peteg's blog

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.