Quo Vadis, Aida?

February 24, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Jasmila Zbanic) (2020)

If you were told that a mortal enemy was approaching your town, in force, what would you do? Would you up stakes (family, dog, cat, photos, bread and water)? Or would you wait and hope for relief from a UN Peace Keeping brigade, lacking both air support and Sun Tzu’s well-known power to keep peace (i.e. by preparedness for war)?

After Tito, who had ruled Yugoslavia for some 34 years under Soviet patronage (although he was not exactly a puppet) died in 1980, it was inevitable that the country would list, containing as it did a salad of ethnic, religious and political diversity, dressed with historic enmities. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade later, the prospect of general global war vanished (for a time), to be replaced by the ‘agony of the little nations.’ Yugoslavia broke into pieces. These pieces had surprisingly sharp edges.

European Film Awards 2021: 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' sweeps the list - Hot Movies News

Quo Vadis, Aida?  tells the story of one of those pieces, the Srebrenica massacre, where Ratko Mladic‘s Bosnian Serb forces killed some 8 thousand Bosnian Muslim boys and men, on 11 July 1995; the worst mass murder in Europe since WWII. After taking the town (what’s left of it) and having the Mayor and his administration ‘recalled’ in the most brusque way imaginable, the army descends on an abandoned factory/warehouse where some 4,000 villagers huddle under the ‘protection’ of Dutch peace-keepers, many thousands outside the gates, in the scorching heat, clamouring to get in. (Beautifully shot, the plight and manifest despair of the civilians is eerily reminiscent of scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport last year).

Aida, a Bosnian translator, has to afford communications between the city councillors, her fellow villagers and the UN forces, all the while striving to save her husband and two sons from a fate she fears will be deadly.  It makes for a very sad, indeed, harrowing film, told in the most clear and pure terms, with none of the hand-wringing or false moralizing we tend to get nowadays.  The coda to the film, the same village in winter now, years hence, is as satisfying as it is almost surreal and vaguely ominous: evil casts a long shadow and may replicate.  The direction here and throughout is as sure and tastefully stark as possible.

The entire cast is superb.  Without detracting from anybody, we must single out Johan Heldenbergh as the frustrated and feckless colonel of the peacekeepers; Raymond Thiry as his exasperated 2IC (both abandoned by the UN and left to negotiate with – i.e., be shoved aside by – Mladic); Izudin Bajrović as Aida’s husband; the magnificent, malignant, cynical and truly formidable Mladic (Boris Isaković) and his henchman (Emir Hadžihafizbegović). Best for last – Jasna Đuričić, as Aida, gives an astounding performance.

Quo Vadis Aida? (2020) - The Story of Srebrenica Genocide - SpotaMovie

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Inventing Anna (Episodes 5 – 9) (Netflix 2022)

February 22, 2022 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, TV SERIES |

(See our review of Episodes 1-4 here).

We have watched the rest of the series, so that you don’t have to.  In particular, we exhort you to never ever expose yourself to episode 9, which is without doubt the worst courtroom episode of a tv series ever made and possibly the worst episode of any tv series ever made.

Before we get to that rubbish bit of drama though, our favourite Russian conwoman Anna Sorokin/Delvey (Julia Garner) and her hapless hangers-on go to Morocco. Anna’s treat. They stay at the sort of resort that the Kardashians frequent. Morocco is beautiful but scary. If you have bad dreams in which your credit card is rejected, there is a truly tense scene in episode 5 of this otherwise suspense-free series that will give you night terrors. It’s played to great effect by Tracy Ullman lookalike (Katie Lowes as Rachel) who should know better by now.  Rachel covers Anna’s Moroccan debts of $US62,000 on her personal and work credit cards. This can’t end well. It doesn’t. When Rachel scoots from Morocco because she’s finally wising-up (thanks to her boyfriend, more on this later), Anna demands that the resort take her to the airport by helicopter. They don’t. Anna can’t pay for her airfare from Morocco and asks her friend Kacy Duke (Laverne Cox) to pay. When Kacy agrees, Anna asks if she can buy her a first class ticket. She can’t. But these woman are only wising-up now because  their boyfriends and husbands repeatedly tell their womenfolk, “Hey!  Wise up!  Anna’s scamming you!”  That’s their sole job. Naturally, when Rachel reports a crime the police are all male and contemptuous and laugh at the silly girly. They’ve got real man work to do. Men!

Meanwhile eye-rolling, face-scrunching journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky) has set up a pointless murder-investigation-style wall in the nursery at her house. Because when you are a journalist it is necessary to join photographs with red string for no reason at all. Oh no…a nursery…dear God, there’s a birth scene coming up. There’s a not-at-all derivative and not-at-all cliched scene first though, when we learn just how much of a trooper Vivian is. Vivian is on the phone trying to get that very last confirmation for her story which must be filed this minute! She’s actually in labour! She gets the ok not a second too soon and her husband hurries her off to hospital, while the entire staff of Manhattan magazine stand and applaud. Honest. Until this point the sole job of the men in Vivian’s office is to either be yelled at by her because they don’t value her, or to be in her gang and help her out with juicy tidbits about Anna which they apparently can find when she cannot. (These supportive and amusing gang members are also useful for throwing in the odd anti-Trump comment so that we know what time we are in and that we are on the side of the angels). After Vivian’s story takes off, of course all the men in the office adore her. Men!

Unfortunately, Vivian’s child has to be born and there’s nothing we can do about it.  What a moment for an overacting (cervix-owing) actor. A birth scene. The best thing ever. Chlumsky chews the hell out of this one. Truly we reach Dunaway levels of over acting. Indeed, we are approaching O’Toole level. (He could never have been rivalled of course, had he owned a cervix). Naturally there’s a crisis during the birth, but all is well and Vivian is delivered of a little mite she can grimace at.

Vivian has to zoom off to Germany to investigate Anna a little more. She has to go today! Anna’s husband’s job is to support her and he doesn’t like it. “You’ve only just given birth!” Chlumsky’s whole face gymnastics during dialogue get even more peculiar when there’s a language barrier. So, when her facial muscles are worn out, she hires a translator which is really good because it calls for lots of expository dialogue. There’s yet more expository dialogue when a psychiatrist sits at the bedside of a hospital patient in the way that psychiatrists don’t, and when Anna’s lawyer and his wife have dinner with Vivian and her supportive husband for some reason.

In addition to Chlumsky’s heliographing of every emotion, the viewer is distracted by an enormously tall transgender woman playing Kacy (based on a real person who is not transgender), by the adult Delvey’s  bad wigs and the young Sorokin’s ludicrous coloured contact lenses. And there’s always Irritating Anna’a accent, “Ah rahmembah waht he tahld me”. Vivian does gain some insight into Anna’s mindset and the potential sources of her fantasies. There are some useful coincidences. While Anna and her translator are engaging in expository dialogue on the street by a picturesque takeaway van, a passing pedestrian hears the name “Anna” and chimes in. “Do you mean Anna Sorokin?” Of course they do. Anna is such a rare name in Germany. The passer-by went to school with Anna Sorokin! So soon a whole lot of Anna’s former schoolmates get together to give Vivian some exposition on Anna’s school days which were basically Mean Girls meets Heathers meets Clueless. Vivian’s gonna need a lot of red string.

Then there’s the final episode about which we can say little without spoilers (and we are weary enough to know that some of you will watch it, despite our warnings). Let us just say that in the thousands of hours that the TVC reviewers have spent in courtrooms,  we have never seen a Judge on the bench drinking a huge Starbucks iced coffee, or known a trial to be held up because a defendant who is in custody wanted to change her outfit. Nor have we known a lawyer who agreed to let a journalist see all of the discovered material he has, because said face-pulling journalist did a spot of shopping for him.

There are again, some beautiful interiors and clothes in Inventing Anna.  There are echoes of the movie Shattered Glass.  (A teenage techno-scammer, an imagined audience). But not enough pretty stuff and only echoes of a much better production.

Inventing Anna' Episode 9 Finale Recap: Dangerously Close

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The Art of War, Peace and Palaver

(By Paul Brennan) (Amazon, 2018)

Over 23 hundred years ago, a dynastic militia in China wrote down their collective thoughts on the strategic management of conflict. The Art of War (aka Sun Tzu, after the Order’s paterfamilias – see main image) is recognised as a classic handbook for modern problems (whether in war, business or interpersonal quarrels). Litigation and legal negotiations are often referred to as war (or business) by other means, and can arise or be ignited from clashes of personality as well. Thus, some 23 hundred years later, experienced Queensland Lawyer Paul Brennan gives us a legal take on Sun Tzu, and just as the warlord showed wisdom in stressing the desirability of avoiding battle, so too Brennan helps the layman understand why even the most enthusiastic litigation lawyer always talks about settling out of court.

Covering a range of litigation scenarios – commercial, family, deceased estates, debt and insolvency, even neighbour disputes – also tackling government departments, banks, incorporated associations and the like, Brennan, in a highly accessible and practical way, synthesizes the modern management of legal risk, informed by terrific wry humour and a large humanity. (There are some nice bespoke illustrations as well). Unless you are Clive Palmer, who lists ‘litigation’ as one of his hobbies, or a corporation looking for a big tax deduction, this book acts as a soothing guide to how to bottle the acid and deal with legal problems in a practical, rather than bellicose, manner. By practical, we mean things like terminating a contract without it biting you on the backside (i.e., rescission rather than repudiation), dealing in good faith as the safest way to do business, neither a borrower nor lender being, and so on. Some examples will give you the flavour of this invaluable, indispensable, and entertaining book:

Sun Tzu: Compare your army with that of your superior in numbers enemy, so you know its strength and weakness.  To their credit, government departments have the professionalism and training to listen quietly when you throw a tantrum. But what if slamming the phone down and telling your wife is not enough?

Sun Tzu: Prevent co-operation between the enemy’s large and small divisions and hinder the good troops from rescuing the bad.  If you have seen the film Zulu, you will know what it is like to be in a Government Ombudsman’s office, risking daily being overrun by crazed complainants fresh from battle.

Sun Tzu: Exercise caution and foresight to avoid unnecessary battles.  Ask a lawyer a simple question like how much will he charge for drawing up a loan document to lend $50,000 to a friend and you would expect a simple dollar figure answer. However, your lawyer is more likely to respond, “Are you crazy?”

When the King of Wu interviewed Sun Tzu to be his general, he asked if the principles of the “Art of War” could extend to teaching the King’s 180 concubines to march in formation. The King watched on as Sun Tzu lined up the concubines in two columns and put the two favourite concubines at the head of each column; Sun Tzu explained that when he gave the order to turn right they must turn right, turn left they must turn left. He asked if they understood and they indicated that they did. The drum rolled and he gave the order “Turn Right” at which all the concubines fell about laughing.

Sun Tzu: Don’t fight in your own territory.  Fights with your Neighbours – You have the house, wife, two kids and the car and are living the modern dream. What new frontiers can you, the red-blooded male, conquer but those which abut your own garden?…Yet, if you feel that this is too drastic a course of action, then the answer is to leave your neighbour alone and take your frustrations out on waiters, bank clerks, taxi drivers, motorists and others of modest stature, who preferably do not know where you live.  As people live closer and closer together, neighbour disputes become increasingly common. Dogs, children, fences, wives, noise etc., there is plenty to disagree about.  You may find The Art of War to be particularly useful in this instance. It basically concerns neighbourhood disputes in Ancient China. It offers practical advice such as “The object of war is peace” which may be especially useful in considering reprisals against a brainless neighbour.  You may also find it useful to note that, like some judges, the police can be swayed by a well-presented case, particularly when it comes to neighbour disputes.

Sun Tzu: A clever general not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. His victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.  Fights with your Clubs Associations – Club membership has so much more to offer than a game of tennis, bowls or a few social drinks. Add to that intrigue, gossip, conflict, and the cut and thrust of the committee meeting which spills over to the AGM and it can be all-out war.

Sun Tzu: When active, appear inactive; when near, make your enemy believe that you are far away; when far away, make your enemy believe that you are near.  As E.W. Howe said, “There are very few grave legal questions in a poor man’s estate.” But add even a little money and any family can become the stage for some stellar and demanding performances from its members. Often the indolent, gin-swilling, shopaholic daughter-in-law who must be kept away from the wonderful son’s inheritance can become in time, the saintly mother who sacrifices all for her own children and deserves every penny. The death of her husband may launch her into a new marriage and the role of hated, money-grabbing stepmother, only for her new husband to die and for her to inherit everything, leaving his children without an inheritance. But her loneliness throws her into the arms of a chancer and she becomes the fear-driven widow who is about to be taken for a ride by a man who through some quirk of law, could leave her money to his own children. [Also, Confucius say; ‘He who waits for dead man’s shoes goes barefoot’. – Ed.]

Sun Tzu: An army which is restless and distrustful invites trouble from your enemy.  Management getting you down? Wait a minute, you are management.  You are a band of four equals growing a company to sell it for a killing. Initially, your conservative, systematic approach mixes well with their knockabout, cavalier manner. However, as the company becomes more successful, the other three shareholders increasingly play the three musketeers as if you were one of the Cardinal’s men. Voting in the board meetings becomes three to one and not one for all. They decide to make your life a misery so that you leave without insisting on a full 25% share. They deliberately criticize or ignore everything you say, treating you like an employee and starving you of information to upset you, despite you being a director. This strategy can be very successful. Sun Tzu advised that it was better to crush your enemy’s will without fighting.

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Inventing Anna (Episodes 1 – 4) (Netflix, 2022)

February 16, 2022 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, TV SERIES |

We have seen the first four parts of the new nine-part series from creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes which fictionalises the true story of Anna Sorokin, a Russian-born fraudster who scammed New York high society. (See our review of Episodes 5 – 9 here). There is a nice touch in which, at the beginning of each episode, the rubric, “This whole story is completely true, except for all the parts that are totally made up” appears in a different guise every time – on a photographer’s drop sheet, on a bronze plaque.

Julia Garner plays Sorokin (usually known as Anne Delvey) with a peculiar pseudo-European accent which, oddly, does not seem to excite curiosity. Nor does her claim to speak 7 languages and have an eidetic memory despite not recognising the toast ”nostrovia’*. Sorokin, or Delvey, has no apparent means of support (Daddy has cut her off and her trust fund doesn’t vest until she is 25). Nor is anyone alarmed by the fact that her boyfriend, Chase Sikorski (a very creepy Saamer Usmani), promises to make them all millions through his technology ‘Wake’, which will unite the peoples of the world through their dreams (the type people dream when asleep, not the kind where they believe that a nobody in her 20s can set up an exclusive social club/art gallery on Fifth Avenue).

That Sorokin deceived even one of the apparently savvy and definitely wealthy socialites, investors and bankers who were fooled is incredible, if the real Sorokin at all resembles the shonky and childlike character portrayed with perfect chilling arrogance by Garner. Of course, some must have laughed in Sorokin’s face, but this series is only concerned with people too gullible or stupid to recognise a con artist before it’s too late.  We do suspect that the real people involved would have been harder-edged and even more unpleasant than their truly unlikeable screen counterparts.

How 'Inventing Anna' Recreated Anna Delvey's Wardrobe | Time

Characters frequently ask, “what does Anna want?”  An odd question given that what she wants, clearly, is easily-won money; even racking-up $400,000 on an unsuspecting benefactor’s credit card. But if there is any doubt as to Anna’s thoughts, there is none whatsoever about what is going through the mind of investigative journalist Vivian Kent, played by Anna Chlumsky with eye-rolling, open-mouthed gaping and grimacing.  Chlumsky gasps and gurns with shock at each revelation in the trite script, none of which surprise any viewer who has their facial muscles under control. Vivian is redeeming herself from being scammed by the subject of a previous piece she wrote. (The irony!). Her slimy boss has no faith in her and assigns her to ‘me-too’ stories, but after Vivian begs, with much face-scrunching and pouting, the gruff-but-perceptive boss of her boss gives her two weeks –  “just two weeks mind, kid!” – to do the Sorokin story. Vivian is assisted by a hearty and amusing crew of has-been writers – an eccentric old guy in a cardigan, an eccentric old guy in a cap and an eccentric fat woman of indeterminate race.

For reasons best known to themselves, the producers of Inventing Anna have hired screenwriters who have obviously never spoken to a lawyer, met a lawyer, or even passed a lawyer on the street. Anna’s attorney, Todd Spodek (Arian Moayed, excellent in a ludicrous role) collaborates with Vivian in writing her story, with a complete disregard for ethics. In true mini-series fashion he eeks out bits of information, even saying things like, “I’m going out of the room for 5 minutes and you had better not look at this file that I am leaving open on the table.”  Vivian walks in and out of his office, apparently at will. He cracks her spine while she’s writhing on all fours to relieve her back pain.  Did we mention that Vivian is pregnant?  Well she is and we are never allowed to forget it as she contorts, rolls on the floor, holds her back, levers herself into chairs and groans her way through it.

So why watch a whole 4 episodes?  Why watch any more, as we probably shall?  Because the true story is interesting enough and the performances are good (apart from a little over-acting from one cast member which we may have mentioned). More importantly though – there are the clothes, Bergdorf Goodman and the New York brownstone interiors. It’s almost enough.

[* To be fair to ‘Anna’, in the original it would be “Na Zdorovie” – Ed.] Continue Reading →

The House of Gucci (dir. Ridley Scott)

January 23, 2022 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |


Poor Ridley doesn’t know what kind of director he is – sci-fi (Alien, Blade Runner), historicist (Gladiator, Robin Hood) or God-Love-America (Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down)? He’s as confused as we are by his house-of-fashion-meets-financial-shenanigans offering, The House of Gucci.  Gold-digger Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a Milan party. She wants him, at least the Gucci part. He’s not interested, indeed he doesn’t seem to be interested in anything at all throughout the two and a half hour story, but Patrizia won’t leave him alone. She throws all of Gaga’s famous 5 foot 2 inches at him and he marries her in a lethargic sort of way, despite the disapproval of his father Rodolfo.  Rodolfo seems to have been shoehorned into the script so that we can see Jeremy Irons do his louche, disaffected rich man bit (See Reversal of Fortune).  Maurizio is exiled from the firm and works at his father-in-law’s trucking firm, but still manages to drive an expensively lace-clad Patrizia around in luxurious cars of the red sort. Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino – bring on some scenery, there’s chewing to do!) owns the business jointly with Rodolfo and likes the young couple. He gives them a couple of Concorde tickets for a wedding present before sneaking Maurizio back into the business. From then on it’s lots of financial shenanigans as everyone denounces everyone else for tax fraud, there’s a takeover, and eventually someone gets shot.

Scott might defend the lack of much-at-all about fashion in his film by saying that it is about financial shenanigans, denunciations, a takeover and a shooting, but it is called The House of Gucci and that does entitle the viewer to expect to see quite a bit of, oh I don’t know, Gucci? (Despite Gucci’s general ugliness: see main picture). We are told very little about the Gucci line, its origins, its reach. We’re supposed to know, it seems. Whereas we can be sure that if the film were The House of Ferrari, we’d know lots about cars by the end of it. It is reported that the film-maker had trouble sourcing original Gucci outfits from that period and it shows.  Patrizia’s featured black and pink dress is in fact YSL. Tom Ford is a throwaway headline [The real Ford said of the film, “I’m still not quite sure what it is exactly.”].  There is one mingy atelier scene. There is one mingy Gucci shop scene. In the one mingy Gucci shop scene, we are asked to believe that Mrs. Maurizio Gucci would need to be told that she can have anything she wants as a special gift?

Lady Gaga has been praised for her performance and indeed, it is difficult to look at anyone else when she is on screen. Reminiscent of Marisa Tomei in her My Cousin Vinny days, the Lady’s performance is not subtle, but then again, the viewer gets the strong feeling that neither was Patrizia’s. Her evolving – and devolving – wardrobe shows that, indeed, clothes maketh the woman.

Villa Balbiano 1.jpg

Like its director, the film just isn’t sure what it is. It looks nice, the Gucci homes are spectacular, either long and low and grey, tall and pink and frilly or Villa Balbiano on Lake Como (above, ’nuff said). But it wanders off from the internecine ruckus of a high-money family feud into confused and slightly silly takeover machinations. Good people throw up their hands and evil Arabs, including a very scary and formidable Nemir Kirdar (Youssef Kerkour) ruin everything. Maurizio still doesn’t care. He suddenly ditches Patrizia for a stick insect aristocrat. Aldo’s buffoonish son Paolo (Jared Leto) cares, but we are not sure about what, given that he has been dressed by a demented clown with a thing for neon corduroy, given a poor script and acting lessons by Mickey Mouse. Rodolfo is jogged out of his ennui long enough to tell Paolo (in a very pale and aesthetic way) that he is a design moron because he put pastels with brown; whereas Rodolfo the genius put tulips on a scarf. So Paolo pisses on the scarf. It’s like that.

Despite its many flaws, the House of Gucci is watchable, but wait for Netflix and try not to ask why Italian natives, supposedly speaking Italian, are doing so with bad and intermittent Italian accents.

House of Gucci (2021) - IMDb

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The White Lotus

January 11, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, TV SERIES |

(Written and directed by Mike White) (HBO 2021)

Eating the lotos day by day,

To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,

And tender curving lines of creamy spray;

… To muse and brood and live again in memory,

With those old faces of our infancy

Heap’d over with a mound of grass,

Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass.” (Tennyson, Song of the Lotos-Eaters)

We don’t know if Alfred’s weird poem informed the consciousness of Mike White’s weird satire but we like to think so. This 6 part series, a sort of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ meets ‘Fantasy Island,’ filmed at a swish resort in Hawaii, confirms that it’s not where you go but how you go that matters in life. Here we have an ensemble of well-to-do ne’r-do-wells descending on ‘The White Lotus’ for a week of sun, surf, fun and romance – guaranteed.  Guaranteed by a staff that sets its bar high but doesn’t quite clear it – we’re not talking about Stevens in Remains of the Day, after all, but remains do feature – prominently.

There’s lashings of sex but very little romance.  Newlyweds Shane and Rachel frolic but don’t really connect – since he’s an overprivileged and self-entitled mummy’s boor and she clings to her vocation as a struggling journalist even though she writes puff pieces and not very well at that.  The Mossbacher family are diverging into their own private worlds, Mum as the default alpha patriarch, over-analyzing Dad bonding with son Quinn, both with arrested development; meantime spoilt daughter Olivia and her tag-along girlfriend Paula scoff at the world from behind their phones and their books on Nietzsche and Freud, managing to be woke and privileged simultaneously. There’s heaps of sun but not a lot of fun. Tanya is a bundle of haute psychosis symptoms who self-medicates and attaches herself to spa manager Belinda, in an opportunistic and parasitic fashion that damages and belittles them both. The various personas are beautifully done, and hence you never want to kill off anyone (okay, maybe Shane).

Bringing us to Shane’s bête noire, the undoubted star of the show, Armond. A manager whose every interaction with guests is a performance, Armond can barely manage himself, and once he falls off the wagon and into a pit of drugs and debauchery, not at all.  Murray Bartlett gives us a complete embodiment of what Solzhenitsyn had in mind when he said, in The Gulag Archipelago, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Twenty years in the States seems to have altered Bartlett’s accent somewhat – he seems more Kiwi than Aussie as Armond – but it doesn’t matter. He is well nigh perfect as he descends à la Dante, in manner both comic and tragic.  And unrepentant over his carnality, wrath and sullenness, as in The Inferno, he recalls the happy hour of his lost bliss in pain.  A second series has been announced but unless they can work Armond into it, we don’t see how it can succeed.

HBO Sets Tropical Resort Limited Series 'White Lotus' - Variety

The gang’s all here: Murray Bartlett (Armond); Connie Britton (Nicole Mossbacher); Jennifer Coolidge (Tanya); Alexandra Daddario (Rachel); Fred Hechinger (Quinn Mossbacher); Jake Lacy (Shane); Brittany O’Grady (Paula); Natasha Rothwell (Belinda); Sydney Sweeney (Olivia Mossbacher); and Steve Zahn (Mark Mossbacher).

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How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives (by Alex Berenson) (2021)

This splendid book is both a comprehensive review of how the world got everything wrong about Covid-19 (or, if you have a conspiratorial bent, how the plague was weaponized by authoritarian forces to cow and terrify us into submission), and a story of how one man kept yelling from the back of the truck that this emperor had a spiked crown but no clothes. Or in his words, “how media hysteria, political partisanship, overreliance on unproven technology, and scientific illiteracy brought the United States and the world to the brink of breakdown.”

The author is a former staff writer for the New York Times, a fact that we think, somehow, the Times wants to forget, who became (by his own admission) obsessed by the virus and the noise circling its spiky little wreath.  As will become clear, the monopolies that control our information have no time for him – here’s an extract of his Wikipedia entry: “During the coronavirus pandemic, Berenson appeared frequently in American right-wing media, spreading false claims about COVID-19 and its vaccines. He spent much of the pandemic arguing that its seriousness was overblown; once COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out, he made false claims about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”

As will also become clear, his false claims tended to be outrageously true.


We will summarize the various points he makes, but our earnest and urgent exhortation is: read this book.

Of the virus itself, Berenson points out that:

  • The protein spikes of the virus made it easier to attach to human cells and therefore replicate via its host;
  • Respiratory illness is notoriously, historically, hard (i.e. impossible) to control or contain;
  • It did not disrupt the food chain or overrun hospitals, despite reporting to the contrary;
  • It killed fewer American children than drowning, cancer, abuse or a dozen other conditions (yet schools and colleges were locked down more than anything, and a generation of ‘snitches’ was born);
  • 80x as many Italians died from flu in 2014/15 & 2016/17 than of Covid-19;
  • Jane Fonda described Covid as “God’s gift to the left” (which proved prescient, as it removed Donald Trump from office);
  • It killed slightly more people than diarrhea or Alzheimer’s disease in 2020, and was less threatening than stated; and
  • It generally threatened only those who were very old, fat, sick, or all three.

Of the reportage, the author notes:

  • The statements by compromised experts as to the origin of the virus were accepted without question (and evidence that Dr Fauci and others had funded Wuhan gain-of-function research was stifled);
  • The NY Times called the murder of a 27 year old Iowa man (Jordan Haynes) a Covid death;
  • CNN deprecated Americans for panic buying of masks yet praised China for doing so;
  • Any policy initiatives or suggestions by the Trump administration, some actually sensible, were derided;
  • Pres. Trump’s much-mocked prediction that the Covid death rate would turn out to be under 1 percent was correct;
  • The much-hyped ‘Long Covid’ was about as credible as chronic fatigue syndrome;
  • “[H]ospitalizations were a far better real-time indicator than deaths“;
  • Covid deaths were never put “in the context of overall mortality“;
  • Vaccine hesitancy was mocked and condemned, and the unvaccinated blamed, pilloried, dismissed from work, declined treatment and shunned by polite society;
  • U.S. States that eased lockdowns were savaged with dire (and false) predictions of mass quietus; and
  • Virtually all the doom-saying in the mainstream media was wrong on every aspect of the plague, and wrong by a long chalk.

On the response by the various authorities:

  • WHO tweeted on 14/1/20 that the Chinese had found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission;
  • In January, China bought-up billions of masks and other protective equipment, causing world-wide shortages;
  • A 2006 study of flu pandemics demonstrated that quarantines, travel bans and school closings of more than 2 weeks were likely counterproductive;
  • Lockdowns turned out to be “useless, if not counterproductive” (e.g. by increasing indoor and at-home transmission);
  • Modelling for virus containment was an aid, not a substitute for decision-making;
  • CDC gave evidence (27/2/20) that masks were useless (and cloth masks may even be counterproductive), yet soon enough the world had mask mandates foisted on it (“Even now no one has explained convincingly why public health authorities changed their views in a matter of days, and in lockstep“;
  • WHO’s initial advice was to ‘flatten the curve‘ to retain capacity in hospital systems, that transmogrified into suppression;
  • Imperial College of London (led by Neil Ferguson), had a long track record of vast over-estimating of death, but recommended suppression as policy;
  • It was decided to use ‘hard-hitting emotional messaging‘ and ‘social disapproval‘ to ward off complacency;
  • NYC Governor Cuomo gave daily press conferences on the virus for over 100 straight days, while moving old folks from hospitals to nursing homes to die in the thousands;
  • Old people were not protected whilst the young were locked-down;
  • Panic in March and April 2020 led to global shut-downs: “Businesses and schools shut. Elective surgeries were canceled. Our diversions vanished. No professional sports. No restaurants or movies or haircuts.”
  • Their explicit goal was to keep everyone home by giving them nowhere to go. Exceptions included grocery stores, gas stations, and, of course, Target and Walmart, which wound up with a huge advantage over smaller retailers that had to close.”
  • Covid deaths were weighted as against normal morbidity (and duly reported) but ignored were greatly increased deaths from suicide and drug overdoses;
  • Millions were spent on (non-targeted) tests and contact tracing – “the respiratory equivalent of trying to track chlamydia at an orgy“;
  • US Government borrowing ballooned to almost $27 trillion by September 2020;
  • They lied that vaccines would eliminate infection and transmission and tried to impose vaccine mandates (‘civil conscription’);
  • Herd immunity and natural selection (the lessening severity of the virus over time) were almost never discussed and by inference, not considered; and
  • Generally our masters demonstrated wild and erratic inconsistency, spread deliberate lies to manipulate societal response/compliance, and grabbed evermore power in the name of health and safety. (Berenson: “why did I have to wear a mask when I was walking into a restaurant, but not after I sat down? Why were coffee shops closed but malls open?“[
[To paraphrase Thomas Mann at Princeton University in 1941, “If ever fascism should come to America, it will come in the form of a public health edict.”]

Big Tech & Big Pharma:

  • Blocked videos, books, articles and groups that questioned the value of lockdowns;
  • Made a fortune from the plague, along with smaller internet-based companies like Pinterest and Zoom;
  • Suppressed information re cheap and available therapeutics, and the origins of Covid-19;
  • Care of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, recipient of a $279m grant from the Gates Foundation, predicted hospitalizations from Covid in NYC at 4 x above the reality (in the same week);
  • Ran “aggressive advertising campaigns to normalize social distancing and quarantines“;
  • Released dubious test results showing 90+% efficacy for their vaccines, hardly using the elderly in trials, pressuring regulators to approve them at ‘warp speed,’ and suppressing evidence of side effects such as blot clots and myocarditis;
  • Rejected Berenson’s booklet re lockdowns for Kindle Direct (Amazon);
  • Removed talks (You Tube) by senior White House medical advisors;
  • Erased anti-lockdown protests (Facebook); and
  • When the vaccines turned out to be mere health supplements, not vaccines (losing utility in “a matter of months“), introduced ‘booster shots’ and convinced authorities to force them into unwilling arms.

Put your head over the crenellated parapet of Covid and you’re going to take hits.  The NY Times, Berenson’s former paper, disowned him; some family and many friends & colleagues shied away; he was subject to death threats and vitriol on social media (including Twitter, natch, from which he was ejected); the legacy media vilified him for giving interviews to the fascist media (i.e. Fox), the only TV station to show interest; and he became catnip for hit-pieces such as in The Atlantic, which called him, in an 1 April 2021 article, “The Pandemic’s Wrongest [sic] Man” (their cover photo below).

A graphic of Alex Berenson standing with an X of red dots over him.

Berenson concludes with a cris de cœur for truth, free debate, and calm. He cites Donald Henderson, a man who helped to eradicate smallpox, one of the few viruses we have seen off:

Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.”  We add an earlier cited quote from the book, by a famous disrupter: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

And The Varnished Culture will add that life henceforth must be better than that summed-up by Albert Camus in The Plague: “Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.”

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Don’t Look Up

December 31, 2021 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Adam McKay) (2021, Netflix)

It’s a mongoloid meld of Melancholia with some David Attenborough tableaux and the arrayed stupidity of Burn After Reading. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet. Her enthusiasm, and that of her colleague, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo Di Caprio), wane when they figure out it will collide with the Earth in about six months. These boffins are babes in the wood, and when a NASA man (Rob Morgan) arranges for them to brief the White House, their deep concerns are brushed off by a distracted and chaotic administration. So the scientists do the next worst thing: they go on ‘Morning Joe’ – sorry, it’s called “The Daily Rip” – they get an even more blithe reception from the hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), the type guests get on ‘Morning Joe’ – sorry, ‘The Daily Rip’; namely condescension and incomprehension. But President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her idiot son/Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill) have a Wag-the-Dog moment, and decide to take decisive action to destroy or divert the comet, and the attention of the nation.

However, the President aborts the strike mid launch when she is persuaded to instead fragment the comet and mine its tonnes of rare minerals. The man now in charge is Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a beatifically smiling sociopath. The nation predictably divides into comet believers and comet deniers (with the President leading rallies chanting ‘Don’t Look Up’), but for the eventual victors, there are no spoils, when the comet falls and Sir Peter’s strategy falls apart. Dibiasky and Mindy cosy-up with their significant others and sit down to their last supper, with a singular lack of laughs. The global village burns and the only survivors set off on Isherwell’s spacecraft, to get a nasty surprise 22,740 years later. The amusing coda is enough to keep you watching to the end, but barely.

What a pity! A nice idea, a great cast, some real patches of humour, are all downed by an annoying, clumsy, contrived and simply ridiculous script, that swings wildly from farce to tragedy, sometimes seemingly unintentionally. The Director wants us, of course, to see the whole melange as a trope for Donald Trump and indifference to Climate Change, but for satire you need a scalpel and sugar tongs, not a sledgehammer and axe. Imagine if they’d persuaded Streep to do a turn as President Kamala Harris! (Now, that would be funny). She still manages to get some lame laughs but for our money, we found Jonah Hill (impersonating Jared Kushner we believe) much funnier – his clashes with Lawrence are a treat. Di Caprio is good as the smart but politically ineffectual professor, but his performance sinks under the weight of a film that insists on lecturing us whilst not making us laugh. We liked the hopeless but opportunistic military man (Paul Guilfoyle) who charges the visiting scientists for the (free) snacks they get while waiting for hours for the President. We loved Rylance’s turn as a weird and spaced-out amalgam of all weird tech billionaires. The vacuous TV show hosts are nicely played, with that ‘Morning Joe’ tendency to refer to their guest (sitting next to them) in the third person, as if they are not there. But in the final analysis, there’s not enough wit on display here, and too much trumpeting about that basket of deplorables.

In 2018, reviewing Vice, we predicted that the director would announce his next opus as a tirade against the Trump administration, entitled Evil Nazis’ Bad Hair Day. We were wrong. But not by much. Don’t Look Up contains all of director McKay’s strengths and weaknesses: there is some nice humour from the man who made Anchorman and Talladega Nights, but when he tries political satire, he’s a lead balloon. Worse, he is way out of his depth, a Great Valley High School, Pennsylvania university drop-out with a film script and a democratic socialist weltanschauung. McKay believes in catastrophic climate change, and is on the record as regarding skeptics as sub-human, or at least sub-mental. Look at his tweet responding to criticism of Don’t Look Up: “Loving all the heated debate about our movie. But if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense. It’s like a robot viewing a love story. “WHy ArE thEir FacEs so cLoSe ToGether?”

Fair enough we suppose. But Adam, respectfully, before your next film, perhaps you might read Unsettled and The Righteous Mind, and spend the evening re-visiting – or discovering – the films of Frank Capra?

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The Power of the Dog

December 11, 2021 | Posted by Guest Reviewer | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Chaps and More Chaps, and a Little Anthrax on the Side
How Jane Campion’s Dude Ranch Film Slides Away into the Montana Night

By Janelle McCulloch
The Power of the Dog” directed by Jane Campion (2021)

What can be said about The Power of the Dog? It’s a strange way to begin a film review of this Western drama, but I am well and truly mute. And much of this now-widely-talked-about film is, too. It’s a beautifully shot piece, low on dialogue but big on wide Montana skies (which are actually wide New Zealand skies), and there are some very impressive pecs in between the suggestive scenes of rolling hills at dusk. But take away the twilights and the semi-naked ranch hands in shiny leather and the script seems short of a page or two, as though some revengeful gofer on set had ripped out a few crucial scenes and thrown them to the wind.

I know this sounds a tad mean, and I’m not usually so tightly wound about Jane Campion’s film, but bear with me. I’m still confused.  The great Jane Campion’s her first feature for more than a decade, Dog is a Western drama, but not as you know them. There’s less yee-ha and more oh-no-no-no. There are lots of themes — inner and outer landscapes; clothes that don’t fit properly; why drinking too much is sometimes a good thing… (I probably needed a drink during the movie, and I don’t even drink). But the overarching lesson is not to take your pants off in a dude ranch. Actually, that’s a bit harsh. There’s no sex to speak off, unless you count an awkward wedding night, but there is the suggestion of what happens when there are too many men squeezed together in a rough Montana valley and not enough women to say: “Perhaps you need to have a wash?”

Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is a down-on-her-luck restauranteur who meets and marries roly-poly, pasty-faced George (Jesse Plemmons from Breaking Bad, the most un-rancher-looking rancher you’ve ever seen) and moves her shy son Peter (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) and their small belongings into the grand life of her rich new husband and his brutish, menacing rancher brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who stomps around in spurs and leather chaps that are bigger than the Grand Teton. Their ranch is, quite frankly, the most f*cked up place I’ve ever seen. I’m saying that because I feel compelled to warn you. This film is not a romance. There are shades of Deliverance, of Brokeback Mountain, and of Dude Monthly magazine (the porn version), so if you’re uncomfortable with any of that, go and watch some Christmas Carols. That said, the lead, Benedict Cumberbatch is being spoken about in Oscar terms. Yes, really.

Rose’s husband George (the pasty-faced one), is kind but rarely around (and certainly rarely seen on a horse!), so she’s left to deal with his intense brother Phil (the one with the chaps). On a side note, can we talk about these names? This is Montana 1925; were there men called ‘Phil’ cracking whips on the Great Plains? I could be wrong. Anyway, back to Rose. She’s not feeling Phil’s whip so she begins drinking while chubby-faced hubby is out of town. Her gangly, awkward son Peter, whose pants keep falling down, returns from college and because his pants are falling down Leather Phil takes him under his chaps and shows him the ways of the land. Cue banjo-ing. Sorry, that’s cynical. Cue the whistling. And the eye-balling. And the horse buttocks as they head off into the sunset on yet another “ride”. (Sorry, cynicism again. But there ARE a lot of visual metaphors. Just sayin’.)

The landscape is beautiful and grand but also suffocating in many ways. There are no Zara or Zimmerman stores here, no bookshops, no IGA Liquor places to pick up a quick rosé. Just chaps, wearing chaps. And lots of them. Now I like Benedict Cumberbatch, although he does pick some curious roles, and this one doesn’t quite show his range, although it does show his new pecs, which he seems to rub a lot? (He’s obviously proud of them.) The New Yorker called it ‘Gothic horror”, but I don’t see Gothic; I see darkness of character and a lot of grey clouds, but it doesn’t have the elements of a Southern (or in this case Northern) Gothic? It’s poetic in parts, but strained in others, and quite frankly some things don’t make sense. Phil (there’s that name again) supposedly has a Yale degree in Classics, but I’m not seeing that education in his manner or his language, which barely covers “Yup” and “Come here, son”. The shift from foes to friends between Phil and Peter also happens so suddenly that it doesn’t feel real; a rancher would not change tack like that in real life. Their movements are slower, more measured; behaviour that is learned from being around animals all day. And the leather-plait-weaving thing is confusing too. Is that a metaphor for something? Or just a pretty rope? I don’t know. But it goes on far too long. By the end of the film, that braided rope could go around Montana. (I thought it might have been used for deadlier purposes, but no: Peter has something darker in mind.)

It’s a long, slow build-up of tension, so you KNOW “something terrible is gonna happen”, as they say in dodgy Westerns, but when it does come it’s so quick that if you are looking away, say, to text your sister-in-law to say what a strange and turgid movie this is and could she please explain why people from Adelaide do such strange and turgid movie roles, the action has suddenly happened and the final credits are rolling. The twist in the end comes so fast you’d better be watching and not scrolling through Instagram. Or you’re gonna have to watch it again to understand it. And quite frankly, I’d rather poke my eye out with a spur.

Basically, it’s a revenge film. Dressed in a lot of leather. A story of a bloke who comes undone by his friendship with a younger fellow; a fellow who doesn’t like leather, doesn’t like chaps, doesn’t like spurs, doesn’t like cowboy boots and probably doesn’t like having tobacco being spat at him. And I don’t blame him. A fellow who likes his white running shoes and high-top jeans and book-reading ways. In fact, the lesson of the story could be: Never dismiss a book-reading nerd.

I give it one star. I want to give it two, I really do. But Leather Phil just doesn’t do it for me. After these crazy, stressful two years, I just want some love. Bring on the Christmas Carols.

[Dear Janelle, thanks so much for this incisive review – and for seeing this so we don’t have to.  It sounds like an addle-brained homage to the ‘art’ of George Quaintance. – Ed.]

The Power of the Dog review: Benedict Cumberbatch silences critics | Metro News

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The Coddling of the American Mind

By Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt (2018)

The Guardian hated this book, so it must be good, right?  Not necessarily. it is a bit like Mr. Haidt’s The Righteous Mind – an excellent book – transferred onto campus, where, the authors argue, i-Gen or Gen Z students are being programmed by social media and their professors into fragile, hysterical, blind little snowflakes. This resolves into the ludicrous examples seen in recent years of safe spaces (current example: Arizona State socialist students seeking to bar Kyle Rittenhouse from attending an online course!), cancel-culture and witch-hunts, all vivified by helicopter parents, university bureaucrats, anti-depressants and psychiatric diagnostic blundering, sedentary lifestyles, justice as a narcissistic impulse, and Donald Trump.

This discussion is enlivened by colourful anecdotal and recorded evidence, but leavened by logical (as opposed to actual) and optimistic (not realistic) argument, that ultimately sees one clutching for some tome on cognitive behavioural therapy.  For the remedy, it seems, lies in some heroic (albeit largely benign) strategies to wise-up kids (harden them up, give ’em CBT, see the other point of view, be better parents, and so on. Don’t make them a candle sheltered from the winds, but a fire rejoicing in the buffeting). And if they survive to post-graduate age, have the universities get some lively debates going.  In recent years, however, we have seen the impact of one of Hitler’s misdemeanours (not to be confused with his many crimes): he unleashed Herbert Marcuse onto American campuses, thereby ensuring the closing of debate, the hijacking of truth and the demonising of the Rational.

The book reads well, and for many pages, is wise, but our ultimate impression is that the authors’ faith in their mission is misplaced. The situation is not serious, but hopeless. In fact, it is spent. Yes, we know Macauley said this in 1830:

We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason. ‘A million a year will beggar us,’ said the patriots of 1640. ‘Two millions a year will grind the country to powder,’ was the cry in 1660. ‘Six millions a year, and a debt of fifty millions!’ exclaimed Swift; ‘the high allies have been the ruin of us.’ ‘A hundred and forty millions of debt!’ said Junius; ‘well may we say that we owe Lord Chatham more than we shall ever pay, if we owe him such a load as this.’ ‘Two hundred and forty millions of debt!’ cried all the statesmen of 1783 in chorus; ‘what abilities, or what economy on the part of a minister, can save a country so burdened?’ We know that if, since 1783, no fresh debt had been incurred, the increased resources of the country would have enabled us to defray that debt at which Pitt, Fox, and Burke stood aghast, nay, to defray it over and over again, and that with much lighter taxation than what we have actually borne. On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

The authors quote a portion of that statement, which grounds their essential optimism in the future. And we do suppose that humankind is fundamentally resilient, that the current social media is but a medium, and will pass (e.g. from ‘Facebook‘ to ‘Death’, as ‘Meta’ is in Hebrew). Nevertheless, if one considers anew the complete quote of Macauley, which concentrates on economy and the public debt, one can say there has been improvement in many things from 1830 to the present, yet there has also been a significant deterioration (and not only in public debt).  A free, and just, society is a garden: neglect it and it returns to jungle. The Age of Enlightenment was a newly revised emanation of the sunnier aspects of classical antiquity, but it is passing. The Decline of Western Civilisation is giving way to a new dark age, where medieval thinking (the Irrational, the Religious Fervour, the Triumph of Ill Will, the Witch Hunt, the Rise of Tribalism, the digital bijou holocausts) is taking root and the free-thinking intelligences (‘Carpe Datum’!) such as the authors, ‘slowly wend on their designated tumbrils, all wending slowly on into Eternity.’

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