Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
This is not a film. It isn’t even a good idea for a film. It’s an extended skit, a riff drawing from real ghost movies like The Sixth Sense and Truly, Madly, Deeply. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are a happy pair uncoupled by Casey’s car smash with the next door neighbour. He returns home in a Halloween-style ghost sheet with ready-made eye holes, and stands by for the next hour, watching the widow eat a pie, her packing and leaving, the new occupants having dinner, and the place being demolished. The late neighbour is next door with a bed-sheet too.
There are some nice, amusing and poignant scenes and some fodder for meditation on life, love and loss, but they are so slight that they cannot amount to anything. As a film, this doesn’t have a ghost of a chance.
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(by Stephen Davis)
That “The” in the title is pretty rich. This is not a definitive biography of Stevie Nicks. This is a pedestrian grab for cash. Davis didn’t interview Nicks – he’s taken his material from published interviews, the music, quotes, interviews with friends and colleagues. He may have spoken to Nicks when working with Mick Fleetwood on the latter’s 1990 memoirs, Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac (which Davis says was “an international best seller (and the foundation text for almost every book written since about this band).” Gold Dust Woman isn’t a bad book, it’s just that it reads as if Davis wondered, “What can I do with he could do with this leftover Fleetwood Mac stuff? Oh I know!” There is little to nothing in these 312 pages that you don’t already know about Stevie Nicks, if you read anything about her at all. The book does begin with a rather good description of the 1975 recording of “Rhiannon” on The Midnight Special TV music show:-
“At just after four minutes the beat recedes, and Stevie sings the midsection: ‘Dreams unwind Love’s a state of mind.’ And then, with two minutes to go, the band launches into a militant 4/4 march with Stevie in a hieratic trance, – shouting, yelling, wailing lyrics, waving arms, strutting and stomping, acting out, wild-eyed. She’s shaking and vibrating, screaming like a bloody Bacchant, ready to tear the soul out of your body, her gesturing fingers making portents and prophesies in the smoky air.
The song crashes finally to a halt – ‘You cry / But she’s gone’ – as she lets out a final howl that lasts ten seconds, descending by octaves. Then Stevie bends way down into a deep floor bow, grasping the microphone stand with both hands to prevent an exhausted collapse.. The performance is complete: the studio audience applauds, and the image fades from the screen”.
But then we lose interest as Davis tries to place this 20th and 21st century American pop star (and Brian Jones, David Bowie, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page et al) into the tradition of the ancient Welsh bards who wandered about damp stony fields, telling stories.
After that it is a recitation of what Stevie did next, in fast and easy to read prose; packed with incident but no depth and mundane insight. To be fair, this is a workmanlike, unauthorised rock biography after all, and it just could be that Stevie is not all that interesting. The churning of the well-worn tale of the turbulent, juvenile relationships between the members of Fleetwood Mac will be of interest only to those who know nothing, or everything, about the band. Lindsey Buckingham comes across as the nasty, abusive whiner we always thought he was. Stevie finds it necessary to have a romantic relationship with just about every man she works with (ho hum). More interestingly, Davis (perhaps not entirely consciously) suggests that the late Tom Petty is the one who got way. Stevie was keener on him than he was on her. “‘I fell in love with his music and his band,’ Stevie remembered. ‘[I thought] if I ever got to know Tom Petty and could worm my way into his good graces, if he asked me to leave my band and join his, I’d probably do it. And that was before I even met him.’ Now Stevie made overtures toward Petty, phoning his management, but the calls weren’t returned.” Although they worked together now and then, in particular, on the excellent “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”, Petty just wasn’t all that interested. And neither are we.
If you’d like a description of Stevie’s style, click here.Continue Reading →
(Dir. Ridley Scott) (2017)
As C. P. Snow once pointed out, the conscience of the rich is different to that of mere mortals. This difference affords the key interest in Mr Scott’s rather lustreless thriller, based on the Getty kidnapping case, in which Christopher Plummer famously took over the role (as billionaire oil baron and professional Scrooge, J. Paul Getty) from Kevin Spacey, when Spacey’s work was already in the can. You can see the studio’s reasoning – Spacey had become persona non grata and had to wear a ton of make-up to look like the aged Getty; Plummer simulated Getty adequately without the distraction of heavy greasepaint, and was far better qualified to encapsulate the character’s weird nastiness without making him too coldly robotic (e.g. see his turn as Mike Wallace in The Insider). And then there were splendid opportunities for virtue-signalling (enhancing prospects of industry awards and media kudos) and free publicity, probably well justifying the $10m spent on re-takes.
Plummer justifies the switch with a neat and nuanced performance that overshadows the film, overshadows it such that we barely notice Mark Wahlberg and others in diverse procedural roles. Charlie Plummer (no relation), as the kidnapped grandson John Paul Getty III, copping heavy physical and psychological drubbing, and Michelle Williams as his feisty mother, are both good. The various (Calabrian?) kidnappers mug like extras in a spaghetti western but Romain Duris gives his man a little humanity (without quite nailing the accent). The film is beautifully shot, as one would expect from this director, and the locations are choice, but the essential problem is the wafer-thin scenario (it is an episode, rather than a story) and the laborious, repetitive pacing. In presenting what could have been an electrifying account of one isolated woman’s fight to save a loved one, in the face of total insouciance from granddad, we instead get a milk-and-water amalgam of A Mighty Heart and A Christmas Carol.Continue Reading →
Chris Adrian’s qualifications in literature, medicine and divinity and he doesn’t avoid the big issues. His first novel, Gob’s* Grief is not as fabulous as his second, the magnificent, The Children’s Hospital, but it is still gob-stopping. TVC were put off of the book by its apparent subject – the American Civil War. But, although the war is a bloody, reeking presence in the book, the novel is about much more than that. Adrian’s obsessions – lost brothers, angels, the mind-body fusion are all stirred together in an unholy alchemy in this story of the terrible grief of the bereaved, the attempt to fuse nature and mechanics, mortality and the afterlife. Real life characters Walt Whitman (whose sainted memory is not spared), Dr Oetker, Victoria Woodhull and John Wilkes Booth walk the pages, in wildly imaginative gaits. The ghastly Pickie Beecher, who will be imprinted on the memories of those who have read The Children’s Hospital, is ‘born’ in this novel, as is his ‘brother’. This is a book for those who can read Flannery’s Wise Blood or Catling’s The Vorrh or Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo without shuddering too much. This is not a book for those who can’t read about fetuses, dismemberment, madness, or kilts made from the fingers of children. But if you can handle those things, the truth is that the truth is ineffable and so is Adrian’s wild, deft writing.[*The issue of pronunciation of this name is never addressed. Watch Arrested Development if you want some hints.]
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(Dir. Martin McDonagh) (2017)
This hefty slice of southern-fried Grand-Guignol, redolent of Flann O’Connor, one of whose novels a character is seen clutching early on, resolves into a mature, thoughtful, at times shocking and occasionally hilarious exposition upon man’s desire for avengement and intense disregard for due process. Mildred (Frances McDormand) has lost her daughter, who was, we hear more than once, not raped and killed, but raped while being killed. It’s been seven months with no leads in the case, for which Mildred holds Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) fully accountable. In order to stir the Ebbing police to greater efforts (whether consistent with constitutional rights or not), she hires three decrepit old billboards on a lonely stretch of road out of town –
The Chief is none too pleased and attempts to alternately charm, then heavy, Mildred. But this lady ain’t for turning. Along the way, we meet several townsfolk who would be equal to the term ‘dysfunctional’, and friendly, local, violence lurks very near all surfaces. There’s much here that strains credulity, and yet the feelings displayed have a strong ring of truth, helped along by crisp photography and editing, and grounded in solid performances.
In a varied and impeccable cast, Harrelson and McDormand are terrific, both alternately hard as rock and soft as butter; as are Caleb Landry Jones (last seen by TVC as the revolting son in Get Out), on the receiving end much more than he deserves; dumb and dangerous Deputy Sam Rockwell (receiving about as much as he deserves); Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes); Samara Weaving as Charlie’s dopey girlfriend (reminiscent of Sydney Pollock’s squeeze in Husbands and Wives), and Clarke Peters as the replacement Sheriff (who, being from outta town, displays the only common sense in the whole story).
To say much more would be to spoil. Suffice to say that some strange allegiances form amid the chaos, and we leave the survivors to their own devices, hurtling towards God only knows where.
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(by Lawrence O’Donnell) (2017)
Our favourite book on the incredible 1968 Presidential election remains the superb and impartial work by visiting British journalists, An American Melodrama. But this work by leftie Lawrence is a terrific read, once you learn to shut-out the partisan noise swirling about every chapter. There’s nothing new here except the charge of treason by Nixon over the Anna Chennault affair, which O’Donnell mines from a book by the almost equally, but less noisily, partial John A. Farrell.[For his Book Richard Nixon: The Life, Farrell has read Haldeman’s notes of conversations with Tricky Dick and implies that RMN committed treason, or at least breached the 1799 Logan Act that relevantly states: Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
During the pointy end of the campaign, Nixon feared that President Johnson, who had decided not to run for re-election, might try to ‘throw’ the poll by forcing compromise peace talks on South Vietnam (to include the Vietcong, a condition to which South Vietnam’s President Thieu would likely never agree. Farrell’s evidence for Nixon’s involvement comprises 2 notes of Haldeman after discussions with RN: “Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN” and “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do.”]
That O’Donnell convicts Nixon of a major indictable offence based on this material reveals a lot about his ‘practical euro-socialist’ world view, but the book is nevertheless an entertaining, thrilling read, confidently and competently covering the charismatic and almost mythical cast of characters crossing 1968’s stage…Nixon, LBJ, RFK, Martin Luther King Jnr, Gene McCarthy, Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, George Wallace, Mayor Richard Daley, et al. And he features the hilarious on-air stoushes between conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jnr and Gore Vidal (to and about whom Buckley, losing his temper, warned and stated: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered…let Myra Breckenridge go back to his pornography and stop making any allusions of Nazism…”)Continue Reading →
(Directed by James Franco) (2017)
The story is well known now. In 2003 a terrible, terrible movie called The Room was released. Tommy Wiseau, the film’s financier, producer, director, writer and star, asserted that it had cost him $US6 million. In its two week run the drama took less than $US2,000. After publication of the book The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, the film was re-released under the banner, ‘The Citizen Kane of bad movies’ and became a cult hit.
Tommy Wiseau is played by James Franco – and although Franco is much larger, younger and more attractive than his character, he does a good line in what seems to have been Wiseau’s spaced-out, enigmatic repulsiveness. His brother, Dave Franco, portrays Wiseau’s friend, Greg Sestero (the author of The Disaster Artist). Wiseau and Sestero meet at a San Francisco acting class, and Greg is (inexplicably) impressed by Wiseau’s over-the-top rendition of a famous Brando scene. Wiseau, claiming to be a 19-year old from New Orleans, appears decades older and has a most peculiar manner of speech, exemplified by a possibly Polish [or Croatian? – Ed] accent, complete disregard for English articles (‘a, ‘an’, ‘the’) and the cadences of a person who has suffered a brain injury. Tommy says that he was badly injured in an accident, and we wonder if compensation payments are the source of his wealth. Or an inheritance? He has certainly not earned the money and he doesn’t seem the type who would live long as a drug lord. Tommy is unpleasant, jealous and unpredictable, so naturally Greg sets off with him to Hollywood, where they both expect to be Brad-Pitting-it within days. When weeks turn into months, they embark on the making of The Room. At this point The Disaster Artist takes off; the first part, establishing the relationship between the friends, being too long.
The Disaster Artist is a movie of the making of a movie, and at times it is a movie of the making of a movie of the making of a movie, given Wiseau’s practice of recording his crew without their knowledge. The shooting of scenes needing more than 60 takes, the inane script, the heat, the bizarre behaviour of the director/producer/writer/star all make for a nightmare shoot. Seth Rogan is particularly good as the professional and patient script supervisor who tries to keep it all together. There are cameos by Jackie Weaver, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bryan Cranston and Bob Odenkirk; Zac Efron is a surprising stand-out as an actor playing a truly frightening thug.
The denouement of The Disaster Artist – the black-tie premiere of The Room, is the only false note (other than the rather bad wigs and facial hair). The cast and crew are horrified and bewildered by the final product – a mishmash of appalling acting, jump cuts, inexplicable conversations and dislocation. But it is simply not credible that people who worked on this disaster would not have foreseen how awful it would be. The audience’s hysterical reaction is over done. But seeing scenes which we have witnessed being filmed, in all their cringe-worthiness, is splendidly funny.
In a clever, amusing and strangely satisfying ending, scenes from the ‘real’ The Room are shown on a split screen side-by-side with their re-enactments from The Disaster Artist. It is marvellous to see the ‘real’ thing and realise that it is in fact that bad.[P adds: In An Actor Prepares, Costantin Stanislavsi, writing of ‘Emotion Memory’ describes the transitional journey from “delight, apprehension, fear, hope, doubt and finally panic.” In this film, James Franco manages all of them at once, in his funniest turn since Pineapple Express.] Continue Reading →
(Directed by Jan Hřebejk, written by Petr Jarchovský) (2016)
Maria Drazdechova, a middle school teacher in Bratislava, requires each class of new students to tell her what their parents do. Czechoslovakia is under Soviet rule in the early eighties, and Maria has connections. Based on a real schoolteacher in the life of screenwriter Petr Jarchovský (an old school pal of the director), Maria proceeds, without secrecy or scruples, to require her pupils’ parents to do whatever she asks of them – including housework, hairdressing, smuggling and the provision of sexual favours. The children of parents who refuse to comply with her demands are marked down, bullied and excluded from favourite activities – in one instance with tragic results. In other words, she is not Mr Chipping. She is more like a relic from South Australia’s Education Department.
Hřebejk’s communist Czechoslovakia looks as shoddy, dowdy and miserable as the real thing. Walls are made of cardboard, clothes are hideous, beds are rumpled cots. The performances, particularly from Zuzana Maurery as the errant teacher, Ina Gogalova as the head teacher, Peter Bebjak as Maria’s personal sex slave and Martin Havelka as a brutish but principled father, are flawlessly accomplished. The growth of Maria’s group of skilfully-garnered cronies and the desperation of her slaves are nicely realised. Unfortunately however, this is a lightweight story, despite its topical and hefty themes. It does not engage and is predictable in a Twelve Angry Men kind of way. It might have worked better as a subplot in a more nuanced and complex story.[P adds: what’s wrong with ‘Twelve Angry Men‘? But we get the critique of the fumbling, of a potentially grand story, of pedagogue as malefactor, the kind of junior high teacher Stalin might have been…] Continue Reading →
By Agatha Christie (1934)
Directed by Sidney Lumet (1974)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh (2017)
The Varnished Culture has been a fan of Agatha Christie novels for yonks – she’s really terrific – but surprisingly for her very theatrical books, they don’t tend to translate to the screen too well. Whether Poirot is played by Peter Ustinov, David Suchet or Albert Finney, he doesn’t seem to be just right. And his supporting casts, possibly from snobbishness, act like a bunch of rejects from a provincial repertory company. The scenery-chewing is entirely superfluous in filming a Christie – certainly she deployed ‘types’ as characters, so why slice the ham so thick on top of that? It isn’t required, or helpful.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the Dame’s best-known books, beloved of Freud and a guilty pleasure for even those readers who could afford a ticket on that famous caboose. Yes, people claim, with some justification, that she cheated like mad, but who cares?
Christie was inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping case and she had been previously stuck on the Simplon-Orient during bad weather. Furthermore, despite the outward appearance in the book, of a strange public crime in sumptuous surroundings, the plot, as it happens, answers closely to Poirot’s own recipe for a perfect murder story, “A very simple crime. A crime with no complications. A crime of quiet domestic life…very unimpassioned – very intime.” [The ABC Murders].
It’s an enthralling ride where the improbable does not fail to convince. Would that one could say the same of the 1974 film! Which is like being stuck on a trans-Siberian carriage where the dining car has burnt down, leaving one tired, bored, dishevelled and far from sated.
When Poirot proposes his solutions, everyone sits in the carriage like stunned mullets; either they’re bored to tears (like us) or discombobulated by Albert Finney’s squishily overripe performance as the great Detective. His accent is so bad as to be fascinating, combining the opaque enunciation of Peter Sellars as Inspector Clouseau with the outrageous preening of Pepé Le Pew.
Consider the denouement in the dining car: Poirot / Finney whirls about like a Gallic Richard III, gazed at by – from left, Jean-Pierre Cassel as the conductor, Anthony Perkins, bobbing, gulping and twitching as the doomed man’s secretary, Sean Connery as a Pukka sahib, Vanessa Redgrave as his flirty squeeze, Ingrid Bergman as a frightened nanny, George Coulouris as the doc, John Gielgud as the butler, Colin Blakely as the (other) private detective on board, Rachel Roberts as Hildegarde, Wendy Hiller as the Princess, Denis Quilley as the chauffeur, Michael York as the Count, Jacqueline Bisset as the Countess, Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard and Martin Balsam as the Director of the Simplon-Orient Express. We’ve linked some of these names to very good films in which they’ve appeared, to demonstrate the wastage on show in this one.
This scene sums up Lumet’s film: as was his wont, he sacrificed story to character and let go of the actors’ reins far too much, such that they are loosed upon us, and the ceremony of enjoyment is drowned.
To be fair, one of the problems with filming a Christie is that her legion of fans will leap on any anachronism or error; will have their own image of Poirot et al, thank you very much! and they know all the endings as well.
But filmmakers should resist the trap of tinkering with the author’s intricate and finely-wrought plots in order to dazzle or engage new audiences. ‘It don’t work.’
Cue the Kenneth Branagh re-make.
We’ll say one thing. It looks good, with (too many) gorgeous views of Istanbul and the snowy alps as the choo-choo chugs through the Balkans. It’s like Grand Budapest Hotel meets The Iceman Cometh. As Poirot, Kenneth isn’t too bad, evoking the character’s famous fastidiousness, love of order, his disapproval of murder. But leaving aside his mammoth, salt’n’pepper, tin-star mustache (surely the most risible facial appellation in film since The Mask), he is not really le type, being all-too much an action man, not enough the petit bourgeois, implying rather than demonstrating forensic skill.
He is also far too apparent, leaving the rest of the cast to stare like goons from Night of the Living Dead, or do their quick cabaret turns and vanish. A conga-line of celebrity walk-ons feature to this end, and we will repeat the dirty trick of linking their names to some of their better efforts compared with the work in question:
Johnny Depp is the victim and has nothing to do other than scowl and smoulder, which he does well enough, given that he seems to be getting ever more incoherent. Michelle Pfeiffer can’t erase the memory of Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard. Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe are über-marionettes. Derek Jacobi has nothing to do. Leslie Odom Jr becomes a (non-Anglo) Indian Doctor Arbuthnot, rather than Colonel, a man, one suspects, unlikely to gaze at Poirot as if to say “only some damned foreigner,” a man similarly unlikely to wing the detective with a shot from his revolver, a script-graft unlikely to have aficionados scurrying back to the book for reference to that one.
Nor would Poirot interview a potential murderer in a milk carriage exposed to the frosty elements. Nor would Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) invite suspicion by stealing from his employer. Nor would one of the passengers stab Mrs Hubbard.
Nor would the lass with the missionary zeal (Penelope Cruz) be called “Pilar Estravados” – isn’t she parachuted-in from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas? And while we’re quibbling, the Christie oeuvre is mined shamelessly – they steal lines from other books of the Dames’ – e.g., ‘I say like a little child “I do not know...”‘ (from Curtain).
The bottom line, however, is that here the producers have removed the heart from Christie’s story and, with surgical precision, replaced it with a shiny, impressive, but entirely inferior, pacemaker.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Roy Ward Baker) (1950)
November 2017: the horrid news of a possible explosion and sinking of an Argentinian submarine off Mar del Plata recalls a ghoulishly wonderful English film vividly showing the dangers of life under the sea. Morning Departure was too gritty and sad to be a hit in its day but it is still a highly suspenseful piece, all the more so because it is quintessentially human and so sad.
Lieutenant Commander Peter Armstrong (John Mills) is off early for a morning exercise on board his sub. His wife (Helen Cherry) wants him to stop roving and start working at her Dad’s vacuum-cleaner factory (starting from the ground up, as Vice President). I’ll talk to you about it when I’m back tonight, he says (uh-oh). Nigel Patrick, as Armstrong’s number two, rocks-up late from an all-nighter, and eventually, all are gathered for what promises to be a tedious day at sea…till an old World War II mine floats into view.
This is the type of stiff-upper-lip stuff the Brits used to do so well, for real and on film. The crew stranded on the sea-bed and those in charge of the rescue are all superb, particularly Mills, Andrew Crawford as a sub-lieutenant, and Bernard Lee as the Commender on board the salvage vessel. Richard Attenborough plays, impeccably, the cowardly chap who regains honour by the last reel (one of his specialties).
The Varnished Culture’s favourite scene is eerily reminiscent of another military chewing-out scene of the same year, Twelve O’Clock High. In Morning Departure, Stoker Snipe (Attenborough) is starting to get the shakes about being confined amidships, when the Captain confronts him about his apparent claustrophobia:
“A man in your condition’s got no right to be in a submarine, why did you volunteer.?
I needed the extra pay, Sir.
You needed the extra pay. Do you know why we’re given that money? Because we might have to cope with an emergency like this one. And the first time it happens to you, you decide to risk the lives of your shipmates to save your own miserable skin. It’s a pretty rotten kind of a bargain isn’t it? You’re useless to me and a menace to everyone else on board. Now, get out.”
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