peteg's blog - noise

Uncut Gems

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Adam Sandler on a downward spiral in 2019. It's very NYC Jewish, set mostly in the jewelry trading district. Writers/directors the Safdie brothers (previously unknown to me) do a fine job with a character who isn't exactly a loser and doesn't make precisely the same mistakes time and again. There's excess referentiality, Chekhovian devices, and Altman-style overlapping dialogue that is sometimes difficult to sieve. I was hoping to see Eric Bogosian let rip; time has not been kind to him. It's easily the best Sandler vehicle I've seen.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis.

Birds of Prey

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An overlong live-action cartoon in the mould of the 1960s Batman TV show. Amazingly poor, and Margot Robbie's worst outing for a while. Ewan McGregor! What was he thinking. Was anyone thinking?

Anthony Lane. A. O. Scott is wrong about the action scenes: they're creaky old hat.

Sometimes a Great Notion

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Based on the book by Ken Kesey. Made in 1971, predating the Jack Nicholson classic by four years. Directed by and starring Paul Newman. Also Henry Fonda, Lee Remick. Loggers in Oregon, rugged self-reliant individuals who flout the expectations of their unionised town. The Chekhovian devices go off as you might expect, given their dangerous vocation. Not bad, not great; the best bits are the logging and the ultimate river scenes, all without speech. Great use is made of what little remains of Fonda in the latter.

Roger Ebert. Vincent Canby.

Deb Olin Unferth: Barn 8.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Unferth's collection of shorts Wait Till You See Me Dance. Here she's even more of a romantic, breathing Brooklyn all over so-uncool animal liberation (but don't call it that, it's uncool). She renovates some of the old revolutionary tropes and applies a liberal cinematic gloss: a narrator can voice all her funny stuff, which is mostly descriptional. Concretely this is getting Fight Club's Operation Mayhem cracked actors back together for one last operation against the big-ag factory farming of egg laying chooks. Capitalism is so busted it doesn't even come in for critique, and similarly for a tired and cynical populace. There's a touch of Occupy, but these are the flyover states. Mostly it is contrivance forgivable, with so often the right image: a row of cages is Zenoean. There's a bit too much foreshadowing and repetition. Overall it put me in mind of Francine Prose's Mister Monkey.

Harriet Alida Lye at the New York Times.

Chernobyl (TV miniseries)

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A followup of sorts to Midnight in Chernobyl, and also at Dave's suggestion and, I guess, because it dovetails somewhat with Fred Kaplan's recent nuclear nightmare book too. Highly rated in IMDB's TV section. The many name actors bring the focus to the human elements though the last episode does treat the technical issues around the explosion. It's generally in the style of realism; the explanation uses props like they may have in 1987. I could have done with a little less histrionics. Not much is said about the other three reactors at Chernobyl.

Details at Wikipedia; I'm not surprised Higginbotham called BS on many things here. Masha Gessen suggests the whole angle is ill-advised; but how do we get fission and exposition if those individuals who know are not in direct conflict with the powerful? That this question is not answered well is perhaps the central flaw of the whole enterprise.

Fred Kaplan: The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War.

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Kindle. Throughout I took it to be an update of Kaplan's PhD thesis from 1983 but in an afterword he claims that this is about policy and policy makers whereas previously he focussed on the intellectual apparatus of nuclear warfare. As such it's dispiriting to see so little recognition of the apparent fact that nuclear weapons are pretty much militarily useless: it seems that there is no situation where their use will lead to any worthwhile outcome. Daniel Ellsberg has repeatedly pointed this out, for instance in his book from several years ago. I was disappointed that Kaplan does not observe how the concept nuclear winter could or should have changed policy in the 1980s, and in general how strategy and policy should be influenced by the shifting balance of terror. (For instance, there was a window from 1945 until some time in the 1950s when the USA could — and did! — unilaterally use nuclear weapons without much restraint, but after this time a first strike became far more hairy.) On the plus side I did enjoy reading about how the powerful transitioned from World War II into the Cold War, and some context around the Korean War, about which I know very little.

Justin Vogt. He observes that Kaplan could usefully have contrasted all this sterile policy development with the actual decision to use atomic weapons in Japan in 1945. The stories around the end of the Cold War are, as he says, fascinating and grounds for optimism. Conversely the command and control infrastructure remains a worry.

Watchmen (TV series, 2019)

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A pointer from a Charles Yu interview that I should have been more circumspect in following. Well, it does feature some semi-decent soundtrack work from Trent Reznor I guess. Overall it's a reheat of the fabled comic book, against which it does not stand up well; it's not even as good as the movie, perhaps because the knowing and smarmy acting is simply not up to the task. The epistemics are shot to bits; it's not worth thinking through who knew what when and how and why. There's an unfortunate dependence on Interstellar-style lurv and tedious family time. Somewhat amazingly the plot is a pretty much straight replay of the first one, viz save the world! — but kill Doctor Manhattan first. I wish that was a spoiler.

Charles J Murray: The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer.

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Kindle. Not to be confused with the "supermen" theories of another Charles Murray. I was always a bit curious about what Seymour Cray actually did. Suffice it to say that this book is at the popular, business-y end of things with insufficient technical detail. It needed a bit of an edit. For most of it the author tries to push the unconvincing line that Cray was somehow conservative in his designs when clearly he had a lot of insight into the risks he was and should be running. Cray's greatest hits are the CDC 6600 (a prototypical RISC design by the sounds of it) and the iconic Cray 1. I don't know what exactly he was expecting from gallium arsenide semiconductors; Intel et al seem to have gotten there with silicon.

Incidentally Dijkstra worked at Burroughs from mid-1973 so I guess their paths didn't overlap so much. Little is said in the book about programmability and nothing about Brooks's software crisis.

Charles Yu: Interior Chinatown.

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Dead tree from the Book Depository, bought the very second I became aware that he had a new book out. I guess you could say this is a more direct take on what it means to be "Asian-American", by which he means ethnically Chinese, culturally American, and living in L.A. He expands on his parents' experiences as immigrants (cf his previous take on that), father-son relations and expectations (cf ditto), and the variety of aspirations that only lead to Kung Fu Guy. There's some pretty funny stuff in there, and some poignancy, and a few moves that I'm told are familiar to Westworld viewers. Older Brother is somewhat reflexive; Yu's got a law degree and the book pretends to a literate defence of the experience of the "model minority". I think he's better in short form (cf Sorry Please Thank You and Third Class Superhero) but perhaps my memory is faulty.

Jeff VanderMeer draws a parallel with Beatty's The Sellout (oh the irony, despite the shared city). A bio-of-sorts by Adam Sternbergh. Reviews are legion.

1917

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Somehow highly rated at IMDB — #58 in their top-250! — and the recent Oscars. I guess it is technically impressive though there wasn't a lot for me to hang on to; I kept thinking that it wanted to be Lord of the Rings but had ended up as a first-person shooter with a shallow illusion of a three-dimensional open world. Foreshadowing a Paths of Glory encounter with the battlefield commander was a bit lame. I didn't quite recognise Mark Strong from Kickass. The music was a bit much.

Manohla Dargis wasn't impressed. Dana Stevens observed that Sam Mendes created something all too familiar.

Breaking Bad (Seasons 1-5)

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Near the top of IMDB's top TV shows. I'm about ten years late to this party as I'm conscious that TV series tend to be massive time soaks, which this proved to be. Coarsely it's an update of The Godfather to the twenty-first century, mashed up with some MacGyverism (and for mine those are the best bits), located in Albuquerque New Mexico (the land of enchantment). It's generally absorbing apart from a few too many saggy family parts. Overall it flags a bit somewhere in the middle, and the finer plot details do not always reward attention. Bonus: Rian Johnson apparently directed three episodes.

The follow-up movie released late last year does not sound as appetising; James Poniewozik reckons the canon was already complete. There's also Better Call Saul.

Adam Higginbotham: Midnight in Chernobyl.

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Kindle. Prompted by Dave mentioning that the Chernobyl TV series was some chop, and its appearance on the New York Times best books list for 2019. The details about the atomic city of Pripyat, the Soviet bureaucracy, the operational matters and design of the nuclear power plant, ... are often riveting. Conversely Higginbotham doesn't give us the story of the other three reactors at Chernobyl; for instance, when they were shut down, restarted and operated after the crisis that engulfed the fourth. The moral appears to be that not-immediately-lethal ionising radiation is on the rise, but don't you worry your pretty head about that.

Reviews are legion. Jennifer Szalai.

Farmageddon (Shaun the Sheep)

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The latest Aardman Animations animation. It's fun. There's almost no language. This one features nods to just about every scifi classic out there, right down to its cloning of the E.T. plot (near as I can tell given that I don't think I've seen E.T.). There's a great scene where some fake Daleks startle Tom Baker as he exits a TARDIS-y john, and many others. Conversely (unfortunately) the spook robot is little more than a Wall-E clone. I love it that the sheep are such excellent engineers.

Jason Bailey at the New York Times.

The Lighthouse

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Over a couple of nights as it failed to grip. Veteran lighthouse keeper Willem Dafoe gets saddled with a new assistant in the form of Robert Pattinson. The setting is, of course, a bleak island with extreme weather. Black-and-white, square frame, archaic. It has its moments but director/writer Robert Eggers (co-writing with Max Eggers) generally fails to innovate.

Manohla Dargis.

The Two Jakes

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I just discovered that Chinatown had a sequel, directed by Jack Nicholson who also stars. It's a clunky retread from 1990, so much so that I was surprised that it didn't make David Stratton's list of marvellous movies. The actors are uniformly squandered: Harvey Keitel (in one of his more awkward performances), Eli Wallach as a lawyer, Meg Tilly, and so on. Tom Waits! The plot is somewhat amazingly almost identical to that of its predecessor, though someone more invested might observe a distinct emotional range.

Roger Ebert overlooked the clunkiness at the time. Vincent Canby didn't. Peter Travers.

Chinatown

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Probably third time around with this Polanski/Nicholson classic. Water shenanigans in Los Angeles, how very topical. Prompted by Janet Maslin's review of a book on its making. Somehow still rated #150 in the IMDB top-250.

Roger Ebert at the time and in 2000. Vincent Canby was less impressed. Both observe John Huston as a link to the original American noirs of the 1930s.

Nadeem Aslam: The Golden Legend.

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Kindle. This is the third of Nadeem Aslam's I've read, after The Blind Man's Garden and Season of the Rainbirds. The themes are his usual: the faultlines of contemporary Pakistan with a particular emphasis on the lives of its liberal elites. The focal couple are well-to-do Muslim architects who share what they have with a low-caste Christian family. Much is made of a book that seems to record what Aslam regards as the sum total of human experience. Bad stuff happens and Aslam doesn't so much shield us from it as elude banality. Again his prose tends to the workmanlike.

Francine Prose at the New York Times. Matthew Wright is right that Aslam's politics comes across as simplistic, almost naive.

Richard Jewell

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Eastwood's latest: another in his series of American biopics, this time about the security guard who discovered the Centennial Park bomb at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Given the substantial focus on the FBI I guess it also acts as a bookend to J. Edgar. The cast is uniformly brilliant. Paul Walter Hauser from I, Tonya anchors things in the lead; this story is from the same (Clinton) era. Jon Hamm has the thankless task of playing the lead investigator on the dead-end investigation (reminding me of his G-man in Bad Times at the El Royale and, oh right, The Town). Kathy Bates! She got an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress, of course she did. Olivia Wilde is solid if generically slutty. I enjoyed Sam Rockwell's performance here, lodged somewhere between his W. effort and what I take to be his essential self. I quibble about the poster in his office: I fear large corporations about as much as government, though I concur both are more concerning than terrorism, domestic or foreign. I guess Eastwood implies this by pointing the bone at both the FBI and the media.

A. O. Scott is right that Wilde did her best with a poor role. Perhaps Eastwood is suggesting that the FBI had lost its way by that time? Richard Brody summarises the plot and draws a parallel to the FBI's treatment of Mrs Clinton in 2016.

Il traditore (The Traitor)

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Prompted by A. O. Scott's recent review. It's not exactly The Godfather; more one of those Pablo Escobar hagiographies from a while back. There are some fantastic scenes, such as when the dons are caged up at the rear of a courtroom. I have no idea how Italian justice functions, but it sometimes looks like fun. Scott doesn't seem to mind that Tommaso Buscetta's own motivations went substantially unexplored; if he was really that much into the ladies, how much money did he need?

Motherless Brooklyn

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Ed Norton directs and leads in this revival of 1950s NYC hard boiled detective semi-noir. His usual tics are all on show (for instance "let me tell you something") as well as some new ones, with compensations in Rain Man style. It's too talky with not enough show, and not as twisty as the running time demands while also not making a tonne of sense. Still it's better than the dire IMDB rating and reviews suggest, and there is the odd sweet scene. Alec Baldwin plays a Robert Moses figure who's not going to let the small people get in the way of the big things that need to be done.

A. O. Scott.