Thursday, April 17, 2014

“Transcendence”– Movie Review

 

transcendence

This week, the Spring Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the new science fiction drama, “Transcendence”, starring Johnny Depp.

Synopsis

When a technologist is poisoned by a terrorist group, his mind gets uploaded to the supercomputer he’s built in order to resume his work – but when his plans spin out of control, can he be stopped before things go too far?

Story

Will Caster (Depp) is a technologist determined to continue a project developing a powerful neural network designed to surpass the classic model of Artificial Intelligence systems: Instead of learning via heuristics, it acquires knowledge and experience from a wide variety of sources, whether they be publicly available records, photographs or even information from deep within another person’s brain. Since it’s designed to transcend traditional Artificial Intelligence, he calls the technology Transcendence. However, in order to proceed with his research, he needs to raise money, so he reluctantly gives a talk to a collection of potential investors in the hope they will help fund his work.

But there are forces at work who wish to block Caster’s efforts. RIFT is an anti-technology terrorist group that sees Caster’s work as sacrilegious; they interpret his intentions as playing the role of God. As a result, they attempt to assassinate Caster; although he initially survives the bullet and recuperates, Caster is subsequently hospitalized.  Lab tests reveal that he’s suffering from radiation poisoning as a result of chemicals laced on the bullet that penetrated his skin; with the poison working its way through Caster’s system and no way to treat it, physicians give him a fatal prognosis.

Despite the fact that Caster knows he’s dying, he is steadfast about having the work advance; towards this end, he has his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) upload his brain to the Transcendence system to give him not only immortality but also the ability to further improve the sophistication of the computer network. However, not long after Caster enters the system, things appear to go awry when the power at his disposal allows him to control others, turning them into a form of android. When Evelyn finally comes to terms with what has happened, can she join RIFT in order to stop Caster or will RIFT’s worst fears become realized?

Review

It would seem that after the misfire of last year’s “Lone Ranger”, Johnny Depp is now in Damage Control Mode with “Transcendence” – the only problem is that with this movie, he’s only dug himself a deeper whole, career-wise. I can’t imagine too many people – either critics or consumers – liking this film. It’s boring and confusing; I must admit that I had a difficult time understanding this rather muddled story. At times, it tries to make a nod to such predecessors as “The Matrix”, touching somewhat on religion, politics and the theme of everlasting love, in addition to technology’s power. While it tries for a bit of timeliness – technology’s intrusion of our personal lives – its reach exceeds its grasp.

Perhaps the reason for this costly mistake (I’m given to understand the budget was somewhere in the vicinity of $120 million) may lie at the feet of its first-time director, Wally Pfister. Pfister, whose main experience is as a cinematographer, seems to have lost sight of the story in favor of making pretty pictures – a not uncommon problem when a cinematographer directs his first feature. This can be a challenge to overcome as it requires a significant shift in perspective from the technical aspects to narrative story structure. Whether or not Pfister gets another turn at bat to sharpen his directing skills may depend on the success (or lack thereof) of “Transcendence”.

One of the reasons why “Transcendence” is hard to follow is because there’s a considerable amount of story that gets lost in the sauce: too many characters to remember (and their relation to Caster isn’t always clear); too many plot points glossed over; confusion over protagonist vs. antagonist (characters’ roles change at various points, possibly throwing the audience a bit off balance for a while). Another thing that hurts the movie is that Depp’s character is seen in a head-and-shoulders shot on a computer monitor during the majority of the film; his “virtual” relationships with the other characters is about as two-dimensional as the image on the monitor.

Transcendence (2014) on IMDb

 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cocktails Of “Mad Men”

 

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If you’re as much of a fan as I am of AMC’s television show “Mad Men”, then you’re likely both anticipating and dreading this season – looking forward to it because it’s been a while since the previous season ended and you’re anxious to see how The Draper Drama continues.  But at the same time, you’re dolefully aware of the fact that you’re facing the beginning of the end – the seventh season of “Mad Men” will be its last.  One of the things that this successful series has re-introduced to our society is the drinking culture that was so prevalent back in those days.  So, it was with great pleasure that I took a class at The Astor Center of New York City called “Cocktail Classics:  The Mad Men Era” taught by Lauren Davis. 

 

 

Upon entry, we were welcomed with a cocktail – The Gimlet.  Fans of “Mad Men” will recall that Betty Draper ordered a Gimlet in season 1 when she went to a bar; while the Gimlet we had was made of gin, it was not uncommon then to make Gimlets with vodka.  In “Mad Men”, Lauren said that drinking is considered to be just an additional character added to the cast – it is the crucial element which causes other things to happen. 

 

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The character of Roger Sterling was rather partial to martinis, as evinced by the fact that he always kept a bottle of vodka (Smirnoff) in his office.  As a result, the first cocktail we made this evening was the martini – except that we made ours with gin instead of vodka because our instructor properly noted that gin adds more flavor.  Frequently, you may hear about or see martinis shaken, but Lauren correctly pointed out that they should be stirred because their ingredients are all booze (cocktails that contain juice should be shaken).  She said that stirring the martini keeps a silky smooth texture to it that you cannot get by shaking, which dilutes the martini with melted ice. 

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The mixing glass in which the cocktail is stirred should be filled with cracked ice; you can crack ice by taking an ordinary ice cube and hitting it hard with the back end of a bar spoon. Our instructor informed us that the martini was originally called The Mahoney Cocktail  and was made with half vermouth, a fortified wine that is less popular now than it was in the 1950’s.  

Vodka, we were told, became popular after World War II because it had no taste and it allowed other ingredients to flavor the cocktail.  Additionally, it was felt that gin had too much flavor and was considered old fashioned – a spirit that grandpa used to drink prior to Prohibition. 

Next, we made The Old Fashioned.  Although Canadian Club was a whisky made popular in The United States during Prohibition (it was frequently smuggled into this country from our neighbors to the north), Rye was the whisky that became popular in America after prohibition, once the distilleries were given permission to restart; a spicy spirit, it was frequently used in The Manhattan.  In one episode of “Mad Men”, we saw how Don Draper made an Old Fashioned, arguably his favorite cocktail before he ultimately switched to straight whisky.  In this video clip, we see his technique – but be warned, this is not the proper way to prepare the cocktail.

 

 

We finished the evening by making a Mai Tai, a cocktail associated to The Tiki Culture.  How does The Mai Tai connect to “Mad Men”?  Well, the instructor believes that this was a cocktail popular with many of Don Draper’s dates.  The Tiki Culture came to be something of a fad in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Post-World War II, the south pacific was seen as an exotic location and lifestyle which resulted in influences on dress, drink preferences, restaurants and bars.  Very kitschy, this style is now viewed as more ironic and humorous.  The Mai Tai is best made in a shaker filled with crushed ice; add a mint sprig to garnish, but don’t muddle it – instead, just smack it with the palms of your hands to awaken its scent, then place it in the Collins glass (add a straw to sip).

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

WhiskyLive 2014 New York City

 

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After missing last year’s event, I was fortunate to return this year to New York City’s annual springtime whisky celebration, WhiskyLive, held at The Chelsea Piers.

As the popularity of the brown spirit seems to grow by leaps and bounds every year, one thing that never ceases to amaze me is the number of players who wish to enter the manufacturing game, both nationally and abroad. While we have been long accustomed to whiskies from The United States, Canada, Ireland and Scotland, recent years have seen other countries make their own offerings; by now, many whisky aficionados know well the quality of Japanese products, but there are other countries you would least expect that have come to the market. WhiskyLive 2014 in New York City gave me the opportunity to taste whiskies from France, India and Bhutan!

Brenne

France

Brenne Whisky has a unique flavor to it and is a whisky which I highly recommend you try if you’re looking for something different; if you’re also a brandy drinker, you might enjoy Brenne as well. The reason I say that is because Brenne is made in the Cognac region of France; French Cognac is considered to be among the best types of brandy in the world, due in part to its manufacturing process, which is as strict as that of Champagne. When tasting Brenne, the primary distinguishing factor is its finish – you can really get a sense of the Cognac influence on the back of your palate. Aged for eight years, it starts out spending five years in French Oak barrels, then is moved to Cognac barrels for its final three years. Specifically, they use XO Cognac barrels since XO Cognac is the most mature form, spending 10 years or more aging in the barrel.

Amrut

India

Amrut is a single malt whisky made in India – with occasional help from The United Kingdom. On this evening, they were pouring their original product in addition to three others: their peated version, an expression called Fusion and concluding with something called Old Port Deluxe. Their original product is aged for three years in American Oak and ex-bourbon barrels, which becomes immediately apparent both on the nose and on the tongue. Their peated version uses peat imported from Scotland; although it’s peated, it doesn’t have the overwhelming smokiness to it that you might expect. This is due to the fact that the time it takes to transport the peat from Scotland to India allows it an opportunity to mellow a bit. Fusion is a combination of their original product with the peated version; specifically, 75% is the single malt and 25% is peated. Old Port Deluxe contains butterscotch and vanilla notes; aged in new oak barrels, its taste is influenced by its location – at 3,000 feet above sea level, the heat and humidity make the aging process similar to that of whiskies made in Kentucky.

K5

Bhutan

And now for something completely different: a whisky from The Himalayas! Spirits Of Bhutan has a product called K5 Premium Spirit Whisky. Made in Scotland, it’s actually distilled in Bhutan, where they add natural spring water from The Himalayan Mountains at a distillery nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. A blend of vatted malts aged anywhere from eight to 12 years, it spends a significant amount of its time in casks formerly used to age sherry. This entire operation is completely supervised by The Army Welfare Project (AWP), the commercial arm of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA); according to Wikipedia, AWP provides benefits for retired RBA members (e.g., employment, pensions, loans).

 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

“She’s Lost Control”– Movie Review

 

LostControl

As The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series draws to a close, I saw the drama “She’s Lost Control”, written and directed by Anja Marquardt. 

Synopsis

When a professional sex surrogate takes on a client who may be threatening her safety, will she be able to survive as things grow increasingly dangerous between them?

Story

Ronah (Brooke Bloom) is attempting to earn a Masters Degree in Psychology; towards that end, she’s currently working as a sex surrogate in New York City.  She maintains a variety of clients who have a wide array of problems; for some of them, the therapy works and for others, it’s more of a challenge.  Regardless, Ronah appears able to maintain a professional demeanor throughout and keeps an earnest degree of dedication with all of them, despite the fact that landlords, neighbors and lawyers make surviving in The Big Apple quite difficult. 

One day, Ronah is assigned a new client – Johnny (Marc Menchaca), who works in a hospital as a nurse anesthetist.  Johnny turns out to be one of the most complex clients Ronah has ever encountered; drinking before (and sometimes during) his therapy sessions, it turns out that his personal life is compromised because of the fact that once his hospital job is finished, he must go home and take care of his sister, who is confined to a wheelchair.  Because of all this and his conflicted feelings when it comes to intimacy with women, Johnny finds himself unable to sustain a serious relationship. 

After some rather uncomfortable sessions with Johnny, Ronah starts getting mysterious calls on her cell phone.  It’s unclear who is calling Ronah, but one thing is for certain:  she’s beginning to get concerned about her safety.  Due to Johnny’s erratic behavior during their sessions together, she begins to suspect that he is the one who might be behind these telephone calls.  However, lacking sufficient evidence, Ronah is unable to confront him about this, although she does discuss Johnny’s sessions with her boss.  With Johnny’s behavior becoming more potentially violent, can Ronah escape possible danger during their appointments?

Review

As Ronah, Brooke Bloom does an incredible job; so believable is she in the role of a professional sex surrogate during the scenes of her sessions with clients, you would almost think that you’re watching a documentary.  Unfortunately, there’s not much else encouraging to be said about “She’s Lost Control” thereafter.  The movie is lacking in direction and focus and winds up being a rather convoluted tale about the frustration of New York City life, “professional intimacy” (as the sex therapy is referred to in the story) and the intertwining of both career and personal survival. 

The narrative behind “She’s Lost Control” meanders considerably, causing the picture to feel longer than its hour and a half length.  At one point, it starts along this mysterious subplot about Ronah freezing her reproductive eggs for the purpose of having children in the future and this part of the plot gets dropped somewhere along the way and never fully developed.  Also, there are some rather unfortunate editing choices, particularly late in its third act which put in the mind of the audience endings to the movie which turn out to be false, thus undercutting its actual conclusion.  Whether “She’s Lost Control” is supposed to be a character study or a thriller, I’m not sure but it fails on both counts. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with various participants in the production of “She’s Lost Control”, including its writer/director, Anja Marquardt.  Marquardt believes Ronah is in control at some point – as evinced by the fact that not only is she successful with most of her clients, but also, due to Ronah’s decision to freeze her eggs.  She also mentioned that one of the challenges behind the shoot was that it was filmed during the intense heat of the summer in New York City; for example, the hotel room where Ronah’s sessions occurred lacked adequate air conditioning. 

She's Lost Control (2014) on IMDb

 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

“Obvious Child”–Movie Review

 

ObviousChild

 

This week at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series, I saw “Obvious Child”, a romantic comedy written and directed by Gillian Robespierre.

Synopsis

When a young woman becomes pregnant following a one-night stand, she decides to have an abortion – but will this cause her to lose the man with whom she slept?

Story

Donna (Jenny Slate) is really having it pretty tough right now.  As an aspiring comedienne, she must fight to get her few minutes onstage at the Brooklyn club where she performs.  Not only that, but she’s losing her day job as a clerk in a bookstore because the owner is being evicted by his landlord.  On top of all that, her boyfriend breaks up with her after her set one night.  In subsequent weeks, her life goes into a bit of a tailspin until she happens to meet Max (Jake Lacy) at the comedy club one night.  The two hit it off right away and Donna winds up going back to his place to spend the night. 

Some time thereafter, Donna’s worst suspicions are realized when she learns this tryst has resulted in her pregnancy.  Both unwilling and unable to take care of a child by herself, she ultimately decides to have an abortion, despite the fact that scrounging up the $500 to cover the cost will be something of a challenge, particularly given that she has no insurance (where’s Obamacare when you need it?).  Nevertheless, Donna is determined to go through with it.  One thing that bothers her is that Max is unaware that she is expecting.  Donna realizes that she has to inform Max of both her situation and resulting plans, but has great trepidation when it comes to actually carrying out this mission.

After a couple of meetings with Max – some by chance, others planned – Donna still cannot muster the courage to apprise him.  Although it’s clear that these two are quite fond of each other, Donna’s wariness seems to be forcing a distance between them; nevertheless, Max fights for his chance to be with her.  Eventually, Donna invites Max to see her perform at the comedy club.  Once on stage, she announces to the audience – and to Max – that not only is she pregnant but that she is currently scheduled to have an abortion the next day.  Upon discovering this, will Max try to discourage her from her plans or will he use this as an opportunity to dump her? 

Review

Are you ready for a romantic comedy about abortion?  Well, ready or not, it’s here, it’s hilarious, deal with it!  For all of the hard edge the character of Donna is supposed to have as a stand-up comedian, she is played with great pathos by Slate.  Instead of using her humor as a shield, Donna uses it as a form of therapy – by publicly and humorously discussing deeply personal aspects of her life, she is in fact both medicating herself and entertaining her audience simultaneously.  Thanks to Slate’s performance, we see and feel this young woman as a multi-dimensional human being instead of a caricature – which would be an easy out, but one that is skillfully avoided in the screenplay by Robespierre. 

With an incredible cast that includes Richard Kind and David Cross, this is a human and heartfelt story told without guile, smarminess or cool aloofness (despite the fact that parts of the movie were shot in the infamous hipster haven, my ‘hood of Williamsburg Brooklyn).  As much as I enjoyed “Obvious Child” and believe this will be sure to propel its writer/director Robespierre to a larger audience, I don’t think that the movie is terribly well served by its title, which I found to be a little misleading and confusing.  The title is taken from a Paul Simon song that is used in the film, which the director said was a favorite from her childhood.

Following the screening there was an interview with writer/director Robespierre and some members of her cast, including Slate.  Robespierre said that the shoot was an extremely aggressive 18 days and that some of the scenes in the comedy club were shot overnight after the club had closed.  In taking “Obvious Child” around the film festival circuit throughout the country, she was pleasantly surprised at how accepting people were of a comedy about a woman who has an abortion.  She interpreted the relative absence of controversy showed society was in fact ready for a story such as this. 

Obvious Child (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“Buzzard”–Movie Review

 

Buzzard

With The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series under way, I attended a screening of the new comedy-drama “Buzzard”, written & directed by Joel Potrykus and starring Joshua Burge.

Synopsis

When a young man embezzles money from his employer, can he evade the authorities or will he be forced to serve time?

Story

Marty (Burge) is a rudderless millennial stuck in a dead-end job. Bored with life and disgusted by society in general, he is on constant lookout for different ways to pull scams and work the system. Whether it’s getting a free bag of potato chips or complimentary medical care, he feels a great sense of entitlement to acquire anything he can, provided he doesn’t have to work too hard for it or spend much (if any) of his own money in order to do so. Marty has perfected being a Slacker to an art form – unfortunately, it’s nothing that can reliably generate any substantial revenue.

Currently working as an office temp in the mortgage department of a local bank in his Grand Rapids, Michigan home, Marty devises a scheme:  he’ll steal the refund checks to be mailed to the bank’s customers and cash them himself. Initially, after trying this with only a few checks worth a small sum of money, Marty successfully manages to pull off his scam. Unfortunately, his greed leads to excess and upon learning that the employer would eventually be able to figure out what he did, Marty gets scared that he will wind up having to do time in prison. As a result, he leaves his home to temporarily stay with his office buddy Derek (Potrykus).

With the cohabitation arrangement between Derek and Marty as hopelessly ill-conceived as the scheme that put Marty there in the first place, Marty comes to the realization that he must leave town altogether, so he hops on a bus bound for Detroit. Once in the big city, Marty tries to live off some of the other refund checks he stole – but that doesn’t last long when his bank freezes his account and blocks the use of his ATM card from doing any form of transaction. Quickly running out of money, Marty attempts to get some much-needed funds by going to a nearby check cashing business – but when the owner suspects something fishy is up, will Marty finally be caught or can he escape the law?

Review

The cynicism and (dare I even say the word?) nihilism of “Buzzard” is prevalent throughout the movie and is only part of what makes it work so brilliantly. While this is truly a story for The Great Recession, it is also timeless in its subject matter, telling the tale of a Generation Y slacker who seems not only destined to drown in his own hopelessness but also reveling in it simultaneously. Its dark comedy gradually takes an even darker turn, transforming “Buzzard” into perhaps more than merely a drama, but rather a tragedy instead. The character of Marty is wonderfully portrayed by Joshua Burge, who (to me, at least) looks like a young Steve Buscemi in this film.

One minor criticism I have with “Buzzard” is the ambiguity of its ending. Since I like to maintain spoiler-free reviews, I won’t give away anything essential to the plot. Suffice it to say this: while Director Potrykus employs a clever visual trick in the final scene, it’s rather unclear as to exactly what it means or what the director was trying to convey. Fortunately, Potrykus attended the screening and was available to provide his interpretation, which certainly made sense. But unless he intends to attend every screening, there might be more than just a few audience members scratching their head.

As mentioned above, Potrykus joined his star Joshua Burge to field questions from the audience after the screening. Potrykus said that he would love to remain in his hometown of Grand Rapids to shoot his movies; he’s not particularly interested in moving to Los Angeles, but admitted that he would be more than happy to accept major studio funding. Potrykus feels confident that with the relatively modest budget he needs for each film combined with the speed with which he completes projects, he could turn out about five movies a year. When a question was raised about the motion picture’s ending, Potrykus said he intentionally left it up to the audience’s interpretation.

Buzzard (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Irish Whiskies: Another Look

 

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For a change, this year I decided to be well-prepared for St. Patrick’s Day.  That’s why I attended a tasting at The Astor Center Of New York City called Irish Whiskey Revival so I would know which brands to buy in order to properly celebrate the big day.

Upon entrance, we were immediately greeted with a welcome cocktail called The Emerald.  Basically, The Emerald is identical to a Manhattan, except for the fact that the rye which is typically used in a Manhattan is substituted with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey; the other ingredients included orange bitters and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.  Although we were not scheduled to include Jameson’s in the evening’s tasting, it was appropriate to at least acknowledge the famous brand in a cocktail because of its longevity and popularity – for every three bottles of Irish Whiskey sold worldwide, two of them are Jameson’s.    

Cocktail1

Irish whiskies come in different styles:  Some are double – distilled, while others are triple – distilled.  Some are peated (like Scotch), but most are unpeated.  Some are blended, others are not. 

Bottles

Beginning the evening’s tastings was Greenore.  Aged eight years, it is a single grain whiskey, 80 proof.  Light in color and gentle in flavor, it has a mild aroma; some detected honey or even a fruitiness in its scent.  Aged in oak casks (formerly used for bourbon, like scotch casks).  On the tongue, it has a slightly viscous feel; we were told this came about as a combination of the distillation, aging and amount of water. 

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Next was Kilbeggan, manufactured in Cooley (located in northeastern Ireland).  A blended whiskey, its nose is somewhat similar but richer.  Its taste is more flavorful, with a nutty, soft feel.  Kilbeggan is a blend of grain and malt, containing Irish barley. 

This was followed by Green Spot Pot Still out of New Midleton and has not been around for very long.  Aged for eight years, 75% of the time in ex-bourbon casks and 25% in casks formerly used for sherry. 

We then moved on to Redbreast, a cask strength whiskey aged for 12 years; of all the Irish whiskies tasted this evening, it was the highest in alcohol at nearly 120 proof.  Also out of New Midleton, it is triple-distilled, in comparison to most American whiskies, which are double-distilled.  Half of its aging is done in ex-bourbon casks, while the other half is done in ex-sherry casks.  Because of its high alcohol content, it is highly recommended that you add a drop or two of water when sipping this one. 

Ransom Emerald lowers the alcohol content considerably, but at 43.8% alcohol by volume, it’s still a bit higher than many.  Aged for a total of three years, it consists of approximately two-thirds malted barley, but also contains rye and a small bit of unmalted barley.  Its color comes directly from the barrel in which it was aged; no caramel is added, unlike some other whiskies, which add caramel to enhance the color of their spirit. 

Last but by no means least, we were given Bushmills, a company that’s been around for over 200 years.  Aged 21 years, it’s a triple-distilled single malt whiskey.  Its aging process is very interesting – half of it is aged for 19 years in ex-bourbon casks, while the other half is aged for the same length of time in ex-sherry casks.  In the final step, the two are married and finished for two years in ex-Madeira wine casks.  Despite its velvety feel on the tongue, I found its finish to be somewhat reminiscent of a pair of wet socks. 

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

“Le Week-end” – Movie Review

 

le_weekend

This weekend in my movie class, we had a bonus screening of “Le Week-end”, a romantic comedy/drama starring Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum

Synopsis

When a married couple celebrates their wedding anniversary with a weekend vacation, they are forced to come to terms with whether or not their marriage should end.

Story

Nick and Meg (Broadbent and Duncan) are a British couple married for a long time.  Maybe too long.  They are at the point where they can’t live with each other nor can they live without each other.  Now experiencing something of an empty nest syndrome, they seem to be able to succeed in doing nothing more than getting on each other’s nerves.  They decide to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary by traveling to Paris to spend a long (and hopefully romantic) weekend.  However, given the fact that Nick has just lost his job as a college professor, the timing of this vacation may have been ill-advised.

Arriving at their small hotel in Paris, Meg is immediately upset about the accommodations and storms out.  With Nick in pursuit, they wind up finding a high-end hotel where they try to check-in, despite the fact that they don’t have a reservation.  Eventually, they secure a suite – one that they can’t afford, especially now that Nick is unemployed.  Nevertheless, they decide to try to make the best of things and enjoy their mini-vacation, but that’s easier said than done – particularly since Meg has fallen out of love with Nick and refuses to be physically intimate with him. 

While out one evening, they run into Morgan (Goldblum), a former colleague of Nick’s.  Morgan, an American, is now living in Paris; he has had a significantly more successful career than Nick, having become a highly-acclaimed best-selling author of many books.  Unable to detect Nick’s jealousy, Morgan invites both of them to a dinner party at his place the following night.  With nothing else better to do – and now short on money because of their extravagant behavior – they decide to attend the party.  But when the party forces them to publicly confront the issues in their relationship, will it serve as a wake-up call or the death knell of their marriage?

Review

There are some incredibly good performances in “Le Week-end”, especially by Lindsay Duncan, but due to a few problems I had with the script, I have some slight reservations about recommending this movie.  First off, the story feels like it takes an unusually long time to get going, despite the fact that the film is only about an hour and a half in length.  The viewer needs to hang in there with the characters for a while to get a better understanding of exactly what is at risk here and why; unless you feel a greater emotional investment in them, you might become impatient waiting for that moment. 

Another script-related problem that made “Le Week-end” a challenge was that the characters weren’t exactly the most sympathetic.  On the one hand, Nick is written as an ineffectual milquetoast loser while Meg merely comes across as vicious, angry and spiteful.  One is left to wonder what these two saw in each other in the first place?  While Meg is seen as the one with all of the strength and power here, she only seems capable of manipulative and temperamental behavior, making rooting for her difficult, at the least. 

So are these shortcomings enough to skip “Le Week-end” altogether?  Probably not.  In addition to the performances, it features some clever directing by Roger Michell.  There is, however, only so much a good director and a talented cast can do to overcome failings with the screenplay, which is probably one more draft away from being something really special.  As it is, “Le Week-end” is nice, but certainly nothing remarkable.  One positive thing is that this is yet another story about romance in the life of mature adults – a demographic that some independent filmmakers apparently feel is still worth tapping.  

 

Le Week-End (2013) on IMDb 6.5/106.5/10

Saturday, March 08, 2014

“On My Way” – Movie Review

 

On_My_Way

This week, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center kicked-off its Rendez-vous With French Cinema series and I attended its opening night screening, the World Premiere of “On My Way” starring Catherine Deneuve.

Synopsis

When a woman learns her former lover has married someone much younger, this prompts her to leave her life behind to have new experiences.

Story

Bettie (Deneuve) has her life taken up by working hard in her restaurant in a small French town as she cares for her elderly mother. Her world is turned upside down when she learns that a man who was once the love of her life has married a girl even younger than her own grown daughter. Traumatized by this news, she resumes smoking and becomes so stressed that she walks out on both her restaurant and her mother, hopping in her car and going for a drive. Obsessed with the urge to smoke, she manages to find a bar where she was told it would be possible to purchase cigarettes.

Once in the bar, she finds more than cigarettes. Bettie is befriended by a group of similarly-aged women out for a night on the town, which then results in her meeting the bar’s black market cigarette salesman – a 30 year old man who gets her drunk on Caipirinhas and then proceeds to hit on her. Embarrassed after her inebriated tryst with this young man, she immediately takes off the next morning, barely saying good-bye to him. On the road, Bettie receives a panicked telephone call from her daughter Muriel (Camille); after a long period of unemployment, she finally secures a job – the only problem is it’s out of town and she cannot take her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman). As a result, Muriel is now forced to impose upon her long-estranged mother to take the boy to his paternal grandfather so he can mind Charly.

Despite encountering a number of obstacles along the way, Bettie manages to pick-up Charly at Muriel’s house and sets off on the long drive to the grandfather’s house. During their trek, Charly and Bettie both wind up getting on each other’s nerves. When Bettie is hospitalized after a brief fainting spell, the grandfather arrives to pick up Charly and take him back to his house; grumpy from the inconvenience, he gets along with neither Bettie nor Charly, who by now has bonded with Bettie and insists she join them. Upon arriving at the grandfather’s and subsequently being reunited with Muriel, will Bettie be able to patch things up with all involved or is she doomed to remain at odds with everyone?

Review

Despite a few (perhaps more than just a few) uncomfortably tight close-ups and a couple of plot point contrivances that didn’t quite parse for me, “On My Way” is ultimately a pleasant story, in no small part due to Deneuve’s patently sympathetic portrayal of Bettie. As the legendary actress plays her, Bettie has clearly been beaten down by life in her later years, even before being dealt the blow that becomes the catalyst for this road trip. This one-time beauty pageant contestant has suffered plenty as she’s matured and is long overdue for a bit of good luck around about now – but it’s not completely certain if it’ll be coming her way any time soon.

Regarding the director’s shot choices, Emmanuelle Bercot (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jérôme Tonnerre) makes regular use of extreme close-ups; if you suffer from claustrophobia, you might be somewhat taken aback here (and if you’re not claustrophobic, you may soon be). Also, the script contains some moments that may make you feel as though you missed something: We find out that Bettie’s restaurant is in trouble, yet every time we see her there, it’s always extremely busy. Bettie repeatedly rejects a reunion of fellow beauty pageant contestants, yet for some reason, she winds up attending anyway. Lastly, Charly goes from being Bettie’s worst enemy to her best friend so fast, it almost gave me whiplash.

Prior to the screening, a representative from The Film Society introduced a number of the filmmakers whose work was being featured during this series; among those present was Deneuve herself, who briefly spoke to the audience (much to her surprise, apparently).  This was a little disappointing because in their promotion of this screening, The Film Society mentioned Deneuve was going to be in attendance, but I assumed she would be interviewed either before or after the screening.  Sadly, this was not the case; I would’ve enjoyed hearing her talk about her career and the experience of shooting this movie. 

 

On My Way (2013) on IMDb 6.5/10442 votes6.5/10447 votes

Sunday, March 02, 2014

“The Face Of Love” – Movie Review

 

faceoflove

This weekend in my movie class, we saw a bonus screening of the drama, “The Face Of Love”, starring Annette Bening, Ed Harris and Robin Williams.

Synopsis

When a widow starts dating her late husband’s doppelgänger, will he break-up with her when he learns the reason for her interest in him, or can they somehow work through it together?

Story

Five years after her husband’s accidental drowning death during their Mexico vacation, Nikki (Bening) remains in mourning.  Barely able to move forward in her life, she’s of no mind to pursue any romantic relationships until running into Tom (Harris), an art teacher who happens to be the spitting-image of Garrett, Nikki’s late husband.  After flirting with him for a while, she finally coaxes Tom to ask her out to dinner; they begin dating for a while and all appears well between them, except for the fact that Tom has no idea that Nikki is with him for no reason other than that he’s a double for Garrett. 

Nikki and Tom’s happiness is much to the consternation of Roger (Williams), Nikki’s friend and neighbor.  Like Nikki, Roger’s spouse died; although still in mourning to some degree, he seems to be in a bit better shape than Nikki because he is ready to move on with his life – in fact, he desperately wants to date Nikki himself, but she would prefer to maintain a more platonic relationship.  Understandably, when Roger learns that Nikki is seeing someone else, jealousy trumps joy for his friend.  Subsequently, when Roger sees Tom, he’s shocked by his resemblance to Garrett. 

Searching to resume her life with Garrett through an unsuspecting Tom, Nikki suggests they take a vacation to Mexico – in fact, through no mere coincidence, they wind up staying at the exact same resort where Garrett died.  In spite of the fact that Tom knows Nikki is a widow, he has learned little else about Garrett due to Nikki’s reticence.  However, during their vacation, Tom begins to suspect that something is up when he becomes aware of some new information about Nikki’s past.  When Tom confronts Nikki about this, will their relationship end or can they manage to get beyond it and stay together?

Review

Vacillating between melancholia and magical thinking, neither the motion picture “The Face Of Love” nor its heroine Nikki appear to know the direction in which it wants to go.  Does it want to be some kind of psychological thriller?  A romantic drama?  Is its theme “Love Triumphs Over All” or “Loss Can Be Overcome”?  Maybe none of the above.  Ultimately, I’m not sure exactly what this movie is supposed to be and perhaps that’s due in large part to its ending, which is supposed to be symbolic (I guess).  The good news is that it’s only an hour and a half long. 

Although Nikki is supposed to be the protagonist in “The Face Of Love”, she is hardly the most sympathetic character and thus rooting for her is difficult, to say the least.  Nikki, Roger and Tom have all lost their spouse, in one way or another.  Yet both Roger and Tom – and especially Tom – earn more compassion from the audience than Nikki, who is selfish, obsessed and, quite frankly, sick.  If there’s anything you’re rooting for when it comes to Nikki, it’s hoping that she both seeks and obtains the professional help this woman so clearly and desperately needs.  She seems to have no compunction about ruining the life of everyone around her, including her own grown daughter.

Director Arie Posin leaves no question that he certainly possesses the capabilities for telling a story both visually and verbally (he co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew McDuffie) – at least, at times, anyway.  The foundation for “The Face Of Love” seems to be a little shaky part-way through the second act before collapsing altogether in the third act.   Up until then, however, he has done a yeoman’s job of setting up what had the potential to be a really interesting story – if only he knew exactly which story it was that he wanted to tell. 

 

The Face of Love (2013) on IMDb 7.3/1098 votes