peteg's blog - noise

Ann Patchett: State of Wonder

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Kindle. Third time around with Ann Patchett; I remember enjoying Commonwealth for its sprawling family saga, and being unimpressed by the inessential The Dutch House. This one, from 2011, lies somewhere in the middle. The premise is cliche: a feminized Heart of Darkness embodied in the heavily qualified (surely overqualified) big pharma lab rat Marina Singh. Her job is to go bravely where no Minnesotan half-bred Sikh with father issues has gone before... past the rubber plantations of known Brazil/Amazonia to a magical circle of trees, revealed by her Kurtz (ob/gyn prof Dr Swenson) to solve the problems of age in Western women and disease in Eastern peoples, not to mention the face of God. As before I often enjoyed her writing, which here wears its research lightly and tourism more heavily, apart from the odd bout of excessive handwringing and impossibility; Patchett reminds us constantly of the limits of medical research (etc) in the USA while having us believe that the woefully unsuitable Marina would ever be sent on such a journey and capable of such feats as cutting up an anaconda. The other characters are again not managed well; more interesting to me were the tertiary Dr Budi and Thomas Nkomo than the Bovenders and Saturns and Swenson (etc) who get the focus. There is intercontinental lurv. It's cinematic, or at least telemovie-atic.

As always, a range of views at Goodreads. I think the baseball-bat wielders have it. A book of the decade for the ABC's Sarah L'Estrange; her summary is inaccurate. Fernanda Eberstadt at the New York Times says Lord of the Flies and "megavillainess"; we're adjacent to James Bond territory. Also at the New York Times, Janet Maslin gestures also at Herzog and is more appropriately skeptical.

In the Heat of the Night

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Second time around. There's a lot to enjoy in Rod Steiger's performance, and I think Sidney Poitier's best work here is opposite him. The plot is threadbare. Roger Ebert rated it #10 for 1967 with no standalone review.

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Vale, Ennio Morricone.

Da 5 Bloods

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The new Spike Lee. I went in cold. Four of five "bloods" (an all-black squad) from the Việt Nam/American War return in something like 2018, using the recovery of their mate's body (KIA not POW) as camouflage for the ex-filtration of a gold cache they left there back in the day. It's filmed in Thailand. The tone is lecturing and there's a pretence of historicity with a lot of gesturing at Black history and a little Vietnamese. Lee wants to have it all ways with loads of references to the classic movies of the genre, NGOs, didacticism, cliches, and so forth, ultimately sliding into an unfunny Tropic Thunder mode. (The surviving cast doesn't even feign grief when one of da bloods gets it in the present day.) Lead Delroy Lindo is intended to be weighty, like Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line but comes off more like a prolix Rambo. Chadwick Boseman makes up for some of these defects. The introductory newsreel is unfortunately more generically 1960s than Lee's scintillating effort in BlacKkKlansman. (Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen return from that, again to limited effect.)

In all, it's a few decades stale.

Widely reviewed. Michael Wood. A. O. Scott found a lot more here than I did. Viet Thanh Nguyen's rejoinder; he's right, this is lesser Lee: a pile of gesturing with an ending messier than Apocalypse Now's.

Harvey

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Jimmy Stewart completism. Black and white, 1950. This one has been on the pile for years due to its unappetising premise of a genial, idling Stewart and his six-foot, three-and-a-half inch imaginary rabbit bestie. It does have its moments but probably worked better as a stage play, like Arsenic and Old Lace. Josephine Hull (also in that) got an Oscar for playing the sister/mother role in arch, stagy fashion. It's just the kind of entertainment (and making light of psychology) to put the country to sleep after the war, presaging the soporific, damage-denying decade to come.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

Sergeant York

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Howard Hawks completism. A hokey hagiography of a bloke from the "Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf" somewhere in Tennessee who's a dead shot. They send him off to World War I but somehow don't set him up as a sniper. His crises of conscience are resolved by rendering many bodies unto Caesar. So clearly made-for-purpose in black-and-white in 1941. Gary Cooper got an Oscar for what I found to be a patronising and humourless performance. I was amazed that a piece of farmland could be purchased for several months of labour at that time.

Bosley Crowther, respectfully.

Rosemary's Baby

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This Polanski classic has been on the pile since forever. I expected a David Lynch gross out, given the title/premise, but it is in fact closer to doomed suds circling the drain. We're in NYC in 1965 and 1966, shacked up in an apartment building with massive apartments that somehow an unemployed actor can afford. Witchery ensues, from which the young wife is witless to escape. It reminded me of The Devil's Advocate, which was a more persuasive Faustian effort, leaning on the egos of the able leads; Polanski's later Chinatown interpolates these two. None of the acting excited me; apparently Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet got an Oscar.

Roger Ebert got a lot more out of it than I did. I couldn't get past Mia Farrow's essentially clueless response to her situation, which seemed entirely in service of the plot.

Catherine Lacey: Certain American States

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More interiority from Catherine Lacey, this time in short form. I didn't find anything particularly memorable here. As always the odd observation or taut sentence or angle is cute and sometimes makes the ramble worthwhile. I wasn't convinced by the male voices.

A variety of opinions at Goodreads.

Barnacle Bill (1957)

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Another of the Ealing comedies (a minor one) and more Alec Guinness completism. It's a paint-by-the-numbers farce in black-and-white that passes the time amiably but unimaginatively. The permanently seasick star wins us over by playing the little man sticking the big sea laws to the self-dealing local council. There are young people doing their thing to what was progressive music at the time. It's a bit disappointing when set against the earlier Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Spellbound

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It took me a few goes to get past the initial hokey crap, and it does improve, as you'd expect from Hitchcock. "Human glacier" yet forever coquettish Ingrid Bergman gets constantly slavered over in what would now solicit endless #metoos; she's good but it's a disappointing role after her timeless efforts in Casablanca, Notorious, and so forth. I don't remember Gergory Peck at all; I haven't seen To Kill a Mockingbird since school. The 1945 psychobabble, even in black-and-white, is always too much. Just maybe you could count this as a dry run for Psycho. There's a Dali dream sequence.

Make Way for Tomorrow

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Another of Roger Ebert's great movies (2010): "It's so tough it might not be filmable today, when even Alzheimer's stories have happy endings." Black-and-white, 1937. It's a story of an aged couple and their five children. There's a lot to enjoy in Beulah Bondi's performance; away from her things get more formulaic and sentimental.

Elliot Ackerman: Red Dress in Black and White.

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Kindle. This is the weakest from Ackerman I've read yet. It's nothing like his earlier work, except perhaps in the prose being even more pedestrian. I guess he read a book from the first Cold War and figured that we needed an Our Man in Constantinople or The artist who didn't come in from the cold. The city and its subcultures provide only local colour; the only rounded-out character here is Murat, and that's because he's a two dimensional, non-violent Michael Corleone-esque business guy. Plot-wise Ackerman thinks he's got it figured out like Smiley would, but it wouldn't take much imagination for Cat to return home at any point to fetch her and her son's passports; she could depart for the USA while her husband is out one day, and I doubt the embassy could interfere much. The reveal at the end is entirely predictable given the concussive repetition and closededness of what comes before.

Joan Silber talks it up. Perhaps this shadowboxing is something for Americans to wring their hands over.

The Good the Bad the Weird

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One more Kim Jee-woon after I swore I would stop. This is a Korean Western, faithfully cloned from the spaghettis right down to the faux Morricone score and negative space portraits; not quite Once Upon a Time in Manchuria but maybe next time. Song Kang-ho leads as the Weird/Tuco in John Lennon glasses. He spends a fair bit of time on what I took to be a Ural (with sidecar); there are also horses, trains and the iconic three-way shootout. The Civil War is instead one between the Korean independents and the occupying Japs; more fun would've been had if they'd had Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes pour across the plains in some anachronistic fantasy. The thin plot is delivered with a nod and wink — this is a bloodless PG-rated matinee special after all. The one innovation — spaghetti cinematography — doesn't help. It's a bit Shanghai Noon and as usual the whole thing hinges on how much you enjoy Song's mumbling and stumbling.

Mike Hale was disappointed despite his professed belief in Song's ability to lift any material.

Robert Perisic: No-Signal Area.

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Even pointlessness looks better when it's finished.

Kindle. A pointer from Ken Kalfus. Translated Croatian. The premise — of building an obsolete turbine in a factory last functional in the days of Communism — seemed adequately kooky. The bulk however is a series of portraits of people making their way through the days after the end of history. There's a bit of everything, but nothing dug too deeply. The humour is great. The rambling inner monologues are trying. When it comes the turn away from industrialism is handled well. The problem is that it takes so long.

Yourself and Yours

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A pointer from Glenn Kenny. Directed by Hong Sang-soo, 2016. It's in a similar style to The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well I guess: sleepy, a bit Todd Solondz, momentarily transiently humourless Mike Leigh, all the time playing Lynchian identity games ala Lost Highway without the violence or video clip. An object of desire is used to explore alcoholism in Seoul. Yeah. I was more interested in what they were eating.

I Saw the Devil

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A graphically violent Korean effort from 2010. It's a proforma and soulless stock revenge sort of thing: a secret agent plays cat-and-mouse with a cartoonish serial killer. Everything is coated in blood but not in a way I'd consider cinematic. Oldboy Choi Min-sik looks tired throughout but still does better than invincible cardboard lead Lee Byung-hun. I don't know why it's rated so highly at IMDB. Another directed by Kim Jee-woon.

Jeannette Catsoulis observed the excess misogyny at the time.

Clockers

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A pointer from A. O. Scott's recent "essential" Spike Lee list. It's the mid 1990s and Rudy's on the throne of NYC while we're dealing drugs in a park in Brooklyn. Harvey Keitel is still riding high off the back of Pulp Fiction; with Scorcese as producer we can expect a bit of Mean Streets with black people subbed in for Italians. Keitel plays Keitel playing a NYPD detective. Pre-Jesus John Turturro is his partner; he doesn't get to unleash his histrionics. "Clockers" is supposed to neologise a particular subtribe of dealers: they're at it "around the clock". Mekhi Phifer has his moments in the lead. The scheming menace of Don Delroy Lindo is more persuasive. Things unravel as you might expect. Overall it's something of a dry run for the superior 25th Hour.

Roger Ebert found depths that just aren't there. Janet Maslin. To her Keitel has "great improvisatory naturalness"; to me he's always Keitel. The cinematography is pretty good though, with the odd directorial flourish.

Fences

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This made a big splash in late 2016 and has been on the pile since then. I've tried watching it a few times but couldn't get past the incredibly wordy introduction; this time, with subtitles, I made it to the end in three sittings. The draw was Denzel Washington directing and in the lead. It goes about how you'd expect: a blowhard's special pleading for self indulgence on the basis of his righteous sacrifices for his family. This may have been novel in the 1950s but is all we hear now. There's too much baseball, and too much fumbled nuance. Viola Davis got an Oscar in support; she's often solid and often overemoting. I vaguely remembered Jovan Adepo's dial from the Watchmen TV series. Overall it felt like a predictable, stagy Southern Gothic with too many monologues that didn't transition well from the theatre to film. Too much and not enough.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. She's right, the cinematography is a bit garbage.

Diabolique

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Another pointer from Roger Ebert, and a jag along Henri-Georges Clouzot's output from The Wages of Fear. Black-and-white, 1955. It's a bit like Laura in that murder never quite runs on time. The twists are fun when they come, though there is some significant lag in the middle. Uptight Vera Clouzot is definitely more fun than Frenchy Marilyn Simone Signoret.

Bosley Crowther back in the day.

Nosferatu

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Another of Roger Ebert's "great movies". A black-and-white classic from 1922. It's exactly the same as every other vampire movie that's come since except it's silent and German. Bremen is a great setting. At times it's almost real.