Movie Review: Salt (2010)

August 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

It’s hard to know where to start with a film like Salt.  Directed by Aussie Phillip Noyce (The Saint, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Rabbit-Proof Fence) and starring Angelina Jolie, Salt looks like it will be a female version of the Jason Bourne series, except even more unbelievable and, if this film is anything to go by, more exciting.  It’s a pure adrenaline rush.

Jolie plays the titular character, Evelyn Salt, who works for the CIA.  That’s about all you need to know, because Salt has an insane plot full of twists and turns, and accordingly, the less you know the more enjoyable it will be.  Just know that after a short set-up, the majority of the film speeds through at break-neck pace, and has Salt doing all types of crazy stunts, stuff even Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and 007 wouldn’t even dream of doing.  Absolutely preposterous?  For sure.  Lots of fun?  Definitely!

Salt features a stellar cast including Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and August Diehl (talk about a hard-to-spell cast!), but there’s no doubt the film belongs to Angelina Jolie, who seems simply perfect for the role.  To be honest I can’t think of another Hollywood actress that could have pulled it off.

I can see why some people would dismiss Salt for being too ridiculous (there are so many holes everywhere), but if you can suspend disbelief for 100 minutes and just enjoy it for what it is, I’m sure you’ll have a cracking time.  Can’t wait for the sequels.

4 stars out of 5!

Hunter Valley Dining: Mojo’s on Wilderness

August 31, 2010 in Food, Travel by pacejmiller

So after agonising over where we would have this very special first dinner at the Hunter Valley (considering we only had two nights and there were dozens of places to choose from), we went with the highly recommended Mojo’s on Wilderness.

It was a relatively short drive through the empty, unlit gravel roads of the Hunter Valley, which was a bit of an experience in itself.  Eventually, we came across some dim lights and decided that we must have arrived.

From the outside, Mojo’s looks like a little cottage.  It kind of does from the inside too, with a finely decorated setting complete with modern art (for sale) adorning the walls.  Due to the size of the place, there weren’t many seats, and we were lucky even to get a reservation because someone else had pulled out that afternoon.

The staff at Mojo’s was great.  Attentive and patient, explaining to us what the specials were and what particular dishes they recommended.  Everything seemed terrific.  If you don’t believe me check out the menu here.

The first thing that arrived at our table was the bread (ciabatta rolls), served with olives, dukkah and truffle oil with a dash of caramelised balsalmic vinegar mixed in.  May I just say this may have been the best free bread I’ve ever had.  The bread itself was nice and warm; crispy on the outside, moist (but not too moist) on the inside.  And the aroma…man.  I’m not ordinarily a fan of excessive balsalmic (too much vinegar smell for me), but this caramelised stuff was sensational — tangy and sweet, unlike anything I’ve tried before.  Needless to say, we scoffed down the bread and may have asked for seconds.

Next up, the starters.  We chose two — the mushroom risotto and the panfriend lamb cutlets.  I’m not exaggerating when I say they were right up there amongst the best starters we’ve ever had, anywhere.  Though the presentation was pretty good, it had nothing on the actual taste, which for me was quite a rarity.

Risotto

Lamb cutlet

We also picked two main courses — roasted cod (because we felt like somelike a little lighter) and the roasted duck with spiced aubergine chutney.  Both were excellent — not quite as amazing as the starters (as is always the case) but still very very good.  We polished up the dishes even though we were completely stuffed.

Roasted cod

Roasted duck

Oh, and they even gave us a free side of steamed vegetables.  I had low expectations for because, let’s face it, they usually just throw a few tasteless veges in boiling water — but these veges were fantastic because they added pine nuts and some delicious special dressing for flavour (and it was free).  I had never been so pleased to eat so many vegetables.

Free steamed veges

Dessert was a tough choice, but we went with the Amaretto cheesecake and a chocolate cake + ice cream.  Can’t complain about either selection as we cleaned them up despite being utterly stuffed.

Chocolate cake...

Cheesecake...

In all, a fabulous dining experience. The place is warm and cosy, the service is outstanding and the food is simply sublime.  Glad out of all the places we could have gone to we chose Mojo’s on Wilderness.

10 out of 10

PS: Mojo’s on Wilderness is located at 84 Wilderness Road, Lovedale, NSW.  Reservations: (02) 4930 7244.  Two courses for $59, three courses for $73.

PPS: We bought one of those caramelised balsalmic vinegar things to take home.  Perfect with a bunch of stuff.

Capote (2005) vs Infamous (2006)

August 29, 2010 in Best Of, Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

Toby Jones (left) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) as Truman Capote. Source: Guardian.co.uk

A recent revisiting of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood sparked some interest in the two films about him that were released in quick succession in 2005 and 2006 — Bennett Miller’s Capote and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous.

Being the first released, Capote stole most of the limelight, especially as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote won him an Oscar for Best Actor (not to mention the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and SAGs).  The film itself was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (for Catherine Keener as Harper Lee), and was at the top of most critics’ lists for the year.

On the other hand, Toby Jones, who played Capote in Infamous, won high praise for his performance too, and physically he was closer to the real life counterpart.  Sandra Bullock’s portrayal as Harper Lee was also praised, but did not receive the same recognition as Keener.  Infamous also had an arguably better cast, featuring stars such as Jeff Daniels, Daniel Craig, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, and a cameo from Gwyneth Paltrow.  But despite all of this, and the fact that most critics thought the film was pretty good too, Infamous could not avoid being compared to the earlier film, which they almost unanimously agreed was superior.

The real Truman Capote

Having read the book and watched both films in quick succession, I thought I would throw in my two cents on the two film versions.

Capote was based on the biography by Gerald Clarke, whereas Infamous was based on the book by George Plimpton.  Nevertheless, the story is essentially the same — Truman Capote is fascinated by a 300-word article about a family that was brutally gunned down in the small town of Holcomb, and decides to travel there to write an article.  He brings his good friend Harper Lee with him, and after a lengthy investigation, decides to turn that article into the “first” non-fiction novel (ie a non-fiction book written with fictional techniques).  In order to write the book, Capote gains access to the two killers in prison, Dick and Perry, who are facing the death penalty.  Capote befriends both men, and is particularly drawn to the sensitive and artistic Perry.  Despite becoming extremely close with the men over several years, Capote knows that the book’s ending can only be effective if they are ultimately executed for their crime.

Both films were good, but in different ways.  Capote is a classy production with a classy performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who really brings out the genius and the narcissism in the titular character.  It’s a slow burning film full of pain and contemplation, where the pauses are long but meaningful.

Comparatively, Infamous is lighter and flashier.  Toby Jones is a more flamboyant, less subtle Capote who is portrayed as a shameless gossip with the high society women in New York.  Jones also makes Capote seem like a prick, though Hoffman’s Capote is colder, more reserved but definitely more manipulative.  As good as Jones was, the edge goes to Hoffman in my opinion.

Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock both make fairly good Harper Lees — but again, Keener is more subtle whereas Bullock is more in-your-face.  Not to say that makes her a weaker Harper, just a different one, though this was probably attributable more to the script than the actresses.  I’d say they were equally good.

I found it interesting that both films focused almost entirely on Capote’s relationship with Perry, even though Dick also played a very large role in the book.  Nevertheless, I thought Capote handled this crucial part of the story better than Infamous did.  In Capote, you really get a sense of the struggle Capote is facing — he clearly feels something for Perry (though exactly what that feeling is is left rather ambiguous) but he also knows he must finish his masterpiece — and that obsession, vanity and selfishness eventually gets the better of him.

As for Infamous, I thought getting Daniel Craig to play Perry was a bizarre choice.  He’s a very good actor, but having read the book, he does not exactly fit the bill (Perry’s supposed to be very short and half American-Indian).  I didn’t fully buy into the relationship, which lacked the emotional power of the earlier film, even though it actually depicted a physical relationship between the two men.

Ultimately, Capote is more serious and reserved, much like the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Infamous, like Toby Jones’s performance, is more “out there” and talkative, especially as we get to see more of Capote living his high society life in New York, and there are occasional mock interviews with his friends that remove a layer of realism.

So yeah, same story but different approaches and different results.

Capote: 4.25 stars

Infamous: 3.5 stars

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey

August 28, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of the most remarkable, deeply affecting books I have ever read.  I first came across an extract as a part of my non-fiction writing class, but I found it so amazing that I quickly went out and purchased the entire book.

Hiroshima is a surprisingly simple piece of journalistic writing about six seemingly ordinary people who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.  It starts on the morning the bomb was dropped, when they were going about their normal lives, and ends several months later as they struggle to piece their shattered lives and bodies back together.  The narratives are simultaneous but The book originally had four chapters, but the modern edition I read had a fifth chapter called “The Aftermath”, written 40 years later after Hersey went back to see what had become of the lives of these six remarkable people (they really are remarkable).

In Hiroshima, John Hersey has created a sublime piece of non-fiction writing.  The skill involved in crafting this book is very understated.  The prose is not flowery or beautiful like Capote’s In Cold Blood — it’s simple, direct, subtle and meticulously described (and researched), but at the same time extremely effective, vivid, and haunting.  Some of the images brought to life by Hersey will stay with me forever.  The strange thing is, Hiroshima is not at all moralistic or manipulative.  It’s just an incredibly detailed and accurately told true story.  I can’t recall a book that has given me a greater urge to weep than this one.

This masterpiece first appeared as an article in The New Yorker on 31 August 1946 (a little after a year the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima) and caused unprecedented attention as the entire editorial space of the issue was dedicated to the piece.  It was sold out within hours and was scalped for exorbitant prices.  It was read over the radio in its entirety and distributed all around the world for educational purposes.  Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1,000 copies.  The Book-of-the-Month club distributed hundreds of thousands of copies for free to its members.

One of the best books I’ve read.

5 out of 5

[PS: I really wish I read Hiroshima by John Hersey before visiting the city in May 2008.]

Chateau Elan Hunter Valley

August 27, 2010 in Travel by pacejmiller

The front entrance to Chateau Elan

The resort we stayed at during our visit to the Hunter Valley was Chateau Elan, a 5-star spa resort located at the Vintage, a Greg Norman designed golf course.  We decided on Chateau Elan after a long search for special deals in the Hunter Valley.  It still wasn’t cheap, but given the exorbitant prices of some of the other luxury resorts, it was one of the cheaper ones.

Chateau Elan has the feel of a boutique hotel, elegant and tranquil, with wide views of the finely maintained golf course.  We had a choice of two types of rooms — the Spa King suite or the Spa Villa.  The Spa King is an open plan room where the spa is located right on the other side of the bed.  The Spa Villa is more spacious with a separate bedroom and kitchen.  We ended up going with the Spa King for two reasons — we didn’t need the kitchen and the Spa King had a Nespresso machine and an “Ergomotion” bed.  I can’t understate the importance of this bed.  More on this later.

Anyway, even though we were right next to this beautiful golf course (The Vintage), the thought of playing never crossed my mind.  I am a hopeless golfer, and all the people that played there were old, wore vests and drove those little carts.

The view of the Vintage golf course from our room

Chateau Elan serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Legends Grill, which is essentially the golf course’s club house, and the food there is supposed to be very good.  We had buffet breakfast there both mornings, and it was okay, and the menu did not really stand out (mostly steaks and heavy stuff), so we didn’t end up having dinner there.

Chateau Elan also has a couple of tennis courts and a gymnasium, neither of which we utilised.

Our room was very nice.  Not particularly big, but it was luxurious-looking, with a separate toilet and shower, a small mini-bar with a Nespresso machine, a spacious spa in the middle of the room, and the Ergomotion bed on the other side (sounds weird but you get used to it).  There’s a 42-inch flatscreen TV and windows that open up to the lush grass of the gold course.  Each room has a theme — like Monte Carlo, Great Barrier Reef, etc — we got the Moscow room, which didn’t mean much.  A couple of paintings, with books from Dostoevsky and a Dr Zhivago video on the shelf.

The Legends Grill

Back to the bed.  This Ergomotion bed thing was remarkable.  You have a remote control that controls the bed, which you can move up and down and all around, plus it has vibrating massage functions.  I particularly liked the “zero gravity” function where your head is down but your legs are up.  Not exactly zero gravity or anything but it sure was comfortable.

I had about 6 naps on that thing in 2 days.

In all, I’d definitely recommend Chateau Elan for those visiting the Hunter Valley, particularly if you intend to play golf (look for specials though).  Even if you don’t, it’s a relaxing place to stay, and it was worth the stay just for the Ergomotion experience.  I probably wouldn’t want to sleep on it every day, but it’s not a bad bed to sleep on for a couple of days.

PS: When booking, try and request for a room facing the golf course.  It’s prettier.