Thursday, March 31, 2011

“Dumbstruck” – Movie Review


This week in my movie class, we saw a documentary titled “Dumbstruck”, about the world of ventriloquism.




For over 30 years, a small town in Kentucky has been the home to an annual convention of ventriloquists – some of whom perform professionally, some who aspire to that profession and others who simply enjoy it as a hobby.  The documentary “Dumbstruck” follows the lives of five of these people:

  • Kim is a stunning looking woman in her early thirties; a beauty contest winner, she discovered a talent for ventriloquism during her competition and now hopes to make her living as one, spending her life performing and sailing on cruise ships.
  • Wilma is a lonely, unattractive 6’5” tall woman who has encountered many challenges in life.  After a health scare, she taught herself ventriloquism as a pastime and has found herself something of a surrogate family within the ventriloquism community.
  • Dylan is a shy teenage boy looking to find an identity – and he believes he may have found it in ventriloquism, using the character he has created as something of an alter ego who is cool, confident and funny.  While his father wishes that his scrawny runt of a son would develop the same passion for motocross so they would have this to share, he also wonders why Dylan – who’s white – chose to have a ventriloquist dummy that’s black.
  • Dan is a professional ventriloquist who’s spent many years working cruise ships – the goal every ventriloquist hopes to attain if they wish to make a living in this field.  A talented veteran, Dan is very generous with his time, providing advice to those who wish to attain his level of success.  But is his dedication going to cost him his marriage of 25 years?
  • Terry is also a professional ventriloquist, but one who hasn’t quite hit it big yet – which is exactly why he’s now enrolled as a contestant on the TV show “America’s Got Talent”.  Eventually winning the competition, Terry hits the big jackpot and signs a lucrative multi-year contract to perform regularly at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. 


Throughout the course of the movie, we are able to delve deeply into the personal lives of each of these individuals to learn more about them and understand exactly what it is about the craft of ventriloquism that interests them so much.  Do the people who are shooting for ventriloquism as a career have enough talent to be able to pull it off?  What deeper problems do they have for which they’re using ventriloquism to deal with?  For the professionals, how much will success change them?  And will those changes be for the better or worse?




I will gladly tell you upfront that neither is ventriloquism an interest of mine nor do I find most ventriloquists particularly entertaining – quite frankly, the majority of them tend to be just a little bit too bland for my own personal tastes.  So, when I learned that our movie class was going to spend the evening watching a documentary on the subject, you can imagine how incredibly underwhelmed I felt.  Having said that, however, I will tell you that without a doubt, this was one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve had the good fortune to see and therefore highly recommend it to you.


With equal parts of humor and sadness, we learn about how deeply fractured the personal lives of all of these people truly are and why being a ventriloquist was a compelling choice for them, either as a vocation or as an avocation.  There is such an undercurrent of melancholy that pervades each individual’s story that I found myself strongly drawn in to each individual’s suffering, whether or not they were professionally successful.  That’s because there are much bigger life lessons to be learned here – but whether or not each one of these ventriloquists are in a position to be able to actually accept learning those lessons is quite another matter entirely. 


Following the screening, there was an interview with the documentary’s director, Mark Goffman.  Goffman has worked as a writer/producer on a number of television shows, including – and perhaps, most notably -- “Law And Order:  Special Victims Unit”.  He got the idea for the documentary when he suddenly discovered that a close family member was very much into ventriloquism as a way of dealing with her painful shyness.  Additionally, Goffman provided some information about some of the subjects of the movie that did not make the final cut; there were originally eight ventriloquists they were going to follow, but three of them were left out of the movie because the other five had more interesting stories.  Interestingly, the movie is about an hour and a half long, but Goffman said that he actually shot two hours of film for every minute that wound up in the final version of the movie. 


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

“Trust” – Movie Review


This week, we had a bonus screening of the drama “Trust”, starring Clive Owen and Catherine Keener and directed by former “Friends” star, David Schwimmer.




When a teenage girl is raped by a sexual predator she meets over the Internet, can the authorities find the rapist for her father catches and kills him?




Annie (Liana Liberato) is a bright, happy and active 14 year old girl whose life mostly revolves around playing for her high school volleyball team, surfing the Internet and meeting boys.  One day, she meets Charlie, a young man in an online chat room who claims to be in high school and also appears to share mutual interests with Annie.  After exchanging many instant messages, e – mails, texts and phone calls, they agree upon a furtive meeting at a local shopping mall.  Much to her shock, she learns that Charlie is actually a man in his late 30’s – once she gets over her initial surprise, they spend some time together, after which, they go to his motel room where they have sex. 


Although wishing to keep her illicit tryst a secret from her parents, Will and Lynn (Owen and Keener), she confides in her best friend who sees the statutory rape for what it really is and informs her parents, who then get the authorities involved.  Naturally, Will and Lynn discover the disturbing truth as well, turning increasingly fearful and protective of their oldest daughter.  Despite the fact that the FBI seems to be doing its best to try to find the rapist, Will becomes frustrated by the slow progress; as a result of this, he sets out on his own to try to catch his daughter’s attacker and extract justice in his own way. 


Part of the problem in catching “Charlie” is due to the fact that Annie refuses to cooperate in the investigation, primarily because she does not believe that she has been raped.  In fact, she is continuing to try to engage “Charlie” both online and via cell phone, but he appears to have lost interest in her now that he’s had sex with her – as a result, Annie becomes increasingly frustrated because her new “boyfriend” will no longer have anything to do with her.  With increasing evidence pointing to “Charlie” having perpetrated the same scam on other little girls around the country, Will attempts to circumvent the FBI’s efforts in order to find this man himself – but will doing so risk tearing his family apart? 




Despite a few minor flaws in the story telling – some pieces of information are slightly muddled along the way, briefly taking you out of the movie occasionally – this is a reasonably good movie that I can recommend … just not to everyone.  The reason for the qualification is due to its subject matter – while rape is certainly a topic that’s sufficiently disturbing on its own, the rape of a child by a sexual predator encountered on the Internet is particularly upsetting to some.  This is an intense movie and if you think you can emotionally deal with the topic, then you might find seeing this movie to be a rewarding and enriching experience.  On the other hand, if the subject is a little too strong for you, then you’d likely be better off skipping this move altogether. 


The simple, one-word title of the movie was an excellent choice because as the movie plays itself out, you see that the word “Trust” does not simply apply to the relationship between the victim and her attacker, but between others in the story as well:  The family must trust each other, they must trust the system will work properly to find the rapist and bring him to justice, and the rapist must trust his victim that she will not report the incident as a crime in the first place.  Clearly, issues of trust permeate almost every scene in the film, making the title brilliant in its simplicity.  The performances by the leads in the movie are powerful, especially that of Clive Owen, but Liberato – the same age as the character she portrayed – was particularly eye-opening. 


After the screening, there was an interview with Director David Schwimmer and with his young star, Liberato.  Schwimmer talked about the process of getting the movie made, explaining that it started out as a stage play for the theater group with which he works, then started picking up interest as a movie when the script – later in the form of a screenplay – was sent to a film production company that was able to convince Owen to star.  With his name attached to the project, funding became easier and they were able to start shooting within three months thereafter – but only had one month of filming budgeted in the schedule.  Liberato said she started acting as a child in Galveston, Texas, then her family moved to Los Angeles, where she was noticed by casting agents who began to get her various jobs in commercials and TV shows. 


Saturday, March 26, 2011

“White Irish Drinkers” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “White Irish Drinkers”, starring Stephen Lang, Peter Riegert and Karen Allen and directed & written by John Gray.

A young man from a blue collar family aspires to a career as an artist – but when his older brother tries to drag him into a life of crime, will his life be ruined?


A recent high school graduate with little direction in life, Brian Leary works assisting Whitey (Riegert), the manager of a run-down movie theater that’s struggling to stay in business in the Brooklyn of 1975.  Occasionally, however, Brian gets dragged into burglary jobs planned by his older brother Danny, a career criminal.  But Brian isn’t really interested in this lifestyle – nor is he particularly good at it – it’s just that he looks up to his older brother and hopes to someday earn his acceptance.  In truth, Brian is a gifted painter who secretly wishes to pursue art as a career path. 

Brian and Danny live with their parents, Patrick (Lang) and Margaret (Allen), a pair of proud blue-collar workers surviving paycheck to paycheck despite the fact that Patrick spends way too much of their money drinking with his fellow neighborhood Irishmen.  While Margaret shows no favoritism to her sons, Patrick and Danny have a particularly difficult relationship, causing both Brian and Margaret to witness many brutal beatings endured by Danny at the hands of his drunken, angry father.  While the brothers argue with each other, they both harbor equal amounts of resentment toward Patrick. 

Quite unexpectedly, Whitey announces to Brian that business may suddenly improve – a chance meeting with the Rolling Stones’ road manager years ago allows Whitey the opportunity to call in a favor which gets the legendary rock band to book a one-night-only appearance at Whitey’s theater.  With Brian given the task of promoting the event, Danny sees an opportunity for a big payday – with a cash-only box office on the night of the concert, Danny decides to break into the theater and steal the money … but he can’t successfully do so without his brother’s help.  Will Brian risk his life, his job and his hopes for the future by aiding Danny in this crime?


This is one of those movies that feels a little bit off-balance:  although the more famous actors – Lang, Allen and Riegert – are given top-billing in the credits, they are not the focus of the story, which is more centered on the characters of Brian and Danny, played by lesser-known actors.  When the movie started, these three name actors were billed in the opening credits immediately after the title, leading me to believe that the movie’s tale would concern them when it in fact was not – they were instead relatively minor, peripheral supporting characters in the film.  As a result, this set my expectations incorrectly and caused me to be a little bit confused at the outset of the film until I re-adjusted once I realized the true central characters. 

You would think that a story about an Irish clan set in Brooklyn in the mid-70’s would be something right up my alley – and to a large degree, it was, but it wasn’t enough to make me recommend it that highly.  If it plays on TV at some point, then you might want to check it out, but certainly by no means is it worth rushing out to a movie theater to see.  Some of the things that I didn’t quite buy were the fact that Brian was able to keep his painting a secret from his mother for so long.  Also, the way Brian resolves his relationship with his father, while a bit of a surprise, didn’t quite make sense to me.  

By far, the best performance in the film was by Stephen Lang, who played a very believable hard-drinking, tough Irish loading dock worker that was also a strict dad and loyal husband.  Seeing his portrayal, I genuinely felt that I knew this guy, probably because I’d been around so many of them in my youth.  Therefore, it was with great delight when I discovered that Lang would be interviewed following the screening.  Lang compared the different experience of shooting this movie against a big budget film like “Avatar”; he stated that while you would think that working on a low-budget film such as this one might be less pleasurable, he assured everyone that this was not the case.  While he didn’t enjoy all of the frills he did in shooting “Avatar”, he was able to stay focused and wound up filming all of his scenes for the movie in a mere five days.  With “Avatar”, there were some days where he had to be on set extra early in order to get extensive make-up for several hours prior to beginning the day’s shooting; however, there were frequent times where he would just sit around all day and never get to act for one reason or another – technical problems, someone being sick, script changes, etc. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

“I Am” – Movie Review




This past Wednesday night, the Spring Semester of my movie class began and we saw a documentary titled “I Am”, directed by Tom Shadyac, noted for directing such comedies as “Ace Ventura”, “The Nutty Professor” and “Bruce Almighty”. 




After a near – death experience, movie director Tom Shadyac’s recovery period forces him to reflect on life’s meaning and importance, as well as how we can all live a better, more meaningful and fulfilling life. 




A few years ago, Tom Shadyac – a successful Hollywood film director with many comedies to his credit – had a bad accident where he suffered a concussion.  As a result of this accident, he spent a considerable amount of time both in the hospital and later, in therapy, in order to try to recover from this injury.  During these long, torturous months, he had many opportunities to reflect on his life and its meaning – he questioned not only his own existence, but also, that of humanity in general.  This documentary was the result of his extensive introspection. 


During his recovery process, an unusual – but not entirely uncommon – thing occurred:  although his concussion had essentially healed, he once again started experiencing their symptoms.  In addition to this – or perhaps as a result of it – he began feeling depressed and suicidal.  Over time, these feelings eventually passed; however, while he had these feelings, he started questioning life – both his own and life in general.  He then decided that once he was better, he would make a documentary that asked – and hopefully answered – two very essential questions, namely:  What’s wrong with our world?  And What can we do about it?


In the course of making this documentary, he interviewed people from all walks of life, including such notables as Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu, seeking acceptable answers to his questions.   Ultimately, realizing that the expansive Beverly Hills mansion he purchased as a result of his show business success was not fulfilling him, he sold it and moved into an incredibly modest little cottage where he claims he is much happier. 




Let’s face it – all movies (and I do mean ALL) – are designed to manipulate our feelings:  Comedies try to make us laugh, horror films try to scare us, dramas/tragedies to make us feel sorrow, etc.  Documentaries, however, are different from those others because they are not fictional (at least, they’re not supposed to be), but they are nonetheless the same in the regard that they do try to manipulate us – specifically, they try to manipulate how we think or what we believe.  The filmmakers do this by positing certain “facts” which serve to support their own agenda and rarely offer any opposing views so that they may further buttress their belief system – this, for me at least, is where Shadyac’s “I Am” falls apart. 


Shadyac, with his extensive background as a comic filmmaker, tries to take an upbeat tone throughout most of the movie.  By its end, he tries to leave us with a hopeful, uplifting feeling.  However, much of the movie is so touchy-feely with a New Age philosophy to it that you feel as though you’ve got someone preaching their philosophy and/or religion to you to the point that it can be downright oppressive for anyone who suspects this might just be a lot of B.S. and therefore refuses to buy into all of it. 


Ultimately, this movie may be appealing to people who are at the very least spiritual and at the very most profoundly religious.  On the other hand, if you are neither one of these, then you might just find yourself squirming in your seat, as I did.  For me, Shadyac would have gained a lot of points in his filmmaking – and credibility as a documentarian – had he presented less sentimental viewpoints and offered people criticizing or questioning the ideas he espoused in his movie.  Instead, we are left with nothing more than some kind of Pollyanna pap that can’t be taken very seriously. 


Friday, March 18, 2011

A Liquor Library


Sure, with mixology as your hobby, you’re always focused on keeping a plentiful supply of various spirits in your liquor cabinet. Of course, you’ve already made sure that you’ve got the essential barware items like a shaker, strainer, jiggers, etc. But does keeping many spirits mean that you’re well stocked? And for that matter, does having the major accessories mean you’ve got all the necessary barware? The answer to both questions is, “Not necessarily!” – at least, not if you don’t keep some books among your barware. That’s why this blog post will be about what you might call Barware Books – or your Liquor Library, if you prefer.





First and foremost, I would highly recommend Mr. Boston: Official Bartender's and Party Guide – something that has long been my go-to guide for cocktail mixing. This book contains recipes for almost all of the classic cocktails you’ve heard of – and maybe even a few of the classic cocktails you’ve never heard of! But if you limit your use of this book to simply recipes alone, then it will be greatly under-utilized. That’s because Mr. Boston contains a great deal of useful information about barware and glassware as well as many beneficial tips, especially for the novice home bartender.





Are you a fan of The King Of All Cocktails? Then an essential guide for you would probably be The Little Black Book of Martinis ! This is another one of my favorite books and again, not just for the recipes because it contains quite a good deal of background about this classic – not to mention whether to shake or stir. As far as the recipes themselves are concerned, you can certainly find some very basic martinis (dry or not so much) but also a wide array of variations. But be careful, fellas! You might just wind up mixing yourself a Girltini!





In the mood to mix a cocktail just because it’s got some kind of a crazy name? Then howzabout using Sex on the Beach and Other Wild Drinks! as your bartending bible when your mood gets silly? Whether you’re looking for full-blown cocktails for sipping or shots that you can down in a single gulp, this book is full of unusually named drinks that might be fun to try with guests at your next party.


Feeling experimental? Or might you be more of the adventurous type? If you’re at a point where you’ve gotten past the basic cocktails and have developed more of a sophisticated palate, then I strongly suggest a book titled Food and Wine Cocktails 2011 as your blueprint. About four years ago, a good friend of mine gave me the 2007 guide and it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. The reason I say this is because of the way the book is organized – it not only includes chapters by spirit, but also, by type of drink as well: aperitifs (your pre-dinner cocktail), digestifs (or dessert drinks) and drinks you can make by the pitcher.

Of course, just as there are classic cocktails, there are also classic cocktail books. Not long ago, I read an article called What's a Good Cocktail Book? which I encourage you to check out in order to get a better idea of some of the classic cocktail books that are available.

Are there any cocktail related books that you like but weren’t mentioned in this blog post? If so, then by all means, please leave a comment and share them with the rest of us!



Sunday, March 13, 2011

Win Win – Movie Review



This morning in my movie class, we saw the comedy/drama “Win Win” starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan and Jeffrey Tambor. 



After a lawyer tries to save his failing practice by making some extra money as the guardian of an incapacitated elderly man, he learns that the man’s teenage grandson is a champion wrestler who can also help the local high school team become a winner – but when the boy’s mother finally tries to get into the act, will the lawyer still be able to keep both his practice and his new star wrestler?



Mike (Giamatti) has finally reached the point where he’s suffering panic attacks while jogging because he’s so stressed about his failing New Jersey law practice going under and how it will ultimately impact not only his career, but also, his family.  When a court ruling deems one of his elderly clients (Burt Young) mentally incapacitated due to early onset dementia, Mike sees this as an opportunity to boost his income by becoming the old man’s legal guardian.  Since the man’s closest blood relative turns out to be a grown daughter who is a drifter currently registered in a drug treatment program, the court decides that it is in the man’s best interests to award Mike the guardianship. 


Once Mike begins his guardianship duties, he suddenly discovers the old man has a grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), an oddball teenager with obviously dyed blonde hair who has made a solo trek from Ohio to be with his grandfather – without his mother’s knowledge or permission.  Since Kyle’s grandfather has been moved into an assisted living facility, Mike and his wife Jackie (Ryan) reluctantly decide to take him in to live in their basement for a while.  Earning extra money on the side as a high school wrestling coach, Mike brings Kyle along to some of his team’s practices and their matches.  Upon learning that Kyle is a championship wrestler, Mike gets approval from the school to enter him as a student so that he can be on the team.  


Suddenly, Kyle’s mother shows up -- fresh from rehab, she wants both her son and her father back, especially because she knows that her father has plenty of money.  Securing a lawyer, she takes Mike to court to win legal guardianship of her father’s estate so she can take care of both herself and her son – however, once Kyle makes it known that he wants nothing to do with his mother, Mike goes to battle her in court to win guardianship of Kyle as well.  But will Mike risk both his own family and law practice in order to do so? 




As a so-called “dramedy” (a drama-comedy), this film’s reputation preceded it as “Win Win” was said to have been quite the hit at some film festivals, including and especially Sundance.  The company distributing this movie is strongly hoping that it will eventually turn out to be this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine”.  While the majority of the class seemed to really enjoy “Win Win” quite a good deal, I was considerably more lukewarm in my own personal reaction.  Although not a bad film, I just felt that it was more mildly amusing than actually funny at the moments when it tried to be a comedy and a little too contrived at certain plot points when it attempted to be a drama. 


Giamatti, as with almost any film he’s in, always remains the most interesting thing to watch on screen.  Unfortunately, he does not always pick the best scripts, especially of late; while a highly unusual story, “Win Win” falls into that category, in my opinion, simply because it’s a little too bland for my taste, despite occasional attempts to spice things up a bit.  One example of this, without giving too much of the story away, is that the character of Mike, although the protagonist, is revealed to be no saint and when we realize he’s something of a scammer trying to beat the system, you begin to wonder why you’re rooting for the guy in the first place.


After the screening, our instructor informed us that the young man who played Kyle is not really a professional actor, however, he is an accomplished high school wrestler in real life.  The filmmakers decided to go the route of hiring a real wrestler whom they would teach to act (rather than hire an actor whom they would teach to wrestle) to add an element of realism to the movie; they wanted to make sure that the wrestling scenes looked truly authentic, so they thought they would be better off with an “acting wrestler” rather than a “wrestling actor”. 


Monday, March 07, 2011

Alan Arkin – A Tribute


On Sunday morning, March 6th, the Spring semester of my movie class began its weekend bonuses – this time, however, it was something that was a bit unorthodox because they didn’t actually show a movie.  Instead, they paid tribute to the legendary character actor Alan Arkin who, among his many other accomplishments, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the grandfather in the 2006 movie “Little Miss Sunshine”.  The reason for his appearance was because of the fact that he is currently touring the country to promote his memoir, An Improvised Life

The tribute began with a short video that contained a montage of clips from a wide variety of movies in which Arkin appeared throughout his long and storied career.  The scenes included such movies as, “The Russians Are Coming!  The Russians Are Coming!”, “Little Murders”, “Papi”, “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, “The In-Laws”, “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Little Miss Sunshine”.  While the majority of the audience seemed to give the greatest reaction to “The In-Laws” (one of the really great comedies made in my lifetime), “Little Miss Sunshine” received polite recognition.  For me, however, the best clips shown were from “Little Murders” (a dark comedy based on Jules Pfeiffer’s play that’s laugh out loud funny) and “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” (a drama based on the Carson McCullers novel, where Arkin played in a scene opposite Chuck McCann). 

Following that video retrospective, the instructor took over and conducted an extensive interview with Arkin  for the remainder of the time.  Over a decade ago, Arkin – a lifelong New Yorker – moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives to this day in semi-retirement.  Periodically, he teaches courses in improvisational acting.  This, in part, was one of the reasons why he called his story “An Improvised Life” – referring to his book as a “memoir” something of a misnomer, he stated that it is more a reflection of his life in acting.  As an example, he asked the audience how many who were over 50 have actually followed through on the original plan they had for themselves in life – no one raised a hand.  Arkin suggested that if anyone over the age of 50 actually had followed their original life plan, they would probably be quite miserable people by now.  His point, then, was simply that we all wind up needing to improvise our life – we try, we succeed or fail and depending on the success or failure, we improvise – in other words, we tweak our original life plan to accommodate our current situation. 

Of course, Arkin spent time talking about some of his experiences shooting his many movies over the years.  With “The In-Laws”, he said making that movie was one of the most pleasurable experiences of his professional life.  He added that following the success of the film, he and Peter Falk were offered another opportunity to work together – not a sequel to “The In-Laws”, but rather, another comedy that would be something of a buddy movie.  Arkin says that they were sent a script that was one of the funniest he had ever read but when they went into rehearsal, they found that the director didn’t quite get the comedy, so the film was never made.  By contrast, of his role in “Wait Until Dark”, Arkin said that he disliked doing that movie despite his immense admiration for Audrey Hepburn; his reason for his dislike was due to the character he portrayed – he didn’t like playing a character that was so dark and so evil. 

Below is a trailer for the movie, “The Russians Are Coming!”, where Arkin plays the Russian submarine commander being interviewed by Carl Reiner.  While a dated movie, it remains very funny, especially if you either remember or are at least aware of the political climate, fears and paranoia of that time – especially in comparison to modern life, where our concerns folks on Muslim terrorists rather than Russian Communists. 

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

NYC: The Toxic Avenger



As if the competition between Philadelphia and New York City wasn’t bad enough … now this!


After studying 80 of America’s metropolitan areas, has declared that Philadelphia is The Most Toxic City in The United States.  New York City came in out of the money at fourth place, just behind Fresno, California and slightly ahead of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  According to an article in The New York Daily News, the decision was based on the number of Superfund sites in each city.  Here’s an excerpt from the Daily News article; for all of the details, please click on the link:


New York is fourth most toxic city in U.S.; Philadelphia tops most-toxic list

"Philadelphia doesn't have great air, but other cities have worst," said Morgan Brennan, of, which conducted the report. "But the Philadelphia area has over 50 Superfund sites, really poor water quality, and a hefty amount of toxic releases."

To compile the list, looked at 80 of America's largest metropolitan areas and examined the number of Superfund locations, unused areas which contain hazardous materials, as well as the local Air Quality Index (AQI) and Toxics Release Index, a measure of how much toxic material is released, recycled or managed by local industries.

The Philadelphia metropolitan area includes more than 50 Superfund sites.


Must be something in those cheese steaks that causes this kind of thing to happen.