peteg's blog

Mr. Klein (1976)

/noise/movies | Link

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.

Lone Wolf (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

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.

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

/noise/books | Link

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.

Late Night With the Devil (2023)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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. It is slightly 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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/books | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

#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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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)

/noise/movies | Link

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.