peteg's blog

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.