peteg's blog

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 but confusingly they do 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.