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.
Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide, 17 September 2019 ****
Kris is a versatile man: a scholar, a soldier, an actor (of sorts) and a country music living legend. If we sound snippy about his film career, it’s because they’ve been so many more misses than hits (think Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Last Movie, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or Heaven’s Gate – those last 3 would grace many a worst-list) – but we’ll give him inter alia: Blume In Love, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and though he’s oddly cast, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.
He’s in his 80s now, ye gods, yet the gravelly voice, perhaps not as strong, remains clear, and the songs, with the country feel and the sensitivity of a poet who majored in English Lit., have their own sonorous resonance. Kris & ‘The Strangers’ played a great two-hour set Tuesday night (The Strangers are best known as the back-up band for singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, and are Scott Joss (fiddle and vocals), Doug Colosio (keyboards & vocals) and Jeff Ingraham on drums).
Kristofferson was the star of course, tall and venerable centre-stage, but he also let Joss shine on fiddle and often in a duet or as a lead vocal. (I closed my eyes and heard Merle, especially on some of the Haggard covers, such as Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) and Okie from Muskogee.) And the keyboards and soft drums were just right.
We couldn’t, in the dark theatre, compile a full play list (if anyone can supply it please do so) but there were a bunch of highlights in a night of musing about mortality, hangovers, heartache and high hilarity, and we recalled and enjoyed Here Comes That Rainbow Again, Sunday Morning Coming Down, Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make it Through the night, Jesus Was a Capricorn (“Some folks hate the whites, who hate the blacks, who hate the Klan/Most of us hate anything that we don’t understand” ), I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, I’d Rather be Sorry, For the Good Times, Why Me, Shipwrecked in the Eighties, Darby’s Castle, Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again), Broken Freedom Song, Casey’s Last Ride, Feeling Mortal, Best of All Possible Worlds, Jody and the Kid, Sing Me Back Home, Just the Other Side of Nowhere, The Pilgrim, Chapter 33* , finishing with Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.
It’s fair to say the band did much of the heavy lifting, but there is still power as well as poignancy in the Silver Fox, as well as true Texan charm and manners (manners not least of all: he appeared dead on time, did the time, and left the crowd standing).
*He’s a poet, he’s a picker
He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
(The Pilgrim – Chapter 33)
(Directed by Toa Fraser) (2009)
Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany; 24 July 1878 – 25 October 1957) wrote a book in 1936 called “Conversations with Dean Spanley,” a whimsical piece about reincarnation (as well as re-living). The whimsy continues in this film curio, based on the book.
Middle-aged London gadabout Fisk (Jeremy Northam) visits his crabby father (Peter O’Toole) every Thursday. Old Mr. Fisk might inhabit Edwardian times but his heart and soul are rooted in the early Victorian – a sense of duty, plain common sense and a robust attitude to loss. (Men die every day, so dry thy tears, Bono!) Old Fisk lost his other son in the Boer War, and then his wife to the consequent grief, but he doesn’t go banging on about it. He’s accumulated a coat of hard varnish that keeps emotion and his other son at bay, leaving him to maintain anything outside his cloistered experience is “poppycock.”
Enter Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), who attends a lecture on reincarnation and attracts the attention of Fisk, also present with his curmudgeon of a Dad. Meeting again at the old man’s club, and then whilst the Dean seems to be barking up the wrong tree, an acquaintance is formed, with the help of an adroit, antipodean middle-man (Bryan Brown) who unearths a vintage royal Tokay, the Dean’s preferred tipple. After two glasses, the Dean tells his recollections of a past life as “Wag” the dog. Adding coincidence upon coincidence, the Fisk family’s faithful spaniel was named Wag, who disappeared one day and never came back.
The whole melange is ridiculous, but oddly fresh and intriguing, and, crucially, helped along by the charm of the principals: Neill brilliantly plays it completely straight, daring to make his outrageous character virtually pedestrian – Northam is a suave and yet fixated ‘hero’ – O’Toole has a great time chewing the antique scenery, and Brown provides appropriate earthiness as the sensible Australian.
A lot of people hated and despised Dean Spanley, when it came out a decade ago. We didn’t, finding it silly but delightful, trite but sweet, obvious and yet, rather moving. You don’t have to swallow “the transmigration of souls” to appreciate that people can find themselves again – learn to live again – in company, and the company of a dog will not only suffice, it will trump a horde of psychiatrists any dog-day.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Quentin Tarantino) (2019)
In the late 1960s, late in his career, Ezra Pound discussed his monumental work, The Cantos, calling it a ‘botch.’ When asked, “‘You mean it didn’t come off?’ the poet replied: ‘Of course it didn’t. That’s what I mean when I say I botched it.’ He then went on to describe a shop window full of various objects: ‘I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way’, he said, ‘to make’ – and here he paused – ‘a work of art.'”*
Hollywood – the old, gold Hollywood – was in crisis in 1969 – real life had begun to outdo the movies – the film studios were nearly bankrupt, and the product was tired glam-rock before the arrival of punk. Hollywood was a reflection of the wider national crisis. Haight-Ashbury gave way to Hate-Everybody. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meanders through that year, using a washed-up western star “Rick Dalton” (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt man/factotum Cliff (Brad Pitt) as parodies of Yesterday’s Glory. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) represent the Future’s potential for good. (It is an intriguing conceit of Tarantino to flirt with history as the couple pass the Manson Family like ships in the night – Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is like Wotan in Twilight of the Gods – there almost only in spirit, yet a driver-of and witness to a world that is ending.)
DiCaprio & Pitt are splendid actors in top form, but they are hardly stretched here. Excellent actors (Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis) are mostly wasted in ho-hum, Ocean’s 11-type cameos. Typically with this director, there are dazzling, flamboyant (yet uneven) production touches to set the time and place, and Hollywood circa ’69 looks, for the most part, just right – like Polanski got 1930 s LA right in a vastly better film, Chinatown. Some extremely effective sequences recall other films, naturally, even those of the director himself. We particularly liked the creepy, sinister scenes where fearless Cliff, in a restoration Coupe de Ville, picks up (or lets himself be picked up by) a Manson-cutie (Margaret Qualley), who in a leisurely manner (shades of Save the Tiger) is hitching home to the ol’ Spahn ranch, Cliff there risking the ire of the assorted nutters (including Fanning as ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) by dropping-in on former buddy, blind George Spahn (Bruce Dern).
The violence is ludicrous, hilarious, almost otherworldly, and staged with all the flair of a bookish man. Various homages to the movies, from parties with the great and the good to insider tourist traps to film-set exchanges, enhance and yet pall. Like the movies, the leads are getting older, a tad bloated: some are even settling down, but they can still land a punch, nail a tricky scene, belt a ton of booze, match it with a martial artist, or reprise a flamethrower stunt from “The Fourteen Fists Of McCluskey.” It’s a potent display of the last primordial yawp of toxic masculinity.
Quentin Tarantino is the Ezra Pound of B-movies – Magpie-like, he takes a piece here, and a piece there, flips it a little and creates what some are pleased to call art-house. And it is true that he does so with care and talent-to-burn – his vignettes are often brilliant, in terms of script and setting. Like Orson Welles, another enfant terrible, his first film remains his best. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is very, very enjoyable, even stimulating, but not a masterpiece. The director picks up on this and that thing that interests him, and then jumbles them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.[* Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound, pp 457 – 458.] Continue Reading →
Simone Young and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Guests, Adelaide Town Hall, 9 August 2019
One can be ambivalent, even resentful about Richard Strauss, with his ‘stress-without-storm’ tone poems, dalliances with flaxen-haired girleens, Daddy-jokes, and general frivolity, even (and perhaps especially) concerning Nazis. Yet who could resist an evening of his pieces by the ASO conducted by Simone Young, featuring 4 great female singers, the romantic feminine being the essence of his oeuvre?
The programme of works says it all: included were interludes from Intermezzo, Capriccio and Salome; snippets from Ariadne auf Naxos, duets from Arabella, and a selection from Der Rosenkavalier. And more. Young kept Strauss’ noisy orchestrations within bounds, providing mezzo Catherine Carby, and sopranos Lisa Gasteen, Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Emma Matthews, with the chance to soar, which they duly did.
The highlights for The Varnished Culture were the closing exchanges from Rosenkavalier, which evoked memories of the Met performance with Renée Fleming, and the presentation of several of Strauss’ lieder by Lisa Gasteen. What a lovely bonus for us to have a return from the sublime Brünnhilde of the Adelaide Ring (although she returned several years ago now, actually courtesy of Ms Young).
Regrettably, we did not hear from Elektra, that radical bridge from Wagner to the atonalists, but the selection of pieces was both substantial and made with taste and discretion, cleverly balancing the effects and resting the singers’ dulcet tones aptly. All in all, this was an evening not to miss, even for those of us who’d liked to have punched Strauss on the nose at least once (that list includes his wife).Continue Reading →
At the Arkaba Hotel, Friday 26 July 2019
One of Fiona O’Loughlin’s most famous (notorious) routines has her recounting a typical Friday afternoon, picking the kids up from school and then home, via a detour to the drive- through at Liquorland (“It’s Mummy’s time now.”) She spoke of leaving the youngest behind by mistake, and not returning to collect him (“how would that look?”). The bit concluded with a wistful reference to sometimes seeing the little tacker at the wine emporium, complete with his specially-fitted Liquorland shirt.
Several years on, and O’Loughlin’s act is not much changed – she is still the go-to stand-up for the dark-everyday, the Goddess of Small Things. And she is still one of the best in the business – a winsome delivery, deadly timing, and she’s clearly hard as nails. (You can take the Girl out of Warooka, but you can’t take Warooka* out of the Girl).
Her legendary struggle with alcohol (she came damn close to checking out several times due to the booze) features here heavily but not oppressively. We learn about her having to live with Mum and Dad (when aged 52) after release from the snake pit, but O’Loughlin roamed far and wide beyond, in family and life matters, so smoothly and easily that while the audience followed every hilarious line, only at the end did one realise the consummate skill, and sheer warmth and geniality, with which they had been delivered.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Dexter Fletcher) (2019) *** & 1/2
This H[B]ollywood-style biopic (with a dash of Across the Universe, in its random song-and-dance numbers performed by the cast) neither persuades nor informs: instead, it scopes back from a stagey Rehab group – showing Elton John at an even lower ebb than when he released the notoriously awful record Victim of Love – and traces his life up to the 1980s, when he roared back with Too Low for Zero and staged a faux wedding to a woman.
Boxes are ticked: there’s the early austere home life with two egocentric parents (very much not in love with each other), reminiscent of the quiet domestic life in The Young Poisoner’s Handbook. Young Reginald shows some ability on the piano, discovers his sexuality, finds he can set music to words, and finally hits the big time.
The Big Time is served with all the trimmings – the curiously placid friendship with his writing Partner, Bernie Taupin, squabbles with the record company, the arrival of Elton’s Svengali, John Reid – and of course, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
The story is well-known and well-worn, but it doesn’t really matter. Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, whether decked-out in his outrageous stage-gear or getting coked-up and drunk at home, all pudgy attitude and grotty charm. The songs don’t line up chronologically at all, the surreal touches seem out of place, and the script leaps broadly beyond the realm of authenticity, but you can’t help being moved when Elton nails the tune to Your Song – he and Bernie exchange a look that suggest they feel like Paul McCartney did in the early days when he heard the milkman whistling one of his tunes – or when he apologises to his tearful ‘wife’ Renata at a hearty breakfast of gin and orange – or rips into a live, whirling version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ while changing costumes a half-dozen times – or comes out of the closet on the phone to Mum, who airily waves that away as unimportant. Every mother doesn’t want a boy like Elton, but any human will be enthralled by Elton’s journey. In the final analysis, the colour of this corn is gold.Continue Reading →
Wagner’s most human work in the Ring cycle, the hub of the wheel, a pivotal moment when the increasingly out-of-kilter world of gods gives way to the chaos of man. We have described The Valkyries in more detail elsewhere, so we turn without further ado to this excellent film of the performance at the Met in NYC in March 2019, based on the original 2011 production.
‘The Machine’ is back: a spidery bundle of rectangular rods, like giant railway sleepers, that spin and flutter to address the comparatively austere settings imagined by the story. These were not entirely satisfactory, but they did nicely set the scenes, with the add of projected images and back lighting: at attention as trees in the snowy forest; inverted to make the roof of Hunding’s hut; as various mountaintops (in Act III, complete with impressive silent avalanches of snow); as the ‘horses’ bearing the Valkyries to Valhalla, and at the finale, raised to display Brünnhilde’s enforced billet. The cast were clearly a little wary of The Machine – during some of the interviews between acts, a performed recalled that presenter Deborah Voight, as Brünnhilde, tumbled off it during the first production. Even now, with ‘safety modifications,’ there was evidence of circumspection: Greer Grimsley as Wotan crept about the slanted mountain top as though he was tackling the North face of the Eiger, a prudence even more obvious after his spear clattered from its temporary resting place to the main stage. But there is great uncertainty and a sense of global disruption in Die Walküre, and so this tentativeness is not out of place.
In general, however, this was a solid and moving production, with only a few minor glitches in design (the zip atop Wotan’s tunic, the Dunlop Volley-style soles to Brünnhilde’s boots, the fairly unnecessary curtain calls at the end of Acts I and II). But the cast was a dream (set out below), as were the orchestra under Philippe Jordan. At the conclusion, when Wotan has to turn his back on his favourite, embracing and kissing her to render her mortal before leaving her trapped in fiery sleep, it almost plays like early Arthur Miller, and one can see why there were tears and cheers at the curtain.
Christine Goerke (see below) struck just the right note, and all the right notes, as Brünnhilde.
Eva-Marie Westbroek and Stuart Skelton were superb as Sieglinde and Siegmund.
Greer Grinsley achieved a fine sense of the power and confusion of Wotan.
Jamie Barton was an imposing and persuasive Fricka.
Gunther Groissböck was a very impressive and nuanced Hunding.
Continue Reading →
Apparently a psychopath feels negative emotions such as fear or disappointment only slightly, but experiences the highs of (say) skinning people so very much that he or she continues to take risks which neuro-normals wouldn’t countenance. Clearly, having learned so little from the decidedly negative emotions I suffered upon reading Seveneves and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., and being so ridiculously hopeful that the latest Neal Stephenson novel will be another Snow Crash, I must be a psychopath.
Again: Great idea – Drab execution. Richard Forthrast, billionaire (previously met in Reamde) has instructed that, upon death, his remains are to be treated in such a manner that, when possible, he shall be brought back to life. The scientific means develop from chopping heads off and putting them in the freezer with the pies, to the ionisation of the cells of the brain, and Forthrast gets ionised. His “programme” is booted up, and he enters the cyber afterlife.
This is food for thought, and Stephenson chews it. The beginning of the book (when this happens), and the occasional returns to the dilemmas faced by the foundation which Forthrast created to support the digitally resurrected, are the best parts of the book. The treatment of Forthrast’s return to consciousness, fundamentally influenced by his life as a video game developer, is top-notch Stephenson. The creation of the digital afterlife, “Bitworld” (which, via a sort of hologram, can be viewed by those still in “Meatworld”) is top-notch Stephenson. The problems raised about energy, memory and and identity – gold Stephenson.
But. It all spirals and noodles and meanders into a baffling battle in Meatworld between the various foundations interested in the afterlife business. There’s a road trip which only exists to show us what the USA might become. Bitworld turns into a deathly dull analogy of the Bible or Paradise Lost and then an astoundingly dreary Tolkien Quest leavened with heavy heavy doses of geography. Finally there’s a massive battle and….who cares? There is a great deal of expository dialogue and (a pet peeve here at TVC) a lot of it is accompanied by shrugs, shrugs, shrugs and sighs, sighs, sighs.
The plot holes are too tedious this time to even mention, except for one – no spoiler here, it’s right at the beginning and it’s the initiating event – Richard Forthrast, the brilliant billionaire dies because he chooses not to tell anyone at a medical clinic that he has eaten, (when he was supposed to be fasting), despite signs at the clinic reminding him to. [It’s “The Verdict” all over again – Ed.] What a waste. Of Stephenson’s talents.
** [2 Stars]
Continue Reading →
Music and Dance provided by alumni of Kalalaya School of Performing Arts, 6 April 2019, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Theatre
The Varnished Culture has great admiration for Indian accomplishment (mixed with a fair bit of ignorance, but profound for all that). But we were not quite prepared* for the Amazing India experience, pretty much a Hindustani eisteddfod featuring all levels of students and tutors of the local Kalalaya School of Performing Arts. From old-style classical dance forms such as Bharatnatyam and cadenced Kathak, to modern, salacious Bollywood numbers, an enthusiastic (at times, overly enthusiastic) audience were treated to 140 minutes of some 20 different numbers of variable quality in a packed programme that pleased, and occasionally palled.
Many of the costumes, particularly the traditional garments, were dazzling in their flowing colours. When the tots, some too young for primary school, came on stage in their pattu langa, they were as cute, small and (choreographically speaking) random as buttons. The numbers ranged from dances of religious significance, modern dance numbers and soft rock riffs made for Eurovision, variety Indian style torch songs and a fusian of twirling. The dancing was a tad patchy – the singing, in the main, was good.
Overall, this was an entertaining evening (despite the continual use of smart-phones to make blurred films of the proceedings for posterity in the darkened auditorium), but we have a few quibbles. The length was inordinate, some 30 to 45 minutes too long. Certain of the acts seemed repetitive; it struck us that the School wanted to ‘give everyone a go’. Much time was expended moving the stage for instruments from and to the wings; some rearrangement of the running order would have limited this. There was a screen at the rear of the stage that could have been used better: the sponsors were credited a number of times but each of the 21 performances could have screened the title and a brief description – many in the crowd used their phones as torches to peer at the 5 page programme in small font provided. And the screened photographic backdrops, whilst often showing the flower of Hindu sculpture and architecture, also roamed weirdly over inapt scenes as diverse as Paris, New York, Vienna, and Shiva knows where else.
(Directed by Neil Jordan) (2018)
This tedious, derivative piece of trash begins when nice, naive young Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, using every tic and twitch she can summon, and that’s a lot) finds a chic handbag in a subway carriage. Oddly enough, no-one else is interested in it. Even more oddly, all of the lost luggage offices in the entire New York subway system must have been permanently closed, if this film is to make any kind of sense at all. But there we are. Back at home in their luxurious loft apartment, Frances and her flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe, a poor man’s Chloe Sevigny) argue about what to do with said handbag and they continue arguing, although they really love each other, as will be proven in the not-sock-o-certainly-did-see-that-coming-ending. Frances returns the bag to its owner, Greta (Isabelle Hupert gamely slumming it) at her home and goes inside for a cup of tea. Sigh. “No, stupid!” We shout at the screen. “Have you never seen a stalker film? Don’t you know what happens when you befriend a kind, lonely stranger who has a silly accent and cakes?” We weren’t surprised though, that knowing, foreign Greta is just a bit whacko and becomes fixated on the twitcher. We won’t tell you anymore. It’s not because we expect that you will fall for the misleading advertising and go to see this turgid rubbish, and so are avoiding spoilers; but to be honest, it’s because we can’t be bothered. Read the following list of bad stalker movie tropes if you really want to know where it goes from there, but you already do.
In the style of The Babadook List of Bad Horror Movie Tropes we give you The Greta List of Bad Stalker Movie Tropes. There is of course an overlap with the Bad Horror Movie Tropes, viz –
Using Greta as our template, we add, to the Bad Stalker Movie tropes, in no particular order:-
If some sadist ever gags you, ties you to a bed in a small room, and forces you to watch Greta, squeeze your eyes shut really tightly and hum loudly to yourself throughout, but for the obligatory scene when Greta goes nutso and starts shrieking and tossing crockery around in frustration. That’s the one good bit. We think that that was not acting on Mme Hupert’s part.Continue Reading →