Wins & Losses – An Early Summer Update

Birthday bounty!

Well, life got in the way of this blog again – it’s been four whole months since I’ve posted anything! Apologies to all you lovelies who follow my fractured, meandering posts. I had another birthday on the weekend and (besides attaining full membership of the Grumpy Old Ladies League) was given a generous stack of DVD & Blu-ray releases that I don’t have in my collection or I’ve worn out with over-use and I immediately watched Bridge on the River Kwai when I worked out I hadn’t watched it for well over 10 years

It’s true that you only miss something significant when it’s not there. I’ve come to realise in the last few months how much of a fabulous thing writing this blog has been, is and I’m sure, will continue to be in the future. I’ve realised what a significant stress release it is to randomly type a few hundred words about things that matter to me, not because I HAVE to but because I WANT to. So thank you to a few folks who reached out wondering where and how I was, encouraging me to continue – you are gold!

Most of my time in the last few months has been taken up with my big three passions; music education, urban farming and film criticism/university study. Music teaching is gradually winding back for the summer break but I’m constantly enriched and amazed at my marvelous, talented tribe.

With respect to film criticism, I’ve been keeping brief notes on films watched, and there’s quite a backlog to catch up with, many of which I’ll expand out to reviews here. Also, I’ve just completed a unit on Screen Celebrity and Stardom, which takes a cultural industries approach to the generation of celebrity and I’m proud to say I received outstanding marks. Unfortunately, this is also probably the last Screen Studies unit I’ll be doing for my degree course but the good news is I’ll be completing my studies and graduating next year! I also have to do a major project, which I’ll talk about at length here once it’s finalised with my course convenor.

And of course, being early summer here in Tasmania the garden has been going gangbusters despite unseasonably cold and wet conditions. I have a spectacular crop of weeds as a result but the cooler weather didn’t suit most of my heritage tomato seedlings and I’ve had to resort to buying some Burnley Bounty as my main crop. Similarly, my entire basil seed failed this year and I’ve had to buy in punnets and pot them on for the greenhouse. I suspect it was a dud packet and I’ll be contacting the seed merchants more out of courtesy than just to complain. Meanwhile, I’ve had a lovely (albeit small) first crop from the asparagus I grew from seed a couple of years ago, the salad veggies are leaping out of the ground and the fruit trees are laden.

Pricking Basil seedlings into paper pots in the rain last week

There have been some sad losses too. The elderly Ladies Who Lay have sadly been reduced to five, Hipster passed away peacefully in her sleep in early September at an estimated age of 10 years. This is pretty remarkable for a laying hen and I’m pleased her final years were stress free and comfortable, with lots of room to run around in, plenty of things to eat and good earth to scratch. Harder still was losing my beautiful Bella B. Bunny at the beginning of October. She was a truly awful mother, bordering on incompetent, completely disdainful of any other life form (including me most of the time) but I adored her and I’m still trying to adjust to life in the yard without her nosing her way in.

The beautiful Hipster, late of the Ladies Who Lay

Nevertheless, the seasons turn and life continues. The other rabbits Bernard Black and Boudica are well, though dear Boudica is getting noticeably older and slower. I’m inundated with eggs as usual for this time of year which is astonishing as my chickens are commercially, well past their use by date. It just goes to show what plenty of space, a more natural diet and low stress does for any creature’s well-being. Speaking of which, I’m going outside to enjoy the sunshine that’s finally arrived

Take care lovelies wherever you are in the world and I’ll post again soon ❤

My Bella

Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs 2018 Directed by Wes Anderson.

I finally got to see this at the end of its cinema run in Hobart and (like so many movies) I’m really pleased I got to see it on a big screen.

This stop-motion extravaganza from Wes Anderson is an absolute triumph in terms of visual styling but with respect to a coherent narrative, I’m not so sure. But I’m tempted to ask if it really matters in this film, which I found incredibly satisfying at many levels.

Like all of Wes Anderson’s work, the degree of visual detail is quite dizzying, to the point of overwhelming. I need to watch this quite a few more times to get the most out of it and for me, that’s part of the joy of Anderson’s film making – it stands up so well to repeat viewing. The cast are superb, with many Anderson regulars including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum but the standout is Bryan Cranston’s Chief. Having said that, I think it’s really a shame that Scarlett Johansson has so little to do as Nutmeg (Chief’s love interest) and at times, I found Greta Gerwig’s Tracy everything I find annoying about American culture.

This brings me to the many discussions Isle of Dogs has prompted among both critics and audiences about Anderson’s treatment of Japanese people and culture and a perceived coldness in his film making. As a white middle-aged Australian woman, with only a smattering of Japanese, I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of what is obviously a fantasy rendering of Japan. I read the lack of subtitles over much of the Japanese dialogue as a conscious storytelling device, designed to place the audience squarely in the point of view of the dogs, who don’t understand language, just as the teenage hero Atari doesn’t understand the dogs. When required, Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson gives us what we need to know. On the other hand, I really found the character Tracy incredibly annoying and I wondered if she was a parody of the “white saviour” figure that is so prevalent historically in mainstream US cinema (and yes, I’d include Anderson’s 2007 The Darjeeling Limited in that sorry bunch). Personally, I think the character of Tracy could’ve been dropped and the whole film would’ve become more streamlined from a narrative perspective, but there’s always the thought that perhaps her presence is itself an act of protest about current US global attitudes.

With respect to accusations of coldness generally in Anderson’s film making, I frankly don’t buy it. His framing, colour palettes, lens use and even the actors he regularly employs all feed into a very clear cinematic vision that is heavy on detail and offers so much nuance to audiences who care to look a little more deeply.

In conclusion, I don’t think Isle of Dogs is perfect (that title still rests with The Grand Budapest Hotel in my opinion) but it’s really very, very good. If you like Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, I think you’ll really enjoy this incredibly shaggy dog story. Highly recommended.

Extinction (No Spoilers)

Extinction 2018 Directed by Ben Young.

It’s been driven home to me recently that I’m getting old. My local cinema, the State Cinema in North Hobart is putting on a couple of screenings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release. But this also gives me cause to celebrate, as 2001 was one of the films that really hooked me into science fiction film, going to the movies in general and remains a film I still love to watch.

This release from Netflix reminded me again what in influence Kubrick still has over the genre, with some early shots from Extinction clearly paying homage. I also spotted a cinematic nod to Ridley Scott’s Alien (which is rarely a bad thing) and in hindsight, these little crumbs set the tone for this flawed but interesting piece of near-future sci-fi.

Essentially, this feature directed by Australian Ben Young is a film about family – what it means to be a family and how those bonds can be stretched, twisted and (in this case) strengthened – but it is quite a dour tale.

Michael Pena plays Peter, a building engineer cum maintenance worker who lives in an architecturally beautiful unnamed city with his engineer/town planner wife (Lizzy Caplan) and his two young daughters. Peter is troubled by dreams of an alien invasion that destroys his family but as his dreams become more intense and frequent, he finds himself increasingly alienated from those he’s trying to protect. I’m not going to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen this yet but suffice it to say that Peter’s nightmares turn into reality and the ensuing shenanigans provide the bulk of the film. The first act/set up tells us all we need to know and above all, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Once the action starts, it wisely relies more on practical than computer generated effects, which at times look very cheap. The tension mounts in a good but fairly predictable way but despite this, overall I found the second act pretty lacklustre. There’s a flatness about the action that took me out of the film on several occasions and I suspect this is one of the issues of trying to be a big blockbuster on a budget. Also, I felt Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan were sadly wasted in their roles, and the inclusion of Mike Coulter (Luke Cage) as Peter’s boss confused me. One of the things I really liked were the young daughters not being the standard stereotypical “plucky kids” so often seen in this kind of film. They’re not brave or particularly resourceful, they’re just terrified kids, which was refreshing.

The twist in the third act was very good and although I knew something was coming, I didn’t spot it specifically. (Again, no spoilers here – go and see it for yourself!)

Apart from uneven pacing and lacklustre CG, my main gripe with the film is the ending. Apart from clearly leading with a case for a sequel (please don’t do it!) I feel the movie lingered way too long after the denouement. I wanted it to wind up and wave goodbye at least 10 minutes before it did.

Despite this, I am increasingly impressed by Netflix’ foray into original sci-fi film distribution. While Extinction isn’t brilliant, along with Mute, Anon and the wonderful Annihilation (all of which I’ve written about elsewhere but neglected to review here!), Netflix is bringing a welcome breath of new(ish) science fiction to my screens. The ongoing issue I see here is the platform – these films were all made to be at their best on a big screen, with so much of their cinematic value being lost on my home television or laptop.

Or perhaps, I’m just getting old and feeling nostalgic for the magic of seeing something for the first time in a cinema? Nevertheless, I’m still watching with interest!

Beirut

Beirut 2018 Directed by Brad Anderson

*No spoilers in this review*

I went to an advanced screening of this over the weekend and it was a packed house. After the film as we were filing out, one of the staff asked a patron if they enjoyed it. The older woman replied “well, I don’t think enjoy is quite the right word. It was very interesting but a bit confusing” and I think that’s a fair assessment of this densely packed political thriller.

Directed by the always visually reliable Brad Anderson, the screenplay is by Tony Gilroy who wrote the Bourne trilogy, Michael Collins and my favourite Star Wars film, Rogue One. There are some fairly difficult issues embedded in this period thriller and at first glance, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another example of western filmmakers using a Middle Eastern location for ethnic flavour and racial stereotyping but I think it offers more on deeper examination.

First and foremost, this is clearly a star vehicle for Jon Hamm (who I last saw and loved in Baby Driver) and he is wonderful as Mason Skiles, the alcoholic and grief stricken former political negotiator. It can’t be denied there are echoes of Don Draper here but I think Hamm pushes beyond that by virtue of Anderson’s direction, a lovingly crafted script and a charismatic performance from Hamm. Rosamund Pike is the perfect choice as his foil and she gives a fine and nuanced performance among a lot of boys as a CIA operative and Skiles’ handler.

The film opens in 1972 and after much calamity and personal heartbreak for Mason Skiles, the action forwards to 1982. The clichés abound (especially when the three characters representing US government interests are introduced), and I noticed some quite heavy symbolism at times – particularly around children playing in and around weapons and rubble and blatant disparities between privilege and poverty. At times I was reminded of films like the Bourne trilogy and even Syriana but ultimately it was an examination of one man in extreme crisis, seeking personal redemption.

Some of it is pretty clunky and (without giving anything away) I wasn’t really on board with the ending but it really is worth it for Jon Hamm’s fine performance. If you want to get the most out of this, it probably pays to have at least a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern history of the period, but at its heart, Beirut is looking at the political tragedy of the time through the lens of personal loss and the notion that terrorists are not born but made.

Beirut opens at the State Cinema, Elizabeth Street, North Hobart Thursday 26th July.

Charade

Charade 1963 Directed by Stanley Donen.

This quite delightful spy thriller/romantic comedy came out in the midst of the Cold War, hot on the coattails of James Bond and could’ve been made by Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, Stanley Donen (who also directed Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Two for the Road and Bedazzled among many others) exercises a light touch on something that could’ve been entirely inconsequential but is made memorable by a particularly fine cast.

There are noir story elements here too, especially in the night time scenes and Paris fits the bill as a most elegant setting for the action. Cary Grant is busy being Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn is simply gorgeous in her Givenchy outfits and the chemistry between the two leads is everything you want from this kind of film. It’s well backed up by a Henry Mancini score and the great Charles Lang as director of photography.

What takes this up a notch for me is a truly fine supporting cast – George Kennedy, James Coburn, Ned Glass, Jacques Marin, Dominique Minot and the always watchable Walter Matthau. Donen even extends the Hitchcock comparisons by appearing briefly in a scene.

It’s not deep, it’s not the greatest movie ever made but if (like me) you like some escapist and nostalgic fun occasionally, this is extremely entertaining.

Winter Warmers Part 1 – Boeuf en Croute

Moon set at sunrise over kunanyi/Mt Wellington 30th June 2018

Now we’re past mid winter’s day the weather has taken a much chillier turn (very common for this time of year) and unfortunately it’s wet as well. Normally, most Australians south of the tropics would welcome rain but tanks are full, garden beds are waterlogged (very bad for the garlic crop!) and the chicken’s yard is rapidly turning into a quagmire.

The biggest issue is that it’s kept me housebound. As a rule, winter in Hobart is much drier and colder but we are blessed with crisp, clear blue days, ideal for outdoor activities. Winter is normally the time of year when I want to do things with fruit trees, sharpen spades and secateurs, clean out the greenhouse, prepare beds for spring planting, and generally charge around the yard, doing things to keep warm.

So, although it’s been milder than usual, it’s just been too wet to do a great deal out of doors on the days when I’m home to do so. As a result, I’ve been cooking more and watching a lot of movies!

Last weekend, I started half heartedly taking stock and cleaning out the freezers (yes, I was that desperate to be doing something). There were lots of treasures for winter meals – home made pork and chicken stock, roasted and peeled chestnuts, slow cooked beans in meal size portions, leftover servings of curry and soup and bones from the christmas ham that need using very soon. To my horror, I discovered the last beautifully packaged piece of truffle that was lurking in the back corner of a freezer. I buy a Tasmanian truffle every winter and try and make the most of it fresh and then spend the rest of the year dreaming about truffles, so I was horrified to think I’d neglected this exquisite morsel, hoping it hadn’t denatured or suffered freezer burn. Thank goodness I wrapped it so well – it was fine!

I had a piece of beef fillet that was looking for a good recipe too, and a need to do something special for myself as well as my long suffering partner (aka He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Listened-To). So I decided to make a rather spectacular but remarkably easy dinner. The preparation is everything with this but in my opinion, the easier you can make the flavour profile, the more clearly the core ingredients can shine through, in this case the truffle and the beef. I think it’s worth making just for the aroma. My house smelled amazing for days after ❤

Before we get into it, I just want to talk about expense. At first glance this looks incredibly expensive, and compared to most of the food I share here, it probably is. I did a rough costing and (without wine or power allowances) this comes to approximately AU$70 of ingredients for two generous serves. Given that a quality pub meal in Hobart can vary from AU$25-35 for steak per person and something like this in a restaurant would be more in the order of AU$45-65 per serve, I think this is really good value for something exceptional that most home cooks can easily manage. Now, let’s crack on!

Boeuf en Croute (serves 2)

Beef fillet piece (approximately 500g/1 lb)

1-2 sheets frozen puff pastry

2 rashers of good quality bacon

Truffle (my piece would’ve been just under 20g)

1 clove garlic (optional)

Fresh herbs (I used oregano and sage)

Salt and pepper (optional)

Method:

Heat a skillet to high and sear the beef on each side quickly. The idea here is to seal the meat, not to cook it through, so make sure the skillet is very hot. Remove the meat once every side (ends included) has seen the pan and set it aside to cool completely. (I left mine for about an hour).

Preheat an oven to 180 C (350 F). Lay the pastry sheet(s) out on a parchment covered board to defrost. How much pastry you need is determined by how big your piece of beef is and how much you like puff pastry. Once defrosted you can roll the pastry out a little to make it fit or be lazy (like me) and make a patch with another piece of pastry.

On a clean board remove the bacon rind, chop the garlic and herbs finely and slice the truffle. On a defrosted pastry sheet, lay out the rashers of bacon side by side and cover with the chopped herbs and shaved truffle. I don’t have a proper truffle shaver but find the slicing blade of a box grater does very well. Also, I don’t generally use salt and pepper but if you do, this would be the spot to use it.

Now for the tricky bit! Position the beef on the top side of the pastry sheet like this –

Use the parchment to help make a tight roll. Also, I find rolling towards yourself lets you see what’s happening and poke any stray pieces of truffle or herbs back into place. I used a little water and a pastry brush to tack an extra piece of pastry to one edge and finished the roll, using this as the surface the roast sits on. At this stage, I also trimmed a little excess pastry off the sides and folded the sides tightly, making sure the meat was completely sealed in the pastry. I put a few decorative slashes on top to give some indication where to slice for serving but you can decorate it any way you like.

Place on a small roasting tray and bake on the middle rack for 35-40 minutes. Everyone’s oven is different so adjust your cooking time accordingly. Mine came out medium rare though it looks more like well done in the photograph (and the pic of the pastry lies too – it was nowhere near as dark as the photo!)

Leave the meat to rest for 10 minutes and then carve carefully into four slices. Serve on a bed of wilted spinach or silverbeet (Swiss chard) and a glass or two of good red wine.

Next time, I’ll share how I used the ham bones to make home made Baked Beans – one of the cheapest and heartiest meals ever. Although it costs far less, it actually takes more time to make than Boeuf en Croute!

Also, please let me know if you try this recipe – I always love to hear from you 🙂

Angel-A

Angel-A (2005) Directed by Luc Besson

I’ve tried over the years to like Luc Besson’s films with varying degrees of success. Early efforts such as Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990) and Leon: The Professional (1994) were solid efforts (helped along by the presence of the always interesting Jean Reno) but it was The Fifth Element (1997) that really grabbed me. By then, I could see that Besson was offering a particularly Gallic take on the male gaze, with strong female characters acting out (mostly) male fantasy roles.

My disappointment with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) was shared with most of the movie-going public globally and I admit I gave up on Besson as a director until Lucy (2014) which I enjoyed far more than I thought I would, only to be crushed again last year with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017).

So, when streaming service MUBI put the French language Angel-A (2005) up for view a few weeks ago, I hesitated.

This is essentially a two-hander with Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen in the title role. The story is quite sweet and at times even funny with Debbouze putting in a solid performance as the ridiculously inept scam artist Andre, and Rasmussen is passable as the angel who comes to earth to show Andre his value. I say passable but she is undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful woman (as are all Besson’s heroines) though her acting range is clearly limited and with such a small cast I think this holds things back.

The movie is also incredibly derivative, with nods to Wings of Desire (1987), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and even Forrest Gump (1994), but it remains a very male fantasy, heavily imbued by the male gaze. The soundtrack by Anja Garbarek is lovely and unobtrusive, Debbouze and Ramussen are okay, but in the end, the film is saved by the third major character – the city of Paris. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (also a regular on Besson’s projects) clearly has a great eye for a good shot and filming in black and white was a very good call, giving a more noir feel to the film.

While it all looks good on paper, for me this was another forgettable film from a director who I keep wanting more from.

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