peteg's blog - noise

The Dry

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Mum reckoned the book was good. Another draw was Uncle Chop Chop's return to Victoria. So I'm blaming director Robert Connolly for this being a clunky bland out, playing more like an overlong episode of The Bill with too many unconvincing, unmotivated and underdeveloped zigs and zags. Just what do people do in rural Victorian towns between murders anyway?

Feted locally, of course. Sandra Hall. David Stratton apparently also gave it four stars. The same from Luke Buckmaster who makes the inevitable comparisons with Picnic at Hanging Rock (the granite boulder/river scenes on the flashback track) and Wake in Fright (the early pub scenes).

Magnolia

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A Tom Cruise jag from Collateral. Nth time around with this P. T. Anderson classic. Janet Maslin nailed it in her review: the final movement doesn't live up to the first two. Eight stars from Roger Ebert (2000, 2008).

Collateral

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Second time around with this Michael Mann. It struck me that this was his attempt at making The Terminator. The cinematography is classic Mann. Tom Cruise is mechanical in the lead. Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem, Jason Statham all have bit parts. Without Jamie Foxx it'd be mostly bust.

Roger Ebert. That opening scene he liked so much is the same gambit Mann played in Thief (which Ebert liked just as much). He's right that Mann puts a few really good things on the table. Manohla Dargis. She's right that Cruise is generally underrated as an actor and does fine here.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

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It's taken me a long time to get around to this one. There's a lot to like. First up Peter Gabriel did the soundtrack, including my all-time favourite Cloudless. I was glad to learn that Molly's mother-actress Ningali Lawford sings the lead for it. Secondly the cast is great. Lead Everlyn Sampi is fantastic, and I was disappointed to see that she didn't go on with her acting. The supporting cast (including Kenneth Branagh, Garry McDonald, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, and David Gulpilil) fill their slots well. The cinematography is gorgeous, which is what I'd expect from Christopher Doyle at the height of his powers.

For all that it's a great story that is not told very well. The core is endurance and tribalism, being essentially bound up with land, of ancient and timeless connections, and of course, crass injustice. Most of that does not readily translate to the screen, and juicing it for drama as Phillip Noyce and his screenwriter Christine Olsen unfortunately do reduces rather than adds. The coda with the two aged ladies tells further stories briefly and powerfully; incorporating those might've made for a better movie.

I'm reading Xavier Herbert's Poor Fellow My Country presently, which after a bumpy intro it settles into a didacticism about the Aboriginality of the north. He notes the use of sign language, which we see Molly employ early on here when the girls have a wary encounter with a pair of Aboriginal men, and gives a best-guess whitefella's interpretation of why you should not point with your finger. This sort of detail, and an underlying sense that things not only must be made good but still could be, is missing here, as is an account of the fence itself, which could've been another character.

3.5 stars from Roger Ebert. He made a few errors of fact about the movie, and seemed unaware of the history of eugenics in the USA. Stephen Holden. David Stratton.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Karla and the Sun

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Kindle. Socially dystopian. More service/bondage. Themes of loneliness and what humans imagine will alleviate it. (Even the bull is lonely.) The Sun as God, a being that gets stifled and occluded but never killed, perhaps because he takes a rest each night. The human heart is essentially inscrutable, in aggregate if not individually. Did he innovate here by having a completely reliable, self-knowing narrator? Almost, until her loss of some precious bodily fluids for the greater good calls the whole show into question. The dialogue is as masterful as always. Overall it didn't really push my buttons.

Widely reviewed, of course. Radhika Jones at the New York Times. She seems unaware that the transition from pastoral bucolic to industrialised consumption was a massive theme in American Pragmatism (citing Hardy instead). Thomas Jones at the London Review of Books points to many similar works, recounts the plot and prefers to discuss Ishiguro's previous works. It is difficult to square Klara's lack of cosmological knowledge with her ability to tutor Ricky in physics and thereabouts. James Woods similarly spills more words on prior art. Toy Story, could be.

The Turning

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Second time around, on an epically rainy Tasmanian evening. I remembered two things: Rose Byrne playing trailer trash, and the very brief shot in the second last short (Immunity) where a woman is balanced on a man's palm. The IMDB rating is dire; Ed Gibbs forecast that back in 2013 for brief and accurate reasons. Despite that it still has its moments.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Committed.

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Sequel to The Sympathizer. It's a bit of a dog that wants to have it all ways. There's a lot of gesturing at but not a lot of engagement with some purported deep thinkers, which is hard to square with the very generic foregrounded gangsterism that similarly gestures at but lacks Puzo's guile and indelible imagery. It did pass the time but I often felt like throwing it across the troopy on this wet, windy and wild Tasmanian Wednesday.

Dwight Garner. I concur that the second half or so really drags, as if the author realised that he's too far gone with cliche and is sick of the project. Garner doesn't appear to realise that "GOOAAAAALLLLLL!" is a direct lift from Trainspotting. Junot Díaz, also in the New York Times, uncritically loved it.

Sound of Metal

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The draw was Riz Ahmed in the lead. This is a tale of going deaf. The frame is a bit of a cliche — he's a drummer in a heavy-metal/punk duo, so what else could he or we expect? — but there are enough jags along the way to keep us unbalanced, or even too many as it often seems that writer/director Darius Marder has little clue where it's all headed, making for an unfortunate bust of an ending. I was here for the deaf theatricals (to me always fun and funny, as Adam Hills knows so well), with the cash out being a scene in the middle where wise man Paul Raci asks one of his cohort for help in setting up some tech: the arc of a flicked cigarette stands in for an epic eye roll. IMDB trivia suggests Raci is mostly playing himself.

Ahmed got an Oscar nom for his work here (as did Raci, the movie itself, the screenplay, the editing and the sound — the last of which is beyond amazing and surely must win), and for the most part he's quite good. I only wish they'd toned down the violent acting out as his character is otherwise sufficiently together to be realistic and reasonable, especially with regards to his girlfriend/mutual saviour played very ably by Olivia Cooke.

I'm glad they're still making movies like this.

Jeannette Catsoulis.

Richard Beasley: Dead in the Water: A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe... the death of the Murray-Darling Basin.

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Kindle. 14.23 AUD from Amazon. Via a brief writeup by Steven Carroll in the Smage, and because I was just out at Menindee and thereabouts. An account of Bret Walker's royal commission (sponsored by South Australia) into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is much anger at much mendacity, indicated by excess repetition and blue language, leavened by some funny bits. I wanted to know more about who has the standing to force the Basin Authority to make what Beasley strongly argues is an illegal Plan conform with the Water Act. It seemed weird that South Australia doesn't make more common cause with the Lower Darling. Entirely depressing.

Michael Pelly at the AFR.

Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual.

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Kindle. Spufford's second novel, after Golden Hill. As always his writing is brilliant and things are generally excellent. We can only really complain that he didn't write more, especially on the parts that were a bit more excellent than the others.

Here he recounts in episodic, fragmentary form the imagined lives of a bunch of kids who didn't actually survive a rocket attack on South London in 1944. (As I understand it the fictional children did not survive the actual rocket attack.) Clearly the closest structural referent is the 7-Up series of movies by Paul Almond (that I've never seen). Some of the characters are particularly interesting, others too tendentious, and yet others are left dangling. The reader is expected to indulge Spufford's philosophical shrugging about how life is, as well as his sometimes ungainly semi-spontaneous bursts of Christianity. Some themes are familiar. For instance a schizophrenic only finds peace/a future within another culture, which here is an inversion of the US tradition of going to Mexico for healing of various kinds (cf Vietnam vets). The description of his condition, and later his eventual wife's back is some of the best stuff he's ever done. (I would've liked to know how she (or her parents) came to London as well.) There's an opera-loving property shyster who thrived under Thatcher; one wonders if before then most English shysters were exported to, or were operating in, the colonies. This is England did more inventive work on skinhead culture. And so on. He is a master of mastering in the service of explication.

Lisa Allardice spoke with him in early February. Kate Kellaway loved it. Alexandra Harris trainspots more structural referents. Reviews are, or soon will be, legion.

The Hunt

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A Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Vinterberg (and Thomas Bo Larsen) jag from Another Round. The premise is entirely #metoo: a very young girl confusedly accuses a kindy teacher she is infatuated with of sexual assault. The focus here is on the fallout for that man in the context of small-town Denmark. A setup like that (established very early on) and some awareness of Vinterberg's prior work might make you expect to squirm a lot. As it is he doesn't have the guts to really take it to us, or perhaps the topic is just too loaded to go anywhere interesting with. It is well made etc.

Stephen Holden.

In Bruges

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A Martin McDonagh writer/director jag from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I gave it a miss at the time as I don't think much of Colin Farrell as an actor or of Ralph Fiennes's choice of roles. Suffice it to say that there was even less there than I expected then; the humour was forced and cliched, with most scenes cleaving closely to formula. Farrell struggled to play dumb (that dumb anyway) and while Brendan Gleeson has redeemed other material this was beyond him. The remainder of the players are cast as eurotrash.

Manohla Dargis: it signifies nothing. Dana Stevens trainspots the legion antecedents, and told me that McDonagh wrote The Lieutenant of Inishmore: this thing needed a cat. Roger Ebert dug it.

Minari

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A young Korean family move first to California and then to Arkansas in the pursuit of elusive happiness. It's a messy story whose best bits involve the wife's mother. The ending is inconclusive. I enjoyed the actors more: Steven Yeun as the exasperating, aspirational husband, Yeri Han as his conflicted wife, Yuh-jung Youn as grandma. Conversely I always struggle with Will Patton's sly grin, and daughter Noel Cho's character is underdrawn.

Jason Di Rosso's interview with the director prompted me to see it. A. O. Scott.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Frances McDormand completism, and a Peter Dinklage jag from I Care a Lot. I gave it a miss at the time because I couldn't see how the themes would add up to a decent movie, and the reviews were mixed. It turned out to be quite fun despite all that, for the most part, mostly due to some very amusing framing and dialogue. The cast is stellar: both McDormand and Sam Rockwell got Oscars for their roles. I warmed up to Rockwell further in, once he got past his moments as himself, though I found his transition from dumb hothead to circumspect vigilante clunky. Woody Harrelson done as good as always. Apart from the accent I didn't recognise Abbie Cornish as his wife. Caleb Landry Jones has fun as an advertising mogul. The ending is not very adequate. #151 in the IMDB top-250.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis.

I Care A Lot

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Stellar cast, total dog. What were they thinking?

Jeannette Catsoulis.

Nomadland

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Frances McDormand plays a widowed older lady who hits the road in the wake of the creative destruction of her company town (Empire in Nevada). Could anyone else play this role? It's always good to see David Strathairn, recognisable by his voice. I liked the way in which she cared. Someone should line her up for a Shakespeare; Plummer would've been her obvious costar.

Dana Stevens dug it and deemed it "message free", but to this foreigner it is far from. A. O. Scott. Kyle Buchanan interviewed McDormand.

Another Round

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Driving around outback NSW, I did find Radio National on the dial and the time/patience to listen to it. Jason Di Rosso on his The Screen Show interviewed Thomas Vinterberg amongst others. He was plugging his new feature Another Round starring Mads Mikkelsen. I liked how Di Rosso framed and engaged with things, and probed his guests, politely and firmly and personally.

The premise is that humans are born alcohol deficient, and what better way to test that out than with a group of four male Danish schoolteachers undergoing mid-life crises. Things go as you might expect, which is a bit disappointing from the director of Festen. However the entire thing is almost redeemed by the last five minutes or so, when Mikkelsen dances. It struck me as solipsistic, as him being so wound up in himself but also momentarily liberated, unfurled in the world, carefree, expressive, but the camera would have you believe that other people were somehow relevant to it. There's also a cute montage of Yeltsin and Clinton in the middle amongst a few other world leaders.

Devika Girish at the New York Times. Also Lisa Abend. And Gia Kourlas interviewed Mikkelsen: "We wanted it not to be about the dance but about what was inside of the character. More than it is a performance, it's an internal journey. It’s almost like a close-up." Anthony Lane.

Arthur Phillips: The Egyptologist.

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Kindle. His most-recent book was OK so I thought I'd give his earlier work a go. It's peak Egyptology just after the Great War: Carter is discovering Tutankhamen's tomb, and our historically minor figures are intriguing for an apocryphal king. Unfortunately the writing is again flabby and repetitive with too much foreshadowing; what seemed to be a promising premise devolved into a swamp of deluded characters with the exception of the knowing, mocking Marlowe and his Oxford set. Sometimes the Australian characters have the right tone and lingo, and perhaps the same is true for the boys who went up to the university. The epistolary format and heavy stereotyping made it hard to engage, and early on it was clear that the unreliability of the narrators was making a satisfactory ending impossible; the remains of these days don't amount to a hill of beans.

Tom Bissell observes this is a historical novel, of which Phillips apparently made a habit. I didn't enjoy much of the humour as I took the whole show to be a fiasco from the start; it's a farce not a comedy, not even a parody, just a dance with cliches. Bissell does not grapple with the themes of immortality, rhyming, repeating history, fakery and weak evidentiary bases. Goodreads was harsher.

The Night of the Hunter

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Some nights there's nothing for it but to revisit this Robert Mitchum classic. Roger Ebert deemed it not only a "great movie" in 1996, but "one of the greatest of all American films". Who can argue with that. Bosley Crowther liked it at the time apart from the ending.

Amor Towles: You Have Arrived at Your Destination.

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Kindle. A short written on commission for Amazon. This is one of those books that makes you wonder if the writer's editor isn't the magician, as for Shantaram / The Mountain Shadow. Clearly bashed out quickly and to spec; there's little of Towles's sophisticated remove here. I wasn't invested enough to divine the novelty or point of it all. Designer babies! In the USA! Ergo military-industrial complex conspiracy. It didn't smell truthy to me.

Goodreads has a range of opinions.