Movies -Valley of Love, Brooklyn, Eye in the Sky


If you missed Valley of Love at the French Film Festival, don’t fret.  The director keeps threatening to unleash Depardieu and Huppert, and then resiles.  It is a bit of a tease.  If you missed Brooklyn, I wouldn’t worry either.  It is a love story as pure as Romeo and Juliet, but the second half depends on your believing that it might end the same way.  I couldn’t, and the result was pointless kitsch.  The bright spot was Romeo – he looks like James Dean and Montgomery Clift combined, and he sounds like Sinatra.  It is uncanny.  He could be a star if they still make those kinds of movies.

Eye in the Sky is an altogether different film.  It packs a wallop to watch and reflect on.  This is a film about combating terrorism by the use of drones.  The operation is controlled from England, by a colonel (Helen Mirren) who reports to a general (Alan Rickman) who in turn chairs a committee that contains two cabinet ministers and two staffers.  They are assisted by American units in Las Vegas (the pilot and his assistant) and Hawaii (the computerised target identifiers).  The target is on the ground in Nairobi and the mission is assisted by Nairobi troops and one very astute small vehicle camera operator who can get tiny bird or insect-like instruments to get close-ups of the target, even inside a house.

This is a military exercise led by the military, but, incongruously, subject to on the spot cabinet committee approval.  However unlikely that plotline is in what is said to be an act of some kind of warfare, it is an ideal way for the plot to expose the moral, political, and legal issues.  The drama is given teeth by a small girl being present close to the target and on any view within the likely range of ‘collateral damage’ if the pilot of the drone is instructed or authorised to strike.

Since the Reich, we have got used to the idea of people going to work each morning with murder in their briefcase.  That sense is brought home here because we see the leading figures emerge from their daily lives before adopting the role of killers.  For example, the general has to collect a doll for a child on his way to work, and a politician has to be interrupted on the loo because he is getting over food poisoning.

The drama brings home the difficulty faced by people having to accept responsibility for having blood on their own hands.  We are told that the legal issues are determined by reference to ‘the terms of engagement’.  Presumably these are the basis upon which the government of Kenya has invited the military of the UK and the US to conduct lethal operations in its territory.

The overriding moral issue is how anyone gets the right to kill people merely on the grounds of suspicion in something that is nothing like a real ‘war’.  The drama is stark, and sometimes black, as people duck for cover and refer up.  Lawyers will also recognise what happens when someone can’t get the advice they want on one set of instructions and therefore change the instructions.  Some lawyers are better at playing that game than others.  It is, after all, form of dishonesty.  ‘If I can’t kick a goal there, I will move the goal posts.’  It might remind you of Groucho Marx: ‘You don’t like my principles – I will get some new principles.’  There are some quite revolting moments where people compute hypothetical death tolls by references to odds of probabilities – all of which may involve one kind of intellectual fraud, and another kind of moral bankruptcy.

You get the sense that the mission has to take place.  Ultimately, I think most people in the West know that drone strikes are going on and that decisions to kill people are being made that would be horribly unlawful and utterly unthinkable if they were taken in respect of people of our skin colour and our citizenship in our country, but which we somehow tolerate taking place elsewhere.  Most people will accept this, on the basis that they do not have to know or want to know exactly what is going on.  This attitude still, I think persists, although people at large in the West no longer trust their governments as they used to, but we must still ask what is the difference between us and, say, a large part of the German nation during the period 1939 to 1945?

Certainly, while we put up with this kind of killing going on in our name, we can hardly regard ourselves as morally superior to Robespierre and the other terrorists who ruled France during the period known as ‘the Terror’.  Contrary to received general opinion, the French terrorists did not kill people merely on suspicion – the Law of Suspects merely authorised the detention of people who were suspected of being inimical to the regime, and that kind of law is very common in a country facing a foreign threat as France was at that time.  They may in fact have been executing people on suspicion, but they were not doing so under some legal process that permitted them to do that – and they at least put up some form of trial first.

There was no form of judicial intervention in this film at all; and the terrorists were exclusively terrorists operating in Kenya who did not appear to pose any threat to those nations who were engaging in the operation to kill terrorists.  The moral issues are, therefore, to put it softly, serious.  To what extent do we want to give our military or our government the power to kill people on the footing that the ends justify the means, when that maxim is the foundation of the political evil that underlies all forms of terrorism?

And a fond farewell to the late Alan Rickman.  What a voice!  What a lip-curl!  He was a truly wonderful creator of character.  He helped to make Barchester Chronicles the best thing on TV since Callan.

Passing Bull 31 – The Loudest Twitterer

If there is something to be gained from the mess that is US politics, it is that ours may not look so bad after all.

About three quarters of a year of cripplingly expensive bullshit and division will eventually produce two candidates.  The parties have let the system get out of control.  They have committed themselves to having democratically selected candidates.  The English Labour Party did that too, and we know the results.  That is a bad case of preferring logic to experience.

The position with the Republicans would be comical, if it were not so serious – even to us down here.  Senator Cruz went, I think, to Princeton and Harvard, and is a member of the United States Senate.  He is running for President of the US representing the Republican Party.  With those cast-iron Establishment credentials, he claims to be against the Establishment.  The truth is that the Establishment is against him.  The Republicans hate him more than Democrats do.

Donald Trump has no policies at all.  He just shouts slogans and mantras and offers nostrums.  He is the ultimate Twitter age politician – full of loud, clipped bullshit of the required number of characters.  The last thing that you could describe Trump as is a Conservative politician.  He is in the populist mode and style of Mussolini.  There is an epic quality to his bullshit.

So, the Republican Party is looking at a possible choice between a radical ideologue it hates and a populist who is not a Conservative.  Perhaps it is time the Republicans ask themselves whether their brand of conservatism – that is minimal legislative intervention – is what a majority of the American people want in the year of Our Lord 2016.  Trump is willing to intervene everywhere, and there does not appear to be much appetite for the Tea Party minimalism of Cruz.  Perhaps also the party might drag itself out of the 19th century and have a platform, a leader, and some policies.

There are many nightmare possibilities for the rest of the world.  If Trump were to do the impossible and become the President, who would receive Frau Merkel?  In The Australian on Saturday, Emma-Kate Symons had a piece indicting the US press for not being critical enough of the family connection.

Trump is currently sporting a third wife.  He has got a daughter called Ivanka.  She is pregnant.  Trump says ‘if Ivanka wasn’t my daughter perhaps I might be dating her.’  Well, why not add incest to the holy cows available for slaughter?  The journalist criticises serious outlets such as Bloomberg and Yahoo for running puff pieces with headlines like ‘Ivanka with her bump stumps up for Papa Trump’.  The reason the press is so soft is that they are scared of Trump and of being locked out.

But if you want to know who might greet Frau Merkel, this is what Emma–Kate says:

The rise of Trump can be traced to multiple factors in the dysfunctional US political system.  It is among other things, the tale of an opportunistic, celebrity-seeking Alpha male paradoxically hanging off the stilettos of the clever model women around him: Number 1 campaigner, heiress, ex-model and Trump corporate senior executive Ivanka and his third wife, the Slovenian-born former catwalk habitué, Melania.

Yet, despite their tactical importance and role in legitimising Trump when it comes to women and immigrants, Trump’s leading ladies are apparently off-limits when it comes to fearless  scrutiny by US media.

Take this week’s cringeworthy exclusive interview at home with Melania Trump in her Fifth Avenue Manhattan ‘Versailles-style’ gilded penthouse by the supposedly liberal but in reality star-struck and access-obsessed MSNBC network show Morning Joe.

Rehearsed and primped like the seasoned reality TV star she is, jewellery designer and caviar face-cream vendor Madame Trump sat on one of her golden thrones, pursed her glossy lips, and waited for the easy questions.

That is the nightmare that would await the world’s most intelligent politician.  And Emma-Kate was being very kind not to mention the sons.


It is therefore a relief to find that the Americans can still do some things properly.  The film Spotlight is fine and persuasive for the reason that Trump is not.  It does not insult our intelligence.  The characters are underdone, and all the more interesting and persuasive for that.  Mark Ruffalo as the lead journalist and Stanley Tucci as an Armenian-born Attorney are terrific in a terrific film.  You can tell when a film is holding an audience, and this film did – especially at the end when the final caption announced that the Cardinal responsible had resigned – and was then given a plum post in Rome.  Still, I don’t suppose we can be too smug about that.  We now have to bribe our deadwood to get it out of the Parliament, and no amount of bribery or dynamite looks capable of shifting the worst case of all.

Poet of the Month: Philip Larkin

Mother, Summer, I

My mother, who hates thunderstorms,

Holds up each summer day and shakes

It out suspiciously, lest swarms

Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;

But when the August weather breaks

And rains begin, and brittle frost

Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,

Her worried summer look is lost.


And I her son, though summer-born

And a summer-loving, nonetheless

Am easier when the leaves are gone;

Two often summer days appear

Emblems of perfect happiness

I can’t confront: I must await

A time less bold, less rich, less clear:

An autumn more appropriate.

Passing Bull 29 – Let the sun shine upon ME

A member of the Seekers once described a friend of mine as a Kelvinator – she could not walk past a fringe without opening the door to feel the light shine upon her.  That was not fair to her, but it is dead right for some people who are, one way or another, in the entertainment business.

There must be something very bad in the legal air in Sydney.  Dyson Heydon has been making a fool of himself ever since he accepted his commission from Tony Abbott.  Now we have an intense competition between former members of the Supreme Court as to who can be the rudest and the silliest.  It is very unsettling to watch, even from this side of the Murray.

A lot of it has to do with ICAC.  A lot more has to do with Margaret Cunneen S C who is regularly described in the press as ‘one of Australia’s most accomplished criminal prosecutors and a media darling’.  She sounds like a real Kelvinator.  She just cannot help herself.  The other day the AFR reported that she had said of ICAC that ‘they are out of control, these people.  The whole thing has to be completely destroyed.’  And of the ACC: ‘The whole thing is a total attempt to annihilate what they think is a very political conservative, when I was told I had a chance to be a Supreme Court Judge.’  She referred to a former Supreme Court judge who had defended ICAC as ‘an old man with dyed hair trying to get back on TV.’  She said of the head of the child abuse Royal Commission that he ‘seems to have it in for me – I think McClellan is the author of all my bad press, until ICAC.’

This is all unspeakably vulgar and unprofessional.  If this woman ever had any prospect of a judicial career, she has none now – and at her own hands.  You wonder if she is fit for any office at all.  The press says that her ‘background briefings, networking and friendships with journalists are legendary.’  The last thing that this country needs is a prosecutor who goes in for that sort of thing.

Shane Warne and Eddie McGuire are both legendary Kelvinators.  Warne is now intent on proving just how stupid he really is.  The other day he attacked Steve Waugh for dropping him.  It gives you an insight into ego when someone complains of being dropped.  That must be unthinkable.  But even if there were some ground for the complaint – and there was none – Warne should have kept his mouth shut  Steve Waugh is in my view the toughest cricketer that we have produced in my time, and that means he is the best.  The difference between him and Shane Warne is that he has character.

There is another reason why Warne should be keeping his head down.  A charity that he was associated with, the Shane Warne Foundation, looks to have been a temple built for egos.  It is being shut down.  Eddie McGuire was one of the ‘celebrities’ on the board.  He said that ‘The reason why nobody has bailed off the board is that we really believe in this bloke, we believe in Shane Warne, we know his heart, we know his track record, we know he has recast this foundation.’  Well, Eddie, perhaps you should have bailed off the board when you found out that the brother of Warne, Jason, had been paid an $80,000 annual salary in the same year that the foundation had donated just $54,600 to charity.  Looking after the family before charity does not look good in a charity, not least if those who run it are in it for their own ego.

In both these instances, the bullshit is corrosive.  Bullshit and ego are a bad mix.  Cunneen, Warnie, and Eddie have all made enough money out of blowing their own trumpets to be able to afford to buy banks of Kelvinators and leave them on with their doors open all night.  That might serve to cool them down, which would be helpful for the rest of us.

Movie and Opera

Different people see films and operas differently.  Some people liked TitanicThe Age gave it five stars and I have never forgiven them – and I thought it was the worst film I have seen.  Some people like Looking for Grace, and I thought it was the second worst film I have seen.  It was staggeringly slow, boring, incredible, and irritating.  A money back job.  I thought the Melbourne Opera show of Mozart’s Seraglio was a wonderful night’s entertainment – and I may have been the only one there not speaking German.  This is what Mozart, at least in that phase, and entertainment should be.  The Age reviewer must have slept through the opera and his writing his review.

Poet of the month: Philip Larkin

Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your expenses

Hurrying to catch my Comet

One dark November day,

Which soon would snatch me from it

To the sunshine of Bombay,

I pondered pages Berkeley

Not three weeks since had heard,

Perceiving Chatto darkly

Through the mirror of the Third.


Crowds, colourless and careworn

Had made my taxi late,

Yet not till I was airborne

Did I recall the date –

That day when Queen and Minister

And Band of Guards and all

Still act their solemn–sinister

Wreath- rubbish in Whitehall.


It used to make me throw up,

These mawkish nursery games:

O when will England grow up?

But I outsoar the Thames,

And dwindle off down Auster

To greet Professor Lal

(He once met Morgan Forster),

My contact and my pal.

Bridge of Spies


In a Wizard of Id cartoon, that used to hang outside my chambers, a thrusting lawyer named Pettifogger demands a change of venue for the trial – he says his client cannot get a fair trial in this town.  The King glares at him and then announces that he will take the trial to another town – ‘but we are coming back here for the hanging.’  This is prejudice in a very pure sense – the case has been decided; the accused is guilty; the trial is a sham.  What you have therefore is a definitive case of prejudice in the sense of pre-judgment.

You see this in Bridge of Spies.  The Attorney played by Tom Hanks is representing a Russian spy – we know he is a spy – played by Mark Rylance.  (The spy was English born.)  The trial part takes about the first half of the film.  (I did not recognise Alan Alda as the senior partner.)  The second part deals with a prisoner swap in Berlin.  Across each is the story of the U2 Pilot Gary Powers.  It is directed by Spielberg and the Coen brothers were involved in the writing.  There is some dry black humour, but the bad guys are constant – the CIA.

This is a very American movie – Hollywood – with a mom and apple pie ending, but it is a bloody good film.  (We get the movies late up here.)  It is a great story.  It is told by masters of their craft.  And in the two leads, you have two actors from very different traditions, but two champions at the height of their powers.  There are moments of theatre involving these two great actors where you are on the edge of your seat as if you were watching a pas de deux or a duet.  They are as different in their acting styles as their characters are different in the flesh.  There is some serious male bonding that might have got both mawkish and unreal, but it got to me – just because of the star power.

Let me give some examples of the quality of the theatre.  We first see Hanks negotiating with a colleague.  I have worked with American attorneys and the good ones are as smooth as a baby’s bottom.  (The same goes for the Poms.)  Hanks is an American attorney.  A driver has lost control of a car and then run into five people.  Is that one accident or five?  (There is a cap on the cover for any one accident.)  It depends on how you look at it.  For the driver, there is one accident with five hurt.  For each of the five, there is one separate accident, making five in all.  What is the answer if the five had been in one vehicle?  Is this an example of Einstein’s theory of relativity?  So, we get to see Hanks in action, and the Socratic method.  And the same conundrum comes back in Berlin.  What is the difference between a one for one swap and a one for two?  This is great theatre.

The spy gets messages in a false coin.  Powers has a lethal spike he must used if captured in a false coin.

Hanks has a cracker of a speech before the U S Supreme Court telling them they must not give up their values for the cold war.  This was the Dark Age of McCarthy.  And when the spy asks his lawyer why he never asked if he was a spy he gets the standard answer.  The lawyer is not God.  He is just there to see that the accused has his rights observed and gets a fair hearing.  He doesn’t, but he lives.

This film is seriously entertaining, and it is hard to pay a movie a higher compliment.

And Amy Ryan is drop-dead gorgeous as the wife.  A sex symbol of a middle aged housewife in the 50’s.  You get a box of Jaffas if you can get more Freudian than that.

Mad Max at Fury Road

There are three kinds of plot.  There is the injury and revenge plot; the trial and the triumph of the hero; and the love triangle.  The first is the basis of Greek tragedy and the Western movie; the second is the archetype of the myth, and the basis of most religion.  The third often leads to one of the other two.

In the myth of the hero, there is the call to adventure, perhaps to an unlikely starter; there is the threshold of adventure and the initial trial; the hero is blooded, bloodied and strengthened; the hero finds helpers and after great battles triumphs in the war and overcomes evil or death; the hero prevails and returns, and there is peace on earth.  You might even call it a form of redemption.

The first Mad Max movie was, as I recall it, a simple revenge story.  By the time you get to Mad Max at Fury Road, it is largely the myth of the hero.  In an unnameable and undateable future in the middle of nowhere, a barbarous dictator holds a whole people in thrall by controlling their water and protecting his Citadel with a frightful inbred race of warriors in war wagons and chariots and Harleys.

A woman warrior makes a run for it in a war wagon with captive wives of the dictator.  Her name is Imperator Furiosa.  She is on a quest for the Promised Land – the Green Place – and redemption; that is her word, in case you did not get it – redemption.  She teams up with the Great Survivor – Mad Max – and after huge and weighty trials, they arrive at the Green Place – but it too is now waste land because the water failed.  Mad Max persuades them to go back and take on the the Citadel and ready the dictator for his Gotterdammerung – or see Imperator Furiosa driving into the flames, in the manner of Brunnhilde.

So, it is a fairly standard mix of the Old and New Testaments, the Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with special thanks to the Reich and the Gulag, and more dead bodies than in a Johnny Woo Hong Kong Ballet in Bullets.

One of the helpers has defected and dreams of being admitted to Valhalla.  If you think that this plot of this version of the heroic myth is over the top, have a look at the plot of the Ring Cycle, with special attention to the role of the Valkyries, those engaged in bearing the dead to Valhalla (immortalised in Apocalypse Now).  This warrior fires himself up with a form of Colgate toothpaste, but he is brought in from the cold by a red-haired beauty among the Wives who in one of the few soft moments of the movie looks just like that beauty that Botticelli painted standing on a shell.  You might also like to look at the wars in heaven described in such lyrical military terms by Milton in Paradise Lost – and the repeated references to thrones, powers, principalities, and realms.  And you might reflect on how the pious genius of Milton ended up with Satan as the hero of his epic written to justify God.

According to Tatler some time ago, Charlize Theron had the best legs in Hollywood.  You get no chance to assess that here, because she is never out of her warrior jeans.  She also sports a number two crew-cut that shows off her handsome features to the best effect, which she carries in her full stature, rather like those handsome black women that stride so confidently down Lexington.  Although they may have softened the American accent, she is just right for Imperator Furiosa.

She says very little, but she is positively voluble beside Tom Hardy as Max.  Max is very good looking – as good as Charlize – in what I may be permitted to call an Australian way.  He has something of Harrison Ford about him – not the puckishness, but a kind of bush innocence.  I thought he too was just right for the part.  Will Tom and Charlize become an item?  Will he forgive her for taking out one of the bad guys with one shot after he had failed?  Or will he just ride off into the next adventure?  We might have here the rebirth of the strong silent type.

There is hardly any support cast.  I could have done with just a bit more humour and without what struck me as one lapse of taste.  The bad guys are sufficiently unattractive – although have they made one as unattractive as that guy that Grace Kelly popped in High Noon – that fat, grizzly, balding bastard with the permanent leer and even more permanent hangover?

The movie does however have its moments.  All hell breaks loose in a dust storm that reminds us of the parting of the Red Sea.  There is a frightful battle in darkness.  After a cold, clean editing break, the camera is set in daylight on what looks to be a moonscape.  Then a big hill starts to move.  Slowly you realise that you are not looking at a range in a desert but part of the form of a man emerging out of the sand – it is Max!  And Lo!  Max is not shaking the sand off his feet but the sand from his hair!  The Great Survivor has done it again.

Well, we go the movies to be entertained and I got more than my $10 worth at Daylesford.  It is not for everyone – neither is the great Johnny Woo – but I thought that it was a hoot, and I was chuckling all the way home.  It is I think important that we keep working on the basic myths.  They have survived because we need them – not least when we have ditched God.

And there is one person this movie was made for – our unheroic Prime Minister.  There are more silly mantras and death cults than you can point a bloody stick at; but perhaps our PM might think this is all some covert message from the Dark Side about the evils of climate change.  There are, you see, so many things out there that can just spook us, and some may not want us to leave the spooks in the movies or at the cinema.