Monday, November 28, 2011

The Chivas Brotherhood




Recently, I joined something called The Chivas Brotherhood. I found out about it when I’d gotten an e – mail from Chivas informing me of its existence (I’d previously registered my e – mail address on their Web site in order to be informed of special deals and local tastings).

The Chivas Brotherhood Web Site describes their group as follows:

There's a certain bond that can only be attained by a group of men.

Men willing to forsake all other things in the name of true friendship. Men who know when it's time to spend quality time with the boys. Men who understand how to be chivalrous, not only to others but to themselves. Men who seek and conquer the finer things in life, as a group. Men who work hard and play harder. Men with decorum. Men with pride. These men belong to an elite group.

These men belong to The Brotherhood.



Upon gaining membership, I came to be informed that several parts of the country – including my locale of New York City – had what was known as The 1801 Club. These clubs are locations where their tastings often occur.

Where did the idea of The 1801 Club come from? In the year of 1801, a grocery store in the Highlands section of Scotland sold (among other things) Chivas; eventually, they started selling their Scotch to The British Empire. Once this occurred, Chivas Regal was then born and 1801 thus became a sacred year in the hearts and minds of the manufacturers of Chivas Scotch.

According to The Chivas Brotherhood Web Site, “The 1801 Club offers Chivas Brotherhood members access to exclusive, RSVP-only events at private venues in your city. Unwind, network, connect with other Brotherhood members and, of course, taste some Chivas”.

Quickly, I signed up for something called The Chivas Indulgence Tasting even though I had no idea what the purpose of the tasting was – its name alone was enough to arouse my curiosity. The Chivas Indulgence Tasting consisted of Chivas Regal 12 year old Scotch in a variety of forms – alone and mixed in cocktails. Chivas’ 12 year old is its most popular Scotch, containing a blend of 25 Single Malts, while its 18 year old contains 20 Single Malts.

I began the evening with the Blood & Sand cocktail, which contained Chivas, Sweet Vermouth, Cherry Brandy and Orange Juice. This was followed by a Rob Roy, made of Chivas, Lillet Rouge and Angostura Bitters. Next was a Chivas & Ginger Ale, then something called Out Of This World – Chivas, Orange Juice, Pineapple Juice, Apricot Brandy, Peach Brandy, Lemon Juice and Orgeat. Finally, we wound up with a cocktail named “Ward 8 (1898)”, made of Chivas, Lemon Juice, Orange Juice and Grenadine.

The United States has a total of six Chivas 1801 Clubs; aside from New York, they are also located in Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. If you live in or near any of these cities, I highly recommend you register with The Chivas Brotherhood so that you can sign up for future tastings.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

“The Muppets” – Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we saw the new Disney comedy, “The Muppets” starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and, of course, The Muppets.



When an evil oil baron threatens to buy The Muppets’ old studio so he can close it down and drill for oil there, can The Muppets reunite in time to save their former home? 



Gary (Segal) and his younger brother Walter are best pals – which is why Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Adams) understands when he wants to bring Walter along on their trip to Hollywood.  But growing up as a devout fan of The Muppets, Walter has only one goal on this trip:  to take a tour of The Muppets studio and visit their theater.  During the tour, Walter overhears the greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Cooper) talking to his colleagues about his plan to buy the land of The Muppets one-time headquarters so he can tear it down and drill for oil on that location. 

Walter immediately takes this as a call to action to save what he regards as a national landmark of his personal heroes.  Seeking assistance from Gary and Mary, they visit legendary Muppet leader Kermit the Frog to inform him of the impending crisis.  Hearing the details, Kermit realizes that the only way for them to raise the money that will prevent Richman from succeeding in his plan would be to reunite with The Muppets and put on a show.  Asking his three visitors to help him find his ex-Muppets in order to request their aid, the group soon sets out on a journey across the country and around the world to locate The Frog’s former cohorts. 

Once the old gang is back together, they begin pitching their idea of a Muppet Telethon to all of the TV networks – the only problem is that none of them appear to be interested because The Muppets are no longer considered “hip”.  Ultimately, one network finally agrees after they encounter an unforeseen programming crisis.  But when putting on the show, can they raise enough money to save their theater – and along the way, can they prevent Richman from foiling their plans?    



Time has in no way diminished the delightful whimsy and joyful silliness that defines The Muppets, especially when it comes to their movies.  If Muppet creator Jim Henson was still alive, I like to think that he would be very proud of this movie because it very clearly retains much of The Muppets sensibility and humor in the sense that they are self-aware, self-referential and always mocking the conceits of the medium in which they work by adding jokes that either wink at the audience or break through that so-called fourth wall.  I highly recommend you see this movie, whether or not you’re able to bring a child – seeing it will make you feel like a kid again yourself.

All of that said, I nevertheless have to wonder if this movie will be successful.  One of the reasons why I have my doubts is the fact that when it was announced that this would be the weekend bonus screening for our class, it received a less than enthusiastic response, even though students were permitted to bring kids (9 years of age or older) to the screening, which is a bit unorthodox for this class.  There weren’t too many students who responded to the invitation – and even fewer that brought kids – so you have to wonder if anyone still cares about The Muppets anymore.  Ironically, this is one of the key plot points of the film – the fact that The Muppets are irrelevant.  It may wind up being more prescient than the filmmakers or the studio (Disney, who now owns The Muppets) wishes. 

Just in case you haven’t already heard about this, the movie opens with a Toy Story short, which serves as the perfect curtain-raiser setting the tone for the feature.  This in itself gives me yet another justification for questioning whether or not “The Muppets” will find an audience with children of this generation.  Have The Muppets found themselves to be inconsequential because their gentle simplicity has been superseded by superior technological advances?   Hopefully not, but time will certainly tell.  Today’s kids are used to movies and video games that are visually stunning, while “The Muppets”, by comparison, is not.  If this movie does succeed, maybe it will be due in large part to the fact that adults who fondly remember them from their youth are amply ready to embrace this reboot. 


Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Artist – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama, “The Artist”, starring a couple of French actors you probably don’t know, but John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell appear in major supporting roles. 


After a silent-screen movie star falls upon hard times when “Talkies” arrive, will he be able to regain his stature?



In the Hollywood of 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) seemed to rule the world as a star of silent movies.  At a chance encounter during a photo opportunity following his latest movie premiere, he meets an aspiring actress by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who is star-struck at his presence.  After his jealous wife Doris (Miller) becomes suspicious upon seeing their picture in the paper, George unsuccessfully tries to convince her that he is not cheating.  But after Peppy runs into him again after auditioning for a movie role, George saves her job when studio head Al Zimmer (Goodman) tries to fire her. 

Although she admits to George that she has something of a crush on him, he and Peppy soon realize that their mutual attraction must go unfulfilled because he is married.  Becoming dedicated to her career as a result, Peppy works hard and gradually rises through the ranks to earn bigger and better parts in subsequent movies.  Within the next couple of years, however, modern technology delivers sound to movies and Zimmer sees that this is the future of his business.  Realizing that this era of “talkies” brings with it a demand from audiences for fresh faces, he fires George; at the same time, Peppy – a relative unknown – gains increasing prominence and becomes blessed with stardom in the early days of talkies. 

Finding himself without the backing of a movie studio, George funds his own movies, acting as writer-director-producer-star.  The only problem is that he continues to make silent films at a time when audiences are now captivated by moving pictures with sound – his movie flops and he loses even more of his fortune when the stock market crashes.  With Doris having left him, his only companions now are his pet dog and Clifton (Cromwell) – his chauffeur from the good old days who stays with his old boss during lean times out of loyalty.  But when George is now forced to live like a pauper and turns to drink, will he completely give up on himself or will he be able to find a way to revive his career? 



As I usually do, I have placed a trailer for the current review’s movie at the end of this post; that said, the following sums up my feelings about “The Artist” – regardless of whether or not you have read this review, if you can resist seeing this movie after viewing the trailer below, then quite simply, you don’t deserve to see a movie quite this good.  “The Artist” is one of those films that reminds you of just how much magic movies can possess – and if you consider yourself a movie buff (in particular, a fan of films from the 1920’s and 1930’s), then quite frankly, how can you not see this movie?

Having said all of that, I will tell you that if you haven’t yet viewed the trailer, there are two very important things that you should know about “The Artist”:  1)  It is in black & white, not color; and 2) It is a silent film.  Yep, you read that right – this is a silent film about silent films!  Daring?  You betcha (as Sarah Palin might say), especially in this day and age.  But if you don’t absolutely fall in love with this adorable movie that in itself is something of an homage to films of this era, then you just plain don’t love movies.  Period.  In addition to the above two caveats that I mentioned, it doesn’t feature any major Hollywood stars and is actually a French-funded picture – if you don’t consider any of those things a strike against “The Artist” then you are guaranteed to fall head-over-heels in love with this movie. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed Penelope Ann Miller, who was all dolled-up because she was in town to attend the movie’s premiere.  During the interview, she recounted her experience with being offered her role of Doris in “The Artist” – she was sent a very untraditional script because it had no dialog.  Instead, she said that it felt like she was reading something between a short story and a comic book because the screenplay had no dialog – it was mostly just narrative, occasionally broken up with small storyboard-like drawings to serve as illustrations for key parts of scenes.  Clearly enthusiastic about this unusual movie, she nevertheless had to leave the class prior to our viewing so that she could return to the Manhattan theater where the premiere occurred so she could be interviewed by the press. 



Saturday, November 12, 2011

“Tower Heist” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new comedy “Tower Heist”, starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy and directed by Brett Ratner.


When employees of a luxury apartment building learn they’ve been bilked out of their life savings by one of the building’s wealthy residents, they decide to get revenge by stealing back their money from him – but since none of them are professional thieves, can their plan have any possibility of succeeding?


As the building manager for an elite high-rise Manhattan apartment building, Josh (Stiller) is a hard-working professional dedicated to his job of serving the needs of the building’s residents – including and especially Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a rich Wall Street executive well-respected for his investment acumen. It is with great shock and horror, then, when Josh and his fellow employees learn that Shaw has been arrested by the FBI because he’s swindled people out of their life savings – and what makes matters even worse is the fact that the building workers were all victims as well. Shortly thereafter, Shaw makes bail but is held in his apartment under house arrest; a furious Josh confronts him over the matter and winds up being fired by the General Manager (Judd Hirsch) for his outburst.

Out of a job – along with a couple of his colleagues found guilty by association – Josh decides to get revenge. Initially, he sets out to cooperate as fully as possible with the authorities by providing information to the FBI Agent in charge of the case (Tea Leoni), but his efforts go unappreciated because he can’t offer them anything that they don’t already know from their own investigation. However, knowing of a hidden safe in Shaw’s apartment, Josh then gets inspired to rob Shaw both as revenge and in an effort to regain everyone’s money. Realizing that he can’t pull this off by himself, he enlists the aid of his former co-workers – but when they figure out that breaking into the safe will be harder than they imagined, Josh is forced to cut in his neighbor, Slide (Murphy) to assist them. With considerably more experience in these matters, it is hoped that Slide will provide them with the level of professionalism they are lacking.

Josh conceives of a cunning plan to have Shaw legally out of his apartment on Thanksgiving Day – and with the nearby Macy’s parade to serve as something of a distraction, Josh and his crew will use this as an opportunity to relieve Shaw of everyone’s money. On the day of the robbery, Josh discovers that some of the members of his team have betrayed him – hoping to avoid being foiled by their traitorous actions, Josh quickly amends his plans on the fly. But is Josh clever enough to pull this off – and can he avoid being caught in the process?


This was something of an unusual flick to be run in my movie class for several reasons – not the least of which being the patently obvious fact that it had already been released last weekend (we typically see films before they reach the theaters). Our instructor explained that the reason for this was due to the desire of director Brett Ratner, a former student of this very same movie class some years ago, wanting the film shown in this setting so that he could attend the screening and be the subject of the evening’s interview. Unfortunately, he had to reschedule and was unable to make it into town prior to the movie’s opening so we wound up with it this week – however, due to having to remain in Hollywood to perform some emergency damage control as a result of his recent ouster as Academy Awards producer, he was still unable to attend class for the interview … but we saw the movie nevertheless …

Anyway, back to the movie itself: “Tower Heist” is a pleasant enough comedy, although it’s hardly what you might consider a laugh-riot. The movie doesn’t truly become a comedy until Eddie Murphy’s character becomes more prominent in the story line; before that, he’s mostly a secondary character – despite the dual billing, this is really more of a Ben Stiller vehicle, so if you’re expecting to see both stars with an equal amount of screen time, you’ll be greatly disappointed. Having said that, however, Murphy’s moments are without a doubt among the best scenes in the movie; it’s been far too long since we’ve seen him this funny and you wind up wishing his role was bigger. If there was ever a good example of the old “always leave them wanting more” philosophy, this would surely be it, at least as far as Murphy is concerned.

As stated above, the instructor had to make some last minute adjustments insofar as the scheduled interview was concerned; our guest was Bill Carraro, who had two screen credits in “Tower Heist” –Executive Producer and Production Manager. While this might not sound particularly glamorous, it actually made for an interesting interview because of his dual roles in the production; Carraro told some fascinating stories about the experience because of his deep involvement in “Tower Heist” scheduling, giving us great insight into the filmmaking process behind a major Hollywood movie. If you don’t already know, the movie originated as a story that was pitched to Universal Studios six years ago by Eddie Murphy, intended to be something of an all-Black version of “Oceans 11”. Also, he told us that the movie’s ending was quite different from what was originally shot – since I don’t usually put Spoilers in my review, I’ll enter it as a comment below so as not to ruin it for those of you who haven’t already seen the movie; however, if you have seen “Tower Heist” and would like to know the original ending, then please click on the comments link below to read about how the original screenplay ended.



Friday, November 11, 2011

WhiskyFest 2011 NYC



This year, I was fortunate to be able to attend WhiskyFest 2011 when it reached New York City. The event was three hours long and featured over 300 whiskies from America, Scotland, Ireland and Japan as well as some French Cognacs. For someone to taste all of them, you would’ve had to be able to sample around 100 whiskies per hour. Regrettably, someone of my advanced years is unable to attempt such a feat. As a result, I maintained a more reasonable pace given my already querulous condition and instead decided to make somewhat more eclectic choices in the few hours I had to experience these great many companies.

Among my “must try” list was, of course, Laphroaig – my go-to when it comes to Scotch. I tried their 10 year old Quarter Cask, which I don’t believe I’ve ever sampled. The reason why it is called Quarter Cask is because it is aged in a barrel that is approximately one-fourth the size of the barrel normally used in its aging process. The purpose of aging the Scotch in a smaller barrel is because it infuses more of the wood into the spirit, giving it a creamier, spicier taste. Sampling it, I found the Quarter Cask to be slightly gentler than normal with Laphroaig, but the “bite” is experienced on the side of the tongue.



Somewhat surprisingly – to me, at least – I spent a considerable amount of my time at the Wild Turkey booth. Was it the fact that we were so close to Thanksgiving or was it due to some other reason that I couldn’t fathom? Honestly, I still don’t know, but I’m glad that I invested the time because I came away with some rather interesting findings that I’d like to share with you. The first product I tasted was their American Honey, which was served out of one of those devices that chills the liquor and serves it in shot-sized portions. I asked about what exactly went into this product, I was informed that they started by taking their 101 proof whisky and put it in a tub filled with honey and a variety of fruits, including apricot, which reduces its alcohol content; it is aged for approximately 35 days and is sold at 71 proof. Normally, they recommend you serve it chilled and as a shot – however, if you do want to mix it into a cocktail, they recommend serving it with either iced tea or lemonade.

Another of their offerings was their 108 proof Rare Breed, aged in multiple barrels – all, of course, new American Oak. The label identifies this bourbon as “Barrel Proof”, which means that it is uncut with water as are most of the others in its line.

The 101 proof whisky I mentioned above that goes into the making of their American Honey is a product called Kentucky Spirit, which – in comparison to their Rare Breed -- is aged in a single barrel for its entire aging process.

In 2012, WhiskyFest New York will be a weekend-long event, so I look forward to be able to taste even more varieties. For those of you looking for an excuse to make a weekend trip to The Big Apple, this may just be the thing you’ve been waiting for. Maybe I’ll see you there next year.

Friday, November 04, 2011

“Another Happy Day” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Another Happy Day”, with an ensemble cast starring Ellen Barkin (who was also a co-producer), Ellen Burstyn, Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church and George Kennedy.


When a woman attends a family reunion for her son’s wedding, everyone immediately begins fighting – but on the day of the wedding, will they be able to control their feelings and behavior or will it be completely ruined?


Lynn (Barkin) really has her hands full – driving her difficult two youngest sons to Annapolis in order to attend the wedding of Dylan, her eldest son, she’s just barely able to hold it together during the lengthy trek. Worried that the family will learn of her teenage son Elliot’s stay in rehab, she convinces him to lie and tell the family he was traveling in Sweden. Putting up with youngest son Ben’s amateur videographer hobby, she’s somewhat embarrassed by the fact that his initial diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was later identified as autism. Upon arrival at her destination, Lynn immediately steps right into the middle of a crisis when she sees an ambulance parked outside her parents’ home in response to a call from her mother, Doris (Burstyn) to tend to Lynn’s father (Kennedy), who has been in failing health for quite some time now.

Once he’s stabilized, the family dynamic soon plays itself out as if no time had passed – the relatives taunting each other because they know far too well what will push the buttons of any given family member. Pain and insensitivity to others almost seems to be the way the family bonds. Much to her chagrin, Lynn learns that Doris has invited her ex-husband Paul (Church) to the wedding because he is Dylan’s father. Dismayed by this because she feels somewhat betrayed by her mother, matters are further complicated for Lynn because this will dredge up some unresolved issues between her and Paul – especially when he brings his beautiful, sexy wife (Moore), who equally resents Lynn’s presence because it was she and not Lynn who raised Dylan.

Confined in this space over the course of the weekend, Lynn is now forced to deal with both Paul and his increasingly bitchy wife, in addition to the rest of the family. It eventually comes out that when Lynn’s marriage with Paul ended, Dylan went to live with Paul and his wife; because she brought up Dylan due to Lynn’s inadequate mothering skills, she believes that Lynn shouldn’t even be identified as Dylan’s mother. To make matters worse, Elliot is still struggling with his substance abuse issues by getting high off his sickly grandfather’s prescription medication and although Lynn’s daughter Alice (Bosworth) finally shows up, she brings her own mental issues with her and is forced to hide from her family the fact that she’s obsessed with “cutting”, the act of slicing her skin with sharp objects as a way of dealing with her pain. With all of this occurring simultaneously, will Dylan and his bride be embarrassed by his family at the wedding or can they keep themselves in check just for his sake?


With the ensemble cast that included many familiar names and faces, my expectations for this movie were set pretty high.  Once our instructor told us that “Another Happy Day” won the award at the Sundance festival for Best Screenplay, my anticipation soared even higher.  It was with great disappointment, then, when I found the film to be sorely lacking on several levels, making me wonder what the judges were thinking when they voted the award to the writer.  For one thing, much of the first act is spent bludgeoning the viewer with exposition in very obvious ways.  Also, there were quite a few contrivances which seemed to be done just to force the story to lurch forward – for example, everyone in this family apparently believes that it’s perfectly acceptable to barge into someone’s bedroom or bathroom without knocking.  Or at least so the screenwriter would have you believe.  Was “Another Happy Day” done a disservice when the instructor suggested we were about to view a film with such a whopping good script?  Perhaps.  But I would like to think that I would’ve picked up on such things even if I hadn’t been so over-sold on the movie. 

Another way in which the script – and ultimately, the movie – didn’t work for me was the fact that it felt incredibly off-balance as far as the characters were concerned.  Lynn, for example, is supposed to be the protagonist, yet in so many ways, I found her to be very unsympathetic in this role.  Very often in movie-speak, you’ll hear people talk about a character’s “arc” – Did the protagonist change by the end of the movie – and if so, how?  Generally, it is believed that with better movies, the protagonist must change (although an argument can be made that there have been certain exceptions).  If this is to be believed, then the movie also fails because Lynn does not change – at least not enough in my estimation.  She starts out fairly broken and by the end, seems to still be that way.  Except that the character of Alice enters the story late and has very few scenes, it could be suggested that she is the protagonist based on the fact that her character is the strongest and undergoes the most profound changes.  

After the screening, our instructor first interviewed writer/director Sam Levinson, then the movie’s star and co-producer, Ellen Barkin.  Levinson, only 26, is the son of filmmaker Barry Levinson; although having a track record as a writer, “Another Happy Day” marks his directorial debut.  He said that he wrote the screenplay when he was just 22, then spent three years trying to get the movie made.  Levinson told the story that once having written the script, he began sending it around in the hope that someone would be interested in making the movie; instead, he got offered more writing jobs to help doctor others’ scripts.  Some time later, however, producers gained interest and Barkin quickly became attached to the project.  During Barkin’s interview, she mentioned that at the age of 57, she was easily able to relate to the character of Lynn when she first read the script because she is a mother of similarly aged children.  Barkin maintained that she was able to connect to the character via Lynn’s flawed but sincere efforts at motherhood.  Of Levinson, Barkin said that he was very generous and supportive of the actors, but at all times made it very clear that once on set, there was only one boss – and that was him.