Category Archives: review

Scene It: American Hustle

Although I haven’t posted for a while, my fillum viewing certainly continued as 2013 moved towards (and over) 2014. Despite some lingering festivalitis, I’ve still been sampling both cinematic and ice-creamy delights.

Over the past few fillums, I’ve become a bit of a fan of Jack Huston.  Formerly only known to me through Martin Scorsese’s excellent Prohibition era tv series Boardwalk Empire, Huston has unexpectedly appeared in three of the last four movies I’ve ventured along to see.  Yet*, I’m only really going to talk about the last film:  David O. Russell’s American Hustle.

The fillum brings together some of the actors that Russell obviously enjoys working with —Christian Bale and Amy Adams (The Fighter 2010), and Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook 2012).

Based around the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, American Hustle is set in the last days of disco where dry-cleaning business owner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is also the best con man in the business. He’s made even better after  meeting, falling-in-love and partnering-up with Sydney Prosser (Adams). They bond over the music of Duke Ellington and feel like they have something no one else gets. 

Two lost souls looking for a better life through a web of deception, Sydney joins Irving in a scam as Lady Edith Greensly, a British aristocrat of sorts with banking contacts in Europe. The pair easily reel in people wanting to make a quick dollar. Coerced into working with ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), Irving and Sydney become entangled in DiMaso’s increasingly elaborate plans for capturing cons. Using the pair to learn the tricks of the trade, DiMaso soon ends up playing in the bigger realm of politics.  

DiMaso’s operation draws in Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), the big-hearted politician just working for the good of the New Jersey people. With Irving treading the fine line between his developing friendship with the Mayor, and appeasing the powerbrokers including local mafia, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) becomes more a part of his life than he wants, but she desperately needs. 

The performances are well polished — where Lawrence’s scene stealing moments could have easily been overplayed, she delivers as the wildly jealous, bored young wife, and Bale’s elaborate comb-over deserving of a best supporting actor award.

Louis C.K. (Stoddard Thorsen) is excellent as DiMaso’s boss, the steady mentor to an increasingly erratic agent, while Jack Huston plays mobster Pete Musane with the right mix of menace and charm.

The production design is super seventies; the comedy played light; the dialogue sharp; and, the sting in the tale a sweet payoff for an entertaining account of the art of American artifice.

As the film opening title card states, 

Some of these things really happened

  • Bradley Cooper’s perm
  • Christian Bale’s paunch
  • Amy Adam’s plunging neckline
  • Jennifer Lawrence’s petulant pucker
  • Jeremy Renner’s puffed-up hair.

Choc Top: Butterscotch

Super sickly sweet swirls of butterscotch splashed through the sugary ice cream couldn’t quite make up for the stale-ish tip of the cone. Unlike the movie, hardly any crunch factor.

* Or possibly not… the other fillums were Kill Your Darlings  (baileys and almonds) and Night Train to Lisbon (chocolate). I thoroughly enjoyed Kill Your Darlings, where Huston played the role of Jack Kerouac in a Beat Generation origins story, whereas the slower pace of Night Train to Lisbon made me feel like I should have jumped off that locomotive a wee bit earlier.

And that’s my first year of Scene It chomped, cracked and crunched. Hope you enjoyed consuming it** as much as I have.

**all/some/even a little a bit.

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Scene it: To The Wonder

I loved Terrence Malick‘s Badlands (1973) and The Thin Red Line (1998), but as beautiful as To The Wonder (2012) is to look at, this exploration of faith is a little disappointing. Apparently quite a few scenes and characters were cut from the film, and I can’t help but think whether this might have improved the story if more of the narrative had been kept.

Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France and they fall in love. The pair visit Mont Saint-Michel where they share furtive glances. They walk together, around the cloisters and out on the beach beneath the island abbey. They hug. Marina twirls. They kiss. They watch the tide come in. They hug some more. Back in Paris, Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) joins them. They all walk together through the Parisian streets and twirl under trees. There are hugs. Kisses. Marina and Neil share furtive glances. Tatiana twirls. Marina and Neil glance some more. They look at the scenery. Fade to… Oklahoma where Marina and Tatiana have accompanied Neil back to his home. They all walk together through golden fields, identifying wildflowers, staring at the sunset. Marina twirls. Neil and her kiss. More furtive glances. Hugs. Flashbacks. Some fighting.

Meanwhile the local Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is having a crisis with his faith. We learn of this through his voiceover. He preaches without passion and walks through the town, visiting the people of his parish. Often he walks away before they can reach out to him. He walks some more. Marina attends his service. Father Quintana ministers to prisoners, performs at weddings and pays home visits. But all the time, we hear how he struggles with the weight of his vocation.

When Marina’s visa expires, she and Tatiana return to Paris. Neil gets back to work, taking samples of pollution at work sites. Neil re-connects with Jane (Rachel McAdams). He visits her ranch. They feed horses and walk together through fields of windswept grass. There are furtive glances. They hug. Jane twirls. They sneak glances at each other WHILE A HERD OF BISON GRAZE RIGHT NEXT TO THEM (!). They glance at each other some more. They look out across the open plains. They hug. They kiss. They glance some more.

Marina is unhappy in Paris. She looks furtively out the window. She walks the streets alone. She calls Neil. He breaks it off with Jane. There is fighting. Furtive glances. Marina comes back to Oklahoma, Tatiana stays with her father. Marina and Neil get married. Marina twirls. They hug. Kiss. Walk together in the local streets. Marina walks past Father Quintana. Neil takes samples. Marina walks. There is fighting. Faith in love is questioned.

By the end, I felt like I had sat through a two-hour advertisement for French perfume. Or Spanish, in keeping with the two languages spoken in voiceover. Women with French-braided hair twirling through windswept fields, all bathed in a glorious golden light. Rugged men. A handful of words spoken. Furtive glances. Beautiful people captured with beautiful cinematography. Subtitles. Long shots. And did I mention the furtive glances?

Bardem has a great presence as the priest and I longed to see more of him in this picture. Kurylenko and Affleck are good together as the loved-up couple but without much story, left me wanting more. To The Wonder is a visual splendour in the windswept grass. Unfortunately it’s a very slow, repetitive, splendour that had me wondering about how close the Bison herd actually were to Neil and Jane (and the possibility for a stampede), rather than caring about any of the characters’ dilemmas.

Choc top: Tiramisu

I glanced furtively at my choc top. Twirled it around. Mused to myself about the heavy chocolate coating… Then I chomped down. And chomped again. The tiramisu flavour was subtle but, my faith in the choc top never wavered.

Scene it: The Shining (extended version)

I am usually desperate to avoid seeing anything that can be classified as horror when I go to the movies. Mainly because I get way too scared to actually watch them. The last time I went to see a horror film was in 2002 for 28 Days Later. I screamed when a door opened in the first ten minutes of the movie, and then kept my hands across my eyes for the next 103 minutes of the film.

So it might surprise you readers that I agreed to see one of the classics of the genres — both re-mastered, and extended in length! But what better way to get myself back in the horror hot seat than by going along to see Stanley Kubrick‘s 1980 fillum The Shining, recently presented for the first time in Australia at The Astor Cinema.

Even for someone like me (who had never seen the film in its entirety), references to The Shining are instantly recognisable in our cultural landscape. It has been imitated and parodied for years from The Simpsons, Family Guy and MAD magazine to music video clips, YouTube mash-ups, poster art and advertising (Lenny Henry for a hotel chain).

Based on the novel by Stephen King, former teacher Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is interviewed for the role of winter caretaker of an isolated mountain hotel —The Overlook Hotel. Jack is hoping to break through his writer’s block and improve the family’s situation.

Successful in getting the job, Jack is accompanied by his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and ‘shining’ son, six-year-old Danny (Danny Lloyd). Also along for the winter is Danny’s imaginary friend Tony. When the family is shown around the hotel, we learn not only of its luxurious fittings but also its dark history of being built on a traditional Native American burial ground.

Danny’s psychic abilities are recognised by a kindred ‘shining’ Head Chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) who provides some key advice to Danny before leaving. As the winter progresses and cabin fever sets in, Jack becomes increasingly unhinged, and the rest of the hotel’s ‘guests’ start to emerge.

The musical score is eerie, sinister and anxiety-making from the very start, with the opening scene of the little yellow Beetle weaving through the rocky mountain roads immediately letting you know that the driver is heading somewhere foreboding. The Shining never really lets you feel you can relax and let go of any of that tension. My hands hovered over my eyes most of the screening.

What struck me was the use of sound to build tension, especially the scenes where Danny rides his trike around and around the hotel: loudly and noisily rattling over the polished floorboards contrasted against the plastic wheels being muffled by the hotel rugs and carpet. The sound of a heartbeat, an unanswered phone constantly ringing and the acoustics in the ballroom adding to the atmosphere.

The cinematography is beautiful, capturing both the beauty and isolation of the landscape, hotel interiors, as well as the disintegrating family unit. Vivid colours accompany Danny’s haunted visions of the past and future, while the angles capture Wendy’s panic-stricken face as she reads Jack’s manuscript for the first time— her wide-eyed horror and fear of her husband so clearly visible.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, but not dull viewing. Nicholson plays his axe-wielding, “Hello Johnny” man in psychological decline perfectly. Overwhelmed by the supernatural forces at work, his maniacal stare is certainly memorable.

Having not seen the ‘normal’ cut of the movie, I have no idea what the extended version adds. But can guess it continues to provide a lot more anxiety for the viewer. So although on trying to go to sleep I found it hard to forget Danny’s scratchy-throated repetition of ‘redrum’, I’m glad I dipped my toes back in the horror waters. However, with winter here, those toes are now firmly back under the covers.

Choc top*: Spearmint Chocolate

Getting through the thick coating of solid chocolate coating took quite a few chomps but it was well worth it when hit the fresh minty, flavoursome ice cream. Yum!

*NB. In the age-old great Choc top/Choc ice wars, The Astor calls them choc ices.

Scene it: Star Trek Into Darkness

Right, first confession:  I really can’t say that I am a long-standing Star Trek fan (or should that be Trekkie or Trekker?) Although I kinda do love watching odd episodes of the original series with its ’60s sci-fi aesthetic and belief in the positivity of space exploration.

Second confession: I was swayed to see this big budget, action-packed adventure fillum at the cinema because … it had the Cumberbatch* factor.

Following on from the 2009 Star Trek reboot, JJ Abrams has once more boldly gone into the other-worldly series created by Gene Roddenberry with all visual guns blazing. Star Trek Into Darkness is a  blockbuster action movie that can even come at the audience in glorious 3D (alas, I scene it in 2D).

Leading the USS Enterprise in this film is Chris Pine as the young  maverick, Captain James Kirk, with Zachary Quinto in the role of the logical Vulcan Spock, and Kiwi Karl Urban as the flight-phobic grumpy medical officer Bones. Rounding out the bromantic trio are Zoe Saldana as the feisty communications expert Lieutenant Uhura and Simon Pegg, with a bold Scottish accent, in the role of ‘Beam Me Up’, Scotty.  Also on the bridge are John Cho as the steely Hikaru Sulu, and Anton Yelchi as young Chekhov, while new crew addition, Alice Eve, joins as science officer Dr Carol Marcus.

The film opens with a mission in progress, setting the scene for the high energy action to follow. Fleeing angry inhabitants on a planet striking for its use of three colours (white, yellow and red), Kirk and Bones run for their lives as Spock commences a mission to prevent the planet being incinerated by an erupting, giant volcano. In order to save Spock, Kirk goes against the Starfleet prime directive, and allows the planet’s primitive inhabitants to see the USS Enterprise blast its way out of the sea. Kirk omits the near death/people saw our spaceship details of the mission in his account to Starfleet while the logical, regulation-following Spock files an official report. The result: Kirk is demoted back to First Officer and Spock is reassigned.

However an act soon occurs that brings them back together, and Benedict Cumberbatch into the picture. Cumberbatch (John Harrison) engineers the blowing up of Starfleet’s London base before launching another attack on the Starfleet’s top command in San Francisco. The command, of course, hastily convened together to address the London bombing— all part of Harrison’s calculating scheme. After a fast, big bang thrills and spills shoot out, the Enterprise’s crew are back on the bridge, tasked with hunting Harrison down. Ultimately, as the chase with Harrison takes a different turn, Kirk has to make some life and death choices for himself, and his crew.

With stunning visual CGI effects and frenetic chase scenes, fight scenes and life-threatening challenges, Star Trek Into Darkness still has those cheesy comedic moments. Dialogue exchanges lighten the mood such as when Bones says to Kirk, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not a torpedo technician!”

As a big action flick, the movie ticks all the boxes. The bromance between Kirk and Spock could’ve done with a bit more spark as the movie dipped into the conflict between emotion and rationality. And while Uhura is at times part of the action using her Klingon comms skills, it might have been nice to have seen her and Dr Marcus playing more of a role in the high energy action. But, really, it is the super powerful villainous Harrison who completely captures your attention whenever he’s talking, fighting, or leaping across the screen.

Last confession: For a lazy, rainy afternoon film, with no attachments to the mythology of the past or thoughts to the Trekkie future, watching JJ Abrams’s crew of actors in Star Trek Into Darkness was actually kinda fun.

Choc top: Caramel honey nougat

Layer of chocolate coating was quite modest. The almost (almost) too sweet caramel honey ice cream was balanced by chunks of chewy nougat.

*“It’s not even politeness, I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are… Cumberpeople.”

Benedict Cumberbatch interviewed by Caitlin Moran for The Times.

This review is part of my log of fillums and choc top fillings, Scene It.