby. It's a series of vignettes about poor neighbourly behavior in Paris, with some cheap and impenetrable psychological and occult twists. Polanski directs and leads, but to nowhere. Can't say I really got into it. Digging further into IMDB, I hadn't realised that Polanski had been directing for so long before this.

Roger Ebert was very unimpressed at the time. Vincent Canby. There does seem to be an excess of dubbing.

John Brunner: The Infinitive of Go.

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Kindle. With thin Brunner there's always the risk that the conceit or the drugs will wear out before he's made bank on the word count. This one is a discursive and partially successful take on the multiverse, larded with some crass social commentary. The spirit is Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End despoiled by 1970s disillusionment. It's a bit disjointed, with too many words spilt on more-or-less the same things.

/noise/beach/2020-2021 | Link

Swum at Chinaman's Beach on the edge of Jervis Bay around 10.30am, after walking up to Greenfields Beach which wasn't as appetising. It wasn't warm but also wasn't too bad; I'd believe it was 19C in and a bit more out. Some young couples had a go on some paddle boards. Afterwards I had lunch at the public BBQ at Hymans Beach, right after the bloke cleaned them.

Amir Ahmadi Arian: Then the Fish Swallowed Him.

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Kindle. Incarceration literature. A pointer from Farah Abdessamad at the Asian Review of Books. It's well written but adds nothing to a genre already strip mined by the inimitable likes of 1984; George Orwell's contribution was to show not just what can happen in a state with a totalitarian bent but why, and what its objectives might be. This one has the fist shaking and mental disintegration but no analysis. When the inevitable "confession" scene comes around I was dearly hoping that he'd pull a Gone Girl and reveal our narrator to be unreliable. Unfortunately it's played straight throughout.

I realise now that I have never got a good steer from the Asian Review of Books. Dina Nayeri at the New York Times clearly doesn't read a newspaper regularly, where the "acute observations" made here are made daily. Also it was pumped by "mentor" Carol Joyce Oates.

The Visit

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Anthony Quinn, recently returned from the desert, opposite a fiery and imperiously glamorous Ingrid Bergman in black-and-white in 1964: what's not to like? I enjoyed her performance about as much as anything else she ever did; she's highly reliable that way. The plot is essentially a riff on the old theme of: you can kick the girl out of the small European town, but you can't take the small mindedness of the small European town out of the girl. There might also be something about the market price of justice. It's nicely constructed with some echoes between then and now, and just enough righteous bitchiness.

A. H. Weiler review at the time. I can imagine a staging of this as a play might have more impact.

The Hurricane

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Epic completism. A jag from (Canadian!) director Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night, who brought Rod Steiger (Rod Steiger!) along for the ride. Denzel takes the lead opposite a Volvo 245 DL station wagon driven by plain vanilla Canadians Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, and an incongruous John Hannah. Clancy Brown isn't allowed to be as much fun as he can be. We start in the mean streets of Brooklyn where a cop somehow decides to cast shade on a very young black boy for the rest of his natural life. This remains unmotivated throughout; the fact that the murders were never properly investigated suggests they may have needed a fall guy, but the opportunism of Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter's arrest speaks against that. Later we're in Toronto and New Jersey. There's excess interiority. Unlike the Poitier vehicle, this one is intricately nested with the biopic framed by nice details, a coming-of-age story, ineffective Spike Lee-esque newsreel footage of the day, boxing in black-and-white, and gross simplifications: he was robbed, repeatedly, and not just of justice at the time but also of nuance here.

Overall there's a truthiness to the whole thing that falls short of adding up to a decent biopic. I read afterwards that Jewison also directed Pacino in And Justice for All, so I guess he likes to show that eventually the system eventually gets it right eventually. It's a tough genre to excel in when you're up against something like Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father. Presently I'm reading incarceration as well as watching it, so I guess it's on my mind. Commutation seems further away than ever.

Roger Ebert at the time. He's right, Denzel lifts the material, and it does improve as it goes along. Stephen Holden, also at the time, was far more skeptical.

Reflections in a Golden Eye

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More John Houston completism; he directs. We're at an army base in the South somewhere inspecific. It's a character study of what people do when they are under occupied. Marlon Brando underperforms with a vintage mumble. Liz Taylor's accent wobbles, which is disappointing after her sterling effort in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I got a bit confused when Brian Keith picked up the scissors; was something finally going to happen? But no, the entire runtime goes by without a thing. Robert Forster was in David Lynch's Twin Peaks resumption. In two sittings. It's an adaptation of a book.

Bosley Crowther at the time. Robert Ebert got right into it.

Purple Noon (Plein soleil)

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A French production of what we now know as The Talented Mr Ripley from 1960. It has its moments, though it appears there is only one way to adapt the novel, right down to the constipated scowl of Alain Delon / Matt Damon. Similarly Maurice Ronet looks like a moderately Gaulified Jude Law, and Billy Kearns plays a wooden Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's essentially touristic.

Roger Ebert in 1996.

Ann Patchett: State of Wonder

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Kindle. Third time around with Ann Patchett; I remember enjoying Commonwealth for its sprawling family saga, and being unimpressed by the inessential The Dutch House. This one, from 2011, lies somewhere in the middle. The premise is cliche: a feminized Heart of Darkness embodied in the heavily qualified (surely overqualified) big pharma lab rat Marina Singh. Her job is to go bravely where no Minnesotan half-bred Sikh with father issues has gone before... past the rubber plantations of known Brazil/Amazonia to a magical circle of trees, revealed by her Kurtz (ob/gyn prof Dr Swenson) to solve the problems of age in Western women and disease in Eastern peoples, not to mention the face of God. As before I often enjoyed her writing, which here wears its research lightly and tourism more heavily, apart from the odd bout of excessive handwringing and impossibility; Patchett reminds us constantly of the limits of medical research (etc) in the USA while having us believe that the woefully unsuitable Marina would ever be sent on such a journey and capable of such feats as cutting up an anaconda. The other characters are again not managed well; more interesting to me were the tertiary Dr Budi and Thomas Nkomo than the Bovenders and Saturns and Swenson (etc) who get the focus. There is intercontinental lurv. It's cinematic, or at least telemovie-atic.

As always, a range of views at Goodreads. I think the baseball-bat wielders have it. A book of the decade for the ABC's Sarah L'Estrange; her summary is inaccurate. Fernanda Eberstadt at the New York Times says Lord of the Flies and "megavillainess"; we're adjacent to James Bond territory. Also at the New York Times, Janet Maslin gestures additionally to Herzog and is more appropriately skeptical.

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Vale, Ennio Morricone.

In the Heat of the Night

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Second time around. There's a lot to enjoy in Rod Steiger's performance, and I think Sidney Poitier's best work here is opposite him. The plot is threadbare. Roger Ebert rated it #10 for 1967 with no standalone review.

Harvey

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Jimmy Stewart completism. Black and white, 1950. This one has been on the pile for years due to its unappetising premise of a genial, idling Stewart and his six-foot, three-and-a-half inch imaginary rabbit bestie. It does have its moments but probably worked better as a stage play, like Arsenic and Old Lace. Josephine Hull (also in that) got an Oscar for playing the sister/mother role in arch, stagy fashion. It's just the kind of entertainment (and making light of psychology) to put the country to sleep after the war, presaging the soporific, damage-denying decade to come.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

Da 5 Bloods

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The new Spike Lee. I went in cold. Four of five "bloods" (an all-black squad) from the Việt Nam/American War return in something like 2018, using the recovery of their mate's body (KIA not POW) as camouflage for the ex-filtration of a gold cache they left there back in the day. It's filmed in Thailand. The tone is lecturing and there's a pretence of historicity with a lot of gesturing at Black history and a little Vietnamese. Lee wants to have it all ways with loads of references to the classic movies of the genre, NGOs, didacticism, cliches, and so forth, ultimately sliding into an unfunny Tropic Thunder mode. (The surviving cast doesn't even feign grief when one of da bloods gets it in the present day.) Lead Delroy Lindo is intended to be weighty, like Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line but comes off more like a prolix Rambo. Chadwick Boseman makes up for some of these defects. The introductory newsreel is unfortunately more generically 1960s than Lee's scintillating effort in BlacKkKlansman. (Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen return from that, again to limited effect.)

In all, it's a few decades stale.

Widely reviewed. Michael Wood. A. O. Scott found a lot more here than I did. Viet Thanh Nguyen's rejoinder; he's right, this is lesser Lee: a pile of gesturing with an ending messier than Apocalypse Now's.

Sergeant York

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Howard Hawks completism. A hokey hagiography of a bloke from the "Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf" somewhere in Tennessee who's a dead shot. They send him off to World War I but somehow don't set him up as a sniper. His crises of conscience are resolved by rendering many bodies unto Caesar. So clearly made-for-purpose in black-and-white in 1941. Gary Cooper got an Oscar for what I found to be a patronising and humourless performance. I was amazed that a piece of farmland could be purchased for several months of labour at that time.

Bosley Crowther, respectfully.

Catherine Lacey: Certain American States

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More interiority from Catherine Lacey, this time in short form. I didn't find anything particularly memorable here. As always the odd observation or taut sentence or angle is cute and sometimes makes the ramble worthwhile. I wasn't convinced by the male voices.

A variety of opinions at Goodreads.

Rosemary's Baby

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This Polanski classic has been on the pile since forever. I expected a David Lynch gross out, given the title/premise, but it is in fact closer to doomed suds circling the drain. We're in NYC in 1965 and 1966, shacked up in an apartment building with massive apartments that somehow an unemployed actor can afford. Witchery ensues, from which the young wife is witless to escape. It reminded me of The Devil's Advocate, which was a more persuasive Faustian effort, leaning on the egos of the able leads; Polanski's later Chinatown interpolates these two. None of the acting excited me; apparently Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet got an Oscar.

Roger Ebert got a lot more out of it than I did. I couldn't get past Mia Farrow's essentially clueless response to her situation, which seemed entirely in service of the plot.

Barnacle Bill (1957)

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Another of the Ealing comedies (a minor one) and more Alec Guinness completism. It's a paint-by-the-numbers farce in black-and-white that passes the time amiably but unimaginatively. The permanently seasick star wins us over by playing the little man sticking the big sea laws to the self-dealing local council. There are young people doing their thing to what was progressive music at the time. It's a bit disappointing when set against the earlier Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Spellbound

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It took me a few goes to get past the initial hokey crap, and it does improve, as you'd expect from Hitchcock. "Human glacier" yet forever coquettish Ingrid Bergman gets constantly slavered over in what would now solicit endless #metoos; she's good but it's a disappointing role after her timeless efforts in Casablanca, Notorious, and so forth. I don't remember Gergory Peck at all; I haven't seen To Kill a Mockingbird since school. The 1945 psychobabble, even in black-and-white, is always too much. Just maybe you could count this as a dry run for Psycho. There's a Dali dream sequence.

Make Way for Tomorrow

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Another of Roger Ebert's great movies (2010): "It's so tough it might not be filmable today, when even Alzheimer's stories have happy endings." Black-and-white, 1937. It's a story of an aged couple and their five children. There's a lot to enjoy in Beulah Bondi's performance; away from her things get more formulaic and sentimental.

Elliot Ackerman: Red Dress in Black and White.

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Kindle. This is the weakest from Ackerman I've read yet. It's nothing like his earlier work, except perhaps in the prose being even more pedestrian. I guess he read a book from the first Cold War and figured that we needed an Our Man in Constantinople or The artist who didn't come in from the cold. The city and its subcultures provide only local colour; the only rounded-out character here is Murat, and that's because he's a two dimensional, non-violent Michael Corleone-esque business guy. Plot-wise Ackerman thinks he's got it figured out like Smiley would, but it wouldn't take much imagination for Cat to return home at any point to fetch her and her son's passports; she could depart for the USA while her husband is out one day, and I doubt the embassy could interfere much. The reveal at the end is entirely predictable given the concussive repetition and closededness of what comes before.

Joan Silber talks it up. Perhaps this shadowboxing is something for Americans to wring their hands over.

The Good the Bad the Weird

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One more Kim Jee-woon after I swore I would stop. This is a Korean Western, faithfully cloned from the spaghettis right down to the faux Morricone score and negative space portraits; not quite Once Upon a Time in Manchuria but maybe next time. Song Kang-ho leads as the Weird/Tuco in John Lennon glasses. He spends a fair bit of time on what I took to be a Ural (with sidecar); there are also horses, trains and the iconic three-way shootout. The Civil War is instead one between the Korean independents and the occupying Japs; more fun would've been had if they'd had Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes pour across the plains in some anachronistic fantasy. The thin plot is delivered with a nod and wink — this is a bloodless PG-rated matinee special after all. The one innovation — spaghetti cinematography — doesn't help. It's a bit Shanghai Noon and as usual the whole thing hinges on how much you enjoy Song's mumbling and stumbling.

Mike Hale was disappointed despite his professed belief in Song's ability to lift any material.

Robert Perisic: No-Signal Area.

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Even pointlessness looks better when it's finished.

Kindle. A pointer from Ken Kalfus. Translated Croatian. The premise — of building an obsolete turbine in a factory last functional in the days of Communism — seemed adequately kooky. The bulk however is a series of portraits of people making their way through the days after the end of history. There's a bit of everything, but nothing dug too deeply. The humour is great. The rambling inner monologues are trying. When it comes the turn away from industrialism is handled well. The problem is that it takes so long.

Yourself and Yours

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A pointer from Glenn Kenny. Directed by Hong Sang-soo, 2016. It's in a similar style to The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well I guess: sleepy, a bit Todd Solondz, momentarily transiently humourless Mike Leigh, all the time playing Lynchian identity games ala Lost Highway without the violence or video clip. An object of desire is used to explore alcoholism in Seoul. Yeah. I was more interested in what they were eating.

I Saw the Devil

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A graphically violent Korean effort from 2010. It's a proforma and soulless stock revenge sort of thing: a secret agent plays cat-and-mouse with a cartoonish serial killer. Everything is coated in blood but not in a way I'd consider cinematic. Oldboy Choi Min-sik looks tired throughout but still does better than invincible cardboard lead Lee Byung-hun. I don't know why it's rated so highly at IMDB. Another directed by Kim Jee-woon.

Jeannette Catsoulis observed the excess misogyny at the time.

Clockers

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A pointer from A. O. Scott's recent "essential" Spike Lee list. It's the mid 1990s and Rudy's on the throne of NYC while we're dealing drugs in a park in Brooklyn. Harvey Keitel is still riding high off the back of Pulp Fiction; with Scorcese as producer we can expect a bit of Mean Streets with black people subbed in for Italians. Keitel plays Keitel playing a NYPD detective. Pre-Jesus John Turturro is his partner; he doesn't get to unleash his histrionics. "Clockers" is supposed to neologise a particular subtribe of dealers: they're at it "around the clock". Mekhi Phifer has his moments in the lead. The scheming menace of Don Delroy Lindo is more persuasive. Things unravel as you might expect. Overall it's something of a dry run for the superior 25th Hour.

Roger Ebert found depths that just aren't there. Janet Maslin. To her Keitel has "great improvisatory naturalness"; to me he's always Keitel. The cinematography is pretty good though, with the odd directorial flourish.

Fences

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This made a big splash in late 2016 and has been on the pile since then. I've tried watching it a few times but couldn't get past the incredibly wordy introduction; this time, with subtitles, I made it to the end in three sittings. The draw was Denzel Washington directing and in the lead. It goes about how you'd expect: a blowhard's special pleading for self indulgence on the basis of his righteous sacrifices for his family. This may have been novel in the 1950s but is all we hear now. There's too much baseball, and too much fumbled nuance. Viola Davis got an Oscar in support; she's often solid and often overemoting. I vaguely remembered Jovan Adepo's dial from the Watchmen TV series. Overall it felt like a predictable, stagy Southern Gothic with too many monologues that didn't transition well from the theatre to film. Too much and not enough.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. She's right, the cinematography is a bit garbage.

Diabolique

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Another pointer from Roger Ebert, and a jag along Henri-Georges Clouzot's output from The Wages of Fear. Black-and-white, 1955. It's a bit like Laura in that murder never quite runs on time. The twists are fun when they come, though there is some significant lag in the middle. Uptight Vera Clouzot is definitely more fun than Frenchy Marilyn Simone Signoret.

Bosley Crowther back in the day.

Nosferatu

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Another of Roger Ebert's "great movies". A black-and-white classic from 1922. It's exactly the same as every other vampire movie that's come since except it's silent and German. Bremen is a great setting. At times it's almost real.

A Run for Your Money

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Another of the Ealing comedies. Black and white, 1949. Alec Guinness in support. Two Welsh coal-mining boys win a prize that takes them to London. The expected ensues. All is fair in love and war. Nothing to see here.

Richard Ford: Sorry for Your Trouble.

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Kindle. A collection of shorts. I should have realised what Rand Richards Cooper meant by "trenchant and at times thrillingly downbeat realism": it's code for an extended meditation on the fine distinctions in feeling that people don't make any more. I was instead sold by his pull quote: "He had thought about her every single day. Though he’d thought about many other things as often. To be thinking about something didn’t mean what people said it meant." Ford sticks to where he knows: Ireland and the Irish diaspora, New Orleans, NYC, Maine, the generic Midwest, Paris, the professional classes, first world problems. His shifts in time within these stories are technically virtuosic, but also lead to excess repetition that kills things deader than dead.

The Indian Runner

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Sean Penn's directorial debut, and apparently Viggo Mortensen's break out performance. Here he is in 1991, so young, so James Dean. Everyone is so young: Patty Arquette, a few years before her big effort in Lost Highway. Even Dennis Hopper as a barman looks a decade younger than he did in Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. Del Toro boyishly minces it up in a minor role. Valeria Golino plays the same straight-up European lady as in Rain Main, but this time she might be from Mexico. Only Charles Bronson does look his age.

This is the sort of movie that is no longer made, though that sort of America is still out there, up north, not far from Ohio, perhaps still playing the post Vietnam blues. Everyone smokes. Everyone drinks to excess, every so often. There is a lot of gun play. Thematically it's a meditation on family (incarnated as blood) in schematic fashion: one brother, losing his farm, becomes a cop, while the demobilised brother is reborn bad, both retaining their 16mm black-and-white childhood traits; the essentialism is tedious. The parents go. A baby is (graphically) birthed. There's a murder or two, depending on how you count. Time rolls on. Based on a Springsteen song — "Highway Patrolman" — I don't think I've heard.

Janet Maslin. Roger Ebert.

Miami Vice

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More Michael Mann completism. Self-cannibalising his 1980s TV show (I've never seen it), he laid on all the ingredients for a solid entry in his oeuvre and yet it never congeals into anything tasty. The cast is mostly squandered. Jamie Foxx does what he can in a nothing role. Naomie Harris! Eddie Marsan! — what an accent. John Ortiz can never get the concern out of his eyes. Colin Farrell plays peak Colin Farrell. I have no idea what was going on with Gong Li. There are vast quantities of guns but no graphic violence. Some exotic locations, poorly used. The best cinematography is classic Mann: American cityscapes at night, now sadly lacking their neon. It's not easy to say what goes wrong with this thing; perhaps the fault is ours, in expecting Scarface or a classic Mann.

Dana Stevens. Obviously Naomie Harris got kidnapped for leverage! As far as I remember they didn't find the mole, or even look too hard beyond the Foxx stratagem. A. O. Scott dug it. I too enjoyed the cinematography. Peter Travers. The trailer park shootout got a proper do-over in one of the True Detectives I think.

The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae)

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Another Korean flick from the post-Parasite list by Manohla Dargis. Contrary to her I'm not unreservedly enthusiastic about the old graphic ultraviolence. Here it's all knives and axes — a guy with a gun who could aim would've made this movie about five minutes long — that inflict amazing damage and draw fantastic quantities of blood, and yet the people from Yanji (ethnic Koreans stuck in China between China/North Korea/Russia) continue. There are an excess of chases and a touch of the Oldboy invincibility. The handheld camerawork is too jittery. I lost track of the plot early on, and I wish they'd dispensed with one entirely. Directed by Na Hong-jin, new to me, and likely the last of his I'll see.

Don Winslow: Broken.

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Kindle. A collection of shorts, almost novellas, or offcuts. Upon completing it I realised I'd seen his three-spoked Paradise weed dealers before, in Oliver Stone's Savages. Here they're trying to expand into Hawaii, which the locals, of course, are not happy about. That suggests there's probably more in these stories for Winslow's regulars than I got. There's also the vibe that he's a sort-of short-form West Coast Dennis Lehane, providing raw material to the movies.

All of these stories go about as you'd expect once the premise has been established. Most of the fun is in his punchy sentences and observations, and that none overstay their welcome to the point of resentment. The pick for me was the second — Crime 101 — where he sets up a few overlapping triangles of cops, robbers, jewellers and beach bunnies. The weakest is the concluding The Last Ride, which reads as some kind of manifesto for how he wishes Southern Republicans would behave, i.e., by getting back in touch with what Winslow presents as their traditional decency. Most are about men who are lethally competent in familiar but unreal scenarios where things go unsurprisingly.

Janet Maslin's review sold it to me. She reckons the first (Broken) is the weakest.

The Thief of Bagdad

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Abu: Where are we now?
Genie: Above the roof... of the world.
Abu: Has the world got a roof?
Genie: Of course. Supported by seven pillars, and the seven pillars are set on the shoulders of a genie whose strength is beyond thought, and the genie stands on an eagle, and the eagle on a bull, and the bull on a fish, and the fish swims in the sea of eternity...

Deemed a "great movie" by Roger Ebert in 2009. A matinee classic. Special effects! Colour! I found the adventure itself a bit too generically exotic, with place names now familiar from recent American wars; I'm guessing some people in 1940 knew them from World War I. Buddha has an all-seeing eye and apparently Allah wasn't too bothered by sorcery back then. In two sittings as I wasn't that into it.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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Another of Roger Ebert's "great movies" (four stars in 2009). The still in his review suggests fantastic things, like a 1960s Doctor Who set or a Bertolt Brecht: angular, stagy, artificial, and with a point to make. The reality is a silent German movie from 1920. I didn't follow the plot entirely; I was hoping for some David Lynch Lost Highway identity-based kookiness but instead got a fairly linear bit of misdirection. I'd lost interest by the last scene, and have no idea why the surviving friend was being branded insane.

The Pledge

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One of Roger Ebert's "great movies" (four stars in 2012, a kiss-of-death 3.5 stars in 2001). The draw was the fabulous cast: Jack Nicholson leads as a one-last-case retiring police officer in Nevada, Benicio Del Toro mumbles unpersuasively, Aaron Eckhart does his alpha-male thing, Mickey Rourke attempts some tears, and so forth; none are particularly convincing. Sean Penn pulled this crowd and directs, putting his wife-at-the-time Robin Wright Penn in flannels and cracked teeth as the obvious love interest. In this role he seems eternally preoccupied with the treatment of children: here there's some extreme but entirely routine serial killing. After the initial gore things slide into the soporific, and as the time wound down I realised that he was trying really hard to go somewhere new. The break, when it comes, is not worth the trip: the culmination of Nicholson's fishing, petrol vending, family anchoring, and angst is a solitary gibbering alcoholic.

Reviews were legion at the time.

Evan Ratliff, ed: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from The Atavist Magazine.

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Kindle. Over an extended period of time, since I read Ratliff's fascinating The Mastermind. This is a collection of long articles drawn from The Atavist; some hits, some misses, some omissions, and one I'd read before. Most were good but nothing was particularly memorable.

Mindhunter (Seasons 1-2)

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It's like Twin Peaks and The Silence of the Lambs had a baby TV show that married Se7en but secretly wished it had saved itself for True Detective or Breaking Bad. It was raised in the neighborhood of Natural Born Killers. This FBI eerily echoes David Lynch's with similar tensions between institutional conformity and quirky innovation. Instead of Duchovny's timeless Denise we get Anna Torv's frosty lesbian academician; the psychobabble is sometimes, even too often, too much. (Lena Olin smokes her off the screen in a few brief scenes.) Jonathan Groff's semi-Rain Man Holden Ford (eventually deep into season two: "It’s a bad joke ... in Australia") has his kyptonite, just like Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper but nowhere as inventive. Holt McCallany (memorable in Fight Club) is solid as his blinkering buddy. But of course without a character like Lynch's Cole things were always going to be a bit too linear. The smoking is epic. There are too many balls in the air. The ambience is ruthless. The family stuff wasn't too much but still crowded out more interesting things.

The draw was David Fincher, who hasn't done a lot of directing since Gone Girl. The cinematography is often dark sepia.

The Foul King

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Another Korean effort; another post-Parasite pointer from Ben Kenigsberg. This one is more literally a WWE cartoon, and you'll enjoy it about as much as you're prepared to indulge Song Kang-ho's style of comedy. There's a smidge of romance, some mess at the karaoke, much fantasy fulfilment. It was released in 2000, making it something of a response to Fight Club. Directed by Kim Jee-woon, who is new to me.

A. O. Scott at the time.

Train to Busan

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I thought I'd give SBS's on-demand service a go. You need an account (surprise). It didn't like the various ad blockers I use in Chrome, and even when I disabled these it cratered every ad break. I had even less success with FireFox. It did work fine on vanilla Safari, which I keep for just this purpose. Yeah, the ads are annoying.

This is a 2016 South Korean zombie flick set on a train, a bit too soon after Snowpiercer I'd say. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, who was new to me. The violence is less graphic than we're used to, and it's pretty funny at times; things get cartoonish in the same way as the WWE. The cinematography is as gorgeous as you'd expect. The CGI is not too bad. It has all the tropes but passes up too many opportunities to freshly skewer the genre, its characters or Korean society; overall there's not a lot going on beyond the busyness in the frame.

Jeannette Catsoulis.

Trishna

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As with all the others recently, this movie has been on the pile for ages. Delayed Winterbottom, Thomas Hardy and Riz Ahmed completism. I always thought of Ahmed as having Pakistani and not Indian heritage, and capable of more subtlety than he manages here; there is some colour in his initial bro, but it's all gone by the time we get to Mumbai. Freida Pinto struggles to make much of an empty role. Winterbottom claims to have adapted Tess of the d'Urbervilles but he only retained some shapeless highlights. The cinematography is quite good, so it sort-of works as a high end tourism commercial.

Roger Ebert saw more in it than I did, and observes how combining two of Hardy's characters in Ahmed's explains the general formlessness. Manohla Dargis.

Far from the Madding Crowd

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More (delayed) Carey Mulligan completism, and similarly for Thomas Hardy. She does her best here with a story that has been reduced to soap opera and blanched of Hardy's usual preoccupations. She marries poorly, and almost entirely out of character. Michael Sheen does what he can with even less. It is well shot. It's not a patch on Winterbottom's Jude.

A. O. Scott worked hard to make his word quota.

Tim Winton: The Turning.

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Kindle. I've had in mind for a while that I should rewatch the movie from 2013. Instead I picked up its source material, which is good in its way. Since its release Winton's autobiographies have made its origins more transparent, and perhaps the whole thing redundant.

There's been a deficit of specifically Australian stories these past several years, or maybe I haven't been looking hard enough. Either way this seems unlikely to change with the virus and the eternal pursuit of world city status.

A Hidden Life

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Malick revisits the Christ story, framed by World War II; I think he wishes he'd made The Last Temptation of Christ as well as The Thin Red Line. The plot is no more than what it says on the tin: an Austrian farmer cannot bring himself to swear fealty to Hitler. The cinematography is as awesome as ever, but it took me several goes to slog through these three hours as it completely fails to grip; more precisely, the beautifully impressionistic opening half enthralls until we're on that railroad to an execution in Berlin. It proves Zeno right about time in that way. I feel the mix of English and German is a mistake, as is having the bereft wife wife kicking fences and rending grass, where Malick seems to forget that these are stoic Germanic people.

Richard Brody thinks that it's time Hollywood stopped putting the Nazis on film. A. O. Scott.

Theatre Y has a YouTube channel.

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It's not at all like being there.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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It's taken me an age to get to this one. Turkish, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Feted in 2012 (Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, etc.). It's a snoozefest. Beautifully shot and fantastically framed with pretences to deep musings. Perhaps the frustration of the police chief, at the lack of progress in the search for the body, is supposed to internalise or co opt the audience's experience. This sort of pacing can be OK if there is any kind of payoff anywhere along the way.

Roger Ebert. I can't say I watch movies to "live along with [the] characters as things occur to them." I picked it up on the strength of Dana Stevens's top-10 for 2012. Manohla Dargis.

The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well

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A random pointer from a post-Parasite list of Korean movies from the New York Times. Directed by Hong Sang-soo. 1996. Song Kang-ho has a minor role. The subs I had were not great. It's a droll days-in-the-life-of. Not great.

Call Me by Your Name

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Another on Leon's recommendation. Also I've somehow got the impression that Armie Hammer is worth watching, but for the life of me I can't remember why, beyond The Social Network. Third time around with Timothée Chalamet I think: previously Lady Bird, Little Women. Ah, also Interstellar, so completely flushed from my brain.

The first thirty minutes of this coming-of-age flick is pure montage. We're in postcard Northern Italy, circa 1981 (the reviewers say 1983). Things are peaceful and there's a vast amount of archaeology to do, so much that it occupies about five minutes of film time. The older grad student decides to get it on with the supervisor's son. The supervisor is very wise about it all. Things get a bit American Pie. The stations of the love affair are mostly stock and awkward in the usual ways. The cinematography is lush. The smoking is of the old school. There's a sequel in the offing, and I can't imagine what it has left to say.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis observes the class structure.

Arthur Phillips: The King at the Edge of the World.

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Kindle. Dominic Dromgoole sold it to me. The premise is rich: an educated Muslim in the royal courts of England and Scotland around 1600 CE, apparently a time of Queen Elizabeth I and James VI/I. My history is too weak to have gotten all the allusions; I spent most of the book waiting for an account of how the highly ambiguous and underdrawn James came to commission the King James Bible, which — I'd've thought — did more for his claims to Protestantism than anything presented here. It's a bit Visit of the Royal Physician, a bit A Gentleman in Moscow, and the ending is entirely 25th Hour. It's too repetitious; the early foreshadowing worked well, but at some point he just needed to get on with it. A decent edit might have cut 15% and yielded a taught philosophical thriller.

Roma

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On Leon's recommendation. I feel like I'm missing whatever it is that gets Alfonso Cuarón so feted. Like Gravity, the black-and-white cinematography here is lush — some early shots overwhelm with detail; it's a bit like Control — while the plot, or narrative drive or whatever, is feeble. We've seen this upstairs/downstairs sort of thing so many times before, for the most part. The servant class are separated from their middle-class Mexican masters by race, language, geography and temperament. The lead actress does her best as things mostly happen to her, which is of course one of the central points. Set pieces ensue — a pregnancy, a forest fire, the beach. Substantially humourless. Liquid hits the floor, repeatedly, in that Chekhovian way. In two sittings as it failed to grip.

Dana Stevens. It would've been better seen on the big screen, sure. Manohla Dargis. Michael Wood found some things funny; I guess I just saw them coming in, yes, that Chekhovian way. Ultimately the story, the characters, the events: they're all too insufficiently novel.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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Again with the trawling for movies that I haven't seen, and having seen, wish I still hadn't. This is Spielberg's take on friendly aliens who do kidnap people but apparently to no effect at all; witness those Navy men from the 1940s. It's the fag end of the space age (but who was to know that) and American consumption and abundance are front and centre: the family home is epically overflowing with stuff, there are all your American favourites (Maccas, KFC, dodgy scifi, references to classic movies, the Midwest), while the family itself is shown only so it can be broken. Things start off funny but quickly become humourless as the horror movie tropes — "Halloween for adults" — run rampant from a child's point of view: Spielberg's usual vantage. While the man looks at the world the woman looks at the man. The security state response lacks fangs but is otherwise all-American. As a McGuffin bug hunt it's got nothing on the roughly contemporaneous The Shining or Alien. Linking music (John Williams did the score) with hand gestures with aliens ends up making an empty fist. The visuals tried to outdo 2001 but little thought was put into what's going on.

Roger Ebert loved it. According to that I did see the 1980 revision, though I don't remember seeing the inside of any space craft. The alien looks a lot like E.T. J. Holberman at its 40th anniversary.

Rain Man

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I haven't seen this before for, for vague anti-Hoffman reasons, and I can't say I'd regret not seeing it now. In two sittings as it failed to grip. Tom Cruise is a bit much. Hoffman is Hoffman. Oscars all round. I was even more disappointed to find it is a generically teleological yet aimless road trip.

Roger Ebert.

Good Time

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A jag from Uncut Gems; this is by the same directors, the Safdie brothers, as observed by Dana Stevens (her review of this one). Also from Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse. It's something like Mike Leigh's Naked shorn of philosophical musings, which is to say a bit of an empty vessel. There's a fair amount of unmotivated crazy which is initially justified by a desire for some kind of self reinvention and the (exploitative) love Pattinson has towards his brother (one of the directors) who has an unidentified mental disability. Jennifer Jason Leigh does her usual tough but oblivious thing in a minor role. Stevens is right about the obtrusive soundtrack.

A. O. Scott reckons there's no there there.

Aravind Adiga: Amnesty.

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Kindle. Not great. A Tamil student-visa overstayer from Sri Lanka in a Sydney dated by the pre-Opal card Travel Tens and those green machines (which, incidentally, didn't require a swipe off and so there's no timestamp for that), a pre-lockout Kings Cross as a red-light district, the Coke sign when it was neon. Conversely the bushfire smoke and release date made it feel like this past summer. There are heaps of books on the experiences of South Indians being exploited in the Middle East (e.g. Temporary People, Goat Days); fair enough that it be Australia's turn. Unfortunately this is no more than an aimless tour of the touristic parts of the city, a generic rumination on the plight of guest workers/illegals (what about the Pacific islanders?), and a long way from great; things get very repetitious, like circling a drain.

Dwight Garner sold it to me; I did keep reading and it didn't get any better than those opening scenes. Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

Only Angels Have Wings

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Howard Hawks directs, Cary Grant stars alongside Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth, future and past lovers respectively. Not very gripping: some dicey flying of dicey planes with dicey cargo out of the fictional town of Barranca, South American somewhere. Not screwy, but there are some funny one liners; more Wages of Fear than His Girl Friday. Excess details at Wikipedia.

Frank Nugent wasn't that impressed back in 1939. He says Ecuador. Bananas are mentioned, and ships carrying them to the great northern markets.

True Detective (Seasons 1-3)

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More time-soaking TV. The first series is as good as everyone says; imaginative, well acted, well shot. The shootout is a classic. The second series is more of a stock breaking-good police procedural with a generic shootout. The third series is a bit of a return to the good acting but is soporifically paced; it's Gone Baby Gone, stretched thin. So yeah, the first one is all of it.

Uncut Gems

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Adam Sandler on a downward spiral in 2019. It's very NYC Jewish, set mostly in the jewelry trading district. Writers/directors the Safdie brothers (previously unknown to me) do a fine job with a character who isn't exactly a loser and doesn't make precisely the same mistakes time and again. There's excess referentiality, Chekhovian devices, and Altman-style overlapping dialogue that is sometimes difficult to sieve. I was hoping to see Eric Bogosian let rip; time has not been kind to him. It's easily the best Sandler vehicle I've seen.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis.

Birds of Prey

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An overlong live-action cartoon in the mould of the 1960s Batman TV show. Amazingly poor, and Margot Robbie's worst outing for a while. Ewan McGregor! What was he thinking. Was anyone thinking?

Anthony Lane. A. O. Scott is wrong about the action scenes: they're creaky old hat.

Sometimes a Great Notion

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Based on the book by Ken Kesey. Made in 1971, predating the Jack Nicholson classic by four years. Directed by and starring Paul Newman. Also Henry Fonda, Lee Remick. Loggers in Oregon, rugged self-reliant individuals who flout the expectations of their unionised town. The Chekhovian devices go off as you might expect, given their dangerous vocation. Not bad, not great; the best bits are the logging and the ultimate river scenes, all without speech. Great use is made of what little remains of Fonda in the latter.

Roger Ebert. Vincent Canby.

Deb Olin Unferth: Barn 8.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Unferth's collection of shorts Wait Till You See Me Dance. Here she's even more of a romantic, breathing Brooklyn all over so-uncool animal liberation (but don't call it that, it's uncool). She renovates some of the old revolutionary tropes and applies a liberal cinematic gloss: a narrator can voice all her funny stuff, which is mostly descriptional. Concretely this is getting the cracked actors of Fight Club's Operation Mayhem back together for one last campaign against the big-ag factory farming of egg laying chooks. Capitalism is so busted it doesn't even come in for critique, and similarly for a tired and cynical populace. There's a touch of Occupy, but these are the flyover states. Mostly it is contrivance forgivable, with so often the right image: a row of cages is Zenoean. There's a bit too much foreshadowing and repetition. Overall it put me in mind of Francine Prose's Mister Monkey.

Harriet Alida Lye at the New York Times.

Chernobyl (TV miniseries)

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A followup of sorts to Midnight in Chernobyl, and also at Dave's suggestion and, I guess, because it dovetails somewhat with Fred Kaplan's recent nuclear nightmare book too. Highly rated in IMDB's TV section. The many name actors bring the focus to the human elements though the last episode does treat the technical issues around the explosion. It's generally in the style of realism; the explanation uses props like they may have in 1987. I could have done with a little less histrionics. Not much is said about the other three reactors at Chernobyl.

Details at Wikipedia; I'm not surprised Higginbotham called BS on many things here. Masha Gessen suggests the whole angle is ill-advised; but how do we get fission and exposition if those individuals who know are not in direct conflict with the powerful? That this question is not answered well is perhaps the central flaw of the whole enterprise.

Fred Kaplan: The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War.

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Kindle. Throughout I took it to be an update of Kaplan's PhD thesis from 1983 but in an afterword he claims that this is about policy and policy makers whereas previously he focussed on the intellectual apparatus of nuclear warfare. As such it's dispiriting to see so little recognition of the apparent fact that nuclear weapons are pretty much militarily useless: it seems that there is no situation where their use will lead to any worthwhile outcome. Daniel Ellsberg has repeatedly pointed this out, for instance in his book from several years ago. I was disappointed that Kaplan does not observe how the concept nuclear winter could or should have changed policy in the 1980s, and in general how strategy and policy should be influenced by the shifting balance of terror. (For instance, there was a window from 1945 until some time in the 1950s when the USA could — and did! — unilaterally use nuclear weapons without much restraint, but after this time a first strike became far more hairy.) On the plus side I did enjoy reading about how the powerful transitioned from World War II into the Cold War, and some context around the Korean War, about which I know very little.

Justin Vogt. He observes that Kaplan could usefully have contrasted all this sterile policy development with the actual decision to use atomic weapons in Japan in 1945. The stories around the end of the Cold War are, as he says, fascinating and grounds for optimism. Conversely the command and control infrastructure remains a worry.

Watchmen (TV series, 2019)

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A pointer from a Charles Yu interview that I should have been more circumspect in following. Well, it does feature some semi-decent soundtrack work from Trent Reznor I guess. Overall it's a reheat of the fabled comic book, against which it does not stand up well; it's not even as good as the movie, perhaps because the knowing and smarmy acting is simply not up to the task. The epistemics are shot to bits; it's not worth thinking through who knew what when and how and why. There's an unfortunate dependence on Interstellar-style lurv and tedious family time. Somewhat amazingly the plot is a pretty much straight replay of the first one, viz save the world! — but kill Doctor Manhattan first. I wish that was a spoiler.

Charles J Murray: The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer.

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Kindle. Not to be confused with the "supermen" theories of another Charles Murray. I was always a bit curious about what Seymour Cray actually did. Suffice it to say that this book is at the popular, business-y end of things with insufficient technical detail. It needed a bit of an edit. For most of it the author tries to push the unconvincing line that Cray was somehow conservative in his designs when clearly he had a lot of insight into the risks he was and should be running. Cray's greatest hits are the CDC 6600 (a prototypical RISC design by the sounds of it) and the iconic Cray 1. I don't know what exactly he was expecting from gallium arsenide semiconductors; Intel et al seem to have gotten there with silicon.

Incidentally Dijkstra worked at Burroughs from mid-1973 so I guess their paths didn't overlap so much. Little is said in the book about programmability and nothing about Brooks's software crisis.

Charles Yu: Interior Chinatown.

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Dead tree from the Book Depository, bought the very second I became aware that he had a new book out. I guess you could say this is a more direct take on what it means to be "Asian-American", by which he means ethnically Chinese, culturally American, and living in L.A. He expands on his parents' experiences as immigrants (cf his previous take on that), father-son relations and expectations (cf op. cit.), and the variety of aspirations that only lead to Kung Fu Guy. There's some pretty funny stuff in there, and some poignancy, and a few moves that I'm told are familiar to Westworld viewers. Older Brother is somewhat reflexive; Yu's got a law degree and the book pretends to a literate defence of the experience of the "model minority". I think he's better in short form (cf Sorry Please Thank You and Third Class Superhero) but perhaps my memory is faulty.

Jeff VanderMeer draws a parallel with Beatty's The Sellout (oh the irony, despite the shared city). A bio-of-sorts by Adam Sternbergh. Reviews are legion.

1917

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Somehow highly rated at IMDB — #58 in their top-250! — and the recent Oscars. I guess it is technically impressive though there wasn't a lot for me to hang on to; I kept thinking that it wanted to be Lord of the Rings but had ended up as a first-person shooter with a shallow illusion of a three-dimensional open world. Foreshadowing a Paths of Glory encounter with the battlefield commander was a bit lame. I didn't quite recognise Mark Strong from Kickass. The music was a bit much.

Manohla Dargis wasn't impressed. Dana Stevens observed that Sam Mendes created something all too familiar.

Breaking Bad (Seasons 1-5)

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Near the top of IMDB's top TV shows. I'm about ten years late to this party as I'm conscious that TV series tend to be massive time soaks, which this proved to be. Also I don't want to wait a year to find out what happens.

Coarsely it's an update of The Godfather to the twenty-first century, mashed up with some MacGyverism (and for mine those are the best bits), located in Albuquerque New Mexico (the land of enchantment). It's generally absorbing apart from a few too many saggy family parts. Overall it flags a bit somewhere in the middle, and the finer plot details do not always reward attention. Bonus: Rian Johnson apparently directed three episodes.

The follow-up movie released late last year does not sound as appetising; James Poniewozik reckons the canon was already complete. There's also Better Call Saul.

Adam Higginbotham: Midnight in Chernobyl.

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Kindle. Prompted by Dave mentioning that the Chernobyl TV series was some chop, and its appearance on the New York Times best books list for 2019. The details about the atomic city of Pripyat, the Soviet bureaucracy, the operational matters and design of the nuclear power plant, ... are often riveting. Conversely Higginbotham doesn't give us the story of the other three reactors at Chernobyl; for instance, when they were shut down, restarted and operated after the crisis that engulfed the fourth. The moral appears to be that not-immediately-lethal ionising radiation is on the rise, but don't you worry your pretty head about that.

Reviews are legion. Jennifer Szalai.

Farmageddon (Shaun the Sheep)

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The latest Aardman Animations animation. It's fun. There's almost no language. This one features nods to just about every scifi classic out there, right down to its cloning of the E.T. plot (near as I can tell given that I don't think I've seen E.T.). There's a great scene where some fake Daleks startle Tom Baker as he exits a TARDIS-y john, and many others. Conversely (unfortunately) the spook robot is little more than a Wall-E clone. I love it that the sheep are such excellent engineers.

Jason Bailey at the New York Times.

The Lighthouse

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Over a couple of nights as it failed to grip. Veteran lighthouse keeper Willem Dafoe gets saddled with a new assistant in the form of Robert Pattinson. The setting is, of course, a bleak island with extreme weather. Black-and-white, square frame, archaic. It has its moments but director/writer Robert Eggers (co-writing with Max Eggers) generally fails to innovate.

Manohla Dargis.

The Two Jakes

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I just discovered that Chinatown had a sequel, directed by Jack Nicholson who also stars. It's a clunky retread from 1990, so much so that I was surprised that it didn't make David Stratton's list of marvellous movies. The actors are uniformly squandered: Harvey Keitel (in one of his more awkward performances), Eli Wallach as a lawyer, Meg Tilly, and so on. Tom Waits! The plot is somewhat amazingly almost identical to that of its predecessor, though someone more invested might observe a distinct emotional range.

Roger Ebert overlooked the clunkiness at the time. Vincent Canby didn't. Peter Travers.

Chinatown

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Probably third time around with this Polanski/Nicholson classic. Water shenanigans in Los Angeles, how very topical. Prompted by Janet Maslin's review of a book on its making. Somehow still rated #150 in the IMDB top-250.

Roger Ebert at the time and in 2000. Vincent Canby was less impressed. Both observe John Huston as a link to the original American noirs of the 1930s.

Nadeem Aslam: The Golden Legend.

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Kindle. This is the third of Nadeem Aslam's I've read, after The Blind Man's Garden and Season of the Rainbirds. The themes are his usual: the faultlines of contemporary Pakistan with a particular emphasis on the lives of its liberal elites. The focal couple are well-to-do Muslim architects who share what they have with a low-caste Christian family. Much is made of a book that seems to record what Aslam regards as the sum total of human experience. Bad stuff happens and Aslam doesn't so much shield us from it as elude banality. Again his prose tends to the workmanlike.

Francine Prose at the New York Times. Matthew Wright is right that Aslam's politics comes across as simplistic, almost naive.

Richard Jewell

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Eastwood's latest: another in his series of American biopics, this time about the security guard who discovered the Centennial Park bomb at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Given the substantial focus on the FBI I guess it also acts as a bookend to J. Edgar. The cast is uniformly brilliant. Paul Walter Hauser from I, Tonya anchors things in the lead; this story is from the same (Clinton) era. Jon Hamm has the thankless task of playing the lead investigator on the dead-end investigation (reminding me of his G-man in Bad Times at the El Royale and, oh right, The Town). Kathy Bates! She got an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress, of course she did. Olivia Wilde is solid if generically slutty. I enjoyed Sam Rockwell's performance here, lodged somewhere between his W. effort and what I take to be his essential self. I quibble about the poster in his office: I fear large corporations about as much as government, though I concur both are more concerning than terrorism, domestic or foreign. I guess Eastwood implies this by pointing the bone at both the FBI and the media.

A. O. Scott is right that Wilde did her best with a poor role. Perhaps Eastwood is suggesting that the FBI had lost its way by that time? Richard Brody summarises the plot and draws a parallel to the FBI's treatment of Mrs Clinton in 2016.

Il traditore (The Traitor)

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Prompted by A. O. Scott's recent review. It's not exactly The Godfather; more one of those Pablo Escobar hagiographies from a while back. There are some fantastic scenes, such as when the dons are caged up at the rear of a courtroom. I have no idea how Italian justice functions, but it sometimes looks like fun. Scott doesn't seem to mind that Tommaso Buscetta's own motivations went substantially unexplored; if he was really that much into the ladies, how much money did he need?

Motherless Brooklyn

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Ed Norton directs and leads in this revival of 1950s NYC hard boiled detective semi-noir. His usual tics are all on show (for instance "let me tell you something") as well as some new ones, with compensations in Rain Man style. It's too talky with not enough show, and not as twisty as the running time demands while also not making a tonne of sense. Still it's better than the dire IMDB rating and reviews suggest, and there is the odd sweet scene. Alec Baldwin plays a Robert Moses figure who's not going to let the small people get in the way of the big things that need to be done.

A. O. Scott.

Jojo Rabbit

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There's not a lot going on here; three Oscars therefore. The cliches pile up, along the lines of what I was once told: German humour is no laughing matter. Despite this Scarlett does make a semi-decent fist of the real thing. Rockwell plays louche Rockwell. Stephen Merchant as Gestapo: are those hats a nod to the classic Borsalinos of American Jewry? Taika Waititi is perhaps the pick as the imaginary Hitler bestie because at least you know he's on the high wire.

Hollywood can't give up on Nazis, which is unfortunate as they cannot innovate ala Downfall or Look Who's Back. It's just not enough to gesture at current political conditions when superior works like The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui have been around for so long. And yes, all of those are German efforts.

A. O. Scott wasn't impressed. Michael Wood.

/noise/beach/2019-2020 | Link

Headed down to Gordons Bay in the early evening for a paddle. Quite a few dogs and kids about. Super pleasant in, and clean. High tide. Had a snooze/ruminate on the headland beforehand.

/noise/beach/2019-2020 | Link

Wandered down to Coogee in the late afternoon to read a paper, take a dip in the northern end of Coogee beach and eat dinner. Relatively packed. Today was the first fine day in about five. The water was cleaner than I expected with some swell.

Gösta

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My recent encounter with an American take on Swedish weird reminded me that Lukas Moodysson had a TV series in 2019. Strangely enough Vilhelm Blomgren is in both.

Very briefly, Blomgren leads here as a twenty-first century Swedish Jesus who moves to Småland for his first job as a child psychologist. His various attachments from Stockholm follow in short order, yielding a generational Tillsammans complete with a refugee in the attic. It's a pile on: instability and guilt rock the perennially free yet clingy boomer generation, while the futureless are also hanging on, immobile, but for reasons occluded by self delusion. All of the women are predatory, all of the men are clearly nuts, and the only thing a man who cannot say no can ultimately say yes to is bonding with a dog.

The sexual politics is clunky, with no advance on those of the late-90s Brilliant Lies (etc). I'm left thinking that Moodysson doesn't have much insight into women.

Overall things are far too jaggy, far too cliched, for Moodysson to take us anywhere but the most predictable places, which is disappointing as he is otherwise often as inventive as David Lynch (sharing musical outros, small town shenanigans, the weird). This viewer's patience was not rewarded by a final episode that makes up for some of the heavy handedness; I wanted Gösta to bend, not break, and the road is just too long. For all that I do enjoy his style.

Back to the Future, Part II, Part III

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Dave reckons my childhood was impoverished by not having seen these movies. Perhaps, but he was dead right that it's now too late to rectify. At times things get a bit Kind Hearts and Coronets with Michael J. Fox playing too many roles. I've never been a fan of any of the actors, nor Robert Zemeckis's American cheesecake films. The first one is rated #37 in the IMDB top-250.

Ebert on the first one (3.5 stars), the the second (3 stars) and the third (2.5 stars).

Wayne Macauley: Simpson Returns.

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Kindle. I was expecting some laughs or keen observations from this imagining of a temporally distended Simpson and his donkey setting out from Melbourne in search of the great inland sea circa 2003. Of course this is at Lasseter's behest. As social commentary the book hits all the familiar notes and no more. It is well written for the most part, though the use of "Afghani" where he means "Afghan" is an annoying tic.

Extensively reviewed locally. Ronnie Scott ambivalently sums up the parts. Goodreads. Elizabeth Flux provides some much-needed context. Alex Cothren.

Love at Large

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#55 on David Stratton's list of marvellous movies. Clearly he's a sucker for hard boiled noir-ish detective movies, so much so that he can endorse this weak B-grade garbage. I was expecting more of detective Tom Berenger as a pivot for quite a few ladies, none of whom impressed me so much. The plot is ancillary and could have quite profitably been omitted, reducing things to a set of late 1980s character studies. Leonard Cohen's Ain't No Cure For Love opens. Not enough is asked of Neil Young.

Roger Ebert shrugged at the time: he suggests a failed parody where Stratton thinks satire. Both agree that the director has (had?) potential. Janet Maslin.

/noise/beach/2019-2020 | Link

Lunch at the Clovelly carpark, which was packed. Loads of tourists wandering around too, and I'll bet quite a few wish they were somewhere else. Afterwards I tried snorkelling off the scuba ramp in Gordons Bay. The visibility was better than I expected given how rough the surf was, though I didn't see much: mostly just huge wrasse and the odd goatfish. Pleasant in. Overcast, high cloud, some bushfire haze, air not too bad, not too hot. Afterwards I had a brief chat with a bloke who was laying buoys along the trail for the Gordons Bay Scuba Club and read some book up towards Clovelly.

/noise/beach/2019-2020 | Link

Back in Sydney transiently. The smoke haze is still really bad. Torrential rain is forecast for later in the week. I had dinner down on the northern Coogee headland, and afterwards a brief paddle at Gordons Bay off the southern rocks. The tide was fair way out. Three young blokes were fishing off one rock near where I usually get in, while a bloke and a girl were trying it on a bit closer to the beach. Two dogs on the sand. The BOM reckoned the surf was going to be large etc. but it was fairly placid and not too filthy.

The Gentlemen

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With Dave at The Ritz, 2:20pm, 10 AUD each, four rows from the front of cinema 3, not too many people. We had a coffee at Shorty's beforehand.

Nothing too appealing for this one, apart from it being quite a while since I've seen Matthew McConaughey. It's tired and formulaic: winners have gotta win, pretty much. MY WIFE, isn't that one of Pacino's classic explosions? Hugh Grant was the most fun. Eddie Marsan, unusually, failed in his role. Colin Farrell and cohort are boringly bulletproof.

Afterwards I bumped into Ron nearby. Dave and I had a middling to poor early dinner at Lil' Darlin' and wandered down to a moderately busy Coogee.

Sandra Hall. Later, Manohla Dargis.

Midsommar

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More Florence Pugh completism. Here she is with an American accent. Writer/director Ari Aster attempts a horror riff on Swedish weirdism but lacks conviction and so alloys it with empty American bro culture and narcotics. All the characters are naff stereotypes, the mythos is thin, the plot goes as you know it will. Clearly he's aiming for some Lynchian magic but achieves only a humourless study in obliviousness. It is gratuitously graphic. I was reminded of my recent encounter with a mechanic: of being drip fed useless information that was withheld without much intent over far too much time.

Richard Brody spilt a lot of words on this empty vessel. Manohla Dargis.

Elliot Ackerman: Places and Names.

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Kindle. The last and most-recent of Elliot Ackerman's work for me to get to. Here he lays bare the source material for his first two novels in a brief, almost diary-format memoir. Again it is well written. Some or perhaps all of these vignettes are inconclusive, which is perhaps his point: that his war continues, even now. He has a Robert S. McNamara moment of meeting with the enemy, perhaps too soon for a full rapprochement; his interlocutor is still searching the Islamic millenarial tea leaves for a prognosis. This book is ahistorical, a reflection on tactical experience and not policies nor strategies. The final chapter fleshes out his silver star citation to uneven effect. He now seems to be based in the USA after some time in Istanbul.

Anne Barnard reviewed it for the New York Times: more effing the ineffable.

Little Women

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Movie club sign-up freebie at the Odeon 5, 12:45pm session, Cinema 1, three rows from the front. I think all their movies were flagged no-free-tickets (NFT) up to today. Quite a few people.

I didn't know what I was getting beyond the costume drama implied by the poster. The draw was Florence Pugh, and of course the Greta Gerwig/Saoirse Ronan combination that worked so well in Lady Bird. Gerwig brilliantly composed her chopped-up overlapping timelines with many effective visual cues, keeping the stories-in-stories moving even as they arrived at the necessary stations of growing up. So many name actors: Chris Cooper as a reserved, bereaved, indulgent grandfather; Tracy Letts as a bemused and not entirely chauvinistic publisher; Timothée Chalamet as a fly playboy; Laura Dern as saintly mother. Meryl Streep ungenerously owns every scene she's in. The story itself, however, is not a patch on what the Koreans are doing, nor Lady Bird.

Reviews are legion. I didn't read them before I went. Universally feted. Dana Stevens; the final scene-within-the-book is entirely an intentional commercial clanger as Joanna Biggs observes. A. O. Scott. Paul Byrnes was not convinced by Emma Watson (and me neither, having no fond memories of Harry Potter to fall back on). All apart from Byrnes quote the opening sentence of the novel/movie. Anthony Lane. Flo has apparently arrived.

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: Buzz, Sting, Bite: why we need insects.

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Kindle. Anecdotes about insect behaviour from a Norwegian entomologist. A quick and sometimes quite funny read. It's not as diverse as it needed to be: there's the usual focus on ants and bees, cicadas, true bugs, etc. but the eternal mystery of whether mosquitoes are in any way essential to any ecosystem went unexplored (as did several others). The last chapter is an excessively-generic plea for preserving biodiversity. Lucy Moffat's translation is mostly good but too often her choice of adjectives reveals some fuzzy thinking about evolution.

Sam Kean at the New York Times.

Ted Chiang: Exhalation.

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Kindle. Recycled shorts. About what I expected having seen Arrival. There's chaos without Lorentz attractors or James Gleick's indefatigable fascination; a glance at the philosophy of mind, an insistence that learning is required for intelligence; a feeble imagining of a parallel-world Christian teleology and ontology; a rejection of Asimovian psychohistory again on the basis of chaos/quantum mechanics without a consideration of the broad sweeps that statistics allows. None of it is too originally imaginative. The prose is flat. Things are deadly serious and have no air for the playfulness of Douglas Adams or Charles Yu. Chiang is judgemental and essentialist. The often weak argumentation trails off as things get a bit interesting.

Reviews are legion and he clearly has his fans.