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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Africola

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 |

2017

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 |

(2017)

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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Gold Dust Woman : The Biography of Stevie Nicks

(by Stephen Davis)

That “The” in the title is pretty rich. This is not a definitive biography of Stevie Nicks. This is a pedestrian grab for cash. Davis didn’t interview Nicks – he’s taken his material from published interviews, the music, quotes, interviews with friends and colleagues. He may have spoken to Nicks when working with Mick Fleetwood on the latter’s 1990 memoirs, Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac (which Davis says was “an international best seller (and the foundation text for almost every book written since about this band).”  Gold Dust Woman isn’t a bad book, it’s just that it reads as if Davis wondered, “What can I do with he could do with this leftover Fleetwood Mac stuff?  Oh I know!”  There is little to nothing in these 312 pages that you don’t already know about Stevie Nicks, if you read anything about her at all. The book does begin with a rather good description of the 1975 recording of “Rhiannon” on The Midnight Special TV music show:-

“At just after four minutes the beat recedes, and Stevie sings the midsection: ‘Dreams unwind  Love’s a state of mind.’  And then, with two minutes to go, the band launches into a militant 4/4 march with Stevie in a hieratic trance, – shouting, yelling, wailing lyrics, waving arms, strutting and stomping, acting out, wild-eyed.  She’s shaking and vibrating, screaming like a bloody Bacchant, ready to tear the soul out of your body, her gesturing fingers making portents and prophesies in the smoky air.

The song crashes finally to a halt – ‘You cry / But she’s gone’ – as she lets out a final howl that lasts ten seconds, descending by octaves.  Then Stevie bends way down into a deep floor bow, grasping the microphone stand with both hands to prevent an exhausted collapse.. The performance is complete: the studio audience applauds, and the image fades from the screen”.

But then we lose interest as Davis tries to place this 20th and 21st century American pop star (and Brian Jones, David Bowie, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page et al) into the tradition of the ancient Welsh bards who wandered about damp stony fields, telling stories.

After that it is a recitation of what Stevie did next, in fast and easy to read prose; packed with incident but no depth and mundane insight. To be fair, this is a workmanlike, unauthorised rock biography after all, and it just could be that Stevie is not all that interesting. The churning of the well-worn tale of the turbulent, juvenile relationships between the members of Fleetwood Mac will be of interest only to those who know nothing, or everything, about the band. Lindsey Buckingham comes across as the nasty, abusive whiner we always thought he was. Stevie finds it necessary to have a romantic relationship with just about every man she works with (ho hum). More interestingly, Davis (perhaps not entirely consciously) suggests that  the late Tom Petty is the one who got way.  Stevie was keener on him than he was on her. “‘I fell in love with his music and his band,’ Stevie remembered.  ‘[I thought] if I ever got to know Tom Petty and could worm my way into his good graces, if he asked me to leave my band and join his, I’d probably do it.  And that was before I even met him.’  Now Stevie made overtures toward Petty, phoning his management, but the calls weren’t returned.”  Although they worked together now and then, in particular, on the excellent “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”, Petty  just wasn’t all that interested. And neither are we.

The One Who Got Away?

The One Who Got Away?

If you’d like a description of Stevie’s style, click here.

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All the Money in the World

January 11, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dir. Ridley Scott) (2017)

As C. P. Snow once pointed out, the conscience of the rich is different to that of mere mortals.  This difference affords the key interest in Mr Scott’s rather lustreless thriller, based on the Getty kidnapping case, in which Christopher Plummer famously took over the role (as billionaire oil baron and professional Scrooge, J. Paul Getty) from Kevin Spacey, when Spacey’s work was already in the can.  You can see the studio’s reasoning – Spacey had become persona non grata and had to wear a ton of make-up to look like the aged Getty; Plummer simulated Getty adequately without the distraction of heavy greasepaint, and was far better qualified to encapsulate the character’s weird nastiness without making him too coldly robotic (e.g. see his turn as Mike Wallace in The Insider).  And then there were splendid opportunities for virtue-signalling (enhancing prospects of industry awards and media kudos) and free publicity, probably well justifying the $10m spent on re-takes.

Plummer justifies the switch with a neat and nuanced performance that overshadows the film, overshadows it such that we barely notice Mark Wahlberg and others in diverse procedural roles.  Charlie Plummer (no relation), as the kidnapped grandson John Paul Getty III, copping heavy physical and psychological drubbing, and Michelle Williams as his feisty mother, are both good. The various (Calabrian?) kidnappers mug like extras in a spaghetti western but Romain Duris gives his man a little humanity (without quite nailing the accent).  The film is beautifully shot, as one would expect from this director, and the locations are choice, but the essential problem is the wafer-thin scenario (it is an episode, rather than a story) and the laborious, repetitive pacing.  In presenting what could have been an electrifying account of one isolated woman’s fight to save a loved one, in the face of total insouciance from granddad, we instead get a milk-and-water amalgam of A Mighty Heart and A Christmas Carol.

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The more they have, the more they fight to keep it.

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Gob’s Grief (by Chris Adrian)

Chris Adrian’s qualifications in literature, medicine and divinity and he doesn’t avoid the big issues.  His first novel, Gob’s* Grief is not as fabulous as his second, the magnificent, The Children’s Hospital, but it is still gob-stopping.  TVC were put off of the book by its apparent subject – the American Civil War. But, although the war is a bloody, reeking presence in the book, the novel is about much more than that. Adrian’s obsessions – lost brothers, angels, the mind-body fusion are all stirred together in an unholy alchemy in this story of the terrible grief of the bereaved, the attempt to fuse nature and mechanics, mortality and the afterlife. Real life characters Walt Whitman (whose sainted memory is not spared), Dr Oetker, Victoria Woodhull and John Wilkes Booth walk the pages, in wildly imaginative gaits. The ghastly Pickie Beecher, who will be imprinted on the memories of those who have read The Children’s Hospital, is ‘born’ in this novel, as is his ‘brother’.  This is a book for those who can read Flannery’s Wise Blood or Catling’s The Vorrh or Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo without shuddering too much. This is not a book for those who can’t read about fetuses, dismemberment, madness, or kilts made from the fingers of children. But if you can handle those things, the truth is that the truth is ineffable and so is Adrian’s wild, deft writing.

[*The issue of pronunciation of this name is never addressed.  Watch Arrested Development if you want some hints.]

BeeHive

 

 

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

January 6, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dir. Martin McDonagh) (2017)

This hefty slice of southern-fried Grand-Guignol, redolent of Flann O’Connor, one of whose novels a character is seen clutching early on, resolves into a mature, thoughtful, at times shocking and occasionally hilarious exposition upon man’s desire for avengement and intense disregard for due process. Mildred (Frances McDormand) has lost her daughter, who was, we hear more than once, not raped and killed, but raped while being killed.  It’s been seven months with no leads in the case, for which Mildred holds Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) fully accountable.  In order to stir the Ebbing police to greater efforts (whether consistent with constitutional rights or not), she hires three decrepit old billboards on a lonely stretch of road out of town –

  1. Raped While Dying
  2. And Still No Arrests?
  3. How Come, Chief Willoughby?

The Chief is none too pleased and attempts to alternately charm, then heavy, Mildred. But this lady ain’t for turning. Along the way, we meet several townsfolk who would be equal to the term ‘dysfunctional’, and friendly, local, violence lurks very near all surfaces. There’s much here that strains credulity, and yet the feelings displayed have a strong ring of truth, helped along by crisp photography and editing, and grounded in solid performances.

In a varied and impeccable cast, Harrelson and McDormand are terrific, both alternately hard as rock and soft as butter; as are Caleb Landry Jones (last seen by TVC as the revolting son in Get Out), on the receiving end much more than he deserves; dumb and dangerous Deputy Sam Rockwell (receiving about as much as he deserves); Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes); Samara Weaving as Charlie’s dopey girlfriend (reminiscent of Sydney Pollock’s squeeze in Husbands and Wives), and Clarke Peters as the replacement Sheriff (who, being from outta town, displays the only common sense in the whole story).

To say much more would be to spoil. Suffice to say that some strange allegiances form amid the chaos, and we leave the survivors to their own devices, hurtling towards God only knows where.

'It's not business sonny...it's personal.'

‘It’s not business sonny…it’s personal.’

 

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