Monday, May 24, 2010

The Single Malt Extravaganza!


On Thursday, May 20, 2010, I attended The Single Malt Scotch Whisky Extravaganza for the Spring of 2010 hosted by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America

Honestly, I don't recall how I first heard of this tasting – maybe it was from an advertisement in one of the whisky magazines I read.  In any event, I figured that it would be the perfect event for me because: 

  • I like whisky
  • I like whisky tastings
  • The timing was right
  • The event was held right across the street from where my office is currently located
  • The price – although not cheap – was reasonable enough for me to afford

All of these above considered, attending was a no – brainer. 

During registration, we were handed booklets containing a menu of the evening's tastings; each page had a short blurb about the bottles brought from the various manufacturer, plus a small space to write your own notes about the nose, the taste, the finish, etc. Additionally, each attendee was given their own nosing glass and a small plastic clip for the glass – the idea behind the clip was to act has a holder for the glass; the clip would then be attached to your plate so you didn't lose your glass (they weren't handing out replacements if you lost yours). As if all of this wasn't already good enough, we were also given a discount coupon to St. Andrews, a well – known Scottish – themed restaurant in midtown Manhattan, famous for its wide variety of Scotch as well as its haggis.

After Registration, we went into the hotel's ballroom, which was set up for a buffet – style dinner; obviously, the idea here is to feed everyone before the tasting so that folks won't get too tipsy after having all of the whiskies available. The dinner included roast beef, turkey, rice, pasta and steamed vegetables. They also had bottles of water available near the buffet section, which many people used on the whiskies they sampled throughout the evening. There was always plenty of food around – as soon as a tray got close to being empty, a waiter would replace it with another tray. The food was reasonably good – always hot, filling you up for an evening full of drinking.

At the tasting, I tried a few variations on some old friends but of course, welcomed some new friends as well, sampling whiskies from America, Canada, Scotland and Japan.  Ireland was also represented in the form of Bushmill's; somehow, I managed to miss the Crown Royal table – how that happened, I can't tell you.  I can only blame it on my lack of organizational skills once overwhelmed with so many new and outstanding choices.  That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Among the variations on old friends were Laphroaig, Bowmore and Chivas Regal.  The new friends included a Japanese whisky – Suntory's Yamazaki 12 year old – something called Big Peat by Douglas Laing, and Jefferson's Bourbon. 

Perhaps the most surprising was the differences between Chivas 18, 21 and 25 year olds.  The 25 was without a doubt, the smoothest of the three while the 21 was unusually sweet, making it a real stand-out in a comparison tasting between the three.  For me, the sweetness of the 21 ruled it out as a quality Scotch.  It's an almost pointless distinction for all practical purposes, however, because neither the 21 nor the 25 would be affordable for me; in fact, the 18 would be stretching the budget a bit (but would certainly be well worth it).  The 25 is the newest of the group and was one that the Chivas representative was pushing the most. 

The recent tasting in New York City seems to have been the final one for the spring; I don't know if they will hold another tasting during the summer, but if they do, I strongly encourage all whisky fans to attend – otherwise, keep an eye out for other tastings that might be in your area during the autumn.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

“Ondine” – Movie Review

This morning, my movie class held its final bonus screening of the Spring Semester, showing Neil Jordan’s new drama, Ondine, starring Colin Farrell and Stephen Rea. 


When a fisherman saves the life of a beautiful young woman he accidentally nets in his daily catch, he begins to think she is a mermaid with magical powers after she brings him good luck – but once he learns of her more sinister past, everyone’s life is endangered.


Syracuse (Farrell) is a poor, lonely fisherman who lives in a small village on the coast of Ireland.  A recovering alcoholic divorced from his alcoholic wife who’s nowhere near interested in her own recovery, he is permitted occasional visits to their daughter Annie, taking the girl to her regular dialysis treatments due to her kidney failure.  One gloomy morning when taking his trawler out for his daily routine, his net contains a catch the likes of which he’s never seen before – a beautiful young woman who seems just barely alive.  Although she declines medical attention, Syracuse is somehow able to resuscitate her; appearing dazed and amnesiac – she can’t remember how she wound up in the water, much less her own name – he brings her back to his modest home to feed and clothe her.  Unable to remember her own name, she decides that he can simply call her Ondine. 

Not wanting to leave her alone during her recovery period, Syracuse has Ondine accompany him on his regular trips to the sea where he begins to notice something rather peculiar – once she begins singing a haunting melody in a language he’s never before heard, he starts catching many more fish.  It’s not merely the quantity that’s unique, but also, the quality and type of fish that’s highly unusual for him – or, for that matter, most other fishermen in that region.  All the while these episodes occur, he has enchanted Annie with wondrous tales of his adventures with this strange woman.  This makes the girl curious, so she sets off to do her own research and informs her father that Ondine is a mystical type of mermaid called a Selkie and she then proceeds to educate herself and her father on the legend surrounding such creatures.  Befriending Ondine, Annie informs her that she’s aware of her secret and is most knowledgeable of Selkie traditions and history – enjoying Annie’s company, Ondine does nothing to dissuade her of these beliefs. 

Eventually, their magical bubble is burst when an ominous stranger suddenly appears in town; he winds up confronting Syracuse about Ondine, but he coldly brushes off the stranger.  After a while, Ondine becomes aware of the stranger’s presence and the fact that he is searching for her.  Fearful that this might cause unwanted trouble for both Syracuse and Ondine, she runs away, but is eventually found by Syracuse, who convinces her to return.  Once she does so, however, she reveals to him her dark history and how she managed to wind up in his fishing net.  Undeterred by her story, he pledges to keep her safe until one night when the stranger shows up at his house to retrieve something from Ondine which he insists belongs to him – but when he threatens everyone’s life if he doesn’t get what he wants, will Ondine surrender the item, even if it may endanger her in the process?


What can I tell you to convince you to see this movie as soon as you possibly can?  As someone who has enjoyed a number of Neil Jordan’s movies, it is my sincerest hope that Ondine will be regarded as one of his best films – although it’s almost certainly destined for commercial failure.  Should I instead stress the performances?  Well, although you might be drawn to the movie by names such as Stephen Rea and Colin Farrell, the truth of the matter is that Rea’s role is a small one (a priest who is Farrell’s friend and confidant) and that Farrell’s performance is not the one that shines most brightly; in fact, the best performances are by the female cast members, Alicja Bachleda as the eponymous Ondine and Alison Barry as Farrell’s daughter Annie (who may have been given both the best and funniest dialog in the entire movie).  Perhaps all of the above are sufficient to justify seeing Ondine, I suppose, but most significant of all it is the story itself.  When we go to a movie, we are implicitly stating to the filmmakers, “Tell me a story and make it well-told”; to that extent, Ondine delivers in spades. 

Whichever reason you decide to use to make your choice, do make sure you see this one; I highly recommend it because it is a captivating and ultimately very satisfying tale with the visual look and feel of a fable, but with a gritty reality thrown in towards the end to put you back on your feet after you’ve been swept up in a world of fantasy for over an hour and a half.  This is likely a movie that will not have much of an advertising budget for its promotion and as such, will fall below the radar of most people; that and the fact that it is something of a difficult movie to market (especially to an American audience) and you have something that’s probably bound to wind up on DVD or cable fairly soon.  Regardless, however you do manage to see it, it’s one that will most definitely be worth your time and money. 

After the screening, it turned out that the film was enjoyed by an overwhelming majority of the class – including and especially myself.  Just as there is a secret in Jordan’s The Crying Game, there is a similar one here – the only difference being that in The Crying Game, you learn the secret rather early on, whereas with Ondine, it is not learned until very late in the story.  If you are someone who likes a “Once Upon A Time” kind of story with a “happily ever after” kind of ending, then Ondine will almost certainly be your movie.







Thursday, May 13, 2010

“Solitary Man” – Movie Review

Last night was the final session for the Spring Semester of my movie class and we saw the drama Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito and Mary-Louise Parker.

After a scandal ruins his successful business, the owner of a chain of car dealerships watches helplessly as both his personal and professional life collapse around him -- but when he's given opportunities to get back on his feet, will his past self – destructive behavior prove to be too much of an obstacle for him to overcome?

Life is good if you're Ben Kalmen (Douglas) – or, at least, it used to be, up until almost seven years ago. As the wealthy owner of a chain of car dealerships in New York and New Jersey, this successful businessman was leading a pretty sweet life until a business scandal caused him to lose all of his dealerships. At around the same time, his long-time marriage to his wife Nancy (Sarandon) ended in divorce when she discovered he'd been cheating on her. Now down on his luck, his girlfriend Jordan (Parker) asks him for a favor – since she's come down with a cold, Jordan can't take her daughter to a college interview, so she requests Ben take her instead. To sweeten the deal, she offers the assistance of her rich, influential father to help Ben get a new car dealership to revive his career. With this as an incentive, Ben relents and takes Jordan's daughter for her interview.
During the trip, Ben succumbs to his baser instincts and winds up seducing Jordan's daughter. Upon returning home, the daughter reveals their liaison to her mother, who promptly dumps Ben and sabotages his chances at getting the new car dealership. Finding himself increasingly short on cash to pay his rent, he seeks out financial assistance from his daughter, who reluctantly turns over some money she'd gotten from her mother as a birthday gift. Unable to get a new dealership, Ben tries to get a job at existing dealerships. By now, however, his reputation precedes him, thus preventing him from gaining employment. Getting desperate, he seeks out Jimmy (DeVito), an old college pal who inherited his father's diner; feeling sorry for the former friend he hasn't heard from in over 30 years, Jimmy gives him a job working in the diner. This seems to be working out reasonably well for a while until Ben runs into Jordan's daughter at the diner; it turns out that she's now attending the nearby college where Ben took her to interview when he was still with her mother. When she tells her mother of Ben's whereabouts, Jordan calls Ben and orders him to stay clear of her daughter; after he ignores her request to leave, she hires a thug to beat up Ben and threaten him if he doesn't get lost immediately.
Soon realizing that he cannot afford his apartment any longer, Ben is finally forced to move into a much less luxurious space, where even there, he encounters difficulty making the rent in a timely fashion. After time and again trying to seduce younger women (and occasionally succeeding), he finally begins to see the error in his ways when he becomes confronted by people who have been hurt by his various dalliances, causing irreparable damage to various personal, familial and professional relationships. But when he ultimately gets one final chance at straightening out his life once and for all, will he take it or will his constantly self – destructive behavior force him permanently down the path to ruin?


"Solitary Man" contains excellent performances all around, including and especially by Douglas, who comes off so convincingly as the slick, smarmy, smooth-talker with a sexual addiction that proves to be his downfall on more than one occasion. As the wife, Sarandon is warm, considerate, understanding and above all sexy – begging the question why Douglas' character would leave her in the first place (but also pointing out how seriously flipped – out he is). DeVito comes off as a genuinely caring mensch and his character is given perhaps the best speech in the entire movie. If there are any reservations I had about the movie, it would be that some of the exposition is delivered in a way that's a bit too on-the-nose; somewhat surprising, given the many successful movies this screenwriting team has developed over the years.
Although I would definitely give this movie a strong recommendation, it is with an equally strong caveat attached. At its heart, I suppose you could say that this movie is ultimately about redemption – albeit a half – hearted and uncertain one, with an ambiguous ending that requires the viewer to draw one's own conclusion about how the character of Ben eventually turns out. Douglas' character is mostly an unsympathetic and unlikeable scumbag – not necessarily good qualities for your protagonist, but it nevertheless makes him both compelling and fascinating as you stand by and watch the guy enact a meltdown of immense proportions. As a result, such a character can turn off quite a few folks as this "hero" isn't particularly "heroic" in most of the film. I loved Scorsese's "Raging Bull" for many of the same reasons I enjoyed this movie; there are many similarities between Jake LaMotta and Ben in terms of their self – destructive nature. However, as great as "Raging Bull" was, I do know people who either chose not to see it or did see it, but disliked it; in either case, their reason was the same – they didn't care for the idea of watching a movie where the main character was so despicable that they weren't able to root for him. Despite all of the positive comments I made about this flick, you may want to keep that in mind if you're considering seeing "Solitary Man". Although this has a handful of name stars in its cast, this is a small, independent movie and as such may not wind up getting much in the way of advertisement or a wide distribution; so, if it doesn't find its way to a movie theater in your area, then definitely keep an eye out for it either on cable TV or as a DVD rental/download.
After the screening, there was an interview with the screenwriters, Brian Koppelman & David Levien, who (unusually) also collaborated on directing the movie as well. These guys have quite an impressive track record – they've written screenplays for "Rounders" (which I did not see, but about which I've heard many good things), "Knockaround Guys" (which I did see and think it's a fun movie – another one I'll recommend, if you've never had the chance) and one of their bigger hits, "Oceans 13". After one screening, they said someone commented about Douglas' character, "This guy is so bad that he makes Gordon Gekko look like Mahatma Gandhi!". In working with Douglas on the movie, one of the writers said that Douglas told them he was able to play the character of Ben because he was able to find something likeable about him – he figured that because of the good people he had surrounded himself with (his ex-wife, his daughter, his friend Jimmy), Ben himself also must have been a good person at some point in his life, too, but somehow success got him all turned around in the wrong direction. The writers also spoke at great length about their background; meeting as teenagers in high school while growing up in Long Island, they started collaborating on screenplays together before going off to college. After college, they kept in touch throughout the years as one moved to Hollywood to become an assistant to a literary agent and the other remained in New York to pursue a career in the music business (eventually going on to work with Tracy Chapman). When they later reunited in New York, they resumed their screenwriting collaboration and wound up selling their first screenplay while still in their late 20's.


Thursday, May 06, 2010

“Letters To Juliet” – Movie Review

Last night in my movie class, we saw a romantic comedy titled, Letters To Juliet , starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave.


During a young woman's vacation in Italy, she replies to someone seeking romantic advice in a letter written half a century ago – but when she winds up meeting the woman all those years later, she gets swept up in an adventure that changes her life in many ways.


As a hard – working fact checker for The New Yorker Magazine, Sophie (Seyfried) is most definitely a young woman with both career and personal aspirations. Professionally, she wishes to become a published writer – unfortunately, she's so good at her job, that her boss the editor (Oliver Platt) isn't terribly inclined to want to lose her in that role. Personally, she wants to fall in love and get married – to that end, at least, she's well on her way to reaching her goal. Or so it would appear. Victor, her fiancĂ©, is a driven Italian chef at a successful restaurant in Manhattan who is so focused on his work that he pays little attention to her. Nevertheless, she joins Victor on what will be for him a working vacation in Italy, where he will meet with different suppliers for his restaurant.

Arriving in the town of Verona, Sophie decides to play the role of tourist while Victor is busy working. Wandering about, the stumbles upon an unusual spot where a number of young women like her are congregating – it is a place called Juliet's Garden, at the supposed former residence of Juliet Capulet, from Shakespeare's classic play, Romeo & Juliet. In the garden, she finds young women writing letters seeking advice on romance and posting them on the garden wall where another woman collects the letters in a basket at the end of the day. Following the woman, she discovers that she is one of a team of women called "Juliet's Secretaries" – when there is a letter with a return address, they will write a response and send it to the writer of the original letter. Fascinated by this, she offers her writing services to the team to help respond to some of the letters. They gratefully accept this offer, and Sophie eagerly begins crafting a variety of replies, until one day, she happens upon an overlooked letter that was written 50 years ago; containing a return address, she immediately sets out to respond to its author – a teenager (at the time) who is torn between two lovers, one British, the other Italian.

Claire (Redgrave), the author of this old letter, suddenly shows up in Verona with her grandson, Charlie. She is there partly to meet Sophie and thank her for the reply, but also partly because now that she's a widow, she wants to set out to try to find Lorenzo, her long lost Italian former lover, for whom she still pines. Claire invites Sophie to join her on her quest; realizing that Victor is so totally preoccupied with his own business and will barely miss her, Sophie accepts Claire's rather unusual and gracious offer, much to the immense aggravation of Charlie, who feels that Sophie has no business butting-in to her life, particularly on this matter and at this stage of his grandmother's life. Nevertheless, the three all set out in Charlie's rented car to drive around much of Tuscany to try to locate Lorenzo. But if they do find him, what impact will this have on both Claire and Sophie, especially in regard to Sophie's engagement with an increasingly distant Victor?


If you are a sucker for the types of romantic comedies that were done in the 1930's, '40's and '50's, then this is certainly a movie for you. This is the type of movie that's unapologetically formulaic and has been dipped big vat of super-viscous romance to make it even extra appealing as the ultimate chick flick – not that it necessarily needed it. Remember, this is from Gary Winick, the same director who brought you ladies such chick-friendly fare as "Bride Wars" and "13 Going On 30". This movie opens in mid – May and if you ladies are looking for a Girls' Night Out, then this might very well be the perfect flick to include somewhere during the proceedings.

Even if you don't care for the movie itself, another reason to go is for the breathtaking background beauty of Tuscany while the characters' travel throughout the region; if their form of a Chamber of Commerce is looking to encourage tourism in that area, a travelogue could not have served any more perfectly. Having never seen "Under The Tuscan Sun" (another chick flick. Coincidence? I think not!), I can't compare the scenic shots between the two movies, but it would certainly be hard to beat what you see in "Letters To Juliet". I highly recommend you see this movie if for no other reason that it will simply make you feel better. It's almost too bad that it opens the weekend after Mother's Day because this would make a good mother & daughter day out since it has plenty of romance to appeal to both older and younger women.

For this class, there were actually two interviews: one before the screening and one after. The one before the screening was with director Gary Winick; he went first because he had another promotional engagement later in the evening and had to leave early. One of the interesting things that we found out from this interview was that while the movie was based on a similarly – titled book, the whole "Letters To Juliet" thing is actually true and not just some conceit invented for the sake of either the book or the movie. For more information, refer to the link below:

It is also a tradition to put small love letters on the walls (which is done by the thousands each year), which are however regularly taken down by employees to keep the courtyard clean

The second interview was with one of the producers, Caroline Kaplan. She spoke about the casting of the movie, mentioning that the character of Charlie wasn't cast until the very last minute – in fact, they had already started shooting some of the movie while still auditioning actors for the role. Although Oliver Platt is in the movie, he's just in two scenes in New York, at the beginning and near the end of the movie; he did not get a screen credit for his role because he did it as a favor to the director (they went to college together). Kaplan also spoke about how prohibitively expensive it can be to use music in a movie – you have to pay royalties to both the publisher and the performer and if you use the song over opening or closing credits, it's even more expensive because more of the song (if not all of it) is being used.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

“Just Wright” – Movie Review


This morning, my movie class had a bonus screening of a romantic comedy titled “Just Wright”, starring Queen Latifah. 


After a woman is hired to be the physical therapist to her cousin’s fiance, an All – Star NBA basketball player, she finds herself becoming involved with him once he’s dumped – but when the cousin returns, which woman will he choose?


Leslie Wright (Latifah), is a 35 – year old New Jersey Girl who works as a physical therapist in New York City.  For a long time now, she’s been trying to find her mate, but most men just want her as a friend.  She’s frustrated and on the verge of giving up, especially when she sees her younger and much prettier cousin Morgan plotting exactly how to catch herself a star player in the National Basketball Association.

A rabid fan of the New Jersey Nets, Leslie runs into Scott Mc Knight, the team’s star player, at a gas station.  Impressed by her knowledge of basketball, Scott invites Leslie and a guest to a party he’s throwing.  When Leslie brings Morgan, he falls for her right away and tracks her down at Leslie’s house. They immediately start dating and manage to hit it off from the very beginning.  Eventually, she moves in with Scott at his mansion and they become engaged.  All seems to be well, until Scott gets hurt while playing in the NBA’s All – Star Game; he is diagnosed with a torn ligament in his knee, which the doctors predict will cause him to miss the remainder of the season.  The severity of his injury is soon revealed as it seems that this type of damage can sometimes mean a premature end to a player’s career.  Once Morgan learns of this, she decides it’s time to move on, so she breaks up with Scott. 

Prior to the break-up, Morgan had Scott fire his bimbo physical therapist and instead hire Leslie to replace her.  Leslie gets blind – sided by the news that the two have broken up, but nevertheless, she stays on as Scott’s physical therapist.  The two wind up spending a considerable amount of time together and their working relationship ultimately turns into a personal relationship.  But just when Leslie thinks she may have found her mate, Morgan returns when she learns that Scott’s sports career may be salvaged.  Having to choose between the hottie Morgan and the considerably more earnest Leslie, Scott is now forced to pick which woman he wants most. 


This is your typical Hollywood formula love story – whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing is up to how you interpret that statement.  Due for a wide release when it opens in mid – May, this one is expected to do big business as a perfect date movie – it has the romance that the women want to see and it has the sports that interests the men.  With those ingredients, how can it lose?  Well, to be perfectly honest, it can’t.  For what it is supposed to be, it works quite well.  There are definitely some funny moments in the movie, especially in a few scenes that will likely strike a chord with some women.  If you’re in a mood for something that’s light, entertaining and not terribly intellectually demanding, then I highly recommend this movie.  Under the right circumstances, it can be quite a good deal of fun. 

If I had to make any criticisms about this movie, it would be that while Queen Latifah definitely comes across as a most sympathetic character you want to root for, you really do need something along the lines of a hydraulic crane to suspend your disbelief in order to buy into the premise.  It’s really a fairy tale, so you have to accept it on those terms – otherwise, you’ll be questioning why a millionaire superstar basketball player would choose a down – to – earth “homegirl” like Latifah over the stunning Paula Patton (who plays the character of Morgan).  In short, the movie has about as much basis in reality as such other filmic accomplishments as “Lord Of The Rings”, “Harry Potter” or even “How To Train Your Dragon” – but it is also comparable in its escapist, entertainment value.  

The movie’s director, Sanaa Hamri, was interviewed after the screening.  Unfortunately, I was unable to remain for the entire interview, which seemed one of the more interesting – assuming, of course, you are fascinated in both the technical and business aspects of filmmaking.  She said that the movie originated when Queen Latifah (who also produces the movie) pitched an idea for this story, then hired a screenwriter to develop the script; Hamri, who also directed the sequel to “The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants”, is hoping that this movie will be a breakthrough not only in terms of her own career, but also, in the sense that a movie with an entirely black cast will be accepted by a white American audience.  Hamri talked about her own filmmaking process (she seldom sticks to the script and prefers to have her actors improvise), shooting a major motion picture while on location (New York City unions force you to shoot at least one day on a stuidio set rather than merely on the city’s streets) and working for a studio (they hold screenings of the movie where 300 people attend it long before it is released and complete questionnaires to provide feedback to the studio and filmmakers so that they can make any necessary changes in the final product).