Sunday, February 28, 2010

"A Cook's Tour" by Anthony Bourdain

(This review originally appeared as a post on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Aug 20, 2009   )

A Cook's Tour ... by Anthony Bourdain

I guess you could say that for me, it's been The Summer of Bourdain.

After being a fan of the guy's Travel Channel TV show for over a year and a half now, I've finally decided to explore Bourdain's writing and have been as entranced by it as much as his "No Reservations" show. Could it be his snark, his readiness to imbibe, his dour outlook?

The answer to all three, of course, is a resounding Yes! ©®

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So there!

Originally, Bourdain's success with the book "Kitchen Confidential" eventually lead him to a TV show on the Food Network -- a show (and, especially, a network) which he would eventually come to defile in later years.

While the TV show may be no more (for which he seems immensely thankful), the author is ready to offer many detailed insights which were apparently unavailable to him during each episode's filming. I must admit that while I have never seen any of the episodes from this TV show, I now remain immensely curious about each and every one of them (especially the ones that feature his Russian friend, Zamir).

Whether it's the heartwarming trips to France with his brother, his comical adventures to Russia with Zamir, or his dangerous experiences in Asia (especially, Cambodia), this book's stories remain endlessly fascinating -- even though the TV shows on which it was clearly based no longer exist.

And now, I'm hungry!

"Mother" - Movie Review

This morning, my movie class had a bonus screening of a South Korean murder mystery titled "Mother".


When a young man is arrested for the murder of a teenage schoolgirl, his mother tries to prove his innocence -- but after a witness to the crime implicates the son, will she still fight for his freedom? 


Kim Yoon has had a tough life -- without a husband or any other family, she has worked many years at a small shop selling various herbs and herbal remedies, as well as performing unlicensed acupuncture on the side just to make ends meet.  Add onto that the fact that for the past 28 years she has been trying to raise her retarded son Do-Joon all by herself, and you can imagine how much of a toll the years have taken on her.  One night, the lonely son goes off on his own seeking female companionship in various locales ... and unsurprisingly, coming up empty.  Frustrated at his failures, he sets off into the late night trying to make his way home -- but when a teenage girl he followed is discovered murdered the following morning, he is arrested and charged with the crime. 

Believing they have what amounts to an open and shut case, the police won't even entertain his mother's pleas to consider the fact that her son has been falsely accused.  When she tries to scrape together her meager funds to hire an attorney, she finds few will take the case -- and the one that does is so convinced of her son's guilt, he suggests the best legal recourse would be to have the young man sent to a mental institution because he would wind up spending less time there than if sent to prison.  Finding this alternative completely unacceptable, the mother then decides to take matters into her own hands -- if no one else is going to investigate this case, then she will take it upon herself to do so because she's that certain of her son's innocence.  During her amateur attempts at being a detective, she makes many mistakes along the way -- and with her son's diminished mental capacity, it is difficult for him to help her out by providing any details of that fateful night.  With the town turning against her and the prospect of losing her job when her attempts at illicit practices of acupuncture can get her in trouble with the law, she begins to give up all hope. 

It is at this point that a great revelation occurs -- the murdered girl had a reputation for being extremely promiscuous and used her cell phone to snap photos of her various paramours during their trysts.  Assured that recovery of these pictures will provide evidence of the real killer, the mother sets out to locate the cell phone.  Along the way, she finds someone who claims to have witnessed the murder -- but when he discloses to her the fact that her son may have been the true killer, will she stop her quest for her son's freedom or will she disregard the facts and continue nevertheless?


I suppose you could say that the theme of this movie is that of a mother's unhealthy obsession with loyalty to her son.  In some ways, it is understandable as the two only have each other in life -- but it takes a very dark and sinister turn as revelations about the mother's past with her son unfold during her visits while he is imprisoned.  While her son's mental ability is clearly impaired, the mother's own stability is most definitely called into question by virtue of her actions -- or, in some cases, inactions -- at various points along this very interesting story.  The movie takes some quite unexpected -- and, at times, uncomfortable -- twists and turns along the way. 

While a rather compelling tale, the movie suffered from a number of flaws, but I wouldn't necessarily say that they are fatal, by any means.  First, I found it to be a little bit too long -- just when you thought the movie was going to wind up, it continued for quite a while, almost providing something of what you might call a "false ending".  Also, I found it to be a bit confusing at times, unclear as to certain characters' motivations or even due to my own inability to understand certain leaps that some characters made in terms of assumptions and judgments about specific matters that arose -- I guess this is one of those times when you either suspend your disbelief and go along with it or not.

Although I would recommend this movie with some reservations, I must acknowledge that not too many people would likely be inclined to want to see it either in a theater, as a rental or even if it showed up on some obscure cable TV channel if, for no other reason, due to the fact that it is Korean.  Add to this the fact that the dialog is in Korean and contains subtitles, the potentially small audience for this type of movie diminishes even further.  All of that said, however, it is still an intricately told and ultimately most tragic story that merits some attention and makes you wonder if the nation of South Korea will eventually turn out to be one of the next great movie producing countries.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"Too Fat To Fish" - Book Review

(This review originally appeared as a post on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Sept 7, 2009)

I've been reading an unusually large amount of books this summer -- probably due to the fact that since the NY Times decided to hike the price of their Sunday edition to a whopping $5, I've broken a long - standing personal tradition of making it my weekly purchase. That said, I recently finished another book, "Too Fat To Fish", the autobiography of stand - up comedian and actor Artie Lange, a member of the on - air team of Howard Stern's radio show for almost eight years now.

At nearly 42, Lange's life probably is best described by the quote often attributed to the late ex - Yankee great Mickey Mantle: "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would've taken better care of myself". In this book, Lange openly details his various substance abuses -- from alcohol, to pills, to all kinds of drugs: starting with marijuana, moving to cocaine, food and eventually, "graduating" to heroin -- an addiction he still battles to this day by taking Subutex and making regular visits to a shrink.

Lange attributes his substance abuse issues to an accident his father had when Lange was a teenager -- attempting to install a television antenna, his father fell off the roof and severely injured himself, resulting in him being a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life (he succumbed to various complications in his mid - 40's). He reasons his alcohol/drug addiction as a way of self - medicating to help him deal with his father's accident -- he blames himself for the tragedy because he was usually around to assist his father on these types of jobs, but on this one fateful day, he was not present to hold the ladder steady.

While a great number of Stern's loyal, lemmings - like fans probably have an immensely empathic response to Lange's tribulations, I found it increasingly difficult to do so the further I got into this book. Although there are a great many humorous stories interspersed throughout, I can't help but feel that Lange is glamorizing his various substance abuse issues by implicitly declaring, "Look at me! I got away with doing all of this crazy shit and still I'm successful!".

This book is only a must - read for hard - core "Sternies" -- and even then, you have to wonder how many will actually drink the Kool - Aid? Apparently Lange would -- but only if it's laced with something a bit more potent.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Martini Bowl 2010!

(This review originally appeared as a post on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Feb 6, 2010 )

Every year on the weekend of the Super Bowl, Union Square Wines & Spirits holds a competition of various vodkas vs. gins called The Martini Bowl. Here's part of the tasting menu from today's tasting.

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While I always prefer Bulldog Gin, this year, my pick was a local product, Seneca Drums Gin.

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They served The Aviation Cocktail -- a classic! It's been a while since I've had this one and it was quite nice to try after such a long time ...

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They had quite a lot of local product this year, as you may have seen from the tasting menu.

Here are some additional recipes.

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More recipes from Finger Lakes Distilling.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Bone In The Throat" by Anthony Bourdain - Book Review


 (This review originally appeared on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Sept 10, 2009 )

Returning to my catch – up of Anthony Bourdain’s writing, I recently finished this one – a novel, for a change of pace.

The story here is about an up and coming sous chef named Tommy Pagano whose life and livelihood are jeopardized when he unwittingly becomes involved in an FBI investigation of mob activity that occurred at the restaurant where he works. What complicates matters even more is the fact that he owes his job to his Uncle Sally, the mobster who put Tommy in the position of being witness to this crime in the first place. Although Tommy long ago renounced The Family Business in favor of trying to make an honest living as a chef, he cannot entirely escape it – in part because of his relatives, but also because so much of the NYC restaurant business is controlled by the mob.

Also putting the squeeze on Tommy is Michael, the heroin addicted chef for whom he works. Due to his long history of substance abuse issues, Michael is forced by an FBI agent to try to convince Tommy to either turn himself in or rat out his uncle to the agency. Between the pressure from Michael, the agent and his uncle’s “associates” who fear he may not remain quiet, Tommy soon realizes he’s in a no – win situation with no way out.

I found the book very entertaining and well written; Bourdain’s humor shines throughout, as well as his adoration of mob – related stories and fascination with his former career in restaurants. As lightweight as this is, I found it to be a good choice for a summer read – definitely something that would be good for a diversion during an airplane ride or while on vacation. Hedo Reunion devotees might well enjoy the book’s opening chapter, where a dead body washes up on the shores of the beach at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. 

The Feast Of San Gennaro 2009 - Trip Report

(This post originally appeared on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Oct 6, 2009  )

A while back, I wrote about my annual visit to The 9th Avenue Food Festival; in my review, I mentioned that my Summer was unofficially bookended by two food – related street fairs: this one and The Feast of San Gennaro in the Little Italy section of downtown Manhattan. It’s these two street fairs that for me define the beginning and end of Summer. With a couple of weekends ago marking the last of Summer, I made my yearly pilgrimage to The Mecca of Boot Country Food. I won’t go into a great deal of explanation about the history of the festival or who San Gennaro was because you can read all about that (if you choose) on the Web site I linked to above.

The weather on this late Summer weekend was nothing short of perfect to close out this 10 – day long event – not a cloud in the sky and mild mid – September temperatures. The heart of the Little Italy section of downtown Manhattan runs along Mulberry Street; the festival itself is held on Mulberry between Houston Street (pronounced HOUSE-tun) at its northern point and Canal Street at its southern end (this is where Chinatown is located). Although it gets particularly crowded at night, the weather was so good that it brought out large crowds during the day. Here’s a view from Canal Street looking north:

In New York City, the street fair season runs for half the year – from Spring (April) until Fall (October). During that time, I try to make it to as many street fairs as possible because they’re fun, you can pick up good bargains while shopping and the food is always terrific. Many of these street fairs serve a good deal of Italian food, such as hot or sweet sausage, braciole and mozzarella sticks. Because of this, I usually try to avoid some of these more common Italian dishes when attending San Gennaro because I know I can always get them any time; instead, I try to seek out the types of food that’s usually unique to The San Gennaro Feast.

Last year’s feast was my first taste of stuffed artichokes; I decided not to revisit them this year because I wasn’t a big fan of the ones I sampled previously, but maybe I’d retry them someday. Instead, I decided to hit up as much of the seafood vendors as I possibly could. The clams and oysters I enjoyed this year were much better than the ones from 2008 because they were less gritty; with lemon juice wedges squeezed on top and a bit of Tabasco sauce, them boys was mighty tasty. I marveled at the speed at which these guys could open them after plucking the raw little things from large tubs of ice – just watching them, I knew that if I ever tried it, I’d surely lose a finger or two. One stand also served lobster, either steamed or grilled; I had mine grilled and I have to admit it was something of a disappointment – not too much meat on the body or claws, but the tail certainly made up for it. Then again, at only $8 per, I guess I couldn’t complain. Much.

The Feast of San Gennaro is considered The Mother of All Street Fairs by many New Yorkers. One reason is because it always seems to draw people from outside the immediate area. And by “outside the immediate area”, I don’t just mean the suburbs of NYC – I mean people visit from other states just to attend this event. When people visit from all over, I do mean from all over … as this vendor’s sign might suggest …

Among the great Italian seafood restaurants in Little Italy is Umberto’s Clam House.

One of the reasons why it’s considered a landmark – aside from the delectable food – is because of its history with the mob in this part of town. I remember when I was in college, a hit took place at the restaurant’s original location and it took center – stage on the news ...

I mentioned above that folks from regions outside of NYC came to this immense street fair and here’s a good example. While much of the northeastern corridor of these United States is blessed with great Italian food, it has been made painfully aware to me that some areas have no idea of the delights this cuisine has to offer. This year’s visit to the San Gennaro Feast provided several examples. While waiting on line at a seafood vendor’s stand, I heard a woman order a plate of fried shrimp; the vendor then asked her if she wanted marinara sauce. The woman stood stone silent, staring at the vendor for a moment before admitting, “I’m afraid I don’t know what that is”. The vendor simply responded with, “It’s marinara sauce, lady!”. I was tempted to explain it to this woman, but I figured it was best for her to discover it herself. And besides – like the vendor, I was too dumbfounded by the idea that someone didn’t know what marinara sauce was. (I can vividly recall fights in my high school between Italian boys arguing over whose mother made the best “gravy”)
And then there were my attempts to get some braciole.

Searching the various booths, I found one that had the longest line – clearly a sign that they had the best food. It was a long wait, but turned out to be worth it. The vendor asked what he could get me and I answered the only reasonable reply: “BRA-ZHOHL”, I shouted. He tossed one on the grill with peppers and onions and I awaited my transportation to ecstasy. The meat lay cooking on a slotted grill, with flames lapping a good eight to ten inches in the air – reminding me that I had picked the right place. While I awaited my treat, I heard a couple of others try to order. 
“I’ll have a BRASSY-OLEE”, screamed a non-Italian (and/or non-Brooklyn) woman next to me, who couldn’t resist my meat temptation. She drew a stare from the vendor who took a moment to figure out just what the hell it was that she wanted; once reality set in, he tossed another braciole on the grill to keep mine company. 
I felt a finger poke my right arm – what followed was another embarrassing question from a tourist. “What exactly is a braciole again?”, asked the effeminate gentleman beside me. He accepted marinated lamb with onions and peppers as an answer and thanked me, then told the vendor, “I’ll have what he’s having!”.

It was well worth the wait. The braciole was so well – cooked, it crunched between my teeth, a smoky flavor lingering before, during and after each bite. Yes, among all of the booths that advertised braciole for sale, this was the only one that knew how it should be cooked. Despite the interference from The Great Unwashed, it was without a doubt braciole the way it was meant to be experienced.

While the Feast of San Gennaro is about food, what would it be if it forgot desserts? Tiramisu, Gelato, Biscotti and of course, Cannoli so good, it’ll make you leave your gun. While I couldn’t partake in all of the desserts, I did find an Italian ice vendor selling the sugar free variety and I succumbed to the refreshing temptation of their Orange Ice therein.

Although my focus of the festival is all about food, I do have to admit that it does take on something of a carnival quality. There are rides, games, performers and other forms of attractions throughout the day/evening. Performers include an Italian band that strolls up and down Mulberry Street playing familiar tunes -- traditional Italian folk songs, others more mainstream pop culture, like the theme from The Godfather. Other performers include opera singers and pop music groups that sing on a stage set up on one of the side streets (but only at night).

This is the stage where the performances take place. It’s empty now because it’s only early afternoon, but believe me, every night at around 8 or 9PM, things really get hopping!

Some Cigar porn …

Here’s some of that carnival atmosphere I referenced above:
Some of the side streets even have rides set up for the kids when families visit:

… And what carnival type atmosphere would it be if they didn’t have a Drown The Clown stand?
Of course, it would be wrong to wrap up this report about the San Gennaro Feast without acknowledging the man who made it all possible … San Gennaro himself …

You’ll notice the dollar bills pinned just below the statue – neighborhood Italians pay tribute to San Gennaro by pinning money to the shawl that hangs beneath. The money is (allegedly) given to the church.

This is the church outside of which the statue of San Gennaro resides. Since Little Italy is downtown, it’s not far from the former site of the World Trade Center. If you go inside the church, you’ll find breathtaking and tragic photographs mounted on the wall taken on 9/11/01.

The Feast of San Gennaro, like summer itself, is now long over – but like summer, many vivid, pleasant memories remain. Also, like summer, anticipation for next year already begins to well.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"The High Line" Trip Report

(This Trip Report was originally posted on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Jun 15, 2009 )

The High Line

WARNING: this isn't as naughty as The World Bike Tour and I lack the photographic skill of some, but nevertheless, I've chosen to post my humble weekend adventure.

Sunday, I made my first visit to The High Line.

And no, The High Line isn't a NYC subway that permits marijuana smoking (sorry, pot-heads).

The High Line is a brand new Manhattan park that just opened this past week. What's the big deal about a park? Well, for one thing, it's built on freight train tracks that are elevated 30 feet above Manhattan streets. For another thing, it winds under and in some cases through buildings in the area.

Many years ago, freight trains ran right through Manhattan -- hard to believe now, but true. That stopped a long time ago and the tracks were virtually abandoned. Quickly falling into disuse, they became yet another New York City eyesore. A few years back, community organizers got together and decided to renovate to build a stretch of park there.

The first section of the park just opened Monday; since we've had a stretch of rainy weather for a solid week, Sunday was the first nice day -- let alone the first Sunday -- that the park was open, so you could imagine the big crowd. I stood on a long line that snaked around the block; fortunately, it moved quickly. They regulated the crowds on the limited stretch by having volunteers holding clickers to count the people entering and leaving the area; periodically, the next group of people were kept from entering until enough visitors had left, so as not to overcrowd the limited space.

The experience I'm documenting here is of a nascent attempt at the next generation of NYC; it is the first half mile of the park -- the second stage will open next year. Currently, there's really not too much to see or do -- there aren't any concession stands, but the long - term plan is that there will eventually be plenty -- an outdoor movie screen, an area for live entertainment and places to eat and drink (even if you desire an adult beverage or two).

Will The High Line turn out to be one of New York City's next great attractions or will it turn out to be one of its next great follies? Ask me in two years -- we should know by then ... 

This is a hotel that straddles The High Line; it was built with the intention of being constructed around the park, so that's why there are sides to the structure that appear to be like legs standing the building up -- "the hotel is giving the park a lap dance", as one wag described.

A closer view ... 

 Some of the flowers and other growth planted amidst the old train tracks to remember the old High Line and salute the new ....



Pier 54, Hudson River Park, looking out on The West Side Highway, Hudson River (of course!) and the pure bliss that I like to call New Jersey.


The High Line is in a section of Manhattan unofficially called The Meat Packing District. Now, before someone jumps to the conclusion that this is some kind of euphemism for the gay area of town, I must explain ...
The Meat Packing District got its name because it was literally just that -- a small area on the far west side of Manhattan in which was located many warehouses that packed, well, meat. Many of the buyers and executive chefs from the best restaurants the city had to offer would come here to buy their various cuts of meat -- a side of beef for the weekend, for example. The historic Meat Packing district, however, is now no longer. This place in the photo was actually the last meat packer to close, which just occurred a few weeks ago. Sadly, one era of New York must end for a new one to begin. And a bit of the city's history goes with it.
During the summer of years past, this was a difficult place to navigate through -- the smell of meat in the hot, often not-quickly-enough-refrigerated warehouses was enough to knock you on your ass. And years ago, before the neighborhood became upscale, an area through which you wouldn't want to venture at night -- between the general crime, drugs and prostitutes (many of whom knife-wielding transvestites who'd gladly slice you up if you declined their offer to be a customer -- or at least, so I've heard).  



Looking east along 14th street on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As I alluded to, the neighborhood has changed drastically from its tough reputation of a few years ago. Now, it has luxury condos, high end hotels, office buildings, expensive shops and trendy restaurants that are difficult (if not impossible) to access on the weekends. But that's a story for another thread ...
To give you an idea how the area has changed, one of the shops on the left side of this photo is the clothing shop of Stella McCartney -- yep, that would be Sir Paul's little girl. On the same block, on the corner, is a three - floor Apple store where folks can buy, try, ask questions or get tech support on any and all Apple products -- a far cry from the company who, in the mid to late '90's was predicted to be extinct by the 21st century. The moral to that story: re - inventing oneself can work! (Hey, at least it did for ME ... )

Looking north (uptown) along 10th avenue, near the bleachers ... 



These are the bleachers, located behind huge glass walls on the trestles ... one of many places where you can sit and rest or take in the sun ...  


Another view looking up 10th Avenue from the bleachers ...  

Looking south (downtown) along the first stretch of The High Line; a parking lot just off 10th Avenue on the left side, 30 feet below ...


After an early afternoon brunch and a walk along The High Line, I strolled a few blocks even further west, to my gym, The Sports Center on The Chelsea Piers. After exercising and taking in a couple of hours of late afternoon sun on their sun deck, I showered and changed, then walked toward the subway to head home. Realizing the sun was about to set, I decided on one final shot of The High Line from the street perspective ...  


For you fans of nudity and live sex shows, The Standard Hotel which straddles The High Line now offers some free entertainment ...

The Standard Hotel vows to try closing curtains on guests' peep show for High Line visitors
There's nothing standard about letting it all hang out.

Red-faced managers at a swanky Meatpacking District hotel vowed Monday to encourage exhibitionist guests to cover up.

The Standard Hotel, which towers over the newly opened High Line park, features floor-to-ceiling windows - and guests with a penchant for leaving the curtains wide open when they shouldn't.

In recent days, guests have been spotted having sex, toweling off, and pleasuring themselves - all to the viewing wonderment of tourists and New Yorkers strolling the High Line.

"The hotel will make a concerted effort to remind guests of the transparency of the guest room windows," management officials said yesterday in a statement.

But they may have been caught with their pants down: A report said their Facebook page encouraged the stripper shenanigans up until a few days ago.

A spokesman for the hotel would say nothing more about that yesterday.

He insisted, however, that "the hotel has always been sensitive to the concerns of its friends and neighbors."

Folks who heard about the high-flying High Line hijinks flocked to the park yesterday to gawk upward - hoping to catch an eyeful.

Tourist Peter Jennett, 49, of London, was strolling in the park, built on abandoned railroad tracks, keeping a keen eye on the picture windows.

"It would be shocking in London," he said of the purported exhibitionism, "but New York is all about showing off."

Gaspar Libedinsky, one of the High Line park designers, was all for the voyeurism: "It is like an urban catwalk. It is a place to see and be seen."

The Peep Show may be found here

"Shutter Island" Movie Review

This morning, my movie class had a bonus screening of Martin Scorsese's new drama, "Shutter Island", starring Leonardo DiCaprio.


When a U.S. marshal is summoned to a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island's fortress - like hospital for the criminally insane, he suspects there may be horrific scientific experiments being conducted on the unwitting patients there -- and if he doesn't escape the island quickly, he may be next!


Shutter Island is a barren, craggy, kinetosis - inducing ferry ride from Boston Harbor -- and in 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is assigned to investigate the possible disappearance of one of its patients/inmates -- Rachel, who was found guilty of murdering her three children.  With new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Daniels begins looking into the goings on behind this creepy hospital - cum - prison -- unfortunately, the staff, including psychiatrists Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and the spooky Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), prove major obstacles in Daniels' ability to make any progress in the case. 

When high winds and strong rains produce hurricane - like conditions that preclude ferries back to the mainland, the two Marshals find themselves not only temporarily stuck on the island, but even worse, forced to be "guests" of the prison -- at least until weather conditions improve enough for them to leave.  Given the fact that none of the employees are being terribly forthright in their cooperation with the investigation, Daniels' decision to end the investigation and leave seems to make sense -- at least until he begins to have suspicions that this place is not quite everything it seems to be.  The few lucid patients there seem reluctant to talk when questioned, so he quite understandably suspects something's up, especially when they warn him to leave immediately.  Despite being troubled with migraines, nightmares about his late wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) and persistent flashbacks of his traumatic experiences freeing the prisoners at the Nazi Concentration Camp in Dachau while serving in the Army during World War II, he decides to press on until he finally gets to the bottom of things.  

Eventually, Daniels is drawn into believing that his involvement in this case is nothing more than merely a plot by the United States government to turn the tables on him and have him committed to this institution -- possible reasons being due to his investigations on previous cases being potentially damaging to high - ranking members of the government and their special interests.  The added risk here, of course, is that should the government succeed in having Daniels become a patient at the facility, he might be subjected to the same torturous experiments that the current residents are experiencing.  With this threat to his life and career, can Daniels successfully escape Shutter Island with both his life and his sanity intact?


In some ways, this was an unusual screening for my movie class -- for one reason, because this is a movie that has already opened (this weekend, in fact) and for another, because it's something of a thriller, which has been very rarely shown in the decade that I've been a student.  On the other hand, it really does fit right in because it's a Scorsese flick -- in fact, he was supposedly instrumental in facilitating the class' screening because he attended New York University's Film School with our instructor many years ago.  While definitely a very good film and certainly one I'd recommend, be forewarned if you're a Scorsese fan that this is not one of his typical flicks ... at least not on the surface.  But more about that later. 

Performances by this incredibly strong cast are excellent -- including and especially DiCaprio, but special mention has to go to both Kingsley and especially von Sydow for their foreboding presence of evil.  If ever there was a movie review that was ripe for Spoilers, brother, this one would be the mother of them all; there were so many plot twists and turns that you wind up wondering if what you just saw/heard was imagined or real.  Obviously, I'm not about to give away any of them -- particularly the ending, which is a real lulu -- but for the experience of the mind-fuck alone, this one is worth seeing.

One thing that was a little surprising about this screening was the fact that there was something of a sparse turnout -- surprising because it's both a major release AND a Scorsese flick.  My guess as to why this was so is simply due to the fact that the film had already opened on Friday night.  Of those that did attend, an overwhelming majority of the class really liked the movie quite a good deal and understandably so.  I would strongly recommend that you stay through the end credits even if you don't read them -- the reason being that the song that plays over the credits is worth the wait.  It's a haunting tune sung by Dinah Washington and I found its lyrics to strongly resonate the themes from the film -- an excellent choice by Scorsese or whomever it was picked this one.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Champagne Tasting - December 2009

(This review was originally posted on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Dec 19, 2009)

Last weekend, I was treated to a New Year's Eve preview by my favoritest liquor store, Union Square Wines & Spirits, which hosted a tasting of sparkling wines -- mostly champagne. On Saturday afternoon, they served up 14 different bottles of bubbly split up among three different tables -- the first with 8 bottles and the others 3 bottles each. Rather than begin at the beginning, I chose to start at the 3rd table because this was the least crowded and the only one that did not serve sparkling wines from France -- clearly, some folks were snobbing it up by skipping this one. A big mistake, in my opinion. Although I didn't get to try every single bottle that was present, I did make an admirable attempt -- 9 our of 14 ain't too friggin' bad. There were a couple of bottles of "pink champagne" (rosé sparkly), but I only had time for one. There were some very reasonably priced choices and a couple that I thought were disgustingly overpriced -- but as always, let your own tastes be your guide as I can only share with you what I personally liked.

Schramsberg 2006 Brut Sparkling Wine Blanc de Noirs - $30
From California's Napa Valley, I was told this has been the official White House sparkling wine since the Johnson administration -- allegedly, Nixon used this back in the 70's when he & Mao toasted (did that really happen? I honestly don't recall ... ). It has a very fruity aroma and a nice, dry taste you come to expect with a Brut. A reasonably priced sparkling wine, you might be tempted to consider mixing cocktails with it such as a kir royale or bellinis and such, but I'd recommend against that as its taste is so good, you'd only be depriving yourself if you masked its flavor in any way.

R Wines NV Bitch Bubbly - $10 ($5 for half size bottle)
This was the only pink sparkly that I tried; while a bit on the sweet side, it's not so bad that you'll make a face. Interestingly, this one comes out of Australia and uses Grenache grapes; it becomes a rosé from the fact that the grapes are separated from their skins after about five days. Although you might be a bit put off by the fact that this has a cap (like the one you would see on a beer bottle) rather than a cork, the distributor told me that this is not uncommon with even some French sparkling wines; it is usually done with sparkling wines that are intended to be consumed sooner rather than later, like a Prosecco. Before even tasting this stuff, I recently purchased a bottle to bring as something of a gag gift to the hostess of a holiday party -- but with a name like this, you have to be careful you know the intended recipient reasonably well ... otherwise, she may take offense.

Paringa 2008 Sparkling Shiraz - $12
Another Australian sparkling wine, this one is even more unusual in the respect that it's red! According to the distributor, it's very popular in southern Australia and is frequently used instead of traditional champagne. Although you may be inclined to serve this at room temperature as many people do with a red wine, he advises that it always be served chilled, as you would with any sparkling wine. It's easy to be thrown by this one as it both smells and tastes like just about any red wine you've ever had ... except it has bubbles! Also, if you like your sparkling wines to have a light taste, you might not care for this one as it has a heavier, fuller body as you would find in most red wines. I purchased this exactly once about a year and a half ago to try it out -- while fun to try for a different twist, I don't know that I'd ever go back to it again, quite frankly.
Moving backwards to the middle table, I sampled the most expensive champagne available at this tasting -- a vintage Veuve Clicquot, which was also presented with a Moet & Chandon and newer VC.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin NV Champagne Brut - $40
Made from 80% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier grapes, this was hands - down my favorite of the bunch that I tried. With a fresh aroma and extremely light taste, it floats down your tongue as you swallow; to me, this is the way a champagne is supposed to taste. If you can manage to spring for this one, then I would strongly recommend you go for it -- you definitely will not be disappointed. Veuve Clicquot is considered one of the best out there and with product like this, you could certainly understand why. Drinking this, you really do feel like you're celebrating something.

Moet & Chandon NV Champagne Brut Imperial - $42
This one was a little disappointing in the sense that it lacked the effervescence one might expect in a champagne -- especially one of this type. In fact, I would describe this in look and taste as almost like a still wine. The distributor told us that a previous release of this Imperial brand was unsuccessful because it was too sweet; they adjusted their process so there is now a lower sugar content, thus hoping this version will take off. One thing I learned from the distributor is that although champagnes are supposed to improve with age, it is not always necessarily the case that older is better. For example, she suggested that if you had a Moet & Chandon at home, don't store it for more than five years before drinking; by contrast, she said that a Dom Perignon could last as long as 20 years and still be good to drink. However, both assume that you store them properly, always keeping the bottles sideways.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin 2002 Champagne Brut Vintage - $75
This has been classified as a vintage by the "experts" because 2002 was supposed to have been a very good year for the grapes in Reims, France. In order to qualify this as a 2002 vintage release, they have produced this version with 80% of the grapes being from the 2002 crop. It contains the same grape combination as the other Veuve Clicquot from above, but I'm not exactly sure if the grape concentrations are the same. It has an extremely light taste but is very low in bubbles. This was the most expensive bottle at the tasting (next most expensive was Pehu-Simonet NV Champagne Brut Rose Grand Cru at $70, but I didn't get a chance to try that one); that said, I have to admit that the Veuve Clicquot that I had tasted first seemed far superior to this one and is nearly half the price.
Finally, I swung around to the first table, which remained absolutely packed -- with a total of 8 bottles on the table, I lacked both the time and the patience to brave the crowd for each one, so I only sampled the first three before skulking off into the rapidly disappearing late afternoon sun.

Marc Hebrart NV Champagne Brut Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs - $50
Unusual in that is the only one I tasted that was made entirely from Chardonnay grapes only. When originally poured, it was extremely bubbly, but eventually seemed to flatten out quite a bit once it settled in the glass. While it didn't taste bad, I found it a little too ordinary compared to the others I tried on that day to be able to give it any kind of a recommendation -- perhaps because it was made of only a single grape, it lacked the complexity and flavor of some of the others. If the thought of a champagne that is made from only a single type of grape appeals to you, then maybe this one might be worth a try.

Egly Ouriet NV Champagne Brut Grand Cru Tradition - $60
This next one was a two - grape combo -- half Chardonnay, half Pinot Noir. Once poured, its bubbles clung to the top, none ever floating up from the bottom. From a taste perspective, I found this to be the worst of the group I had -- it seemed to have an extremely bitter taste to it for some reason. Was it the bottle or my palate? At this point, I wasn't sure -- but I did know that I couldn't recall a wine of any kind tasting quite that bad ... and given the price, it was pretty damned appalling, too.
Henri Goutorbe NV Champagne Brut Premier Cru Cuvee Presige - $45

The last one I tasted was made of 75% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier and only 5% Chardonnay. Since the table was very crowded as I stated earlier and there was only one representative from the distributor, it was a little difficult to get very much information about each of the bottles, especially this one. It would've been really helpful if they had brought along some marketing materials as many of the other distributors and manufacturers do at these tastings, but such was not the case on this day, unfortunately. After the first two from this table, it was refreshing to sip something that was a little more complex, due to the addition of the third grape in the mix. While not entirely out of line with most of the French product that was represented at this tasting, however, I don't know that it's necessarily worth the price being asked.

I'm neither an expert nor a connoisseur when it comes to wine -- either sparkling or still, for that matter -- so please feel free to challenge any of the opinions I had for the bubblies above should you decide to give 'em a shot. In the end, I can only tell you what my meager, unsophisticated taste buds appreciated and which ones were forgettable. Just in case you are curious and would like to try the others that I didn't have the opportunity to sample, here's the list of what remained that day:
  • Vilmart & Cie NV Champagne Brut Premier Cru Grande Reserve - $50
  • Pehu - Simonet NV Champagne Brut Grand Cru Selection $50
  • Pierre Gimonnet & Files 2002 Champagne Brut Premier Cru Paradox - $65
  • Henri Goutorbe NV Champagne Brut Rosé Grand Cru - $60
  • Pehu - Simonet NV Champagne Brut Rosé Grand Cru - $70