peteg's blog

Spy Game (2001)

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A minor bit of Tony Scott completism and some curiosity about what Brad Pitt got up to immediately after Fight Club. Robert Redford leads and is supposed to show us that the brotherhood justifies hacking institutions (here the CIA and related organisations) provided your heart is in the right place. It sells the sort of American guile and invincibility that was eclipsed by 9/11 and venerated by American Sniper. I found it hard to get into.

The framing story employs the cliche of it being ace field agent Redford's last day at Langley in the tenuous present. He's called back to sort out a crisis in a Chinese prison that involves a Brad Pitt he first met as a sniper in the American/Việt Nam war. Pitt takes out a putatively bad Laotian (illegally, clandestinely) under extreme duress and then manhandles his spotter to safety. After these heroics we're served up a few more episodes of derring-do in many locations (chiefly Beirut, some Berlin) and a tepid love interest in the form of Englishwoman Catherine McCormack. The romance is poorly handled. Redford shows what fieldwork can do to the shiny bums who never left the office. The relationship he has with his secretary Marianne Jean-Baptiste squanders both actors.

Overall the plot made little sense to me; it's mostly set pieces like blowing up buildings. Scott's choppy cinematography is unsatisfactory as he regularly constructs fantastic frames that he rapidly pulls away from, too quickly for us to enjoy them. The China angle was garbage at the time and even more risible now; there was no chance of the USA flying Black Hawks over the coastline to rescue Pitt. But it does tell us that the movie was made before the global movie market sensibilities tamed all such geopolitical provocations.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars, all surface, no iceberg. A. O. Scott: a "sleek, expensive handsome gizmos of doubtful utility."

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

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Abel Ferrara's followup to King of New York. It's mostly there in the title, once you know we're still in NYC and Ferrara is fascinated by powerful people, here the police. Harvey Keitel (of the title) is in every scene and does drugs in almost all. Otherwise he's gambling on the baseball playoffs. This takes up a lot of screen time and soon enough becomes tedious. I wasn't invested enough to figure out exactly how he is connected to all the people he encounters. If the dialogue had been in any way engaging and Keitel a more flexible actor it might have been an American east-coast Naked.

The notional main thread of the plot is a very heavy-handed treatment of the rape of a Catholic nun. Ultimately the main conflict is between her, who forgives, and Keitel who insists on some kind of justice. (At times I was reminded a bit of The Last Temptation of Christ or at least Peter Gabriel's soundtrack.) The final scenes at the Greyhound bus stop are very emotive but not enlightening. An earlier scene where he bails up some underage Jersey ladies on a night out is cringey and ineffective.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Keitel is courageous, sure, but that doesn't mean it's a great performance. Go see Goodfellas. A B-Movie. Janet Maslin: a Critic's Pick. Uneven but interesting. Keitel "gives the Lieutenant's role his all, which is sometimes more than it requires".

King of New York (1990)

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I don't remember seeing Christopher Walken in the lead too often; his roles that stick (True Romance, Pulp Fiction) have him play the big cheese in a scene or two before the caravan rolls on. Here Abel Ferrara has him anchor a stellar cast and early on gets him to bust out some dance moves like Travolta. This is after he completes a spell for unspecified crimes at Sing Sing (that route to the exit — and from the entry? — of great cinematic cliche) while receiving Larry Fishburne (not really cutting it as Clean aged a decade) of da hood in his ritzy hotel rooms. Along for the ride is Steve Buscemi as a minor drug chemist and Giancarlo Esposito as a henchman. And so on.

The problem is mostly with the plot: this is just the greatest hits of the drug gangsta genre. It's so disjointed that I found it impossible to care. The soundtrack is the hip hop of the day mostly by Schoolly-D (sample song: Am I Black Enough For You?).

Roger Ebert: two stars. Essentially Robin Hood. Style over all. Walken "glides ... with his usual polished and somehow sinister ease". Janet Maslin saw it at the New York Film Festival. IMDB Trivia: funded by Silvio Berlusconi. Apparently the NYC scene lapped it up.

Wills & Burke (1985)

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A bit further down SBS's Homegrown Cinema list is this mid-1980s failed comedy which aimed to take down the contemporaneous big serious film about the explorers in the spirit of Monty Python. It's probably more fun to compare casts: obviously I'd take Garry McDonald over Jack Thompson any day, and didn't Nicole Kidman go so much further than Greta Scacchi? (The outro starring her as Burke in a stage production is remarkable; something like a dry run for Moulin Rouge.) Also I can't imagine much improvement on Kim Gyngell's Wills, which is to say that the serious effort is probably just as drecky and wasteful of its actors. Chris Haywood lays it on too much as a colonial constable in a Wake in Fright scene. Mark Little went on to bigger things in A Cry in the Dark. Peter Collingwood has the most fun as the universally-adored Sir William Stawell. This movie is inexcusably cringeworthy for the time and to claim that it belongs to any "selection of the best Australian cinema" is taking the piss.

Ozmovies: universally panned. One for the Kidman completists. David Stratton said this is Kidman's first adult role. Shot in 4:3 format and what SBS is serving up looks like a VHS rip.

The Set (1970)

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Craig Mathieson pointed to SBS's Homegrown Cinema collection and near the start is this time capsule of Sydney in 1970. Like Winter of Our Dreams a decade later, this is a city that never existed where students and recent transplants not only had shelter but oodles of space and time to enjoy everything and self-actualise, which perhaps involved making movies like this one. It was prelapsarian even for the motorcyclists (before helmets became mandatory in 1972) and drinkers of Fosters out of ring-pull cans, a kind of paradise nobody recalls now.

Things open with some gratuitous nudity, including sort-of-lead Sean Myers and Amber Rodgers running nude on a beach for reasons unknown. After she departs for Europe he settles down to building a career in the arts under the desirous gaze of Brenda Senders, an institution recently returned from Europe. She wants him for a boy toy but he is more interested in exploring the gay scene as embodied by the helpful, failing architecture student, Bronzed Aussie and upper toff Tony Brown. (The set of the title is apparently a theatre set being conceived and prototyped by the pair and not, as I thought, the denizens of the social scene.) The running joke is that the Bronzed Aussie is a terrible lay. There are other threads even more risible.

Things are lame for the most part until we get to the drag queens who have apparently been one major and reliable fount of shamelessness in Sydney (though I've found those from Melbourne to be funnier). The general vibe is that everyone is randy and that the boys are less hassle than the local princesses.

The main failing of this thing is the weak script, which is disjointed or segmented like Roger Ebert's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; clearly these guys made what they knew. There are sundry other failings jostling for the lead such as the lifeless cinematography that just sometimes tries to be a bit arty. I guess you could see it as a distant antecedent to the far superior The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

All you need to know is at Ozmovies.

Asteroid City (2023)

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Wes Anderson's latest. It's a smoodgery of currently popular themes: a retro 1950s desert/Palm Springs aesthetic (see Don't Worry Darling, Big Bug, The Last Picture Show, Ingrid Goes West, Barbie, etc. etc.) with a side of atomic bomb tests (Oppenheimer) and hefty doses of self reference/indulgence (The Darjeeling Limited, Isle of Dogs, etc.). Oh yes, also aliens and lockdowns. The soundtrack often reaches for desert cliches, less effectively than Natural Born Killers. It is so close to animation, with the roadrunner a hat or hand tip to the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes classics. The theatre frame is absolutely archaic (c.f. all the Tennessee Williams adaptations).

Anderson is better when he has a story to tell (e.g. with his masterwork The Grand Budapest Hotel and derivation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox). Here we're shown a bunch of skits in his now-customary nested fashion (c.f. The French Dispatch) that are little more than themes, making me feel that the narrative well has run dry. I did enjoy some of the gags, especially the row of vending machines, one of which retailed arid real estate adjacent to the barebones existing development. (There is no water.) The generally flat aesthetic is an Anderson signature but given the overstuffing of frames I put my effort into trainspotting the actors: I was surprised to see Tom Hanks fill the Bill Murray slot while Jeffrey Wright mostly just channels JK Simmons's Cave Johnson from Portal 2. This is not Tilda Swinton's finest effort, and Steve Carell is capable of doing a lot more than playing it straight. Also Adrien Brody, a grown-up Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Margot Robbie done up as Elizabeth I, Willem Dafoe, and so on.

Overall: too much show and not enough pony. Manohla Dargis: a critic's pick. Dana Stevens: so much nostalgia, so many underdeveloped storylines, Anderson's "imagination [is] a place far richer and stranger than the most complex online database" — clearly she's never visited The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. Michael Wood: shallow? Glenn Kenny got right into it. Butterflies squeezing hearts with sharp pincers? Oh my. Luke Goodsell: definitely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, apparently Mars Attacks!, and how did I miss Jarvis Cocker? And so on.

Djuna: Counterweight. (2023)

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Kindle. Prompted by an intriguing review by Hari Kunzru in the New York Times, which is unfortunately superior to the source material. Korean sci-fi. The writing/translation is fine but I can't say I totally got it. Most of the ingredients are cyberpunk staples: the zaibatsu, the AIs, the ultra-competent violence, and of course the space elevator takes the concluding action to something like a space station, all just like Neuromancer. There is some nasty retconning in the final movement. Cinematographic, of course. I have no idea what the point was.

The publisher's summary at Goodreads says it all. Otherwise I didn't find too many reviews.

Limbo (2023)

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Ivan Sen's latest. After the speculative misfire of Expired, he took Simon Baker out to Coober Pedy and returned to his main theme of how cops and Indigenous people interact; in other words, more Mystery Road. Sen filled all the production roles (music, cinematography, editing, casting, directing, writing) and, true to form, the black-and-white photography is beautiful and perfectly composed while the pacing is soporific. The incidental soundscapes are appropriate and unobtrusive. So thumbs-up on the behind-the-camera stuff.

Notionally Baker arrives in "Limbo" from some city somewhere under instructions to review a missing-persons case from twenty years previous. The locals (mostly Rob Collins and Natasha Wanganeen) aren't keen to revisit that event but loosen up as the genre demands. Nicholas Hope, famous for gladwrapping the neighbours, looks the part of a worn out miner and is tasked with shouldering the sins of Western Civilisation. There is a gun and it goes unused, even in the sense that Daniel Ellsberg often observed of nuclear weapons (threats of use are often sufficient). It's all a bit of an ask. I did enjoy the acting but would've preferred something closer to Toomelah, where the focus is community and not cop interiority.

Peter Bradshaw (Baker as Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston, clearly he hasn't been out there), Luke Buckmaster (yep Walter White), Paul Byrnes: four stars of five from all the local tastemakers. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Sen and Baker in May 2023. Dee Jefferson also interviewed Sen for the ABC. A common audience complaint seems to be that the script is too weak. I'd say that if you've been to Coober Pedy then you've more-or-less seen this movie.

Gone Girl (2014)

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Second time around with David Fincher's mid-2010s psych-out. I don't think it repays a second viewing; there's only one real twist and if you know what it is you just nitpick the unreliable narrator mechanic while you wait. Again I felt there's just not enough on the tail end. Still #186 in the IMDB top-250.

Stephanie Zacharek.

Aravind Adiga: Last Man in Tower. (2011)

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Kindle. Not great. I'm guessing this was Adiga's followup to The White Tiger — and with Booker won his editor let him off the leash. The result is an overlong take on how real estate is redeveloped in Mumbai. Residents of "Vishram Society" receive an offer that few can refuse and readily warp under money hunger. There are far too many characters: some are barely more than names, others are overdeveloped, and none are interesting. The plot regularly stalls under the weight of excess colour as things escalate in an entirely predictable way. Everyone is hypocritical and self-deluded. Many are Lady Macbeths. This Last Man is no Orwell.

I didn't find many reviews. Goodreads. Every so often there's a sentence that shows what could have been.