Wednesday, September 28, 2011

“Moneyball” – Movie Review


This week, my movie class had a rare weekday bonus screening of the new Brad Pitt film, “Moneyball”, which also stars Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman.



When the General Manager of a small market Major League Baseball team becomes frustrated by the budgetary constraints that prevent him from signing the big-name free agent players, he enlists the aid of a young man with a brilliant mathematical mind to help him find the best bargain-basement players he can afford – but can this approach really produce a winner?


As General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, Billy Beane (Pitt) thinks he may have assembled a winning group in 2001 – but after his team loses to the soon-to-be Pennant-winning New York Yankees, his disappointment is only matched by his frustration when three of his key players abandon him for the more lucrative offers of big-market major league teams upon their ascent to free agency.  Despite his pleas for a larger payroll budget being declined by the team’s owner, Beane is determined to field a competitive team for the next season. 

When his quest to maneuver trades for players he can afford comes up empty, he discovers Peter Brand (Hill), a bright young man whom Beane soon learns has the ear – and the trust – of his boss, the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians.  Impressed by Brand’s enthusiasm for the game and in-depth comprehension of the underlying statistics behind it, Beane hires Brand and immediately names him Assistant General Manager of the A’s.  Together, they set out to build a quality team on the cheap in an unorthodox way – by contracting players who are relatively inexpensive because other teams have given up on them.

After assembling a motley collection of big league rejects, the following season does not start off as planned; only a month and a half into 2002, Oakland finds itself in last place in their division.  Following Beane’s shakeup of the team, the players start to jell and go on to enjoy a record-setting winning streak.  But all is still not well – both his field manager Art Howe (Hoffman) and the team’s top scouts mutiny against Beane’s unusual tactics.  Nevertheless, Beane stands by Brand and his unique method throughout the remainder of the season.  But can the team achieve their goal of making it far into the post-season? 


As many people already know, this movie is based on a book, which itself is based on the true story of Billy Beane, who started out life as a so-called baseball “phenom” who forsook college to instead sign a contract with the New York Mets straight out of high school.  When his playing career didn’t pan out, Beane became a baseball scout and then rose through the ranks until becoming a General Manager.  Since the movie covers this amount of back-story, it transforms “Moneyball” into a story much larger than just baseball – for me, it is a story of redemption where Beane not only seeks the professional success that eluded him in his youth, but also, about validating the various decisions he made in his personal life as well. 

The film hits on all cylinders – directing, script and acting – and therefore, I highly recommend you see it while it’s in the theaters; don’t wait until it can be downloaded – it’ll be worth the time and expense to see it as soon as possible.  “Moneyball” will appeal to both baseball fans and non-fans alike; while containing plenty of stats to hold the interest of most baseball nerds, non-fans will appreciate it because of the universality of its examination of the human condition.  There is no love story per se (unless you count Beane’s passion for the game), but the filmmakers utilize the character of Beane’s 12 year old daughter to humanize him and thus make the protagonist more capable of being rooted for.  To me, this was the one shortcoming of an otherwise excellent movie; the obvious dramatic conceit was unnecessary and distracting from the main story, despite a good performance by the actress in the role of Beane’s child. The use of her song, the lyrics of which were somehow supposed to be mirroring Beane’s life was a little too obvious for my taste. 

After the screening, our instructor interviewed director Bennett Miller.  Miller said that the project had been in churn through the Hollywood system for a number of years due to various misfortunes; with Pitt attached to it as both star and co-producer, Miller was contacted by Pitt two years ago and eventually, the casting and financing of the film started to come together.  Miller mentioned that his favorite part of the filmmaking process was post-production; “The editing is where the film is really made”, he said.  Keeping that in mind, he also informed us that he was in post-production on this movie from November of 2010 right up until only a few weeks ago.  His previous directing experience of a feature film was “Capote”, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom he went on to form a friendship which is how he came to be cast as the manager in “Moneyball”. 


Sunday, September 25, 2011

“50/50” – Movie Review


This morning, my movie class held its 2nd weekend bonus screening of the fall semester with the comedy/drama “50/50” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen (who also co-produced) and Anna Kendrick (George Clooney’s young trainee from “Up In The Air”). 



When a young man is given 50/50 odds of survival after being diagnosed with cancer, he tries his best to beat the disease – but will he have the support of his friends and family in trying to do so?



At 27 years of age, Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man with a beautiful girlfriend and a promising career as a segment producer for public radio – but when he can’t shake a nagging backache, he finally sees a doctor, who diagnoses the cause as a rare cancer in the form of a malignant spinal tumor.  Researching the malady, he learns that he only has a 50% chance of survival.  Nevertheless, he sets out to do his best to try to overcome the illness by taking chemotherapy and seeing Katherine (Kendrick), a hospital-appointed therapist who is seeking to earn a doctorate degree.  The problem here is that she’s even younger than Adam, who is only her third patient. 

Adam’s girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) swears her allegiance to him, helping him throughout his recovery period, even when Adam’s doting mother (Anjelica Houston) offers to move in.  Unfortunately for Adam, it soon becomes evident that Rachael is not up to the task; a self-absorbed artist, she is more concerned with her own career than with her boyfriend’s health.  Ultimately, when Adam’s high school buddy Kyle (Rogen) is able to prove that Rachael has been cheating on him, Adam dumps her, tossing her out of his house, opting instead to go it alone. 

After getting increasingly ill due to the chemotherapy, Adam learns that the treatment is not having the desired result.  His doctor informs him that the only choice at this point is surgery to remove the tumor – although this certainly has no guarantees attached.  As Adam awaits the surgery, a friendship develops between him and Katherine, outside of her office.  With Katherine, Kyle and Adam’s parents all in his corner, he appears to have an ample support system – but will this be enough to help him win out over the cancer?


If you aren’t terribly fond of movies that could be described as “heartwarming” – and I could certainly appreciate that – then it would be understandable that you’d want to stay clear of “50/50”.  Yet the filmmakers have managed to successfully create something of a comedic buddy movie about a disease.  Keep in mind that while Seth Rogen’s role is large and crucial to the story, he is not the star of this movie – he serves more as comic relief than anything else.   The cast is superb and the story is well-told, causing me to give this one a high recommendation; this is definitely a movie you want to see in theaters as soon as it’s released. 

One of the minor misgivings I had about the film was Kendrick’s character of Katherine, the therapist.  The romantic entanglement that occurs between Katherine and Adam feels a bit contrived, as does the unlikely pairing of such an inexperienced therapist with a young man close to her in age.  That said, however, it’s certainly not enough to dissuade me from recommending the movie because the filmmakers magically made the whole thing emerge as believable in the end.  Also, if you’ve grown weary of Rogen’s typical slacker-pothead-hedonist character, then please be advised that you get plenty more of the same in “50/50”. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with the film’s screenwriter, Will Reiser.  This movie is based on a true story – Reiser’s.  As a producer for Sacha Baron Cohen’s old HBO TV show “Ali G”, Reiser networked himself well and wound up becoming friends with Seth Rogen in real life.  About seven months after the TV show ended, Reiser was diagnosed with cancer.  Early on, he and Rogen had joked about making a comedy concerning a serious illness -- “50/50” was the movie that ultimately resulted.  One thing that Reiser mentioned did not occur to him in real life was the romance with his therapist – his real life therapist was in fact a woman in her 60’s. 



Sunday, September 18, 2011

“Toast” – Movie Review



This past weekend, the fall semester of my movie class resumed its bonus screenings and we saw the British drama Toast  starring Helena Bonham Carter; the movie is based on the memoirs of Nigel Slater, a noted food writer and television personality in The United Kingdom. 


When a 9 year old boy loses his mother, his widower father hires a housekeeper to care for them – but will the little boy be able to overcome his anger towards this woman who seems to be trying to replace his late mother?


In 1960’s England amidst a backdrop of Dusty Springfield recordings, 9 year old Nigel Slater falls in love – with food.  Despite the fact that his loving mother is quite possibly the worst cook in the entire United Kingdom, Nigel passionately desires that which he cannot have – a delicious meal.  While most little boys might spend nights under the covers with a flashlight furtively stealing glimpses of scantily clad women in magazines, Nigel prefers to spend those stolen moments groaning orgasmically at pictures of dishes like boeuf bourguignon, spaghetti Bolognese and crème brulee. 

Tragically, the hungry little boy’s mother eventually passes from a severe case of Emphysema and he is left to live with his cranky, hostile father – who, by the way, can’t cook, either.  Although Nigel tries to make the best of things by teaching himself to cook, it soon becomes clear to his dad that they’re in over their head here, so he hires Mrs. Joan Potter (Carter) to keep house for them.  A chain-smoker and a woman whom Nigel describes as “common”, the boy takes an instant dislike to her because he feels that she is trying to step into his late mother’s shoes.  For all of her faults, however, it must be admitted that Mrs. Potter does have one saving grace:  she’s an amazing cook – and with this talent, she can be partially forgiven. 

A lonely widower, Nigel’s dad buys a new house in the countryside, where he has convinced Mrs. Potter to leave her husband and be their live-in help.  In this location, they have their privacy and are far away from prying neighbors.  On top of that, however, they are in the middle of nowhere, which Nigel hates – not to mention the fact that he must now attend a new school, losing his old friends.  To make matters worse, the tension between himself and Mrs. Potter only increases.  Eventually, the father marries Mrs. Potter, causing Nigel’s competitive nature to come out when he tries to out-cook her.  But will he be able to make peace with his new stepmother and in the course of doing so, win the favor of his father?


If you are a regular viewer of Anthony Bourdain’s television show “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel, then you may be familiar with the term “food porn” – that is to say, photographs of food so delectable that they arouse some deep, dark visceral reactions in the viewer.  Such “food porn” is especially appreciated by a community known as “foodies”, who are unashamed of their obsession (and if you don’t believe me, try doing a search on the Internet for food blogs).  Clearly, this movie is designed to appeal to such foodies because of the amount of food porn it contains – the lemon meringue pie alone will make you want to leap out of your theater seat and take a great big bite out of the immense movie screen. 

Despite the proliferation of foodies in our culture, this movie will likely find great difficulty in attracting an audience.  For one thing, Helena Bonham Carter is the only recognizable name in the cast and while her role is crucial to the story, it’s not all that big in the grand scheme of things because it’s actually Nigel’s story.  Another obstacle for this movie finding an audience in the United States is due to the fact that Nigel Slater is largely unknown here, although he has long been highly regarded in the UK for his writing on food.  Also, the movie basically makes an attempt to villanize Carter’s character of Mrs. Potter, while in fact, she’s really not at all evil, except in the eyes of the young Nigel. 

While the majority of the class really seemed to like the movie, virtually no one knew of Nigel Slater.  Perhaps much of the appreciation for “Toast” is due to the fact that this is a very different story which takes viewers into an unfamiliar world.  The film’s screenplay was written by the same person who wrote the script for “Billy Elliott” and it also touches on Nigel’s homosexuality; some of the scenes may actually be a little uncomfortable to watch, depending on your level of tolerance.  Early on, we see the 8 year old Nigel lusting after the family’s landscaper; later, we see him as a 17 year old surreptitiously kissing a young man he meets at work.  While the romantic yearnings of an adolescent may not be a huge issue, the presumed lust of a pre-pubescent schoolboy was somewhat of an unpleasant experience for me – but as always, your mileage may vary. 


Saturday, September 17, 2011

An App For Your Nightcap



A few months ago, I exhaled deeply and made the great technological leap: I upgraded my cell phone to a Smartphone. Shortly thereafter, I fell joyously down the rat hole of these things called “apps” – small programs that can be installed on and run from your cell phone. Neat-O, for sure!

But once I realized how much the power of these apps could be harnessed in a handheld device, it occurred to me that if there were apps that could provide you with directions, weather forecasts and neighborhood movie listings, you could certainly find one (or more) that could help you mix a refreshing adult beverage, no?

Delightedly, I can report to you that the answer to that question is a resounding Yes!

And the even better news is the fact that whether you’ve got an iPhone, an Android or a Blackberry, there’s bound to be something out there compatible with your Smartphone that will suit your mixology needs.

A couple of years ago, The Wall Street Journal compiled a list of cocktail-related iPhone apps. While an app called Cocktails+ is probably preferable if you’re a professional, it’s rather expensive at around $10. Perhaps a better choice might be the more affordable app conveniently called Cocktails Made Easy (does that name sound familiar to anyone?), priced at only $3. However, the caveat here is that some of the recipes may not wind up making terribly strong drinks, so you may want to consider improvising accordingly.

If you are an Android user, The New York Times found some even cheaper cocktail apps for you to download including a free app called 8500+ Free Cocktails. The possible downside to this one is that with all of those recipes, some of them are a little questionable. Alternatively, the article recommends Pocket Cocktails, which scores high marks for usability.

For those of you Blackberry owners, Yahoo’s research turns up several cocktail-related apps – unfortunately, they don’t list prices, but they do provide links to the site where you can get more information. Among their recommendations are Bartender Pro and Mix Mentor. Bartender Pro ($3) allows you to look up recipes either by the name of the cocktail or by an ingredient, which can be handy if you have some extra spirit or liqueur on hand that you want to use up in a new and different way. Mix Mentor ($4), on the other hand, takes a more academic approach to drink-making in that besides merely including recipes, it also has a glossary containing definitions of various bartending terms. So, if you’re looking for a bit of an education with which you can amaze your friends and bore your co-workers, this might just be the appropriate app.

As for me, I’m a relatively new Android user, so I’m going to start taking a look at some of the apps referenced in The New York Times article mentioned above. That’s sure to be some of the most fun research I’ve ever conducted, I’m certain of that.


Monday, September 05, 2011

Getting Germane With St-Germain



About five years ago or so, I attended a tasting at a nearby liquor store, which included something I’d never heard of at the time – St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur. When the company representative began his spiel about the product, I was surprised that he wasn’t pushing me to immediately taste it, either on its own or in a cocktail – instead, oddly enough, he wanted me to smell it, which I did. It was then that I understood why he wanted me to take a sniff before sipping – the uniqueness of its aroma made me even more curious about its flavor. So, instead of him begging me to sample it in a cocktail, I was the one who implored him for a taste.

From that point on, I was smitten and have been a loyal customer ever since. You will always find at least one bottle of the stuff in my home – actually, one bottle in either my fridge or freezer and one gift set on the side, just in case I need to have a present ready for someone at the last minute. (The gift set, by the way, is quite nice as it includes a carafe and stirrer as well as a collection of cocktail recipes)

Some of my favorite drinks including St-Germain are the signature St-Germain cocktail, London Lemonade and something called The St-Germargarita. Here are their recipes:

The St-Germain Cocktail

This one is pretty easy to make as it is equal parts of St-Germain, club soda and Champagne in an ice-filled Collins glass; stir it up a bit and sip through a straw. For me, it’s the perfect was to spend cocktail hour on a sultry summer day.

London Lemonade

The London Lemonade is one that I happened to stumble upon at one of my favorite seafood restaurants in Manhattan; after sampling it for the first time, I asked my regular server to get me the recipe from the bartender and he supplied me with what follows:

Fill a pint glass or shaker with ice, then squeeze the juice from an entire lemon into it. Add 2 ounces of gin (the restaurant recommends Hendricks, but I prefer Bulldog), then 1 ounce of St-Germain and shake. Pour into an ice-filled Collins glass (or simply use the ice from your shaker/pint glass) and finally, top it all off with Champagne (i.e., any sparkling wine, preferably something dry).

The St-Germargarita

As you may have guessed, this is merely your basic margarita which uses St-Germain instead of triple sec, Cointreau or whatever it is you normally would use for a sweet liqueur in your recipe.

If you’ve never heard of or tried St-Germain in your cocktails, I strongly urge you to do so as soon as you possibly can. While it might be hyperbole to insist that it’s impossible to make a bad cocktail with St-Germain, I’ll maintain that even if you wanted to, you’d have to try really, really hard.

Are you on Facebook? If so, then you might want to consider visiting St-Germain’s Fan Page and adding them among your “Likes” because they have a tendency to post many other interesting cocktail recipes there as well.