peteg's blog

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

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Werner Herzog’s masterpiece. A bit like a David Lean epic (a vast cast of extras, an exotic location, quixotic characters, an impossible quest) unburdened by historicity. Something of a do-over of Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Herzog followed it with Where the Green Ants Dream. Strangely also a Miguel Ángel Fuentes jag from The Mexican.

The plot has Klaus Kinski wanting to build an opera house in (I think) Iquitos, Peru, but of course things are not that simple. After failing to build a trans-Andean railway and finding that the ice-making business doesn't pay, he prevails upon his main squeeze Claudia Cardinale, madam to the town's upper class, to buy him a boat so he an enter the rubber trade. Apart from the opera all this is surplus scaffolding, roughly equivalent to Conrad or Coppola giving us excess motivation for their Kurtzes, as the main meal is getting that boat to the right part of the river, beyond some impassable rapids. Herzog manufactures beliefs for the indigenous, as is his wont: in this case that a White God will appear and lead them to some promised land. (Captain Paul Hittscher and Klaus Kinski both wear white but everyone knows Kinski is the god.) With labourers and gramophone in hand the boat can now go over the mountain. The big set piece is much like The Wages of Fear for tension, and Zorba the Greek for batshit analog craziness. It's mostly a lot of fun.

Forward! to Burden of Dreams and surely My Best Fiend.

Roger Ebert: four stars in 1982 and another four stars in 2005 as a "great movie". Vincent Canby made it a critic's pick. More The African Queen than Aguirre. IMDb trivia. Cardinale had a retrospective at MoMA this year. She seemed so happy to be in this picture and lights up every scene she's in.

Truck Turner (1974)

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A solid and generic piece of blaxploitation. Yaphet Kotto completism. He's a lot better than the material; IMDB trivia says he only took the gig because he was getting divorced. Isaac Hayes lead and did the soundtrack, clearly aiming to recapture the success of Shaft and seed a franchise. Nichelle Nichols plays a madam with a vast wardrobe in her one-and-only jaunt into the genre.

I can't say I understood the plot too well which was perhaps because there isn't much of one. Hayes and partner Alan Weeks are "skip tracers", i.e., bounty hunters for a bond bailsman in Los Angeles. One pimp puts up a bit too much of a fight so Nicols takes umbrage and puts out an "insurance" contract on Hayes. Kotto is somehow a big cheese in the killing-for-money game despite his employees being dispatchable with ease. In between the action Hayes gets to squeeze Annazette Chase who is a sincere cat fancier; Ginger Frances put in a solid shift before being used to inflame the situation. The scenes where she gets out of the joint are very funny.

Vincent Canby.

The Royal Hotel (2023)

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Kitty Green's latest. I appreciated her #metoo perspective in The Assistant though I feel now as then that investing her characters with excess naivete (and even dumbness) leaves too little room for insight and power.

The opening gambit has two young lady backpackers/holidaymakers/questionably-Canadian escapees (again Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick) on a party boat on Sydney Harbour. Their dancing, drinking and flirting are as awkward and forced as Park Ji-min's wasn't. Running out of money they're told the only job going is serving alcohol in the remote outback, so, of course, they wake in fright at the Royal Hotel in Yatina, South Australia. (Spoiler: here the kangaroo doesn't get it.) This is deeply weird as there is plenty of gig work in Sydney and some of that can be quite adventurous. I expected a reference to the working holiday visa conditions but no.

Suffice it to say that the customers of the pub are almost entirely mine-working men wearing Australia's national dress — hi-viz — so after a rough introduction from housekeeper/cook/wife-/mother-type Ursula Yovich and alkie/publican Hugo Weaving, the latter in hardcore unforgiving oblivious ocker mode, we get down to predatory business. I began to wonder if I was watching that Eastern European torture-porn hotel thing from ages ago that I never saw, the excruciation stemming from the girls presenting as incredibly ignorant and credulous. Was this the 1960s, or at least some time before smartphones and WikiCamps? ... before the Lonely Planet even? Dorky Toby Wallace implausibly plays Kylie Minogue's Locomotion cover on a tape deck (I think) ... so surely it's about 1987 ... but no, Julia Garner has a smartphone. This is as completely implausible as the horror tropes and those Saturday nights without Cold Chisel banging out the national anthem. The most authentic moment, despite it's evident fakery, is the final one when the ladies set it all on fire.

It's such a strange thing for Kitty Green to make a movie about; a shallow critique of her original culture in the form of an unsubtle anti-tourism ad. It's clearly made for Americans given the raised eyebrows at the lack of tips. Everything here has been done better before: more engaging (even authentic) backpacker stories, better-shot outback pub scenes, resourceful and thoughtful ladies. (Julia Garner is not in the running to be the next Ripley despite the mean way she wields an axe.) Michael Latham's cinematography is nothing special, especially when set against Warrick Thornton's or Ivan Sen's. (Sen moreover has the guts to go right over the top.) Perhaps this is Green saying that the country is not worthy of anything better. I appreciate and respect Hugo's one-actor attempt to revive the Australian movie sector but it's beyond him. It's probably beyond everyone.

Jeannette Catsoulis made it a critic's pick despite finding it exhausting. Oh the dei ex machina: saved by a sober man at sunrise on a Sunday! — which has never happened in Australia. Inspired by Hotel Coolgardie. Benjamin Lee. Sorry mate, it's really not much. A bit later, Peter Bradshaw and Wendy Ide. She dug it, he didn't. Much later, Jason Di Rosso interviewed Kitty Green for The Screen Show. Despite expending heroic effort in discerning the novelties he did not recommend it. Jake Wilson: the same old story.

Vanishing Point (1971)

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A Cleavon Little jag from Blazing Saddles. Also eventually inevitable due to Tarantino's boosterism. Barry Newman leads, woodenly, or is it the much-fetishized white Dodge Challenger? I think his job is to take the car from Colorado to California but it doesn't seem to matter what condition it arrives in, and for reasons unspecified he decides to go on a cannonball run. Adding to the strangeness is that he appears to have all the time in the world to engage with a variety of counterculturalists. (Newman's background is Việt Nam, police force, race car driver, dead surfer-girl lover, all shown in flashback.) Going right over the top is Little's (humourless) blind radio DJ who feeds him information from a police scanner. So Easy Rider but just the one bloke in a car, witless Talk Radio without Bogosian.

What I totally didn't get was how the Dodge Challenger, being so fast and powerful and all, got overhauled regularly by the cop cars.

Beneath Roger Ebert's radar. Roger Greenspun.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

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Mel Brooks's big panto-Western. Crass as all get out and completely beyond the pale now. A Richard Pryor jag from Blue Collar — he got a writing credit here. Also for Slim Pickens who was one of the weaker performers. Lead Cleavon Little is as skilfully comedic as he needs to be to carry the racially-charged material. I was disappointed to find that, according to IMDB, his feature-film career was pretty much just this and Vanishing Point. Little's knowing partnership with Gene Wilder moderates the harsh humour. Madeline Kahn got an Oscar nom for playing a tired German burlesque performer, as did the title song. David Huddleston later reached greater heights as The Big Lebowski. Harvey Korman as a classic panto villain.

Most of the gags are visual, often blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Some are predictable, some homage (one segment is pure Looney Tunes), others inventive. There's something here to offend everyone, maybe.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Vincent Canby: a bunch of skits. Both observe Kahn is taking off Marlene Dietrich.

The New Boy (2023)

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In two sittings due to a failure of grip. Warrick Thornton does some great cinematography at times and I did enjoy the interstitial bursts of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (Thornton wrote and directed as well.) Beyond that it's too much hard work; the themes are obvious and ancient but the plot was unfathomable to me. Cate Blanchett leads as a boozy nun, not too successfully. Deborah Mailman puts on her beatific. Wayne Blair, as bemused as the audience. Aswan Reid plays the child (no not that Child) who might be The One or something else. Shot in South Australia but I think it left its heart on the Dampier Peninsula. Set during World War 2. Thornton's pandemic-project The Beach looks so much better.

Jason Di Rosso interviewed Thornton earlier this year. Luke Buckmaster: go see Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds instead. Sure, it's clear that baptism robs the boy of his magic. What's happening in the rest of it? Peter Bradshaw. And much later, Wendy Ide.

Trent Dalton: Lola in the Mirror. (2023)

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Kindle. Third time around with Dalton after Boy Swallows Universe and the less scintillating All Our Shimmering Skies. More of that winning formula: we're back in Brisbane, things are cinematic, there's a love triangle, some complicated story about parentage, junk, alcoholism, drug distribution but not consumption, more underbaked secondary characters, a dash of magic realism and/or mental unwellness, the river, the city. Novel is the choice to set it in the near future — therefore predicting an epic flood during the coming summer — and the focus on homelessness and domestic violence.

I couldn't help but trainspot Dalton's borrowings again. The Brisvegas underclass is so very Andrew McGahan. Our first-person heroine's relationship with glamorous red-dressed bombshell Lola Inthemirror is pure Last Night in Soho. The scenario is more De Palma's Scarface than Trainspotting — leaving aside Begbie clone Brandon Box but noting the complete lack of humour and general absence of non-romantic pleasure — and even more Kill Bill (femmes lethal with blades at ease with cartoon violence and so on) with a dash of Pulp Fiction (that scene where Bruce Willis sees Ving Rhames on the street amongst others). Jacki Weaver for Lady Flo for sure, and obviously Timothée Chalamet for Charlie. I'm sure others will cite others.

The main (structural, literary) flaws are the repetition, that so much text progresses neither character nor plot, the heavy foreshadowing, the busted pacing and predictable dei ex machina in the last movement. Relinquishing destitution appears to require a big pile of drug money (ronin capital, stage one) and (stage two) a rich talented characterless boyfriend with parents who allow you to park your decrepit van on their property; what a stinky disempowering vector, especially in the wake of the plot-convenient elimination of your purported best friend, a male alkie, who you do not mourn. Hmm. Dalton does effectively get out some of the big (positive) emotions but his oft-repeated airheaded takes on love (come on man, rainbows are ephemeral) and the rest are entirely subsumed by the mantra of Kieren Perkins's mum: It's gonna be all right in the end. And if it's not, it isn't the end.

Jack Callil: misguided, nothing new, no nuance — Dalton boils the ocean in search of a rise. Dangerously lazy with his ideation. A conservative worldview adjacent to Scott Morrison's. Ouch. Or is Callil just taking a dig at someone who works for Murdoch? Callil points to Catriona Menzies-Pike's critique of Dalton's first two. Damn straight, no sex! — the most we get here is some tepid fingers-on-arm in the morning. (I now realise that there are no sexual deviants amongst the Daltonian marginalised.) Dalton's prose is relentless and militantly sentimental. Details deployed to smother the deep chasms of difference. And yet she does not compare him with the similarly commercially-successful Tim Winton. Juliette Hughes sells it at the Smage: Paul Heppell's Tyrannosaurus-headed man makes you think of the Minotaur? Hmm. People at Goodreads are loving it so far, or at least those who scored free review copies.

Dalton's books have all the pleasures of tabloid newspapers, including, in this instance, the pictures.

The Burial (2023)

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I'll watch Jamie Foxx do just about anything even though I know that the movie is rarely as good as he is. This one conforms to type. Here he's paired with funeral-home owning Tommy Lee Jones in good-old-Southern-boy mode, aiming for the magic of No Country for Old Men and missing.

This is formulaic, excessively-juiced courtroom stuff in what I take to be the Erin Brockovich mould that Americans are supposed to lap up: the little fellow prevails over the heavily abstracted corporate (Canadian) predator after some fleet-footed legal work. Notionally this is a matter of contract law but of course personal injury lawyer Foxx — so successful he never wears the same suit twice — is obviously going to turn it into a personal injury and the only question is whose. The conclusion is hollow as it's just about money; there's no real sense of a larger set of winners or social change or law reform or whatever despite the terminal textual special pleading.

The script fatally drowns in a sea of racism; the writers know this and try to address it with a series of knowingly clunky scenes in the middle. It flags whenever Foxx is not on the screen. He has a few great moments with (unfortunately characterless) wife Amanda Warren including a very sweet one just before closing arguments. Jurnee Smollett does what she can for the defence. The vibe is that lawyering is going to change the world for the better ... except it doesn’t seem to have. I guess they'll just have to argue the counterfactual, that all of the alternatives are worse.

Glenn Kenny.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023)

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Wes Anderson's latest. The story was archaic (like Kipling) for 1976 when (we're told) Roald Dahl wrote the source material let alone for 2023. Things are very simple: at the fag end of the always-glorious British Empire conjurer Ben Kingsley discovered how to see without his eyes, or less cryptically, see through things. In less glorious post-Imperial days Benedict Cumberbatch recovers doctor Dev Patel's notes about this wondrous ability and ultimately, unimaginatively plays Robin Hood. Ralph Fiennes narrates. Jarvis Cocker has a few roles. There are no speaking parts for women.

Everyone delivers their lines (and there are far too many lines) breathlessly. Anderson's signature aesthetic doesn't add anything. His Fantastic Mr Fox is far more entertaining.

Luke Goodsell dug it. Three more Dahl shorts are in the Netflix pipe. Peter Bradshaw was less impressed: slight and two-dimensional. Theatrical. More of the same?

Thunderbirds Are GO (1966)

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Idle curiosity about the source aesthetic for Team America: 1960s Supermarionation! and analog effects — I like it but it's not enough on its own.

This seemed to be a TV episode stretched to feature length. The plot is a generic James Bond thing with a very few face-off disguises like Mission Impossible. The bad guy(s) are unmotivated; know them by their eyebrows. It is assumed that space technology will progress though user interfaces, styling and aerodynamics will remain stuck in the 1950s. There's an American gigantism that (at the time) was struggling to keep up with the USSR.

The pace is soporific as the creators are in love with their constructions, much like a Wes Anderson movie. The contraptions aren't as crazy as Wallace and Gromit so the serious, solemn savouring of every set and design gets tedious. The puppetry is limited by its inability to portray walking. There is life on Mars but the creatives have forgotten that it is the red planet. Notable in the voice cast are two Australians — Charles 'Bud’ Tingwell and Ray Barrett — and a very misguided performance by Cliff Richard Jr.

Overall there's nothing here beyond what you'd get from a few stills; audiences of the day apparently knew this and stayed away. It's probably more fun to read about the production.

Benjamín Labatut: The MANIAC. (2023)

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Kindle. It's a good, sometimes fun, well built jaunt through the early days of cybernetics and artificial life that continues with what feels like tacked-on coverage of a recent success. The appeal was that it might reach the heights of Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, which it doesn't. I also hoped for a dash of the crazy inventiveness of Ned Beauman.

For the main meal Labatut ventriloquises various people around John von Neumann as a means of giving some insight into the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century, and, I guess, the madness that hard thinking seems to induce in anyone. He opens promisingly with an account of the unknown-to-me Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest committing murder-suicide but soon enough retreats mostly to the well-rehearsed greatest hits: Albert Einstein struggling with a dice-playing God, Oppenheimer, David Hilbert claiming that Cantor had created a paradise and so on. But the opportunity to unpack these things is missed: just why did Einstein struggle with a probabilistic/undetermined universe? Apropos Hilbert, Gianpaolo dug up the following quotes for me:

I stated a general theorem on algebraic forms that is a pure existence statement and by its very nature cannot be transformed into a statement involving constructibility. Purely by use of this existence theorem I avoided the lengthy and unclear argumentation of Weierstrass and the highly complicated calculations of Dedekind, and in addition, I believe, only my proof uncovers the inner reason for the validity of the assertions adumbrated by Gauss and formulated by Weierstrass and Dedekind.

The value of pure existence proofs consists precisely in that the individual construction is eliminated by them and that many different constructions are subsumed under one fundamental idea, so that only what is essential to the proof stands out clearly; brevity and economy of thought are the raison d'être of existence proofs.

In other words, Hilbert relied on some idealised objects (that set theory justifies the existence or at least manipulation of) to obtain general results and felt the increase in quality paid for the ontological complications. (Less generously he declared ontological bankruptcy and thieved some theorems.) Of course many did and do disagree with the formalist position though the vast majority apparently continue to shrug and get on with their knitting. But what did von Neumann think about the foundations of mathematics? What was he aiming for before Kurt Gödel brought absolutist foundations (aka the Hilbert program) to an end? (The sketch at Wikipedia is thin and makes it look like he was completely eclipsed by Gödel and later Gentzen.)

Gianpaolo pointed me to von Neumann's The Mathematician (in Works of the Mind Vol. I no. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp180-196.) which contains some philosophical musings on these points. He was a fan of the axiomatic method which resolved millennia-long confusions over Euclid's axioms, but knew the lack of rigour did not inhibit the development of calculus/analysis for its first 150 years or so. He reckons it may be mostly just a matter of aesthetics (good taste) informed and freshened by empirical ideas.

The title is the name of von Neumann's computer at the IAS, the model of the JOHNNIACs. I was bothered by some clangers. In the context of artificial life, Labatut has an embittered Nils Aall Barricelli spout off about some of Alan Turing's assertions. He claims "Turing proved mathematically: there is simply no form of knowing what a particular string of code will do unless you run it." — which (under a generous reading) is true of machines but not necessarily of the oracles that are the central concern of this chapter. Also there is nothing so very strange about Turing's oracles: he originally only considered deterministic machines while being aware of the true randomness of quantum mechanical processes, and leaving the possibility that human insight might also add power.

The slight second part makes for a strange counterpoint, being mostly overblown coverage of AlphaGo's match with Lee Sedol in the style of sports journalism. Just the highlights thanks, and not enough to get to grips with anything of substance.

Tom McCarthy at the New York Times. Goodreads. Sam Byers: underpowered, diffuse. Ben Cosman summarises and sets it against Oppenheimer and notes there are three movements not two. Labatut is Chilean and has SBF's hair.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)

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Breaking Bad completism. Indeed the canon was already complete, as I also learnt from Better Call Saul. These are inessential offcuts from the TV show threaded through Jesse Pinkman's present-time escape to Alaska after the big finale. There is some minor unfinished business but mostly it's about getting enough money together to pay the extractor. Somehow we know he survives so there's no tension in any of the scenarios.

James Poniewozik: extends but does not add.

Kubrick by Kubrick (2020)

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A thin and brief (about an hour) assembly of some audio-only interviews of Kubrick by Michel Ciment accompanied by some of the more iconic designs from his movies. Directed by Gregory Monro.

It's often fun or at least interesting listening to Kubrick but the accompanying visuals are mostly static and boring. Things perk up a bit with some spliced-in interviews with his actors: Jack Nicholson got off a few good lines about Kubrick's way of doing things (more of that here perhaps). Tom Cruise sounds off about his feelings and Nicole Kidman is unsurprisingly vacuous. Sterling Hayden is as fun as always, and a lengthier interview with him is available on Youtube via The Stanley Kubrick Appreciation Society; I expect trawling their collection would be more rewarding than this.

Ben Kenigsberg. It seems Kubrick retros are in fashion. I wonder why.

Midnight Run (1988)

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In two sittings. An accidental and incorrect Robert De Niro jag from The Deer Hunter, and more intentionally some Yaphet Kotto completism. The latter does his best as an FBI agent who keeps missing his man. Dennis Farina plays a Mafioso dumb enough to persevere with incompetent help (cf Get Shorty). Notionally De Niro is tasked with moving peaceable Mob accountant Charles Grodin from NYC to Los Angeles so that bail bondsman Joe Pantoliano (memorable in The Matrix and Memento) can avoid bankruptcy. There are many set pieces along the way including a shootout in downtown Chicago. Nowhere as funny as it needed to be.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Formula! Vincent Canby: "wastes more talent and money than most movies ever hope to see." Formula!

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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A Christopher Walken jag from recent things, and I guess a continuation of the working class vibe from Blue Collar. Third or more time around. I don't understand this movie; the American war in Việt Nam seems mostly ancillary to this exploration of the lives of the lethal boys from Clairton, Pennsylvania, USA. Their hometown antics after work at the steel mill are pretty generic. A core theme is just wishing you'd stayed home. It may be that Michael Cimino tried to pack too much in even while letting things sprawl to three hours. It may also be that this movie was the first to successfully set out how the war should be treated in popular American culture, with many themes (going back for a buddy, mutual solace with a mate's partner, losing limbs, etc.) later receiving separate feature-length treatments. In contrast MASH (about the Korean War but released in 1970) and Coming Home (also 1978) seem more limited.

The theme music (Cavatina) is iconic: composed by Stanley Myers and performed by John Williams from Melbourne. #193 in the IMDB top-250. Heavily Oscared: best picture, Walken for support, Cimino for direction, sound and editing. Robert De Niro got a nom but not a gong, as did Meryl Streep who was young once. I felt John Cazale could have had more than two modes. George Dzundza. The river Kwai in Thailand stands in for one in Việt Nam.

Roger Ebert: four stars. "It is one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made." Russian Roulette "is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological statement about the war superfluous." — and yet it does make an ideological statement about the war. Vincent Canby: more thoughtful than usual. Apropos De Niro's "one shot": "As codes go this one is not great, but it is his own." — clearly these are the days before Lose Yourself. The wedding "occupies most of the film's first hour and sets out in rich detail what I take to be one of the movie's principal concerns — what happens to Americans when their rituals have become only quaint reminders of the past rather than life-ordering rules of the present."

IMDB trivia: was Russian Roulette prevalent during the war? Protests at the Berlin festival in 1979. Protests by the Los Angeles chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Unapologetically ahistoric, ignorantly racist, not really about the war or Việt Nam.

Across 110th Street (1972)

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A Yaphet Kotto jag from Blue Collar. Also for Anthony Quinn. All you needed for a Blaxploitation in 1972 was a cracking theme song, one or two decent leads and a willingness to pile on the race and violence tropes in Harlem (or equivalent). Here the game is simple: two Black chancers rob a Mafia bank in Harlem. The inevitable cleanup then proceeds by numbers, starting with their incompetent getaway driver. The Italians are entirely caricatured. Quinn plays a notional old-dog semi-straight detective, an expert at what the British would call community policing, while Kotto is his notional superior on this case. It does serve up many shots of the NYC skyline of the day but then again so do so many other movies. Perhaps the best bits are of the Harlem demimonde.

Roger Greenspun.

Reptile (2023)

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A Benicio Del Toro effort: co-written, co-produced, starring as a straight police detective. You can see what he was reaching for — something like an L.A. Confidential for Atlanta, Georgia, an update of Serpico — but the result is inexcusably airless, like The Dry. So often we don't know where we're going or why and most of the (patent) misdirection is left unresolved. The odd bout of levity ("I love this kitchen") exacerbates the flatness of the rest. Everyone's corrupt to some degree or other; Alicia Silverstone flirts a bit too much with a tradie, and has a phone call with an unrecognisably humourless Eric Bogosian that suggests she might be more invested in the goings-on than she is in husband Del Toro. We'll never know. Justin Timberlake flogs upscale real estate with Lady Macbeth mother Frances Fisher. His girlfriend Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz is the first murderee. There's an overbearing dumbness and inevitability to the whole thing. There's nothing memorable about the cinematography or music. It's a dog.

Natalia Winkelman. Peter Bradshaw. Director Grand Singer has form as a director of music videos.