I, Tonya

March 12, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Craig Gillespie) (2017)

We laughed more than cried. Low comedy is more the order of the day here, rather than the high drama of the Great American Will to Win. Doubt is cast on Tonya Harding’s complicity in the cynical assault on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leading-up to the 1994 Olympic Games. Two borderline mental defectives drove to Kerrigan’s training rink, and while one waited with the motor running, the other gained access to Kerrigan and smashed her knee in (an act of bastardy to which these film-makers seem strangely dispassionate).  OK, it wasn’t quite a Texas Mum exterminating her daughter’s co-cheerleaders, but still.

It’s all about Tonya, unreliably recounted in cinéma vérité style by Tonya (a terrific Margot Robbie), her mother La Vona (Allison Janney, see below), her quick-with-his-fists hubby (Sebastian Stan) and various marginal types who populate Tonya’s trailer-park world. Cigarettes (good for the skater’s figure), cheap bars, bad hand-made clothes, waitress jobs, toxic friends, pick-up trucks and shotguns abound. Harding’s Mum pays a rinkside lout to heckle some motivation into Tonya; Husband Jeff pays $1,000 to friend, ‘bodyguard,’ and certified idiot, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) to engage in a little psychological warfare with the Kerrigan camp. Whether Tonya and Jeff knew that the psychological was going to stray to the physical (threatening letters transmogrify to bashing) is left up in the air, doubtless prudently from a legal point of view.  Viewers will either drink-up the version that paints Harding as an innocent, unknowing victim; or they will suspect her as another Henry II, needing to do penance.

The stand-outs are Robbie and Janney as the protagonist and her tough love = no love Mom.  Janney must have felt like Dustin Hoffman handed the part of Ratso Rizzo: “I mean…there is so much you can do with a part like that.”  The great thing about her performance is to do less, and let her wintry soul shine.  Pitiless towards Tonya, everyone around Tonya, and even herself (P would like her on the coaching panel of the Glenelg Football Club), hers is a stunning turn as a deeply damaged woman who will always let you down.  Robbie (well-prepared for playing a pikey from her time on Home and Away) persuades you, almost, of Harding’s artless moxie and makes a stout attempt to tone-down the glamour. And her skating scenes are very impressive, at least to this amateur, who never saw Ice Castles but has seen Blades of Glory.

Motherly advice from La Vona to Tonya: “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.”

In some ways, I, Tonya harkens back to Five Easy Pieces and Six Degrees of Separation in that it tries to say something about class in America, a largely forsworn topic. (Tonya has to sew her own sequins; Nancy is an Eastern grandee who sulks at winning silver.)  On that point, we would have appreciated a little less Tonya (she has too many scenes; where those shears and blue pencil?) and a bit more Kerrigan, in order to appreciate the magnitude of the fallout from the squalid affair. After all, doesn’t having your skating legs trimmed to effectively one and still finishing second deserve a bit of screen time?  And the tightly-edited first half unravels somewhat by the time Tonya appears to be in the ascendant, selecting more tasteful costumes and music for her routines. In the end, the film runs out of puff; having performed its triple-Axel, it meanders off the ice and towards the exit.

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Hamlet Sings! We Laugh!

March 7, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Hamlet, Glyndebourne Festival Opera production, Adelaide Festival Theatre, 6 March 2018

You know the story, or perhaps you can condense it into one word, as did the English stage director Tyrone Guthrie: “Mummy!”  But you might prefer to concentrate on the post-modern man Shakespeare seems to have had in mind with Hamlet: “the revolutionary whose manners and ways of life are attached to the old régime, whose ideals and loyalties belong to the new, and who, by a kind of courageous exhibitionism is compelled to tell the truth about both.”*  Bloom calls the play (which admittedly, has its own structural problems), “the leading Western representation of an intellectual.”**

Brett Dean, after Verdi, courageously ‘operatized’ (or ‘half operatized’) the Bard at Glyndebourne last year and this most famous of all plays came to the Adelaide Festival as directed by the (almost) invariably great Neil Armfield, with the ASO under Nicholas Carter.

Was it just me?  Or did anyone else view ‘Hamlet: the Musical’ aka ‘Hamlet: the Opera’ as this season’s surprise comedy hit ? Because, frankly, despite the solemnity with which Tuesday night’s crowd took in the proceedings, and despite the orgasm en mass at the curtain, your critic thought this piece was a hysterical travesty.  It is not an opera.  There are no arias, no recitatives, and certainly no bel canto! although there are choral pieces and those were some of the best parts of the show, as beautifully rendered by the State Opera and The Song Company (a private company of touring singers drawn from all over the country), on stage and off.  Most of the vocals were delivered in a sing-song tremolo à la the links in Mozart’s Italianate comedies.  As to the score, with its film-style flourishes, discordant chords and sound effects and strange, brassy notes, it owes more to Bernard Herrmann, the soundtracks to the lesser movies of M. Night Shyamalan and Weimar cabaret than the world of opera.  Nicholas Carter and the pit players struggled through it manfully.

The playing up on stage was, however, decidedly patchy.  Allan Clayton was Hamlet, or rather, John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House playing Hamlet. Without the gravitas.  Without any sense of the noble Dane, the sweet prince.  Douglas McNicol was a stout Horatio, though one seemingly older than Polonius, Yorick even. Rod Gilfry and Cheryl Barker as the King and Queen, and our mate Samuel Sakker as Laertes, played it straight, and that was when the piece was most effective (they were all very moving when Ophelia’s death was marked).  Which brings us to Ophelia.  Lorina Gore was perfectly adequate in that thankless role, but her mad scene was a comedy highlight.  Dressed only in a dirty frock-coat and panties, she hurled herself about, brandished some weeds (presage of watery doom) and wailed, in a kind of cross between Lucia di Lammermoor, Baby-Jane Hudson and Vivien Leigh after too much laudanum. The most distinguished audience seemed to be taking it all deadly seriously – The Varnished Culture had to stifle guffaws.  And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, straight from the Mardi Gras, were re-imagined as mincing castrati, cut-down in the closing scene’s bloodbath whilst being used in vain by Claudius as human shields.

Am I making this clear?  As to what is taken from the play, the composer and librettist might well parrot T.S. Eliot and say ‘these fragments we have shored against our ruin.’  The flashy bits (Hamlet sulks; Behold the ghost; Stabbed through the arras; the pas de deux of R & G; the graveyard ruminations; the final duel out of Quentin Tarantino – why does the dying Laertes remove his trousers?) are here, but the text is mangled beyond belief and we’re deprived of all profundity.  There’s no music to enjoy, merely an unedifying cacophony. As might be expected of Armfield, there are clever (sometimes too clever) and moving set pieces: the mock play, the ghost’s appearance, the lament for Ophelia, the descending grave – are impressive, and the sets and lighting are, in the main, just right.  But the play’s the thing, and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t truly ring!  The rest is silence.

[* Cyril Connolly, referring to Nicolas Chamfort, cited by Kenneth Tynan in He That Plays the King (1950).] [**Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999), p. 383.]

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Venetian Voices

(by Christine V. Courtney) (2017)

Venice is of a set, in that it is a Great City, but it is also sui generis, a brilliant bauble set amid a swamp, a rococo castle in the air, an ornate pagoda floating on water. Venice and its inhabitants, whether citizens or arrivistes, spell romance on a myriad levels, and pose a historical jigsaw of massive scope and complexity, so it makes sense to wander its narrow streets and sail its intricate waterways clutching some sort of evocative Baedeker.  Our favourite Venetian history is the massive Folio tome (merging two volumes) by John Julius Norwich (1982), but that’s too heavy to take on a gondola.

Cue Ms Courtney and her sumptuous anthology of Venice, with all or much of its geographical, architectural, poetical and painterly allure.  Whilst we must declare that not all of the poems work, and some do not work at all, the attempt to synthesise the Great City’s depth of feeling is laudable, and overall, it does work. Part of that is the wit and discreet taste with which images are presented alongside text or verse (mainly free verse); but the book is more besides. In its roughly linear fashion it serves as a mnemonic as well as a guide, reminding us that Venice stands for Terror as well as Beauty.

A mosaic of people

Turks, Armenians,

Cypriots and Greeks,

Jews and Christians,

fakirs and freaks

have wended their way

through labyrinthine streets:

trudged over bridges

threaded through crowds

balanced on duckboards

waded through water,

watched; waiting

for fortune 

to turn her wheel.”

There is finery from Masters such as Canaletto, Titian, Tiepolo, Bellini, Veronese, Dürer and Tintoretto. Oh, and Turner, if you care.  And the passing parade includes St. Mark, Marco Polo, Mehmet II, Queen Caterina, various Doges, Veronica Franco, Shakespeare (who probably didn’t visit), Cervantes (who did), Goldoni, Galileo, Elena Piscopia, Vivaldi and Verdi and Wagner, Casanova, Napoleon (‘boo’), Farinelli, Mark Twain, Byron, Thomas Mann, Stravinsky, Hitler and Hemingway (but strangely, hardly any sign of Ruskin).  From the high to the low, a representative sample of the famous, notorious, and obscure float easily through the fetching pages.

Across her Bridge of Sighs,

men have left the life of love,

laughter, and fresh air.

Crossed into despair

locked in dungeons:

all hope snuffed out

in the dank

eclipse of eternal night.”

There is a touch of melancholy here, of course, for Venice has been slowly dying for centuries.  It hangs on grimly but could be heading the way of Atlantis, a submerged, watery legend.

Death and morbidity abounds.  There’s this magisterial tribute to Wagner, dead in Venice in February 1883:

the stranger calls in the dying day

to dim the rays, to snuff his light.

Wagner’s lifetime of creativity

paid the ferryman in full.”

This is a book for anyone who has had the luck to see Venice; for anyone intending to go to Venice, and for the rest of us who dream of Venice.  It’s a Valentine worthy of its recipient.

A gondola’s adrift

‘neath a listless moon

rocking on wavelets

of a breathless lagoon.

[Note: To purchase a copy, contact Sea Witch Images at 117 Lipson Street, Port Adelaide, South Australia. Tel (08)8447 5000] Continue Reading →

Watership Down by Richard Adams

“Bright eyes, burning like fire…” O sorry, where were we?  I was lost in contemplation of the ugly film animation of this story – I don’t think that the term “bright eyes” appears at all in the classic children’s book. And these rabbits wouldn’t like the fire simile at all.

The rabbits of Sandleford Warren have got to get out of there.  Led by intrepid Hazel and little Fiver (a seer, no less) a small but feisty party sets off for a new home which is way way too far off, across too many hazards.  On the way we learn that pet rabbits become lazy and dull, that to ignore danger in exchange for an easy (if short) life is to lose your sanity, and that militarism will dehumanize you.  Yes, I say dehumanize, because apart from the licking of their friends’ injuries and their eating of their own undigested faeces, these rabbits might as well be people.  The anthropomorphism is a bit patchy – when Adams is annoyed by the rabbits’ incapacities, he gets them to learn how to use tools, to stay calm and also to co-operate with other species, thus advancing the plot and rabbit-kind in general.  They have a vague spirituality based on sun-worship (“great, golden Frith”) and tell tales of their revered ancestor, a Trickster. The rabbits are nice, altruistic, accept difference and so on, so we don’t worry about their other slightly politically incorrect habits, such as their predilection for the abduction and rape of females from other warrens.

As mentioned above, the rabbits conveniently work out the value of inter-species co-operation, and here it gets clunky.  The plover who helps the rabbits find females (“mothers”) while preparing for migration across the sea (“the big water”) speaks like a comic Dutchman – “‘Ya, ya, ‘elp you for get mudders.  But now ees dis, Meester ‘Azel.  Alvays I vant Peeg Vater now – alvays alvays.  Ees hearing Peeg Vater vant to fly to Peeg Vater, Now soon you go for get mudders, I ‘elp you, ‘ow you like.  Den, ven you getting mudders, I leave you dere, fly avay, no come back.  But I come back annuder time, ya?  Come in autumn, in vinter I come live ‘ere vid you, ya?”  The grateful mouse speaks like a comic Italian – “‘Go now.’ said the mouse.  ‘No wait owl.  But a what I like a say.  You ‘elp a mouse.  One time a mouse ‘elp a you.  you want ”im, ‘e come'”.  Perhaps this is fair enough personalisation (although, was the mouse really Italian?) but it grates, as do the words of “Lapine” used arbitrarily – “elil” for enemies, “silflay” for grazing, and so on.

Watership Down is known as a violent and frightening children’s book.  The huge distance and dangers which the rabbits face to get to their haven are real and scarey enough, but they do suddenly disappear rather unconvincingly and there the rabbits are, at Watership Down. Often their triumphs are unlikely, but perhaps that is the point. There is a final battle which is quite nasty and intrusive, as it is in their new, ‘safe’ home. It is true that some of the enemy rabbits and elil are vicious and there is brutal violence but not many of our friends die a premature death. Together they overcome, thank Frith. An entertaining, evocative and exciting enough book. Dare I say it? Yes I shall! More a boys’ book than a girls’ book – go on, tell me off.

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My Brilliant Friend (by Elena Ferrante)

February 13, 2018 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |

In a ragged post-war Neapolitan suburb, families send their children to school under sufferance. But two young pupils –  pointlessly enough, girls – exhibit well above-average intellectual ability.  But which one of the pair is the brilliant friend?  Studious, pragmatic Elena, or the mercurial, nihilistic Lila?

The girls’ time and place is particularly dangerous.  “Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection.  With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.” But then again, it is an all-too familiar child’s world of not quite-real, misunderstood dangers,  “You could also die of things that seemed normal.  You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe  You could die if you ate black cherries and didn’t spit out the pits.  You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it.  You could die if you banged your temple.  The temple, in particular, was a fragile place, we were all careful about it,”  As a  child I firmly believed that if you tried to spin a hula hoop on your neck, you would get a staple in your neck and die; if you wrote on yourself with a pen you would get blood-poisoning and die; if you swam too soon after lunch you would die.  Mind you, I also believed that my grandmother had lived for decades with a loose sewing needle touring her blood vessels.  This book captures that sense of the ignorance and insularity of childhood.

The girls live closely with their generally illiterate, violent, superstitious and suspicious neighbours.. Don Achille, the monstrous bogey man of the neighbourhood (for no particular reason) is believed by the Lena and Lila to have stolen their dolls (their friends) and  to have put them into his big black bag.  Lila displays enormous courage and effrontery in the event.  Her intellectual  genius and quicksilver flashes of desperate bravado enchant Lena who is content to play second-fiddle, to be the clever, but studious and plodding one.  But it is Lila who settles for marriage with a kind, and ineffectual neighbour, while Lena  finds out to her amazement that there are institutions of learning beyond high school.

There are few ‘likeable’ characters in this book, they are ready with their fists,  ignorant, grasping and untrustworthy for the most part.  Lena and Lila stand out, as clever girls do, but are spared sentimentality.  We certainly cannot be assured of happy endings in the following books. This is a rich psychologically aware tale of influence, perception and fate.  For once, with a modern series, I look forward to reading the following books.


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February 5, 2018 | Posted by Guest Reviewer | FOOD, Restaurants, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

4 East Terrace, Adelaide, (8223 3885)

February 2018

The Old Continent meets the Dark Continent in this funky, uber-trendy gourmet kitchen which is crowded, noisy, but full of interest, including pretty and witty decor. The staff shoot from the hip, but at least they are hip when they shoot, and they know (and love) the bill of fare. The trick is to sample the full flavour of the veldt without over-ordering.

Over a dry champagne, we plumped for a starter of crispy eggplant with chilli and shallot sauce. This arrived under a duvet of what appeared to be dessicated coconut but was in fact, a fine, filament-like cheese. P would normally go a long way to avoid eggplant but this dish was tremendous, a unique starter that lined the tummy and had us hungry for more.

More came in the form of Peri-Peri chicken (with a ‘boom!chakalaka’ relish), a lightly-seared and sapid charred pork neck with harissa and pickles, and a wonderfully mysterious charred peach salad with buffalo mozzarella and red and green tomatoes. The salad was soft, refreshing and gorgeously unlike the standard serve of nettles, posing as a “salad,” dished-up by so many restaurants.

They fill this joint up in waves, so you are in no doubt as to when you’re to get out.  Be that as it may, we were not rushed, and had time to saunter off to the East End Cellars for a nightcap.  In sum, try Africola for genuine, fun otherness.

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Swinging Safari

(Directed by Stephan Elliott) (2018)

We at TVC stand up for the 1970s but this coming-of-age-weren’t-mum-and-dad-shockers film sums up the shakiness of such a gesture.  Lurching from the 1960s Eden to the next decade’s Gethsemane, this Australian comedy tries to be an amusing take on the generational poison encapsulated in Philip Larkin’s This Be The VerseInstead, it serves up a meaningless pastiche of Don’s Party, Puberty Blues, Porky’s and The Ice Storm.

Whilst the parents (Guy Pierce, Kylie Minogue, Asher Keddie, Julian McMahon and Jeremy Sims among them) seem to be living it up, most of the comedy is so broad as to resolve in sheer nastiness.  And the two youngsters who seem to be the film’s anchor come across as hobbits – i.e., children only in size.

This being a 1970s homage, Jack Thompson must feature.  And he chews the scenery, clad in a series of horrendous leisure suits, and provides a denouement as silly and unbelievable as anything since…oh, we don’t know – Rocky?





It is, however, a modest triumph of art direction – from the record selector to the iced vo-vos to the clothes to the cars to the lava lamps and fondue parties to the cavalier attitude to health, safety and hurt feelings, the look of the thing (it even seems to be filmed in old Kodachrome) is great and earns a couple of stars.

It was also a sound choice to enlist the Bert Kaempfert ditty, A Swingin’ Safari, as the film’s anthem.  A garish blend of what sounds like piccolos, tin whistles, 2-fingered bass, snare drum and the ‘Tijuana Brass’ after a few drinks, this nightmare of an instrumental was a certified dud on release in 1962 but became a big hit in Australian lounge rooms and back yard bbqs around the turn of the decade.  What boy or girl born around 1960 didn’t find, and loathe, a copy in Mum and Dad’s record collection?

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Better Call Saul – Season Three

January 24, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |


This sublime series moves into even more lush and dramatic territory.  James McGill, having set his course close to the wind in the first season, and given way to weakness in trying to cheer up his sanctimonious and wily brother Charles in season two, gets what might appear to be a fatal comeuppance here.  But like a cockroach, Jimmy is a survivor.  He has nouse, drive, and a good sense of weak spots in an opposing case – one tiny flaw lets him down; his total, unethical focus on outcome at the expense of process (getting an outcome according to process, i.e., law and ethics, being the essence of legal practice).  He’s a bit like Elmer Gantry – a rogue who, it turns out, really cares.

The story ascends to high farce in the form of Jimmy’s struggles with Chuck’s obsession to get him disbarred, a process that profoundly wounds them both, in different ways. Meanwhile, there’s a darker and more dangerous side story, involving corrupt ex-cop Mike and his dealings with the loathsome Hector Salamanca, and the enigmatic Gus Fring.

Everyone in the cast hits their straps in this season – Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, with his manic highs and lows; his deeply disturbed and vengeful brother Chuck (Michael McKean); Jimmy’s long-suffering, highly-competent worrier of a partner, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn); Jonathan Banks as the phlegmatic, oddly moral Mike Ehrmantraut; Mark Margolis as Hector; Giancarlo Esposito as the cold and calculating Gus; Patrick Fabian as the bumptious Howard Hamlin, and Michael Mando as Nacho Varga.  We leave the show with all of these characters up in the air, Chuck most of all, abandoned, alone and inhabiting a world of pain, almost entirely self-created.  A fourth series has been commissioned, and we can’t wait for it.

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Magill Estate

January 23, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FOOD, Restaurants, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

17 January 2018

Magill Estate is The Varnished Culture’s favourite eating joint in Adelaide.  It is not cheap; it is not overly casual (although dress code is fairly relaxed these days).  Hence we tend to get there on special occasions.  But if you can afford it, or have the wherewithal to save up a few hundred bucks, do yourself a favour and go – any day or night there will be a special occasion.

The day had been warm and the sunset was red, giving us a lovely view over the historic Penfolds vines, down the hill towards the city and the sea. They have discreet shutters that muffle the sun, which are lifted, again discreetly, on its setting. The dining room is deceptively simple, but comfortable, with just the right light, ambience, and (importantly) space between tables.  L got a little handbag table, the first time we have had that nice touch since The Hassler in Rome.  And we started with a piquant champagne in the lounge, a tucked-away parlour where you can sip, savour and get in the mood for a gastronomic marathon.

Which was dinner in the form of a tasting menu, a stomach-bursting pile of food that was so nice, and so petite in its diverse portions, that its quantity snuck up on you.  The quality, as ever, was top notch:

Snacks came in the form of a honey-glazed cream puff with liver pate; a crumpet with delicious smoked trout; a veal and tuna creation; a chicken and wasabi bon-bon (our word – it was actually savoury) and cleansing cups of tomato tea.  There was also an interesting piece of flummery that seemed a cross between a papadam and fairy floss (but then not everything must work).

L next had tuna ponzu and relish; P had an interesting serve of duck with eggplant, oats, apple and ginger beer (which sounds horrendous on the palate, but it was very pleasant).

Then came pork belly with cauliflower, roasted nuts and Daikon (not an air conditioner, more like a radish); lobster warmed in Konbu with the theatrical addition of fermented ice to add ‘bite’, and a mouthwatering piece of rare venison with beetroot and fresh watercress, so finely prepared that it dissolved in the mouth.  The lobster was the highlight for L; for P, the cream puff, tomato tea and the venison.

There was still more: chocolate ganache and berry sorbet and petit fours.  We chose to finish off with a dry champagne, P having (wisely) trusted sommelier’s choice for wines to accompany the various course.

We would recommend Magill Estate to anyone.  For those with more prosaic tastes and shallower pockets, try the adjoining Magill Estate Kitchen for good but less elaborate fare at a cheaper price.





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A Ghost Story (directed by David Lowery)

January 16, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |


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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