peteg's blog

Atlantic City (1980)

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A pointer from Christos Tsiolkas's prognosis for this year's Oscars:

Does anyone really care about the Oscars anymore? My own faith in their legitimacy was destroyed in 1982, in my final year in high school. I had watched all five films nominated for Best Picture over that summer, and when it was announced that Hugh Hudson's leaden historic drama Chariots of Fire had won over Warren Beatty's lushly romantic Reds and Louis Malle's exquisite chamber piece, Atlantic City, I turned off the television and muttered to myself, "They have no bloody idea!" And so, with the sanctimonious certainty of a 16-year-old, I dismissed every single voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I knew better: they were all wrong.

This is Burt Lancaster as a minor league mafioso, charged with taking care of his departed boss's wife (Kate Reid) for a stipend. The plot gets started with aspirational card dealer Susan Sarandon's husband (Robert Joy), who has impregnated her sister (Hollis McLaren), finding themselves in Philadelphia and soon in dire need of a coke distributor. They arrive in an Atlantic City that is being destroyed so it can be rebuilt as the Las Vegas of the east; this is somewhen before Trump got to it. All three are fleeing their tiny Canadian hometown. Things amble along genially in the mode of the times, culminating in a sort-of reverse Remains of the Day. It's as pure a piece of Americana as was ever built by a Frenchman.

Roger Ebert: four stars in 2005. Vincent Canby got right into it. IMDB trivia: Malle: "... [that] bizarre parking place with elevators — an absurd structure I have never seen anywhere else. It was so inconvenient, but it was typical of the place."

Unfaithful (2002)

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Out of sheer curiosity I dug up Adrian Lyne's previous feature (the last before his retirement). Diane Lane, married to a bland Richard Gere, goes all-in on an unmotivated affair with Olivier Martinez in 2002 in NYC. Once again there's a lot of repetitive repetition. Perhaps the highlight for me was when an ornament (a snow globe) witnesses common knowledge (!) — you can see the two leads falling into an unbounded epistemic abyss of dawning awareness. Otherwise it is far too often so dumb. The ending is amoral, unlike Lyne's earlier Lolita — there's an echo of it in a police siren in the closing scenes — and it is hard to see why things are left to dangle. That suburban living will get you every time.

Roger Ebert: three stars too many. Lane and Gere, serenely materialistic, yes. Stephen Holden. That scene where Lyne cuts from affair to train ride had me hoping he'd ride the ambiguity somewhere. Perhaps he, like Michael Mann, has just been remaking the same movie time and again.

Deep Water (2022)

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Adrian Lyne un-retired to make this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. The cast looked solid (Tracy Letts has his moments, as does Ben Affleck and just maybe Ana de Armas) and I'd been warned it's farcical. But really, how many times can you replay the same scene? I tried to keep up while there was still some ambiguity but once the plot unkinked somewhere after halfway I couldn't figure out what the point was, what it was I might have been missing out on. Who are these people? I was too disengaged to follow the late twists, if there were any; the reviews suggest I was supposed to read more into what exactly gets Ana off.

Jeannette Catsoulis. Dana Stevens missed erotic thrillers but somehow made do with this one. She reminded me of how little is really made of Affleck's tech geek being mismarried to de Armas's squeaky party girl (yeah I know right bug eyes).

Expired (Loveland) (2022)

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Ivan Sen's latest. Well I'm sure that many of us have wanted to remake Blade Runner at some time or other, even Ridley Scott. I'd expect most would tune the plot, retain the aesthetic and general post-everything Asian city (or Chinatown) vibe, soaking wet, but not slow things down to the pace of a sedated slug.

I couldn't figure out what Sen was reaching for. Is this a homage to Wong Kar Wai? Had he been watching too much Terrence Malick? I know he's unafraid to go deep into genre (cliché) but having a white man (Ryan Kwanten) roam an Asian city, stalking Jillian Nguyen's comfort-woman-with-wandering-accent, is pure #metoo bait. Life-extending Hugo Weaving is found whenever he's needed, but where's his Rutger Hauer? The editing did the story no favours. The mutually-intelligible multilinguality is an optimistic triviality.

Luke Buckmaster: two thankless stars. Elisabeth Vincentelli: don't expect much. The IMDB rating is steadily sinking; I get the impression not many people can be bothered to register an opinion.

Elliot Ackerman, James G. Stavridis: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. (2021)

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Kindle. I don't usually read this sort of militaristic strategic imagineering. The draw was Elliot Ackerman despite the strong sense that the returns have been negligible for some time.

Briefly it's 2034 and China has decided that it's time to take Taiwan. (Putin, despite making a hash of many of their premises in the real world, is still in power.) The USA has tied itself up in technological knots and cannot do more than react. Contrary to Daniel Ellsberg there is a nuclear exchange that most humans survive. India has risen as the USA slid into third worldism.

Well, what can I say. The plot is derivative and holey; we begin with an almost scene-for-scene replay of the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek II, right down to having a woman in charge. Soon enough it's Dr. Strangelove with "Wedge" standing in for the far more entertaining Slim Pickens. It's probably intended more as a think piece, exploring their concerns through provocative situationalism, but even so their research is not good enough. (Just one example: severing internet cables running through the Arctic would have no effect on connectivity in the continental USA; I mean, just ask Google. I thought everyone knew it was designed to survive nuclear war.)

The authors have developments depend more on personal links than the institutions that the West claims to be comfortable with. (Some big moves depend on stale familial relations.) For all that and despite women being placed in positions of power, responsibility, and violence, when it comes to the substance of decision making men dominate.

Torn to shreds on Goodreads.

Thief (1981)

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Third time around with this Michael Mann classic.

Ayad Akhtar: Homeland Elegies. (2020)

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Kindle. Prompted by a glowing review by Dwight Garner.

In earlier times this may've been derided as autofiction or just perhaps on the edge of Tom Wolfe et al's New Journalism, whereas now it's billed as a fictionalised memoir. The view from the native-born son of educated Pakistanis who migrated to the USA is broad and shallow, treating topics done to death by others recently; while Garner (and Akhtar) point back to Scott F. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I kept thinking of Mohsin Hamid's work from about a decade ago (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to get filthy rich in rising Asia) and Pankaj Mishra's capacious The Age of Anger. Performative mimesis, in short, and nowhere as punchy, transgressive or funny as Paul Beatty.

Topically we get Trump, a dash of Obama and bin Laden, racism in Pennsylvania, daddy issues (see, for instance, Lewis-Kraus), that economics (really financialisation) now dominates all other concerns and that this was observed by Emerson and Thoreau a long time ago, the limitations of a litigious society, black politics and how the white man's political machine is not going to solve anyone else's problems. A billionaire executes a slow-burning revenge fantasy, sending some racist municipalities broke with weaponized finance of mass and indiscriminate destruction. There's the odd self-contradiction, such as an affluent (self-described) black man thinking that spraying his money around ("maybe if we play our own game by their rules...") will make a difference. That's the general modus operandi I guess: the USA has snookered itself.

Akhtar is not a scientist; he operates entirely in the confirmation mode, constantly looking for validation and not the refutation that might prove his idea(s). (Consider the lengthy section on the predictive power of his dreams — I struggle to see it as something done for effect, a nod to the new age conspiracy theorists.) He is annoyingly patronising at times, talking to an imagined audience that he just knows is ignorant of Pakistan (and Afghanistan and ...), which doesn't work too well when he elides more telling episodes in history such as USA realpolitik in early 1970s East Pakistan. Performative amnesia? There's also a strange, irrelevant and wrong gesture at Gödel’s theorem. The originality or correctness of his claim that Robert Bork's The Antitrust Paradox set the stage for the current-day megacorps (concomitant with loss of diversity and exacerbated fragility) is not clear to me. I did want to know more about the Muslim concept of corporation; that the absence of such precluded development in Islamic cultures is intriguing.

Goodreads. Hari Kunzru at length: the slab quote is a great way to avoid judgement.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

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Derek Cianfrance completism. Ryan Gosling leads as a never-do-well motorcycle stunt rider/robber with a wild oat until Bradley Cooper takes over as an ambitious cop. (The latter is essentially an underbaked, humourless retread of Guy Pearce's role in L.A. Confidential, and unfortunately the transition is not a David Lynch move.) Rounding out the excellent but underused cast are Rose Byrne as Cooper's wife, Eva Mendes and Mahershala Ali as parents, Ray Liotta at his blandest. Ben Mendelsohn's initial scenes are warm, friendly, funny with loads of energy. His character is too minor, too shallow for this to endure.

The ambition is for something like a crossbreed of a multi generational sprawling fable like Magnolia with the slickness of Michael Mann's Thief. (The opportunity to reheat the classic James Caan/Tuesday Weld scene is there but not taken; Gosling's character is not on that level.) It's just too flat, and by the time we get to the third act things are predictably tiresome; those boys are too young and cliched to hold our interest, and all the drugs and violence in the world aren't going to help with that. Mike Patton is credited with the tunes.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens: too soulfully self-serious.

Blue Valentine (2010)

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I remember enjoying Michelle Williams's effort in Manchester by the Sea; this is something similar. Also Leon has softened me up to Ryan Gosling who is fine and quite fun here too.

Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (Oscar nominated for Sound of Metal) shows us the beginning and the end of their relationship in a smooth interleaved style that, after synchronising in the middle, slips into a relentless groove. I get the sense that, like me, Gosling's Dean reached peak adult around age 25 while Williams's Cindy is still studying, aspiring to become a medical doctor. We don't see the middle, where his schtick and her desire both wear out. She spends a lot of the movie saying "no" and thereabouts — these are modulated and aren't always in exasperation. The cracks in their situation are often skilfully exposed and complexified by their daughter.

For mine they could've omitted the psychologising, the parental dysfunction and the workplace predation, though I grant they wanted something to hang a plot from. (Further streamlining may well have yielded Manchester by the Sea a few years earlier.) I'd've preferred more of just what Dean thinks he's doing in rescuing Cindy; it struck me that even as he seems to shoulder responsibility early on he may simply have been taking advantage of Cindy in a vulnerable moment, and that he unreasonably expected her gratitude to last forever.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. I don't agree that Dean was looking for a witness in Cindy, but he definitely took what he could get. Dana Stevens: too many of these movies may bring the human race to extinction. A. O. Scott: she wants him to want things but he's satisfied with what he's got.

Predestination (2014)

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An adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's '—All You Zombies—' (1958) by the Spierig brothers who were new to me. Notionally an Australian production. For Noah Taylor. Ethan Hawke leads as some kind of time cop. The plot is essentially an unmotivated temporal ouroboros despite starting close to Minority Report. The period scifi elements (Space Corp, The Handmaid's Tale headwear) could've been omitted for some benefit; one can only imagine what John Duigan would've made of this in a bucolic setting. Sarah Snook mostly succeeds in a gender bending role. I remembered Freya Stafford batting her eyelashes in Gettin' Square.

Manohla Dargis. Yep, Snook looks a lot like Di Caprio at times.

The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

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On a DVD from Orange City Library. Written and directed by John Duigan. I don't know if he had any attachment to Braidwood, NSW where this was shot; Wikipedia suggests not. I feel like I saw this on VHS back in the 1990s.

Yet another coming of age set in the early 1960s. (Compare against a random sample: Praise, Peggy Sue Got Married, and to a lesser extent, The Fringe Dwellers from the year before.) Noah Taylor and Loene Carmen are childhood friends with great chemistry that is put to good use by Duigan's script. (She later played Sallie-Anne Huckstepp in Blue Murder.) There's something of Don Walker's Shots in their relationship. Later Ben Mendelsohn, so young, relegates Noah to a sexless third wheel; apart from being too weedy for a rugby league fullback (I'd've thought) he does a great job as a randy young larrikin with OCD and a vague sense of responsibility who just wants to set lap records on the local racetrack in someone else's Mercedes. Beautifully shot and the setting is used to brilliant effect.

Caryn James in the New York Times, at the time. Luke Buckmaster in 2015. Ah yes, barflies Harold Hopkins (also the footy coach) and Graham Blundell. Paul Byrnes, briefly: perhaps I am too inured to the hypocrisy of small country towns to have seen the savagery. More colour at Oz movies. Bruce Spence! Gold.

Nelson Algren: A Walk on the Wild Side (1956).

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Kindle. Richard Flanagan's introduction to a recent reprinting prompted me to dig up this mid-century American classic.

Essentially a series of portraits of hard living in the South from 1930 to 1932 as the depression put the screws on many people. It struck me as a sourcebook for many movies. First up Algren has thirty-year-old Latina Terasina take pity on illiterate sixteen-year-old Dove Linkhorn in the Rio Grande Valley (shades of Licorice Pizza). By jumping the rails (ala Scarecrow) Dove makes his way to the red light district of New Orleans, where many of those insulated from the economic fallout burn their money, to morph into Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights. The final movement has Dove learn to read and write before being incarcerated for public drunkenness; one of the characters has a touch of Cool Hand Luke. Ultimately he returns home after he is blinded by a wrestler who lost his legs to the rails.

Overall it's almost entirely colour drawn from Algren's direct experience. Unlike John Steinbeck there's less moralising and more direct memoir or reportage; perhaps Of Mice and Men was the inspiration for a jailbird who echoes what's said to him. I found it to be a slog at times.

Goodreads. Russell Banks's introduction to a 1990 edition: even more referentialism.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021)

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Jason Di Rosso interviewed director Radu Jude back in November. It took me two sittings to get through this as it's not very engrossing. The first part is an almost still-life of Bucharest, the middle section a series of mostly twee montages, and the final is the parent/teacher meeting/confrontation of substantial cliche. The motor for the plot is a homemade porn video (which we see a fair bit of) that the teacher claims was loosed on the internet by someone repairing her husband's computer. This movie aims to provoke but fails to even trigger. Hats off to the marketing people.

Loads of positive reviews. A. O. Scott. J. Hoberman. Exuberant?