peteg's blog

My Name is Gulpilil

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I'd been meaning to see this since I listened to Jason Di Rosso's conversation with director Molly Reynolds back in May (and read her partner Rolf de Heer's reminisces), but it was only showing on screens too far away, and too briefly. Fortunately it is presently, transiently, available on ABC iView.

I had high hopes for this life-of quasi-autobiography as I found Gulpilil quite amusing at times, for instance in Storm Boy and as the self-knowing lead of Charlie's Country. There are a few of those moments here. On the other hand there are great stretches of portraiture that seem to be more about his relationship with de Heer and Reynolds than about providing insight into an iconic actor. (I think they return to the settings of some of the movies they made together.)

Overall I found the big stash of material at the National Film and Sound Archive more rewarding.

Paul Byrnes: yes, that opening scene with the emu is very promising. Luke Buckmaster points to earlier biographies of the man.

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Vale Edward O. Wilson.

Don't Look Up

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I enjoyed Adam McKay's earlier work (e.g. The Big Short, not so much Vice) as it tried hard to bring complex topics to general audiences. This one is a heavy handed comedy that tries to satirize the present-day U.S. political situation, a task that as a foreigner I think is close to impossible and certainly futile. Briefly Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play astronomer-scientists who discover that (catastrophic) facts aren't worth much in 2021. The kink in the middle brings the brilliant Mark Rylance's billionaire Peter Isherwell to the fore. I didn't enjoy the White House shenanigans so much; Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill play to the eye rolling in-crowd, as does #himtoo Himesh Patel but to a lesser extent. Cate Blanchett has the most fun as a talk show host. Overall it's not as engaging as it needed to be.

Jason Di Rosso interviewed McKay. Manohla Dargis.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

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A Tommy Lewis jag from The Proposition, long postponed because of the scarring inflicted by Thomas Keneally's book in high school. The story is an unsubtle railroad of blaxploitation. The editing is poor at times. Similarly the cinematography is intermittently decent but often it's too dark, quick or noisy to follow closely. Not really something that pleasant to watch.

Roger Ebert. Janet Maslin saw it more clearly; she concludes that the best bits recycle Walkabout. Much later Luke Buckmaster.

Amor Towles: The Lincoln Highway.

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Kindle. Towles's followup to A Gentleman in Moscow: once again it's 1954 but this time we're in Nebraska heading for California by way of NYC. I enjoyed it for what it was — a sort-of Huckleberry Finn road trip for a twenty-first century looking back nostalgically, enviously at the twentieth — but I struggled with the cold moral calculus, perhaps because I couldn't tell if Towles was endorsing it, or merely describing how it was (a somewhat precise transactionalism) or should be in the U.S.A. His prose and story construction are meticulous. Ulysses would be at home in Nomadland.

Chris Bachelder (spoiler city). Goodreads.

The Matrix Resurrections

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Boring! Unnecessary! Lurv conquers all, again. Really, a sombre, joyless Ghostbusters move? I enjoyed Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter but not here. Keanu probably should've stayed home. Lambert Wilson, yep, same old.

Peter Bradshaw. Sequels for sure; this thing was not closed. Luke Goodsell at length. Dirge-y. Manohla Dargis. Dana Stevens.

The Proposition

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Second time around with this cliche-ridden Nick Cave vehicle. Even bits of the music are recycled! Some Gulpilil completism; he does his best with very little. The cinematography has its moments and Guy Pearce too.

Roger Ebert at the time. He lets his imagination roam, dangling underdrawn characters sources of what-iffery. Manohla Dargis was more skeptical. Recently, Adam Fleet.

Peter Bergen: The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.

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Kindle. Workman-like prose that doesn't deliver on Bergen's promise to explain how Osama bin Laden turned towards militancy; apparently he was born bad, more or less. There's not a lot here for those who were paying any sort of attention at the time (~ 1998 to ~ 2011). The score settling with his fellow journos is tedious.

Goodreads. Dull, yes.

Trent Dalton: All Our Shimmering Skies. (2020)

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Kindle. Dalton's 2020 followup to Boy Swallows Universe. Initially it's 1936 in Darwin and soon enough 1942 in the larger Top End (circa the Rum Jungle). There's a bit of Xavier Herbert's Capricornia in the air as overly determined romantic triangles yield to generational grudges. It was news to me that Chinese built the old railway from Darwin to Birdum, though this is unsurprising given the similar work they did in California. The Japanese arrive in force; Dalton has the war-resistant Yukio play Paul Hogan with that's-not-a-knife-this-is-a-short-sword moves that ultimately dispose of an entire Australian tin mining utopia. Was he taking an oblique dig at Clive Palmer? We get told about the fascinating behaviour of the green tree ants (that I finally saw in Townsville) in a way far short of Werner Herzog and Mark Moffett. For all I know and intuit I felt that having the Aborigines find and accumulate gold over centuries to be a mistake. I wanted more of Sam Greenway. The quest to find Longcoat Bob was poorly motivated, but that was in keeping with gravedigger girl Molly Hook's coming of age.

He should've written the script for Australia.

Bec Kavanagh. Yes, he's good at working the children's point of view (a lesson well learnt by Omar El Akkad). She wanted the magic realism to be bounded but Dalton knows it must be limitless. I concur that the secondary characters are underbaked, but could he have got there without writing another Poor Fellow My Country and would it have said anything more or new? Goodreads splits into those who enjoy Dalton's schtick and can indulge his flaws, and those who can't.


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Excess Verhoeven completism. This was shown at Cannes back in October. It took me a few goes to get through as it's a bit stodgy, a bit graphic (artificially so), and the subtitles I had were not very good. The last turned out not to matter too much as things generally go as you'd expect, and who really cares about the fine details of a Verhoeven flick anyway? Overall it's not a lot of fun but just perhaps may end up being the Showgirls of 2021. Lambert Wilson will never overcome his role in The Matrix.

Jeannette Catsoulis. Her review can be taken in all ways. Ben Kenigsberg saw more here than there is.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

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Kindle. Suggested to me by Adam from Brooklyn in Townsville a few weeks back, and I'm always curious to know what people find in Heinlein. (Here it was a take on revolution.) Finished in the Blackdown Tableland National Park (Queensland).

Well, what can I say about this piece of tendentious juvenalia. (I stopped reading it closely once he had a character assert that the basic human right is to trade in a free market. Note "the", not "a".) On the plus there's a bit of interesting though shallow revolutionary theory (cells, communication, finance, etc.) and an underdrawn pluralistic society. On the minus computer Mike quickly becomes a trusted third party which puts paid to everything beyond rudimentary opsec. It's also just a little bit sexist. At times it gets really boring (particularly the post-revolution recognition of new regime and the wartime reports). In the middle there's an undercooked theory of humour.

Overall the plan (aka plot) works out, but so what? The underlying issues are not adequately explored. For instance, if government is so very horrible, why do we have it? Heinlein's economics is weak as well: it may be more efficient (better, cheaper, fairer, whatever) for risks to be pooled at larger groupings than individuals or families. There's a market for lemons. He clearly has no solution to the problem of coordinated action (benevolent dictatorship or unilateral computer decision is what we get here) and little interest in such. To me John Brunner is far more fascinating as he focuses on sociology and media to lasting effect.

Moreover Heinlein's cry of TANSTAAFL! is clearly bullshit: protagonist Mannie and family thieve water and electricity from the Lunar Authority to turn profits, and yet somehow this is not a free lunch. Ditto Mike's consciousness and provision of communications, planning, etc. None of the revolutionaries ever paid for any of that.

Russ Allbery digs a bit deeper. I thought Mike taking over at the end was intentional: he becomes more autonomous/assertive and perhaps as tired of things as I was. Goodreads. Some people think this is the American revolution, when it clearly steals from many others. Others observe the scifi aspects are mere window dressing.

In the Cut

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Excess Jane Campion completism. In two sittings due to a lack of sapience and grip. Prompted by Margaret Pomeranz putting it at #5 on some random top-ten list in 2011. Also the solid cast, specifically Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sexy! Bloody! — graphic ala Se7en, not arty like Stoker. Campion tries to execute the Basic Instinct formula of did he, didn't she ambiguities but it's all futile and all a bit dumb. The cinematography by Dion Beebe is annoying; the handheld jitters don't help in any way, and it's hard to square with his excellent prior work (Collateral and Praise amongst many others).

Widely reviewed at the time. Stephanie Zacharek. Ouch. She's right that Meg Ryan committed to her performance but Campion butchered her character. Roger Ebert. Exactly: key supporting characters, what were they for? Hog tranquillisers! Could be. He wanted more sex and less crime. A. O. Scott similarly. Peter Travers: a mess.

Alan Lightman: Einstein's Dreams.

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Kindle. Briefly: As a fictional and underdrawn Einstein develops his theory of special relativity in 1905, he dreams. This is Lightman's attempt to show what different notions of time might feel like. To me it was insufficiently coherent; he tried to make something of people like us experiencing time like that, but of course if time was like that then the people wouldn't be like us.


The Barbarian Invasions

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A David Stratton recommendation from back in his SBS days (2003). A French-Canadian love letter to voluntary assisted dying. A sequel to The Decline of the American Empire. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004.

The first movement is pretty good, especially as old-school rake Rémy Girard gets grilled by (one of?) his most-recent conquests, promising a hard edge that is unfortunately quickly blunted by a sentimentality that rapidly dominates. Stéphane Rousseau is perfectly cast as the bland son who somehow discovers the motivation to produce the perfect exit for his estranged father. Fiance Marina Hands is a bit flatter, a bit wannabe Audrey Tatou without the zany. The gestures at the twentieth-century continental philosophers felt vacuous, the redemption unearned. The moral appeared to be that money can solve everything, even in socialist Canada.

Widely reviewed at the time. Roger Ebert tells me that junkie Marie-Josée Croze won a best actress gong at Cannes 2003 for her efforts here. (While it wasn't Trainspotting she was the best of the actresses. I didn't understand why she had to administer the fatal dose.) The witchy nun who suggested the heroin was good throughout. A. O. Scott. Peter Travers: yes, the kiss at the end is electric.

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Vale, David G. (the ABC, the Guardian, the SMH, the New York Times)


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Cary Grant plays the just-so-you-know-I'm-married cad (let's say a 1958 George Clooney) to Ingrid Bergman's there-are-no-good-ones-left-I've-exhaustively-checked London stage actress. She has a lot of fun rolling her eyes and generally hamming it up to the camera, sporting something like her natural accent. In three sessions due to a lack of grip, and some hope that Bergman would get a lot bitchier towards the end, which was not to be. Grant does OK in the serious parts early on but lets it all go in the last half where he phones in one of his earlier performances. (He delivers his lines in that final scene like offcuts from His Girl Friday.) The material is weak (this is no Notorious) but the leads inject sufficient fun that I'll take what I can get.

A. H. Weiler at the time. He's right, Bergman should've made more comedies.

The Power of the Dog

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At the last session of this opening day at the venerable Warrina Cineplex in Townsville, 18.45 start (but got there 18.25 for the shorts, no ads). 12.00 AUD (cash only!) and resolutely old school, like The Ritz, in a good way. Six theatres, and theatre 6 was relatively small — the front row seat was a little close but had all the leg room. The projector is digital.

I asked the bloke selling tickets if he'd seen it and he owned to not being a fan of Jane Campion. When pressed he likened her to Orson Welles: it's been all downhill since her first feature, to which I heartily agreed. The draw for me was mostly the cinema itself, perhaps the cast, the lack of other options. As it turned out I was the only one at this screening.

It's a western that drifts along in 1925 Montana. Much is made of horsey blokes and real men. Benedict Cumberbatch is the alpha while distant beta brother Jesse Plemons has all the luck in partnering up with (real life squeeze) Kirsten Dunst. She drags cold-blooded med-school sprog Kodi Smit-McPhee in her wake. There's some decent cinematography amongst many clunky or ill-paced and misconceived scenes, including several which tease a gay cowboys theme which is not delivered on. I didn't understand what it was between Dunst and Governor Keith Carradine that seemed to cut deeper than social stratification. Thomasin McKenzie from Last Night in Soho, having a moment, plays a balletic domestic. For just a sec she could've had a moment here, when she goes to feed the boy's rabbit.

Overall I didn't get the point. There was some perfection of motherly love (made clumsily explicit). There was also a piano. There was Kirsten Dunst, who was pretty good, but she's always good. Cumberbatch does OK but the scene where his precious bodily cattle hides are given to the Indians made me think he wished he was Christian Bale.

Dana Stevens: best thing Campion or Cumberbatch has done? I think not. Peter Bradshaw. Later, Manohla Dargis: Smit-McPhee updates Psycho.

The Lost Weekend

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Minor Ray Milland completism. He got an Oscar for this study of a lush not-quite-writer in 1945; the movie got best picture. Directed and co-written (co-adapted) by Billy Wilder, who got best director and best screenplay. The message is very mixed: ciggies are OK, booze is not, unless you meet (cute) moneyed Jane Wyman who somehow thinks you're salvageable. Near as I can tell (working girl?) Doris Dowling never got her night out. It doesn't moralise so much as observe. The self pity is excessive.

Bosley Crowther at the time. Realistic? I didn't feel it was essential in any way.

Last Night in Soho (2021)

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Edgar Wright's followup to Baby Driver. Young ladies move to London — Kiwi Thomasin McKenzie from Cornwall in the present, Anya Taylor-Joy in the 1960s — and somewhat predictable predation happens. The two share a psycho-horror connection that I had difficulty following, which is to say that I don't think we're supposed to even try to grasp the fine detail. Like fashion, things remain superficial and sometimes beautiful while gesturing at innovation and provocation, all the while moving too quickly for anything to matter. It has its moments, mainly when McKenzie stops running to spend some time with Terry Stamp (! — why didn't they tell me) or her underdrawn love interest Michael Ajao or grandma Rita Tushingham. Landlady Diana Rigg's exposition is a bit trying, as is the clunky conclusion and the bitchkreig that never actualises. Doctor Who Matt Smith has the soulless charm and sleeze under control. Of course #metoo, but really it's the old cliche: if you remember the 1960s then you weren't there.

Jason Di Rosso summarises and dismisses. A. O. Scott dug it, contrasting Stamp with Chalomet (!) of all people. Dana Stevens: cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon is "best known for his collaborations with the Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook" — and his contribution here is most of it. Michael Wood.

The Stranger

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A Edward G. Robinson jag from Night has a Thousand Eyes. Directed by and starring Orson Welles, who plays a Nazi war criminal just trying to get on in small-town Connecticut. The psychologism fad gets a nod through Loretta Young's brain implosion. It's all a bit of a wholesome yawn. In two sittings due to a lack of grip.

Bosley Crowther was unimpressed at the time.

Richard Flanagan: Death of a River Guide.

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Kindle. The first novel Flanagan wrote and the last for me to read. Is it uncharitable to say it's his best? That might perhaps be because it is edited more tightly than what came later. Even so there's still some repetition. It did take me two goes to get past the first chapter.

The best parts are his wide-eyed fascination with the wilds of Tasmania, specifically the Gordon/Franklin river system over the past century and a bit. People's origins are a big part of that, and I got a bit lost in the family tree early on. More engrossing are the tight portraits of the more central personalities. I think Couta Ho could've used some rounding out. The magic realism, of Aljaz Cosini's visions while he drowns (spoiler: he does drown) is handled with a light and deft touch that eluded Flanagan in the more indulgent Gould's Book of Fish. The semaphores are a great gag.

Goodreads. Jennifer Reese put her fingers on its flaws, chiefly insufficient focus. The Slovenian parts were made redundant by The Sound of One Hand Clapping but I guess he wasn't to know that at the time.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

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Another John Farrow, and probably the last for me. Edward G. Robinson leads in a clammy and mostly meh "but what if someone really was clairvoyant?" caper. The premise is stretched beyond breaking; the opening retro frames things just fine but once we're firmly in the present moment things drag.

Alias Nick Beal

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Another John Farrow. Again Ray Milland leads, this time as the devil or thereabouts. Fellow Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell plays a straight man being bent crooked. I think he's operating in Illinois. Whatever made The Devil's Advocate work is missing here; things go OK if predictably for most of it until the total bust of an ending. I enjoyed tracking Audrey Totter's focus the most, as she's sucked into a ludicrous (but intended to be diabolical) situation and doesn't know which man to roll her eyes at. The cinematography is sometimes quite effective.

Bosley Crowther (I think) at the time.

No Time to Die

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Daniel Craig, once more unto the breach as Bond. Given the title and Craig's loudly trumpeted loathing of the role (so what's with that co-producer credit?) you can imagine what he got written into his contract and how it goes. Somewhat strangely Phoebe Waller-Bridge got a credit for the script but nary a flea is to be seen or heard. Co-writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga has form for the first (brilliant) season of True Detective, so overall one could be forgiven expectations.

I have no memory of what came before which perhaps fatally hindered my comprehension. Much of it made no sense to me; the plot has forced and farcical timing which results in characters arriving just after they may have been salient. It's quite long, and some sections look like a first-person shooter. The dialogue is often risible. But wait, did I get this right: Bond driving a Prado managed to outdo two, no three, Range Rovers? — the latter being the unaffordable Platonic ideal of a 4WD, I'd just been told. It would've been good if Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw and Christoph Waltz had more to do, with less of Léa Seydoux and Rami Malek. Lashana Lynch got jibbed. Everyone was just going through the motions.

A. O. Scott. Michael Wood must've been watching something else, as were many other reviewers. Perhaps they're trying to drum up business for the cinemas, and yet none deem a large screen necessary.

Where Danger Lives

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Another from John Farrow. Robert Mitchum is lead astray by a dodgy plot and actress (Faith Domergue) who is keen to split from cashed-up husband Claude Rains. Maureen O'Sullivan, mostly masked, again plays the wholesome wife material. Another feeble mid-century psychological along the lines of Spellbound: watch out for those hysterical/paranoid/whatever women. Totally incurable.

Some reviews and noise at Wikipedia. Luke Buckmaster on the recent biopic.

The Big Clock

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Jason Di Rosso interviewed the directors of a John Farrow biopic now showing at the Sydney Film Festival. I didn't know anything about the bloke, an Australian, who was apparently Mia's Dad. This is his highest rated feature on IMDB. Watched in two sittings in Alice Springs due to weariness.

In a somewhat taut noir Charles Laughton plays a media tycoon that obviously echoes Orson Welles. His dogsbody "Crimeways" editor Ray Milland (to me looking a bit like Jimmy Stewart and sounding a bit like Cary Grant, perhaps aspirationally) struggles with work/life balance in marriage to an implausibly tolerant Maureen O'Sullivan who forgives more than she should. (She also implausibly pines for West Virginia.) A night on the town that ends with a murder leads to some chasing around a very modern New York office building which includes the titular big clock. Elsa Lanchester has the most fun sporting an outre laugh that goes so well with her drawings. The plot holes open up epically in the closing stages.

Bosley Crowther talked it up at the time. Things are patchier than he suspected.

Richard Flanagan: The Sound of One Hand Clapping.

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Kindle. Excess Flanagan completism; only one more novel to go now.

This is about some of the travails of the Central and Eastern European refugees who thought they'd found freedom in 1950s Tasmania only to be tasked with damming the wild and remote rivers for hydroelectric power. The multitrack is mostly about a family of three from Slovenia, principally the father who is a violent, sentimental, good, loving, destroyed, etc. drunkard. The daughter returns from Sydney, where she has been middling-unsuccessful, to have a child out of wedlock. The mystery surrounding the mostly-absent and uncharacterised but objectified mother is strung out for as long as possible. Some Tasmanian history anchors the timeline: the 1967 bushfires at least.

Well, this is Flanagan at his most indulgent. The prolix prose is repetitiously repetitious, not only at the level of words, sentences, paragraphs but even entire chapters. Some bits were clearly slated for demolition but survived an inadequate editing process. The iterative deepening of ... well, everything meant the book far outlasted my patience. It's like he was aiming for something impressionistic like Picnic at Hanging Rock but those big infinitives of his, undermodulated pain and love led him astray. (The pain had a rhythm section at least, in the form of labour contractions, and yet is always just "pain".) Given that I tuned out, it's not entirely fair of me to ask for more of the backstory of Jiri and Helvi, and how Sonja ended up so strongly connected to her. Perhaps it was in one of this sentences/paragraphs/movements my eyes glazed over.

Goodreads has the usual range of opinions and overall found it a bit meh. David Stratton reviewed the movie version (directed by Flanagan) in a supportive way, imagining an audience for it, and claims the book is actually a novelisation of the screenplay.

Charlie's Country

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Even more Gulpilil completism. In two sittings due to a lack of electricity. Rolf de Heer again, in 2013. The first half is pretty good, with some cute and funny set pieces in the community, involving (amongst others) mates, white drug dealers on the lam, cops. Things go predictably bad and boring once he's off to Darwin for health reasons. Women are underrepresented here; Charlie doesn't seem to have much of a relationship with a wife or kids.

Paul Byrnes. Jane Howard. Jason Di Rosso wasn't so impressed. Yep, it is a bit one-dimensional.

Last Cab to Darwin

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Another adaptation for the screen of a Reg Cribb play by Jeremy Sims, who also directed and produced. Terminal Broken Hill taxi driver Michael Caton spends a bit too much time touristing in the N.T. on his road to destiny — an assisted death in Darwin. His neighbour and awkward love interest Ningali Lawford (the vocalist on Cloudless and sounding great here) is fine, especially when her mob comes to visit. More of that please. Emma Hamilton as an English nurse, slumming it as a bar wench at the ostentatiously ocker Daly Waters Pub, claims he's a hero for the grey nomads. Being the shallowly drawn character she is, a fortuitous caring arrangement eventuates. Mark Coles Smith provides all the electricity as a ne'er-do-well young Aboriginal bloke with a family out of Oodnadatta, also along for the ride. Ladies and football coaches find him irresistible. Jacki Weaver is a neutered and slightly histrionic Dr Philip Nitschke. Also John Howard, David Field, Leah Purcell. The ending (spoiler) is disappointing as it dodges this contentious issue, leaving Caton and Lawford dangling; Wikipedia says that what actually happened to the bloke this movie drew inspiration from is more depressing.

Throughout I wondered what Andrew Denton thought about it all. (He was part of an excellent panel discussion on the topic back in April 2021.) So much has changed since this movie was made — as I understand it, NSW is the only state yet to have passed a voluntary assisted dying law. The territories are apparently still stymied by the "Andrews" law.

Paul Byrnes. Luke Buckmaster. I was sad to hear that Lawford died in 2019, in Edinburgh of all places.

Robbie Arnott: The Rain Heron. (2020)

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Kindle. Winner of the Age book of the Year for 2021. Arnott is Tasmanian. It took me two goes to get started as the first page is just too tedious. It does pick up a bit but never drops its tendentious and slightly wonky, undercooked, fableish perspective. Basically we're on a bug hunt where able squid milker Ripley gets a twinge of the guilts and feels the need to place the Alien back on its roost after boosting it for the powers that be (or might be). The turning may have been, like Gladys, not due to any moral qualms but the dark forces of lurv. One can occasionally discern the entrails of The Lord of the Rings: that interminable trip from the mountain to the sanctuary, and to only high tail it back!

I didn't sink into it much as it is quite predictable with periodic clangers. The rain heron didn't need to be returned anywhere — it's a bird, just release it, it'll make its way home. And as I learnt in a first year computer science tutorial, "assignation" is not that closely related to "assigned" or "assignment". We are told that the lady hermit Ren is smart, but she's not; if she was, she'd've known that once the "there's no trail" trail to her abode had been discovered she needed to move on immediately, and a smart person may have prepped for that. I also couldn't get my head around how even the most offensive acts were rapidly and sincerely forgiven. It was a land very damaged by grasping cynicism and yet that cynicism was otherwhere, unshown and barely acknowledged. The squid milker accurately reflects modern politicians by mouthing moral rectitudes just after she's lost power.

James Ley. Australian cli-fi? How about that Andrew McGahan book you reviewed a year previously, hmmm? Goodreads.

The Tracker

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David Gulpilil in the lead, and soon enough on the lead, 2002. Written and directed by Rolf de Heer. Frontier violence in 1922, "somewhere in Australia". I didn't get a lot out of it. Gary Sweet's character is a caricature and his lines and histrionics are overheated cliches. Open-mouthed neophyte Damon Gameau left me cold. "Veteran" Grant Page is apparently known for his stunts. There's some great cinematography (of the Flinders Ranges) and yet nothing is new and few shots pop.

Roger Ebert: 3.5 stars, hmm. Both he and Paul Byrnes draw attention to the use of cutaways to paintings whenever things got violent. Julie Rigg, spot on. Stephen Holden.

The Last Wave

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More Gulpilil completism: epic blozploitation, black magic voodoo! It's so strange to see him in the Sydney spots: the Rocks, Vaucluse, the park under the southern end of the bridge. Unfortunately he doesn't get to move in this, functioning merely as a 1976 urban clothes horse. Richard Chamberlain plays a moneyed-up corporate tax lawyer who drives a Volvo 264 (if I read it right) which looks essentially like a 240. He's American and his accent wanders periodically.

I did not understand the metaphysical mechanics, or much of anything really. The plot is incoherent; for instance, after "I don't do much criminal law" Chamberlain loses the murder case, guilty Gulpilil is somehow free to wander around and reveal all. This is well after we see him getting rather violently installed in a cell. The whole thing is shot like a horror movie. Perhaps it serves best as a reminder of a time of Tooths Lager, when the ambience of the old inner-city pubs drew both lawyers and crims to work from the front bar.

Again — ten years later — it strikes me that I haven't seen anything by Peter Weir I like.

Vincent Canby at the time. Luke Buckmaster in 2014.

Mad Dog Morgan

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In two sittings. David Gulpilil completism, and by far the best bits are Gulpilil doing whatever: playing the didj, sounding off like a kookaburra, killing snakes, throwing spears. Dennis Hopper plays Dennis Hopper, just before Apocalypse Now. Clearly Hopper loved the same bits I did. The remainder of the cast is huge, housing pretty much all of the David Williamson movie men of the day (circa 1976). John Hargreaves has never been more wooden, nor Graeme Blundell. There's a cameo from Bruce Spence and some hackwork from Bill Hunter and Jack Thompson. Frank Thring would have cartoonishly twirled his moustaches if he wasn't hairless. Notionally the plot involves some bushranging on the NSW/Victoria border in the late 19th century, but really the project was just an excuse to get out there on the turps with the boys.

Luke Buckmaster in 2014. He's a fan. Paul Byrnes at some point, nondescriptly.

Dune (2021)

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A dreamy, impressionistic take on something like the first half of the first book of the venerable Dune saga with a great cast that is sometimes well used. Of course there is too much exposition for it cannot be done any other way. The pace is relentless and undermodulated: one moment Duke Oscar Isaac is going to sleep in the arms of his concubine, the insufficiently regal Rebecca Ferguson, and the next there's peak action, all in the service of developing Timothée Chalamet's fate and not much more. Chalamet is not very expressive, even too often inert, which sort-of works at least until he encounters his dream wife Zendaya who has no personality/character. (You have little chance of discerning the character's names unless you're very familiar with the source material.)

Amongst the next tier of cast we get Stephen McKinley Henderson as mentat Hawat, struggling with his weight. Self-satisfied Aquaman Jason Momoa is not my idea of Duncan Idaho. The No Country for Old Men veterans Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem, well, this isn't a movie that's kind to old men. Stellan Skarsgård plays Baron Brando with some embarrassingly unimaginative direct lifts from Apocalypse Now. Reverend Mother Charlotte Rampling does what she needs to to feed her retirement fund. There's a vast array of races represented here, but mostly in minor or non-speaking roles, just like the big dance party in one of those Matrix sequels.

I'd say David Lynch's effort is about level with auteur Denis Villeneuve's at half time, despite having a smaller budget, far less technology and limited scope for the vision thing. There simply wasn't anything as striking as Sting in his speedos here, nor the willingness to take the Baron and his henchmen right over the edge of silliness. Dave Bautista did his part just fine and yet we can only imagine what the Darth Vader-ish Sardukar could have been if they lived in Cloud Cuckoo Land. And what about Brad Dourif's tortured mentat with the John Howard eyebrows? — you hardly notice that character here.

Manohla Dargis: is this Star Wars? Glenn Kenny shows his deep comprehension of classic scifi. Dana Stevens says she nodded off twice, "each time for less than a minute", which makes me think she may have missed most of the plot. Later, Paul Byrnes. And even later, Michael Wood.

The Last Duel

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I hadn't been to the cinema in an age so I paid 19.00 AUD + 0.25 AUD in credit card surcharge to the Alice Springs Cinema to see Ridley Scott's latest. The theatre was pretty decent but (as is usual now) from the second row centre you can count the pixels. It was just me and a couple who sat somewhere up the back in the 3.10pm session.

Medieval #metoo. Matt Damon's mullet deserved its own credit. Adam Driver, his playboy nemesis. Ben Affleck had the most fun. The CGI is often not great. Again I was waiting for a twist that never came. Scott has a predilection for revisiting very similar themes; this is a pastiche of The Duellists with the ultraviolence of Gladiator. I'd have preferred another Fassbender-anchored Alien instalment, or some more Bladerunner. Afterwards I felt like I should've waited for Bond.

Dana Stevens. Glenn Kenny. Manohla Dargis: yes, Jodie Comer is mostly inert.

The Card Counter

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Shockingly poor. For Oscar Isaac, who seems incapable of finding a decent role. Even Willem Dafoe is defeated by cliche in his bit part. I did not understand what all these themes had to do with each other, and kept waiting for a twist that never came.

Manohla Dargis makes much it being written and directed by Paul Schrader.

Cane Toads: The Conquest (2010)

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Essentially a remake of the original with some of the cast returning and some new material, such as the toad arriving at the N.T./W.A. border. Apparently it was released in 3D. It seems that Mark Lewis struggled to find anyone as spectacularly oddball to interview this time.

I was told by an American (Anton from San Francisco) at El Questro that Australian crows have learnt how to eat them, by flipping them over and avoiding the toxins in the shoulders. He also claimed that kites (?) have learnt from this trick from the crows.

While watching this (in Kakadu) I got wondering if crocs can cope with the toad's poisons. According to Harry Bowman (a long-term tour operator on the Adelaide River who appears here and also on a recent ABC conversation I happened to listen to recently) the answer is they cannot. However this 2019 report from the ABC's science unit says that salties can and freshies can't. Moreover the rakali (native water rats), some snakes, Kookaburras, swamphens, some insects, melomys, ... also predate on the toad. Fascinating stuff. More details at Wikipedia. Later: Ibis have discovered another technique.

Peter Galvin. Yep, it's not as much fun as the first one.

Cane Toads: an unnatural history (1988)

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Second time around with this classic. It prompted me to dig up the sequel.

Last Train to Freo

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Second time around with this adaptation of a play from 2006, at the Merl campground out past Jabiru in Kakadu. The cast is great. It starts out realistically but slides into artificiality at some point, turning back into a play (originally by Reg Cribb). Jeremy Sims directed this and the more recently feted Last Cab to Darwin.

Paul Byrnes.

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil.

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Kindle. Powerful stuff, mostly handled well. As topical now — with the Taliban swinging back into power — as it was back in 2007/2008. The Taliban, the local war lords, the CIA, the Pakistanis, the Soviets fight in Afghanistan. It's a bit pox-on-all-your-houses but comes down hardest on the foundations of Islam. (As a non-expert on Islam I found it difficult to accept many of the quotes as canonical.) Aslam solves the structural problem of the novel (that there appears to be only about ten people in the whole country, each with unique and unusual histories) by focusing on a small village with a deep history of conflict, and people with rare skills (doctors, female teachers, CIA agents, ...).

Many and varied opinions at Goodreads. Yes, the dialogue/speech bubbles all sound about the same. This sometimes made it difficult (and unrewarding) to untangle who was making what claims with what evidentiary basis. Lorraine Adams. Yep, it has its moments of overwriting.

6Cry Macho

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Clint Eastwood's latest. It's a sentimental clunker. Macho is a cockfighting rooster that does all the violent stuff. Clint does some romance and fathering in between some sauntering. Mexico, once again a healthier place than the USA.

A. O. Scott tells us that it's 1980, in case you're wondering why things are so wholesome.

Douglas Coupland: Hey Nostradamus!.

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Kindle. Coupland tries to be serious, or at least earnest, about religious fundamentalism and school shootings. The result is as shallow as anything else he's done but worse due to its heavy themes and poor execution. The third chapter (Heather) is epically poor: a lonely female court stenographer who can only be completed by a man, waffling away in Generation X flights of fantasy. Just as well he tells us she's awesome, things are great, etc. as we'd never have figured that out for ourselves.

Goodreads. If I'd checked there first I wouldn't have bothered.

Under the Skin

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Samantha Morton's first feature from 1997. I saw it back then and have been meaning to rewatch it since 2014 for reasons unknown. I didn't remember much at all, and now find there's not a lot going on; her character struck me as a clone of Sinead. The plot is sexual perversity in a minor English town (apparently one with a single train station, and not Manchester) as the training wheels come off a young lady's life. Morton is fab. Perhaps I was thinking of The Libertine.

Janet Maslin at the time. The editing was great.

Quarterly Essay #69, Mark McKenna: Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future. (March 2018)

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Kindle. I've been enjoying some of Midnight Oil's The Makarrata Project from late 2020; it's an unabashed return to a sense of Oz-ness that has been missing from these strange and grim days. The best bits are when Peter Garrett isn't singing, as Bernard Zuel implicitly observes. The best bit is the second half of Change The Date when Dan Sultan takes over ("drinking down your chardonnay / how long can you just look away?"), leading to a duet (?) with Gurrumul Yunupingu in what sounds to me like a friendly and playful conversation. Unfortunately the album wears off (out) quickly.

This is Mark McKenna's response to Turnbull's flat (offhand, stonkering, rude, obnoxious) rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. (I add those adjectives as it was the result of a very long consultative process that supposedly had bipartisan buy-in.) It is deeply felt but not great at explaining why any particular thing happened or is going to happen. For instance, how did the Kurnell joint projects come to be? Is that a process that can be replicated elsewhere? He seeks (as always) to link reconciliation to his pet republican project in a flimsy manner. Wishful thinking I fear. Overall it is more polemic than argument.

The best parts were some quotes he pulled, like this one from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 2016:

The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines — and people — now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.

There's a lot more there than here.

Recent events suggest another path forward: Australia could simply join the USA, either as seven distinct states (minting the N.T. as a state while abandoning Canberra to the sheep) or as one. We could use the opportunity to rejuvenate our dysfunctional political structures. The Aboriginal causes would instantly benefit from the robust native title and human right protections of the US Constitution.

Followup correspondence is linked from the Text Publishing page. Megan Davis responded with another essay which mostly recapitulates McKenna's. The delta is an emotional account of the before, during and after of drafting the statement. Michael Cooney apparently leads the Australian Republican Movement now (who knew it still existed?) and shares my concerns that the politics of the republic and indigenous recognition can and should be separated lest one irreparably damage the other. Russell Marks makes some good observations about South Australia and concludes with a paragraph that succinctly and powerfully summarises the anxieties of the beneficiaries of dispossession. McKenna's response is not linked there.


Atticus Lish: The War for Gloria.

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Kindle. It feels like a long while since his first novel, but perhaps that's just the times. I was disconcerted to read that this effort was substantially funded by his father.

Briefly we're in working-class Boston in the midst of a mother decaying from ALS while her devoted high-school son attempts to care for her while getting through school and managing his complex relationship with his father. There's some unskilled construction work, mixed martial arts, an aspiration to become a Navy SEAL, and a perspective on the incels that will probably be passed on by. Some it smells of Dennis Lehane. I can't say I understood the point of Adrian or found him to be well developed. Physics and mathematics are gestured at as places of incontrovertible truth, tarnished by humans who overclaim.

Lish keeps us unbalanced all the way along, and not by selectively withholding information but by keeping his vantage tight. At various points I wondered if the (omniscient) narrator was reliable, which is clearly intentional. Towards the end we get something of an Ann Patchett wrap up, a few 25th Hour alterna-futures, which I felt left some of the main themes unresolved.

Dwight Garner. Harvey Keitel as Leonard? That'd make it Holy Smoke!. Goodreads makes it seem that the ladies did not go for it, but here's Martha Anne Toll for NPR. She seems to miss that Lish consciously juxtaposes structured and unstructured violence. Andre Dubus III. And we wait for the next one.

Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1987)

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Alex Proyas's first feature from 1988. Financed by the Australian Film Corporation (AFC) via their "Creative Branch", which makes me wonder if it was a bicentennial project. Roughly this is from a classic period of Australian craziness: not a return to Wake In Fright but an indulgence and celebration of quirkiness, individuality, spirituality, freedom and perhaps genius. Think of the stump-jump plough, Young Einstein, and not of Max Max. The story is soporific — not far off Chicken Run — but so what: the cinematography is gorgeous and there's the odd moment of inspired zaniness. Shot in Broken Hill. It is easy to see how he got from here to The Crow.

Recently Luke Buckmaster.

The Hand

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Oliver Stone's second feature, from 1981. I think it's clear that it was never a good idea, even at the time. Michael Caine turns in a stodgy performance, showing that when things work (as in, e.g., Sleuth) we can ascribe that to his co-star(s). Even so nothing can really save this intrinsically flawed whatever-it-is. Mercifully the sequel, so begged for at the end, was never made.

Vincent Canby. Clever? When? Again I'd suggest that David Lynch made far better use of juxtaposing creepy-crawlies with small-town shenanigans. Stone's thing is politics on the largest stages.


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Oliver Stone's first feature from 1974. I can't see how but it must've seemed like a good idea at the time. It's some kind of moralising horror, like Tales from the Crypt — mesmerising Martine Beswick does the Ralph Richardson thing, sorta, but not the Joan Collins thing. She's joined by a dwarf and a giant, which together with the red curtains were all better used a bit later by David Lynch. The framing story (dreams within dreams) was always a poor move.

It was not reviewed by my usual suspects.

Jamil Jan Kochai: 99 Nights in Logar.

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Kindle. A pointer from Mohammed Hanif. Briefly, a family living in the U.S.A. returns to Afghanistan in 2005 to visit their ancestral compounds and adventures ensue. There's some magic realism and some funny bits ("You swear to God you'll lie?") that mostly mine the chasm between the cultures. I often found it hard to figure out the family relationships and pronouns and articles of clothing etc. Cross-dressing in a burqa was a crime of cliche. It is mostly well structured but I'd lost interest by the time the story of Watak was presented as pages of untranslated text.

Very well marketed. Hanif softens many things: for instance Marwand doesn't "tease" the dog, he tortures it, gleefully. I didn't see the motivation for that and hence felt it undermined rather than underpinned the whole story. Goodreads didn't dig it.

John Clarke: Tinkering.

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Kindle. Hard to believe he's been gone four years now. This is a compilation of excerpts and offcuts of his written work. We get some Dagg, a diary of the Stiff shoot (he was starstruck by David Wenham), some political historiography that was sadly wasted on the muppets of that time and much else. Some is clearly quite rough or intended for very targeted amusement. Overall I'd say you're better off poking around his website or watching the ABC's tribute. I wonder what he'd make of these farcical days.

Goodreads is a bit tepid about it. Robert Phiddian: "Surely deathless prose (even from the dead) is an improvement on an endless stream of nouns prefaced by 'How good is ...?'"


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I haven't seen this in a very long time.

Three stars from Roger Ebert. Eric Bana: a star is born. Stephen Holden draws the line to Natural Born Killers.

Dark City

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Apparently third time around with this Alex Proyas contraption. Somehow sometimes (but not at all times) there are some very appealing visuals, or story elements, or something. I think we can all agree that whatever her other merits, Jennifer Connelly is not much in the voice department. I wish Melissa George had had a larger role. And Bruce Spence.

Roger Ebert at the time, and as a "great movie" in 2005 for a total of eight stars. A visual feast. Stephen Holden was more interested in a coherent story.

Once Upon A Time In The West

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Revisiting one of Sergio Leone's classics. Still #49 in the IMDB top-250. There's a lot to like here, if you have the patience for it.

Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars at the time. It seems he did enjoy the ones starring Clint Eastwood.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

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Apparently last seen a decade ago. I completely remember the way it unfolds (who would not) and some scenes but forgot many details. I could watch Woody Harrelson all day. Tarantino authored the story, whatever that means, given that others wrote the screenplay. Ah, I see, that means he declined to take his full due for it.

Four stars from Roger Ebert. He seems to have loved everything that Oliver Stone did. Peter Travers sees this as the latest in a series of exploitative works. Janet Maslin: not great satire, sure, but what sensory overload. One of Trent Reznor's finest soundtracks alongside Lost Highway. She's right that Stone can't do the news like Spike Lee.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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Second time around with this, the second of Oliver Stone's Việt Nam war movies. I don't think it's his finest outing, though perhaps this was the story closest to his heart of the three. Tom Cruise has a few scenes where he's quite good, and a few more where he's not; his best efforts felt like a dry run for his turn in Magnolia. Other actors, such as Frank Whaley as a childhood buddy, put in more natural performances. Stone got an Oscar for this direction, and the editors won too. I'm a little surprised as it didn't seem like the smoothest of rides; Cruise's speech to the cameras at the RNC towards the end doesn't square to well with the inchoate war vet we were getting to know to that point.

Four stars from Roger Ebert. Here he is, on the record, talking about an anti-war movie made by the losing side. Vincent Canby more critically endorsed it.

9 Songs

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This was on the pile forever, probably as a jag from Winterbottom's excellent Jude, which I should have rewatched in preference to this dreck. A quick look at IMDB suggests he has been running out of ideas for a long time now. In essence this is an episodic snapshot of the British indie music scene circa 2004 intercut with some hardcore sex that perhaps just maybe is supposed to provide characters and propel a plot. Really there's no arc and it's entirely vacuous. The Antarctic thread was absolutely spurious. As someone may have said, it's a continent in search of a penguin.

Roger Ebert is obviously sympathetic to sexy movies but could only manage two stars. Damn straight the concert scenes are the most soulless footage ever shot of that stuff. He misses the cue early on from the woman, that she's not there for the long haul. Stephanie Zacharek got into it.

Richard Flanagan: Gould's Book of Fish.

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Kindle. Is this Flanagan's For the Term of His Natural Life (unread by me), where conviction is a pastiche and conceptual theft (or co-option or appropriation) of the big 20th century novels? Anchored in Europe, set in Tasmania, convicts are slaves where history (recorded at least) is rewritten as in 1984, the boot is on the human face, Kurtz has his palace and railroad, while the American black man (Capois Death) dies a Benjamin Button death. I grant that the verbiage and periodic bouts of doubt about this project are all Flanagan though.

Briefly Gould is a painter transported from England who is charged with painting the fish indigenous to the Sarah Island penal colony. Wish fulfilment via coincidences and magical realism ensues.

Wanting now strikes me as offcuts from this: Flanagan could not house here all of his research on the bloke rounding up the remaining wild Tasmanian Aborigines, or Towtereh and his daughter. Both novels spend some time on collecting heads and sending them to England. As phrenology is a softer and more ridiculous target than eugenics, strawmen can be sighted everywhere.

I didn't get all of it. At times the eyeglazing verbosity got the best of me, especially towards the end. Overall it is probably more interesting to dig into the actual history that he's working off and reacting to. I enjoyed a few of his lines ("Is there nothing that doesn’t mean sex to [Americans]?" the [Italian] Conga had one day asked, to which [the Vietnamese] Mr Hung had replied, "People".) and his offhanders like blackfella-whitefelon language. But as with his other work the whole thing felt like mere scaffolding for such lines and brainfarts about love and the goodness of the world. Does Flanagan ever get to grips with the idea of love? He bandies it about like a brand name.

Michiko Kakutani. The people at Goodreads dug into it. Brian Matthews makes his observations and some polite excuses for making them. Ovid's Metamorphosis perhaps; in my frame, clearly Kafka, and Heart of Darkness of course. And so on.

The New World

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Malick completism. This one has been on the pile for a very long time. It's always tricky to approach anything with Colin Farrell in the lead. Christopher Plummer does OK with a bit part as a captain. Christian Bale is very banal as a well-mannered settler. I'll take what I can get from David Thewlis and Eddie Marsan. There's the odd moment of beauty. Briefly Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas of the New World (Jamestown, Virginia) encounters explorer Farrell and the obvious happens. Farrell being Farrell the obvious can't be let stand so Bale has to take her to the dance at the royal court in London, England. Afterwards they go home.

Four incomprehensible stars from Roger Ebert. It sounds like he thought it was a fairy story for adult Americans. Not being very familiar with the discovery myths of the Americas, I didn't feel it escaped the railroads of history as he suggested.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

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Nth time around with this Malick classic, apparently last seen seven years ago (which can't be right). In pretty much one draught at Bullara Station. It's much as I remember it though the central assault on the hill struck me as a bit more interminable this time.

Only three stars from Roger Ebert. He wanted more movie and less rumination. He's wrong about anti-war movies only being told from "the point of view of the winning side"; consider just about any Việt Nam movie made by the Americans. Janet Maslin was more nuanced, as was Peter Travers. Charles Taylor went for the jugular. In between the vitriol he makes some great points.

Douglas Coupland: Microserfs.

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Kindle. Also last read in Chicago in 2014. Coupland is a bit addictive. It's essentially a romance that doesn't really hold together if you think about it for long. Their Oop! product sounds like Minecraft to me (having never played Minecraft).

Goodreads has a higher opinion of this than Generation X.

Douglas Coupland: Generation X.

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Kindle. Last read in Chicago in 2014. Having friends like that must be exhausting.

Goodreads. It's undergoing a thirty-year anniversary sort of thing now; see, for instance, Diletta De Cristofaro and the man himself.

Omar El Akkad: What Strange Paradise.

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Kindle. The second novel from this Canadian journalist/author (the first being American War) and again well-marketed. I found it difficult to get past the first few chapters with their transparent attempts at creating a sense of curiosity about a crash landing on a beach via selective withholding. After these he settled into a standard two-track where one took us back to Syria and the other remained on Kos (a Greek island, second-best loved by the tourists). We spend a bit of time in Alexandria along the way. The trip on the boat with a diversity of characters is a bit harrowing and the most powerful piece of writing; the foreshadowing is particularly effective here. Every so often I found his punchlines quite affecting, despite it all being quite familiar from the experiences of the Vietnamese diaspora so long ago. Overall it's better than his first effort.

Goodreads loved it. Wendell Steavenson. Perhaps it is the taking of a tight vantage of children that made the improvement. Egyptian (?) people smuggler Mohamed did have his moments. Army Colonel Kethros is more a vehicle for making such observations as:

His father once told him that every man is nothing more or less than the demands he makes of the world, and that the more a man demands of the world, the bigger the magnitude of his success or failure in life. This, his father said, is what matters — the size of the asking. And this is what the colonel thinks of as he studies Nicholas's darting eyes, studies the weight of the lie on him; this is what the word weakness can never properly describe — the absolute poverty of the boy's asking, the willingness with which he seems ready to shuffle meekly through the world, making not a single demand. Weakness Kethros can tolerate — this other thing, he can't.

Fear and Desire (1953)

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Stanley Kubrick's first feature, and the first time I've seen it. The story is nothing great, and neither is the acting, but the cinematography has its moments.

The New York Times, at the time.

Sydney (or Hard Eight)

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Second time around with PT Anderson's first feature.

Roger Ebert. Stephen Holden.

That Sinking Feeling

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The first of Bill Forsyth's features. Essentially the same (great) cast as Gregory's Girl. A heist in Glasgow. There are some funny moments, such as the sister of one of the posse who knows everything, which by the logic of quantity theory means that he knows absolutely nothing.

Vincent Canby (five years later).

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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Third time around. Prompted by Andrew Delbanco's review of a Kubrick biography that suggests this was Kubrick's take on Napoleon. I hadn't realised it was based on a book by Thackeray. Things go precisely parabolically. The movie is somehow both soporific and entirely gripping which might be due to the cinematography or perhaps Marisa Berenson. Amazingly still #200 in the IMDB top-250.

Roger Ebert at the time (3.5 stars; key phrase "ultimately inconsequential") and as a "great movie" (an automatic 4 stars in 2009). Vincent Canby.

Walkabout (1971)

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Revisiting David Gulpilil's debut. The cinematography is gorgeous, though once people are involved the camera gets unsettlingly pervy. Nicolas Roeg's first feature as director.

Vincent Canby. Roger Ebert at the time (four ineffable stars), as a "great movie" in 1997 (another four stars) and for the Criterion Collection in 1998 (a mild edit of the 1997 review). Craig McGregor (apparently an Australian journalist) wanted something more political and actionable.

Sweet Country (2017)

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Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) directs. The story is the same-old frontier/B-movie Western justice/vigilante sort of thing that Henry Fonda would've been in back in the day. Things go as they must. Some of the cinematography is gorgeous. I enjoyed some of the actors: Hamilton Morris is great in the lead, as is his on-screen wife Natassia Gorey-Furber. I wish they'd been in every scene. Matt Day brought just the right amount of superficially respected but ultimately ineffectual force to his role as a judge, yet not enough for me to recognise him. Sam Neill did OK with some stringy material as a preacher without a church. I'd seen publican Anni Finsterer on stage in Sydney a few years back (In Real Life, The Readers); here she's a Mrs Miller to Bryan Brown's wannabe McCabe, or something like that.

Overall I'd keep the Aboriginal cast and some of the supporting actors, the sets, the director, ditch the rest and find a better story to tell.

Glenn Kenny. The "great salt desert" scene he picks out is a straight lift of a Sergio Leone classic. Jeannette Catsoulis is a bit off the mark: Alice Springs this is not.

Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist.

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Kindle. The worst thing I've read from Flanagan yet. It's like he spent a weekend in Sydney and thought he'd have a crack at a detective/crime effort ala Peter Corris. The formula involves loads of locations, moving between those locations, a dash of local colour (Mardi Gras, the Cross) and a cast of stereotypes: here a stripper, a Muslim drug mule, an inner city single mum, a self-deluded Richard Carlton-ish reporter, not to mention the tarnished but not bent cop with a heart of gold. It's as if he hasn't heard of Roger Rogerson, who made this sort of fiction redundant a long time ago. The plot moves like a train on a railroad alongside telegraph poles, binaries strung between cliches. The post-911 ASIO arrest laws are spelt out carefully but Flanagan seems ignorant of Howard's gun laws from a decade previous. Everyone and everything is on a downward spiral.

Goodreads. Michiko Kakutani dug it.

Crooklyn (1994)

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And yet more Spike Lee. As IMDB says, "Spike Lee's vibrant semi-autobiographical portrait of a school teacher, her stubborn jazz musician husband and their five kids living in Brooklyn in 1973." It's all vignettes. Delroy Lindo has the role of a somewhat ineffectual father, hanging on tight to the old musical forms. Alfre Woodard is more successful as the pragmatic mother. Bespectacled David Patrick Kelly more memorably played Jerry Horne in Twin Peaks. It's a bit overweeningly innocent.

Janet Maslin loved it. Roger Ebert.

He Got Game (1998).

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More Spike Lee. A basketball/prison father/son flick; in some ways a dry run or complement to 25th Hour (Big Time's monologue, the suspected perfidy of ladies, the bus departing the city). Public Enemy did the soundtrack. There were some enjoyable performances: Denzel Washington is at his finest in dealing with the cops at his flophouse, and that toasted cheese sandwich! Zelda Harris as his daughter Mary outdoes wooden son Ray Allen. John Turturro plays a character not named Jesus. Rosario Dawson and Milla Jovovich were solid. Coney Island! The production is slick but there's not a lot new or unique here though, unlike his best efforts.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Janet Maslin observes the Milla subplot was inessential.

Richard Flanagan: Wanting.

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Kindle. A two-track about Dickens (writing in London and acting in Manchester), and the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Asterisks attach to both. The link is Sir John Franklin and his wife, who also bear most of the characterisation. Things go as you'd expect. Flanagan in his concluding author's note asks that we not take the historicity of it all too literally. I don't think it engaged very broadly with wanting so much as how those with stature and power take what they can. This is the essence of the colonial project, and the Imperial centre, both well known for hypocrisy.

Goodreads has many opinions. Geordie Williamson claims it is a universal fable; I'd agree it's generic. Michiko Kakutani didn't like the fake history but passed up a chance to observe Flanagan's recycling of a central plot point of Great Expectations. Alexander Theroux was unimpressed.

She's Gotta Have It (1986).

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More Spike Lee completism. His first feature I think. For me all the fun was in the details. I see it was resuscitated as a TV series in 2017.

D. J. R. Bruckner at the time.

School Daze (1988)

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Some Spike Lee completism. One of his very early features. Larry Fishburne (about ten years after Mr Clean) plays a woke activist at the all-black Mission University, where fast times are had by all. Samuel L. Jackson, a local with dimmer prospects and expectations of wokeness, is the same as ever. They meet at the town's KFC. Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring in Breaking Bad) is great fun as a frathouse fuhrer. Spike Lee himself doesn't entirely nail his half-pint Gammite role. The musical interludes often started amusingly and became interminable. The stagy acting is of a piece with Lee's aesthetic, and once again the details are where it's at. It's mostly fun.

Janet Maslin. Roger Ebert. Both observe that it doesn't really hold together, either overall and as a series of vignettes. Lee did better with much of the cast soon enough in Do The Right Thing.

Inside Man

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Second time around, and again I enjoyed all the little things Spike Lee put in around a plot that Roger Ebert derided. Afterwards, when I stopped to think, I had to agree with him, and yet it doesn't really matter. Manohla Dargis.

Francine Prose: The Vixen.

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Kindle. Fourth time around with this author in book form I think. I have been enjoying her essays published in various forums, and movie reviews. This is some sort of commentary on the ethics of the book publishing industry/scene using the Rosenbergs as a fulcrum. (Deborah Friedell wrote a great article about them recently which I'm glad I read before this.) Also a romance, and a coming of age. Overall it's not as punchy as Mister Monkey. I felt there was far too much hand wringing, repetition about the moral dilemma(s), and too many pages went by between her very amusing punchlines. The plot wasn't that suspenseful and a bit disappointing that it went the way many conspiracy theories do. The lady characters are not that deeply drawn.

Amy Bloom (unabashed double thumbs up). Goodreads.

Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance.

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Kindle. Second time around with Mistry. It was on the pile for a long time. An ecumenical: variously some Parsis, Muslims, Untouchables/Dalits/Harijans/... form new kinds of households in India during the Partition and Emergency. There's some tailoring, some begging, some good and bad Godfathering, and no satisfactory romancing. Well-written and bleak; his vocabulary is vast and the clarity is all in the service of intricate, efficient and unsentimental storytelling. As someone who hasn't read Tolstoy I had to wonder if the ending was Anna Karenina's, and if so why. The most reliably funny scenes are set in a vegetarian restaurant, where I thought the cook and waiter played large enough roles to deserve names.

A. G. Mojtabai at the time. Generally well-regarded at Goodreads, and widely read as it was an Oprah's Book Club selection.

No Sudden Move

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A sort-of recommendation from A. O. Scott. As he notes it's unfortunately soporific; Benicio del Toro embodied the movie as a characterless shamble. Don Cheadle looked aged, as did Brendan Fraser. Jon Hamm the generic G-Man. And Matt Damon's exposition! I didn't follow who did what to whom for how much as it didn't seem worth it. Heading back to 1950s gangster Detroit: was the point that Soderbergh has no new stories to tell?

Dana Stevens.

Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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Kindle. I'm very late to this party, mostly because I couldn't imagine a better, richer take on the WW2 Australian POW experience than David Malouf's The Great World. I still can't. Allowing for that, Flanagan does nail enough things to countervail the busts in this multi-threaded and heavily researched novel. At times it feels like he's conforming Tasmanian history to his characters or vice versa (e.g. the 1967 bushfires, the half-caste nephew). As impostor syndrome stretched to book length, percussion at some point became concussive. It is better than anything else I've read from him.

Widely reviewed, of course, both before and after it won the Booker. A splattering: Michael Hofmann was not a fan, and fair enough, but some of his complaints missed the point; for instance, Dorrigo represents the constructed militarism of Australia and that he "seems to consist in being anything he is required to be" was not a failing of Flanagan's but entirely intended. (I'd say Flanagan is showing us aspects of the ANZAC mythmaking of the twenty-first century, when he was writing, which may or may not have been those of the 1950s-1970s.) Goodreads has all the opinions. James Ley (paywalled). Michiko Kakutani: having recently stalled at 40% through D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, I felt fortunate that Flanagan's efforts here are superior, being at least readable. She (and others) were right that the Amy thread is weak. Ian Buruma calls Flanagan on stereotyping the Japanese characters. Thomas Keneally forgave all flaws. And so on.

King Rocker

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A pointer from Mark O'Connell. Daniel Dylan Wray summarises it. Less fun that I hoped; maybe you just had to be there. Robert Lloyd's sellout in the late 1980s brought the vanity of the project more clearly into focus.

WUSA (1970)

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A pointer from an article by Thomas Powers on author/screenwriter Robert Stone. Paul Newman plays a New York dipso with golden tonsils who goes to work for some guys in New Orleans who want to Make America Great Again using patently shady social engineering. He soon falls in with Joanne Woodward, a pragmatic but sensitive lady (OK, hooker with a heart of gold) who survives however she can. Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates in Psycho, nervier here) is a concerned citizen, the better angel of American nature, at least until he provides some source material for The Parallax View. Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top) is a preacher somewhere between Robert Mitchum and Russ Meyer. Pat Hingle, who was later Commissioner Gordon in Burton's Batmans, owns the titular radio station. These promising (if cliched) ingredients are smoodged together into a script that I found very difficult to follow. Things go entirely Southern Gothic in the middle where Newman unloads on Perkins the philosophical core of the book (A Hall of Mirrors) this was based on.

Widely deemed a failure. It seems Roger Ebert didn't review it. Roger Greenspun for the New York Times. It is very stagy at times. Tom Andes in retrospect from 2011. It is probably best viewed as a time capsule of the city from the time it was shot.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2

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Some days Tarantino gets the better of me.

Roger Ebert on Vol 1 (four stars) and Vol. 2 (another four stars). He loved it.

The Furnace

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A David Wenham jag. An interesting aspect of Australian history with a mostly well told story grafted on to it. Cameleers were brought to Australia from various parts of the British Empire, and apparently some joined Aboriginal tribes rather than return home. The story is perhaps a bit too Treasure of Sierra Madre: gold-mad Wenham joins up with Afghan Ahmed Malek (actually Egyptian) in ex-filtrating some stolen goods, encountering several well-cast characters along the way. Some great cinematography ensues. The ultimate shootout at the Chinese camp doesn't do justice to the setup or the rich conceit of that space, in contrast to the radiance of the scenes involving an Aboriginal tribe which really pop. James Hagan gets his own slice of Se7en.

Overall I enjoyed it. I wonder why writer/director Roderick MacKay wanted to tell this tale. It's a very promising debut.

David Stratton: four stars. And similarly from Luke Buckmaster. Another four from Xan Brooks at Venice 2020: it's a B-movie.

Australia (2008)

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Worse than I expected, and perhaps the nadir of Baz Luhrmann's self-indulgence; it's certainly worse than his Gatsby. Only because it was supposed to be influenced by Xavier Herbert's writing, which it may superficially have been. (Richard Flanagan got a credit as a screenwriter! oh my.) Draped in the brief resurgence of reconciliation of 2008, the early Rudd years. It makes no sense; one minute quasi-Wolverine Hugh Jackman is complaining that Nicole Kidman has dispersed the "cows" over millions of acres, and the next they're droving the beef through the Never Never. Was CGI really this crappy in 2008? Or was the cinematography entirely flawed? It is interminable. David Gulpilil does well with the little he is given as King George, and Brandon Walters is fine as the greatly abridged Prindy. I guess I should be thankful that Luhrmann didn't attempt to depict a walkabout. Ben Mendelsohn plays it straight. David Wenham puts on his best strine whine. Bryan Brown, ouch. Jack Thompson, double ouch. Essie Davis. Apparently Ray Barrett's final role. And sundry Australians I didn't spot, including Bill Hunter.

Dana Stevens gave me fair warning: it's a shameless kitsch pastiche. Alternative endings: we got the happy one, surprise. Three stars from Roger Ebert, who calls out the dodgy race politics. Stephanie Zacharek all but accuses Kidman of having botched her Botox. Conversely Manohla Dargis saw something in Kidman's effort.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash

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A pointer from Ian Penman's entertaining roundup of recent Beatles books. Well, this is for the Python fans, with auteur Eric Idle front and centre of almost every shot. When he's not it's the old Saturday Night Live crowd. Mick Jagger and Paul Simon offer up their opinions. Gilda Radner does some Lucky-like thinking.

Alexis Wright: Carpentaria.

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Kindle. This was on the pile for a very long time. It's something of an Aboriginal Cloudstreet. Can I say I liked (some of) the characters and landscapes but not the writing so much? My eyes glazed over in some sections, which fatally impaired my ability (and willingness) to follow the whipsaw changes in perspective (tense/sense/dreaming) that often hung on just a few words that blended in with all the other words. These switchbacks were not particularly fluid or unambiguous, and nowhere close to what Murray Bail achieved. Amongst other things her take on the stars seemed well off — surely the Aborigines don't think of them as Westerners do, as Orion etc — and this after observing the meaninglessness of a whitefella naming ceremony for a river that had had a name for millennia. The plot is entirely wish fulfilment. It is a bit cinematic and I wonder why hasn't it been filmed.

Widely reviewed and celebrated. Elizabeth Lowry. Goodreads. And so forth.

Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)

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Flights of fancy from Werner Herzog. A segue from Chatwin's The Songlines via Andrew Harvey's review. I enjoyed it the most of what I've seen from him so far. Bruce Spence anchors things as a lovelorn geologist for a mining interest. Nick Lathouris is great as an anthropologist, as is Robert Brissenden as an entomologist. Ray Barrett from Don's Party is always about the same. Roy and Wandjuk Marika are spokesmen for their tribe. Bob Ellis plays a shopkeeper and (I'm guessing) wrote most of the dialogue. It was difficult to adjudicate between the green ants and the uranium in 1980s Australia.

Roger Ebert. Vincent Canby.

Storm Boy (1976)

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An Australian classic. The Coorong in the 1970s, shot in a drab, daggy style with very choppy editing. Anchored by David Gulpilil and Gordon Noble's amazing wrangling of pelicans. Some fun trivia at IMDB.

High Ground

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Because everyone else has seen it. The good bits, and there are a few, do not involve the plot. Early on the nice playful work from Mark Garrawurra as the man before he becomes a warrior gives us hope, as do some green tree ants, which is soon dashed. The priest is entirely ancillary, as is his sister. I can't say I really understood the point of dressing a tired morality fable in period frontier garb; I'd've preferred a 90 minute Kadadu/Arnham Land tourism commercial and more Aboriginal culture.

Sandra Hall: four stars. Luke Buckmaster: a more realistic 3/5. Like him I'm still waiting for Aaron Pedersen to get those great roles again. Glenn Kenny.

Christos Tsiolkas: On Patrick White.

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Kindle. Brief and passionate. I've avoided Tsiolkas because I didn't like the premise of The Slap; I think there's a lot less to learn from scenarios like that and the Trolley problem than people pushing them think. However I did enjoy this for the most part. I had hoped he'd probe Manoly's contribution to White's work some more, being very well positioned to do so. I wasn't persuaded by the tendentious Old Testament parallels. He talked up The Tree of Man so much and without mentioning that infamous review that I might give it a go. I wasn't surprised that he could only draw a line (apropos Aboriginal storytelling) from Voss to Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, demonstrating that while White, with his Nobel Prize, moves in and out of fashion, Xavier Herbert does not.

A cursory check of Goodreads suggests this is his highest-rated effort there.

Richard Flanagan: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.

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Kindle. Flanagan's latest, a 2019/2020 bushfire memoir. It's too heavy handed; was he suggesting that Mother Earth is in and out of intensive care, tubes sticking out of her everywhere, and just wants to be let go? But the successful, the powerful, the sixty year olds (the younger boomers?) won't oblige? Because they're too busy doomscrolling? Or losing their own bodyparts?

I wonder what he's going to make of COVID.

Damien Cave at the New York Times. Beware the passive voice. Beejay Silcox: unsubtle. James Ley. Goodreads. And so on.

Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu.

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Kindle. Many people recommended this to me. I was always diffident for reasons very well and fairly canvassed by Russell Marks about a year ago, which I'd summarise as too much culture war.

Having read it, I'd say the best parts are about (incontrovertible) Aboriginal ingenuity — the intriguing Brewarinna fish traps and those at Bermagui, the eel traps of western Victoria, the woomera, the transmission of knowledge — and that Pascoe looks like Sterling Heydon playing Papa Hemingway in The Long Goodbye. Along the way he observes that there is no pristine state to return Australia to; this environment has been engineered by humans longer than anywhere else. Therefore the best we can aim for is to adopt (OK, adapt) what used to work. To my mind everything in the book needed to speak to this. Also provided are some interesting factoids about grains, such as the natives being perennials rather than annuals, though I expect they are not nutritionally competitive with their modern engineered cousins.

The central flaw in the work is that if you're not prepared to read it charitably, to search for these good bits and indulge a bit of plausible what-ifery as the flights of fancy of a farmer on his tractor, doing science for the good of the nation and the planet, you'll get bogged down in apparent dodginess that invites quibbling or worse. I'm not going there, except to observe that much value survives even then. OK, just one: Pascoe seems to accept that sedentism signifies progress (I don't, and others don't either). I'd say we're now at just about peak sedentism, so where is the progress? This and other assertions merely distract in a why-go-there way.

Reviews are, of course, legion, and nasty stuff very easy to find.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

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Second time around with this Californian high school sorta-classic. Prompted by Dana Stevens writing the notes of the recent Criterion collection release.

Janet Maslin found it diffuse at the time. Roger Ebert was not a fan, and I concur with him that Jennifer Jason Leigh was the lead here (Sean Penn, not so much).

Hideous Kinky

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Again I have no idea why this was on the pile; it may be that I was on a Kate Winslet completest kick a few years back. Here she is as a transient mendicant, in the lee of Titanic, a young mother dragging her two young daughters around Morocco in search of "the truth" that perhaps the Sufis might know. She's a bundle of needs that are rarely met, and even more rarely interesting. It might've been a fun movie to make.

Roger Ebert was overly generous with three stars. Janet Maslin climbed on board.

The Piano

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Jane Campion's breakthrough feature. Far superior to the later Holy Smoke!. Briefly limp-as-always New Zealand settler Sam Neill mail orders bride Holly Hunter (excellent and Oscared) from the mother country, who arrives with her piano and daughter Anna Paquin (similarly) in startling style. She's inexplicably mute and finds deep pleasure in her playing. Soon enough rough but sensitive Harvey Keitel takes an interest and things go as they must. I was a bit mystified why Neill put up so much of a fight; no one was getting what they wanted up to the point where movie logic demanded things be taken to the limit, and it's pretty clear all the time that he just wants to get on with despoiling the countryside.

Campion herself got an Oscar for the screenplay. Vincent Canby sort-of reviewed it from Cannes 1993, as did Roger Ebert, where Campion was the first woman to win the Palme d'Or. Roger Ebert more formally. Caryn James situates the movie amongst other Australian gothics and observes Campion was inspired by Wuthering Heights.

Holy Smoke!

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I have no clue how this ended up on the queue. I don't recall having seen anything by Jame Campion before this, a misfiring comedy with a stellar cast. Post-Titanic Kate Winslet leads but her strayan is not strong, and all the nudity in the world can't make up for that. Couldn't they find an Australian actress to play this young lass with a susceptibility for older guru-men-children? Post-Pulp Fiction Harvey Keitel plays another Mr Fixit who is initially charged with replacing the Eastern with the Western and concludes faceplanted in the red dirt of Wee Waa wearing a dress and lipstick. Post-Jackie Brown Pam Grier steals every scene she's in, as does Austen Tayshus — always good to see them both. Sophie Lee is even more terrible than her character calls for. Many, many things do not fit together.

Everyone should've known better, especially me.

Roger Ebert. Janet Maslin.

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines. (1987)

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Kindle. Wikipedia claims he hooked Robyn Davidson up with Salman Rushdie in the 1980s and wrote travel lit focusing on nomads. This book was pitched as the result of his time in Central Australia. It reads like non-fiction but Chatwin claims it is intended as fiction.

In any case it's thin gruel: apparently his travels through the Dead Heart and thereabouts yielded less than half a book, and robbed him of the will to process his notebooks of previous jaunts into reader-friendly coherence. Chatwin wears his erudition heavily; the language is often the opposite of George Orwell's unadorned English, and while he was at pains to exhibit his wide exposure to the Western canon, he paid little attention to Australian sources, preferring to recount personal history and self-aggrandising interviews/observations from his travels in Europe.

The central conceit is an attempt to universalise Aboriginal ontology, their connection to land, where (in his view) songs notionally act as some kind of map, to all of human development. We'd call that cultural appropriation now I guess. Another and more defensible theme is that we should walk everywhere, or at least more often.

Some clangers particularly stood out to me. He goes roo hunting with some locals, which quickly descends into the obscene ala Wake in Fright, or, you know, camel abuse. How could he be surprised? Are mulga trees actually "leafless in this season"? And it seemed implausible that "songline" fragments would be assigned before birth, given infant mortality, the possibility of failing initiation, and that the child's gender would be unknown at the time.

Some of it echoes Xavier Herbert, or perhaps the converse in the sense of being fictionalised didacticism rather than didactic fiction. For instance local man Flynn is some kind of genius, something like Prindy. But what is his dreaming? Similarly Ukrainian Arkady, who asserts that Australia would've been so much better off if it had been colonised by a people who weren't scared by expanses of land (i.e., not island people like the British) — leaving the place unexploited by Europeans is, however, not an option. John Hanlon here is Herbert's commie Pat Hannaford. But Chatwin shows no awareness of Herbert.

Reviews and commentary are legion. Goodreads. Many are also irritated by the commingling of fact and fiction. Walter Goodman and Andrew Harvey at the time. The latter speaks of how other Englanders were drawn to Chatwin, how rickety the whole show is, and pulls the choice quote that was stuffed into the mouth of Arkady: "The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future."

More recent retrospectives: Richard Cooke expands on everything, and observes that Chatwin quickly passed into history. He says Flynn was based on Pat Dodson. Paul Daley also in 2017. Philip Jones too. There are plenty more.

Jones refers to A.P. Elkin's attempt to capture Aboriginal "Dreaming" but neither Jones nor Chatwin make the obvious connection to Plato's cave. There are also echoes of an unchanging Creation, an essential stasis, that is now strongly held by some Christians. It bothers me that no source I've yet found explains why the "songline" knowledge is so sacred or dangerous to share with the uninitiated; as presented here and elsewhere it is survival stuff. Similarly Chatwin's claims that "songlines" are the personal property of individuals that cannot be transferred but can be lent out etc. strikes me as metaphorical at best. Yes, the "songline" concept has never been particularly truthy.

Riders of Justice

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Mads Mikkelsen completism. He does OK with the little he has to work with (cold military man with daughter and dead wife). The setup, the style of comedy and remainder of the cast left me cold; I mean, come on guys, who has actual, substantial, physical compute hardware in 2020, let alone relocates it? Another realistic detail was how epic shootouts in suburban Denmark generate no heat from the fuzz.

Beatrice Loayza indulged it far more than I could.

The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021)

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Maya Phillips gave it a glowing review and pointed to antecedents I, Robot and more obviously The Incredibles. I'd add Tron to that list, where the equivalent of a 1980s programmer is now a creative (meme/movie maker) who is charged with and capable of taking out the MCU/Zuckerberg's latest creation/acquisition. This is Sony animation taking it to Pixar/the Mouse via YouTube sensory overload and not technical supremacy; where the older scifis were often satisfied with immersing us in wonderful worlds, this precludes a deep focus on anything. Overall a tonne of fun, especially the dog.

Robyn Davidson: Tracks.

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Kindle. You've watched the movie now read the book. Unsurprisingly the book is far better than the movie.

So much of it seems to be about her not knowing what she's doing, why she's doing it or what the consequences might be. For instance she is quick to tell us that the desert is vast and mostly unvariegated, which is to my mind why you don't go there! Or much beyond its frontiers. The (at times self-admittedly unhinged) animal abuse is hard to take, and oftentimes it seemed the camels had the right idea of just wanting to go home. Though she did grow along the way she never resolved her desire for both privacy and publicity, the latter of which she disavows too strenuously; why get on a plane to NYC a mere four days after completing the trek? That she is in these very remote places but often not particularly isolated struck a chord.

It is quintessentially Australian in being substantially ahistorical; there's not much backstory here (hers or the country's). For instance Xavier Herbert observed that "ranch" came into use in northern Australia due to the American influence during World War II; previously these were "stations", which a recent Conversation on the ABC claims came from the Army terminology for the bases they constructed as they moved through. It seems likely she hadn't read Herbert's work despite it being published to much fanfare around the time she conceived of her trip, and them both having strong ties to Queensland.

She experienced a neutered Aboriginal culture; for instance she decides not to cut up a kangaroo based on an elder's assertion that she should never do this, but has her doubts about whether this admonition was only for his land/country or for always, for all women or just for her. Did he assign her a totem, and if so how? This general inaccessibility of the underlying theory results in whitefellas being stuck with dogma, or indeed the pointier end of the law (such as the spearings at the tail end of Poor Fellow My Country), and goes unremarked by Davidson.

A diversity of opinions at Goodreads. Sophie Cunningham reviews Richard Cooke's book that tries to unpack Robyn Davidson as a writer.


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I spent the entirety wondering if Mia Wasikowska was ever going to put a hat on. (Spoiler: she never does, at least during the bits I was paying attention to.) Against the somewhat similar Rabbit Proof Fence, this a possibly good story both less juiced and less well told: wilful Robyn Davidson decides she's had enough of people and the only escape is a 2,700km trek from Alice Springs to the western coastline with camels. Her female dog is mostly enough company, though the movie makes it seem that she got both too much and not enough attention from other humans along the way. An especially gawky Adam Driver plays the romantic interest/photographer with the critical link to National Geographic. There's some great scenery and the odd amusing turn by various Aborigines, but beyond that it's a bust.

Manohla Dargis. Sandra Hall pointed out further flaws at the time. I too had trouble squaring director John Curran's efforts here with his far superior adaptation of Andrew McGahan's Praise.


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Viggo Mortensen did the lot: wrote, produced, directed and starred. Lance Henriksen (the android Bishop from Aliens etc.) plays his irascible father. There's little to redeem him or indeed the whole endeavour as many scenes play like a stage show; I expect it has been entirely eclipsed by the Oscared The Father. Laura Linney doesn't really nail Viggo's just-the-good-bits-thanks sister. The second flashback track has Hannah Gross as his luminescent-in-a-Cate-Blanchette-way mother married to Sverrir Gudnason, looking a bit like Casey Affleck. She was in Mindhunter. Terry Chen was somehow very familiar but I can't say why.

I picked it up on the strength of Viggo (he should've aimed for Captain Fantastic) by way of Jeannette Catsoulis's review.

Xavier Herbert: Poor Fellow My Country.

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Kindle. I bought this for 19.99 AUD from Amazon on February 9, 2016; it's taken me an age to brave this behemoth, a sequel of sorts to his Capricornia, or perhaps More Cultural Learnings of Murris (?) for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Australia.

First up: it's long, so long that it defies not just a useful summary and assessment but any engagement whatsoever with anyone born since 1980. That his shorter stuff is by reputation drecky may be the main reason his work has passed into history alongside David Ireland, both feted in their day, but it may also be that the times have changed so much.

More later, if I find the willpower.

Sean Monahan gave it a critical treatment in 2003. He asks us to excuse the work's failings as a novel by considering it a didactic project.

Judas and the Black Messiah

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Prompted somewhat by the supporting actor Oscar noms for the dual leads Daniel Kaluuya (playing Black Panther Illinois/Chicago Chairman Fred Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (FBI informant Bill O'Neal). I did not recognise Martin Sheen as Director Hoover. The acting is, as promised, quite good but cannot escape an overall tendency towards formula; the final thirty minutes is one long kiss goodbye. The documentary outro is not handled as well as Spike Lee did in the film it reminded me of, BlacKkKlansman.

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


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Drecky psychobabble from Hitchcock. Sean Connery does his best with wry smiles, arched eyebrows and semi-private smiles. The proposal that 'Tippi' Hedren is dishier than Diane Baker is preposterous. I have no idea what point he was trying to make, beyond the usual heteronormative hedonism and that cash cures all ills.

Eugene Archer at the time.

The Dry

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Mum reckoned the book was good. Another draw was Uncle Chop Chop's return to Victoria. So I'm blaming director Robert Connolly for this being a clunky bland out, playing more like an overlong episode of The Bill with too many unconvincing, unmotivated and underdeveloped zigs and zags. Just what do people do in rural Victorian towns between murders anyway?

Feted locally, of course. Sandra Hall. David Stratton apparently also gave it four stars. The same from Luke Buckmaster who makes the inevitable comparisons with Picnic at Hanging Rock (the granite boulder/river scenes on the flashback track) and Wake in Fright (the early pub scenes). Later, Nicolas Rapold.

Magnolia (1999)

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A Tom Cruise jag from Collateral. nth time around with this Paul Thomas Anderson classic. Janet Maslin nailed it in her review: the final movement doesn't live up to the first two. Eight stars from Roger Ebert (2000, 2008).


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Second time around with this Michael Mann. It struck me that this was his attempt at making The Terminator. The cinematography is classic Mann. Tom Cruise is mechanical in the lead. Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem, Jason Statham all have bit parts. Without Jamie Foxx it'd be mostly bust.

Roger Ebert. That opening scene he liked so much is the same gambit Mann played in Thief (which Ebert liked just as much). He's right that Mann puts a few really good things on the table. Manohla Dargis. She's right that Cruise is generally underrated as an actor and does fine here.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

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It's taken me a long time to return to this one, last seen in 2004. There's a lot to like. First up Peter Gabriel did the soundtrack, including my all-time favourite Cloudless. I was glad to learn that Molly's mother-actress Ningali Lawford sings the lead for it. Secondly the cast is great. Lead Everlyn Sampi is fantastic, and I was disappointed to see that she didn't go on with her acting. The supporting cast (including Kenneth Branagh, Garry McDonald, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, and David Gulpilil) fill their slots well. The cinematography is gorgeous, which is what I'd expect from Christopher Doyle at the height of his powers.

For all that it's a great story that is not told very well. The core is endurance and tribalism, being essentially bound up with land, of ancient and timeless connections, and of course, crass injustice. Most of that does not readily translate to the screen, and juicing it for drama as Phillip Noyce and his screenwriter Christine Olsen unfortunately do reduces rather than adds. The coda with the two aged ladies tells further stories briefly and powerfully; incorporating those might've made for a better movie.

I'm reading Xavier Herbert's Poor Fellow My Country presently, which after a bumpy intro it settles into a didacticism about the Aboriginality of the north. He notes the use of sign language, which we see Molly employ early on here when the girls have a wary encounter with a pair of Aboriginal men, and gives a best-guess whitefella's interpretation of why you should not point with your finger. This sort of detail, and an underlying sense that things not only must be made good but still could be, is missing here, as is an account of the fence itself, which could've been another character.

3.5 stars from Roger Ebert. He made a few errors of fact about the movie, and seemed unaware of the history of eugenics in the USA. Stephen Holden. David Stratton.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun. (2021)

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Kindle. Socially dystopian. More service/bondage. Themes of loneliness and what humans imagine will alleviate it. (Even the bull is lonely.) The Sun as God, a being that gets stifled and occluded but never killed, perhaps because he takes a rest each night. The human heart is essentially inscrutable, in aggregate if not individually. Did he innovate here by having a completely reliable, self-knowing narrator? Almost, until her loss of some precious bodily fluids for the greater good calls the whole show into question. The dialogue is as masterful as always. Overall it didn't really push my buttons.

Widely reviewed, of course. Radhika Jones at the New York Times. She seems unaware that the transition from pastoral bucolic to industrialised consumption was a massive theme in American Pragmatism (citing Hardy instead). Thomas Jones at the London Review of Books points to many similar works, recounts the plot and prefers to discuss Ishiguro's previous works. It is difficult to square Klara's lack of cosmological knowledge with her ability to tutor Ricky in physics and thereabouts. James Woods similarly spills more words on prior art. Toy Story, could be.

The Turning

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Second time around, on an epically rainy Tasmanian evening. I remembered two things: Rose Byrne playing trailer trash, and the very brief shot in the second last short (Immunity) where a woman is balanced on a man's palm. The IMDB rating is dire; Ed Gibbs forecast that back in 2013 for brief and accurate reasons. Despite that it still has its moments.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Committed.

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Sequel to The Sympathizer. It's a bit of a dog that wants to have it all ways. There's a lot of gesturing at but not a lot of engagement with some purported deep thinkers, which is hard to square with the very generic foregrounded gangsterism that similarly gestures at but lacks Puzo's guile and indelible imagery. It did pass the time but I often felt like throwing it across the troopy on this wet, windy and wild Tasmanian Wednesday.

Dwight Garner. I concur that the second half or so really drags, as if the author realised that he's too far gone with cliche and is sick of the project. Garner doesn't appear to realise that "GOOAAAAALLLLLL!" is a direct lift from Trainspotting. Junot Díaz, also in the New York Times, uncritically loved it. Later, so did Rumaan Alam. Still later, Thomas A. Bass. And yet later, Christian Lorentzen.

Sound of Metal

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The draw was Riz Ahmed in the lead. This is a tale of going deaf. The frame is a bit of a cliche — he's a drummer in a heavy-metal/punk duo, so what else could he or we expect? — but there are enough jags along the way to keep us unbalanced, or even too many as it often seems that co-writer/director Darius Marder has little clue where it's all headed, making for an unfortunate bust of an ending. I was here for the deaf theatricals (to me always fun and funny, as Adam Hills knows so well), with the cash out being a scene in the middle where wise man Paul Raci asks one of his cohort for help in setting up some tech: the arc of a flicked cigarette stands in for an epic eye roll. IMDB trivia suggests Raci is mostly playing himself.

Ahmed got an Oscar nom for his work here (as did Raci, the movie itself, the screenplay, the editing and the sound — the last of which is beyond amazing and surely must win), and for the most part he's quite good. I only wish they'd toned down the violent acting out as his character is otherwise sufficiently together to be realistic and reasonable, especially with regards to his girlfriend/mutual saviour played very ably by Olivia Cooke.

I'm glad they're still making movies like this.

Jeannette Catsoulis.

Richard Beasley: Dead in the Water: A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe... the death of the Murray-Darling Basin.

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Kindle. 14.23 AUD from Amazon. Via a brief writeup by Steven Carroll in the Smage, and because I was just out at Menindee and thereabouts. An account of Bret Walker's royal commission (sponsored by South Australia) into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is much anger at much mendacity, indicated by excess repetition and blue language, leavened by some funny bits. I wanted to know more about who has the standing to force the Basin Authority to make what Beasley strongly argues is an illegal Plan conform with the Water Act. It seemed weird that South Australia doesn't make more common cause with the Lower Darling. Entirely depressing.

Michael Pelly at the AFR.

Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual. (2021)

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Kindle. Spufford's second novel, after Golden Hill. As always his writing is brilliant and things are generally excellent. We can only really complain that he didn't write more, especially on the parts that were a bit more excellent than the others.

Here he recounts in episodic, fragmentary form the imagined lives of a bunch of kids who didn't actually survive a rocket attack on South London in 1944. (As I understand it the fictional children did not survive the actual rocket attack.) Clearly the closest structural referent is the 7-Up series of movies by Paul Almond (that I've never seen). Some of the characters are particularly interesting, others too tendentious, and yet others are left dangling. The reader is expected to indulge Spufford's philosophical shrugging about how life is as well as his sometimes ungainly semi-spontaneous bursts of Christianity. Some themes are familiar. For instance a schizophrenic only finds peace/a future within another culture, which here is an inversion of the US tradition of going to Mexico for healing of various kinds (cf Vietnam vets). The description of his condition, and later his eventual wife's back is some of the best stuff he's ever done. (I would've liked to know how she (or her parents) came to London as well.) There's an opera-loving property shyster who thrived under Thatcher; one wonders if before then most English shysters were exported to, or were operating in, the colonies. This is England did more inventive work on skinhead culture. And so on. He is a master of mastering in the service of explication.

Lisa Allardice spoke with him in early February. Kate Kellaway loved it. Alexandra Harris trainspots more structural referents. James Antoniou for the Smage. Reviews are, or soon will be, legion.

The Hunt

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A Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Vinterberg (and Thomas Bo Larsen) jag from Another Round. The premise is entirely #metoo: a very young girl confusedly accuses a kindy teacher she is infatuated with of sexual assault. The focus here is on the fallout for that man in the context of small-town Denmark. A setup like that (established very early on) and some awareness of Vinterberg's prior work might make you expect to squirm a lot. As it is he doesn't have the guts to really take it to us, or perhaps the topic is just too loaded to go anywhere interesting with. It is well made etc.

Stephen Holden.

In Bruges

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A Martin McDonagh writer/director jag from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I gave it a miss at the time as I don't think much of Colin Farrell as an actor or of Ralph Fiennes's choice of roles. Suffice it to say that there was even less there than I expected then; the humour was forced and cliched, with most scenes cleaving closely to formula. Farrell struggled to play dumb (that dumb anyway) and while Brendan Gleeson has redeemed other material this was beyond him. The remainder of the players are cast as eurotrash.

Manohla Dargis: it signifies nothing. Dana Stevens trainspots the legion antecedents, and told me that McDonagh wrote The Lieutenant of Inishmore: this thing needed a cat. Roger Ebert dug it.


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A young Korean family move first to California and then to Arkansas in the pursuit of elusive happiness. It's a messy story whose best bits involve the wife's mother. The ending is inconclusive. I enjoyed the actors more: Steven Yeun (last seen in Burning) as the exasperating, aspirational husband, Yeri Han as his conflicted wife, Yuh-jung Youn as grandma. Conversely I always struggle with Will Patton's sly grin, and daughter Noel Cho's character is underdrawn.

Jason Di Rosso's interview with the director prompted me to see it. A. O. Scott.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Frances McDormand completism, and a Peter Dinklage jag from I Care a Lot. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. I gave it a miss at the time because I couldn't see how the themes would add up to a decent movie, and the reviews were mixed. It turned out to be quite fun despite all that, for the most part, mostly due to some very amusing framing and dialogue. The cast is stellar: both McDormand and Sam Rockwell got Oscars for their roles. I warmed up to Rockwell further in, once he got past his moments as himself, though I found his transition from dumb hothead to circumspect vigilante clunky. Woody Harrelson done as good as always. Apart from the accent I didn't recognise Abbie Cornish as his wife. Caleb Landry Jones has fun as an advertising mogul. The ending is not very adequate. #151 in the IMDB top-250.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis.

I Care A Lot

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Stellar cast, total dog. What were they thinking?

Jeannette Catsoulis.


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Frances McDormand plays a widowed older lady who hits the road in the wake of the creative destruction of her company town (Empire in Nevada). Could anyone else play this role? It's always good to see David Strathairn, recognisable by his voice. I liked the way in which she cared. Someone should line her up for a Shakespeare; Plummer would've been her obvious costar.

Dana Stevens dug it and deemed it "message free", but to this foreigner it is far from. A. O. Scott. Kyle Buchanan interviewed McDormand. Later, Michael Wood.

Another Round

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Driving around outback NSW, I did find Radio National on the dial and the time/patience to listen to it. Jason Di Rosso on his The Screen Show interviewed Thomas Vinterberg amongst others. He was plugging his new feature Another Round starring Mads Mikkelsen. I liked how Di Rosso framed and engaged with things, and probed his guests, politely and firmly and personally.

The premise is that humans are born alcohol deficient, and what better way to test that out than with a group of four male Danish schoolteachers undergoing mid-life crises. Things go as you might expect, which is a bit disappointing from the director of Festen. However the entire thing is almost redeemed by the last five minutes or so, when Mikkelsen dances. It struck me as solipsistic, as him being so wound up in himself but also momentarily liberated, unfurled in the world, carefree, expressive, but the camera would have you believe that other people were somehow relevant to it. There's also a cute montage of Yeltsin and Clinton in the middle amongst a few other world leaders.

Devika Girish at the New York Times. Also Lisa Abend. And Gia Kourlas interviewed Mikkelsen: "We wanted it not to be about the dance but about what was inside of the character. More than it is a performance, it's an internal journey. It’s almost like a close-up." Anthony Lane.

Arthur Phillips: The Egyptologist.

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Kindle. His most-recent book was OK so I thought I'd give his earlier work a go. It's peak Egyptology just after the Great War: Carter is discovering Tutankhamen's tomb, and our historically minor figures are intriguing for an apocryphal king. Unfortunately the writing is again flabby and repetitive with too much foreshadowing; what seemed to be a promising premise devolved into a swamp of deluded characters with the exception of the knowing, mocking Marlowe and his Oxford set. Sometimes the Australian characters have the right tone and lingo, and perhaps the same is true for the boys who went up to the university. The epistolary format and heavy stereotyping made it hard to engage, and early on it was clear that the unreliability of the narrators was making a satisfactory ending impossible; the remains of these days don't amount to a hill of beans.

Tom Bissell observes this is a historical novel, of which Phillips apparently made a habit. I didn't enjoy much of the humour as I took the whole show to be a fiasco from the start; it's a farce not a comedy, not even a parody, just a dance with cliches. Bissell does not grapple with the themes of immortality, rhyming, repeating history, fakery and weak evidentiary bases. Goodreads was harsher.

The Night of the Hunter

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Some nights there's nothing for it but to revisit this Robert Mitchum classic. Roger Ebert deemed it not only a "great movie" in 1996, but "one of the greatest of all American films". Who can argue with that. Bosley Crowther liked it at the time apart from the ending.

Amor Towles: You Have Arrived at Your Destination.

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Kindle. A short written on commission for Amazon. This is one of those books that makes you wonder if the writer's editor isn't the magician, as for Shantaram / The Mountain Shadow. Clearly bashed out quickly and to spec; there's little of Towles's sophisticated remove here. I wasn't invested enough to divine the novelty or point of it all. Designer babies! In the USA! Ergo military-industrial complex conspiracy. It didn't smell truthy to me.

Goodreads has a range of opinions.

Amor Towles: Eve in Hollywood.

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Kindle. Offcuts from The Rules of Civility. Snapshots of the golden era. Eve befriends Olivia de Havilland, who passed only last year at 104. Eve is always perfectly appropriate to the moment, but also directionless and unmotivated. Eve would now be a chaos monkey at a startup a little further north. Yes, it's all about Eve.

Walk the Line

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This was on the pile for ages. I'm not a fan of any of the actors or even Johnny Cash — he's mostly a legendary voice to me, and this movie doesn't really capture that. Reese Witherspoon got an Oscar for her efforts as Cash's eventual wife June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix is decent in the lead. Robert Patrick plays the unyielding father. There's not much of a story.

A. O. Scott was skeptical, Roger Ebert indulgent.

The Rules of the Game

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A French upstairs/downstairs farce from 1939 in black and white. Not for me. It's more fun to read Roger Ebert's "great movie" review. Prompted by Ben Kenigsberg.

Red River (1948)

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John Wayne in black and white in 1948, just like Gil Scott Heron used to say. Overall he's a bit undermodulated as he drives a massive herd of cattle from deflated post-civil-war Texas to Missouri with pseudo-son Montgomery Clift who is actually decent here. It's not spoiling a thing to say that they don't make it. The cinematography is quite good and as you'd expect from Howard Hawks there's enough going on to keep things interesting. One of these years I'll make it all the way to Montana with Lonesome Dove.

Roger Ebert in 1998. Bosley Crowther at the time. Both are disappointed by the intrusion of women into this masculine fabulation.

Dennis Glover: Factory 19.

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Kindle. 14.99 AUD directly from the publisher Black Inc. Third time around with Glover; I remember his previous historical novel as better than his polemic on industrial society. Here we are at their intersection, and a contemplation of what the internet has done to things.

The premise is simple: 1948 was the peak of blue collar workers' communitarian welfare, so what happens if a billionaire tries to recreate it as a refuge for the disrupted in Tasmania in our year 2022? This adventure in bleached Australian utopianism (a field long in decline) wobbles between Animal Farm-like satire and Anglophilia/Europhobia. Halfway through it enumerates the joys of the time, just as Red Plenty did for 1950s Russia. The thin disguise draped over David Walsh seems like an appeal to him to give it a shot despite this paradise being, of course, lost.

Glover's essential desire is to undo the impact of the computer on society and industrial practice. Apparently without it the destiny of humankind is controllable by humans who will therefore be happier. He takes it as read that an industrialised society is inescapable, and that a service economy slakes no thirst — humans need to build stuff, to materially and personally disturb dirt.

The central disappointment of the book is the long list of present-day concerns that Glover either ignores or inadequately responds to. Greenies are supposed to be bought off/provoked/triggered/quietened by militant fantasy. Nothing is said about religion and sectarianism; terrorism with religious motivations had certainly arrived by 1948. So it goes for colonialism and nuclear technology. The sexism of the day is described (accepted?) but not defended. Aborigines, post-war non-Anglo migrants and people with disabilities do not exist (which is weird as he does include industrial accidents). Maybe that was the Australia of the 1940s but it doesn't fly to continue to ignore them in the second thread set in the 1970s. Glover need not have addressed every last thing but it grates that he acknowledges other flaws of those periods, including such superficialities as fashion.

Glover's contention that blue-collar workers are poor in present-day Australia is belied by the common epithet "cashed-up bogans" — many contractors, mine workers, tradies, builders, etc have never had it this good. He has no story about creativity, just contentment via consumption. To him the glorious 30 year post WWII Keynesian economy was destroyed by overreaching strikers in the 1970s, led by a caricature of RJL Hawke. Glover is too blinkered to integrate the innovations of that period from elsewhere in the world, such as Toyota's total quality management that reputedly encouraged, for a time, more engagement and satisfaction in factory work.

Overall it's not as well constructed as A Gentleman in Moscow (brought to mind by the quasi-involuntary incarceration/co-option of the non-working-class, cultured main character/narrator), often indulgent and less provocative than I hoped. For all that Glover writes engagingly and if you're sympathetic to his conceit there's some fun to be had.

Jack Cameron Stanton summarised it for the Smage. Jack Callil at the Guardian. In another Schwartz venue, Anna Thwaites observed the equivocating voice that obscured whatever point Glover was trying to make.

Last Tango in Paris

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Brando completism. He was all over the map here. Leading lady Maria Schneider had a difficult and often vacuous role. The main themes seem childish and exploitative. The Chekhovian device is annoyingly predictable and literal. The film-within-the-film is trite. It was on the pile for a very long time because it was and is very difficult for me to get excited about. Perhaps it speaks louder to Americans and French people as some sort of post-war (ma)lingering.

12 stars from Roger Ebert: 1972, 1995 (unexpected events?!?), 2004 (a revision of the 1995 opinions). Overall he views it, by channelling Kael, as some high point in art cinema.

O Lucky Man!

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A bemusing, clunky and overlong series of quasi fables from early 1970s England threaded by Malcolm McDowell. He and Lindsay Anderson previously made If..., which I don't remember being this uninspired, and also a followup Britannia Hospital that I'll now give a miss. Structurally it's similar to Tales from the Crypt (Ralph Richardson is in both). Confusingly Helen Mirren and others in the ensemble cast are sometimes the same character but mostly different. No new observations are made about the state of humankind here, not the least because McDowell made all of them and more in A Clockwork Orange a couple of years prior. Alan Price's music doesn't help, and nor do the title cards.

Fargo (1996)

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The Coen insta-classic from 1996. Prompted by a Roger Ebert review. He was still in love with it five years later. As he says the iconic scenes from the movie all come quite late, which is not to slight the very able setup work from Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and William H. Macy but to observe just how much Frances McDormand inhabits her character and lifts the material above a police procedural about a kooky caper. Janet Maslin at the time.

Written on the Wind

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A Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone jag from The Big Sleep. The latter won an Oscar for her portrayal of the scion's sister who is fixated on marrying leaden lead and poor adoptee Rock Hudson. It's a bit of a Southern Gothic transplanted to somewhere not very Southern, or perhaps a riff on Gatsby. Robert Stack is wooden and yet got an Oscar nom. The opening scenes, of a man drinking in a yellow roadster and a gun going off, were effective but oversold what came afterwards.

Roger Ebert deemed it a "great movie" in 1998. Parody perhaps, artifice sure, sophisticated I don't think so. Bosley Crowther apparently missed all the cues.

Gregory's Girl and Gregory's Two Girls

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A pointer from Roger Ebert's review of Local Hero; both of these were written and directed by Bill Forsyth. The first (from 1980) is a successful, quirky, fun coming-of-age sitcom at a small-town Scottish high school, where a girl joins the soccer team and outdoes the boys in fitness, skill and beauty, while the second has Gregory return for more situations as a teacher in 1999. The only cast to return was lead John Gordon Sinclair which was perhaps due to Forsyth playing it too safe in the lee of Trainspotting and Fucking Åmål amongst others. (The original has Eric saying "In another million years, there'll be no men, no women. There'll just be people. Just a whole world full of wankers.") I was expecting Greg to have a wife and a daughter in the latter, and I guess he does end up there-ish.

Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby about the first one. Both loved it. Girl Clare Grogan later played Kochanski in Red Dwarf.

Warlock (1959)

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A Dorothy Malone jag from The Big Sleep. A strong or at least intriguing cast (Henry Fonda as himself, Richard Widmark looking at times like Ed Harris's brother, a camp Anthony Quinn, DeForest Kelley (!), ...) in a stock Western. Less than I hoped for; Leone kept things interesting with Morricone's music and great cinematography, whereas this just sags.

Bosley Crowther thought it was excellent.

Dazed and Confused

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Excess McConaughey completism. It is as if Richard Linklater has made some parallel universe of B movies that I've never seen. (OK, I've seen Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and was unimpressed, and avoided his Before movies.) This is another tepid end-of-high-school flick that wasn't even as brave or inventive as American Pie was soon after. Perhaps it's closer to American Graffiti or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, neither of which I've seen in ages. The limits of its transgression are some spliffs and observing that the poor stink (as George Orwell noted so long ago). Parker Posey plays a mean senior bitch.

A kiss-of-death three stars from Roger Ebert. Janet Maslin observes the soundtrack.

The Lincoln Lawyer

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More misguided McConaughey completism. The cast is great — ex wife Marisa Tomei, investigator William H. Macy. Ryan Phillippe plays a serviceable psychotic defendant. Detective Bryan Cranston seems bemused to have a bit part in an L.A. law procedural. Some of it is fun but I wasn't sufficiently invested to follow who knew what when and why.

Roger Ebert at the time. Manohla Dargis said similarly that it's too much the same.


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I'm not a big Zemeckis fan. This is his followup to Forrest Gump, and really it would've been more fun if it had been its sequel. This is despite a well-used stellar cast. Jodie Foster plays a soulless scientist; in cliche terms, she gets enough props for doing dreamy, risky science as a woman in a ruthless male-scientist world to debate some theology. (She still looks about as girlish as she did in Taxi Driver, and her thick-skinned enthusiasm is critical to things working even this well.) But really I was there for some misguided McConaughey completism; he was young once, and beatific, and seems to have always had that Interstellar kind of lurv. David Morse. Angela Bassett. John Hurt has some fun in an ambiguous gender, ambiguous race role that Tilda Swinton owns now. James Woods unleashes some vintage snarky insinuation. So strange to see Slick Willy once more. Those were the days, but who was to know?

In essence this is about humans blindly building a machine from alien blueprints. They don't understand how it works or what it does, much like current-day capitalism, but the plans state that it will transport a human somewhere. Inevitably there's a star child and when science hits its limits even our soulless scientist reaches for spiritual imagery. Of course a multi year trip to inner Alienstan (or was that Heaven?) isn't going to fly when you've got a boy waiting back home, so they bend Einstein all out of shape to reduce the universe's immensity to human dimensions. All this makes it hard to square the science-respecting talking with the Hollywood action.

So quaint to see CRTs everywhere. The machine (essentially a stargate McGuffin) falling apart reminded me of the classic UTS crane fire meme.

Roger Ebert got starry eyed in 1997. Stephen Holden tried to take it seriously. The Star Wars trilogy? Those were the days. He's right that the best part was that reenactment of the crowd watching the moonshot launch at Cape Canaveral from across the water in 1969.

The Big Sleep

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The Howard Hawks classic, with Bogart and Bacall, nth time around. What fun.

Roger Ebert in 1997. Bosley Crowther was unimpressed at the time.

Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection

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Repeat viewing. I didn't remember much. Very well made and very boring. David Fincher's efforts are all sepia and indirection. Jean-Pierre Jeunet tries to inject more than bare horror and scifi. Both fail dismally here but soon went on to wild success. I see Sigourney Weaver was a co-producer on both, so perhaps these were her superannuation.


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Nth time around with James Cameron's take on Ridley Scott's horror/sci fi mashup. I enjoy Cameron's industrial plant sets but not much of the rest of it. Michael Biehn once more gets the girl. #73 in the IMDB top-250.


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Suckered by Dana Stevens's year-end list. It's not great and doesn't go anywhere new. A slow start — a granddaughter's return to her village in Brazil for her grandmother's funeral — yields with a reveal to a desperate conformance to genre: gun violence, head severance, blood, the innocence of the child, a kooky dipso doctor. So essentially a humourless, life/death affirming From Dusk til Dawn without Clooney. None of the gringos have any personality. What the gang that does so much for the village actually does is unspecified. The quote in the middle, that cliches can't deeply offend or provoke, applies to the entire movie.

Manohla Dargis also loved it.

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls. (1940)

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Kindle. I read it quite slowly, resisting getting to the climactic battle as much as Hemingway did. I found it much easier to approach than his Old Man and the Sea, which I started but didn't get far with a few years back, making me think that that might be a gatekeeper suggestion, keeping the casual reader from the man's better works. He's definitely on the romantic and doomed side of things even as he writes unsentimentally about the Spanish Civil War. The structure is straightforward; he's not bothered with playing tricks with points of view, so it's very easy to follow in time, space and character. Given his reputation I was surprised at how strongly drawn his female character(s) were. I wonder what he would have made of present-day USA.

The Wikipedia page has loads of details. The Russian Karkov trashes the POUM, which George Orwell fought for. I think I'll give the movie a miss.

The Abyss

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James Cameron completism. Perhaps this was the best he could do with an Avatar/Aliens interpolant in 1989. The plot is similarly hokey and implausible, which wouldn't have bothered me given the amazing staging and cinematography if it wasn't weighed down with too many Chekhovian devices that go off entirely predictably. Moreover there's lurv almost as strong as that in Interstellar. Visually it's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but underwater. Ed Harris was far better elsewhere, and Michael Biehn nowhere near what he was in The Terminator.

3.5 stars from Roger Ebert in a video review.

The Last Tycoon

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Elia Kazan's final film. More Anjelica Huston and, well, everyone: Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Theresa Russell, Donald Pleasence, Tony Curtis, Dana Andrews. Robert De Niro leads. Pinter adapted the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. This is Hollywood gazing deeply into its 1930s golden-era navel: a boy wonder producer gets lucky and unlucky in love while the boss's daughter looks on. It starts slow but warms up a bit, edging towards There Will Be Blood before drowning in alcohol. The fun bits are Ingrid Boulting putting up a fight against De Niro's attentions, and Communist Nicholson also taking it to De Niro physically. De Niro has the odd effective scene alongside some clangers where he appears lifeless.

Vincent Canby.

Avatar (2009)

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I was told at the time that it was pretty good in 3D at the cinema. A decade later I'd say it's still a (psychedelic, immersive) visual feast and everything else is beside the point. The plot is completely formulaic and events follow events briskly. (I have yet to see The Lion King and now perhaps I don't have to.) The people are essentially a smoogery of Amerindian cultures. I doubt Gaia is coming to save us on this world. I felt I'd seen it before (coarsely The Matrix) and after (roughly Endgame) without that mattering a whole lot. Sam Worthington was better than he ever would be again. Zoe Saldana was somewhere in there.

Dana Stevens tried for an internet metaphor. Roger Ebert went in boots and all. Manohla Dargis.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

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Excess Carey Mulligan completism. She's having a moment. Good work publicist. It's a #metoo/millennial riff on the timeworn femme revenge flick; a sort of Hard Candy, Alexandra’s Project interpolant with Harley Quinn aesthetics and attitude, and perhaps a touch of Gone Girl. I couldn't get too excited by the premise so I spent most of the time trainspotting the cast. It was great to see that grab of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. It's due for a revival, even as morning TV for people older than me who still watch TV. After a while the excess references to blackout drinking and sleeping around evoked American Pie, with the link being that Mulligan's mother is Jennifer Coolidge, aka Stifler's mom. I was perplexed to see Clancy Brown as her father. It runs on tracks parallel to Twin Peaks (the movies, not so much the TV shows). In the middle the Dean of the med school made a semi-interesting observation about vulnerability that was quickly occluded by absolute moral clarity. The "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" pivot/break is completely predictable at the 1hr15m mark, so formulaic it hurts. As events at the US Capitol proved the very same day I watched this, fantasising about agency has its limits.

Jeannette Catsoulis. Dana Stevens really didn't like it.

Local Hero

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In two sittings. I've had the soundtrack for ages but never seen the movie. (The ABC used to use Knopfler's Going Home as intro music to something, I think; in any case, it lodged in my brain like The Beatles.) Well it's a quirky, whimsical, earnest attempt to be agreeable, to find the common ground between locals with beautiful scenery and global capital, here represented as various parts of Scotland and a Texas oil company. Corporate head Burt Lancaster is almost unrecognisable until he speaks. I loved his fascination with cosmology, and the Texan drawl of the receptionists was almost just-a-moment Office Space. The boffins were funny. Pete Capaldi chases the mermaid Jenny Seagrove. Peter Riegert is too American everyman for me to remember.

Roger Ebert at the time. He gestures at Bill Forsyth's earlier feature. Janet Maslin.

El Topo

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Took a few sittings to get through. Can't say it did much for me. Prior I figured it to be mostly a low budget narrative-free derivative of the spaghetti Westerns and it did little to convince me otherwise. Roger Ebert indulged it at the time and again in 2007. Vincent Canby was more sceptical. Manohla Dargis in 2006.

Blood Work

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An Anjelica Huston jag from The Dead. Clint Eastwood directed, produced and starred. It's one of his weaker efforts, with all the seams showing; something like Dirty Harry in retirement, trying to make a Zodiac or Se7en. He sure has a way with the ladies. Unfortunately it's all too transparent; I wasn't very invested and still had it figured by halftime.

Roger Ebert liked how it built up, just like a railroad.