peteg's blog

State of Grace (1990)

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A Gary Oldman jag from True Romance. Ed Harris plays his older brother, Robin Wright his sister. Apparently she got organised with Sean Penn on the set.

This was another entry in the Irish-in-America genre, specifically Irish gangs in NYC's Hells Kitchen. (Others include Jim Sheridan's In America, all the Dennis Lehane adaptations, The Fighter and so forth. I guess they haven't been quite as successful as the Italians-in-America genre, which is a theme here.) Director Phil Joanou, working off a script by Dennis McIntyre, aims for some subtlety by having Penn return to the milieu of his youth: he's evolved but it hasn't, and during his absence once-and-future squeeze Wright has just gotten colder. (She's a complicated woman who ultimately conforms to Irish type by acting like blood is thicker than water while wanting nothing to do with her brothers for clear and obvious reasons.) Oldman is solid in a crazy violent alco role we've seen him do plenty of times. He drives an ancient decrepit yank tank that deserved its own billing. Harris is far better elsewhere.

The soundtrack was provided by Ennio Morricone and sounds like an interpolant of his music for Once Upon a Time in America and Lolita. There are elements of the former here. Everyone is so young. I couldn't help feeling that it was mostly resting on prior art. The inevitable ending struck me as Unforgiven's. The wonky band of brothers trope had more heft in Mystic River.

Roger Ebert: three stars. Oldman steals the movie. Eclipsed at release by Goodfellas. Janet Maslin: Mean Streets, The Godfather. So it's Scorcese-light.

Panic Room (2002)

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David Fincher completism. This was his followup to Fight Club. Also a Jodie Foster jag from A Very Long Engagement and for Forest Whitaker. Jared Leto and a very young Kristen Stewart co-star.

The format is what's written on the tin: Foster and daughter Stewart, freshly cashed up after separating from their philandering pharmaceutical husband/father, move in to a huge Manhattan "townstone" that includes (wait for it) a panic room that only Foster is perceptive enough to notice. They buy it off some rich old dead guy who just happened to leave (let me not spoil the wild lack of inventiveness for you) something valuable on the premises. In the spirit of Home Alone or maybe Die Hard and certainly not Ghost Dog three highly-characterised crooks try to recover the precious while the residents freak out.

There were absolutely no stakes on the table for me. Apart from Whitaker the males were different kinds of useless: Leto is histrionic, the ex-husband inert, Dwight Yoakam too quick with the ultraviolence. IMDB tells me that Nicole Kidman was supposed to star, and it is possible that she may have improved things. David Koepp got $4M for the script. The lighting is (somewhat necessarily) weird. Overall as drecky and inert as I expected.

Roger Ebert: three stars. It's internally consistent, but I have to say I'd take something exciting over that. But what about the BBQ gas scenes? A. O. Scott suggests that if you don't envy their abode you're a long way from the target demographic. Nobody's home.

True Romance (1993)

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nth time around with this Quentin Tarantino-(co-)written, Tony Scott-directed early 1990s fast food classic. They pulled a vast cast: Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in the lead, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore and others in support. Brad Pitt totally nailed his breakthrough role. Some of it is much fun, other bits have the cheese. The ultraviolence wears thin at times. The L.A. motel scenes reminded me of the later Destiny Turns on the Radio. IMDB tells me that this was half of a script that also included Natural Born Killers.

Roger Ebert: three stars. Adolescent male fantasies: comic books, guns, martial arts movies. "[F]eels at times like a fire sale down at the cliche factory." The ending is similar to Reservoir Dogs. Janet Maslin.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

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Second time around with this Jemaine Clement/Taika Waititi co-written and co-directed vampire comedy. Not as funny on the rewatch, perhaps because the excessive mugging for the camera (in what I take to be reality TV style) has gone out of fashion. There's a nod to Murray Ball with the murderous border collie. I have to wonder if the TV show (which commenced in 2019) is any good.

Jeannette Catsoulis made it a critic's pick. Peter Bradshaw: comedy of the year. Jason Di Rosso: "... this is faint praise, I know, but even so, the film plays better than any recent Australian comedy I can recall."

Focus (2015)

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A Will Smith jag from recent stuff, and of course, an early Margot Robbie Hollywood vehicle. It's a straightforward con movie, mining the popularity of that stuff at the time. Perhaps these things are essentially heist flicks but with more emphasis on the romance. In any case there's way too much exposition and it's just not very clever. Notionally Smith breaks Robbie's heart in the first part, while the second has him pulling off a larger scam that includes reclaiming her. All that is just an excuse to flaunt the luxe consumer life of cars, jewellery, women and maybe men.

A. O. Scott: a new Bogart and Bacall. "It’s not quite Elmore Leonard for Dummies — maybe more like Carl Hiaasen for Shallow People." I'd hate to think that the highlight of Robbie's acting career might be I, Tonya.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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A Sam Neill jag from recent things. This was Taika Waititi's followup to What We Do in the Shadows. The format is stock: an at-risk boy (Julian Dennison) is sent to live with a childless couple (Neill and Rima Te Wiata) in some remote part of New Zealand and blossoms under various stressors. Most of it has him and Neill dodging child protection by camping and hunting in the bush. I didn't find it as funny as it needed to be, perhaps because it was sorely lacking Jemaine Clement's input or I didn't get enough of the Kiwi references. I mean, who follows the New Zealand (ex-Auckland) Warriors? And why does someone say "Don't even get me started on the national rugby team. They're not human."?

It's all a long way from the subtleties of John Clarke.

IMDB trivia: a clone of Up. Manohla Dargis. The humour was apparently mostly accessible to Americans but sufficiently exotic to make it seem fresh. Paul Byrnes: somehow four stars (of five) despite it being clunky and derivative. Jason Di Rosso. And so on.

Crimson Tide (1995)

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Once more unto the breach with the Jerry Bruckheimer/Tony Scott producer/director combination. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman share the lead, and the others are similarly stellar: George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, and again an uncredited Jason Robards. We're in a US nuclear submarine (cackhandedly named the Alabama) and there's tension in the chain of command while some Russian rebels (it's 1995) maybe take control of some Russian missile silos. For me there were no stakes: Hackman is a tad too hammy but clearly no Jack D. Ripper while Washington is entirely determined by his race (making the main conundrum why he took this role). There's no great mystery of strategy or accent as in The Hunt for Red October and it just does have the guts to go over the top like Dr. Strangelove or Failsafe. (The obvious alternative would've lead to On the Beach and the welcome presence of some actresses.) The journo on the French aircraft carrier "Foch" provides some heavy-handed exposition. The excessive number of pop culture references gives it the cheese. Ultimately it's pure American hokum.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Janet Maslin: a remake of The Caine Mutiny, they should've cast Tom Cruise.

Marcy Dermansky: Twins. (2005)

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Kindle. The first of Dermansky's novels and the last one for me to read. Once again chick lit, or more precisely, a story for young women. The two-voice structure is solid and mostly works. The narrative arc goes as it must: the kooky one at thirteen becomes a grounded adult while the goody-two-shoes has no core and can't settle on anything, requiring endless external prompts to remind her what she likes. The men are drawn sympathetically if generically but the best part is the skewering of the lawyer parents; I just couldn't get enough of them. Dermansky's style is nascent and leashed here, which was a relief after the overworked Hurricane Girl. The ending is redemptive cliche.

Goodreads. Humourless. Unoriginal? Polly Shulman at the New York Times.

Smoking Causes Coughing (2023)

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I don't remember why I may've thought this was going to be any good. I mean, often enough French humour is no laughing matter and so it goes here. The frame has the "Tobacco Force" demonstrate their combined power before retiring to the idyllic countryside for some team building. There we get a series of Tales from the Crypt vignettes; some have an edge but most are too predictable. (One draws essentially on Fargo's iconic image.) The running gag, that their chief — a puppet rat — is irresistible to women gets worn out.

Peter Bradshaw dug it. Inexplicably a critic's pick by Elizabeth Vincentelli. Simon Abrams tells me I lacked the correct cultural background.

Deja Vu (2006)

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A Tony Scott/Jerry Bruckheimer jag from Enemy of the State. I should've read the tin more closely as this is more-or-less Minority Report smoodged together with Terminator (etc): yes, time-travel surveillance with an indestructible male lead. Poor old Denzel Washington does what he can, mostly just by running with it. Minor banana Val Kilmer can only nod along. Jim Caviezel is far better as a naif (cf The Thin Red Line) than a Kaczynski. Also Bruce Greenwood.

Basically the plot has a domestic terrorist (eventually Caviezel) blow up a ferry full of US Navy sailors and their families near the ports of New Orleans for reasons unstated. In this reality America has the technology for a do over and obviously the related murder of too-pretty Paula Patton cannot be let stand. There's excess useless exposition about the McGuffin, and I doubt anyone was sufficiently invested to determine if it hangs together like Predestination. Denzel senselessly takes a few as the nonsense is piled high. Referring to real American tragedies in this way was doubtlessly crass and inconsiderate at the time this was released.

Manohla Dargis: nutty and unreal, vulgar shots of "decimated" post-Katrina New Orleans. Laura. Caviezel as De Niro or Mel Gibson. Stephanie Zacharek. Peter Bradshaw: this movie "actually implies that only Americans are equal to the task of successfully attacking other Americans."

Enemy of the State (1998)

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A Gene Hackman and Gabriel Byrne jag from recent things. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott pulled a top-shelf cast: Jason Robards, Anna Gunn (Skyler from Breaking Bad), Jon Voight, Lisa Bonet, Regina King, Barry Pepper, Jack Black, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Sizemore (Scagnetti in Natural Born Killers) and so on. As a high-priced labour lawyer, Will Smith delivers a lot of humour flat, deadpan, and some of it is very funny. It's quite lengthy.

The plot essentially updates the themes of The Conversation to 1998, when misgivings about government surveillance hadn't yet yielded to national security concerns and omnipresent corporate intermediation. The canonical scene in the park (originally involving Chef-from-Apocalypse Now Frederic Forrest) is cloned, and I took the detonation of Coppola's set to be a metaphor for what happened to Hollywood since 1974. All marriages shown have the women deeply distrustful of their men, very ready to believe the worst. The plot is often too holey but the framing mob/union/labour lawyer relationship provides a satisfyingly ridiculous ending. The cat survives! There is far too much frenetic camerawork.

Roger Ebert: three stars. Voigt adopted Robert S. McNamara's style. Janet Maslin: Will Smith's first real starring role. Vacuous but so much better than what Michael Bay was doing at the time. And yes, just what was Gabriel Byrne's angle?

Fresh (1994)

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A Samuel L. Jackson and Giancarlo Esposito jag from recent things. Written and directed by Boaz Yakin, who apart from this seems to have been bogged in drecky action movies. It's a scenario we've been shown many times — a young black kid living near the elevated train in Brooklyn growing desensitised by the drug trade and violence. To those are added the novelties of chess and a dog fight. It's all no-stakes until the switch gets flicked, and the full import of these scenes takes the rest of the movie to unfold. It felt Shakespearean in the weight various kings place on his words.

It reminded me a lot of Spike Lee's Brooklyn efforts. There's a dash of Moonlight, and an intricate, manipulative plot like Brick. (Like Rian Johnson, was Yakin's first his best?) The moralism is essentially The Godfather (power needs to be taken) but it is ambiguous as to whether the boy is born or breaking bad.

The acting is generally very good. Sean Nelson is solid in the lead. The haminess of his buddy Luis Lantigua works to the extent that kids in the milieu are unknowingly dumb. Samuel L. Jackson pricelessly chews out his son (Nelson) for using the n word. Giancarlo Esposito is slick as a junk kingpin. Adam Holender's cinematography is effective but Christopher Doyle did a better number on Hong Kong.

Overall a good watch. Roger Ebert: four stars. Janet Maslin.

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Vale, Milan Kundera. New York Times obit.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

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I'm very late to see this venerable Sean Connery vehicle. He plays the smartest sub commander in the Russian fleet, initially in Russian but soon enough almost entirely in English for the convenience of the target audience. (Connery starts taciturn / laconic and I feel could've stayed that way, quite successfully; and are we to believe that Cold War Lithuanians spoke English with a Scots accent?) The plot begins after about 38 minutes of setup, when it is suggested that this is Dr Strangelove on submarines (without the humour). — but no! it is something else again. And that something is not Das Boot. It doesn't entirely hold together, and the denouement is hokum, but it has its moments. The cinematography is generally quite good.

The cast is vast, perhaps too vast. Alec Baldwin plays a Harrison Ford CIA role and is almost unrecognisably thin and dark haired. I've seen James Earl Jones don exactly this brass before, in Gardens of Stone. Sam Neil is Connery's second banana with an accent that wanders all over the globe. Stellan Skarsgård smokes moodily and acts dumb. In this reality Peter Firth's cadre (Ivan) Putin "could've caused complications!" — but Connery is on the job and he's rubbed out early. And so on.

We're shown many reasons why the world will never be at peace for long. The Russians have a penchant for gigantism (they built the biggest nukes and here the biggest sub) and use metric and left-and-right. There are tea and cigarettes on their vessels. The Americans do not like being smaller and use imperial, port-and-starboard. It seems that smaller subs and drones are the future, not these large ones, and the Alec Baldwins will be staying far from the battlefield.

Got Oscared for effects. Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Vincent Canby: only the audience knows for sure (how things are going to go).

The Usual Suspects (1995)

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nth time around with this mid-1990s classic as the plot never sticks. I watched it more critically this time, and I think the central flaw is that the reenactment scenes present no unitary viewpoint: it's a composite of some kind, and therefore a view from nowhere. (In comparison Fincher's Fight Club and Gone Girl eventually let us know whose story we're being shown and how it relates to the others.) It's just not as clever as it needed to be; perhaps the idea was to seed endless arguments.

Bryan Singer directed. Christopher McQuarrie wrote the screenplay and got an Oscar. I just listened to him being interviewed by Jason Di Rosso about his Mission Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part I work. This may have been Gabriel Byrne's finest role. Giancarlo Esposito, so young. Benicio Del Toro stole all his scenes. Kevin Spacey doing some of his finest work. And so on.

Now #43 in the IMDB top-250. Roger Ebert: one-and-a-half stars. It's all audience manipulation. Surely it can't be (just) his version. Janet Maslin: that year's Reservoir Dogs.

Get Shorty (1995)

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This was John Travolta riding his Pulp Fiction career revival. (I'm guessing it's obvious why nobody talks about his performance in the contemporaneous White Man's Burden.) It's somewhat more of the same but linear and more meta: the Hollywood navel-gazing here involves (even) more wordy referentialism than Tarantino but none of his visual gesturing. Travolta plays a leaf-node Miami Beach mafioso who cannot stand his new underboss Dennis Farina (dumb as planks). The plot sends him to Las Vegas to collect from a dry cleaner and the local outfit forwards him to L.A. There klutzy schlock producer Gene Hackman is having something with characterless Rene Russo who is quick to switch allegiance to the younger, more winning man. The remainder tells us about a move being made and has Travolta pitch the one we're watching.

The raw material was provided by Elmore Leonard, who also wrote the precursor novel of Jackie Brown. Danny DeVito is some major star. Delroy Lindo is as fine as always despite the lame character. I enjoyed James Gandolfini's efforts the most. Harvey Keitel shows up to reinforce that reheated feeling; Bette Midler also wafts through. It's not as clever as it needed to be.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. It's all about how they speak, just like a Tarantino. Janet Maslin: she loved Travolta here. DeVito skewers Dustin Hoffman. There's more than a bit of Tarantino cinegeek in Travolta's character.

Grindhouse: Deathproof and Planet Terror (2007)

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Third time around with these ultra-trashy Tarantino/Rodriguez exploitation flicks. They don't stick so I keep returning to see if there's anything there beyond the very promising cast. What a waste. It could've been something.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars. So much effort and talent for so little result. A. O. Scott.

Jackie Brown (1997)

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Apparently fourth time around with Tarantino's third directorial outing. It's a shame he didn't manage to revive Pam Grier's career like he did Travolta's. Samuel L. Jackson is the second banana. Robert Forster later made it even bigger in Breaking Bad. Robert De Niro tries to improve on Brad Pitt's effort in True Romance. Michael Keaton has his moments but his character is barely one note. There are a few scenes that just do not work, especially as the plot gets too complicated and random.

Roger Ebert: four stars. There are a lot of good scenes. Yes, the Grier-Forster dynamic was great. Janet Maslin: a bit flabby.

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

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Jean-Pierre Jeunet's followup to Amelie. It's been on the shelf since it was released as it seemed overlong and the themes a bit antiquated. Audrey Tautou leads, of course, and is supported by some of Jeunet's usual company (e.g. Dominique Pinon). Marion Cotillard has a bit of a dry run for The Dark Knight Rises and Macbeth. I haven't seen Elina Löwensohn in anything but Hal Hartley flicks; she's notionally a German lady speaking French but sounds the same as ever. Also Jodie Foster has a bit of fun playing it straight.

Jeunet never made another movie like this: a serious story told with substantial realism. It's not Saving Private Ryan but does not excessively romanticise World War I either. At times I lost track of the minor characters and plot lines. It is indeed overlong and the ending is not very adequate.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Peter Travers. Manohla Dargis: a clockwork dollhouse world.

Dead Calm (1989)

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Directed by Phillip Noyce. All the actors were better than I expected. The pitch is essentially an outback horror movie but on sailboats in the South Pacific. The scenario calls for Nicole Kidman to be somehow married to salty seadog Sam Neill (he's been sailing for more than 25 years and she's about 20). After their young child is killed in a car crash (she was driving) they find themselves in the middle of the ocean (well, the Whitsundays) with Billy Zane providing a servicable rendition of a 1980s oversexed psychopath. Unfortunately the whole thing is very dumb. Spoiler: she harpoons the dog.

Roger Ebert: three stars. A critic's pick by Caryn James. A kind of pure trash. No surprises. (Surely that critic's pick is wrong.) All the details at Ozmovies. Yeah, even a shark attack wouldn't have lifted it much. There are moments where Kidman does look like Sigourney Weaver.

Catherine Lacey: Biography of X. (2023)

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Kindle. Lacey's latest, and a pandemic project it clearly is. As with Elliot Ackerman I feel the returns from her work are well diminished now — her previous efforts Nobody is ever missing, The Answers, Certain American States, and Pew mark out a clear downward trajectory. It took me quite a few goes to get past the first page.

Again like Ackerman, Lacey has a crack at an alterna-history U.S.A. but with counterfactuals that are substantially less essential to what she wants to tell us. This reality was splintered in 1945 into the Southern, Northern and Western territories and reunified at some later date. The S.T. is obviously a theocratic totalitarian capitalist utopia, and I did not find Lacey's descriptions of living under such a regime very persuasive. The N.T. would be recognisable to real-world NYC residents; the City vacuums up the lost and ambitious with the winners inscribing their names on pop culture while the flyover states are flown over.

Our narrator is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who writes about her wife X in high retributive style. X herself is a culture-vulture composite of late 20th century pop artists, being multi-persona'd like David Bowie, doing trashy pop art like Andy Warhol, writing/producing for Tom Waits, drugs, sex shows, yadda. In that way it's a bit of a biography of those people at those times (1970s to mid-1990s) like John Birmingham's Leviathan. (Writing biographies of cities was perhaps a thing to do around 2000. I now see Birmingham pays his bills with alt-history too.) The central problem is that it is derivative of all it supervenes, and the questions it poses are trite; for instance the final movement asks us whether one can desire the approval of the culture while holding that culture in disdain, to which the answer was already provided by David Bowie a long time ago, and Donald Trump more recently.

At times it feels painfully episodic, as if every loose idea has to be housed, and we have to wait until the final chapter before we get Lacey's signature elliptic thought processes/recounting of experience in tragically brief form.

Widely reviewed. Dwight Garner. A smoodgery. The second half drags. A major and audacious novel. Joumana Khatib interviewed Lacey: she was a woman in love once again in love. Joanna Biggs at length. The reviews are about as tedious as the work itself, and all have long lists of ingredients. It's likely the best bits are the pointers in the endnotes — for instance this interview of David Bowie by Kerry O'Brien in 2004.

Reality (2023)

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Prompted by what I felt was an excellent interview by Jason Di Rosso with co-writer/director Tina Satter. (He's usually quite good and elicited some great responses here; she was interesting as she has spent a lifetime in theatre.) This is her film version of her (dialogue-literal) NYC stage adaptation of the FBI transcript of Reality Winner's arrest in 2017 for leaking a document proving Russian interference with U.S. elections to the Intercept. Little context is given, and then or now I have no idea why this was ever a controversial assertion.

The source material did not strike me as promising but the events cut across many issues. Sydney Sweeney plays Winner as more physically vulnerable than I expect she actually was, between the CrossFit and the weaponry. (They joke about her AR15 being pink and of course it actually is pink.) Josh Hamilton is solid as the daggy-dad lead investigator and Marchánt Davis is perfect as his partner. Many scenes are slightly bizarre — not the least being an early one that recounts Winner's linguistic prowess — and there's a touch of #metoo as almost all the other characters are male and oppressive. The dog is cute and the cat is gorgeous. It does a great job of showing why Americans are concerned about the powers of their government, and that relentless Fox News will send anyone crazy.

A critic's pick by Amy Nicholson. They subbed the cat! Peter Bradshaw loved it. Sheila O'Malley.