peteg's blog

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.