peteg's blog - noise

The Tracker

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David Gulpilil in the lead, 2002. Written and directed by Rolf de Heer. Frontier violence in 1922, "somewhere in Australia". I didn't get a lot out of it. Gary Sweet's character is a caricature and his lines and histrionics are overheated cliches. Open-mouthed neophyte Damon Gameau left me cold. "Veteran" Grant Page is apparently known for his stunts. There's some great cinematography (of the Flinders Ranges) and yet nothing is new with few really striking shots.

Roger Ebert: 3.5 stars, hmm. Both he and Paul Byrnes draw attention to the use of cutaways to paintings whenever things got violent. Julie Rigg, spot on. Stephen Holden.

The Last Wave

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More Gulpilil completism: epic blozploitation, black magic voodoo! It's so strange to see him in the Sydney spots: the Rocks, Vaucluse, the park under the southern end of the bridge. Unfortunately he doesn't get to move in this, functioning merely as a 1976 urban clothes horse. Richard Chamberlain plays a moneyed-up corporate tax lawyer who drives a Volvo 264 (if I read it right) which looks essentially like a 240. He's American and his accent wanders periodically.

I did not understand the metaphysical mechanics, or much of anything really. The plot is incoherent; for instance, after "I don't do criminal law" Chamberlain loses the case, guilty Gulpilil is somehow free to wander around and reveal all. This is after we see him getting rather violently installed in a cell early on. The whole thing is shot like a horror movie. Perhaps it serves best as a reminder of a time of Tooths Lager, when the ambience of the old inner-city pubs drew both lawyers and crims to work from the front bar.

Again — ten years later — it strikes me that I haven't seen anything by Peter Weir I like.

Vincent Canby at the time. Luke Buckmaster in 2014.

Mad Dog Morgan

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In two sittings. David Gulpilil completism, and by far the best bits are Gulpilil doing whatever: playing the didj, sounding off like a kookaburra, killing snakes, throwing spears. Dennis Hopper plays Dennis Hopper, just before Apocalypse Now. Clearly Hopper loved the same bits I did. The remainder of the cast is huge, housing pretty much all of the David Williamson movie peoples of the day (circa 1976). John Hargreaves has never been more wooden, nor Graeme Blundell. There's a cameo from Bruce Spence and some hackwork from Bill Hunter and Jack Thompson. Frank Thring would have cartoonishly twirled his moustaches if he wasn't hairless. Notionally the plot involves some bushranging on the NSW/Victoria border in the late 19th century, but really the project was just an excuse to get out there on the turps.

Luke Buckmaster in 2014. He's a fan. Paul Byrnes at some point, nondescriptly.

Dune (2021)

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A dreamy, impressionistic take on something like the first half of the first book of the venerable Dune saga with a great cast that is sometimes well used. Of course there is too much exposition for it cannot be done any other way. The pace is relentless and undermodulated: one moment Duke Oscar Isaac is going to sleep in the arms of his concubine, the insufficiently regal Rebecca Ferguson, and the next there's peak action, all in the service of developing Timothée Chalamet's fate and not much more. Chalamet is not very expressive, even too often inert, which sort-of works at least until he encounters his dream wife Zendaya who has no personality/character. (You have little chance of discerning the character's names unless you're very familiar with the source material.)

Amongst the next tier of cast we get Stephen McKinley Henderson as mentat Hawat, struggling with his weight. Self-satisfied Aquaman Jason Momoa is not my idea of Duncan Idaho. The No Country for Old Men veterans Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem, well, this isn't a movie that's kind to old men. Stellan Skarsgård plays Baron Brando with some embarrassingly unimaginative direct lifts from Apocalypse Now. Reverend Mother Charlotte Rampling does what she needs to to feed her retirement fund. There's a vast array of races represented here, but mostly in minor or non-speaking roles, just like the big dance party in one of those Matrix sequels.

I'd say David Lynch's effort is about level with auteur Denis Villeneuve's at half time, despite having a smaller budget, far less technology and limited scope for the vision thing. There simply wasn't anything as striking as Sting in his speedos here, nor the willingness to take the Baron and his henchmen right over the edge of silliness. Dave Bautista did his part just fine and yet we can only imagine what the Darth Vader-ish Sardukar could have been if they lived in Cloud Cuckoo Land. And what about Brad Dourif's tortured mentat with the John Howard eyebrows? — you hardly notice that character here.

Manohla Dargis: is this Star Wars? Glenn Kenny shows his deep comprehension of classic scifi.

The Last Duel

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I hadn't been to the cinema in an age so I paid 19.00 AUD + 0.25 AUD in credit card surcharge to the Alice Springs Cinema to see Ridley Scott's latest. The theatre was pretty decent but (as is usual now) from the second row centre you can count the pixels. It was just me and a couple who sat somewhere up the back in the 3.10pm session.

Medieval #metoo. Matt Damon's mullet deserved its own credit. Adam Driver, his playboy nemesis. Ben Affleck had the most fun. The CGI is often not great. Again I was waiting for a twist that never came. Scott has a predilection for revisiting very similar themes; this is a pastiche of The Duellists with the ultraviolence of Gladiator. I'd have preferred another Fassbender-anchored Alien instalment, or some more Bladerunner. Afterwards I felt like I should've waited for Bond.

Dana Stevens. Glenn Kenny. Manohla Dargis: yes, Jodie Comer is mostly inert.

The Card Counter

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Shockingly poor. For Oscar Isaac, who seems incapable of finding a decent role. Even Willem Dafoe is defeated by cliche in his bit part. I did not understand what all these themes had to do with each other, and kept waiting for a twist that never came.

Manohla Dargis makes much it being written and directed by Paul Schrader.

Cane Toads: The Conquest

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Essentially a remake of the original in circa 2010 with some of the cast returning and some new material, such as the toad arriving at the N.T./W.A. border. Apparently it was released in 3D. It seems that Mark Lewis struggled to find anyone as spectacularly oddball to interview this time.

I was told by an American (Anton from San Francisco) at El Questro that Australian crows have learnt how to eat them, by flipping them over and avoiding the toxins in the shoulders. He also claimed that kites (?) have learnt from this trick from the crows.

While watching this (in Kakadu) I got wondering if crocs can cope with the toad's poisons. According to Harry Bowman (a long-term tour operator on the Adelaide River who appears here and also on a recent ABC conversation I happened to listen to recently) the answer is they cannot. However this 2019 report from the ABC's science unit says that salties can and freshies can't. Moreover the rakali (native water rats), some snakes, Kookaburras, swamphens, some insects, melomys, ... also predate on the toad. Fascinating stuff. More details at Wikipedia.

Peter Galvin. Yep, it's not as much fun as the first one.

Cane Toads: an unnatural history

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Second time around with this classic. It prompted me to dig up the sequel.

Last Train to Freo

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Second time around with this adaptation of a play from 2006, at the Merl campground out past Jabiru in Kakadu. The cast is great. It starts out realistically but slides into artificiality at some point, turning back into a play. Jeremy Sims directed this and the more recently feted Last Cab to Darwin.

Paul Byrnes.

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil.

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Kindle. Powerful stuff, mostly handled well. As topical now — with the Taliban swinging back into power — as it was back in 2007/2008. The Taliban, the local war lords, the CIA, the Pakistanis, the Soviets fight in Afghanistan. It's a bit pox-on-all-your-houses but comes down hardest on the foundations of Islam. (As a non-expert on Islam I found it difficult to accept many of the quotes as canonical.) Aslam solves the structural problem of the novel (that there appears to be only about ten people in the whole country, each with unique and unusual histories) by focusing on a small village with a deep history of conflict, and people with rare skills (doctors, female teachers, CIA agents, ...).

Many and varied opinions at Goodreads. Yes, the dialogue/speech bubbles all sound about the same. This sometimes made it difficult (and unrewarding) to untangle who was making what claims with what evidentiary basis. Lorraine Adams. Yep, it has its moments of overwriting.

Cry Macho

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Clint Eastwood's latest. It's a sentimental clunker. Macho is a cockfighting rooster that does all the violent stuff. Clint does some romance and fathering in between some sauntering. Mexico, once again a healthier place than the USA.

A. O. Scott tells us that it's 1980, in case you're wondering why things are so wholesome.

Douglas Coupland: Hey Nostradamus!.

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Kindle. Coupland tries to be serious, or at least earnest, about religious fundamentalism and school shootings. The result is as shallow as anything else he's done but worse due to its heavy themes and poor execution. The third chapter (Heather) is epically poor: a lonely female court stenographer who can only be completed by a man, waffling away in Generation X flights of fantasy. Just as well he tells us she's awesome, things are great, etc. as we'd never have figured that out for ourselves.

Goodreads. If I'd checked there first I wouldn't have bothered.

Under the Skin

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Samantha Morton's first feature from 1997. I saw it back then and have been meaning to rewatch it since 2014 for reasons unknown. I didn't remember much at all, and now find there's not a lot going on; her character struck me as a clone of Sinead. The plot is sexual perversity in a minor English town (apparently one with a single train station, and not Manchester) as the training wheels come off a young lady's life. Morton is fab. Perhaps I was thinking of The Libertine.

Janet Maslin at the time. The editing was great.

Quarterly Essay #69, Mark McKenna: Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future. (March 2018)

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Kindle. I've been enjoying some of Midnight Oil's The Makarrata Project from late 2020; it's an unabashed return to a sense of Oz-ness that has been missing from these strange and grim days. The best bits are when Peter Garrett isn't singing, as Bernard Zuel implicitly observes. The best bit is the second half of Change The Date when Dan Sultan takes over ("drinking down your chardonnay / how long can you just look away?"), leading to a duet (?) with Gurrumul Yunupingu in what sounds to me like a friendly and playful conversation. Unfortunately the album wears off (out) quickly.

This is Mark McKenna's response to Turnbull's flat (offhand, stonkering, rude, obnoxious) rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. (I add those adjectives as it was the result of a very long consultative process that supposedly had bipartisan buy-in.) It is deeply felt but not great at explaining why any particular thing happened or is going to happen. For instance, how did the Kurnell joint projects come to be? Is that a process that can be replicated elsewhere? He seeks (as always) to link reconciliation to his pet republican project in a flimsy manner. Wishful thinking I fear. Overall it is more polemic than argument.

The best parts were some quotes he pulled, like this one from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 2016:

The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines — and people — now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.

There's a lot more there than here.

Recent events suggest another path forward: Australia could simply join the USA, either as seven distinct states (minting the N.T. as a state while abandoning Canberra to the sheep) or as one. We could use the opportunity to rejuvenate our dysfunctional political structures. The Aboriginal causes would instantly benefit from the robust native title and human right protections of the US Constitution.

Followup correspondence is linked from the Text Publishing page. Megan Davis responded with another essay which mostly recapitulates McKenna's. The delta is an emotional account of the before, during and after of drafting the statement. Michael Cooney apparently leads the Australian Republican Movement now (who knew it still existed?) and shares my concerns that the politics of the republic and indigenous recognition can and should be separated lest one irreparably damage the other. Russell Marks makes some good observations about South Australia and concludes with a paragraph that succinctly and powerfully summarises the anxieties of the beneficiaries of dispossession. McKenna's response is not linked there.

Goodreads.

Atticus Lish: The War for Gloria.

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Kindle. It feels like a long while since his first novel, but perhaps that's just the times. I was disconcerted to read that this effort was substantially funded by his father.

Briefly we're in working-class Boston in the midst of a mother decaying from ALS while her devoted high-school son attempts to care for her while getting through school and managing his complex relationship with his father. There's some unskilled construction work, mixed martial arts, an aspiration to become a Navy SEAL, and a perspective on the incels that will probably be passed on by. Some it smells of Dennis Lehane. I can't say I understood the point of Adrian or found him to be well developed. Physics and mathematics are gestured at as places of incontrovertible truth, tarnished by humans who overclaim.

Lish keeps us unbalanced all the way along, and not by selectively withholding information but by keeping his vantage tight. At various points I wondered if the (omniscient) narrator was reliable, which is clearly intentional. Towards the end we get something of an Ann Patchett wrap up, a few 25th Hour alterna-futures, which I felt left some of the main themes unresolved.

Dwight Garner. Harvey Keitel as Leonard? That'd make it Holy Smoke!. Goodreads makes it seem that the ladies did not go for it, but here's Martha Anne Toll for NPR. She seems to miss that Lish consciously juxtaposes structured and unstructured violence. Andre Dubus III. And we wait for the next one.

Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds

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Alex Proyas's first feature from 1988. Financed by the Australian Film Corporation (AFC) via their "Creative Branch", which makes me wonder if it was a bicentennial project. Roughly this is from a classic period of Australian craziness: not a return to Wake In Fright but an indulgence and celebration of quirkiness, individuality, spirituality, freedom and perhaps genius. Think of the stump-jump plough, Young Einstein, and not of Max Max. The story is soporific — not far off Chicken Run — but so what: the cinematography is gorgeous and there's the odd moment of inspired zaniness. Shot in Broken Hill. It is easy to see how he got from here to The Crow.

The Hand

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Oliver Stone's second feature, from 1981. I think it's clear that it was never a good idea, even at the time. Michael Caine turns in a stodgy performance, showing that when things work (as in, e.g., Sleuth) we can ascribe that to his co-star(s). Even so nothing can really save this intrinsically flawed whatever-it-is. Mercifully the sequel, so begged for at the end, was never made.

Vincent Canby. Clever? When? Again I'd suggest that David Lynch made far better use of juxtaposing creepy-crawlies with small-town shenanigans. Stone's thing is politics on the largest stages.

Seizure

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Oliver Stone's first feature from 1974. I can't see how but it must've seemed like a good idea at the time. It's some kind of moralising horror, like Tales from the Crypt — mesmerising Martine Beswick does the Ralph Richardson thing, sorta, but not the Joan Collins thing. She's joined by a dwarf and a giant, which together with the red curtains were all better used a bit later by David Lynch. The framing story (dreams within dreams) was always a poor move.

It was not reviewed by my usual suspects.

Jamil Jan Kochai: 99 Nights in Logar.

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Kindle. A pointer from Mohammed Hanif. Briefly, a family living in the U.S.A. returns to Afghanistan in 2005 to visit their ancestral compounds and adventures ensue. There's some magic realism and some funny bits ("You swear to God you'll lie?") that mostly mine the chasm between the cultures. I often found it hard to figure out the family relationships and pronouns and articles of clothing etc. Cross-dressing in a burqa was a crime of cliche. It is mostly well structured but I'd lost interest by the time the story of Watak was presented as pages of untranslated text.

Very well marketed. Hanif softens many things: for instance Marwand doesn't "tease" the dog, he tortures it, gleefully. I didn't see the motivation for that and hence felt it undermined rather than underpinned the whole story. Goodreads didn't dig it.

John Clarke: Tinkering.

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Kindle. Hard to believe he's been gone four years now. This is a compilation of excerpts and offcuts of his written work. We get some Dagg, a diary of the Stiff shoot (he was starstruck by David Wenham), some political historiography that was sadly wasted on the muppets of that time and much else. Some is clearly quite rough or intended for very targeted amusement. Overall I'd say you're better off poking around his website or watching the ABC's tribute. I wonder what he'd make of these farcical days.

Goodreads is a bit tepid about it. Robert Phiddian: "Surely deathless prose (even from the dead) is an improvement on an endless stream of nouns prefaced by 'How good is ...?'"