Sunday, July 27, 2014

“The Trip To Italy”– Movie Review

 

trip2italy

This weekend, we had the final bonus screening of the summer with the British comedy-drama, “The Trip To Italy”, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. 

Synopsis

When two men take on a magazine assignment to write about the restaurants of Italy, they leave their family behind – but once issues at home intervene, will they be able to complete their task?

Story

Once Steve’s (Coogan) television show goes on hiatus, his buddy and fellow actor Rob (Brydon) contacts him about an opportunity:  a travel magazine has made them an irresistible proposition – it will send the pair on an all-expenses paid trip barnstorming throughout Italy and in exchange, they have to write an article about the various restaurants they encounter during their travels.  With plenty of free time on their hands, the offer is too good to refuse, so they head out to drive from city to city, stopping at the best eateries along the way. 

Upon setting out on their journey, the two longtime friends begin some good-natured arguing about everything and anything, regardless the triviality.  Whether the subject is music, movies or sex, they can debate just about anything and enjoy each other’s company in the process.  During meals, they continue their conversations, often challenging each other to perform imitations of well-known movie stars.  All the while, their banter challenges each to one-up the other with one-liners, insults and ripostes as they polish off one gourmet meal after another.

With their family at home anxiously awaiting their return, the trip suffers its occasional interruptions:  Steve learns his son isn’t getting along well with his mother and Rob succumbs to temptations to cheat on his wife with a woman he meets on a tour.  After a while, guilt sets in on both men:  for Steve, he feels as though he’s been so busy that he’s been totally ignoring his son.  With Rob, he longs to be with his family despite feeling a strong attraction to this new woman who finds him so uncontrollably appealing.  Given all of these distractions, will the two be able to finish their job?

Review

How could a movie containing beautiful scenery, shots of scrumptious food and two funny actors with obvious on-screen chemistry go wrong?  Well, let’s start with the plot.  Having one would have been nice.  Instead, “The Trip To Italy” merely meanders about; unlike its lead characters, the film seems to be headed in no particular direction and largely suffers from this.  It would seem that this venture is simply a vehicle for its stars to show off their comedic abilities, which it does.  Sometimes.  Therein lies another problem.

While some of their exchanges are genuinely funny, a number fall flat.  This includes a few of the pair’s impressions – there are some that don’t really sound like the movie star they’re supposed to be imitating, yet they seem to pretend as though they do.  Occasionally, the scene will fail because despite a serviceable impression, they clearly don’t have any reliable material from which they can work.  This brings us to another point:  the script.  Or was there one?  An excellent question.  A screenplay credit is given.

“The Trip To Italy” is a sequel to “The Trip”, which starred the same two actors, apparently with a similar premise.  In that one, I’m given to understand that much of it was improvised between the performers.  So was there a script in “The Trip To Italy”?  And if so, to what degree was it followed?  I have no idea, but the look and feel of the movie suggests that to a large degree, it was in fact improvised.  Will this film be a success?  In America, I think that it will be something of an uphill battle, largely due to the fact that Brydon is unknown in this country while Coogan has achieved a degree of fame, especially after last year’s successful “Philomena”. 

 

The Trip to Italy (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Very Good Girls”–Movie Review

 

VeryGoodGirls

This week in my movie class, we saw the drama, “Very Good Girls” starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen.

Synopsis

When two young women graduate from high school, they decide they need to finally lose their virginity – but once they realize they are both competing for the attention of the same suitor, will they still be able to remain friends?

Story

Lilly and Gerri (Fanning and Olsen) are best friends enjoying their last summer together at the beaches of Brooklyn before entering college in the fall. One thing laying heavily on their mind is the fact that they are both still virgins – something which they vow to address before their freshman year. On the boardwalk of Brighton Beach, they meet David – an attractive young man whose blonde hair and athletic appearance suggests he spends his days surfing. As it turns out, David is actually an aspiring photographer working various subsistence jobs until his career takes off. While both girls are taken with him, it appears that he may be drawn more to Gerri, whom he starts to see casually.

Meanwhile, Lilly has more urgent issues at home when her father is forced to move out once her mother (Ellen Barkin) learns he’s been cheating. Add to that Lilly’s boss (Peter Sarsgaard) has been hitting on her and she’s feeling understandably stressed. Unexpectedly, David locates Lilly and flirts with her; after seemingly chance encounters, Lilly eventually succumbs to his charms and the two hook-up. This of course causes Lilly immense guilt – Gerri doesn’t know about the tryst and neither Lilly nor David intend on telling her. Complicating matters is the fact that Lilly is falling in love with David.

Following a traumatic experience, Gerri begs David to relieve her of the curse of virginity; shortly thereafter, she proudly brags to Lilly that David has escorted her into womanhood.  Given the circumstances, Lilly isn’t as enthusiastic as she would be if it had been someone other than David. Lilly is now realizing her intimacy with David has caused the monster to break out of its cage as she is confronted by her own sexual urges; unfortunately, conflicted because of her feelings for her friend and her lover, she no longer feels comfortable being with David. With the summer drawing to a close and Lilly preparing for Yale, will she and David be able to keep their secret from Gerri or can she share the truth with her at the risk of losing her best friend forever?

Review

OK, let me get this straight: it’s 2013 in New York City and there are two extremely attractive teenage girls who are perfectly willing to lose their virginity but as yet haven’t, despite the fact that they’re approximately 18 years of age and bound for college? Really? No, this movie isn’t science fiction and yes, apparently the filmmakers actually expect us to buy into a premise that’s about as realistic as “Star Wars”. Given that there are a number of well-known actors in this film (Richard Dreyfus and Demi Moore play Gerri’s parents), one would have to suspect their appearance in “Very Good Girls” was done either as a favor or out of desperation for work.

There is precious little to recommend about “Very Good Girls”, except for the performances of Fanning and Olsen – but it is especially Olsen who really shines here, despite the very flawed material which has been foisted upon her. Although Fanning’s character is the lead, Olsen tends to stand out a bit more in her role, but given the script’s limitations, that may be saying more about her acting ability than the movie itself; I’m certainly not gushing here and if you’re considering seeing this movie primarily for Olsen’s portrayal of Gerri, that might be a mistake (although thankfully, the motion picture is only about an hour and a half should you decide to roll the dice on a viewing).

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Naomi Foner, who wrote and directed “Very Good Girls”. Although Foner has an extensive track record as both a writer and producer, this is her first directorial effort at the age of 68. Foner said that with a modest budget on this independent film, she only had 23 days to shoot; since there are quite a few name actors appearing in the motion picture – mostly in small roles – much of the shooting schedule had to be arranged around their availability. Sarsgaard, for example, was only available for one day, so all of his scenes had to be completed in that time (by the way, Sarsgaard is Foner’s son-in-law; he’s married to Foner’s daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal, sister of Jake Gyllenhaal).

 

 Very Good Girls (2013) on IMDb

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Monkey Rum –The New York City Launch Party

 

The poster promoting the event

On one of those sultry summer evenings that’s typical for mid-July in New York City, I happened to spend a rather drunk night attending the official launch party for Monkey Rum.  I blame Zane Lamprey and Steve McKenna for this. 

The party was held at an appropriately-named venue -- The Three Monkeys Bar in midtown Manhattan (near The Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman tapes his talk show).  Not only did I get a chance to taste the rum – both on its own and in cocktails – I also got to meet Zane and Steve. 

Passport

First, some background on my history with Zane.  Some years ago, I started watching “Three Sheets” on what was then The Mojo network and became fascinated at how much I learned about the spirits and the drinking culture worldwide. After Mojo went off the air, there were several unsuccessful attempts to revive the show across multiple networks.  During the time when the show was off the air, Zane was planning his next television venture, “Drinking Made Easy” on Mark Cuban’s HDNet (now AXS-TV).  At this time, Zane set up a Web site of the same name as the new television show and was looking for contributors to the blog portion of that site; as a fan of Zane’s, I submitted a writing sample and was asked to be a regular contributor. That was in 2010 and I continue to be proudly contributing to that blog to this day

Zane

Although I’ve attended other New York City-based events Zane has held here, this was the first time I’ve had an opportunity to attend one since becoming a blogger for his Web site.  As Zane sauntered amidst the crowd socializing with the revelers, he eventually made his way over to me, at which point I introduced myself and informed him that I was one of the bloggers on his Drinking Made Easy Web site.  Since I can’t immediately think of a word better than “underwhelmed” in order to describe Zane’s reaction, I’ll simply use that one.  After about 15 or 16 years of staring at me after introducing myself (although in reality, it may have been a bit less than that), Zane countered with, “So what do you write about?”. 

“Spirits and cocktails”, I replied, now no longer able to disguise the fact that neither one of us was interested in continuing this conversation. 

“What did you think of the rum?”, he asked, apparently fishing for a compliment. 

“Well, to be honest, I haven’t tasted it on its own yet – only in cocktails”, I answered, trying desperately to extricate myself from an awkward situation that was only getting worse. 

“I’ll get you some, then!”, Zane responded, immediately disappearing. 

Eventually, one of the hostesses for the evening delivered a pair of shot glasses – one containing the spiced version of Monkey Rum and the other being the coconut flavored Monkey Rum. 

Spiced-Coconut3

I tried the coconut rum first.  Both the aroma and taste of the rum are very strong with the coconut, to the point where I found it overwhelming.  By contrast, the spiced rum is considerably more subtle; it doesn’t have a very noticeable scent and the spice is mostly detected on the back of the palate.  While I have to admit that I’m not that much of a rum drinker, I probably would’ve preferred it the other way around – make the coconut more understated and the spiced version more aggressive.  Possibly the reason for the distinction here was for marketing purposes – grab the male market with the spiced rum while the women would prefer the coconut rum. 

Steve

Initially, I had only tried the rum in cocktails that were being passed around; it wasn’t until Zane offered me the shot glasses that I tasted it on its own.  There were two Monkey Rum-based cocktails that were being prepared that evening:  The Monkey Punch and The Orangutan.   

MonkeyPunch Recipe

The Monkey Punch was served over ice.  I found it to be quite refreshing on this humid night.  The mixture of both rums appeared to balance out each other. 

Orangutan-Recipe

While The Orangutan was not quite as tasty as The Monkey Punch, the orange juice ingredient didn’t add much besides color (and, presumably, a basis for the cocktail’s name).  Perhaps just the spiced rum with the ginger ale would have been better – a variation on The Highball (The Monkey Ball?). 

Steve-Zane2

For additional photos from this evening, please refer to the album on Facebook or Google+.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”– Movie Review

 

100'journey

This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”, starring Helen Mirren and directed by Lasse Hallström

Synopsis

An itinerant Indian family opens a restaurant in France – but when they learn the classical French restaurant across the road is Michelin-starred, will they be able to compete?

Story

The Kadam family own and operate a successful restaurant in Mumbai, India – but when their business burns to the ground, they wind up leaving their homeland to seek a new location for their endeavor.  After trying different nations around Europe, they finally choose – of all places! – France.  Finding a deserted building in a remote spot of a small village, they decide to open Maison Mumbai there – and the talented Hassan, the eldest son in the family, will be their chef.  With little in the way of formal training but immense natural aptitude, Hassan made the family’s previous business click and the family is confident he will do the same here.

What they don’t take into consideration, however, is the fact that directly across the road from their place – a mere 100 feet, in fact – is a famous, Michelin-starred classical French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Mirren), who not only doesn’t embrace the competition, she also takes an attitude of condescension when considering they are specializing in cuisine native to their home of India.  Quickly, the two businesses engage in an all-out war, not only competing for customers but also competing for ingredients purchased at the local market. 

Eventually, it turns personal when a racist mob sets fire to Maison Mumbai; when Hassan tries to extinguish the blaze, his hands are severely burned, preventing him from cooking.  As he recovers, Mallory becomes more sympathetic to the family’s plight; when she finally tastes a sample of Hassan’s cooking, Mallory is convinced of his gifts and offers him a job at her eatery.  After a while, Hassan’s influence causes Mallory to earn an additional Michelin star for her restaurant.  When word of this gets out, Hassan is lured away by an elite two-star Michelin restaurant in Paris so he can help them earn a third star.  But can Hassan withstand the pressure that accompanies such a hefty responsibility?

Review

Knowing the types of stories that attract noted director Lasse Hallström, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a film of great sweetness and gentility.  Add to that the fact that this is a Disney production co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, and you walk into the theater pretty much knowing what to expect out of this movie.  That said, I was disappointed in this cliché – filled work that’s immensely predictable and lacking in innovative storytelling.  Although I love Helen Mirren, I did not think this was one of her better efforts; her attempts at a French accent made me want to cringe. 

Another problem I had with “The Hundred-Foot Journey” has to do with the script’s structure.  The movie’s third act tries to cram way too much into the end of the story; in fact, I believe that what was shoe-horned into the final half-hour of  “The Hundred-Foot Journey” could have been an entirely different (and perhaps, much more interesting) motion picture altogether.  For me, the most compelling parts of the tale were rushed through in the last portion of the picture.  Add to this the fact that there are not one but two unrealistic love stories introduced into its telling and it completely loses me. 

Following the screening, the class discussed the movie; despite the fact that everyone pretty much acknowledged all of the clichés in “The Hundred-Foot Journey”, the overwhelming majority really enjoyed the film, so I was once again left in the minority here as far as my own opinion was concerned.  One way I felt somewhat justified was when someone who actually does speak French (I don’t) agreed that Mirren’s accent seemed rather lacking in authenticity.  An area where we probably would agree is that this would likely be a good motion picture for foodies as the shots of the spreads are bordering on so-called “food porn”.        

 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

“A Five Star Life”– Movie Review

 

5Star

This week in my movie class, we saw “A Five Star Life”, a comedy-drama from Italy.

Synopsis

When a single career woman finds her limited support system may be dissolving, she begins to question her life choices – but will this cause her to make drastic personal and professional changes?

Story

By all accounts, Irene’s successful career as travel writer has certainly been a glamorous one. After all, who wouldn’t want to fly to the great cities of the world, stay at the best hotels and get paid for the privilege? But all may not be as well as it seems; in order to enjoy this lifestyle, Irene has been required to make some difficult personal choices, including foregoing having her own family. Now in her forties, she is among the best in her field professionally, but some would insist it’s taken its toll on her private life – in fact, by Irene’s own admission, she has no life. Although no longer a couple, she continues to see (and occasionally sleep with) Andrea during the rare occasions when she isn’t traveling. Aside from that, her sister Silvia is the closest thing she has to family; married to a fellow musician, Silvia is raising two daughters, to whom Irene struggles to remain close.

When Andrea starts dating a woman, the relationship doesn’t turn serious until he learns she’s pregnant and he’s the father. Feeling a sense of duty, Andrea decides to care for the woman during her pregnancy, although she maintains it’s unnecessary because she simply wanted a child and has no expectations of him. Irene has strongly mixed feelings about this because although Andrea appears excited about being a father, she fears his involvement with this woman and their child will put a distance between them which will only increase over time. Additionally, Silvia is panicking over fears her marriage may be falling apart. Without her husband, can she count on Irene the jet-setter to help her to take care of her daughters?

During one of her assignments evaluating a five-star hotel, Irene meets anthropologist Kate Sherman, an older woman currently touring to promote her new book on human sexuality in various cultures. Despite her age, Kate is a lusty, vivacious woman who inspires Irene to more enthusiastically embrace her own life without regrets. Although the two women develop an immediate affinity, their kinship abruptly ends unexpectedly. Realizing that she now suddenly finds herself alone again, Irene is confronted by the reality of her own situation. When Irene starts questioning the decisions she’s made, will this be an end to her career as a travel writer?

Review

The Japanese culture is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection in spite of the fact that they acknowledge it is unattainable. While that belief may be substantially based in truth, there are few things in life that do actually come close to perfection – and as far as movies are concerned, “A Five Star Life” could easily be considered one of them. While it might be easily dismissed as a distaff version of “Up In The Air”, doing so would be a huge mistake.  Itself a five-star triumph that won many awards in Italy, the film succeeds in its realistic portrayal of a career woman’s professional and personal life in a non-judgmental – but frequently humorous – manner. This is no small way is due to the fabulous acting by Margherita Buy in the role of Irene; her protagonist is sympathetic but not pitiable and funny without being condescending.

It all starts with the screenplay and the one for “A Five Star Life” is a winner. The tale takes some unexpected twists and turns, resulting in a deeply satisfying (and reasonable) conclusion. Mostly, it is the unpredictability of the various plot points that keeps you drawn in, anticipating what’s coming next – and likely being wrong in your guess, but that turns out to be part of the fun. Largely episodic in its nature, this is a movie without a clear adversary to root against, yet does contain conflict, keeping the viewer engaged in the heroine’s outcome. While obviously a film meant for a female audience, men won’t be turned off because the male characters aren’t depicted as villains or buffoons.

Some technical notes about “A Five Star Life”: an Italian movie, it contains subtitles, but they are easily read (despite being white rather than an easier color to read). However, there are chunks of the film where English is spoken. The literal translation of its original Italian title is, “I Travel Alone”, which is a terrible name for this kind of motion picture (it sounds almost like a 1950’s film noir crime drama); my understanding is that in the United States, it is being marketed under the name “A Five Star Life”, which I suppose is nominally better – but if you do look for this picture and can’t find it under one title, try looking for it as the other title. This is one worth the effort.

 

A Five Star Life (2013) on IMDb

 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Versatility Of Agave

 

Cover

 

The agave plant yields so much to the world. It has long been used for clothing, food and shelter, among other things. Oh, and did I mention that this plant also happens to be used for two of the world’s most flavorful and favorite spirits? Namely, tequila and mezcal. Well, although I knew about its use for manufacturing spirits, I have to admit that I did not know about its other uses – and that’s why I’m glad I took a course at The Astor Center of New York City called, “Agave Smackdown: Tequila Vs. Mezcal”, taught by Tess Rose Lampert.

Upon entering the class, we were greeted with a cocktail – a Negroni. But it’s not the standard Negroni you’d expect – this one substituted mezcal for gin. The Negroni was distinctly different from the ones I’ve had before and I was delighted to be introduced to a new way of incorporating mezcal in a cocktail. As we sipped the drink, our instructor said that we should think about being a little more experimental when making cocktails at home, using mezcal instead of the standard base spirit that would normally be included in the recipe. One example she gave was making a Manhattan with mezcal!

Negroni1

Agave plants take a while before they can be used for spirit production – specifically, they take anywhere from eight to 30 years to mature. There are over 200 species, 30 of which are used to make spirits. Although we tend to think of the agave as being native to Mexico, they have also been known to grow in the southwestern United States and some have even been reported in Africa. Just as grapes grown for wine, agave is very dependent on its terroir for flavor, quality and other vital characteristics.

p1

Pulque is a pre-hispanic ritualistic and religious drink that was made by fermenting agave juice for four days. Low in alcohol – about 5% alcohol by volume – it is lightly sweet and effervescent, with a slightly sour finish. While it’s similar to wine in the way it’s produced, it’s closer to beer in its taste. It has a tendency to be thick and rather viscous. Although it’s possible to purchase pre-packaged, it’s thought to be best when fresh. Some believe it has hallucinogenic qualities, but due to its low alcohol content, it would require at least five glasses before you could even begin to expect getting any kind of a buzz.

p2

As far as the differences between tequila and mezcal, tequila tends to be lower in alcohol; while tequila is usually around 40% alcohol by volume, mezcal can be as high has 65% alcohol by volume. Tequila can only be made from blue agave plants, but mezcal can be made from any type of agave plant. While tequila is made by steaming agave plants in ovens, mezcal is roasted in pits (this is what gives it the smokier taste compared to tequila). Also, tequila’s manufacturing process is considered more industrial in nature – it’s mass produced; by comparison, mezcal uses a more artisanal production method, often made in smaller quantities. In Mexico, only five states can actually manufacture tequila, whereas with mezcal, a total of eight states are capable of making the spirit.

Bottles

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“The Last Of Robin Hood”– Movie Review

 

lastrh

The Summer Semester of my movie class resumed with a screening of the drama, “The Last Of Robin Hood” , starring Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Kline.

Synopsis

When actor Errol Flynn has an affair with a teenage girl, will her mother approve or try to end the relationship?

Story

In Hollywood of the 1950’s, actor Errol Flynn (Kline) is an aging movie star whose days of playing in swashbuckler roles like his legendary Robin Hood are long behind him. With his current marriage in its final stages, Flynn spots Beverly (Fanning), a young woman who – like many in this town – is an aspiring actress. Taking her back to his home, Flynn seduces her, unaware of the fact that at the time, she is only 15 years old. Ever the ladies’ man, Flynn butters up Florence (Sarandon), Beverly’s star-struck mother, who lives vicariously through her daughter. Whether she’s simply naïve or deliberately ignorant, she acts unaware of her daughter’s tryst with this Hollywood icon.

Ultimately, the illicit affair is revealed to Florence and she is none too pleased (or so she wishes the couple to believe). Nevertheless, the couple convince Florence that their mutual affection is genuine, so she agrees to help in hiding their unconventional romance from the press. Flynn’s influence gets Beverly small movie roles, so he takes her on shoots in Africa and Cuba, despite Florence’s apparent objections; believing that the movie legend is truly making an effort to help her daughter break into show business, Florence chooses not to interfere.

Unfortunately, after years of substance abuse, Flynn’s body is starting to betray him and he becomes ill.  While on a trip to Vancouver in October of 1959, Flynn finally dies and is discovered by Beverly, who has by this point become his fiancée. Upon returning to her home in Hollywood, Beverly is naturally besieged by the press, who have chosen to spin their romance into a lurid tale of tabloid fodder. Florence’s alcoholism spirals out of control and a court rules to take Beverly away from her once she is deemed to be an unfit mother. But when Florence seeks her own fame and fortune by collaborating with a writer who hopes to author a book on Flynn’s affair with her daughter, what impact will this have on her relationship with Beverly when she learns of the scheme?

Review

This is a very peculiar movie and I’m not quite sure where to begin. With so many familiar names in its cast, it’s a wonder how they chose to appear in a film with a script so questionable. Putting aside some occasionally illogical and contrived dialog, “The Last Of Robin Hood” suffers from some structural problems as well. As it turns out, the majority of its story is told via flashback as Florence is interviewed by the journalist who tape records her for his proposed book; this might not ordinarily be a problem, except for how it’s presented. The script starts out right after Flynn’s death, then flashes back to tell how the two met, followed by flashing forward to see Florence beginning her interviewing sessions. Follow that so far? 

As stellar as its cast may be, therein actually lies another problem. Kevin Kline is perfect as Errol Flynn, but given the story, was he the right choice for the role? Basically, the story is about the relationship between mother and daughter, with Beverly ostensibly being the heroine and Florence the antagonist; as a result, the character of Flynn takes something of a backseat to the tale – that character is merely the instigator for the difficulties between Beverly and Florence. In fact, Flynn dies well before the end of the film. Therefore, this causes the movie to be thrown off balance; with a major star playing the role of Flynn, an audience might reasonably expect the character to have greater prominence throughout. It’s not until considerably after Flynn’s death that you realize the motion picture is supposed to be about the mother and daughter instead of the daughter and the movie star. Casting an actor of lesser notoriety in the role of Flynn might have helped somewhat here – but again, setting the expectations properly in the setup portion of the screenplay would’ve been best.

In discussing “The Last Of Robin Hood” after the screening (and really, shouldn’t it have been something like, “The Last Days Of Robin Hood”?), our instructor shared with us some production notes. In real life, Florence did collaborate on a book; it was titled “The Big Love” and was eventually turned into a stage play. The filmmakers read the book and reached out to Beverly about making her story into a motion picture; although by then she preferred to guard her privacy, she gave her consent to the film. However, she passed away in 2010 before the movie could be realized. This pictured played at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was said to have been well received.

 The Last of Robin Hood (2013) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

“Life Itself”–Movie Review

 

life-itself

In The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Releases Series, I saw the documentary, “Life Itself”, about the late film critic Roger Ebert.

Synopsis

When Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert is diagnosed with terminal cancer, how will he and his family deal with his final days?    

Story

When Roger Ebert graduated from college, the last thing that entered his mind as a career objective was to be a movie critic.   In fact, he had higher goals in mind – to be a journalist.  Working for his school newspaper, he concentrated on serious stories and was careful to veer away from the trivial.  Growing up in the Chicago area, Ebert realized his dreams when he finally got a job writing for his hometown paper, The Chicago Sun-Times.  However, when the position of film critic became available, Ebert assumed the role; in writing movie reviews, he also rewrote the book on how the reviews themselves should be written.

Ebert, well-educated at the University of Illinois despite not making it to the Ivy League school that was his original choice, wrote articulate, thoughtful reviews that were clearly both intelligent and thoroughly researched.  Instead of flaunting his erudition, Ebert wrote for the average guy, almost as though he was addressing his family – his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife.  Over time, Ebert’s reputation grew and he eventually wound up doing various television stints before landing a local show with Gene Siskel, his crosstown rival from Chicago’s competing newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. 

Following Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert continued with his television show; about seven years later, however, he was diagnosed with cancer and was not expected to survive.  As a result of the very surgery that was intended to save his life, Ebert wound up losing his ability to speak.  Although he continued to write – for his newspaper, blogs and the author of various books – Ebert’s television career had effectively come to an end.  When documentarian and fellow Chicagoan Steve James set out to film a documentary on Ebert’s life, plans changed shortly after shooting began when Ebert landed in the hospital; although he eventually went home, Ebert returned to the hospital shortly thereafter and died before the documentary could be finished as originally intended.     

Review

A review of a documentary about a film critic is a hard one to write – especially when the critic in question is the late great Roger Ebert.  Giving the movie either a “Thumbs Up” or a “Thumbs Down” might in some odd way be a tribute to Ebert’s memory, but it would simultaneously be a facile response and inadequate to both the film and its subject’s life.  Sometimes with documentaries, the filmmaker accidentally finds him/herself stumbling upon their story; this was certainly the case with “Life Itself”.  Originally intended to be something of a follow-on to Ebert’s book of the same name, it wound up taking on a life of its own when Ebert suddenly entered the hospital and passed away during the shoot.

While the film is certainly a salute to Ebert’s life and to his loyal wife Chaz, it does fall short in some respects.  Namely, the time after former colleague Gene Siskel’s passing is given somewhat short shrift; specifically, there is no mention of Richard Roeper in Ebert’s post-Siskel period.  How this was possible is difficult to understand; Roeper is not only not mentioned in the documentary, he’s not even among those interviewed for the film.  Given the fact that he spent a number of years as Ebert’s partner after Siskel’s passing, this is something of a head-scratcher. 

According to director Steve James, this oversight was not accidental.  James said that when Ebert’s condition worsened, the contrast with Siskel’s situation weighed more heavily on shaping the story.  As a result, some things had to be cut out and Ebert’s collaboration with Roeper was one of them.  Supposedly, Roeper was notified by James that he would not be needed for the documentary and Roeper is said to have taken the news extremely well, albeit disappointed about the fact that he would not be able to make his own contribution to the movie about his friend and former colleague. 

 

Life Itself (2014) on IMDb

 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

“I Am Big Bird”– Movie Review

 

IMBB

 

This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” .

Synopsis

Puppeteer Caroll Spinney has been playing the role of Big Bird on the Public Television Show “Sesame Street” for over 40 years; in this documentary, we learn how his background informed his puppetry and how he endured various challenges in both his personal and professional life.

Story

Nearly 80 years old, puppeteer Caroll Spinney has spent about half his life portraying a very famous character on a wildly-popular television show. Although his might not be a household name and no one recognizes him when he walks the streets of New York City, he is famous all around the world because he plays the character Big Bird on TV’s “Sesame Street”; because of the longevity of both the show and the character, both are beloved by not only children but also by adults who grew up watching “Sesame Street” when they were children themselves. However, Spinney’s life, both before and during his long success, has been considerably less idyllic than either his character or the TV show that spawned it might suggest.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Spinney was the youngest of three sons; he was close to his mother, an artist, who strongly encouraged Spinney’s creative side when she became aware of his love of puppetry. On the other hand, his relationship with his father was quite difficult; the father had quite a temper and even as a small boy who almost never got into trouble, Spinney was able to raise his father’s ire with just about anything he did. The father developed a low opinion of his son and was convinced he would amount to nothing in life. Spinney wound up joining the military to escape his father; upon leaving the service, he resumed his dream of being a puppeteer by getting work on various television shows, including and especially Bozo The Clown.

After meeting Jim Henson at a puppetry convention, Spinney was invited to join The Muppets as “Sesame Street” was in its nascent form. Although he initially had a hard time fitting in with the rest of the group, Spinney found he was more comfortable performing as a puppeteer on his own when he played characters such as Big Bird and the trashcan-dwelling Oscar The Grouch. With Big Bird seen as being an overgrown six year old child, many of the children in the audience were immediately drawn to the character as they found him to be easily relatable and non-threatening. But in later years, when the show developed other popular characters such as Elmo, would Big Bird still be able to sustain his success?

Review

While “I Am Big Bird” gives an interesting insight behind the man behind the puppet, it does beg the question, “Why are we being told this story?”. I suppose the argument can be made that while Spinney himself may not be well known, the show and the puppets he portrays are very famous both around the country and around the world; add to that the fact that he’s the lone surviving puppeteer from the original Muppets team that is still working on “Sesame Street” and there’s probably justification for a documentary. That said, I think the filmmakers had to work hard to make this interesting in terms of adding external conflict to Spinney’s story – the man isn’t exactly the most volatile or controversial personality you’ve ever encountered.

For all of the mild-mannered nature that Spinney appears to have, he does sometimes come across as a bit of a ham – maybe a necessary attribute if you’re going to be a puppeteer. However, the fact that he’s not much of a team player – he preferred to perform as a lone character rather than as a part of a group of puppets – certainly does suggest he’s got quite an ego despite his soft-spoken demeanor. The documentary seems to be something of a puff piece for its subject – Spinney comes across as a flawless, almost saint-like character. Although mention is made that his decade long first marriage ended in divorce, he makes it clear that it was all his ex-wife’s fault and he was entirely blameless. Is it true? Who knows? But even if it is, it doesn’t make for much of a dramatically compelling character in a documentary.

Following the screening, Spinney was interviewed by our instructor. He talked a bit about the technical aspects of the Big Bird puppet. In the documentary, we saw that when Spinney is in the Big Bird costume, he has to wear a miniature television strapped to his chest so he can see everything going on around him since he’s unable to view out of the costume itself; he mentioned in the interview that it’s more difficult now to tape the script above the camera because there are now more pages than there used to be (the scripts have gotten considerably wordier over the years). Additionally, he mentioned that high definition television has not exactly been kind to the Big Bird character; the costume simulates movement of the character’s right wing by using fishing wire that loops through the underside of the beak – although this was never a problem in the old days, the wire is now visible when watching the show on HDTV. While the Big Bird costume was a little too bulky to transport, he did bring along the Oscar The Grouch puppet and performed as that character for a while, conducting part of the interview as Oscar.

  I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014) on IMDb

 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Jersey Boys”– Movie Review

 

jersey-boys-movie-poster

This week, the Summer Semester of my movie class began with a screening of “Jersey Boys”, the musical drama directed by Clint Eastwood.

Synopsis

When four young men from northern New Jersey form a singing group, they attempt to make a career in show business – but will competition and internal conflicts impede their success?

Story

In the early 1950’s, life choices were limited if you grew up in a blue collar town of northern New Jersey: if you wanted out of the area altogether, you either entered a life of crime, signed up for the armed forces or went into show business. For Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and his friends, going into show business was their only viable option. These young men formed a band and Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), one of its leaders, invited Frankie to be their lead singer; with his unusual falsetto voice, this musical group would be sure to stand out. Together, they played at every opportunity they could get, finally recording a demo tape they submitted to music industry professionals in the hope of being signed to a recording contract.

Soon, they would find that with so many aspiring performers attempting to knock on the door of fame, being discovered as a new musical talent was more of a challenge than they had anticipated. Their luck takes a turn for the better when they run into Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), a music producer who hires them to sing back-up on other people’s records. Eventually, they tire of this and express a desire to record their own tunes, written by fellow band member Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen); Crewe tells them that if they can raise the money to pay for the studio time, he will record them. Unfortunately, Tommy’s only way of raising the money is through his connections with organized crime, which he has due to his association with gangster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken).

Between Bob’s songwriting talent and Frankie’s unusual singing style, their act, now known as The Four Seasons, gradually starts piling up one hit single after another and they discover that they have somehow beaten the odds and managed to achieve the level of success they dreamed. They find, however, that this success only breeds new problems instead of making them deliriously happy. Internecine squabbles begin to tear things apart. When Tommy’s fiscal irresponsibility puts their group nearly a million dollars in debt with the mob, Frankie assumes the onus of paying back the money by working it off over time. But in order to do so, will he be able to balance both his personal and professional life?

Review

To be up front about this: Despite being a New Yorker, I’ve never seen the Broadway musical version of “Jersey Boys”, so if you’re hoping for a comparison between the play and the movie, you’ll have to look elsewhere. That said, much of the story in the movie adaptation of “Jersey Boys” is narrated by its characters; rather than a voiceover narration, this is done by having each band member taking a turn at directly addressing the audience on camera. While this technique of talking to the audience while on stage may have worked effectively in the Broadway play on which this movie is based, I found this to be a bit off-putting and disconcerting when utilized in the film version.

Although there are movies that have done this in the past – the technique is certainly not new – it has been done sparingly. “Ferris Bueller”, “Goodfellas” and “Annie Hall” are films that come immediately to mind in this regard; while the style was implemented here, it was done with a specific intent and in order to set a tone in the story. In “Jersey Boys”, the narrator changes, so you are not being told the story from a single perspective (some have inappropriately and unfairly compared it to “Rashomon”); another way in which it becomes confusing is one particular scene where Frankie is seen in a room talking and the audience does not see anyone else in the shot. Is he talking to himself? Is he addressing the audience? In fact, it turns out he is having a conversation with another character in a different room.  One positive note was the performance by Piazza; although the character of Valli is the star, it is Piazza’s portrayal of DeVito that really stands out – he really nails the regional accent accurately (not surprising since I’ve heard he’s from New York City originally). 

Another problem I had with “Jersey Boys” is with respect to its ending. The movie tracks 40 years in the life of these men – from the early 1950’s to the early 1990’s; after that, when the film is effectively over for all intents and purposes, there is what you might refer to as an “encore” – the motion picture seems to flashback to The Four Seasons’ heyday in the 1960’s where the group is performing a medley of their hits on a street corner, presumably in their old neighborhood in New Jersey (a cheesy looking and unconvincing back-lot set at Warner Brothers). They are soon joined by all of the other characters who had appeared in the picture. I found this to be not only gratuitous but cringe-worthy as well. Apparently, Eastwood was afraid that there might be some backlash over the fact that he didn’t include enough of the performance of The Four Seasons’ songs in his picture as I’m given to understand there are in the play.

Jersey Boys (2014) on IMDb