Academy Award Countdown, Part One

Movie Notes: Academy Award Countdown

I have never come this close to the Academy Awards show having seen so few films at this point. OK, I am feeling the pressure now to have seen as many nominated films as possible by Feb, 22, so here goes my first binge:

Whiplash – a great film about the pursuit of perfection. A maniacal music school bandleader played to perfection by JD Skinner (here almost as scary as he was in his break-out role as a neo-Nazi skinhead innate on Oz many years ago) ruthlessly cajoles, humiliates and terrorizes his students, especially one played by Miles Teller. The story is part coming of age and part thriller as we wait for the talented student to stand up for himself and emerge as an artist. Very suspenseful.

Into the Woods-a Stephen Sondheim musical with a fabulous cast that almost matches the execrable Peter Pan Live for sheer tedium. I saw this on the stage and do not recall it seeming to last about 4 hours. Full confession, I was sleep deprived when I saw this and did drift off during the middle bits. I loved the stage version and didn’t feel like the performers were making up their own songs as they were singing. Somehow Rob Marshall the director made these actors seem like they were improvising their songs, and not in a good way.

Birdman – a masterpiece of behind the scenes Hollywood. Filmed masterfully with long tracking shots, it is filled with clever dialogue and savagely funny vignettes. Michael Keaton is funny and touching and Edward Norton is fearless as an actor’s actor whose Method techniques are hysterically obsessive. He will stop at nothing to achieve a realistic performance.

The Immigrant – caught up with this one on the flight home from Aus. Wonderful performance by Marion Cotillard (nominated for Best Actress this year for a role in a French film, Two Days, One Night) as well as interesting performances from Joachim Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as grifters who lure Cotillard into a life of prostitution after she arrives at Ellis Is at the turn of the century.

The Theory of Everything – wonderful performances from Eddy Redmayne and Felicity Jones in this biopic about Stephen Hawking. Sweet and tearjerking – get out your hankies for a film about a genius with an indomitable spirit and the woman who helps him survive.

The Judge – also caught on the flight back from Aus. I think I did doze off during this predictable film which is all about prodigal children coming to terms with their lineage. Robert Downey gives his usual sardonic and likeable performance as the son who comes to understand his father, played by Robert Duvall who’s all bluster with an soft gooey heart underneath the crustiness.. A little cheesy but comforting film in the legal thriller genre.

OK, that’s my film line up so far. Now as for TV, I am way behind on any shows that resumed in January or made season debuts. I have a lot of catching up to do after not watching any TV at all for one month. This week in Canada we get season debuts of Justified, The Americans, and many others that I have completely lost track of. To the Internet Downloading Sites, PVR and On-Demand features!

PS

I feel I should include a little explanation of my many film reviews on board the ship, as some friends and family expressed concern that I wasn’t getting out and enjoying the scenery enough while on the trip. Wifi time was shockingly expensive, the ship’s in room entertainment system was absolutely free and had fairly up-to-date movies. We’d had 3 cruising at sea days that were so stormy, we were confined to the ship’s interior as 20 ft waves lashed the decks making them very slippery and dangerous. What’s a girl to do? So as well as attending lectures, cooking classes, trivia contests, ballroom dance lessons and a myriad of other ship activities, I took advantage of the opportunity to do a little movie napping in the room between activities. Don’t worry, I did lots of sightseeing whenever possible, but sadly there was little time spent lying around the pool and falling asleep over a book while sunbathing, as the seas were a little too ferocious for that.

Flying home today!

It’s Jan 26 and we fly home today! Sydney-Vancouver-Toronto. 16 hour time difference and magically we arrive on the same day we depart.

The last two days of the trip have been lovely in Sydney. In our first 3 days here at the beginning of the trip, we really felt we got a feel for theî city, and so these past days we were able to hit some of the places we missed the first time. When we arrived at our hotel, George swore he could hear singing and by golly he was right. As part of the Sydney Festival there was an outdoor opera being performed ajt the Botanical Gardens which is directly beside our hotel. How fabulous of them to serenade us upon our arrival. We spent a good part of yesterday walking through the extensive gardens and marvelling at all the colours and tropical plants. We headed over to the Queen Victoria imagebuilding walking through Hyde Park which is the main setting for the Sydney Festival full of all kinds of street performers. The Queen Victoria Building itself is a grand structure now filled with 4 floors of shopping arcades ojf the type you would see in London. An absolutely beautiful building built in 1898 with gorgeous glass, domed ceiling, etc.

Last night was our second night in the iconic Sydney Opera House as we attended an Opera’s Biggest Hits concert with a hilarious host/pianist who accompanied our 4 soloists and took us on a humourous guide to the opera, giving explanations of all the operas we were listening to. Opera for dummies! Followed by our last evening having dinner at an outdoor restaurant at the Harbour. One last time to enjoy the sunset in the warmth of Sydney.

I wish I could think of something pithy to summarize our experiences on the cruise and touring Melbourne, Sydney and Cairns. The whole trip was full of magical, pinch me moments, from flying in over Sydney Harbour and seeing the bridge for the first time (no we didn’t climb it) to the gorgeous mountain tops and fiords of NZ. We hand fed kangaroos and wallabys, laughed at the snarling, OCD Tasmanian devils as they raced around their enclosures, and thundered through mountain gorges on power boats. The bubbling hot pools and geysers of Rotorua were amazing to behold (not so pleasant smelling, though come to think of it the adorable baby koala we got to hold was a little unpleasant smelling as well). Our Barrier Reef and Rainforest trips in the northeast corner of the country were both experiences we will never forget. Worth the trip to the rather hot and humid city of Cairns, the gem of North Queensland.

We can’t believe we were fortunate enough to make this trip. It was very memorable in terms of the wonderful people we met and the amazing places we visited. We will be visiting Cape Cod on July 4 to reunite with two lovely couples we met on the cruise.

Today will be a very long travel day (violins please). Lots of time to bundle up for our late night arrival in the Great White North. Looking forward to seeing family (especially my 96 year-old mum, whom I left hanging by a thread 1 month ago, but she soldiers
on) and friends. See you soon!

The Rainforest and more koalas

Today was an unbelievably full day. We headed to the rainforest area north of Cairns known as Kuranda. We first travelled on the Kuranda Scenic Railway through tunnels and over bridges and passed magnificent waterfalls and river gorges. We arrived at the Kuranda village in the rainforest which featured a beautiful Butterfly Sanctuary a  nd a world heritage market that featured handicrafts and gifts. We transferred to a Nature Park for lunch and an Army Duck Rainforest tour. We travelled on amphibious vehicles for a thrill ride through the rainforest where our guide pointed out different species of flora and fauna. We then attended an Aboriginal Experience with singing and dancing and then was followed by a Dreamtime a Walk where the performers coached us in throwing boomerangs,, hunting with spears and playing a didgeridoo. After that we were taken on a guided tour to see crocodiles, wombats, snakes, dingoes, Tasmanian devils, and a cassowary and we also had an opportunity to hand feed kangaroos and wallabies. We then boarded a spectacular Skyrail cable car that took us through the rainforest area from top to bottom passing panoramic views of the whole area. What a day, and did I mention the heat and humidity. Unbelievably hot. We did have a brief rain shower during our amphibious vehicle drive which was extremely refreshing!

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The Great Barrier Reef

We arrived in Cairns yesterday after disembarking the boat in Sydney and flying up here. We are in North Queensland which is in the equatorial Northeast corner of Australia at the top of the Great Barrier Reef. We had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant located right on the Marina and were treated to a magnificent sound and light show as we experienced the most spectacular thunderstorm I have ever seen. This morning we travelled North from Cairns to Port Douglas to take our gigantic catamaran cruise (500 people) to the reef. The trip was fairly smooth sailing and it was a gorgeously clear, hot and sunny day. I had decided not to snorkel as I have been a little hysterical on previous deep ocean snorkelling trips (I like to stand up when I get tired or panicky), so instead I did an Ocean Walk experience in old time deep sea diving gear with a helmet with piped in air. It was lovely and I saw an amazing variety of fish and actually got to feed and touch them. I am so lazy, I have to have the fish come to me rather than go swimming after them. It was meant for me! Tonight we had dinner at a lovely seafood place on the marina and then strolled the night market here. I ordered a piece of glass from one of the artisans for our Florida house and will retrieve it tomorrow. Also bought a lovely and cool bamboo blouse to wear for our rainforest walk tomorrow. We will be riding the Kuranda train and sky rail and going to a village for an aboriginal cultural experience. It is unbelievably hot and humid here and George and I have been melting as we walk around town. Thank god for ice cream!

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Melbourne and beyond

Sunday Jan 18 we spent the day touring Melbourne.this beautiful city is laid out in neighbourhoods each with its own character. It’s a sports mad city with a huge assortment of fabulous stadiums, cricket, rugby and football fields and incredible athletic centres for swimming and tennis, many of which were built for Olympic and Commonwealth Games. The Australian Open Tennis tournament is happening here shortly and the Grand Prix auto races are scheduled for March. Our tour bus took us around the racetrack at a stately pace. We were able to have a look at the Queen Victoria Market, one of the largest open air markets in the Southern Hemisphere. We also viewed the Australian War Memorial which is a ver new building dedicated to Australia’s participation in conflicts dating back to the Boer War. Very touching and fascinating as I learned much about Australia’s history that I didn’t know. Finally we toured the downtown shopping and restaurant area. Melbourne is such a hop and happening place that we were very sad not to have another day there to continue exploring.

A quick update on movies viewed in recent days.
Watched a very mysterious film called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby with Jessica Chastain and James McEvoy. This strange little film turned out to be about the effect of a child’s loss on a young couple. Very sad and very strange.

Totally enjoyed re-watching The Sundowners starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Set in Australia in the thirties, it’s about a family of drovers who traverse Australia as itinerant sheep drivers. Fascinating with it’s stock footage of Australian wildlife featuring dingoes, sheep, border collies, kangaroos, kookaburras, koalas, etc. There is a brushfire scene which could be taken out of recent news footage of the fires in the Adelaide hills. Lots of sheep shearing scenes. All in all a great period piece about the days when men were men and women simply had to put up with them.

Last night I watched a totally bizarre movie called The Identical starring Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd about two twins, separated at birth who grow up to be Elvis-like pop singers in Tennessee. So weird I couldn’t stop watching it!

Today we are sailing from Melbourne to Sydney where we will catch a plane to Cairns and explore the Great Barrier Reef area before returning to Sydney and flying home on Jan 26.

PS

After our last great dinner on the ship with two other couples who became great friends, we returned to the room to pack up. The exertion left me a little wired and I finally caught up with The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington. He is so darned likeable  that you really root for him to savagely kill every Russian bad guy and crooked NYC cop that he encounters in the film. It also features a great performance from Marton Csokas, a NZ actor who is marvellously chilling as the chief Russian bad guy. Very enjoyable in the genre of all the Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis action flicks of recent years where a decent mature man is pushed to do very bad things.

Still travelling through Stormy seas to Hobart

January 16
I have two reviews to add to my films viewed on the ship!

Yesterday’s seas were so stormy that all passengers were asked to stay indoors as the waves were regularly breaking over the passenger balconies. We listened to a couple of lectures. The first was delivered by a lovely retired teacher from Toronto who has been on 60 cruises as a guest lecturer. Her topic was The Milky Way and was absolutely fascinating. Her summer home is in Wiarton so I have invited her to come to Thornbury and lead a stargazing evening around our fire pit on a clear night in July. The next lecturer was a University history professor who spoke about the history and architecture of Hobart, Tasmania which we will be touring today.

The first film I watched was a very sweet and touching drama called Love is Strange. Starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a couple who finally marry after being together for 39 years. When Molina loses his teaching job in a Catholic school because of his new marital status, the couple is forced to sell their condo and find themselves homeless. Friends and family take them in, but they are forced to live apart in a ver competitive NYC housing market.This is a very moving film about long relationships and the fragility of such ties.

The second film was an enjoyable film noir called The Two Faces of January that starred Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac. Adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel (The Talented Mr Ripley), it’s about grifters on the run in 1950’s Greece. Kind of engaging with good performances and an intriguing plot. I don’t recall it having a commercial release, as I don’t think there’s much of a market for little thrillers like this.

I competed in the Trivia Contest again yesterday and was out of the top 3 winners for the first time. Not one Arts and Entertainment question! Aargh!!

After yet another fabulous dinner in one of the ship’s two reservation only restaurants (apparently cruise passengers gain a pound a day on average) we attended a lovely classical concert in the evening. The ship’s solo pianist is from Ukraine and gave delightful yet completely unintentionally unintelligible introductions to each of his beautiful pieces. Too funny!

January 16 in Hobart, Tasmania. Our day started with a drive around Hobart on our way to a wildlife tour in a nature reserve. This beautiful city overlooks the very deep and wide Derwent River. It is overlooked by Mount Wellington, a 1271 metre peak. It’s connected from east to west by the Tasman Bridge which experienced a disaster in 1975 when a freighter collided with its pylons in a storm throwing motorists into the water and killing several crew on the ship. Tasmania is an island state covered with reserves, national parks and World Heritage Sites. Beautiful countryside!

Once we reached the reserve we had the opportunity to hand feed and pet many kangaroos. We stood a couple of feet away from a surprisingly sociable koala and were able to see a guide cradle baby wombats whose mothers had been killed by traffic. The famous Tasmanian Devils were very much on display as they raced their way around their enclosures, occasionally looking up from their workouts to glance at the observers who were enchanted to be standing a couple of feet from the fabled cartoon characters. We then went to the charming little village of Richmond which featured the oldest Catholic Church in Tasmania, and a large assortment of gift shops and cafes. Onward to Hobart itself for lunch and a walk around the market and craft district of Salamanca. Finding ourselves in a downpour, we raced back to the ship for afternoon tea, trivia (placed third again!) and a spectacular exit from Hobart as we started our journey toward Melbourne, AustralIa.

I have included a couple of photos from our spectacular tour of Milford Sound fiord in New Zealand that stubbornly refused to load the other day, along with an adorable koala from yesterday. Better late than never!

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Sailing to Hobart on stormy seas

Yesterday the ship started its journey toward Tasmania where we will visit Hobart. Our departure from NZ took us around Milford Sound. The sound is a fiord in the southwest of NZ’s South Island. It is within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound Marine Reserve and is a World Heritage Site and is an area of 12,500 sq kilometres. It is magnificently beautiful and looked exactly the way I imagined a NZ fiord to look. It is filled with waterfalls that thunder down sheer rock faces that rise 3900 ft.

After leaving Milford we started our crossing of the Tasman Sea and it has been a little rocky on the ship. The dining rooms are quieter than usual as people take to their cabins. This morning George and I attended a lecture on the peoples of Polynesia, followed by a cooking class on seafood conducted by the French chef who is responsible for all the restaurants onboard. I didn’t begin to feel a little dizzy and lightheaded until our ballroom dance class where the ship started bucking like a bronco.

After lunch George and I retired for a snooze. I took advantage of the quiet time to watch the amazing film Kontiki, a Norwegian drama that was nominated for an Oscar a couple of years ago, about Thor Heyerdahl’s thrilling expedition from Peru to Polynesia on an open raft to prove that Peruvians sailed to Polynesia 1500 years ago. It’s a wonderful film about courage, leadership and following one’s dreams. Highly recommended if one is making an ocean voyage across stormy seas. I could have done without the shark scenes as I think I was more scared watching them than when I first saw Jaws several years ago. There were no mechanical sharks in this film.

I have missed our mahjong game, but am hoping to make the trivia contest this afternoon (came in 3rd yesterday), and a Stretch class in the fitness centre.

After dinner and a floor show last night I managed to take in another film, Hector and The Pursuit of Happiness. It was a very gentle, meandering comedy most remarkable for Rosamund Pike’s performance as the most sympathetic and supportive girlfriend ever, in comparison to her terrifying performance in Gone Girl.

Catching up with films on board the ship

Movie Review of films viewed on board ship. The ship actually has a terrific in room entertainment system offering up many films that are still on pay per view for free! I’m pretty darned happy to come back to the room after the nightly floor show and
have a look at what’s on offer.

The Drop
Stars Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini. Terrific film noir set in the underbelly of the NYC bar scene which is controlled by organized crime. Tom Hardy, English actor extraordinaire, gives a great performance as a gentle bar tender with a mysterious past.

A walk among tombstones
Liam Neeson does his usual performance as an older tough guy, but the revelation in this movie is the performance of Dan Stevens (sweet Matthew from Downton Abbey) as a hardened NYC drug trafficker who hires private eye Neeson to find his kidnapped wife.

John Wick
Incomprehensible action flick starring the great (insert note of sarcasm here) Keanu Reeves as a retired hitman forced to return to his old ways.

This is Where I leave you
Great cast wasted in this ensemble comedy about estranged siblings reuniting to sit shiva for their father. Great cast that is totally wasted includes Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman, Adam Driver,
Tina Fey, etc.

Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good very bad day
I loved this sweet natured family film with Steve Carrell, Jennifer Garner, etc. brought back memories of reading the book to my kids.

And So it goes
Terrible romantic comedy with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. So predictable and lame. I’ll never get that 86 minutes of my life back.

Dolphin Tale 2
So gentle and generic as family films go, but very sweet.

Get on Up
The James Brown story told in a very unchronological way, showing how his horrendously difficult childhood made him the artist and madman he became. Told in a very intriguing way.

If I stay
Sweet young adult film about a girl whose life hangs by a thread after a car accident and the choices she must make.

Life Itself
This documentary is very inspiring as we follow the life of Roger Ebert, film critic, from his early years, through his career with and without his longtime partner Gene Siskel. It documents his wonderful marriage and his heartbreaking struggle with thyroid cancer that takes away his voice, ability to eat and finally his life. His optimism throughout will stay with you. Tissues required, but it’s worth the tears. I thought this was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year.

One Chance
This true story of a winning contestant on Britain’s Got Talent is extremely sweet. James Corden (who will be replacing Craig Ferguson as host of The Late Show, following Letterman) plays Paul Potts, a chubby Welsh cell phone salesman who longs to sing opera.

The Riot Club
This film was adapted from the stage play Posh. It’s about a secret society of Oxford University students who party nonstop and celebrate debauchery. Very entertaining for the Anglophiles amongst us. Stars Max Irons (chip off the old block Jeremy) and Sam Claflin.

Catching up with our cruise

Napier, Jan 8
Toured this beautiful town with the strictest, most humourless guide I have ever encountered. He was very thorough though, and I now consider myself an expert on Art Nouveau and Art Deco. This beautiful town was all but destroyed in a massive earthquake and fire in 1931 and was totally rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the day. Fabulous theatre and public buildings. This town looked like a wonderful place to retire with many charming homes and beautifully maintained gardens, but also lots of culture and things to do.
Before dinner we were asked to assemble in our corridors for a block party to meet our neighbours. Ship staff joined us including my new favourite dancer Ruben who has been pursuing an international dance career since leaving Italy at 15 to study ballet in Toronto. When he’s onstage, I have eyes for no one else. The entertainment that night was a full stage Broadway Tribute. Cheesy but fun!

Friday Jan 9 we landed in Picton and did a wine tour of the Marlborough region. We visited Allan Scott, Saint Clair and best of all, Drylands, producer of my favourite Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Kim Crawford. I now own a KC apron and bottle pourer. The wine tastings were all conducted very differently, from most informal standing out in the winery cask storage area to formal table tastings, so each winery presented in a very unique style. The tour ended in a Chocolaterie that featured the most delicious chocolate I’ve ever tasted. Much self discipline was required not to load up on their delicacies.

Sat Jan 10 we landed in Akaroa a beautiful port. Sadly in the past, our ship would have docked in Christchurch, but the earthquake of 2010 ruined their harbour. Our bus tour included many opportunities to view roads whose direction was altered from the earthquake and sites of rebuilding. 170 people died in that earthquake and the Cathedral in Christchurch will take a long time to rebuild given the huge cost of addressing all the damage in this area. We then commenced a drive into the highlands, followed by a hike down to our lunch venue overlooking a beautiful river gorge. After lunch we boarded large sport utility vehicles for an adventure ride down to the gorge. We were divided into groups and clambered onto big jet boats which absolutely zoomed us through the gorge. Our fellow boaters were being piloted by a former professional jet boat racer who took a wrong turn and ended up beaching his boat and passengers on a sand bar. They had to be rescued by our driver and a couple of hours was lost in the rescue process. Now, not to sound churlish, but just about everything that could go wrong on this excursion went awry. No air conditioning on the bus on a very hot day, no water at the restaurant, one man threw up numerous times on our bus and we were almost 2 hours late getting back to our bus. Surprisingly, the day was still fun (but maybe not so much for our poor vomit prone passenger).

Sunday Jan 11, we docked at Timaru. A very small and pretty town noted for its two botanical gardens and a marvellous art gallery. I have to say, I love the flowers of NZ. The purples, especially are so vibrant in their lilacs, wisteria, jacaranda trees, hydrangeas, roses, phlox, etc. the agapanthus really stand out as they grow wild everywhere as they apparently spread like wildfire and are no longer sold in nurseries.Evening entertainment featured an Australian vocalist named Annie Francis who sang beautifully but whose repertoire includes obscure Australian Filipino and Irish ballads. Her big finish was a medley of Vera Lynne war ballads that my 96 year old mother who have absolutely loved.

Monday Jan 12 we docked at the port of Dunedin to take an adventure train trip through the Taieri Gorge. This area was the location of a gold rush in the 1860’s which brought many adventurers to NZ. I have just finished reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which tells the history of this period . The scenery was beautiful as the train took us through canyons bordered by fir tree covered mountains. The train returned us to the historic city of Dunedin filled with beautiful Victorian architecture.

Evening entertainment on the boat was a full scale Broadway music and dance extravaganza called Dancing in the Street with a Motown vibe that was very entertaining.

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Day 1-3 cruise

It is now Day 2 of our 14 day cruise that is taking us from Auckland, NZ around both the north and south islands an then on to Tasmania, Melbourne and then Sydney. We had a whirlwind day of touring Auckland before boarding the ship. The standout (in addition to Auckland’s beautiful scenery, was the Maori Cultural show at the museum. Great singers and dancers (and warriors, of course). This was our first time being taught the Haka chant, the chant originally used by the Warriors to intimate their enemies in battle).
Day one on the boat yesterday was a full day tour of Tauronga including a tour of the Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland full of bubbling geysers and hot springs. We also did a lake cruise that included lunch and a Maori cultural show where we were taught to sing the Haka chant a second time. We finished up with a tour of a bird sanctuary with gorgeous parrots, cockatoos, parrokeets, owls and of course, kiwis-the NZ national bird.
Life on board a cruise ship includes many rituals like Trivia Contests (in which my team placed second yesterday); gargantuan gourmet meals; afternoon tea time; evenings dedicated to meeting the Captain and Crew; and nightly after dinner entertainment. Last night’s main floor show featured a very talented Australian female vocalist who performed an array of bewilderingly obscure songs including Irish ballads, Filipino ballads, country ballads, etc. We left after the obscure country ballad, as I noticed that George had fallen sound asleep in his chair.
Today we will be touring Napier, a town that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1931 and then completely rebuilt in the style of that period which was Art Deco. Back on board the ship we will be having a ship wide block party where we are all encouraged to go out to the corridors outside our cabins and mix and mingle with our neighbours while being served cocktails and appetizers. The main floor show tonight is “Backstage Pass” to Broadway served up by two of the ship’s singers accompanied by the ship orchestra.
My review of all of the above will be in my next blog.image