peteg's blog

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)

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Excess Jean-Pierre Jeunet completism. An Amazon production of a book adaptation. A 10 year-old genius from somewhere in Montana rides cargo trains to Washington D.C. (via Chicago!) to receive a prize at the Smithsonian for inventing a perpetual motion machine. What is this, 1973? The style is less cluttered than his previous work (e.g. Micmacs) and closer to Wes Anderson's (e.g. The Darjeeling Limited). The sentiments are confused: imagination is a big part of science, not something that comes after it. I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter's entomologist/mother. Judy Davis hammed it up with a poor character. Things mostly just amble along, at least more agreeably than his most recent feature, and the manifest flaws are somewhat redeemed by regular bouts of Jeunet's great visual/physical humour/levity.

Simon Abrams. Peter Bradshaw: "like drinking melted chocolate, lemon juice and bleach." Paul Bradshaw. Whimsical, twee, pointless. The last third or so drags.

Zardoz (1974)

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John Boorman followed up Deliverance with this of all things: an undercooked high-concept scifi warning about the perils of genetic engineering and immortality and so forth; see Wikipedia for the details, and it is all details with no substantive core. Leaving aside reasons why, the film has the generally underclad landed gentry of Ireland arrange for Sean Connery to run around in red briefs with a gun and a ponytail — like Conan does a decade later? — and in another sense as a dry run for Highlander with the twist that Connery is the mutant mortal superman amongst the undying normies. It is a world in love with plastic and plastic inflatables until his arrival, after which all the ladies can only talk about procreation. Somehow Charlotte Rampling is the hottest thing he's seen since Pussy Galore (or was it Plenty O'Toole? — it's not like I'd know) and the inevitable happens, but only after he defeats the central intelligence that lives in a fistful of a diamond and possibly impregnates Sara Kestelman in return for enlightenment. It was probably a lot more fun to shoot than it is to watch. The title (and plot I guess) is derived from The Wizard of Oz.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars. The set designers did go completely nuts.

Tropic of Cancer (1970)

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A Rip Torn jag from Defending Your Life: he got larger and coarser with age but is essentially the same actor here. Notionally he's Henry Miller to Ellen Burstyn's Mona Miller. She had The Last Picture Show and The King of Marvin Gardens in her near future but doesn't make it past the first reel.

I haven't read the book and am even less interested now. I expected an exotic locale and culture but instead it's about some oversexed east coast American men in Paris in the 1930s. I do not know why Joseph Strick adapted (with Betty Botley), produced and directed it so late in the day. It's choppy but mostly not hard to follow as there is no discernable plot. Some of the narration — faux profundity presumably lifted verbatim from the book — is very very funny at this remove; it is beyond satire. Obscene? Nah, just crass.

Howard Thompson at the New York Times. The Wikipedia page for the actual Tropic of Cancer is far more fascinating.

Lost in America (1985)

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Albert Brooks's Reagan-era yuppie escapist fantasy. His performance in the early scene where he doesn't get a promo (he expected the keys to the executive washroom) at his world-class advertising firm reminded me of William H. Macey in Magnolia. Immediately after qutting/getting fired he convinces wife Julie Hagerty to abandon her thankless job so they can hit the road in a massive RV (a Winnebago of course, presumably a sponsor) instead of upsizing; the delta in cost is the nest egg that will see them through a few decades of nomadism. When the inevitable happens and eternal poverty beckons he banks on the role he passed up in NYC rather than the more obviously dropping-out-conformant move of finding a niche in the drug business.

Brooks's notion of the America you might get lost in if you started in Los Angeles more-or-less stops at Las Vegas and is mostly the arid bits. The whole thing is more Office Space than the oft-cited Easy Rider; I mean, they entirely pass on the recreational pharmaceuticals. It's more slickly produced than his earlier work but also more formulaic.

Roger Ebert: four stars and an urbanite dream: "Look for me in the weather reports. I'll be parked by the side of a mountain stream, listening to Mozart on Compact Discs. All I'll need is a wok and a paperback.". Yep, it's a sitcom. Janet Maslin: A critic's pick and on the making of; asking of Brooks, 'Where does his time go?': "'Go ahead, name a day,' he said in mock defiance. 'I can account for them all.'"

Defending Your Life (1991)

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And yet more Albert Brooks completism. And once again he wrote, directed and starred. He put a few things he learnt from doing James L. Brooks's Broadcast News to work here, for instance by casting a strong female co-lead (here Meryl Streep) and getting her to laugh at all his jokes. Unfortunately he was funnier there and once again we get little sense of why his leading lady finds him irresistible. (In contrast Holly Hunter made it clear why she found him very resistible.)

The premise is that we really are on the karmic wheel but it's not about desire and ignorance but optimising the universe's machinery for bravery. This makes little sense as the permanent residents of Judgement City are more interested in how much of their brains they can make use of. Things start out a bit open ended but the format demands a rigidly adversarial courtroom and so we get Rip Torn hamming it up as Brooks's defender against Lee Grant's prosecutor. Nothing is made of the post-death romance between Brooks and Streep; it and all the other generally rich conceits lead nowhere.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Janet Maslin. That was Shirley MacLaine hosting the Past Lives Pavilion.

Marcy Dermansky: Hurricane Girl. (2022)

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Kindle. Fourth time around with Dermansky (The Red Car, Bad Marie, Very Nice). She snuck this one out while I wasn't watching. Disaster chick lit! — some of it is right there in the title. So girls, don't buy a beach house in North Carolina and expect your brain to remain intact. Some of it is minor fun in a black humour key as things just amble along like they do. The ending is not satisfactory. Brief.

Goodreads. Aamina Ahmad at the New York Times.

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Vale Daniel Ellsberg. New York Times obit.

BUtterfield 8 (1960)

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Prompted by a list of Liz Taylor's acting efforts; this was ranked #2 after the inevitable Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. She finds Laurence Harvey in a room at the top of NYC and decides she wouldn't mind a piece of that. The first half is quite funny but leaves no scope for a satisfying conclusion; John O'Hara and/or the scriptwriters go for an inevitable car crash.

Liz has her moments (in that first half) and got an Oscar for her troubles. Leaving aside much creaky dialogue she does get off some some snappy one liners. I think she drew the line at putting butter on her donuts at the brothel/motel.

Bosley Crowther. The dialogue was "O'Harrowing".

Elliot Ackerman: Halcyon. (2023)

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Kindle. Once more unto the alterna-history breach with diminished-returns Ackerman. He wants a do-over from 1998 onwards: Gore is in the White House in present-day 2004 due to Bill Clinton being convicted by the Senate, and trillions are spent on science not war, the peace dividend specifically yielding endless life ("cryoregeneration") — and really, not virtually; none of that unsatisfying vampirism or dust cloud stuff you read about in the news. Somewhat depressingly actual history resumes soon after the events of the book, which I took as a sign that Ackerman doesn't have much faith in these premises, the tale he spins or how much control humans have over the future.

Our narrator is a son-of-immigrants Civil War historian supposedly exploring why the "great compromise" appears to be coming unstuck. For those of us coming late to his class, Ackerman provides a reference to Shelby Foote (citation: C-SPAN Book TV, July 26, 1994):

In the Civil War, there's a great compromise as it's called. It consists of Southerners admitting, freely, that it's probably best that the Union wasn't divided. And the North admits, rather freely, that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed. That is a great compromise and we live with that and it works for us.

Against this we get a native-born Mississippian academic with belligerent ancestors and an ex-wife who's a gun divorce lawyer. There's a petition for the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue at Gettysburg that is initially stymied by the manoeuvrings of a legal-eagle zombie. It's all very (Southern) east coast. I don't think Ackerman got anywhere close to grappling deeply with his high-concept scenario; he opts for a pointless Once Upon a Time in America ending.

Stephen Markley at the New York Times calls zombie Ableson "Abelson" throughout, oops. Ah yes, "rage-ennui": does that come before or after ressentiment? Apparently this is an homage to Philip Roth. Goodreads. Mark Athitakis. Randomly I see Albert Brooks mined a similar vein in 2011.

Modern Romance (1981)

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More Albert Brooks completism. He wrote, directed and starred in this west coast response to Woody Allen's Manhattan (says Roger Ebert). Notionally Brooks is editing a scifi B-movie for James L. Brooks featuring George Kennedy (Oscared for Cool Hand Luke!) while dating beautiful-but-characterless Kathryn Harrold. The initial break up scene in a diner promises more than the rest delivers; his script gives us no idea what she saw or sees in him. His budget apparently didn't stretch very far as too many scenes have him hanging off a telephone or driving the car around L.A. It's repetitious. There's the odd bout of humour but I was mostly laughing at not with.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert: they got into it. Janet Maslin — oh my, the quaaludes — and more broadly on the odd-sock genre.

Martin McKenzie-Murray: The Speechwriter. (2021)

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Kindle. Lame. Mercifully brisk.

Notionally on the strength of his work at The Saturday Paper (which is occasionally quite good). Goodreads: boosters and busters.

Tár (2022)

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It took me a while to get to this one, mostly because the scenario — a lengthy take on a prima maestra orchestra conductor — did not appeal. On the other hand Cate Blanchett leads and I was curious to see what she's been up to since she departed Sydney Theatre Company. I think she did as well as anyone could.

Overall I felt its take on high culture was unsubtle and unoriginal; if there's two things I learnt in my time in academia, it's that the more you have to say the less time and space it takes to say it, and that the more referential something is, the shallower that something is in itself. Here we have the same-old will to power and abuse of power as anywhere else floating on many layers of faux sophistication.

One major problem for me was that I didn't get the sense that Tár was authentically a great artist, and the whole show falls apart if there's nothing plausible to countervail her obvious flaws. Similarly what value is Oscar bait that the Academy completely fails to go for? After a languorous intro (credits, an Adam Gopnik interview, flights between western cultural axis NYC and eastern cultural axis Berlin) things speed up but it still felt overlong. The fag end gets really messy as Tár goes full juvenalia, which is lame. After a while there is too much going on for us to focus on anything beyond the character study (with Blanchett in almost every frame). Written and directed by Todd Field, it reminded me most of Aronofsky's lesser works: clunky, heavy handed, over produced, tendentious; the full horror of striving and/or achievement.

Reviews were legion. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Blanchett. A. O. Scott: monster or victim? Why choose! Glenn Kenny: meticulously researched, teach the controversy. Zadie Smith at length in the New York Review of Books. It took Peter Bradshaw two goes to get into it. Dana Stevens. Most bang on about the cancel-culture angle, and I feel the general positivity is due to how few serious movies are made these days. Dan Kois watched it far more closely than I bothered to, and suggested that horror tropes were subtly deployed. I agree that much was unexplained.

Fail Safe (1964)

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Inevitable after I read the book. Also some (director) Sidney Lumet and (President) Henry Fonda completism.

This adaptation is a bit too earnest, insufficiently rueful, too black-and-white; it's very east coast. It took me two sittings to get through. The capsule biographies are mostly gone, and Walter Matthau's grotesque Dr. Groeteschele also lost his sex scene with Nancy Berg. Single Side Band! — what is this, the 1960s? Many events are relayed by writing scrolling past on the Big Board, silently, which is tedious. The plot strikes me as too holey now; the Standard Operating Procedure seems undercooked and there's no believable reason for all the delays and lack of cross-checking. It's a long way from here to Primary Colours for Larry Hagman. Overall not a patch on Dr. Strangelove.

Bosley Crowther.

Joyland (2022)

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Saim Sadiq co-wrote with Maggie Briggs and directed. It got a lot of press for setting a few firsts in Pakistan, and winning the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes in 2022.

The focus is on younger brother Haider (wide-eyed and ineffectual, played perfectly by Ali Junejo) who lives with his wife (bright, bubbly but glum Rasti Farooq) and his brother's family (taciturn Sameer Sohail, animated Sarwat Gilani and four lively girls) and Father (stilted veteran Salmaan Peerzada) in a compound in Lahore. There are goings-on, like the visits to Father of the age-appropriate neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed), that present an expected conservatism. The dominant, novel thread is the coverage of the Lahore demimonde, specifically the dance theatres, and within that, how a trans woman (Alina Khan) might find a livelihood. It's not especially prurient, unlike (e.g.) Head On (starring Alex Demitriades in Melbourne before he converged with Ben Affleck) or Shortbus.

All of the cast are excellent. The highlight for me was the brilliant cinematography; Joe Saade take a bow, it's beautiful. It put me in mind of Wong Kar-Wai's efforts with Christopher Doyle, perhaps Happy Together where Hong Kong (etc) is made to look unreasonably fabulous. There are a few scenes on scooters that timelessly and universally evoke life in Asian metropolises (but where is the traffic?). At times I thought things were going to get nasty and they do but it's not graphic, which recalled the social realism of Lukas Moodysson (cf Fucking Åmål and I guess Tillsammans on too many people living together) to an extent; I wish Sadiq had injected more humour here. The incidental music is great.

Prompted by Alizeh Kohari in the New York Review of Books; see also Carlos Aguilar on the real-world politics. Glenn Kenny. Peter Bradshaw. The list of producers and production companies is endless, notably including Riz Ahmed.

Real Life (1979)

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Reality TV! in 1979! Albert Brooks co-wrote, directed and starred in his first feature. He was far better when put on a leash by James L. Brooks in Broadcast News. (The latter Brooks has a cameo here.) The premise is that a studio has funded him to spend a year filming a typical American family. After some Portal-esque testing, this leads him to buy a house in Phoenix, Arizona opposite the subjects and antics inevitably ensue. He gets off a few good one liners amongst the mostly bland scenarios, but as a critique of scientism, society's fascination with psychology, consumerism, etc. it was already stale. The ending goes as it must: set it all on fire.

Janet Maslin: Brooks "is never without his absolute insincerity and irrational good cheer." And that can be a bit of a grind.

Copycat (1995)

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More Holly Hunter completism. I'm starting to think that she really did just have three good roles (in The Piano, Broadcast News and of course voicing Elastigirl). Here she clones Jodie Foster from The Silence of the Lambs with Sigourney Weaver taking some time away from her aliens to show us how much Anthony Hopkins brought to these 1990s psycho killer flicks. Dermot Mulroney channels David Duchovny to Hunter's Scully more successfully than whatever he was trying to do in About Schmidt. Will Patton is marginally less creepy than usual.

But the title is in fact about the style of serial killer William McNamara: the climactic murder apes Harry Connick Jr.'s earlier effort while the others are (putatively) drawn from American reality. These blokes are doing their things in a long-gone San Franciscoand did the Zodiac die of old age? — where it's almost beyond the good guys not to expire before the necessary.

I guess this genre is adjacent to horror. The dialogue was rife with non sequiturs and fragile egos. The music (by Christopher Young) was very annoying, and some scriptwriting genius decided that The Police's Murder by Numbers has it over Talking Head's Psycho Killer or Elvis Costello's Psycho (etc). We get a lesson drawn from Dirty Harry: don't shoot to disable, shoot to kill. It's just not very good.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half mystifying stars and a plot summary. Injecting meaning where it simply doesn't fit. Exorcising horrors. Janet Maslin. Both observe that it was overshadowed by Se7en at the time.

Moonlight Mile (2002)

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Ill-advised Holly Hunter completism. She has a minor role as some kind of lawyer representing parents Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon in the trial of their daughter's murderer. Jake Gyllenhaal was due to (spoiler not) marry her around the time when it happened.

I think it's supposed to be a grief comedy, but the sentiments expressed were so alien to me, the situations and humour so predictable, forced and tedious that I stopped paying attention early on. Commercial real estate agent Hoffman is quite restrained except for once or twice when he reaches for Al Pacino. Death penalty please! — with a nose wrinkle when he's told it'll be by gas. We get the full range of book-burning writer Susan Sarandon facial expressions: calculating squint, bugeyes!, pensive, I-know-rite, I'll-let-you-in-on-a-secret, cigarette fug/bliss and so on and on. Death for her too. She says she wants Gyllenhaal to remain celibate for the rest of his days and other things which I took to be Oedipal, but of course he goes for the age-appropriate barwench/post office worker/fellow griever Ellen Pompeo and they eventually drive off into the sunset. (We're told she was into her long-absent boyfriend because he loved her, and knew her "about 60%". He claims it's the last 40% that matters, which sums up the empty headed linearity of the whole thing.) There's a Rolling Stones-adjacent soundtrack. I don't know when this was set but the feeling is some time during the America-Việt Nam War, late 1960s maybe.

Roger Ebert: four stars. He says 1973, and as he was there he might know. Stephanie Zacharek somehow thinks this is culturally universal. Gag me with a spoon. A. O. Scott. Everyone says: The Graduate. Brad Silberling wrote and directed.

The Swimmer (1968)

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Prompted by a a discussion on the Screen Show about a revival screening in Melbourne. I avoided an earlier nudge from Matthew Spektor (it was directed by Frank Perry and adapted by his wife Eleanor from a John Cheever short, c.f. Diary of a Mad Housewife) because I'm not much of a fan of Burt Lancaster. I now see he did more interesting things late in his career; this was about as engrossing as Atlantic City.

Lancaster plays an apparently once-was upper middle class Connecticut country club lothario who decides, in a mildly unhinged way, to "swim home" from his friends' place via his neighbours' pools on what he dubs the "Lucinda river" after his wife. The premise and impressionistic cinematography signal that something has gone very wrong for him and perhaps his daughters and spouse, who are often mentioned and never shown. Initially his neighbours seem to just humour him in a don't-mention-the-war way but he gets more truth from his erstwhile mistress/true love and the heaving masses of humanity at the community pool. Early on he is bemused to encounter his babysitter now fully grown, now fair game in his confused mind. She begs off, offering up that she has a jealous boyfriend who a computer matched her to, all for $3 and post. What a bargain.

I guess this was how the wave broke on the east coast, c.f. Hunter S. Thompson, Death of a Salesman, presumably Man Men, etc.

Roger Ebert: four stars in an early review. I felt everyone was naturalistic except for Lancaster, which served to exacerbate his oddness. "You are what you read." An epic. Lancaster's finest performance. And yet somehow not a "great movie". Vincent Canby reckoned Lancaster was miscast (!); on the contrary, he expertly portrays a man lost to reality.