peteg's blog

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

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Eventually inevitable after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Notionally for Liz Debicki who did have some fun in her brief time onscreen. It's a lengthy derivative dog that consists of entirely stock pose-and-expound, talk-while-walking, putatively comedic group infighting and action set pieces that are visual spaghetti. The plot is Wolverine-adjacent: origin, (willed) amnesia, finding-a-family, destruction of nemesis. Chris Pratt reminds us it's an overdetermined McGuffin hunt every half hour, reliably. Zoe Saldaña's character is histrionic and incoherent after playing it so cool for so long. Chukwudi Iwuji often hints at what could have been. I was surprised at the specious swearing given it's Marvel and rated PG-13. The putative animal abuse is pure, worthless exploitation.

Jason Di Rosso talked to Chris Pratt and director/co-writer James Gunn. Shane Danielsen loved it and outs himself as a comic book fan. This is multiverse blowback. Douglas Adams! I think not. Maya Philips: not a movie for comic book fans; in fact "may only be for completionist fans." Trauma bait. Knockoff Dr. Frankenstein (a theme of 2023).

For all that it is highly rated on IMDB; perhaps only the fans went.

Tron (1982)

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nth time around with this early Disney CGI classic. As always I wish they'd made it hang together a bit better than it does but who can complain with an aesthetic this good? — and it's great to see Jeff Bridges enjoying himself so much in those days when computers were amusing.

It seems that director/co-writer Steven Lisberger has blessed another instalment (Tron: Ares) due in 2025. Can it be worse than Tron: Legacy?

Roger Ebert: four stars but not a great movie! "[A] technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun." Excellent special effects. "[T]he overkill of Dolby stereo (justified, for once)." — oh my. Janet Maslin. Not so brainy, "a gloriously puerile movie" but also "very promising in its way." "Beautiful [...] but dumb."

Wild At Heart (1990)

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nth time around with David Lynch's fairly linear riff on The Wizard of Oz. IMDB tells me it won him the Palm d'Or at Cannes 1990. Nicolas Cage as an Elvis wannabe (and yet claiming individuality via that snakeskin jacket) opposite a very hardworking Laura Dern. I wish Isabella Rosellini had a bigger role; it's like she was just getting started in those few scenes.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars. "Understand that it's not the violence I mind. It's the sneaky excuses." Ebert from Cannes. "Underneath the flash, it was simply too sad; to applaud it would be like cheering a drunken clown while knowing he really was an alcoholic." Essentially Russ Meyer (!). Vincent Canby. Rossellini "[had] yet to get a good part in a respectable American movie."

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. (1932)

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Kindle. Inevitable after listening to Pendulum's Coma too many times. One day I'll get around to watching Coming to America.

Not what I expected. It seemed to echo Swift by satirising utopianism in the style of early earnest scifi (e.g. H. G. Wells). I thought it'd be more incisive. Defending the production of high art by pointing to Shakespeare as the English zenith made no sense as it implies nothing of significant value was created between 1616 and 1932, and if that's the case it cannot motivate getting off the happy-masses path. Huxley's take on man's relationship with God is crap, mere reductive teleology. Most of the scenarios are so shallowly drawn I couldn't think of it as a dystopia. The characters' emotional infantility is appropriate but also a cop out.

The book sits strangely high on many best-novels-of-the-twentieth-century lists and is more interesting to read about. Wikipedia: there were many charges of plagiarism, the moving-picture adaptations all suck, it got censored (obviously for the sex; the call-to-arms as such is inoffensive pap), how it compares to George Orwell's timeless 1984.

Hit Man (2023)

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The latest co-written/directed thing from Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused). This is as close to his Before romances as I've ventured. Prompted by Brian Tallerico's TIFF take; he was spot on about Knox Goes Away but not this one.

Dorky University of New Orleans liberal arts prof Glen Powell, teaching the Nietzschean furnish-your-interior classics, moonlights with the local police department as some kind of surveillance guy. No, it does not clone The Conversation but instead morphs Powell into a fake hit man for stinging purposes, sort of like how things go for the uncannily similar but far superior Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3. The obvious next move is to pair this hotted-up persona with some characterless hot-stuff-with-a-dodgy-ex (Adria Arjona) in what is presented as a contractually all-sex relationship. He's clearly into her for her mind. After that things go as formula says they must. It's ridiculous and a little fun but too thin at feature length.

Having an actor play multiple roles appears to be having a moment after the multiverse proved sterile and/or unprofitable. The recurring Greek chorus of coworkers got tedious fast, telling us what to think, keeping us on track, insinuating we're stupid but actually saying the material is weak.

Widely reviewed; is there really so much pent up demand for crappy romcoms? Dana Stevens. A con-artist thriller. That repeated montage of sting-arrest photo-courtroom got stale fast. Minor... but high-calibre? Four stars of five from Wendy Ide. "[The] pairing [...] matches George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez locked in the boot of a stolen car in Out of Sight for incendiary sexual chemistry." Also four-of-five from Peter Bradshaw. Coen brothers! I think not.

It didn't bother the female reviewers that Arjona is so vapid. Hats off to the marketing team.

About Dry Grasses (2023)

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Prompted by Shane Danielsen putting it on his best-of-2023 list. Second time around with co-writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan after Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. In two sittings due to length, ruining the minor characters in the process.

The scenario has an art teacher (Samet, Deniz Celiloglu) in what he expects to be his final year of mandatory teaching service at a remote village in Anatolia, Turkey. Istanbul beckons, he thinks, but before then he has to navigate a claim of inappropriate contact by two female students (age 13 or so, insinuating Lolita) and, more perilously, a love triangle involving his flatmate (Kenan, Musab Ekici) and a woman (Nuray, Merve Dizdar) from the nearby town, both also teachers. The other thing everyone says about this film is that Samet has lost hope and Nuray revives it but Samet has the vibe of a character that can cynically, selfishly mope anywhere, that he was and will be just as exploitative, unstable and unhappy wherever he goes. Ceylan leaves a vacuum where Samet's interiority should have been, and so much is left vague and unresolved that close attention to details of plot and characterisation goes unrewarded; better to look for the changing facial expressions and count the falling snowflakes.

There's some beautiful photography of white-topped mountains and so forth that made me feel so cold for the vast (3h 17m) runtime. The love triangle goes predictably and there is far too much talking in too many overlong scenes and not enough showing; the big climactic session on the couch where life philosophies are unpacked and dissected is rife with cliche and lacks the punch and insight of (even) the door test. But I guess when conditions are so brutal outside you've got to make do with what you've got.

The "weariness of hope" punchline is so trite and far less poetic than Milan Kundera's "the unbearable lightness of being" from further west, decades ago, under an even more repressive regime. It's a strange marketing slogan to revive so soon after Obama left office (taking all hope with him?) and during these doldrums of Biden. I found it impossible to invest in any of the characters or analysis.

Danielsen's review from Cannes 2023. I wasn't as riveted. Carlos Aguilar: four stars at Roger Ebert. "Neither hope nor despair should be fully believed." The bombastic scenes were ridiculous. "In reality, nothing is as glorious or as terrible as it seems, not even the landscape itself." — I beg to differ. Justin Chang: "languid steppe-by-steppe pacing and long, luxuriant, exquisitely sculpted conversations, but [...] also nimble, alert, and alive" — I guess this is philosophy for movie reviewers. The Chekhovian device does not go off! James Quandt surveys Ceylan's works and provides a more circumspect review. The intrusion of reality/movie making with about 44 minutes to go is indeed a clanger.

Slow (2023)

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Prompted by a four stars of five review by Wendy Ide and sign language.

In present-day Lithuania a dance instructor (Elena, Greta Grinevičiūtė) and sign-language interpreter (Dovydas, Kęstutis Cicėnas) meet cute at her class for deaf students. We're shown this after a provocative opening scene where Elena demonstrates her lustiness with a random man; perhaps we meet him more fully later. There's also a song by a Lithuanian pop group that put me in mind of Fallen Leaves. Soon enough they go to his brother's wedding but from there the deaf parts fall away and the focus is on the hearing people, much like CODA. It doesn't even try for an interesting sound design ala Sound of Metal.

The other novelty dominates as the couple couples up: he claims to be asexual but still desirous of the other aspects of a relationship. I don't think this concept was handled very well. Compared with Emma Watson's "self partnering" (which I take to be essentially a happy, unabashed and knowing singledom) they seem deluded from the start: she's so obviously sexy and while he claims to not be physically into her the mechanics are not an issue and yet she cannot accept his attempts at pleasing her. She's not that into it because she thinks he isn't; perhaps the straightforwardness of Dovydas prevented a more interesting exploration. Instead it seemed like he wanted mateship (would he have partnered up with a man?) and they both seem a bit emotionally immature (or learning how to love if you prefer). The normativity makes things a bit boring, especially when he drunkenly proposes that she take lovers. That put me in mind of Breaking the Waves and its far higher stakes.

Elena does have some funny lines. Her mum is a real bitch and given to some nasty body shaming. (Elena is a ballerina with the wrong shape, making me wonder if the whole thing took Leonard Cohen's Heart with No Companion too seriously.) She is self-aware but presents as a closed book beyond her obvious physicality and often seems to be a blank canvas for Dovydas to project himself onto. (He sweetly says "we’re going to Maccas" after meeting her mum but that's his comfort and we don't learn about hers.) He's often shameless.

I didn't enjoy the cinematography very much. Too often it's in tight when I wanted to see what the groups are doing, or some other thing just off screen.

Beatrice Loayza at the New York Times wanted his sign language and her dancing to communicate more passion. Rebecca Liu. Peter Sobczynski: three-and-a-half stars at Roger Ebert. He elides the actual beginning of the movie which suggest something broader than is supplied. Hollywood would've done it so much worse.

Force of Nature: The Dry 2 (2024)

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The things Eric Bana and Jacqueline McKenzie make me watch. The dire IMDB rating and the original instalment should've warned me off but I did want to see how much help Bana has been to Hugo Weaving in reviving local film industry. I suspect the answer is not a lot: Weaving seems to be more involved in larger international projects (with international distribution) whereas Bana's appear to be utterly provincial and involve co-writer/director Robert Connolly who seems to suffer from T.V. productionism.

The plot is simple: a group of corporate women (and separately men) go for a team-building exercise in the Dandenong Ranges (presented as the Victorian Alpine but really a suburb of Melbourne) and one of them doesn't come back with the others. Anna Torv, last seen by me in Mindhunter, was tasked with riling everyone up while also being everyone's victim. Deborra-Lee Furness (recently separated from Hugh Jackman) played her boss and Richard Roxburgh tried to find his inner David Wenham as the boss's domineering husband. Bana's job was to untangle the stories while McKenzie looked on; her character is quite superfluous and that's no way to treat an actor of her calibre.

The dialogue was really bad and the plot really sketchy. Which is a shame as the ingredients are decent enough.

Three stars of five from Luke Buckmaster. Two stars of four from Sheila O'Malley. The three-track was a real drag.

The Sympathizer (2024)

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Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with Kiều Chinh (that probably basked in the afterglow of Alice Rohrwacher's) and being reminded that Park Chan-wook was a major contributor to the production (while quietly ignoring the recent evidence that he is far better at movies than TV). Also for Melburnian lead Hoa Xuande (who I found out later was in Careless Love). My low expectations from the novel were reinforced by the dire IMDB rating (about 7/10 and dropping rapidly).

Briefly: it goes mostly as I remember from the book. We're in the final days of a never-been-cleaner Sài Gòn before heading to mid-1970s Los Angeles with some erstwhile members of the ARVN and associated entities. Our narrator-hero "The Captain" is a spook with divided loyalties. It never settles into any particular genre, swerving amongst sitcom, parody/satire, (b)romance, heavy serious drama, spy thriller, social commentary and so on while never being as clever as it needed to be. Was the point to be excruciated?

The general failure to grip is no fault of the cast, for the most part. Xuande is fine in the lead and I was pleasantly surprised by Sandra Oh's performance as an Oriental Studies secretary (lame though her character is). Fred Nguyen Khan was great as Bon, perhaps because his was the most bullshit free of the main roles. David Duchovny! Oh my. And then we get to Robert Downey Jr, who is always about the same. I imagine he watched Alec Guinness's antics in Kind Hearts and Coronets and figured he too could handle the multi-role thing. Well, news flash! He can't. By episode four Park has ceased to direct and RDJr has slipped his leash; what is essentially a clone of Hearts of Darkness could just possibly have functioned as a homage to the recently-passed Eleanor Coppola if it was in any way funny or inventive. Further souring the deal is the faint whiff of Tropic Thunder where everyone was younger and better at high science.

Wikipedia suggests that Park was not the first Korean filmmaker to go to Việt Nam. I was a little surprised to find that John Woo wasn't the first from Hong Kong; his Bullet to the Head is structurally very similar (too similar) to this. But of course the creators of The Sympathizer mostly drew on Sergio Leone's immortal Once Upon a Time in America. They passed up more opportunities than they took to play with identities ala David Lynch despite this setting being a very natural home for that conceit.

While it's great that so much of the dialogue in this mainstream American (HBO) production is in Vietnamese it didn't occur to the creators that the Vietnamese themselves may have wanted to talk about something other than the war (or that we too might want to hear them talk about things other than the war). The following graph from Harvard's Growth Lab illustrates the rise in complexity of Việt Nam's economy alongside the (relative) decline in Australia's for context:

Australia v Vietnam economic complexity

The Sympathizer is so safe, so conservative, so far from the crass but raw danger of (Australian, don't mention the war) Romper Stomper of 1992. It says so much less about Vietnamese culture and the immigrant experience than Andrew X. Pham's Catfish and Mandala from 1999 and Nam Le's The Boat of 2008. It disallows the nuance of foreigners' accounts of living in Việt Nam and engaging with the locals such as Dana Sachs's memoir from 2000. Viet Thanh Nguyen, writing in 2015 and executive-producing now, is still just riffing on those (Western) exploitation flicks of the 1970s and 1980s that we all enjoy so much. It completely fails to grapple with the country and its people's development, aspirations, achievements and, of course, complex, opaque and troubling-to-the-West politics. (Coincidentally I was in the country when those lines crossed.)

Can we expect a sequel? Perhaps Nugyen is still occupied with figuring out how to follow up The Committed.

Reviews seem to be uniformly positive. I rest my case.

Civil War (2024)

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Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Never Let Me Go). For Kirsten Dunst. It's dire.

Notionally California and Texas have gotten organised against the East Coast with Florida going its own way. War photographer Dunst and three other old-school journalists take a road trip from NYC to Washington D.C. to interview the President who is not expected to survive the month. All this must be intentionally improbable — in contrast to more serious works like, for instance, Omar El Akkad's — and the set pieces so derivative that I couldn't figure out what Garland was trying to say. There's certainly no novelty in it.

On the source materials: the episodic nature of the trip upstream is so obviously Heart of Darkness and therefore Apocalypse Now. Many of the set pieces are direct lifts of either actual Việt Nam War footage or movies (man set on fire, summary execution, etc.). To some extent Stephen McKinley Henderson's infirm adrenaline addict reminded me of Matthew Modine's Joker from Full Metal Jacket. (The summary execution of the soldier/sniper at the top of the stairs here is a sanitised echo.) Things got a bit Team America (humourlessly) when they fragged the Lincoln Memorial. (I don't know who "they" were. It really doesn't matter.) And so on.

There are plenty of dumb bits. Dunst is the last character to be killed by the numbers (c.f. The Order of Death) and her lack of self preservation — crash tackling but not going down with young on-the-make Cailee Spaeny — was ridiculous. Her real-life squeeze Jesse Plemons is effective in bloodless Breaking Bad mode which is to say he didn't get out of first gear.

Garland may've been chasing a concept (that I couldn't discern) but shooting photojournalists shooting the war is redundant: they were and are already platformed and many wrote memoirs (e.g. Tim Page). It's all been done before and done far better.

The American reviewers somehow took this dross seriously. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. Wow. "Rarely have I seen a movie that made me so acutely uncomfortable." "A happy ending is impossible." — but isn't that the nature of all wars? Dana Stevens. "The point is less plausibility than viscerality." A Year of Living Dangerously. "But the fact that the carnage these reporters are documenting is homegrown shifts the inflection significantly. Suddenly it's impossible to exoticize or otherwise alienate ourselves from the bloodshed onscreen, which makes us ask ourselves what we were doing exoticizing it in the first place. This effect of moral immediacy is Civil War's greatest strength, and the reason it feels like an important movie of its moment even if it isn’t a wholly coherent or consistently insightful one." — somehow the actual everyday violence in the U.S.A. just isn't real enough.

Joe (2013)

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More Nicolas Cage completism. Apparently this was a return-to-form after some dire pay-the-bill action movie roles. The title and subject — a volatile hard-drinking man who by helping a vulnerable boy so obviously puts himself on the path to destruction — suggested My Name is Joe to me.

This is a mostly-humourless piece of Southern realism. (There is some humour in the fine details of Cage's performance: "make a pain face ... then smile" for instance.) Cage's character is so selfless he'll give away his last cigarette, his lighter and engage in ultraviolence to no particular end. He just has so much to give. He organises a crowd of (possibly ex-con) Black men to (illegally?) poison trees which are to be replaced by a plantation. This might be a metaphor for the state of the culture. Indeed the whole thing is so unmodulated we know things are going to end in a burst of morally indubitable brutality from the get-go. How else could it be when the only sane man in Austin, Texas is insane?

We never find out why that German Shepherd at the brothel is such an arsehole. Gary Poulter, playing the boy's father, looks and sounds like some of the men in Twin Peaks.

A critic's pick by Stephen Holden. A punishing exercise in Southern miserablism. Quasi biblical. Four stars of five from Peter Bradshaw. Director David Gordon Green once was "the heir [apparent] to Terrence Malick".

Poor Things (2023)

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Inevitable after its heavy marketing over the awards season. In two sittings in the hope the plot wasn't as mono dimensional and determined as it is. Not for me.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos who also directed Emma Stone in The Favourite which was also co-written by Victorian Tony McNamara. Based on a novel by Alasdair Gray. The bulk of it is recycled. The sets have an artificial aesthetic like older Jean-Pierre Jeunet (e.g. The City of Lost Children) but do not achieve his or Wes Anderson's coherency. Perhaps this is a rip off of Barbie (unseen by me). The mixed creatures reminded me of Mars Attacks! — if only there was anything as priceless as Sarah Jessica Parker's chihuahua. The cinematography is a mix of black-and-white and colour in the style of The Wizard of Oz (also used by David Lynch in his Season 3 of Twin Peaks) with various distorting lenses.

There is so much unsexy sex. The essence of Emma Stone's role is a woman who has never been a girl. This apparently licences her to play a Candide who constructs the best of all possible worlds. We're told time and again that she's curious and desirous of experience and yet all she appears to learn is related to sexual matters; she's as monomaniacal as your average billionaire. The placement of books by the American pragmatists (Emerson) in her hands is mere gesture and affect. I guess it's a take on identity too, palely imitating David Lynch and not Face/Off. Her creator Willem Dafoe plays a solemn, simplistic Scots surgeon/experimenter/Frankenstein with far less imagination than Gene Wilder's neurotic effort in Young Frankenstein. Mark Ruffalo is disappointingly stagey and not great as a plummy English playboy. Ramy Youssef's character was rubbish. Yes, it was probably all intentional; I know the clearly signposted this-is-funny-laugh-now elements were. The entirety left me cold.

Very widely reviewed. Dana Stevens. A nature-v-nurture experiment. Sex brings colour to this world. Refreshing and revolutionary ... really? Ruffalo's ham starts to grate when he starts to whine. Manohla Dargis. Gleefully clever with sour laughs. Breaking the Waves. Michael Wood. Five stars from Peter Bradshaw. Vivisectional! — but not in a way Patrick White would recognise. A steampunk-retrofuturist Victorian freakout, more referents; more briefly, a recycling. Shane Danielsen. A neat reversal on Shelley, making Dafoe visibly the monster — but really just externalising Frankenstein's moral deformity in the original. Symbolic sex. She's into socialism because it's more honest. The cityscapes look like they were assembled by A.I. And so on. All seem to agree that it is a very derivative, very synthetic production.

Amor Towles: Table for Two: Fictions. (2024)

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Kindle. Towles's followup to The Lincoln Highway. The writing is often as elegant as his earlier efforts but none of these shorts are fantastic. In order:

  • The Line. Queuing was a big part of life in Moscow after the revolution and looking at how people queue can tell us a lot about a society. (Similarly for toilets and therefore for toilet queues.) Things get confusing as the bloke eventually waits multiple days for an exit visa interview and somehow communicates with the bloke he's in the queue for which presumably calls for another placeholding queuer. (Initially Towles takes care of these kinds of details but steadily loses resolution as Manhattan approaches.)
  • The Ballad of Timothy Touchett. Poor behaviour in the NYC rare books market. The resolution involves Paul Auster who died recently.
  • Hasta Luego. Community-supported alcoholism in NYC.
  • I Will Survive. A prolix domestic drama with a very minor payoff; at 20% of the length it would've been punchy. This is perhaps Towles expressing some permissible doubt about the totalitarianism of human centricity (in cities).
  • The Bootlegger. Social mores come unstuck and a moralising/OCD Wall St money man gets some comeuppance at a concert series in Carnegie Hall. Bach's Cello suites star; these had a moment a few years back.
  • The DiDomenico Fragment. An American dynasty has been parting out a DiDeminico masterpiece (of the Annunciation) for generations until one member decides it's time for a heist.

The hard-boiled novella Eve in Hollywood (a mild reworking of what I read previously) is superior to the shorts. I conclude Towles is better at length and just maybe his new stuff is not as good as his old stuff.

Hamilton Cain at the New York Times. Goodreads.

El Conde (2023)

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Co-writer/director Pablo Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón make Augusto Pinochet into a literal vampire (Jaime Vadell) and shot him in fabulous black-and-white. While potentially quite fertile they don't seem to know where to go so they introduce a nun (Paula Luchsinger) who, with a dispensation from the Church, has designs on both The Count and his loot. Notionally she's there to help The Count's five grasping children obtain their inheritance. Things burn slowly until a flurry of biting and backbiting, somewhat hastened by an underdeveloped Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet and in flashback Sofía Maluk), hurries the conclusion. It's heavy on symbolic references — I'm sure I missed most of them — but few have telling consequences.

Edward Lachman's cinematography is gorgeous. (He also assembled The Velvet Underground and shot Mildred Pierce and Howl and so on.)

A New York Times Critic's Pick by Amy Nicholson. Cheeky. The Count is hiding out in Patagonia. Doesn't have a satisfying resolution. Shane Danielsen. Alfredo Castro is indeed good as the loyal White Russian manservant. A saggy middle and a slightly-out-of-control end. Carlos Aguilar.

Winter Kills (1979)

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Prompted by Peter Sobczynski giving it a four-star review in 2023. J. Hoberman reviewed it at the same time; apparently its rerelease was sponsored by Tarantino. Based on a novel by Richard Condon (Prizzi's Honor, The Manchurian Candidate), directed and co-written by William Richert. The project pulled a stellar cast but squandered them by being overly difficult to follow.

The framing story is straightforward: more than a decade after his brother, the President, is assassinated, straight man Jeff Bridges (RFK, sort of) gets dragged into a series of set-piece conspiracy theory expositions. Initially the tone is dead serious but by the time we meet John Huston, playing Pa Kegan (Joe Kennedy), things are definitely screwy. (He has most of the good lines here. He gets his blood changed six-monthly with the kids from Amherst. He spent 11M USD to install his son in the White House — what a bargain!) This prepares us for Sterling Hayden hunting Bridges off his property with tanks and other World War II surplus vehicles and munitions. Eli Wallach played a handsy small-time fall-guy hood straight and deadpan. Anthony Perkins didn't get out of first gear as a psychotic expositor in a panopticon. Belinda Bauer had a When Harry Met Sally scene with Bridges. Liz Taylor in a severe cameo. It's never clear why anyone would help Bridges, why he's investigating, if this is a spoof, a satire or something else, if there's a point to it at all.

I can only wonder what it could've been if Huston had directed it; we get the odd whiff of his far more coherent The Man Who Would Be King.

Janet Maslin. Vincent Canby at length at the time. Roger Ebert (half everything) and Gene Siskel (very confusing, unfairly harsh on the Kennedy family). Wikipedia has all the details.

The Goldfinger (2023)

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Writer/director Felix Chong hit the big time when he wrote Infernal Affairs. Twenty years later here he is, repaying Scorcese's cloning of his masterwork by cloning Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street with the two leads of his earlier hit. Over a few sittings.

Tony Leung leads as an engineer turned property speculator in late 1970s to mid 1990s Hong Kong. He falls into a pot of money and becomes more crooked as time goes on, staying ahead of the law and keeping them away from his shady backers while attracting a bunch of amoral operators who love money. Andy Lau heads an ICAC taskforce that spends a decade or more trying to fry Leung. Things move dutifully from set piece to set piece with little to no explanation of anything. I found it difficult to follow the financial shenanigans. Much is made of sticking it to the Brits who (confusingly) do not seem particularly unhappy about it. There's a massive loss of momentum once we get to the courtroom scenes.

Leung has almost no lines (just punchlines) and spends most of his time pulling a variety of faces, most of which are variants of smirks. Andy Lau is mostly inert and is saddled with too many completely thankless cliched scenes with the wife and children. Anthony Pun's fancy cinematography is all smooth surfaces and soulless CGI.

Two stars of five from Wendy Ide. Cath Clarke: also Goodfellas. Two stars of four from Peter Sobczynski at Roger Ebert's website: also Goodfellas. (The smooth editing got me thinking of Casino.) Incidents don't amount to a story.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

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Some days you're just looking for a competently-executed escapist popcorn flick. This isn't one. It makes no sense — merely moving from one CGI set piece to the next — and the dialogue is excruciatingly bad. Much of it is impossible to follow if you're not steeped in recent Marvel lore. This might be forgivable if the imagery was any chop.

On the plus side, with half an hour to go, director Sam Raimi went all Evil Dead silly with a zombie Benedict Cumberbatch. (There's also a Bruce Campbell cameo.) But we've seen all that before.

A. O. Scott: dutiful fan service. This multiverse is so much less witty and imaginative than Everything Everywhere All at Once's. The best bits are the 1980s Raimi bits. Elizabeth Olsen is scary because she is so sad. Wikipedia: 294.5M USD of hot mess.

Mr. Klein (1976)

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And yet more Alain Delon completism. He leads here and also produced. The clear frame — an indifferent Frenchman buys art cheaply from Jews fleeing German-occupied Paris in 1942 — opens a mystifying tale of fatal stolen identity. Is it revenge or merely opportunism? The ladies don't even pretend to put up a fight with Delon but he barely notices them coming or going. Michael Lonsdale plays his lawyer.

I felt I missed some key scenes or wasn't parsing things quite right. It probably needs two goes to pin down all the details.

Vincent Canby. A metaphorical mystery melodrama. Less about the plot, more about identity and obsession; shades of David Lynch perhaps. "Mr. Delon is not aging especially well. Other actors with careers as long as his acquire, over the years, a lot of useful baggage in the form of associations to earlier performances. Mr. Delon has traveled a lot but his baggage is empty." Ouch.

Elliot Ackerman, James G. Stavridis: 2054: A Novel. (2024)

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Kindle. Some days you just want to read a competently-executed airport novel and instead you pick up a sequel significantly worse than its predecessor. Ackerman is deep into negative rewards now.

I've forgotten the specifics of what happened in 2034 but that turned out not to matter. What's at stake in 2054 is more-or-less what's at stake in 2024: a presidential assassination sets off January 6 militia activity and the military fragments along ideological lines. Kurzweil and his one-man creation of "The Singularity" are mentioned regularly but not analysed. Its use as a plot device is woefully underbaked. A major character from 2034 presents as Wintermute and these authors have all the problems William Gibson faced in the early 1980s: cyberspace can be accessed from everywhere but these guys only understand zooming around in meatspace. Just go read Permutation City already.

Perhaps it's supposed to be more about the themes or what isn't explicitly spelt out; they make and repeat many assertions unsupported by argument. The "blood and soil" trope is deployed to explain the recruiting of an ethnic Chinese/American citizen corporate woman by the Chinese Communist regime via a redundant Nigerian cutout and yet the same essentialism does not apply to the American or Indian characters. This isn't plausible for people whose parents were killed or bullied by the state — just look at the huge Chinese diaspora, especially the departure of so many from Hong Kong over the last 30 years, the Irish, the Russian emigres, the Poles and Nordics. Consider the name Hendrickson! In any case there's a far more sophisticated take on national and political loyalties in The Sympathizer. Are the authors demonstrating the inability of America to understand Asia or learn from history?

Their history is all key man, that there are a few choke points that can control the application of knowledge. At scale this may be so (developing nuclear technology for instance) but as the army of digital nomads and the hackers working for nation-states well know, much can be done remotely with widely distributed teams and hardware. The future may have no locus to nuke, no individual or tractable group to assassinate, no Assange to serve as a warning to the others. Perhaps that's what happens in 2074.

Their solution to America's problems is to install a wise military man (an Eisenhower?) for a limited-duration reset and (literally) marry China and move to Vermont. (The whole process is undemocratic but somehow placates the various mobs.) The Supreme Court is totally absent and they don't explain how the power-mad institution was tamed between now and then. The veteran in a wheelchair is an obvious nod to Oliver Stone (a plea to direct the movie version?) and Ron Kovic. The rising country of India (so important in 2034) does not feature. There's some Herzogian madness on the Amazon ... and a touch of The Boys from Brazil as they approach their heart of darkness/enlightenment. The gambling is tiresome.

Hari Kunzru at the New York Times did say it wasn't much chop. Goodreads was generally disappointed.

Lone Wolf (2023)

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Domestic (t)errorism in Melbourne, July 2021 — which Wikipedia suggests was a time of lockdowns. The whole thing is so bad, so completely flawed. It's exactly what Brophy meant by Australian movies having TV production values. Hugo Weaving continues his heroic one-man project of reviving Australian cinema (c.f. The Royal Hotel etc.); I just wish he'd be more discerning in his choice of vehicles.

Righto, the framing conceit is that this is found footage which of course the makers cannot sustain for more than a few minutes. It's notionally based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (which I started and didn't get far into). The story is set in the tawdry, archaic fringes of sex shops, anarchists and huge, cheap Melbourne flats. The idea is to co-opt the local malcontents into committing a "victimless atrocity" that will improve the reelection prospects of the minister (Weaving). (The most inventive thing here is the choice of target, putting me in mind of Jarett Kobek's far superior Atta.) The first act is a self-admitted humdrum domestic drama while the second slides into a pure mess. Were they aiming for The Interview?

The central flaw was a mediocre script with poor dialogue that elicited poor performances from everyone. There's a dumbness to the main characters which made it hard to care what happened; it's a crass dumbness, not a comedic one like in Chris Morris's Four Lions or a knowing one like in The Castle. One has to feel for Stephen Curry whose best (or even decent) roles are long gone now. And the concluding scenes, well, they show a Tennant Creek you've never seen before.

Wendy Ide must've watched something else. None of the characters are sympathetic! I got the pointer from Chris Abrahams and Melanie Oxley who did some soundtrack work. It was funded by Screen Australia and the MIFF Premiere Fund. One can only hope that Albo's industry policy picks better winners.

Late Night With the Devil (2023)

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After a promising retro intro we're served up a homage to generic horror tropes and 1970s late night talk shows. There's an excess of derivative style and nothing to suspend disbelief. The sales pitch is The Blair Witch Project realism but Australian writer/directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes don't have the guts (or is it brains?) to run with it. This causes a fatal loss of momentum in the final twenty minutes or so and incongruities from about the halfway mark. The central concept, that this is found footage, is unsound: they cannot show us the fake and the real if the camera never lies, and too often things are shot from an angle that can have nothing to do with the TV production or a putative behind-the-scenes operator. It's a view of nothing new from nowhere.

The cast all don American accents but appear to be Australian apart from lead David Dastmalchian. It's a slick production in the mode of TV; exactly what Philip Brophy trashed in a discussion with Jason Di Rosso recently. (I did not rate Brophy's derision while listening but watching this was a rueful corrective.) The framing suggested it'd be closer to The Ring, with some fallout in the exurbs... like Brophy's Body Melt.

Alissa Wilkinson observed the flaws and references but still found a way to hammer the marketing. Jared Richards, similarly. Christos Tsiolkas, similarly, but how on Earth did he find this "genuinely frightening"? Anxiety and fear but no terror. At least Matt Zoller Seitz remains as skeptical as Roger Ebert. Many critics decry the use of AI-generated imagery.

La Chimera (2023)

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Grave robbing in 1980s Tuscany. The lead (Josh O'Connor) is, of course, English and has the critical skill of divining the location of tombs containing valuable artefacts. We meet him on a train returning from a bout of incarceration where he proves as irresistible to the ladies as Richard Burton's defrocked priest in The Night of the Iguana despite lacking the presence and voice. Like Orpheus he's lost and bereaved in the waking/above ground world.

The rest of the gang is a bit rag-tag and sometimes amusing. There's some fun made of gender roles. The romantic aspects left me cold: notionally he's still in love with a dead girl (who we see in flashbacks but whose character is not developed) which explains his dour mien but not his willingness to jump into bed with an uptight "broomstick" (Carol Duarte). Isabella Rossellini does a great job as a matriarch in a decaying mansion. She's fantastic in the scene where we meet her daughters but things are too cliched after the wild inventiveness of the tomb robbing.

Overall things were a bit too loose, too vague. I enjoyed the diversity of languages, including sign language which struck me as almost universal. There are quite a few pile ons / overlapping dialogues (the Englishman's gang and the daughters) which was effective ala Robert Altman. The magic realism has a dash of Guillermo del Toro without the violence and graphic imagery. The aesthetic is lightly artificial like a Hal Hartley but less so.

Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with co-writer/director Alice Rohrwacher. She's great but his attempts to help her out by rephrasing her responses were unnecessary and a bit annoying. She knew what she was trying to do! Luke Goodsell: Indiana Jones! James Bond! I think not. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. Peter Bradshaw: five stars! An interview with Rossellini. Later Michael Wood summarised it for us.

The 'Maggie' (or High and Dry) (1954)

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Another idle bit of Ealing-comedy completism. Basically materialistic American businessman Paul Douglas is trying to furnish a surprise love nest for his wife and needs to move a pile of expensive stuff up the coast from Glasgow. No ships are available so his inept English agent Hubert Gregg ends up hiring a coal-carting "puffer" that only usually plies the calmer waters. The wily old captain Alex Mackenzie knows his trade very well and stuffs the job up completely. It takes a young lady at a 100th birthday celebration and "the wee boy" Tommy Kearins to wise the American up to the merits of unaspirationalism.

There are a very few funny bits but they aren't that funny. Engineer Abe Barker has some fun sticking it to the captain. Early on much is made about the captain's sister owning the boat, and that the law is out for him, but these are underused and left unresolved.

Bosley Crowther dug it from across the Atlantic.

Fallen Angels (1995)

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Some very late Wong Kar-Wai completism prompted by the Christopher Doyle biopic. This has some of their classic cinematography made famous by Chungking Express but is disjointed and opts for the thematic, making it seem like offcuts from something more coherent. Over two widely-spaced nights due to a failure to grip.

The more developed thread has Leon Lai as an assassin whose agent Michelle Reis is in love with him. Somehow he's more interested in Karen Mok's Blondie. Mostly separately elfin Takeshi Kaneshiro breaks into various food vendor premises including an ice cream truck to zany effect. He's mute (but narrates for us) so potential squeeze Charlie Yeung has to do all the talking. There's the odd semi-decent grounding scene with his father Man-Lei Chan in Chungking Mansions.

Roger Ebert found three stars. Pure cinema? Stephen Holden: weightless. Excess details at Wikipedia. I prefer Wong Kar-Wai's lover movies to these fighter ones.

Scorpio (1973)

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Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster completism, prompted by the Delon retrospective in NYC presently. Aging but not yet decrepit secret-agent lion Lancaster tasks young Turk (and cat fancier!) Delon with one more assassination in photogenic Paris. Afterwards the CIA decides it's time Lancaster retired and who else for the job but his protege Delon? The ladies get pro forma bit parts — there are some sweet but inconsequential scenes between Delon and his sister Mary Maude, and Gayle Hunnicutt and Joanne Linville are asked to do a little bit more — as things generally go as Cold War spy game movies do.

On the plus side it works fine as a time capsule of Washington, Vienna and Paris at the time, and Delon's feline affinity surely cannot be fake. (There are some great cats including a street cat that he chooses as a gift from his girlfriend.) Some of the dialogue is amusingly sharp and the ambiguity of Lancaster's loyalties works to some extent. (Clearly he is loyal to individuals and that is reciprocated.) Paul Scofield has the presence to play a Soviet spymaster and makes the most of his limited screentime. The CIA as embodied by John Colicos is implausibly inept.

Delon and Lancaster were paired in The Leopard ten years previously, in 1963. I'd say this continued Lancaster's late-career renaissance which I think we can date to The Swimmer in 1968.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars: dissipated, tried to do too much. But the screenwriters David Rintels and Gerald Wilson wrote some good dialogue! Too similar to director Michael Winner's earlier The Mechanic. Roger Greenspun: Lancaster and Scofield are buddies from the antifascist days. I didn't think it was so bad. IMDB trivia: at the time of filming the production company stayed at the Watergate coincidentally with the famous break in. Lancaster performed his own stunts — I'm sceptical though Delon obviously does. I found Lancaster's blackface/Afro priest hilarious.

Dashiell Hammett: The Collected Dashiell Hammett (1929 to 1951)

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Kindle. Having read all his novels it was time to plough through the shorts and these proved as addictive as I expected. The Continental Op ones did get a bit shallow at times but you have to admire his stamina. The final The First Thin Man ends on a cliffhanger which makes complete sense when you read at Wikipedia that's it an early draft of The Thin Man.

Most anomalous is the short Tulip apparently first published in 1966. Hammett put all his styles into it and something new; the scattered autobiographical elements, the sharp observations and lack of sleuths suggest an attempt at renewal that didn't eventuate.

Dick Locthe in 2000. A lengthy biography by Claudia Roth Pierpont in 2002: beyond the well-known stuff much is disappointing.

Dune (2021) and Dune: Part Two (2024)

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I needed a refresher on the first part as it's been about two-and-a-half years since I saw it. It strikes me now as mostly pose and expound but even so is an improvement on its successor. Notionally I was watching the second part for Florence Pugh but she has an inert, almost nonspeaking role. Christopher Walken does too and yet somehow out acts Chalamet despite being powerfully, frailly immovable at 80 or so. I felt Flo was as poor a choice for princess material as Rebecca Ferguson was as a concubine but at least Ferguson got to move a bit.

Again the cast is vast and sometimes well used. However the whole show is very derivative of the last few decades of mega movies (I'll spare you an enumeration). It's lengthy and squanders that length with excess repetition; the dream/forecast sequences could've been trimmed down which would've left more room for general story/character/whatever development or a toilet break/intermission. Javier Bardem repeatedly entreating Chalamet to slay him really resonated with me: let's get this over with! Josh Brolin again did what he could with a numpty character; how did they make his smuggler so much less than Han Solo? Austin Butler may yet grow up to be Ryan Reynolds. Dave Bautista is so completely unmodulated it must have been the fault of director Denis Villeneuve. Stellan Skarsgård phoned it in; if they'd got Tom Cruise back into a fat suit instead it would've been worth every penny.

Leaving so many loose threads dangling only make sense if there's going to be a third part. (The scowl on Zendaya's face at the end says there obviously must be a third part.) Introducing mega actresses Léa Seydoux and Anya Taylor-Joy in brief almost-cameos would only be worthwhile if they have larger roles in a third part. There's going to be a third part.

At this point I'd say David Lynch's effort was superior. The main failing here is with casting Chalamet as the lead: the producers needed a Paul who was a bit fruity like Peter O'Toole or Kyle MacLachlan (or Sting without his shirt) or a man who doesn't look so childish next to Brolin and Jason Momoa. Jostling with that for first place is the mythology of the spice which we're shown none of: Bardem, despite having partaken of it all his life, is now a broken-down man, while the Jedi mind tricks of the female cult are acquired by training not (just) drugs. The visions (including those of Paul's sister) are a long way from the spectacle of 2001 or The Tree of Life. And so on and on.

Widely reviewed of course. A critic's pick by Manohla Dargis. Dana Stevens: "each really constituting one-half of a full story arc" — I don't think so! She mistakes gesture for foundation. If the book is from 1965 it is obviously drawing heavily from Lawrence of Arabia. "Like Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga..." — please, let's keep it polite. Jake Wilson: "Neither a zippy adventure nor a metaphysical mind-bender, this Dune has the heaviness of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic." And a partial enumeration of lifted materials. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Melbourne-born cinematographer Greig Fraser (and I don't remember a thing). And so on. Overall it's just that it's new.

Whisky Galore! (1949)

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#5 on a random Guardian list of Ealing comedies. The fictional island Todday in the Outer Hebrides runs out of whisky in 1943. This is relieved by the running aground of a ship carrying 50,000 cases of the stuff. The local home guard is lead by uptight Englishman Basil Radford who wants to prevent the wily (Scots) locals from recovering the goods. He is easily evaded. Somehow Joan Greenwood is deemed the co-lead with Radford despite being only involved in some minor romantic stuff with sergeant Bruce Seton. It's well constructed but pedestrian with a lot of filler between a few genuinely funny bits.

Wikipedia. Somehow it got remade in 2016.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

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The name is Lee, Bruce Lee, and this was the last of his leading-role features for me to catch up on. I hadn't realised just how much Brad Pitt ripped off his persona in Fight Club and similarly how literally Tarantino lifted much of this for Kill Bill.

The plot is a train wreck. Notionally Bruce and other martial artists are drawn to an island off the coast of Hong Kong for a tournament. Everyone has their reasons for being there, told in dissolved flashback, but the premise doesn't survive Bond-adjacency. John Saxon co-leads as a suave Sean Connery-esque American gambler with debts and scruples who happens to know Jim Kelly from the American activities in Việt Nam from six years prior. Kelly gets all the ladies because Bruce is too busy taking care of business as instructed by his Shaolin-descended master.

The climax is unsatisfying perhaps because it is unclear master villain Kien Shih can take it to Lee; there's a lot of in-close shots and choppy editing in all the fight scenes. What's with the missing hand? — things got pure Wolverine at the end. The Brits turn up too late to do anything useful. I had to wonder who'd be dumb enough to be a stunt man in a Bruce Lee flick in 1973. There's some great cinematography especially of Hong Kong harbour; it's a bit of a time capsule like Melville's take on roughly contemporaneous Paris.

Everything is at Wikipedia. An early blaxploitation! Once again Jackie Chan is apparently in there somewhere.

The Way of the Dragon (1972)

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Bruce Lee's third time leading a feature and far better than the first two, probably because he also wrote and directed. Famous for its climatic fight with Chuck Norris in the Colosseum in Rome.

As always the plot doesn't make a tonne of sense. Bruce gets sent by Nora Miao's uncle to help her out in Rome where the restaurant she just inherited is under pressure from the local hoods (mafia). She wanted a lawyer but for flimsy reasons everything is settled with martial arts and so Bruce is her man. He once again disappoints her in the love business. There seems to be a rule that you only get one go per murder method (why not try again with guns?) and that the Chinese form(s) dominate Karate. Secretary Ping-Ou Wei is very camp, very weird.

Roger Ebert: two stars. The version I saw apparently cut all the translation crap that stuck in his craw. #58 on the Golden Horse list of the 100 Greatest Chinese-Language Films. Excess details at Wikipedia.

Fist of Fury (1972)

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Bruce Lee's second feature where he's in the lead. Learning from the first one there is some attempt at creating a mythos: we're taken to 1900s Shanghai, to the international settlement which is under strict Japanese influence, where someone has the great idea of killing Bruce's teacher. The inevitable ensues.

The version I saw was dubbed with terribly plummy English accents. Bruce just doesn't sound like that! Perhaps the idea was that this major flaw would hide all the other major (or even bigger?) flaws. The plot is overwrought and illogical. There's way too much exposition and too many scenes that progress nothing. Things sagged every time Bruce is off the screen, which was far too often. On the plus side he's a bit of a clothes horse: I liked the white suit he turns up in.

An excess of information at Wikipedia. Jackie Chan is supposedly in there somewhere. Dubbed into Noongar in 2021! Wow. Chairman Mao watched it three times!

The Big Boss (1971)

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Bruce Lee's first major movie in a lead role. All the details and more at Wikipedia. Briefly he leaves Hebei to go work at an ice factory in Thailand and soon enough the local Big Boss is disappearing his coworkers (some of them cousins?) after they discover opiates in the ice. (I read recently that the Afghan Taliban has figured out that there's more money in ice than opiates.) All the ladies make distracting eyes at him and he wakes up in a henhouse. But the ladies do help him out, which is more than he gets from most of his male cohort. His mum sent him along with an amulet to keep him from fighting but of course it doesn't last long. On the other hand not a lot happens for most of the movie.

The scenery is occasionally gorgeous and some of the cinematography is decent. The editing is clunky and there are distracting continuity issues. It's somewhat fun on its own terms but lacks the exotic mythos that the more recent Kung Fu movies go in for; there's nothing to think about here. The titles and credits, the negative space portraits owe something to Sergio Leone.

Knox Goes Away (2023)

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Boomer Memento. Michael Keaton directed, produced, starred. It's not Birdman but I'll grudgingly admit that it has a few moments. The plot has Keaton's aging assassin suspect his once-prime dual-PhD'd brain of degeneracy but he needs to do one last job before he can retire. (It is briefly and dutifully suggested he's actually cleaning the gene pool on Al Pacino's commissions but the morality is unnuanced and irrelevant.) Whatever those plans were are immediately derailed by family issues embodied in son James Marsden and grandsprog Morgan Bastin. Perhaps Keaton was trying to suggest a path to redemption for his demographic cohort.

I did not enjoy Suzy Nakamura's performance as a police detective or any of the police procedural stuff; it is entirely pro forma, very cliched, and she just ejaculates her lines, pretending to be clueful or clueless as the plot requires while the boys junior to her steal her thunder. Pacino has some fun in his minor and mostly inert role; there's a cute scene at the end where he slow dances with his entirely age-inappropriate squeeze Sasha Neboga in what might be a homage to Scent of a Woman. She's a ballet teacher. I wish they'd fleshed her character out — she's shown as solid and it is implied she has her reasons for doing what she does — but this is a sausagefest where all the men take solace in generic Eastern European women having rejected or been rejected by the local ones.

Jeannette Catsoulis's Critic's Pick sold it to me. Robert Daniels was far less impressed. Brian Tallerico at TIFF 2023: frustrating. "Keaton is such a stoic performer, a phenomenal actor whose low-key energy can sometimes be deployed to great impact by the right filmmakers. Interestingly, I don't think Keaton the Director knows how to direct Keaton the Actor."

Police Story (1985)

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The highest rated of Jackie Chan's own movies at IMDB. He co-wrote/starred/directed but IMDB trivia claims there was at least one stunt he didn't do himself! It seems clear that secondary-squeeze/moll Brigitte Lin did at least some of hers but I have to wonder about the commitment of main squeeze Maggie Cheung: she's ridiculously young and one-dimensional here. I'd say her acting fell short of the exemplary standard set by Doyle in Comrades: Almost a Love Story.

The plot doesn't really hold together too well: everyone seems to know where to find the bad boys, Brigitte seems to know nothing, know too much and is too willing to return to her much older sugar daddy (Yuen Chor) despite him trying to bump her off after Chan's efforts to protect her. The computer printouts could, you know, be printed out again ... but then Chan would've needed to find some other excuse for his batshit climactic stunts. The early set piece at the shanty town on a hill was also just too much.

There's a lot to enjoy here. The best bits were the small touches like when the police mass to go take down the rogue Chan over many seconds of screen time and begin to depart ... only to scream to a halt, as if someone turned their electricity off, when he turns up at headquarters. His clowning is first rate. The making-of footage during the closing credits is excellent.

Vincent Canby in 1987, patronisingly.

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)

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Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan and by far the highest rated of his efforts at IMDB. He was one of the talking heads in the Christopher Doyle biopic Like the Wind. Doyle appears as an English teacher who draws massive smiles from all his students, perhaps due to his use of inappropriate teaching materials or the eternal presence of a drink in his hand. Not much is asked of his or his Thai prostitute girlfriend Michelle Gabriel's acting skills. Jingle Ma did the cinematography and it's great in tight but I wanted to see more of the rooms more often.

Maggie Cheung is luminous in the lead. She's fetching even in her 1980s Maccas garb and two coats for a cold Lunar New Year's Eve. Notionally she and her fellow mainland-escapee Leon Lai are fated lovers but it takes the whole movie for things to work out. He's a bit too inert with a shy smile that sort-of works but he generally lacks her expressiveness. I guess this reflects the tentativeness of his character but it never stopped me from wondering why Maggie couldn't do better. Irene Tsu is great as Aunt Rosie: she has a fixation on William Holden who I only know as an older bloke in Network. Eric Tsang rounds out the leads as the avuncular, accommodating Triad (?) boss. He doesn't need to get out of first gear.

The plot is basically the romantic parts of Doctor Zhivago: both move to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s and eventually become friends in a commercial/transactional way at a then-novel Maccas. He lives with his aunt in a brothel and nobody seems to bat an eyelid about that. There are quite a few nice touches along the way and a few clangers too. The final movement is a love letter to mid-1990s NYC.

I watched it over many sittings as it's pretty shallow and quite enjoyable. I wish the subtitles had been clearer about which language the characters were speaking (Cantonese or Mandarin) as it would've added some depth. There's no violence (c.f. City on Fire).

Lawrence van Gelder for the New York Times. Unbanned on the mainland in 2015. Maggie deservedly cleaned up at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse.

The Monk and the Gun (2023)

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A gentle and mildly comedic critique of modernity from Bhutan. The country's claims to fame are that it is the happiest in Asia (or the world, or wherever, depending) and that it underwent a (unique?) bloodless transition to parliamentary democracy in 2008 at the instigation of the King. The rural people are mostly happy with the existing arrangements but the monk of the title knows that change is inevitable. The bureaucrats and their hirelings are just cogs in the machine.

The cinematography makes a lot of the landscapes in that way of tourist commercials. (Did it make me want to go to Bhutan? No, too hilly.) This style of storytelling put me in mind of Hal Hartley: a touch rueful and so out of step with these increasingly brutal times. Then again the whole thing is a bit of a backhander to the USA: you can keep your revolutions, violence and democracy but we're always open to more phallic stuff.

Manohla Dargis also picked up on the pokes at the West.

Drive Away Dolls (2024)

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Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with director/co-write Ethan Coen and wife/co-writer Tricia Cooke. It's a bust but I can't say I wasn't warned: they did mention it was a 1990s retro thing and the rating at IMDB is dire. Cooke made it clear she was revisiting her coming-of-dykedom on the east coast of the USA during the 90s; the scene where the younger version of the repressed half of the couple (Geraldine Viswanathan, Australian) pervs on her nude (female) neighbour is purportedly autobiographical. Margaret Qualley plays the mouthier side, notionally a free-and-easy Texan. (I don't remember her from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.) The story lifts some tropes from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, spelling out things that were more effective when left implicit in the original material. This fantasy insistence that what the auteur says goes for these ancient pop-culture provocations is tiresome, but I guess it's little different to the increasingly common expropriation of imagination by cinematic adaptations (cf the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Lord of the Rings, etc.). Or one woman's referentialism is another man's appropriation. There's a bland cameo by Matt Damon as a family-man senator, a slightly more interesting one from Miley Cyrus and too much of the politics of the day — Ralph Nader, Chelsea Clinton — that nobody cares about now.

The humour left me cold, as did the music. (Diana Krall? Please, Bob Dylan put a permanent kink in You Belong To Me for Natural Born Killers in those very same 1990s.) The politics of agency ain't great either: the girls try to make a go of their escapist road trip but the boys get on top and it is only chance, ego, intemperance — the essence of the male? — that allows them to take their ill-gotten funds and get hitched in Victoria-of-the USA Massachusetts. No spoiler: things are so strait there's never a chance of won't-they.

Another reason for watching this was that to find out if the Cohen brothers can function separately. It doesn't look good for Ethan: Joel went off and made Macbeth with wife Frances McDormand as I suggested someone do. It can't be any lamer than this.

Manohla Dargis: a leaden romp. Colman Domingo lights things up as a gangland boss. Other reviewers seem to have watched something else or succumbed to the marketing. As Dana Stevens said of about another movie, this ain't Thelma and Louise.

That Day, on the Beach (1983)

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Christopher Doyle's first feature-length cinematographic effort. Inevitable after watching the recent bio/doco/interview. He did earn his award albeit not for the innovation he spruiked: there are plenty of (standard, Western) progressions from wide/setup shots to closeups, and I doubt they were operating under any pressure from the Taiwanese authorities. Co-written and directed Edward Yang.

This is a lengthy (2 hours 46 minutes!) intricately-structured soap opera. The shallowness of the story — at times I could hope for the depths of the later The Remains of the Day and Once Upon a Time in America — is such a let down given this prolixity, masterful shifting of chronology and the evident commitment of all participants.

In brief it documents some of the breakdown of traditional family structures in Taiwanese society, specifically the passing of a medical clinic and profession from father to son and women being tasked with unifying dynasties, causing restive unhappiness in the younger generation. The son (Ming Hsiang-Tso) caves, suffers and inflicts suffering on his one-true-love girlfriend (Terry Hu) who flees to Germany to study piano. His sister (Sylvia Chang) flees to Taipei to take up with her sort-of boyfriend (David Mao). She ultimately finds some kind of liberation but the framing story of the two women meeting again 13 years after the pianist fled is strange: so much of the story is irrelevant to her, especially as she has a big concert that evening.

The wheels totally fell off for me when Chang asks Mao's mistress/office wife (a foxy on-the-make Yan Feng-chiao) if she loves him. At this point we're pretty sure Chang doesn't: an early scene has a wilful school friend (Lee Lieh) advising her that Mao is a sure thing that will never leave her, and he proves to be her ticket out of the family strictures. Soon enough they argue in that way married couples do and she wants him to spend more time with her but his diagnosis seems about right: she's under occupied and should've acquired more skills. (It's unclear how competent she is in her foreign language as the one boss she has is unimpressed with her work. The flower arranging is presented as nothing more than a housewife hobby.) And perhaps he does force her to take responsibility for her freedom after the mysterious happening on the beach.

I found it hard to be sympathetic to these characters with such vacuous lives. I didn't and don't know what would have made them function better; this pursuit of happiness farrago proved too amorphous despite all the layering. Speaking of which, all the ladies sport Princess Di's signature feathered hairdo except for Chang when she decides she might need to find a new man. Also they tend to start smoking when things aren't going well.

Cinema Omnivore: I too felt that Terry Hu was squandered. We hardly hear about her time abroad. And what was with the frosty Germanic personal assistant? Nick Kouhi. Pat Graham: familiar from countless Barbara Stanwyck sagas of the 50s (!). And so on.

Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man. (1934)

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Kindle. Private dick Nick Charles retires to San Francisco upon marrying sassy west-coast lumber heiress Nora but returns to NYC to dodge Christmas social obligations. There, of course, old entanglements suck him into a murder mystery and you've got to wonder if these people are any better than those the couple were avoiding. Hammett uses very effective first person narration and gets in some cracking lines. Nora is a fun interlocutor but I felt her character could've been rounded out some more. I'd say it's the best written of his novels but that might be sacrilegious as it's not in his signature hard-boiled style. It struck me as wildly inventive at times and then I remembered The Maltese Falcon.

Having completed his novels I took a look at his biographical details at Wikipedia. I'd just say I didn't see a lot of politics in these books.

Goodreads. I saw the contemporaneous film a decade ago but don't remember a thing. Roger Ebert gave it four stars as a "great movie". Apparently it has five successors.

Like the Wind (2021)

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I've been meaning to watch this since I read that it was featured in the Sydney Film Festival in 2021. It's mostly an interview with cinematographer Christopher Doyle intercut with some other talking heads and grabs of his work. The Doyle aspects powerfully reminded me of why I watch his movies: so much improbable ethereal beauty, too much of it no longer found in reality.

Director Ted McDonnell does a decent job of assembling a cross section of Doyle's work. The interview itself was a riveting but inexhaustive ramble and left me wanting more biographical details. Digging into the pointers provided to other encounters it seems that he cannot be steered; see, for instance, this chat with Nick Newman (2019-12-06) or another back in 2014 or yet another from 2014. (In contrast he seemed to be on-message with the BFI in 2019.) After getting busted for thieving too many books from a Glebe bookstore (he claims to prefer reading to watching movies) he departed Australia on a boat at age 19 and ended up in late 1970s Hong Kong in his late 20s. Four months of Chinese language study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong was all he could afford (it was for ambassadors he says) so he headed to Taipei. Soon enough he shot That Day, on the Beach and won a best-cinematography award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in 1983 and we're off to the races. They shot Chungking Express in his apartment! "Biggest mistake!" he says, but he still lives there.

For a variety of reasons I wonder who the equivalent is in Korean cinema and what Doyle thinks of that scene — and it's a bit strange this movie doesn't go there given how the locus of Asian cinema has shifted over the past two decades. There is no discussion of technique or technology. It's unclear there's any baton passing though he is working with young directors. Everyone wants to know why he split with Wong Kar-Wai.

Robert Moran at the Smage: COVID delayed Sydney's turn to bask in the twenty-year anniversary of In the Mood for Love. He's from the Shire! (Cronulla) Some dry humour about his cataract removal operation. 2020 was 2046. I can't tell if he's joking about an Oscar but there's no doubt he has a healthy self regard. Filmink (2021-10-28). His attitude towards film school is the same as Herzog's as is his advice: go forth and make films. A joint interview with director McDonnell. An interview with David Hay: the Norwegian Merchant Marine got him out of Sydney, to Amsterdam and a stint at the University of Maryland to study Chinese Art (!). Anne Rutherford: did Doyle's optimism about Hong Kong's cultural scene survive COVID?

Twitter says Doyle married director Hei Wen in Australia three weeks ago. And it turns out there's no shortage of interviews with him on YouTube: In the Mood for Doyle (2007) suggests he's a Leonard Cohen fan (specifically Anthem) and still has the same apartment. There's a visit to Chungking Mansions! And so on.

A Bronx Tale (1993)

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Sonny: Alright, listen to me. You pull up right where she lives, right? Before you get outta the car, you lock both doors. Then, get outta the car, you walk over to her. You bring her over to the car. Dig out the key, put it in the lock and open the door for her. Then you let her get in. Then you close the door. Then you walk around the back of the car and look through the rear window. If she doesn't reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in: dump her.
Calogero 'C' Anello: Just like that?
Sonny: Listen to me, kid. If she doesn't reach over and lift up that button so that you can get in, that means she's a selfish broad and all you're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. You dump her and you dump her fast.
— If only I'd known about the door test before now.

Robert De Niro's first directing effort; he had another go with The Good Shepherd a decade later but that's been it so far. I think he was fine as the actual bus-driving father of a kid growing up Italian in the Bronx but really the star and lead is Chazz Palminteri (soon enough huge in The Usual Suspects) who adapted the thing from his one-man play (!) — which would've been something to see.

Growing up in the hood... remind me where I've seen that before. The east coast may have a totally different vibe (here there's baseball but no basketball which might just be saying that Italians aren't big on the latter) but is just as lethal (not just on the colour line but also from the organised crime). There are many good bits but it's also a very familiar coming-of-age story; perhaps the twinned fathers complement each other just a bit too perfectly, each giving solid life lessons that leach the danger from the scenario. (Contrast it with the boy's excursion into the black neighbourhood where things get a bit Spike Lee.) The late cameo by Joe Pesci is somehow gold. I was disappointed to see that the younger cast, handled so well by De Niro, did not go on to bigger things. There wasn't much for the women to do.

Now that I think about it, the door test doesn't seem too well conceived as he was driving a convertible. And how about for a motorcycle?

Roger Ebert: four stars. It would've been great if they'd fleshed out Palminteri's neighbourhood mafioso some more. There's a scene of charred bodies that put me in mind of Once Upon a Time in America. Janet Maslin. The a cappella Doo Wop singers on the street. Mean Streets.

Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key. (1931)

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Kindle. Again Hammett adopts and is more successful with third-person narration. This time around the main character, always addressed by his creator using his full moniker "Ned Beaumont", is a political svengali / consigliere who outsources the private dickery. His boss Paul Madvig runs a city somewhere not too far from NYC. There's some extreme violence in and around the speakeasies of the day. The central thread — the killing of a Senator's son — seems tepid in comparison to the other events and its resolution is icy cold. He gets off the odd cracker of a line but I wish he'd found room for an interlocutor as he did in The Dain Curse; we get a bit too much mouthing off by drongos.

Goodreads. Wikipedia tells me the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing drew on it.

Nowhere to Hide (1999)

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What is it with Koreans and their trains! There's Snowpiercer and Train to Busan of course, but before those there was this exercise in all-style-no-substance from Lee Myung-se. I have no problem with that in principle — I'd be happy to get with the program — but here the most stylish bit is the intro.

Notionally a police-procedural noir, it's really a series of set pieces lifted from other movies and wildly reworked. There's a huge debt owed to Sergio Leone (soundtrack, negative space, outdoor spaces, intertitles, ...) and the hard workers in Hong Kong (such as John Woo who the lead is named for). The spirit of Tarantino haunts some of it though he'd never go with such a weak script. I watched it in about four sittings so I can't remember what the motivation was for the epic police search for some criminal mastermind. Lead Joong-Hoon Park ultimately takes an epic beating from him (Ahn Sung-ki) in the rain, in a train yard, in a scene that may've been lifted shot-for-shot in a Matrix sequel. I found the Trainspotting-esque legging-it scenes to be the most amusing.

Prompted by Mike Hale in the New York Times in 2019. Peter Bradshaw in 2001: a bit John Woo, some Ridley Scott. Elvis Mitchell. Stephanie Zacharek: Wong Kar-Wai. The second half is more conventional than the first. City on Fire.

Kuolleet lehdet (Fallen Leaves) (2023)

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Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with lead actress Alma Pöysti and thumbs-up review. Jury Prize winner at Cannes 2023. Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki is widely feted but I don't know why.

This is about being single and unskilled in middle age and getting an unexpected shot at joining the (axiomatically) happily coupled up. Pöysti and candidate bloke Jussi Vatanen are not exactly in the precariat — the scenario is more old school in there always being industrial work and social support in a Nordic monoculture. There are no families, no Ken Loach social activism or commentary, no politics apart from the war on the Ukraine on the radio; this pair are just lonely in the timeworn way. As Leonard Cohen used to say, there ain't no cure for the lovelorn except perhaps by going to these sorts of movies.

The style is arch like Hal Hartley; I suggest his closest is The Unbelievable Truth with Adrienne Shelly and Robert John Burke. The humour is amusing but very very dry and the whole show continually teeters on the brink of cliche. Their first date is Jarmusch's Bill Murray / Adam Driver zombie flick, at the Ritz of course. The posters out front must be Kaurismäki's faves: Fat City (!), some Brigid Bardot classic. The punchline is that she dug it.

There are many scenes of the bloke and his mate bantering. There are fewer scenes of the women talking, but when they do they express the stale "all men are rotten" tropes. (The men are not as unsubtle; they do not slag the women off as a class. Or is it that the Finnish ladies share no common flaw? I ascribe this unevenness to Kaurismäki and felt it marred the scenario beyond repair.) She wants him to be different in some way (from the other men in Helsinki?) but it's unclear that he is or can be. Apparently smoking is still OK but drinking is not. She cuts her losses by rescuing a dog.

Di Rosso observed that this gets a bit David Lynch by embedding musical performance in the film. I'm pretty sure Jarmusch did this too somewhere. It reminded me a bit of Lukas Moodysson (Bara prata lite? — nothing brutal) or von Trier (nobody gets anything but don't give up just yet!). There's a dash of Amelie: the romantic lost, the relentless search, serendipity. It's OK but slight, mostly gentle, pointless. The cinematography functions but doesn't wow; Helsinki does not receive her close up.

Glenn Kenny: four stars. Manohla Dargis made it a Critic's Pick. Lives of quiet desperation. Brief Encounter. Peter Bradshaw: four stars of five. An Affair to Remember. Absurd and cartoony.

Dashiell Hammett: The Dain Curse. (1929)

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Kindle. The second and last of the "Continental Op" series, inevitable after Red Harvest.

Our private-dick first-person narrator stays local to San Francisco for the first two thirds and then relocates to Quesada which Google Maps suggests is a long way south. It's a bit more Holmes and Watson with an interlocutor who presents as smarter than our main man. He gets off some snappy lines. There's also the Doyle-ish (and unconvincing) theme of a family or blood curse that centres on a young lady of odd appearance; I didn't know what to make of her pointed lobeless ears, small teeth and pastiness. Was this some image of a demon? One might expect that to make her less effective as a femme fatale but Hammett has it otherwise.

There's a bit of everything here: the lethal cults of California, the drugs, the guns, the vapid lifestyles, the Mexicans — it feels so modern! There's even a Trainspotting-esque relinquishing junk (morphine) sequence. Hammett must've felt the plot got away from him as he spends a final chapter explaining it all back to us. Be that as it may he didn't obfuscate the perp too well as I picked them out by about the halfway point without much effort.


Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest. (1929)

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Kindle. I found it a bit strange. Having been hired out of San Francisco to investigate a murder, our unnamed first-person narrator decides for reasons unknown to clean up Personville (or in a Looney Tunes accent, Poisonville) which is apparently not too far from Ogden and Salt Lake City in Utah. It has all the tropes: the busted police department, the mob, the godfather, the gamblers, boxers, a solitary femme fatale, many shootups/outs, love triangles and so on. There are a few elements of Basic Instinct. Despite terminal issues with their operation the mob doesn't send help. As far as I remember Hammett doesn't develop a few of his named, notionally central characters: Lew Yard for instance.

The narrator always seems to know more than he's told us and that gets annoying. The episodic resolutions reflect its serialized form and suggest that Hammett made it up as he went along; the ultimate ending is nothing very special. I think his use of the third person and tighter control of the overall narrative arc in The Maltese Falcon was more successful.

Goodreads. The source of many a movie.

Creation Stories (2021)

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It's like they got some of the old Trainspotting team together (again) for another go-round of the good old early days of eckies and house music. In some ways it's an obvious complement to 24 Hour Party People — gestured at here via a slagging off of Joy Division who weren't signed with Creation Records.

Ewen Bremner plays Alan McGee and does what he can with what a script that is bereft of fun. You can see Irvine Welsh's and Danny Boyle's fingerprints on some of the stock scenes, especially the toilet fixation and sombre family moments. Thomas Thurgoose gives the numpty performance that you'd expect from his mien, which is a massive step down from what Shane Meadows got out of him. Suki Waterhouse's performance as an American journalist goes against the grain of the whole project. So many scenes just don't work. And who said failure was an orphan? — the list of producers and people in producer-adjacent roles in the opening credits is endless. But most devastating to the whole thing: I'm guessing you could count the number of people who want to revisit Britpop, Oasis, New Labour, Tony Blair (etc) on one hand.

Glenn Kenny: reverb set to high. Simran Hans: two stars of five.

Un Flic (A Cop) (1972)

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More Melville completism. This one is notionally about Alain Delon's Parisian policeman but of course more screen time is spent on the heists. The demimonde is cursorily drawn and essentially embodied by Catherine Deneuve. She appears to share herself with Delon and arch crim Richard Crenna but the whole thing is entirely sexless despite the acres of flesh on show at her nightclub. In colour.

Both heists are more pedestrian than those Melville has showed us before (e.g., Le Cercle Rouge). Initially we're on the Atlantic Coast at some deserted condo with just one thing open: a bank. (It put me in mind of Louis Malle's Atlantic City, perhaps also because Deneuve has some of the aspect of Susan Sarandon.) Notionally they're after the mountain of payroll cash but how can that be when there's nobody around? The special effects for the second heist (on a train entered via a helicopter) were not very convincing. Crenna spends most of his time in that sequence getting dressed... who would bother now? Nothing is made of the mountain of white powder he recovers; perhaps it stands for the changing of the times.

Delon did OK as the dissolute cop. There's a beaut interlude where he serenades Deneuve on the piano at her club, where the movie gestures at what could've been. The ending is a bust, much like Le deuxième souffle: everyone was too smart to be that dumb.

Le deuxième souffle (Second Wind) (1966)

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And yet more Melville completism. This one was highly rated at IMDB, but then again most of his films are. In black and white. "Souffle" is apparently also a word in English for something breath related and not about the dessert.

This one is lengthy and not as sharp as the others of his I've seen. It's a heist flick (surprise) where the main character (played by Lino Ventura) is a prison escapee (surprise). Notionally it's about police brutality (Parisian Commissaire Paul Meurisse is a bit above it all but Marseilles Inspector Paul Frankeur knows the value of a good phone book) and a man wanting to restore his honour whatever the cost. "Manouche" Christine Fabréga runs a night club (surprise) and seems more enamoured of her brother than any other man. But the character portraits are not so strong here and I couldn't bring myself to care.

Strangely the crims now drive a large Mercedes and not a yank tank.

Mo' Better Blues (1990)

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More Spike Lee completism, prompted by Wesley Snipes. He's solid in a minor role and takes it to Denzel Washington every chance he gets. The rest of the cast is also very good excepting perhaps Lee himself as always. In an early scene he's acted off the screen by a passive Washington but the whole thing is redeemed by Lee's inability to hide his smirk or grin: he's so stoked to have pulled these stars. And soon enough he gets to indulge his love of a good pile-on (which he soon expanded to feature length in Jungle Fever).

The story centres on Washington's jazz/blues trumpeter making a living at a Jewish-operated nightclub run by John and Nicholas John Turturro. Snipes plays the saxophones, Giancarlo Esposito is on the piano. The musical interludes cut things up like School Daze. When not at the club he somehow manages to satisfy two ladies for a while until they get sick of being in the way of his trumpeting. Cynda Williams wants her singing career and she wants it now and isn't too bothered if Snipes proves the better vector. After some violence provoked by Lee's gambling compulsions Lee regular Joie Lee resists the damaged Washington's hard word but in a 25th Hour-ish outro it all comes full circle. That ending is lame, too much like a cast party.

I struggled to understand the point of it beyond what's on the tin: this is black music but the crowd is white. Fair enough but in 1990 I suspect the crowds were at R'n'B and hip hop gigs someplace else. There's also the time-honoured observation that the souffle doesn't rise twice, and it seems, contra Leonard Cohen, that you can get a girl back by begging ... though perhaps not on your knees?

Roger Ebert: three stars. Uninspired. Vincent Canby in meta-review mode: a response to Clint Eastwood's Bird. Not in the same league as Do the Right Thing. Washington is a professional, a working man, just like the boys in White Men Can't Jump. Lee felt the need to defend his Jewish characters. And so on.

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon. (1930)

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Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: "Well, Wilmer, I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but — well, by Gad! — if you lose a son it's possible to get another — and there’s only one Maltese falcon."

Kindle. Prompted by the Bogart adaptation and the lack of promise in anything newer on the stack. First time around with Hammett. It's mostly a novel-length character study of Sam Spade which is more show than tell; I guess these were the days before things got so psychological. He doesn't do much more than show up, cogitate (we don't get to hear his thoughts) and provoke other people to tell him more than they want to — in other words it's essentially a script for a talkie. There's a lot of detail in the descriptions and apart from the incessant smoking all of it points away from casting Bogart. Set in San Francisco.

Immediately afterwards I read Hammett's Spade shorts A Man Called Spade, Too Many Have Lived and They Can Only Hang You Once. None are as good as the novel but all passed the time. Hammett is addictive but perhaps not that satisfying.


Punch Drunk Love (2002)

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Third time around with this P.T. Anderson misfire. I've softened on Adam Sandler after Uncut Gems but even so there's not enough going on here. Things are perhaps oversimplified by Emily Watson's lack of a character: she's keen on him and that's that. More Philip Seymour Hoffman might've helped, or Luis Guzmán. Still too many pratfalls?

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars, probably because this was Sandler's most modulated performance to then. IMDB trivia: Anderson got the best director award at Cannes 2002 but missed out on the Palme d'Or. A. O. Scott: a Critic's Pick. Peter Bradshaw gave it just three stars of five: a strange, insubstantial little film with so many problems. A love story made from neon candyfloss.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

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The first of Melville's features and of course inevitable after Le Doulos. It's another black-and-white noir set amongst the contemporary gambling dens of Montmartre. The heist this time involves the Casino Barrière in Deauville which Google suggests is about 200km away.

Roger Duschesne has the classic dial, presence and gambling compulsion to lead. He drives a massive yank tank convertible (a Packard I read) and keeps the police at a comfortable distance while notionally schooling his protege Daniel Cauchy with help from friends and enemies in the demimonde. One of Bob's opsec axioms is that women are never to be trusted (excepting Simone Paris's barmaid) but street walking Isabelle Corey's foxy nonchalance puts the lie to that. The bulk of it is agreeable and somewhat workmanlike until things unwind in a satisfying final movement.

Roger Ebert: four stars as a "great movie" in 2003. The scene where the high-tech safe cracking is intercut with a panting German Shepherd was endearingly weird. Vincent Canby made it a Critic's Pick in 1981.

David and Lisa (1962)

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Yet another pointer from Matthew Spektor. Directed by Frank Perry and adapted by his wife Eleanor from raw material provided by Theodore Isaac Rubin. Both got Oscar noms for their efforts. Black and white. On the pile for quite a while.

Keir Dullea plays a teenager who thinks that being touched by another human causes death. He's otherwise quite rational so I wondered why he couldn't cure himself by observing that he always survives contact at least as far as we're shown. His parents park him in a home for psychological movie making not too dissimilar from the one where Hitchcock squandered Ingrid Bergman. There he has the incredible fortune to meet Janet Margolin who conspires with him, chastely, in mutual cures.

I enjoyed the bit players the most despite all the inmates being far too old for their roles. Blonde Coni Hudak rolls her eyes at pants man Jaime Sánchez (a prototype for the Fondz or John Travolta who went on to big things) while hoping for more from Dullea. As for Dullea this is essentially a dry run for his canonical performance in 2001; you can see why Stanley Kubrick picked him as he turns on a dime from detached earnest inertness to fiery contemptuous aggression and back again. He looks a bit like the classic photo of Alan Turing too, which doesn't hurt. Margolin works hard to show us the girl lost in her head. The sculpture scene at a museum is a bit heartbreaking.

Bosley Crowther: "crudely but courageously played".

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms. (1929)

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Kindle. Not as good as For Whom the Bell Tolls. As the tin says Hemingway takes us autofictionally to the Italy v. Austria front of World War I. The first-person narrator is an Italian-American ambulance driver/organiser who doesn't get much driving in. He's keen on the ladies and gets an English rose interested; initially he puts up a fight emotionally (let's just get physical) but the nurse's self-deluding/abnegating chatter and submissive willingness wears him down. (She regrets not having got it on with the now-dead love-of-her-life.) After Hemingway exhausts us with lengthy and recurring bouts of the idleness and boredom of war, they end up in Switzerland, eventually Montreux. This isn't something I'd usually wish on anyone but the parts adjacent to Italy and France do sound civilised. It's readily affordable if you have a family that keeps sending you money to feed your alcoholism and obliviousness. There's a touch of Samuel Beckett in his self talk.

Goodreads. Yep, the girlfriend was a doormat, which made me expect more parallels to be drawn with Twilight. Not a love story. The connection the narrator has with Doctor Rinaldi is well drawn.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

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And yet more Wesley Snipes completism. I've previously ignored him as I had no interest in his later-1990s action-Jackson work that I had heard about. Apparently this put him and Woody Harrelson on the A-list. Tyra Ferrell is solid as Snipes's wife, as is Rosie Perez as Harrelson's too-smart squeeze. It's mostly an amusing take on the pickup basketball scene at and near Venice Beach in L.A. — played mostly for money, sometimes for hustles, entirely for the amusing trash talk. The beach itself does not feature. The plot is little more than fortune-made, fortune-/girl-lost and is not that successful at finding relevance for its strong women.

Ron Shelton wrote and directed in a similar way to how John Singleton handled Boyz N The Hood. I guess the equivalent of Ice Cube there are the NBA stars here. Drugs and guns are present but downplayed, just there in the background.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. Men at work. Janet Maslin: a benign atmosphere. The folk wisdom is hokum. IMDB trivia: must've been a fun shoot.

Jungle Fever (1991)

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A bit of Spike Lee completism which I'd avoided previously due to the low IMDB rating. A Wesley Snipes jag from Witness. He's got a lot more to work with here and is a lot better for it. Tyra Ferrell from Boyz n the Hood flirts with an otherwise unlucky-in-love John Turturro who is the subject of many pile-ons. She had a big 1991. Also same-old Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Robbins, Brad Dourif, Frank Vincent, Michael Imperioli, a very young and histrionic/druggy Halle Berry, an antique Anthony Quinn (who I'll watch do anything). The theme song is by Stevie Wonder. Spike Lee's squeeze Veronica Webb has a Shar Pei!

The excess of ingredients cannot make up for the lack of ideas. The central conceit is in the title: for unspecified reasons happily-married-with-young-daughter architect Snipes decides to bonk temp Annabella Sciorra on his drafting table late one night. The remainder deals with the fallout with a variety of hot takes and underbaked explorations of the support networks and sexual politics. What would I know but I got the impression it was more Southern (Ossie Davis as the preacher-father, the stories of Italians getting lynched for dealing with Blacks in Louisiana, ...) than 1980s NYC.

So yeah, not a patch on Lee's sharper work on similar topics from the same period (e.g. Do the Right Thing).

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. The central romance doesn't work but the surrounding stuff does. The Taj Mahal ("It's like the Trump Towers for crackheads around here") sequence is pretty good. Samuel G. Freedman at the New York Times.

Dwight Garner: The Upstairs Delicatessen. (2023)

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Kindle. Notionally an autobiography / bibliography by New York Times books man Garner with a side of food. I remain thankful for his pointers to Paul Beatty, Atticus Lish and especially Francis Spufford but since 2015 he's given me mostly bum steers, and so it goes here: after an amusing introduction things rapidly bog down in gobbets engineered for short attention spans.

Perhaps the central flaw for me is that a lot of it falls into the uncanny valley of having been almost read before: much of the material (quotes and opinions) appeared in his New York Times reviews. He tends to return to the same authors a bit too often, specifically on the topic of Asian cooking where he leans heavily on Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer, The Committed — where's that final entry in the trilogy?). I guess Garner's project here is very similar to Andrew X. Pham's A Culinary Odyssey: My Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors, and Memories of Southeast Asia which (at least) has healthier aspects. As far as I remember African cooking isn't mentioned. Australia is represented by Les Murray.

He is similarly limited in his account of coffee: too many words are spilt on Starbucks. I saw no mention of the best of the South: the soups (I have fond memories of jambalaya and gumbo). I wanted to hear more about growing up in West Virginia and Florida. There's no posturing with typewriters or fountain pens — it appears his book duties are hard sedentary labour. He remains an unabashed fan of Chistopher Hitchens. There's a bit too much social and dinner party chaff, characterization-by-product.

Jennifer Reese had the thankless task of reviewing it for the New York Times. Goodreads.

Ferrari (2023)

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Michael Mann's latest and a fair way from his best. I felt the topic — a bunch of events in a tumultuous year of motor racing/manufacturer Enzo Ferrari's life — falls into the uncanny valley for me: either you're a fan and know all about it or you're not in which case nothing seems all that significant. It doesn't function as a biopic.

Adam Driver leads in his second effort at playing a famous Italian (his first being in House of Gucci, unseen by me). It was very weird to pair him with decade-older Penélope Cruz whose vastly more capacious emotional range unbalanced more than one climactic scene. Mistress Shailene Woodley's accent wobbled all over the globe. It is hinted that the drivers have personalities. Most of the movie is mere filler in between Cruz's scenes, especially the well shot but strangely airless car race. The ending is abrupt.

I had to wonder why Mann didn't try to find more Italians for the main roles; I guess he needed American stars to secure funding.

Widely reviewed of course. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Mann last year and, while being very chuffed to do so, concluded Mann didn't land this one. A Critic's Pick by Manohla Dargis. She dug the racing scenes. Sandra Hall: "[Driver's is a] performance which effectively answers all those who have criticised Mann for not casting an Italian actor." I don't agree! "And in the end, Ferrari himself is not as fascinating as Mann thinks he is." Luke Goodsell. Wendy Ide: Driver is "curiously muted and bloodless." Dead right. And so on.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

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Apparently I saw this about twenty years ago. Prompted by the realisation that Larry Fishburne was in it (and didn't he get fat soon enough!). His role is Cuba Gooding Jr's dad and their thread is pure father/son how-to-be-a-man, putting me in mind of Moonlight though things are more violent here but not graphically so. All the neighbourhood mothers find the pair irresistible. Angela Bassett does fine in very little screen time as his mum. There's something powerfully inert in Ice Cube: he wasn't going anywhere and nobody is touching his brother. The cast is generally well used and excellent.

The story is getting out of the South Central L.A. ghetto (adjacent to or coincident with Compton) with a side of getting into your girl's pants (Nia Long's in this case, who puts up a Catholic fight as she was taught to do). Things move fluidly from event to event with some great details: a postman arrives with the mail after a mother breaks up her brawling boys, played be writer/director John Singleton. He constantly injects these jarring normalities into the gangland. And also things that just jar, like helicopter search lights.

I enjoyed it immensely up to the last 30 minutes or so when the logic of character and male friendship gave way to the needs of plot.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Janet Maslin: a critic's pick (!). It inevitably invited comparisons with Spike Lee's east-coast Do The Right Thing.

The 39 Steps (1935)

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Prompted by a mediocre article on "ethical espionage" by Tamsin Shaw, which was about state-based intelligence agencies and did not mention the role of whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Julian Assange, or journalists in general. Also some idle Hitchcock completism.

In black-and-white, of course, and as well made as you'd expect from the master. Given the date I figured it for one of his first but actually it's about a third the way through his feature film career. (IMDB trivia says twenty-second of 69.) Unfortunately the story was weak: a MacGuffin (spoiler: it is immaterial what the MacGuffin is) took lead Robert Donat from a raucous entertainment hall in London to the Highlands of Scotland on the Flying Scotsman ... or was it the Highland Express? ... and back again in a motorcar. Notionally Canadian, he snogged every woman he encountered though his costar Madeleine Carroll needed to be handcuffed to him for most of their encounter. She got into it towards the end, despite being married (?). Hotelier Helen Haye was chuffed to indulge a young couple so much in love.

Much of it could've been sponsored by the tourism board of Scotland except for the handling of some Scottish tropes. Crofter John Laurie humorlessly and faithlessly demanded money in return for protecting Donat from the police; I had expected some finesse or reliability there. His unhappy wife Peggy Ashcroft pined for the streets of Glasgow. I did not understand the origins of Godfrey Tearle's Professor or why he ended up in such a remote locale, trusted by the cream of the local society — so much for the canniness of the Scots.

Based on a book by John Buchan. Widely loved at the Guardian. Thomas Dawson: five stars, "arguably director Alfred Hitchcock's finest British film." There have been a few stage productions of it this century.

Last Stop Larrimah (2023)

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I picked this one by mistake, thinking it was by the ABC journos who made "Larrimah" synonymous with "missing man Paddy Moriarty" via news stories, books, podcasts, miniseries, whatever. Nope, this was American director Thomas Tancred looking for the next Crocodile Dundee or Gates of Heaven. I'll bet he hasn't even watched the cane toad docos.

I haven't been following the story closely but I don't think there's anything substantially new here. Perhaps the archival footage dredged from the vaults of the ABC? Tancred presents the town essentially as a freak show and then tries to add poignancy as individuals succumb to cancer and old age. Ultimately it's just sad — there's no redemption, just a good old hate from each of the players and a dash of bewilderment from the newcomer mechanics. And the people are not that interesting. I have to wonder what the Czech couple now running the pub were fleeing.

Steve Vivian at the ABC, always happy to help with the flogging of a dead horse. Nicolas Rapold: poorly structured, gamed the presentation of crucial evidence. The town is dead guys, the story done, just let it be.

The Limits of Control (2009)

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This one has been on the pile since it got released, partly because the reviews were dire. I watched it in two sittings but not for any particular reason.

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch brings us to Spain. Mysterious lead Isaach De Bankolé (dial strikingly familiar but I'm not sure from what) then takes us from Madrid to Seville and on to Almería, stopping off for coffee (two espressos in separate cups) and cigarettes (other people smoke) vignettes initiated with an instantly irritating "habla español" refrain and featuring an exchange of old school matchboxes, some containing diamonds. We don't actually see him ever finish the two espressos, and as he's mute for almost the entire running time it's unclear what we're supposed to learn from these scenes. Given that his interlocutors are named actors (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Bill Murray) things fall into an uncanny valley of too much talk, not enough character, no overarching narrative and no action. Bankolé echoes Forest Whitaker in Jarmusch's earlier and far more successful Ghost Dog by having a creed, albeit one so minimally sketched it may as well not exist. This is all very annoying as there is plenty to make something out of excepting the fundamental conceit.

Otherwise there are some good shots of airports, trains, plantations, mountains — as you'd hope for from cinematographer Christopher Doyle. There's the odd burst of sonic excellence to go with his moving images. Overall I did enjoy it, albeit idly as Jarmusch completism.

Roger Ebert: half a star. Even Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name had more to say. Dana Stevens. Pretentious! Manohla Dargis. Everyone was so bored.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. (1899)

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Kindle. Standard Ebook edition. Perhas the third time around with this classic. The ambiguities, inspecifities and vagueness bothered me less though I still got stuck on such basics as whether Marlow was specifically commissioned to remove Kurtz — we're not exactly told but that's all he does. I was a bit more prepared to accept Conrad's game of personifying extractive European colonisation in the Congo and therefore was less put out by all the claims made about Kurtz that are not substantiated, such as his oratory powers.

There's also the question of locations and routes. Obviously we start on the Thames and Marlow proceeded down the west coast of Africa, past the erstwhile French colonies, and up the Congo River to the Belgian outposts that were accumulating ivory. I expect the sepulchral city was and is Brussels. I was at a loss as to where his boat left from, it being French: Brussels, or perhaps Marseilles? It struck me that the company he worked for was overly dependent on other organisations and people for getting dirty work done.

The Orson Welles broadcast from 1938 is available at the Internet Archive. I'd forgotten that Patchett's State of Wonder is a reimagining.

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar. (1968)

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Kindle. Second time around. I couldn't help noticing how much William Gibson cloned for the last two-thirds of the Neuromancer trilogy. Apparently this belongs to the genre of social science fiction.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)

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Directed by Les Blank, who appears to be Werner Herzog's documentarian of choice. The story is that Herzog promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever made Gates of Heaven. Well Morris did, and at this strangely Morris-free event somehow connected to its premiere (in L.A. at least), Herzog did eat the upper part of one of his own shoes. This film is 20 entirely inessential minutes about that.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

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Second time around. Michael Cimino's writer/director feature film debut. The cast is strong: Clint Eastwood leads as a genile and self-effacing Korean vet who likes to use heavy ordnance to break bank vaults. He has a rapidly-established bromance with a very young Jeff Bridges who got an Oscar nom. Burton Gilliam had a big 1974. George Kennedy has some fun as the foil but his character is a bit too stupid. A replay of their earlier bank heist in Montana comes to mind after the school house where the loot was stashed goes missing. Strangely Eastwood is allowed to keep his winnings. It's more of a road movie.

Not reviewed by Roger Ebert as far as I can tell. Wikipedia: Bridges upstaged Eastwood? Maybe.

Le Doulos (1962)

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More Jean-Pierre Melville. Black-and-white. This one has a similar structure to Le Cercle Rouge: a professional thief (Serge Reggiani) is released from prison with a few scores to settle and a job to do. The focus is actually on his mate (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who is tasked almost single-handedly with furthering the plot. A few ladies are involved around the edges and are ill-used. I enjoyed police inspector Jean Desailly's acting the most, all hand gestures and switchbacks. The twist is not very convincing but the Checkhovian device in the climax does work, allowing that everyone has to get theirs. The cinematography is often engrossing.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars in 2008. Everything so American: those massive yank tanks on the streets of Paris. Bosley Crowther in 1964: talky and tiresome. Did he walk out before the twist?

Prison on Fire (1987)

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More Ringo Lam. Inevitable after City on Fire. (I find out now that heaps of ... on Fire flicks were made.) Again Chow Yun-Fat leads. There's some tedious horsing around initially before he settles into yet another bromance, this time with Tony Ka Fai Leung who plays a character pretty much the exact opposite of Big D in Election: mousy but brittle, head down until he just can't take it any more. Roy Cheung is once again an authoritarian heel. I think Chow chews his ear off at the climax in his most animalistic performance I've yet seen. The big set piece early on, a riot in the exercise yard, promises more than the rest delivers.

Reviews at City on Fire: Cool Hand Luke?

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

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More Jean-Pierre Melville was inevitable after (re)watching Le Samouraï. This one is a heist flick with a side of mystery — just why do they need a sharpshooter to rob a jewellery store? — but the meat is in the engrossing portrayal of the characters of a variety of French men. Inspector Andre Bourvil has three beautiful cats for children, and while he makes an error early on there's little doubt that he will get his man. Alain Delon leads as a recently-released felon who organises the theft with crim-on-the-lam Gian Maria Volontè and dipso-sniper Yves Montand. Melville takes his time to show what he wants to; for instance we learn a fair bit about fence Paul Crauchet even in the bare minute or so he has onscreen. It's long but it doesn't drag. The ending is a bit of a let down. Brad Pitt for the remake.

Vincent Canby saw a severely cut version, dubbed into English (!) in 1993. Women have no place in these men's lives, not even the cigarette girl with the roses. Its release in the USA in 2003 provoked a slew of reviews. Roger Ebert: four stars. Melville's output got strip mined by Hollywood. He points to Manohla Dargis at the L.A. Times (!) opining about the reclamation of French honour. A. O. Scott. Peter Bradshaw: five stars (!).

City on Fire (1987)

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Another Hong Kong classic. This one was co-written/directed by Ringo Lam. IMDB trivia alleges it "inspired" Reservoir Dogs; more bluntly there are a few scenes that Tarantino lifted directly, and the bromance (again between leads Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee). And other things I'm sure, though this one is at the lower end of the ultraviolence scale — it's more of an old-school noir.

Chow is notionally an undercover policeman though it's never clear what his target initially is or his scope of operations; we don't get to see him whoring or gambling, just drinking solo, forlornly, due to his inability to satisfy his girlfriend Carrie Ng (I'd say successful in her role) outside of the bathroom. Their scenes together brought a non-violent levity that made me wonder what the Hong Kong movie machine made for families and women, especially given all the humour in the margins. His boss Yueh Sun is waning in influence, won't let him resign and can't keep him safe but Chow persists anyway.

On the other side is the usual gang of thugs of varying personalities and propensity for violence. Their initial jewellery heist is almost bloodless (of course it goes pear shaped) but the second is a transparent fiasco even before they leave the mattresses.

It's a bit of a time capsule as far as the streets of the city go. There is some great cinematography and the odd inspired set piece. There's a bit too much character development towards the end, when all we're looking for is a satisfactory tying-up of loose ends.

Reviews at City on Fire from 2011: shot like a doco, like the French New Wave, like ... Le Samouraï?

Francis Spufford: Cahokia Jazz. (2023)

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Kindle. Two years on from Light Perpetual: he's speeding up!

Spufford tries his hand at holistic world building, taking us to a 1920s America which is essentially the same noir as everyone else's (prohibition, racial divisions, the Klan, ... jazz ...) but bent in one specific way: Cahokia is a large Native American city on the Mississippi. (He explains the counterfactual fracture in an afterword which really should have been an introduction or, more Spufford-ly, stuffed into a character's mouth in the main text.) This and actual Utah are not-quite republican states: here there's a hereditary monarchy of the Sun and the Moon, of Aztec undercurrents fused with Catholicism by the actions of farsighted men and women. This functions just fine as mythmaking if only because it is so far beyond what is possible in the actual here and now.

The plot (murder, what else) moves slowly and sometimes unsatisfyingly, often finding excuses to explore his construction; the tone is didactic (Spufford can't help himself): this is how you do a recap! — but we needed a few more recaps. That's how you introduce an invented language! — just like Tolkien. Drop your clues like this! What, you think that coincidence was too much? That's just how it goes for this character, it's fate. Did I just lift a bit too much from The Godfather? Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain!

Spufford's bursts of Christianity feel less forced here (c.f. Unapologetic) but stinking things up are the transactional relationships (which is most of them; the ladies all want leading man Burrows but never on his terms), the cold calculational utilitarian vibe, the forced symmetries. Sometimes he can't keep his characters in character: their speech patterns become too playful.

It's lengthy and cinematic which invites the question of when he's going to get a film deal. (I'm now trying not to think of it as Spufford's Wakanda.) I felt it was well-researched — his hinge of history was as plausible to me as any story he told in Red Plenty — but could've stood more analysis. Clearly much of it is inspired by the topical breakages in present-day society though it is not reassuring that he has the idiocy of the Klan save the city at a critical juncture. As always I'll take what I can get.

Widely reviewed. Most are summaries. Much thoughtful criticism at Goodreads. Could've used an edit. It bears the scars of a sprawling pandemic project.