Thursday, July 28, 2011

“A Bird Of The Air” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the romantic drama “A Bird Of The Air”, which is based on the novel “The Loop” by Joe Coomer.


When a loner’s life is changed by the sudden appearance of a mysterious parrot with an unusual vocabulary, he is forced to come to terms with the personal issues that have plagued him – but after the parrot causes him to meet an unusual young woman who takes a romantic interest in him, will he be able to significantly change enough to maintain a relationship with her?


Lyman’s social skills are perhaps more than just a little bit wanting – he barely ever speaks to anyone and doesn’t have a reputation for initiating conversation with anyone, regardless of whether he knows them well or not. Given this personality quirk of his, Lyman has what might be the perfect job for someone in his position – he’s a highway worker for the state of New Mexico. With no family and no friends, Lyman seems perfectly content with his lifestyle of working a dangerous night shift cleaning up the roads and assisting people who have been in accidents or are experiencing car trouble.

Then, one day while eating breakfast in the trailer he calls a home, an exotic looking parrot flies in through his open door. Right off the bat, the parrot starts chatting up a storm with Lyman, including using quite a few unusual phrases, which, in the context of their interaction, almost makes it appear as though the bird is trying to engage him in an actual conversation. Mystified by his new friend, Lyman decides to care for the parrot while trying to find its rightful owner so that the bird may be returned to its home.

While researching the parrot in the library of the small community college where he takes classes, he meets Fiona, a free-spirited young woman who takes an immediate fancy to Lyman. Despite the fact that their personality is the polar opposite of each other, they strike up a friendship as Fiona offers to help Lyman in his quest to locate the owner of the parrot. But when it becomes clear to Lyman that Fiona’s intentions are to be more than merely his friend, will he somehow be able to allow another person into his life?


A small independent film made on the cheap, “A Bird Of The Air” focuses on its quirky tale, rather than trying to sell itself to an audience by its stars because the movie really doesn’t have any – except for a couple of cameo appearances by familiar faces. At times trying to be funny and at others dramatic, it almost doesn’t seem to know what quite to make of itself. One gets the sense that the filmmakers tried to adhere as closely to its source material as possible. Does it translate? Well, it’s rather hard to say; I found myself wondering at various points during this screening where the story was supposed to be going.

There are some good performances in this movie – especially by the young actress who plays the part of Fiona – but its story has something of a fable-like quality to it and to truly enjoy the movie, you have to acknowledge that and buy into it from the very start. For me, the problem was the fact that the parrot is used as what Hitchcock used to refer to as The McGuffin – it’s really irrelevant to the plot, except as a contrivance to bring the two lead characters together so they can fall in love with each other and set the mechanics of a romance into forward motion.

Prior to the screening, Director Margaret Whitton was interviewed; subsequent to the screening, the two main actors were interviewed – Jackson Hurst (Lyman) and Rachel Nichols (Fiona). Whitton said she had first read the novel on which the film is based about a dozen years ago and wasn’t able to secure the rights to make the movie until years later due to the fact that Oprah Winfrey had originally purchased the option; persistently, she kept inquiring about the availability of its option over the years and once it became available, she pounced on it and decided to make it her directorial debut. Hurst mentioned that while he has done film, TV and stage, he prefers making movies. Nichols said she had something of an unusual audition for the role in the sense that much of it consisted more of an interview with the prospective filmmakers than a reading of Fiona’s part.



Sunday, July 24, 2011

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” – Movie Review




This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon.



After a long-time married man learns his wife wants a divorce, he meets someone who decides to turn him into a womanizer – but when his wife later informs him that she wants him back, will they reunite? 



Married for nearly 25 years, the last thing Cal (Carell) expects is to be told by his wife Emily (Moore) that she’s had an affair with a co-worker (Bacon) and now wants a divorce.  Stunned, Cal immediately moves out and tries to get back on track.  Hanging out at singles bars, he’s so out of practice that he strikes out at every opportunity – until he’s spotted by Jacob (Gosling), a young stud who decides to take Cal under his wing and make Cal his pet project.  Teaming up, Jacob gives Cal a makeover and mentors him on how to talk to and pick up women in a bar with similar aplomb. 

Eventually, Cal hits pay dirt with Kate (Tomei), a schoolteacher he meets at the bar.  This success breeds confidence in Cal and he proceeds to pick-up women at an impressive clip.  Around this time, however, Emily is starting to question her desire for the divorce – not so much because she doesn’t appreciate the attention from the co-worker with whom she’s having the affair, but because she genuinely misses her husband … not to mention the fact that friends and family seem to be turning against her somewhat.  Add to this the fact that Cal & Emily’s adolescent son has a crush on the babysitter who is also experiencing unrequited love for Cal and things are rapidly getting very messy. 

Ultimately, Emily begins to see that the romantic entanglement with her co-worker is becoming increasingly cumbersome both at the office and at home.  However, just when Cal finds out that Emily is considering a reconciliation, it all gets called off when she discovers that he’s turned into something of a lothario.  But can Cal somehow win back his wife by convincing Emily that he’s more interested in being her husband than a swinging single?



While a comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is not really something you would characterize as raucous, ribald or laugh-packed; much of the story has dramatic overtones to it and a good deal of the humor is gentle, understated and spread out.  More mildly amusing than a laugh riot, the funniest scenes come about as a result of some surprising plot twists – one in a big reveal in an uncomfortably awkward scene when Emily and Cal run into one of his spurned, angry conquests and another that concludes the second act in a somewhat farcical tone as all of the different characters and their various subplots converge at a most inopportune moment. 

I would recommend this movie, but with the caveat that you manage your expectations when seeing this romantic comedy – it’s definitely not wall-to-wall gags, but it does have a few genuinely funny moments as described above with more low-key jokes interspersed throughout.  One good thing that the movie has going for it is the fact that the screenwriter managed to combine a number of interesting characters with subplots that are compelling enough to maintain your curiosity about their resolution just as much as you would have for the main story of Cal and Emily.  Some really clever twists and turns occur in crucial plot points as well that will be sure to keep the audience on their toes at all times. 

The majority of the class liked this movie quite a good deal and understandably so, I believe.  Our instructor predicts that this will be a big hit and I would have to agree with him on this one.  I’m a big Marisa Tomei fan and she’s quite funny in the few scenes she has in this movie, but I nevertheless think she was unfortunately and unnecessarily under-utilized here.  If you want some fun, escapist entertainment and have had your fill of Transformers, Harry Potter and Captain America, then this might just be the perfect mid-summer movie for you. 



Friday, July 22, 2011

“Sarah’s Key” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the French drama “Sarah’s Key”, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and (in a small role) Aidan Quinn.



An American journalist living in Paris is assigned to write a World War II story for a magazine article – but when her research causes her to investigate the life of a girl from that period, will learning the truth about her risk losing her own family?


Julia (Thomas) and her family have moved to France so she can work on pieces for the Paris bureau of the news magazine that employs her.  Being assigned an article on the French Holocaust known as The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup where the French government had their police arrest Jews living in their country so they could be turned over to the Nazis who occupied their land in mid-July of 1942, her research uncovers the amazing story of a girl named Sarah, who was only 10 years old at the time.  Trying to save her little brother Michel from the Nazis, Sarah locks him in a secret closet in their apartment and makes him promise not to leave until the family’s return in a few days. 

While learning Sarah’s secrets, Julia also winds up learning secrets of her in-laws as well.  It seems that by coincidence, the Paris apartment Julia and her family are about to occupy was the same apartment in which little Sarah lived with her own family during the war; the family of Julia’s in-laws moved into the apartment just weeks after Sarah’s family had been arrested and they have handed down the flat to their son and his wife.  Simultaneously, Julia discovers that she is now pregnant – something of a miracle since doctors told her she would never be able to have more children after giving birth to her daughter, who is now an adolescent.

As Julia uncovers layer upon layer of Sarah’s story, her in-laws’ own mystery begins to unravel, with family members soon learning the horror of the long-kept secret.  Combining this ugly past with the fact that he is faced with a future of suddenly having to care for a quite unexpected baby, Julia’s husband grows angry and distant; not helping matters any is the fact that Julia no longer wishes to live in the family’s apartment upon knowing its history.  On top of that, she is now gallivanting all over the globe in pursuit of a resolution to Sarah’s saga.  But will Julia ever find the truth about Sarah’s ending – and will her family remain intact upon its revelation?


Just in case you need another reminder for why you need to hate the French, along comes “Sarah’s Key” – somewhat ironic, since it’s a French production.  When it was announced in class that this was the movie we would be seeing, a number of people audibly gasped and sighed – all of them women who likely read the novel on which it was based.  While you might be especially taken with this film if you are Jewish or a woman (or both), I have to say that I found it a little on the melodramatic side for my tastes and therefore can’t really feel totally comfortable giving it a recommendation. 

Part of the problem with the movie comes with its heavy-handed treatment of the story and its dialog, not to mention the “magical thinking” nature of things:  Julia’s pregnancy, characterized as a “miracle” (perhaps an immaculate conception, given the apparent aloofness between husband and wife), the coincidence of the apartment and the impossible finding of Sarah’s now middle-aged son (Aidan Quinn).  Especially painful to watch – and listen to, due to the dialog – are the last scenes of the movie, when the actors are given the opportunity for some scenery chewing and the character’s closing remarks falling on your ears as if it were something like a benediction when it seems as though it was intended to be deeply philosophical. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed Phil Rosenthal, writer/director/star of the hilarious documentary “Exporting Raymond” (see my review here).  Rosenthal was there to promote the fact that the DVD of his documentary is soon to be released.  Just in case you never got around to catching this movie in the theaters in its understandably limited release, I strongly encourage you to rent the DVD.  Rosenthal is one of the most naturally funny raconteurs I have ever had the pleasure of hearing; he has the unique ability to find humor in just about any situation. 


Friday, July 15, 2011

“The Tree” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw an Australian drama called, “The Tree”, based on a novel titled, “Our Father, Who Art In A Tree”. 


When a young woman suddenly finds herself a widow, she is forced to support and raise her children as a single parent – but when her daughter believes her late father’s spirit lives on in an old tree, the woman also develops a similar emotional attachment. 


In her late 30’s, the last thought Dawn O’Neil has on her mind is becoming a widow – but there she is one day when her husband unexpectedly dies of a heart attack while driving their eight year old daughter Simone home one day.  All of a sudden, Dawn now finds herself forced to raise her four children by herself, all the while still mourning her loss.  Depressed and inconsolable, Dawn sleeps in and is hard to roust from bed, leaving the daily chores to her eldest, a teenage son, who soon seeks a part-time job to pitch-in while remaining in high school.  

After a couple of months, Simone believes she’s made a discovery in the imposing, ancient fig tree that’s grown long and hazardous roots in the family’s backyard – her father, she is certain, is actually alive in that tree.  While she can’t see him or hear him, Simone nevertheless believes that they are able to communicate with each other and continue their familial relationship.  Delighted with her discovery, Simone can’t help but share this with her mother, who, of course, is immediately skeptical, but decides to humor her daughter in any event.  Not long after this, however, Dawn finds herself believing Simone and proceeds to develop her own communication with the dangerous arbor. 

Eventually, Dawn is able to pull herself together enough to get a job as an assistant at a plumbing supply shop where she develops a relationship with George, the proprietor.  Once Dawn’s friendship with George blossoms into a romance, Simone immediately becomes angry because she feels as though her father has been forgotten.  However, when it becomes apparent that the backyard tree is endangering not only the entire family but their house as well, will Dawn be able to sacrifice her relationship both with it and Simone to have it removed for everyone’s safety? 


Sure, it would be incredibly easy to characterize this movie as a “chick flick”.  But would doing so necessarily be a pejorative?  I suppose that depends on what the term “chick flick” might mean to you.  “The Tree” is about feelings and spiritual beliefs and – most ostensibly – about how a grown woman copes with single parenthood in a most unlikely setting.  So, is describing it as “a chick flick” trivializing the film?  Not necessarily, I would suggest, particularly, if that was the intended audience of the filmmakers, which is what appears to be the case – and that’s OK, even if it means it’s not my cup of tea. 

While it may not necessarily be the kind of movie that might cause some women to reach for the tissues every couple of minutes, you might find it a nice alternative while your man sees the latest “Transformers” movie.  Am I generalizing?  Yep, I sure am.  Am I guilty of Sexual Profiling?  Ya, you betcha.  Not apologizing for either one, by the way.  When movies are made, some of them are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, while others are targeted to a specific demographic; this one fits into the latter category.  Did I love it?  No – I had issues with how quickly and easily Dawn abruptly changed from doubter to believer.  Also, I thought there were too many characters in the story, leaving some to be under-developed or undeveloped; additionally, some of the dialog is a bit clunky, as you might pick up from the trailer, below. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor re-interviewed director Chris Weitz, who was there to follow-up on the interview he gave us when we recently screened his latest movie, the wonderful “A Better Life” (please click here for the review, just in case it missed you).  Weitz went a little more in-depth about his background, describing his close relationship with his brother, four years his senior.  Having a similar sensibility in their youth, they went on to collaborate writing stage plays and screenplays in adulthood; Weitz said that his older brother had greater discipline for the craft of writing, which is why he went on to some success as a playwright. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Scotch By Region



Recently, I had the opportunity to take a class at The Astor Center of New York City called “Scotch Whisky: A Regional Tasting Tour” where attendees were given the opportunity to sample Scotches from different parts of Scotland to get a better appreciation of how they differed from one part of the country to another. This gave me a chance to not only revisit a couple of my own personal favorites but also, to try ones I’d heard of but never tasted before, as well as to provide an occasion to learn about some that were unfamiliar to me.

The evening actually began not with a Scotch but instead with an old cocktail made with the spirit. Blood & Sand was a cocktail created in the era of silent movies as something of a tribute to the Rudolph Valentino film of the same name. In this flick, Valentino played the part of a bullfighter and it was believed that the combination of ingredients for this drink perfectly matched the spirit of the film. The recipe is as follows:

  • ¾ oz. Benriach 12 year old Scotch
  • ¾ oz. Luxardo Cherry Liqueur
  • ¾ oz. sweet vermouth
  • ¾ oz. orange juice

Shake up all of the ingredients in an ice-filled shaker, then strain into either a coupe glass (which is how we were served the cocktail in class) or a cocktail (i.e., martini) glass.

Benriach Scotch is a peated spirit from the Speyside region of Scotland; the instructor said he used that particular brand of Scotch because it is a relatively inexpensive yet flavorful type of Scotch that lacks any kind of oiliness. Additionally, you will notice that each one of the cocktail’s four ingredients are used in equal parts; the instructor pointed out that this is the mark of what he regarded as a finely crafted cocktail which doesn’t have any one ingredient completely dominating.

We started our tasting with one from the Lowlands region (Auchentoshan 12 year old), then moved north to the Highlands (Old Pulteney 12 year old) and Speyside (Glenrothes Select Reserve Single Malt, Glendronach 15 year Single Malt) before going to Campbeltown (Springbank 10 year old Single Malt) and finishing up with the islands – specifically, Islay (Laphroaig 10 year old and Port Charlotte PC7). In tasting each Scotch, we sample the dram first on its own, beginning with a thorough nosing to get a sense of its aroma, then tried it with a few drops of water added to see how this changed the chemical composition as well as to determine if it made the Scotch better or worse or merely different. This blog post will concern itself with only the first and last items from the tasting menu as these were two extremes.



The Lowlands region is in the southern portion of Scotland, near Ireland. Its Scotches are triple-distilled and contain no peat, which tends to make them good as an introductory Scotch. We tried an Auchentoshan 12 year old from the Lowlands, an 80 proof spirit aged in a combination of both bourbon and sherry casks. Adding the water to it released its sweetness; its lightness made for a good summertime Scotch.


Ending the evening was the Islay-based Port Charlotte (PC7). Aged only seven years, this had an even peatier and smokier nose and taste than even Laphroaig, which we had just tasted. This one also had the strongest alcohol content at 122 proof – as a result of that combination, there were quite a few people who started to cough and choke because they weren’t ready for such a powerful Scotch.

Have you ever tried any of the Scotches on this menu?  If so, please leave a comment and share your experience.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

“Project Nim” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw director James Marsh’s “Project Nim”, a documentary about a scientist’s experiments in the 1970’s to teach sign language to a chimpanzee – but when his personal issues insinuate themselves into the experiments, the study becomes invalidated.  Marsh is an Academy Award winning director for his documentary “Man On Wire”, about Philippe Petit, the guy who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of The World Trade Center. 


Herb Terrace is a science professor at Columbia University in New York City. In the early 1970’s he got an idea that he believed would make him rich and famous: if he could teach a chimpanzee sign language, he could prove that they could communicate with humans, which would be a major scientific breakthrough in his field of study. Driven by his own blindingly egomaniacal ambition and arrogantly narcissistic lust for power and women, Terrace ruthlessly sets out to do whatever he felt was necessary to perform his experiments with the appearance of success and thus gain notoriety from the media as a result.

Starting with taking the newborn chimp from his mother at a primate research center in Oklahoma, he names the baby “Nim Chimpsky” after noted linguist Noam Chomsky. From there, the chimp is then whisked away to what will become a merry-go-round of research assistants who act as Nim’s caretakers or surrogate mothers – a number of whom wind up being seduced by Terrace at various points along the way. First, he engages a graduate psychology student who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; there, Nim lives in her apartment where the woman attempts to raise him as a human child but he winds up destroying her home in more ways than one. Nim is then transferred to a young undergraduate student who finds increasing success in teaching Nim a vocabulary through sign language.

As Nim gets passed along from one person to another, he grows increasingly frustrated – and as a maturing chimp, he also grows increasingly strong, taking out his rage on others by physically assaulting them. Eventually, Terrace terminates the study and declares it a failure, despite all of the media hype suggesting the contrary. He returns Nim to the research center, but by then, the center is running low on money because they are encountering difficulty getting funding. The center then sells Nim to a medical research facility that conducts drug experimentation on animals, but he is rescued and is eventually purchased by the famous owner of an animal preserve in Texas, where Nim becomes despondent and lonely because he is the only chimp there.


On the surface, this movie is about an experiment conducted by some bozo who tried to teach monkeys how to communicate with humans via the same sign language that deaf people use. What it’s really about, however, is so much more fascinating and infuriating, especially if you’re an animal lover. “Project Nim” is more about what happens when human folly unnecessarily ruins an animal’s life due to personal flaws such as selfishness and avarice; “Nim” is less about a scientific experiment gone awry than it is about how humans go awry in their life – and how their actions negatively impact on others, and in this case, a chimpanzee, too.

Although I found this documentary to be gripping and highly involving even if you’re not exactly a staunch supporter of PETA, I did have some misgivings about the way it was told, but not so much the story it was telling. For one thing, Marsh, the director, resorted to some obvious “faked” footage in order to tell his story; while the documentary is full of interviews, still photos and home movie footage, there were quite a number of scenes shot that were basically recreations or dramatizations of actual events that took place. Unfortunately, I feel this sometimes takes away from the credibility of the filmmaker and/or his film. Nevertheless, “Project Nim” is able to rise above this and remain a stunning example of the evil humans do both to each other and to animals.

Both before and after the screening, journalist Elizabeth Hess was interviewed; she was the author of the book, “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human”, which inspired this documentary. She had some interesting observations about the movie, comparing it favorably to her book. Hess said that her original reason for wanting to write this book was that she was interested in doing a biography of an animal rather than a human being. As a consultant on the documentary, the author also mentioned that she’s seen the film a few times as she’s been involved in doing publicity; in the course of her travels, she has sat on panels that included Herb Terrace, whose presence is somewhat surprising since he has been made out to look like such a villain in the movie. Perhaps this reveals even more about his need for being the constant center of attention, even if it’s negative.




Monday, July 04, 2011

“A Better Life” – Movie Review




Recently in my movie class, we saw the drama “A Better Life”, directed by Chris Weitz (“About A Boy” and “American Pie”).  



When an illegal alien’s truck is stolen, he enlists the aid of his teenage son to try to recover it so he can resume his landscaping job – but will he be able to evade immigration agents who threaten to separate him from his boy?



Carlos Galindo is a hard-working landscaper who awakes each morning at sunrise in his East Los Angeles home where he sleeps on the couch so his teenage son Luis can spend the night in an actual bed in the only bedroom in the house.   From there, he waits for Blasco, his boss, to arrive in his pick-up truck to take him to his scheduled appointment for the day’s work and together, they make the long drive to a wealthy West Los Angeles neighborhood.  Carlos would gladly love to have not only his own truck, but his own business, too, so he could be his own boss and make some real money to give Luis the upbringing he deserves -- but being an illegal alien who entered this country from Mexico nearly seven years ago, such opportunities are few and far between. 

One day, Blasco informs Carlos he’s returning to Mexico now that he’s made a substantial savings in the landscaping business thanks to the wealthy homeowners in West L.A.; Blasco’s plan is to purchase his own land somewhere in Mexico and live out the rest of his days as a farmer with his family.  Worried for his best employee’s well-being, he encourages Carlos to buy his truck so that he can assume the business and the clientele they’ve both worked to cultivate.  While Carlos would like nothing more than to do this, he’s forced to decline simply because he doesn’t have the $12,000 Blasco is asking.  Threatened with the possibility of completely losing his income, Carlos swallows his pride and asks his sister, a Los Angeles maid, for the money; knowing her brother’s work ethic and concerned for her nephew Luis, she gives Carlos the money she’s collected for her meager savings over the years so he can buy the truck. 

Now running the business and in need of a reliable co-worker, Carlos takes his truck to the nearby street corner where he knows Mexican day workers gather early each morning in the hope that they can earn some money; Carlos, being the ethical type, picks up Santiago, a man who earlier showed him a small kindness, hoping that this gesture will in some way repay the man.  Together, they go out on a landscaping job, but while engaged in the work, Carlos discovers that Santiago has just stolen his new truck, along with the gardening tools and his cell phone.  Joined by Luis, Carlos sets out in the dangerous East L.A. in an effort to try to reclaim his truck.  But even if he is able to recover the vehicle, can Carlos succeed in eluding the immigration agents who threaten to send him back to Mexico?



Prior to the screening, our instructor lectured us about the post-World War II neo-realist films that came from Italy, including and especially Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”, to which he favorably compared “A Better Life”. After seeing “A Better Life”, I now understand the reason for the comparison – and completely agree with the favorable likeness.  I was in no way prepared for how much I loved this movie.  In the beginning, I thought that the film was going to have the look and feel of one of those righteous-cause-of-the-week made-for-TV movies, but it wound up developing into so much more. 

This story is very compelling and fraught with suspenseful moments, performed by a number of actors with minimal – if any – acting experience.   Additionally, it manages to humanize the immigrant community and provides an insightful back-story as to how Carlos and his family came to this country; along the way, while on a quest for the truck, Carlos has difficult moments with his son, but ultimately, forms an unbreakable bond with Luis – especially when their familial ties are threatened.  I highly recommend this movie because it is a well-made film; however, if you strongly disagree with the premise on which it is based – the illegal immigrant issue being a particular hot-button topic in this country these days – then you may not be able to appreciate the story. 

Director Chris Weitz was interviewed before the screening.  Just in case you’re unfamiliar with his work, he has a rather varied and eclectic track record.  It was a great interview and he spoke most eloquently about how he came to make the movie and the experience of filming and casting “A Better Life”.  He said that what drew him to the project was the fact that he is the product of immigrants in his own family – an Hispanic mother and German grandfather on his father’s side.  Also, he mentioned that one of the actors who auditioned was a young man who was not a professional  – he came from a poor family and had to take something like three buses to get to the audition, a two and a half hour commute.  Hearing this story, Weitz felt that the kid had enough dedication to take the job seriously, so he hired him.