Friday, March 26, 2010

"Shameless" - Movie Review

On Wednesday, March 24, 2010, my movie class showed "Shameless", a romantic comedy from Czechoslovakia. 


When a married couple divorce after seven years of marriage, will they ever be able to find love again after years of being out of the dating pool?


Oskar, a TV weatherman, has grown so tired of Zuzuna, his wife of seven years, that he has begun a clandestine affair with their young, pretty au pair, who cares for their son, JakubOskar finds her youthful exuberance and sexual kinkiness (she indulges his golden shower fantasies) just as exciting as he finds Zuzuna's super-sized proboscis unappealing.  When she learns of his infidelities, however, she expels him from their home.  Shortly after moving into a tiny, spare studio apartment, he learns that he has lost his lucrative job and is forced to take employment in a lesser paying field. 

Zuzuna, suddenly forced to raise Jakub alone while working as a host of a local radio program, struggles with feelings about her unappealing looks, until she meets a man while taking her son to a nearby playground.  Spending an increasing amount of time together, she is delighted to learn that he finds her genuinely attractive and they develop a genuine fondness for each other.  Meanwhile, Oskar finds that it's increasingly difficult to put up with the au pair's immaturity in exchange for their brief sexual encounters.  At this point, he meets Nora, a singer of great renown, who is his senior by a quarter of a century.  Leaping into bed almost immediately, they enjoy a romance that seems to ignore their vast age difference.  It is only when the paparazzi start reporting on their love affair in a derisive way that Nora becomes embarrassed by it and with the death of her ex-husband, she uses the opportunity to finally break up with Oskar.

By now, Oskar is trying to make ends meet by hiring himself out as something of a designated driver to people who need a lift after partying the night away at a bar.  One such assignment finds him meeting his client at a brothel, where he discovers that he knows one of the young girls who works there -- a former student of his back in the day when he was a high school teacher.  As he and Zuzuna spend more time apart, each grows more envious of the other's perceived advantage.


Every so often in my movie class, there comes along a foreign film that you find to be an obscure little gem that you feel lucky to have discovered.  Unfortunately, "Shameless" is no such movie.  Based on a book of the same name, it is rather meandering and its end does not give you a feeling that anything in the story has been resolved; you get a sense that the scenes in this movie were arranged rather randomly and an arbitrary reordering of their sequence would have had no noticeable effect.  This isn't particularly hard to imagine when you keep in mind that the book on which it was based was itself not a novel, but rather, a collection of short stories.

From a technical standpoint, the movie was a challenge to watch because of the fact that the subtitles were difficult to read; they were in white and did not have any kind of a shadowed outline to them, so when they were up against a whitish background, you wound up losing much of the dialog -- rather frustrating, to say the least, as parts of this movie did appear to be funny.  Also lost on the American audience is a lot of inside jokes and cameo appearances by a number of Czechoslovakian celebrities. 

The post - screening interview was with the movie's director, who had to speak through a translator.  He acknowledged that film-making in his country was an extremely different experience than in the United States because it is not as big a business.  For example, in his home land, directors general get final cut on their movies; by contrast, United States directors rarely get that privilege, unless they have shown by their track record that they have earned it.  Try as I might to find a film clip that contained English subtitles, I was unsuccessful; so, despite the fact that you'll have to speak Czech in order to understand it, I'll include the trailer anyway.  

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Falling For Grace" - Movie Review

On Wednesday night, March 17, 2010, the Spring Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the romantic comedy Falling For Grace


When a young Chinese American woman is mistaken for a noted socialite at a party, she winds up falling in love with a man she met at the function -- but will she be able to keep him once he learns the truth?


Born and raised in the Chinatown section of New York City, Grace is an intelligent and attractive young woman, ambitiously looking to make a successful career for herself in the world of finance. Although she wouldn't mind finding a little romance to enter her life, thus far, no one she's met has appealed to her -- that is, until she gets the opportunity to attend a high society party, where a number of the attendees mistake her for another Chinese American socialite of the same name. To complicate matters, she is then introduced to Andrew, who now is also under the impression that she's this socialite as well.

Andrew, as it turns out, is a lawyer for the New York State Attorney General's Office and is about to bust a major clothing designer for running a sweatshop in the Chinatown section of Manhattan where Chinese immigrants are employed as cheap labor to manufacture her clothing. Upon learning of this, Grace sees this as a problem because of the fact that her mother is one of the employees and she is worried that if the shop gets shut down, then her mother will not only lose her income, but also, lose her connection with other Chinese speaking members of her community.

Accidentally running into Grace's brother, Andrew learns that she is not who he thought she was. When Andrew confronts Grace about what he's just learned, she finally admits the truth. Feeling ashamed and embarrassed about being deceived, Andrew breaks up with Grace and continues on with his efforts to expose the sweatshop -- but will Grace be able to earn his trust sufficiently to win him back while not having her mother's livelihood threatened?


What's the best thing about this movie? It's very cute. What's the worst thing about this movie? It's very cute. Oppressively cute. As a matter of fact, it almost collapses under the weight of its own cuteness, that's how cute it is. Having said that, however, it's a pretty good effort for someone who is a first time fimmaker. While this might be the kind of movie that could make you cringe -- especially if you're a real He-Man like me -- your lady might just enjoy it for its gentle humor, warmth, romance and generally upbeat tone.

The main thing to keep in mind here is the fact that you'll need to rent a crane the likes of which they use to construct skyscrapers just to suspend your disbelief with some scenes -- there are too many coincidences to be able to take the story seriously, but you may just find the idea and the characters likeable enough that none of it will matter. One other thing about this movie that I thought was interesting was the fact that while most of the actors in the major roles are unknowns, there are plenty of famous names and faces in smaller roles or cameos that will get your attention; you'll be able to find them if you scroll through the cast list on IMDB, but I'll tell you right now that not all of them are credited.

The post - screening interview included the movie's writer/director/star, Fay Ann Lee, who played Grace; Gale Harold, who played her boyfriend, Andrew; and Clem Cheung who played Grace's father. Fay Ann discussed her background, where she graduated from Wharton with a degree in Finance and was offered a job by several Wall Street firms after graduation -- eventually, she turned them all down because what she really wanted to do was to become an actress. In New York, she got a job performing in the musical "Miss Saigon" on Broadway, then did regional theater before getting TV roles on various soap operas and "Law & Order" episodes. She started writing the script about a decade ago and then gradually began raising money to fund the filming; after appearing at several film festivals, she eventually found a distributor and the movie will open this weekend.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

VINCERE (Win) - Movie Review

On Sunday morning, March 14, 2010, my movie class held its final bonus screening prior to the beginning of the Spring semester, showing the Italian historical drama, Vincere.


After falling in love with a young Benito Mussolini, a woman is cast aside once he comes into power -- but when she insists on being recognized as his wife, her life is endangered.


In the years leading up to World War I, Ida Dalser met a young man named Benito Mussolini -- a devout socialist and newspaper editor.  Having more of a reputation as a troublemaker at the time, he questioned many of the ideologies behind socialism and eventually, was expelled from the party for his views.  A charismatic and persuasive speaker, Ida fell in love with him and eventually bore his son.  

After the war, Mussolini gains higher recognition and with this greater visibility, cannot afford to be associated with a woman in what might be perceived as an illicit affair.  When he comes into power, he renounces Ida and their son, recognizing only one woman as his legal wife.  Coldly being cast aside, she and the boy live in poverty.  Seeking revenge and admission of the truth, she sets out to try to announce to all of Italy that she and Mussolini are husband and wife and that their union has produced his first male heir.  The Italian leader counters this threat by banishing her to live with her sister and her husband, who are all closely watched by the government.  

While admirable in one sense, her persistence eventually becomes something of an intolerable nuisance to Mussolini, who decides to have her committed for being mentally insane; her son becomes a ward of the government and is eventually adopted by someone within the regime.  Unable to prove her relationship with Mussolini, she eventually dies a broken woman and her son, also institutionalized, passes away at an asylum at the age of only 26. 


Can fascism be fun?  Well, it certainly started out seeming that way for poor Ida, but quickly turned rather bitter over the years.  While some believed her tale -- and were even envious of her for once having enjoyed such a powerful man as her lover -- she could never get Mussolini's acknowledgment, and therein lies the tragedy of this story.

The main problem I had with this movie was in the heavily stylized way in which the director chose to tell the story.  In the beginning, flashbacks and flash-forwards are used with alarming, almost jarring regularity and it made parts of the story a little hard to follow.  Also, perhaps because it is Italian, it had strong operatic overtones to it, which I thought were a heavy-handed touch.  Add to that the fact that there were a number of events and people that went unexplained, and you're left scratching your head after some scenes.  

Unless you are a major history buff, I would not recommend this movie.  While I can imagine it being somewhat popular in Italy -- where its director is supposed to be acclaimed -- I can't see American audiences taking to this film, especially given the way in which it is depicted.  Perhaps in other, more objective hands, this tale would've been told better -- but who other than an Italian would care to tell it?

Vincere ( Vaincre ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Italy ]

Sunday, March 14, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Preview

Irish Whiskey Makes Me Frisky 3" Button Pin

On Saturday afternoon, March 12, 2010, Union Square Wines & Spirits held its annual St. Patrick's Day tasting of various Irish Whiskeys.  There were a total of 18 Irish Whiskeys represented -- try as I might to sample all of them, I could only do ten, just barely more than half.  Many of these -- if not most -- should be quite familiar to you all ... but there's at least one interesting surprise in the mix this year ... 

First up was Greenore Single Grain.  With an age of 8 years, this one has a sweet, floral nose to it and a very mild taste.  Like many of the Irish Whiskeys, it is aged in a cask from the United States -- formerly used for Bourbon.  Its smooth, gentle taste was deceptive -- if you didn't know better, you'd swear that it was aged much longer than just 8 years. They also had a 15 year version and I was tempted to try that one after the pleasant experience of this, but I couldn't manage to get through the line for it, so I moved on.

Second was Kilbeggan, a blend.  If you are a fan of Jameson, this one is very close.    At $25, it's very reasonably priced and a good choice for a mixing Irish Whiskey -- for example, if you're going to make an Irish Coffee.  As a sipping whiskey, I couldn't really recommend it, however.  

Next was my go-to Irish Whiskey.  Being a Scotch drinker, I love Connemara for its peated, smokey flavor.  A single malt, there were three kinds from which to choose.  Already familiar with the least expensive one (I have a bottle at home right now), I opted instead for the Cask Strength, which, at $70, is slightly more expensive.  This differs in that it has a higher alcohol content than its less expensive brother -- this one is 120 proof, as opposed to 80 proof.  One guy who tried it put it best, I thought -- he said that it was like drinking a fireplace!

Their high end brand is one that is aged 12 years.  If you are also a Scotch enthusiast, you might just appreciate this one as they describe it as "Ireland meets Islay" -- and with a catchphrase like that, I think you know what to expect from its taste.  The aging gives it a smoother, softer, more subtle taste than the Cask Strength -- however, there's of course a price to be paid for this at $110 per bottle.

Perhaps the best find and most pleasant surprise at this tasting was something called Coole Swan Superior Dairy Cream Liqueur out of Dublin.  If you are looking for a Bailey's alternative, I highly recommend Coole Swan.  They served it on its own and in a cocktail called Coole Mint -- 2 parts Coole Swan, one part peppermint schnapps.  Although I found the cocktail a little too sweet for my taste, the cream liqueur on its own was superb.  At 32 proof, Coole Swan contains double the cream compared to something like Bailey's; you can safely keep this non - pasteurized liqueur refrigerated for as long as a year.

Jameson's would be unforgivable to skip in an Irish Whiskey tasting, so I tried a few next.  Passing on the blended version, I started with its high - end Limited Reserve and worked my way backwards.  Aged for 18 years, it's stored in two different types of barrels:  for the first three years, it's kept in a Bourbon barrel, then for the remaining 15 years, it's switched to a sherry cask.  This is the secret and it adds a definite sweetness to the taste -- it's more expensive, but it's certainly worth the extra dollars.

At $80, I thought the Gold Reserve was actually the best of the Jameson lot.  Aged anywhere from 15 - 25 years, it spends a quarter of its time in Bourbon barrels and the rest of the time in sherry casks.  Lastly, there was the Special Reserve, aged 12 years.  It spends three quarters of its time aging in Bourbon barrels and the rest of the time in sherry casks.  While good, you can certainly taste a difference compared to the more expensive bottles.

Finally, I wrapped up with a pair of Michael Collins, starting with a blend, then finishing with a single malt.  Dedicated to the Irish troublemaker, hero and rabble rouser, this 80 proof blend, like the others, is stored in Bourbon barrels for anywhere from four to eight years.  Seeing this trend, I asked the representative about this; he said this was common with Irish Whiskeys because it's simply more cost effective -- there are so many Bourbon barrels out there that they are constantly being recycled.  Winding up, the single malt is aged for 12 years.  Made from peated barley, it's got a heavier, smokier note to it, which certainly worked well for me.  

As I said earlier, Connemara is my favorite and thus the one I would most strongly recommend -- however, the Coole Swan was excellent and I suggest you give it a try should you see it available in your favorite liquor store.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

"City Island" - Movie Review

This morning, my movie class had a bonus screening of the comedy "City Island", starring Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies and Alan Arkin


When a family's secrets become revealed to each other, will it still be possible for all of them to remain together as a unit?


For the residents of City Island, a small tract of land off of The Bronx in New York City, there are only two types of people in the world:  The Mussel Suckers and The Clam Diggers.  In this tiny fishing community that almost lives in a vacuum from the rest of New York City, these terms are very meaningful:  The Mussel Suckers are those who once lived elsewhere and eventually moved to City Island, while The Clam Diggers are those who have lived on City Island their entire lives -- maybe even occupying the same house their parents once owned a generation ago. 

One such Clam Digger is Vince Rizzo (Garcia) and his family.  A  blue collar working - class hero, Vince is employed as a prison guard somewhere in Westchester County while his wife Joyce (Margulies) earns a second income as a secretary at a law firm.  Together, they support their family, which includes a teenage son who has a sexual fetish for fat chicks and a college - age daughter attending school on a scholarship.  On the surface, everything seems peachy - keen -- until, of course, you dig a bit deeper.  There's no one in this family who isn't keeping some form of a secret from the others:  Vince has an illegitimate son from his girlfriend before his wife; Joyce is considering having an affair of her own when she suspects her husband of cheating; their son may be having his own affair with an obese neighborhood woman who runs a Web site that caters to his sexual proclivities; and their daughter is being forced to work as a stripper because she's lost her college scholarship.  Altogether, your average, wholesome, lower - middle - class family ... which only gets even more complicated once Vince runs into Tony, his illegitimate son, who is now an inmate at the prison where Vince works -- out of guilt, he brings Tony home to meet his family, but fails to divulge to him (or anyone else), their biological connection. 

Another one of Vince's secrets is the fact that he's taking acting lessons (taught by Arkin) -- he tells Joyce that he's out playing poker some nights after work when he's really attending class.  All of this while, Joyce suspects that her husband may be having an affair on the side, so out of revenge, she decides to offer herself up to Tony, who's now employed by Vince as a handyman at their house while he waits out his release from prison.  Meanwhile, Vince manages to score a callback after auditioning for a small role in a major motion picture, but Joyce in some way decides to spin this into a belief that he will be leaving her for the mistress she thinks he's been seeing on the nights of his alleged poker games.  Can Vince ultimately prove his faithfulness to his wife and somehow manage to hold the family together?


In the past few days leading up to this screening, the class was given to believe that this movie was a comedy of the likes of the original "In-Laws", starring Arkin & Peter Falk.  While the majority of the class seemed to be on - board with this comparison, I have to tell you that in all honesty I did not find this movie to be particularly funny. As a result, I can't honestly recommend it -- but based on the class reaction, it may just be to your particular taste.

Essentially, it appeared that it consisted of quirky characters plopped into outrageous circumstances and forced to deal with the fallout -- basically, a Greek tragedy turned on its ear and interwoven with something of a farce.  That's fine, but for me, at least, if you're not going to provide gags along the way, I'm going to find it rather difficult to experience this as a comedy.  Really, it seems more of a drama that's populated with people and events that are equally ridiculous.  Depending on your own sensibilities, you may very well side with the majority of the students in my movie class and see this as a straight - out comedy; for me, however, I was left scratching my head wondering what everyone else found so damned funny. 
Post - screening, the instructor conducted an interview with the movie's writer - director, Raymond De Felitta , who shared some interesting stories about the making of the movie.  First off, it had a budget of only about $6 million.  Second, it took him a long time to get this movie made -- he wrote it in 2001 and didn't get funding for it until a couple of years ago when Andy Garcia agreed to star and co - produce with him.  Lastly, the role of Garcia's wife was not cast until a couple of weeks before shooting; the director originally wanted Marcia Gay Harden, but when she had to drop out, he met with Margulies.  She asked him when the movie was expected to start shooting and he replied that it was going to be in about 10 days; when she realized that he was asking her to appear in the movie mostly out of his own desperation, she decided to agree to take the role.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Green Zone

This morning my movie class had a bonus screening of the action - thriller "Green Zone", starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear.


When an officer in the U.S. Army leads a team of inspectors to find Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, they stumble upon a massive cover - up implicating upper levels of the United States Government -- but will he be able to live long enough to reveal the truth?


In the Spring of 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is now taking his Inspectors on their third mission to uncover Saddam Hussein's dreaded Weapons of Mass Destruction -- and for the third straight time, they come up completely empty.  Putting both himself and his men in danger each time, he begins to question the accuracy of the intelligence reports that have been distributed to the troops and so informs his superiors ... only to be shouted down.  It is then that a CIA Agent who is an expert in Iraq intervenes and offers to help Miller in finding out just exactly how and why he and his men are constantly being sent on a wild goose chase with every mission. 

It is at this point when he is confronted by Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who has published many articles about a mysterious character -- code named "Magellan" -- considered a reliable Iraqi informant by the upper levels of The Pentagon.  She questions Miller about his involvement with the CIA and his interest in and knowledge of "Magellan", but he's not talking about his CIA connection any more than she's revealing her journalistic sources.  Meanwhile, Dayne concurrently pursues Pentagon Official Clark Poundstone (Kinnear), who seems to know all about this Magellan character -- she requests a meeting with this alleged informant, but he agrees only on the condition of anonymity.  While on another mission, Miller finds himself hot on the heels of Iraqi General Al-Rawi, The Jack of Clubs in the infamous High Value Target deck of cards.  Upon informing his CIA contact that he has information about Al-Rawi's whereabouts, he is ordered to find and capture Al-Rawi in order to bring him in to the CIA so that they can get to the bottom of things. 

Eventually, it becomes abundantly obvious to Miller that The United States Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency are at cross purposes -- the CIA looking to uncover the truth and the Pentagon being their obstacle to that end.  Nevertheless, Miller's patriotism forces him to find out just what exactly he is fighting for, if anything, so he sets out to find Al-Rawi and bring him in for questioning.  Upon reaching The General's Safe House, Al-Rawi's Security Team captures Miller, who is then interrogated by General Al-Rawi -- could The Good General turn out to be Magellan himself?  And if he is, who lied about the Weapons of Mass Destruction -- Al-Rawi or The Pentagon?  But regardless of whether or not Miller learns the answer, will he be able to escape with his life to reveal the truth to the world?


How you'll receive this movie is going to be based largely on what your political philosophy and predilections are -- and how tightly you cling to them.  Clearly, the director (Paul Greengrass, who directed "United 93" and directed Damon on both "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") was trying to tell a story about what was behind the United States' involvement in Iraq -- or, at least, his opinion of it, at any rate.  While many of the events may be based on fact, most of the characters are purely fictional.  Is this a propaganda movie?  Well, the answer is just too subjective because it will be based on your own personal beliefs and loyalties. 

Perhaps a better, more appropriate question is whether or not the movie works as an action thriller.  I think it does, but to the extent that you believe that will depend, I would suspect, on to what degree you first buy into its premise.  If you're completely turned off to the possibility that there was a government conspiracy about the United States occupation of Iraq and in denial about the concept that there might be any internecine battles between factions of the U.S. government, then I seriously doubt that you'd be open to enjoying the pure movie going experience that this film offers.  With jerky camera movement and quick-cut editing, it certainly creates the verisimilitude of the chaos of war. 

As a movie -- if you can divorce yourself of your own perspective should it differ from that of the film -- I found that it definitely works as an action - thriller.  That said, however, knowing something of how things end, the experience of watching it can be somewhat depressing or, at the very least, rather discomforting.  Over the past few years, many of the movies that have been made about the Iraq war have not done terribly well from a commercial standpoint.  Maybe that's because they weren't very good movies to begin with.  Or maybe it's because people are just too uncomfortable with watching stories on this particular hot - button topic -- perhaps they just prefer escapist entertainment and that's why they stayed away in droves.  But with Matt Damon starring in this one, "Green Zone" might just have a chance at being one of the few that winds up being a hit at the box office.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"No Reservations" by Anthony Bourdain


At the outset of this book, Bourdain swears up and down that it's not a companion piece for his Travel Channel TV show by the same name.


Don't believe a word of it.

It is precisely that.

"No Reservations" (the book) is a worthwhile coffee table tome for fans of "No Reservations" (the TV show).

As a stand alone work, however, I suspect non - fans would not only be disappointed, but also likely left to be scratching their head.

The book contains many excellent photographs from the author's travels to various countries for episodes of his TV show -- including areas from Asia, Africa, Europe and The Americas. The very limited narrative provided for each chapter, however, is unusually narrow in its insight and void of the snarky, biting wit for which the host/author is known.

Perhaps the best part of the book comes toward the end -- including Food Porn (photos of great looking dishes he's been served in his travels), best and worst bathrooms around the world (with supporting photographs, to be sure) and recommendations for traveling the world to sample foods as he does.

If you are not already a big fan of the show, then you will likely find this book useless. On the other hand, if you are a HUGE fan of the show (as I am), then chances are that you will find this to be a very enriching experience that complements the TV episodes.