peteg's blog - noise

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011)

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On the pile for a very long time. Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's coverage of the recent Michael Gudinski biopic (creator of the Mushroom group).

Paul Byrnes.

Hardcore (1979)

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Paul Schrader wrote and directed. Also some George C. Scott completism.

A straight (businessman/Christian) father goes looking for a daughter lost to the Californian demimonde. This is Schrader post-Taxi Driver, filling in the backstory of Jodie Foster's young hooker, probing the seams of the coast, riding the 1970s porn wave from a prudish angle. Sometime collaborator Scorcese went to similar places later in After Hours but nowhere as hard. There's a dash of Roger Ebert's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in the acting.

Schrader spends the first hour at Christmas in dreary Grand Rapids Michigan with the aim of showing us how dreary and stifling Dutch Calvinism can be. (Barbara Loden in Wanda demonstrated that it doesn't have to be quite this painful.) After this unpromising beginning Scott unleashes his timeless Dr. Strangelove abilities around the 55 minute mark and we're off to the races. About three minutes later he's in authentic Boogie Nights mode with a bogus Burt Reynolds mustache and shirts that even I wouldn't wear. This pivot is way too quick. The camera angles often make him look like Philip Baker Hall in the 1990s: craggy, worn, relentless — I wanted the subtleties (or at least humour) he brought to The Hospital. Call girl Season Hubley keeps up as best she can; they leave the boys far behind. Scott rapidly (too rapidly) evolves beyond private dick Peter Boyle's ability to cage him. There are many tears before bedtime.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Is Schrader having it both ways with his prudish prurience? The ending is blown. Janet Maslin: The Searchers. A man loses control but not his religion. The pivot is "dramatic suicide". She found some humour here.

Leviathan (2014)

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A pointer from Paul Byrnes's recent valedictory. A bleak and unfunny visit to a small town in Murmansk Oblast, Russia (east of Finland) where a small-time local is getting squashed by the mayor. It's a bit like How I Ended This Summer: a slow start before turning into something that gets harder to care about, in this case because the downward spiral is a relentless grind. An old army comrade now a lawyer in Moscow is supposed to help but he inevitably makes things worse. (He has a dirt file on the mayor that we're not shown. It is initially effective and then inexplicably toothless.) The wife is pure sadness. It is mostly unsubtle and offers nothing novel; a little humour would've gone a long way. The cinematography is sometimes great, largely because the location is gorgeous.

The 4WD police vehicle is apparently a 2004 UAZ Hunter.

Paul Byrnes at the time: only four stars of five but "certainly one of the best films of the past year". Manohla Dargis: absurdist, sure, but comedy, no. Peter Bradshaw: five stars.

Fatherland (1994)

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You've read the book now see the movie. What was Rutger Hauer thinking? — not one thing taxed his acting abilities. The revelation of the biggest secret in the Reich is a total bust, and Miranda Richardson's passing of the dossier of evidence to President Joseph Kennedy is pure Hogan's Heroes. The romance was elided. So bad it's bad.

John J. O'Connor at the time: first half OK, second half terminal. IMDB trivia: shot in Prague where the locals were sickened by the swastikas.

Dogs of War (1980)

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Continuing the Frederick Forsyth adaptations. Here he drew on his direct experience of covering wars in Africa as a journalist. Also some idle Christopher Walken completism: I should've learnt by now that he's never great in the lead over feature length.

Walken is sent to a fictional African military dictatorship to determine if mining interests can do business with its ruler. Or perhaps the coup is already being planned. No matter, we know he's going back as he has nothing left to live for. As usual for Forsyth, the bulk is a notionally suspense-inducing logistics exercise where he organises his fellow American soldiers-for-hire (Tom Berenger amongst them), their weaponry and a boat. I found all the stakes so low that I did not pay attention to the details.

Vincent Canby: the screenplay is first rate. I was less impressed by the final battle sequence as everyone seems to be shooting at nothing. Director John Irvin also directed the far superior Alec Guinness vehicle Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1979.

Proof (1991)

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Blind cameraman Hugo Weaving finds a mate in dishwashing Rusty Russell Crowe in inner-city Melbourne. He needs one as his housekeeper Geneviève Picot is fixated on getting his clothes off. Written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse; this is her first feature. The milieu is much like Death in Brunswick and not Romper Stomper. It's sorta kooky and fun like Malcolm but not as innocent, so perhaps more Angel Baby. If only we'd known that this rich seem of Australian movies wasn't going to last.

The plot builds up to the bromance and attempted defloration of Hugo via a cat accident and much rumination on the ethics of lying to blind people. A trip to the drive-in, where Rusty describes the action to Hugo, has Hugo senselessly probing Rusty's car and provoking some punks into creaming the future skinhead. The stegosaurus on the dash was not amused. Along the way we get shown some of the mutually-abusive relationship between Hugo and Geneviève: it's mostly (blind) man looking at the world, woman looking at the man, especially once they get to the symphony and back to hers. It's roughly a 1950s psychological.

For all that I don't think Australian blokes make friends like this.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. All the details at Ozmovies. Luke Buckmaster in 2014.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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I think I read Frederick Forsyth's classic airport thriller in the mid 1990s. The premise is that some French military veterans felt betrayed by President Charles de Gaulle's acceptance of Algerian independence in the early 1960s and decided that a coup d'état might be the ticket. Forsyth knew this was beyond their skills and had them hire an Englishman.

The book and movie (directed by Fred Zinnemann) are authentically early 1970s: it's fiction but fearfully holds to the major facts of history, making it more Puzo's Godfather than Harris's Fatherland, subbing details for imagination. The cinematography is fine and shows us a France and Western Europe somewhat familiar from the Bond movies of the era. The romance bit felt pro forma. The parallel police detection thread did not strike me as plausible; they never consequentially chase the wrong rabbit. After a few quiet killings the ultraviolence of the conclusion is anticlimactic. Edward Fox does the necessary in the lead but it would've been so much more fun if they'd cast the similarly-stringy David Bowie. As the Jackal he has so many opportunities to pull an exit scam but somehow there is honour amongst these outlaws (for the most part).

Roger Ebert: four excitable stars, "unfold[ed] in almost documentary starkness" and a plot summary. Vincent Canby: by historical determinism/veracity, "the suspense ... must depend on our wondering just how the assassin is going to fail". Which is a spoiler-robust strategy I guess. "The details are minutely observed and, to me, just a bit boring. I keep thinking that although it could have happened, in this case it didn't."

2nd Chance (2022)

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A pointer from Jason Di Rosso who interviewed director/interviewer Ramin Bahrani. They actually spent a lot of time talking about his adaptation of Adiga's The White Tiger. Apparently Roger Ebert was a fan of his.

This is a documentary about the rise and fall of Richard Davis, a bloke from Detroit who pivoted from pizzerias to bullet-proof vests. He soon moved his operation to Central Lake, Michigan where, being the largest employer in the area — think Ford in the early days — he ran things as a personal fief. From the start there's a charismatic cult-leader unreliable-narrator vibe that, combined with his cognitive dissonance, gun fetishes and outlandish unapologetic style, is expected to entertain. See, for instance, Pinshoot. And Australians could maybe consider him something of a self-shooting Ned Kelly.

I guess the narrative centre of the film is the scandal around Second Chance Body Armor Inc's use of the defective (rapidly degenerating) material Zylon in their vests in the early 2000s that soon bankrupted the company. The New York Times yields little about this via its search; there's an article by the Associated Press from 2003-012-26 and a retro on 2006-01-22. But never fear: while "there are no second acts in American lives" his son soon Phoenixed Armor Express from the ashes.

Overall it's a bit of a weird depth to plumb. None of the interviewees really pop except perhaps for his second wife who seemed almost normal. It's hard to parse the history as the most famous material used in these vests — Kevlar — was developed elsewhere, though Wikipedia suggests Davis was the first to go all-in on that material.

Nicolas Rapold. Gonzo.

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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A jag from The Last Temptation of Christ: Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the raw material for both. In black-and-white. It looks unappetising on the tin — a constipated Englishman paired with a Greek high on life — but Anthony Quinn makes it work with a robust performance. Oscar noms all round and some won but not him. Produced/directed/adapted by Michael Cacoyannis.

We begin with Alan Bates, the English writer, trying to get to Crete to reclaim his Greek father's property there. Almost immediately Zorba zeroes in on him and we wonder if Bates is a mark and a homosexual. The movie eventually answers no to both of those, though others must labour mightily to make those revelations. The property turns out to be a lignite mine that has stopped running due to the absence of the landlord, impoverishing the nearby village which holds fast to tradition. Zorba gets off many a good line that leaven some of the heaviness of those traditions and does all the heavy lifting in the bromance. The sentiments are essentially Epicurean so it's mostly in Quinn's delivery.

This was Quinn's next movie after Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or perhaps it was the equally delicious The Visit. The mining scenes got a bit The Wages of Fear, but most of it put me in mind of Ava Gardner's contemporaneous beach activities in The Night of the Iguana: an unguarded joy de vivre. One of these days I'll get around to Karzan's America America.

Vincent Canby.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

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nth time around with Tarantino's breakthrough. Down to #8 on the IMDB top-250 from #7 five years ago. Oscar noms all round but only Tarantino and Roger Avary won for the screenplay.

Roger Ebert: four stars in 1994 and another four stars in 2001 as a "great movie". Loved the dialogue and the elision of the ultraviolence. Janet Maslin was entranced and made it a Critic's Pick.

The Mexican (2001)

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Another of Brad Pitt's misfirings in the lee of Fight Club. Director Gore Verbinski let him right off the leash so most of his scenes consist of pure, repeated Brad Pitt tics in airhead mode. I guess the idea was to draw in the female demographic by pairing him romantically with Julia Roberts but it is not until the final scenes that she stows the full-cliche histrionics and they get all lovey-dovey in a battered old ute in Mexico. (Her taking offence at the idea of anyone enjoying sex and travel is weird given she soon starred in Eat Pray Love.) James Gandolfini comes along for the ride in The Sopranos mode and J.K. Simmons is supposed to be Pitt's mate. Also Gene Hackman eventually explains the whole show to us.

The central thread of the plot is a feeble fable involving a pistol. We're shown its genesis in sepia flashback. As a McGuffin it is uninspired.

Roger Ebert: three unfathomable stars. Stephen Holden: "only about half as funny as it ought to be".

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

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A Robert Redford jag from Spy Game, prompted by some reviewers of that movie. Directed by Sydney Pollack. It's Christmas 1975 in NYC and somehow it hasn't been and isn't snowing. Redford works as some kind of bookworm/researcher for the CIA and when the revolution comes he's out to lunch. His apparent main squeeze, colleague Tina Chen, is the last up against the wall so while he shows us his improbably-mad field skills (for a shiny bum) he's on the lookout for a new one. She takes the form of Faye Dunaway, improbably driving a 1970 Ford Bronco. She eventually succumbs to male-fantasy Stockholm Syndrome (Robert Redford syndrome?) and pops out her most priceless line of all time: "Oh no, I'll help. You can always depend on the ol' spy fucker." It’s like a Le Carre without any attempt at or pretence to subtlety.

America in the 1970s has been so thoroughly documented on film that there's little to see here beyond the story. There is the odd lingering shot of the Twin Towers. Max von Sydow. Down with the CIA!

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half all-too-believable stars. Vincent Canby. IMDB suggests: Marathon Man, The Parallax View — so, the paranoid aspect of the American polity.

The Innocent (2022)

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Prompted by a good interview with writer/director/lead Louis Garrel by Jason Di Rosso. It's a slight film which shows that French comedy can be a laughing matter. I'm guessing it would be a low-risk, possibly-good, probably-safe date night flick for people just getting to know each other. I felt the first half dragged as the scenario was being constructed: a love-mad mother, a depressed, stalled son, his childhood bestie who drops all the hints, and a future stepfather found in gaol. This was not helped by some dodgy subtitling. The second half cashed the heist setup well enough and had some funny moments in the small as things went as they must.

Jason Di Rosso in written form. A "breezy good time that's hard to find at the movies these days." Autofiction. Claire Shaffer made it a Critic's Pick.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

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Continuing the accidental mini-Scorcese rewatch. Over two nights as it's just so long, heavy and humourless.

I didn't know what to make of it back in 2004 and I don't know what to make of it now. On the plus side the cracker soundtrack by Peter Gabriel continues to enthral. But this is not great cinema: scene follows scene with clunky framing and editing so far from the fluency of Scorcese's long-take classics (Casino, Goodfellas — which spend most of their time indoors) and often I had no idea where we were or why. (I think Paul Schrader's screenplay, based on Nikos Kazantzakis's source material, generally leant too heavily on the audience's priors. The weaselly disclaimer that it is not based on the Gospels does not help.) The dialogue is too often incoherent: Willem Dafoe's Jesus tells the temple patriarchs that he's there to extend the old law but under mild probing he owns to being the end of it. The first two-thirds mostly just sets up the provocative finale, which drags out the premise of the title by showing us an agonised Jesus on the cross tempted by normalcy: a harem of ladies, a mob of children, food in return for honest toil. And then back to the cross for a quick "It is Accomplished" retconned terminus.

These flaws are exacerbated by the film being shot so obviously in Morocco: the aesthetic is more obviously Muslim than pre-Christian Jewish. The acting is a mixed bag despite the strength of the cast. There's Victor Argo (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant), as a wooden Peter. Harvey Keitel, an especially clunky (Gnostic) Judas. Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre) makes for an edgy John the Baptist; if only they'd found room for Salomé. Harry Dean Stanton brought his best Dennis Hopper impersonation as Zealot Saul/convert Paul. David Bowie as Pontius Pilate puts in the worst acting effort of his career. Barbara Hershey, Mary Magdalene.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time (mostly about the story) and another four stars in 2008 as a "great movie" (mostly colour). Janet Maslin: Scorcese was overwhelmed by his source material. "The promise held forth by the film's beginning, a promise to use drastic and unexpected ideas as a means of understanding Jesus' inner life, gradually gives way to something less focused." The miracle-after-miracle middle is less emotionally compelling than the interiority of the first movement.

Quiz Show (1994)

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A Robert Redford jag from Spy Game. There's nothing Hollywood likes more than to talk about TV, cf golden-era Good Night, and Good Luck, decline-into-cynicism Network, Broadcast News, etc. and of course the Oscars ceremonies. The game show was also a thread of Magnolia. The period and father/son dynamic put me in mind of Malick's The Tree of Life. The references to Nixon (as vice president) and interest in democratic accountability recall All the President's Men and the endless stream of nostalgic movies (The Last Picture Show, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, etc. etc.)

At its core this is some kind of bromance between professor/contestant Ralph Fiennes and investigator/lawyer Rob Morrow as the latter makes his bones figuring out what's going on at Twenty-One in the 1950s. The whole show loses momentum regularly, and it often left to erstwhile champ John Turturro to gee things up. Nevertheless Redford's direction elicited excellent performances from all the actors; the odd scene or line delivery (Sputnik makes for good humour) shows what might have been with a better story to tell.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars. What's the story about Geritol anyway? Post-truthism started a long time ago. Janet Maslin. Ah yes, that opening Chrysler showroom scene.

Goodfellas (1990)

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nth time around with Scorcese's classic. Still #17 in the IMDB top-250. The Internet Movie Cars Database tells me that Ray Liotta's main squeeze Lorraine Bracco drove a Volvo 244.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time and another four stars as a "great movie". Vincent Canby: a Critic's Pick.

Spy Game (2001)

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A minor bit of Tony Scott completism and some curiosity about what Brad Pitt got up to immediately after Fight Club. Robert Redford leads and is supposed to show us that the brotherhood justifies hacking institutions (here the CIA and related organisations) provided your heart is in the right place. It sells the sort of American guile and invincibility that was eclipsed by 9/11 and venerated by American Sniper. I found it hard to get into.

The framing story employs the cliche of it being ace field agent Redford's last day at Langley in the tenuous present. He's called back to sort out a crisis in a Chinese prison that involves a Brad Pitt he first met as a sniper in the American/Việt Nam war. Pitt takes out a putatively bad Laotian (illegally, clandestinely) under extreme duress and then manhandles his spotter to safety. After these heroics we're served up a few more episodes of derring-do in many locations (chiefly Beirut, some Berlin) and a tepid love interest in the form of Englishwoman Catherine McCormack. The romance is poorly handled. Redford shows what fieldwork can do to the shiny bums who never left the office. The relationship he has with his secretary Marianne Jean-Baptiste squanders both actors.

Overall the plot made little sense to me; it's mostly set pieces like blowing up buildings. Scott's choppy cinematography is unsatisfactory as he regularly constructs fantastic frames that he rapidly pulls away from, too quickly for us to enjoy them. The China angle was garbage at the time and even more risible now; there was no chance of the USA flying Black Hawks over the coastline to rescue Pitt. But it does tell us that the movie was made before the global movie market sensibilities tamed all such geopolitical provocations.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars, all surface, no iceberg. A. O. Scott: a "sleek, expensive handsome gizmos of doubtful utility."

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

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Abel Ferrara's followup to King of New York. It's mostly there in the title, once you know we're still in NYC and Ferrara is fascinated by powerful people, here the police. Harvey Keitel (of the title) is in every scene and does drugs in almost all. Otherwise he's gambling on the baseball playoffs. This takes up a lot of screen time and soon enough becomes tedious. I wasn't invested enough to figure out exactly how he is connected to all the people he encounters. If the dialogue had been in any way engaging and Keitel a more flexible actor it might have been an American east-coast Naked.

The notional main thread of the plot is a very heavy-handed treatment of the rape of a Catholic nun. Ultimately the main conflict is between her, who forgives, and Keitel who insists on some kind of justice. (At times I was reminded a bit of The Last Temptation of Christ or at least Peter Gabriel's soundtrack.) The final scenes at the Greyhound bus stop are very emotive but not enlightening. An earlier scene where he bails up some underage Jersey ladies on a night out is cringey and ineffective.

Roger Ebert: four stars. Keitel is courageous, sure, but that doesn't mean it's a great performance. Go see Goodfellas. A B-Movie. Janet Maslin: a Critic's Pick. Uneven but interesting. Keitel "gives the Lieutenant's role his all, which is sometimes more than it requires".

King of New York (1990)

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I don't remember seeing Christopher Walken in the lead too often; his roles that stick (True Romance, Pulp Fiction) have him play the big cheese in a scene or two before the caravan rolls on. Here Abel Ferrara has him anchor a stellar cast and early on gets him to bust out some dance moves like Travolta. This is after he completes a spell for unspecified crimes at Sing Sing (that route to the exit — and from the entry? — of great cinematic cliche) while receiving Larry Fishburne (not really cutting it as Clean aged a decade) of da hood in his ritzy hotel rooms. Along for the ride is Steve Buscemi as a minor drug chemist and Giancarlo Esposito as a henchman. And so on.

The problem is mostly with the plot: this is just the greatest hits of the drug gangsta genre. It's so disjointed that I found it impossible to care. The soundtrack is the hip hop of the day mostly by Schoolly-D (sample song: Am I Black Enough For You?).

Roger Ebert: two stars. Essentially Robin Hood. Style over all. Walken "glides ... with his usual polished and somehow sinister ease". Janet Maslin saw it at the New York Film Festival. IMDB Trivia: funded by Silvio Berlusconi. Apparently the NYC scene lapped it up.

Wills & Burke (1985)

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A bit further down SBS's Homegrown Cinema list is this mid-1980s failed comedy which aimed to take down the contemporaneous big serious film about the explorers in the spirit of Monty Python. It's probably more fun to compare casts: obviously I'd take Garry McDonald over Jack Thompson any day, and didn't Nicole Kidman go so much further than Greta Scacchi? (The outro starring her as Burke in a stage production is remarkable; something like a dry run for Moulin Rouge.) Also I can't imagine much improvement on Kim Gyngell's Wills, which is to say that the serious effort is probably just as drecky and wasteful of its actors. Chris Haywood lays it on too much as a colonial constable in a Wake in Fright scene. Mark Little went on to bigger things in A Cry in the Dark. Peter Collingwood has the most fun as the universally-adored Sir William Stawell. This movie is inexcusably cringeworthy for the time and to claim that it belongs to any "selection of the best Australian cinema" is taking the piss.

Ozmovies: universally panned. One for the Kidman completists. David Stratton said this is Kidman's first adult role. Shot in 4:3 format and what SBS is serving up looks like a VHS rip.