Movie Review: Contagion (2011)

October 31, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I’m still washing my hands at least 20 times a day after watching Contagion last week.

This medical thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh plays out like a horror movie because of how possible it might just become reality some day.  The film begins on day two of a new, highly infectious and deadly disease outbreak and follows several key characters from different walks of life as they fight for survival — of their own lives and that of the human race.

Soderbergh is known for his amazing ensemble casts, and Contagion is no different.  No single actor or actress dominates, but there is enough screen time in this 106 minute film to fit in significant roles for the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes (remember him from Winter’s Bone), amongst others, including my new favourite actor, Bryan Cranston (I’ve recently become addicted to the sickeningly great Breaking Bad — and it took me almost a full season to realise that he’s Tim Whatley from Seinfeld!).  Ensemble casts are ordinarily troublesome but every actor in this film played their part perfectly and without trying to steal the show, resulting in an awesome experience where you are constantly watching an A-lister without feeling overwhelmed by the fact.

There have been several ‘outbreak’  films in the past (Outbreak being one of them), but Contagion surely has to be one of the better ones, and certainly one more the most realistic.  It looks at how different people deal with the news of the infections, how the government tries to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, how it seeks to contain it, and how certain people may try to profit out of it — on an international scale.

Soderbergh controls the film at a deliberate pace — fast enough to not get bored but considerate enough to allow the audience to appreciate the magnitude of the events.  Contagion tackles numerous themes and gives viewers plenty to think about if, god forbid, this film became reality — loss of social order, public vs personal interests, wealthy countries vs poor countries, and the systems governments have in place to deal with and control sudden mass deaths and mass hysteria.  It’s actually all quite fascinating.  And yet, despite these potentially heavy themes, the film is rarely bogged down and manages to keep the focus on the characters.

As an ensemble cast film, Contagion obviously struggles to provide the deeper emotional impact some top-notch single protagonist films can, but I think overall it was done well enough to provide an entertaining and thought-provoking viewing experience.

4 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Tomorrow, When the War Began’ by John Marsden

October 30, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I can’t believe I had never heard of John Marsden’s Tomorrow series until I saw the movie poster for Tomorrow, When the War Began (review here), the first book in the series.  For years one of the most critically and commercially successful book series for teens not just in Australia but across the globe, and recommended for young people when I was a young person, but for some inexplicable reason it had completely fallen beneath my radar.  Shame on me.

The movie was fairly good, but nothing spectacular.  A bunch of country kids go camping, an unknown foreign enemy invades, the kids have to decide whether to hide or strike back.  By Aussie production standards it was extremely impressive — up-and-coming stars, big sets, massive explosions, potential for sequels (the second film, based on The Dead of the Night, has reportedly commenced filming).

After discovering how famous and popular the book on which the film is based was, I decided to check it out.  It’s always somewhat dangerous to read a book after you’ve seen the movie because you already know exactly what happens (more so than the other way around), but I figured the book must have its lofty reputation for a reason.

The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Ellie, the teenage protagonist.  Marsden does a fantastic job of emulating the voice and tone of the teenage narrator, capturing her fear, courage, confusion and angst in a surprisingly realistic way.  I recall lambasting the cringeworthy dialogue of the film, but on the page it came across as genuine, for the most part.

However, I’m not sure if it is because I felt I already knew the story and the characters, but it took me a while to get into the flow of Marsden’s narrative.  Coincidentally or not, it was when the book started to diverge from the film version that I began to feel the compulsion to keep the pages turning.  While the film focused primarily on the action, Marsden took considerably more time to develop his characters and deal with the complications that come with teenage relationships (especially those blossoming during a full blown war!).  This brought the characters to life and made the book a much richer experience.

Perhaps I’m getting too old for this kind of book, because I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  Nevertheless, having finally read the novel, I can definitely see why the series is highly recommended for teenagers.  It’s a well-written tale of self-discovery, friendship, love, courage and standing up against evil.  No doubt more suitable for today’s youths than stories about vampire and werewolf boyfriends.

3 out of 5

Contemplating NaNoWriMo 2011

October 26, 2011 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

 

We’re less than a week away from the start of NaNoWriMo 2011 (that’s National Novel Writing Month for you non-writers) and this year, for the very first time ever, I’m determined to do something.

What the heck does that mean?  I dunno, but it’s not nothing.  I still don’t think I have what it takes to write an actual novel, from start to finish, in 30 days (like Sara Gruen, whose Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo project), but I believe I can do some serious damage in the month of November.  I’ve got two in-progress novels and another book that’s pretty much finished, so why not give it all I’ve got and see what happens?

Of course, this means I won’t officially enter NaNoWriMo this year, again.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t try and write 50,000 words this month (that’s the NaNoWriMo target).  A tad ambitious, considering I have a bunch of other stuff to do, but not impossible.  An average of 1,666 words a day (and it doesn’t even have to be good).  I mean, how hard can it be?

PS: If you’re interested in entering NaNoWriMo (the real one), register at the website here.  Alternatively, if you’re 17 or under, you can try the young writers’ version here.

Movie Review: Real Steel (2011)

October 22, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I reckon if I saw Real Steel when I was seven years old I’d think it’s the best movie of all time.  Seriously.  A kid protagonist, Wolverine as his dad, Evangeline Lilly as the girl and boxing robots.  Boxing robots!  What more could a kid ask for?

As an adult, I still thought Real Steel was pretty decent; better than expected.  It’s essentially a father/child relationship/redemption movie with a Rocky slant featuring giant robots that beat the crap out of each other.  Set in the not too distant future, human boxing has been abandoned (after the recent Mayweather vs Ortiz and Hopkins vs Dawson debacles, who could blame them?) in favour of giant boxing robots controlled by humans (either by remote control or voice).

Hugh Jackman (or as I like to call him, Jack Human) is a former journeyman boxer turned robot owner who for certain reasons has to look after his long abandoned son, Max (Dakota Goyo).  The duo, along with the daughter of Jackman’s former trainer (Lilly), start ‘training’ an old bot that has no business being in the ring with other newer bigger bots, but as you guessed, they start kicking butt.

Real Steel is a feel-good true underdog story and a tale of redemption that appeals the way the original Rocky did 35 years ago, and the performances of the leads, especially that Goyo kid, are excellent.  Is it just me or are all child actors named Dakota acting prodigies?

Surprisingly, the film’s strength lies in the drama and the relationship between father and son.  I wouldn’t have expected it but director Shawn Levy (Date Night) managed to make me care about the characters and understand their motivations.

The robot action, to be honest, was a little underwhelming in my opinion.  It’s just two robots punching the crap out of each other like…robots.  There’s no way humans would have given up real boxing for that boring mechanical stuff.

Young boys and boys young at heart will have a ball with this one.  As for everyone else, if you can stomach all the obvious emotional manipulation and get into the spirit of the overcoming-the- odds, albeit somewhat predictable story, then Real Steel can be a real enjoyable ride.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Gastro Park is Phenomenal!

October 19, 2011 in Food, Reviews by pacejmiller

My final megameal in Sydney was at Gastro Park at Potts Point (ie pretty much Kings Cross), run by former head chef of Pier, Grant King.  The restaurant is relatively new but word of mouth has been spreading quickly as the must-try of late, so we decided to check it out.

I was not disappointed.  Tucked away in one of the side streets off the main strip, Gastro Park is a chic, modern restaurant with an assortment of highly interesting, intricately designed and beautifully presented dishes that blew me away.

There are two things about Gastro Park that I should point out from the outset.  The first is that the menu supposedly changes daily according to what fresh produce is available.  The second is that the menu is broken down into ‘Snacks’, ‘Entrees’, ‘Mains’, ‘Cheeses’ and ‘Desserts’ — so I would recommend ordering a number of things to try, especially the snacks, which are in my opinion the highlights…well, maybe the desserts too…

This is what we had apart from the fluffy sourdough bread at the top.

Snacks

1. Thai inspired kingfish sashimi — the kingfish is so fresh and the mixture of the various sauces and condiments made it one of the best sashimis from a non-Japanese restaurant I’ve ever had.

2. Onion and mushroom macchiato, caramelised veal sweetbread — sounds crazy but this is just one divine soup with a skewered veal sweetbread on top that tasted like super tender juicy chicken thigh!

3. Scallop blini, potato and creme fraiche chutney, oscietra caviar — mmm…imagine eating a scallop pancake with potato salad and caviar on top and how good it would be.  Yep, it was that good.

Entrees

4. Liquid butternut gnocchi, mushroom consomme, sage — this was one of the most unusual dishes I’ve ever had.  The consomme was very similar to the onion and mushroom macchiato, but it had these yellow butternut gnocchi balls inside them that had liquid centres and would burst then literally melt in your mouth.

5. Textures of duck with wild mushroom tagliatelle — another very unique pasta dish with succulent duck and mushrooms encased in this kind of jelly-like thingy.  Super.

Mains

 

6. Crispy scaled snapper, smoked potato puree, calamari crackling, ink sauce — this was the dish the waiter dude raved on about, and for good reason.  I’m not usually a fish guy but this was sublime.  This dish was a perfect combination of flavours and textures.  Unfortunately we had eaten too many snacks and entrees and were preparing for dessert, so we could only fit in one main course.

Desserts

7. Nitro pavlova, guava, pineapple, coconut — this dessert was wow.  It’s called ‘nitro’ pavlova because it uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the dessert, which includes an delectable mix of light, fruity sorbets.

8. Chocolate honeycomb, mandarin sphere, cookies and cream — this might very well be the best dessert I’ve ever had at a restaurant. I’m not kidding.  This white chocolate sphere has this sensational creamy sauce inside, which goes perfectly with those icy chocolate biscuity chunks and the tiny cookies and chocolates on the side.  Ahhh…

Well, there’s no need to take my word for it.  If you get a chance go check it out.

10 out of 10

Gastro Park

Website: http://www.gastropark.com.au/
Phone: +886 8068 1017
Address:  5-9 Roslyn Street, Potts Point, 2011
Opening Hours:
Lunch (Friday-Sat) — 12pm-2:30pm
Dinner (Tues-Sat) — 6pm-10pm