peteg's blog

The Godfather: Part III

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Three-and-a-half stars from Roger Ebert, implying that either it's better than Part II or he learnt his lesson in the ensuing 16 years.

Ron Rash: Burning Bright: Stories.

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Kindle. A 2010 collection of shorts from a much-feted writer from the Carolinas and (somehow) more specifically Appalachia. They're well written but thin. None have the kink Carver put in his. Good always beats evil; Southerners are redeemed by not all being Confederates, and no women are helpless but some could use a little help in their twilight. I'd forgotten that previously I'd read his Nothing Gold Can Stay and seen the feeble movie adaptation of Serena. I guess this is more of the same: the meth, the Civil War, the grinding poverty, the ties that bind. Mercifully brief.

Janet Maslin is a fan of the man.

After Dark, My Sweet

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One of Roger Ebert's "great movies". He sold it as some kind of neo-noir (it's from 1990) but really it's entirely feeble: the acting is poor (Rachel Ward in particular seems to mostly stand around waiting to deliver her lines). The plot consists of contrivance after contrivance, with nothing following from the characters' reasoning that it's all a bad idea; none are sympathetically drawn. There's excess drinking. It's entirely pointless.

Vincent Canby also saw far more in it than I did.

The Godfather: Part II

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Roger Ebert, at the time. He was less impressed with this than with the first one (only three stars!), and remained so in 2008. Scarface is a better movie? Wow.

The Godfather

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Roger Ebert at the time and in 1997.

John Brunner: The 100th Millennium.

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Kindle. Very thin Brunner. His conceit here is entirely busted: apparently a star is going to swing past the Earth in a few hundred years past the 100th millennium and the solution is to dig deeply into the past. Jarringly Brunner also wants a progressive society, one still hungry for something, and yet cannot imagine the production of new knowledge. He's all too ready to focus on new sources of addiction, all of which lead to decadence.

Goodreads tells me this later got expanded into Catch A Falling Star.

Awakenings

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Another from Big director Penny Marshall. These movies about mental conditions always need to be approached with caution, and it seems likely that this one didn't do great justice to the raw material provided by Oliver Sacks. Even so there is some genuinely funny stuff early on from Robin Williams ("I'm sorry, if you were right, I would agree with you."). Robert De Niro's performance is challenging; whatever it's technical merits, it doesn't really help. Briefly, some long-term catatonic patients are given a new drug in 1969 and transiently return to sapience.

Janet Maslin wasn't impressed. Roger Ebert was.

John Brunner: Web of Everywhere.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner. Here he toys with the concept of instantaneous matter transportation... again. Something apocalyptic has gone down so there's only three women for every five men. We get a couple of strong characters and a weak plot. There's just nothing there.

House of Games

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Roger Ebert claimed this was the best movie of 1987 in his round up of 1988. David Mamet's first outing as a film director, which shows as his lead (and wife of that moment?) Lindsay Crouse delivers her lines in theatrical style. It's something of a modern noir, shot like Scorcese's After Hours amongst others. As with most of what I remember from Mamet it's long on the con and short on pretty much everything else; also there's been too many slicker efforts in the meantime for this to endure. It's always a shame when the Chekhovian device, here introduced very early on, actually goes off and yet doesn't resolve anything. William H. Macy was young once. Joe Mantegna leads the cons before he took his place in The Godfather Part III.

Ebert dug it at the time and again in 1999, which I put it down to them both being big Chicago fish. Vincent Canby got right into it too, but comedy?

Cop

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Another entry on Roger Ebert's list of the best movies of 1988. James Woods is angry, restless and high-energy in every scene, with the idea being that if he's moving all the time we won't stop to think about how little we understand the setup. Self-accused feminist/poet/bookshop owner Lesley Ann Warren momentarily lends some ballast to the plot in her first scene. Later ones confuse us by demonstrating her lack of political conviction. It's got the psychological something of Se7en, Silence of the Lambs etc. but nothing like the coherence or success; it's not persuasive and hardly tries to be.

Ebert gave it three stars as a meta-commentary by Woods on the Dirty Harry genre. Janet Maslin is right: the humorous intro featuring a black hep-cat trying to report a murder to the LAPD may have been the high point. It made me think this thing would have a pulse, like To Live and Die in L.A.

John Brunner: The Super Barbarians.

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Kindle. Thin Brunner is inexhaustible but exhausting. This is a retread of the swords-and-starships conceit: feudal, barbarian aliens who have little technology on their home world conquer Earth with superior starships. Conclusion: some other aliens gifted these aliens that technology as some kind of experiment (motivation unknown). Douglas Adams had far more fun with his Vogons. It's a mashup of the Mongols and China, of Arabia, of the Romans and the Greeks, of the bible. It's like Brunner was trying to convince himself that all that study, erudition and drug taking added up to something, or at least could be monetised. With more conviction and fewer coincidences it might have been Dune.

Clean and Sober

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A jag from Big along Roger Ebert's list of the best movies of 1988. They don't make them like this any more. The draw was Michael Keaton, who I haven't seen much but has been brilliant in a few things like Birdman. Here he's outdone by a smouldering Kathy Baker. She's the most deeply drawn of the leads — a working-class girl who never quite got through the rites of post-high school adulthood, just like a Springsteen song. (The whole thing is east-coast hard luck.) Of course the forces of Hollywood mean that she ends up in Keaton's bed, which is disappointing as it signals a capitulation worse than getting back on the gear; no more crappy men Kathy! Morgan Freeman has a dry and flat run for Shawshank. The plot goes as addiction journeys must until it ties itself up in knots in trying to find a conclusion that's not cliched. Overall it lacks any sense of the rhythm of need, of percussion. At no stage did I really sympathise with Keaton's predicament, probably because the world was better while he was off the streets and not hustling commercial real estate.

Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars. Janet Maslin just summarised it.

John Brunner: The Stardroppers.

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Kindle. And yet more thin Brunner, apparently based on even thinner Brunner (the novella Listen, the Stars). There's a lot of disposable wind up to the final exposition, all seen through the eyes of an American FBI-like agent. It's so disposable that you could pretty much read the first and last ten pages and get the whole benefit, which is that alien consciousnesses are spraying their knowledge around the universe and humans only need to be in the right head spaces while listening to their transistors to learn how to teleport etc. I guess it's all deus ex machina without a substantive machina or any specific deus.

John Brunner: Interstellar Empire.

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Kindle. Once more unto the breach of thin Brunner. Swords and starships, the latter being entirely irrelevant and the former only mostly. What makes him worth reading — his insight into social structure — is almost entirely absent here. Moreover, as he admits in a foreword, all three are derived from Asimov, right down to a robot advising an emperor. His foundational conceit, that humans don't invent interstellar spaceflight but discover massive caches of alien ships, goes completely undeveloped. Objectively a total bust.

Big

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With Jacob and his kids. I don't think I've seen this before, but of course it was entirely familiar as a late 1980s body switcheroo school flick. It's more adult themed than I expected. I mistook Robert Loggia for Gene Hackman, who does appear in a movie in the movie. Director Penny Marshall is clearly a baseball fan, though both Jake and I read the Giants and the bridge as signs we were in San Francisco instead of NYC and New Jersey.

Janet Maslin at the time.

John Brunner: The Shift Key.

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Kindle. Quite the worst book by Brunner I've read yet. The set up is horror but many words later we're told it was just a chemical leak. Too many irrelevant characters and vignettes and repetitions. The point, I think, was to hitch a ride with a/the cultural revolution and riff on the perfectibility of the once and future paradisal English village. Pagan hippies to the rescue.

Tenet

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At the Majestic Cinema Nambucca Heads, at the one-and-only 16.30 session. 16.50 AUD + 1.00 AUD booking fee, booked in the morning. Theatre 3 is pretty small; I sat two rows from the front, which is about right for that screen. Of course I was so late to this global COVID party that I was the only one there. The short for Wonder Woman 1984 has a possibly self-referential joke where Kirk is again back in the 1980s making anachronistic faux pas (here by taking a trash can to be art). Behold innovation.

The opening scene is an unmotivated spaghetti monster and I can't say that things got any clearer from there. It was therefore a pleasure to take a pause with Martin Donovan (as always). The main draw was Liz Dibecki, who was as solid as usual but is still waiting for a decent role in a good movie. BlacKkKlansman had given me expectations of John David Washington that weren't met here; mostly he's just a jawline in a suit waiting to deliver some lines or a judo throw. Robert Pattinson does a bit better as the tech bro, though he goes out all hair and smug. Kenneth Branagh is mostly squint, like vintage Jack Thompson. I didn't recognise Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass.

The aim was high-concept James Bond, where the good guys perform the heists. Nolan loves destroying planes and dressing everyone up like Bane. Apart from the general tiredness of the tropes, the central flaw is that inversion is ultimately neither here nor there; the plot gets more value out of the time travel, which is handled about as poorly as it generally is. I guess I misunderappreciate Nolan's special effects.

Widely reviewed, as you'd expect for a Christopher Nolan. Jessica Kiang dug it when it opened. Can't say I entirely agree with her opinion about this movie, but her critique of Nolan's output is spot on. Catherine Shoard brackets it with the far superior Team America. Later it was conclusively deemed an epic cinema-killing fiasco.

John Brunner: The Long Result.

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Kindle. Continuing with the thin Brunners. This is a chatty noir that is padded with excess and unimaginative detail. The premise is what happens when the (imperial) centre is surpassed by its more grasping progeny. Read the USA versus Britain, with Japan and perhaps China looking benignly on. All of the plot moves are telegraphed too far in advance. He wants psychohistorical determinacy but doesn't have the patience to make it coherent, or vague enough for that not to matter.

John Brunner: I Speak for Earth.

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Kindle. Yet another thin Brunner. Here he proposes the choice of a Neil Armstrong type as a substrate for a 2001-ish starchild, framed by a Childhood's End ultimatum. The setup is incredibly verbose; we spend about two-thirds of the word count being told how awesome the constituent intellects are. And ultimately, how good are we. It's a bust.

Paris, Texas

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In two sittings, split at what turned out to be its natural cleavage; the first half is misdirection while the second is some kind of family tree darning. It's arthouse in that the storytelling may be innovative or at least unfamiliar, but you'd have to say the story is entirely pro forma; Wim Wenders directs with a bit more focus than his 1990s efforts. The draw was Harry Dean Stanton in his prime (1980s); he looks like a depressed and starved Sharlto Copley. I hadn't realised he was ever considered leading-man material. Klaus Kinski's daughter Nastassja plays at a wife/mother/fallen woman. I hadn't seen Aurore Clement in anything but Apocalypse Now (Redux); she's still substantial but less convincing here. Overall it's a roadtrip with a side of snoozefest.

Roger Ebert at the time (four stars). Ah, Sam Shepard wrote the thing; that explains the story. Ebert gave it another four stars in 2002. Vincent Canby was less impressed.

John Brunner: Children of the Thunder.

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Kindle. A thin conceit stretched to middling length, again derived from concepts explored by Asimov in Second Foundation, with the bromide that the progenitor of the emotional manipulation sorcery is not sterile. It's quite flabby; the capsule portraits of the children get repeated several times, and there's a lot of needless colour. Conversely he does succeed in recycling the structure of the fat Brunners; the newscasts are more hit than miss about where we are now relative to 1987 (consider BREXIT and increasing nationalism), and he does manage to meld the apparently irrelevant storylines together (somewhat). Add some A Clockwork Orange and he made bank for the year. Perhaps most interesting are his ruminations on how the futureless (aka generation Z) or rump left wing or reality-based community respond to neo-fascism and, well, futurelessness: it's not so different to ANTIFA, which in itself is a consequence of observing that nonviolent stuff'll get you killed. For all that the plot is weak with an unsatisfactory and entirely predictable twist.