peteg's blog - noise

The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae)

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Another Korean flick from the post-Parasite list by Manohla Dargis. Contrary to her I'm not unreservedly enthusiastic about the old graphic ultraviolence. Here it's all knives and axes — a guy with a gun who could aim would've made this movie about five minutes long — that inflict amazing damage and draw fantastic quantities of blood, and yet the people from Yanji (ethnic Koreans stuck in China between China/North Korea/Russia) continue. There are an excess of chases and a touch of the Oldboy invincibility. The handheld camerawork is too jittery. I lost track of the plot early on, and I wish they'd dispensed with one entirely. Directed by Na Hong-jin, new to me, and likely the last of his I'll see.

The Thief of Bagdad

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Abu: Where are we now?
Genie: Above the roof... of the world.
Abu: Has the world got a roof?
Genie: Of course. Supported by seven pillars, and the seven pillars are set on the shoulders of a genie whose strength is beyond thought, and the genie stands on an eagle, and the eagle on a bull, and the bull on a fish, and the fish swims in the sea of eternity...

Deemed a "great movie" by Roger Ebert in 2009. A matinee classic. Special effects! Colour! I found the adventure itself a bit too generically exotic, with place names now familiar from recent American wars; I'm guessing some people in 1940 knew them from World War I. Buddha has an all-seeing eye and apparently Allah wasn't too bothered by sorcery back then. In two sittings as I wasn't that into it.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

Don Winslow: Broken.

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Kindle. A collection of shorts, almost novellas, or offcuts. Upon completing it I realised I'd seen his three-spoked Paradise weed dealers before, in Oliver Stone's Savages. Here they're trying to expand into Hawaii, which the locals, of course, are not happy about. That suggests there's probably more in these stories for Winslow's regulars than I got. There's also the vibe that he's a sort-of short-form West Coast Dennis Lehane, providing raw material to the movies.

All of these stories go about as you'd expect once the premise has been established. Most of the fun is in his punchy sentences and observations, and that none overstay their welcome to the point of resentment. The pick for me was the second — Crime 101 — where he sets up a few overlapping triangles of cops, robbers, jewellers and beach bunnies. The weakest is the concluding The Last Ride, which reads as some kind of manifesto for how he wishes Southern Republicans would behave, i.e., by getting back in touch with what Winslow presents as their traditional decency. Most are about men who are lethally competent in familiar but unreal scenarios where things go unsurprisingly.

Janet Maslin's review sold it to me. She reckons the first (Broken) is the weakest.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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Another of Roger Ebert's "great movies" (four stars in 2009). The still in his review suggests fantastic things, like a 1960s Doctor Who set or a Bertolt Brecht: angular, stagy, artificial, and with a point to make. The reality is a silent German movie from 1920. I didn't follow the plot entirely; I was hoping for some David Lynch Lost Highway identity-based kookiness but instead got a fairly linear bit of misdirection. I'd lost interest by the last scene, and have no idea why the surviving friend was being branded insane.

The Pledge

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One of Roger Ebert's "great movies" (four stars in 2012, a kiss-of-death 3.5 stars in 2001). The draw was the fabulous cast: Jack Nicholson leads as a one-last-case retiring police officer in Nevada, Benicio Del Toro mumbles unpersuasively, Aaron Eckhart does his alpha-male thing, Mickey Rourke attempts some tears, and so forth; none are particularly convincing. Sean Penn pulled this crowd and directs, putting his wife-at-the-time Robin Wright Penn in flannels and cracked teeth as the obvious love interest. In this role he seems eternally preoccupied with the treatment of children: here there's some extreme but entirely routine serial killing. After the initial gore things slide into the soporific, and as the time wound down I realised that he was trying really hard to go somewhere new. The break, when it comes, is not worth the trip: the culmination of Nicholson's fishing, petrol vending, family anchoring, and angst is a solitary gibbering alcoholic.

Reviews were legion at the time.

Evan Ratliff, ed: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from The Atavist Magazine.

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Kindle. Over an extended period of time, since I read Ratliff's fascinating The Mastermind. This is a collection of long articles drawn from The Atavist; some hits, some misses, some omissions, and one I'd read before. Most were good but nothing was particularly memorable.

Mindhunter (Seasons 1-2)

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It's like Twin Peaks and The Silence of the Lambs had a baby TV show that married Se7en but secretly wished it had saved itself for True Detective or Breaking Bad. It was raised in the neighborhood of Natural Born Killers. This FBI eerily echoes David Lynch's with similar tensions between institutional conformity and quirky innovation. Instead of Duchovny's timeless Denise we get Anna Torv's frosty lesbian academician; the psychobabble is sometimes, even too often, too much. (Lena Olin smokes her off the screen in a few brief scenes.) Jonathan Groff's semi-Rain Man Holden Ford (eventually deep into season two: "It’s a bad joke ... in Australia") has his kyptonite, just like Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper but nowhere as inventive. Holt McCallany (memorable in Fight Club) is solid as his blinkering buddy. But of course without a character like Lynch's Cole things were always going to be a bit too linear. The smoking is epic. There are too many balls in the air. The ambience is ruthless. The family stuff wasn't too much but still crowded out more interesting things.

The draw was David Fincher, who hasn't done a lot of directing since Gone Girl. The cinematography is often dark sepia.

The Foul King

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Another Korean effort; another post-Parasite pointer from Ben Kenigsberg. This one is more literally a WWE cartoon, and you'll enjoy it about as much as you're prepared to indulge Song Kang-ho's style of comedy. There's a smidge of romance, some mess at the karaoke, much fantasy fulfilment. It was released in 2000, making it something of a response to Fight Club. Directed by Kim Jee-woon, who is new to me.

A. O. Scott at the time.

Train to Busan

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I thought I'd give SBS's on-demand service a go. You need an account (surprise). It didn't like the various ad blockers I use in Chrome, and even when I disabled these it cratered every ad break. I had even less success with FireFox. It did work fine on vanilla Safari, which I keep for just this purpose. Yeah, the ads are annoying.

This is a 2016 South Korean zombie flick set on a train, a bit too soon after Snowpiercer I'd say. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, who was new to me. The violence is less graphic than we're used to, and it's pretty funny at times; things get cartoonish in the same way as the WWE. The cinematography is as gorgeous as you'd expect. The CGI is not too bad. It has all the tropes but passes up too many opportunities to freshly skewer the genre, its characters or Korean society; overall there's not a lot going on beyond the busyness in the frame.

Jeannette Catsoulis.

Trishna

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As with all the others recently, this movie has been on the pile for ages. Delayed Winterbottom, Thomas Hardy and Riz Ahmed completism. I always thought of Ahmed as having Pakistani and not Indian heritage, and capable of more subtlety than he manages here; there is some colour in his initial bro, but it's all gone by the time we get to Mumbai. Freida Pinto struggles to make much of an empty role. Winterbottom claims to have adapted Tess of the d'Urbervilles but he only retained some shapeless highlights. The cinematography is quite good, so it sort-of works as a high end tourism commercial.

Roger Ebert saw more in it than I did, and observes how combining two of Hardy's characters in Ahmed's explains the general formlessness. Manohla Dargis.

Far from the Madding Crowd

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More (delayed) Carey Mulligan completism, and similarly for Thomas Hardy. She does her best here with a story that has been reduced to soap opera and blanched of Hardy's usual preoccupations. She marries poorly, and almost entirely out of character. Michael Sheen does what he can with even less. It is well shot. It's not a patch on Winterbottom's Jude.

A. O. Scott worked hard to make his word quota.

Tim Winton: The Turning.

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Kindle. I've had in mind for a while that I should rewatch the movie from 2013. Instead I picked up its source material, which is good in its way. Since its release the Winton's autobiographies have made its origins more transparent, and perhaps the whole thing redundant.

There's been a deficit of specifically Australian stories these past several years, or maybe I haven't been looking hard enough. Either way this seems unlikely to change with the virus and the eternal pursuit of world city status.

A Hidden Life

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Malick revisits the Christ story, framed by World War II; I think he wishes he'd made The Last Temptation of Christ as well as The Thin Red Line. The plot is no more than what it says on the tin: an Austrian farmer cannot bring himself to swear fealty to Hitler. The cinematography is as awesome as ever, but it took me several goes to slog through these three hours as it completely fails to grip; more precisely, the beautifully impressionistic opening half enthralls until we're on that railroad to an execution in Berlin. It proves Zeno right about time in that way. I feel the mix of English and German is a mistake, as is having the bereft wife wife kicking fences and rending grass, where Malick seems to forget that these are stoic Germanic people.

Richard Brody thinks that it's time Hollywood stopped putting the Nazis on film. A. O. Scott.

Theatre Y has a YouTube channel.

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It's not at all like being there.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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It's taken me an age to get to this one. Turkish, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Feted in 2012 (Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, etc.). It's a snoozefest. Beautifully shot and fantastically framed with pretences to deep musings. Perhaps the frustration of the police chief, at the lack of progress in the search for the body, is supposed to internalise or co opt the audience's experience. This sort of pacing can be OK if there is any kind of payoff anywhere along the way.

Roger Ebert. I can't say I watch movies to "live along with [the] characters as things occur to them." I picked it up on the strength of Dana Stevens's top-10 for 2012. Manohla Dargis.

The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well

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A random pointer from a post-Parasite list of Korean movies from the New York Times. Directed by Hong Sang-soo. 1996. Song Kang-ho has a minor role. The subs I had were not great. It's a droll days-in-the-life-of. Not great.

Arthur Phillips: The King at the Edge of the World.

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Kindle. Dominic Dromgoole sold it to me. The premise is rich: an educated Muslim in the royal courts of England and Scotland around 1600 CE, apparently a time of Queen Elizabeth I and James VI/I. My history is too weak to have gotten all the allusions; I spent most of the book waiting for an account of how the highly ambiguous and underdrawn James came to commission the King James Bible, which — I'd've thought — did more for his claims to Protestantism than anything presented here. It's a bit Visit of the Royal Physician, a bit A Gentleman in Moscow, and the ending is entirely 25th Hour. It's too repetitious; the early foreshadowing worked well, but at some point he just needed to get on with it. A decent edit might have cut 15% and yielded a taught philosophical thriller.

Call Me by Your Name

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Another on Leon's recommendation. Also I've somehow got the impression that Armie Hammer is worth watching, but for the life of me I can't remember why, beyond The Social Network. Third time around with Timothée Chalamet I think: previously Lady Bird, Little Women. Ah, also Interstellar, so completely flushed from my brain.

The first thirty minutes of this coming-of-age flick is pure montage. We're in postcard Northern Italy, circa 1981 (the reviewers say 1983). Things are peaceful and there's a vast amount of archaeology to do, so much that it occupies about five minutes of film time. The older grad student decides to get it on with the supervisor's son. The supervisor is very wise about it all. Things get a bit American Pie. The stations of the love affair are mostly stock and awkward in the usual ways. The cinematography is lush. The smoking is of the old school. There's a sequel in the offing, and I can't imagine what it has left to say.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis observes the class structure.

Roma

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On Leon's recommendation. I feel like I'm missing whatever it is that gets Alfonso Cuarón so feted. Like Gravity, the black-and-white cinematography here is lush — some early shots overwhelm with detail; it's a bit like Control — while the plot, or narrative drive or whatever, is feeble. We've seen this upstairs/downstairs sort of thing so many times before, for the most part. The servant class are separated from their middle-class Mexican masters by race, language, geography and temperament. The lead actress does her best as things mostly happen to her, which is of course one of the central points. Set pieces ensue — a pregnancy, a forest fire, the beach. Substantially humourless. Liquid hits the floor, repeatedly, in that Chekhovian way. In two sittings as it failed to grip.

Dana Stevens. It would've been better seen on the big screen, sure. Manohla Dargis. Michael Wood found some things funny; I guess I just saw them coming in, yes, that Chekhovian way. Ultimately the story, the characters, the events: they're all too insufficiently novel.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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Again with the trawling for movies that I haven't seen, and having seen, wish I still hadn't. This is Spielberg's take on friendly aliens who do kidnap people but apparently to no effect at all; witness those Navy men from the 1940s. It's the fag end of the space age (but who was to know that) and American consumption and abundance are front and centre: the family home is epically overflowing with stuff, there are all your American favourites (Maccas, KFC, dodgy scifi, references to classic movies, the Midwest), while the family itself is shown only so it can be broken. Things start off funny but quickly become humourless as the horror movie tropes — "Halloween for adults" — run rampant from a child's point of view: Spielberg's usual vantage. While the man looks at the world the woman looks at the man. The security state response lacks fangs but is otherwise all-American. As a McGuffin bug hunt it's got nothing on the roughly contemporaneous The Shining or Alien. Linking music (John Williams did the score) with hand gestures with aliens ends up making an empty fist. The visuals tried to outdo 2001 but little thought was put into what's going on.

Roger Ebert loved it. According to that I did see the 1980 revision, though I don't remember seeing the inside of any space craft. The alien looks a lot like E.T. J. Holberman at its 40th anniversary.