Monday, December 24, 2012

Hemingway’s Cocktails



As a fan of both Ernest Hemingway and good cocktails, it was something of a no-brainer for me to attend a class taught by author Philip Greene at The Astor Center of New York City called, “To Have And Have Another:  A Hemingway Cocktail Companion”.  Greene conducted the class as a way of publicizing his new book of the same name


Greene started the evening talking about how Hemingway wrote about drink with incredibly compelling descriptions in such a way that it added great depth to the characters in his novels.  The act of writing left Hemingway like a rung-out dishrag, Greene added; Hemingway would get up early in the morning and write, then drink in the afternoon and at night.  Somewhere along the way – especially when he lived in Key West, Florida and in Cuba, he would find the time to venture out on a boat and go fishing. 

To start the evening, we were greeted with a cocktail Greene had previously prepared himself – the Jack Rose, which was made famous in Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises”.  There are two recipes for the Jack Rose – the traditional one and a more elaborate one derived from what is believed to have been used in Paris during the 1920’s.  We had the latter, which was quite good; the traditional recipe, which is considerably less ambitious, may be something worth trying – but the mixture of so many different ingredients from the Paris recipe adds so much greater complexity. 


Next, we moved on to a classic – The Martini!  Specifically, the gin martini, which is my preference over the vodka martini.  Hemingway liked his martinis in extra dry – a way which I would have no argument with because he was very stingy with the vermouth to keep it clean (the ratio of gin to vermouth would often be something like 15 to 1).  The type of martini that Hemingway preferred might be described as something close to a Gibson because it would include a cocktail onion.  In fact, he preferred his onion to be frozen (at 15 degrees below zero, when possible).   To keep the drink clear, stir; shaking it will make the martini cloudy (Hemingway liked his stirred so it would remain clear). 




We followed this up with the Daiquiri – something which Hemingway particularly enjoyed in the warmer climates, especially when he was in Cuba.  This drink was written about in the novel “Islands In The Stream”.  There are two versions – one which was called The Hemingway Special and the other referred to as Papa Doble (“The Wild Daiquiri”) because it contained twice as many of the ingredients as The Hemingway Special.   On this evening, we made the simpler (and arguably weaker) Hemingway Special, which was supposedly named when a bartender was given instructions for its preparation by Papa himself, so he named the libation after the great author. 


Finally, we made The Americano – although this one is something of a mystery to me, since it seemed a bit out of place, having been attributed to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, in “A View To A Kill”.  Basically, this is a Negroni without the gin. 



Sunday, December 23, 2012

“A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” – Movie Review



This week, my movie class snuck in one final screening before the holidays – a French-made drama titled, “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea”. 



When a young woman in Israel and a young man from Palestine begin communicating with each other, will they eventually be able to meet or will the political strife besetting their respective lands forever keep them apart?



Tal is just barely 17 years old when her family has moved from France to Israel.  Adjusting to a new culture in the city of Jerusalem is difficult enough when this teenager is shaken to her core after a terrorist bombing nearby.  In her frustration, she writes a note to The Palestinians and seals it in an emptied scotch bottle, then beseeches her older brother Eytan, a soldier in the Israeli army, to toss it into the Gaza Sea in the hope that it will eventually reach its intended audience. 

Ultimately, the bottle washes up on the shores of Gaza when a group of young Palestinian men are horsing around on the beach.  They open the bottle and read the note, each taking their turn ridiculing the naive young woman who was its author.  But it is one of these young men – Naim, a 20 year old college dropout – who dares to take up Tal’s challenge to respond via e – mail.  Thus begins something of an epistolary courtship between the two. 

Initially, their e – mails to each other are intense, angry and antagonistic.  Slowly, however, each one reveals their own truths and personal realities to the other and over time, they begin to acquire greater sympathy to the other’s plight.  This turns out to be potentially dangerous as Naim’s fellow Palestinians begin to suspect that he may be a traitor while Tal’s family fears that knowledge of their existence and whereabouts by a Palestinian may endanger the entire family.  With mutual curiosity and affection for each other increasing, they plan to meet – but will they actually be able to achieve their plan or will it only manage to imperil them both?       



“A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” is a story that takes many unanticipated twists and turns, right up to – and including – its climax.  While it is at its heart something of an updated version of “Romeo & Juliet” told via 21st century technology’s missives, it remains nevertheless a classic tale made even more memorable by the mere fact that so much of its story is based in some rather ugly historical facts.  The ending of this movie is one that will – as trite as it may be to say – have you on the edge of your seat; the filmmaker does an excellent job of building suspense toward the finale. 

If I were to cite any flaw in “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea”, it might be its dizzying array of dialects that fall upon the ear of the audience.  As stated above, this is a French – made film, so there is some French spoken in the scenes with Tal’s family.  But you also hear Hebrew and Arabic as well as some English.  Granted, the movie has subtitles – all of which are in English – but nevertheless, it can be a little distracting (especially so, I would assume, if you speak one of more of those languages, which I don’t – I personally find that English is enough of a struggle without venturing to a foreign tongue). 

While “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” isn’t exactly the kind of movie I’d normally run out to see on my own, I’m certainly glad that I did have the opportunity.  Given the recent news headlines about Hamas-led attacks on Israel followed by their own response, this film is certainly timely, if nothing else.  Unfortunately, I suppose you could make the case that any motion picture about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be timely whenever it was released.  It may be hard to say that this is a film you would enjoy, but “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” is one that should definitely not be ignored, either. 


Friday, December 14, 2012

“Quartet” – Movie Review



This week in the final session of the Fall Semester of my movie class, we saw the British comedy-drama “Quartet”, starring Maggie Smith and directed by Dustin Hoffman.


When a former opera singer moves to a nursing home, she has trouble adjusting – but after the other residents ask her to sing at an upcoming performance, will she consent or will they be disappointed?


Beecham House in England is an old age home for retired musicians; its residents include a number of classical musicians and opera singers, all of whom are in varying degrees of health, both physically and mentally. One sad fact about this institution is that due to the advanced years of its occupants, someone will eventually expire before too long; the upside of this is that it provides an opportunity for someone new to move in – which is exactly how Jean (Smith) wound up being the latest slab of fresh meat. Having years prior left behind her illustrious career as an opera singer, she has decided to make Beecham House her new home.

But hers is not an easy transition – having spent decades as a big star in the opera world, Jean has a reputation for being something of a diva … a rather well-deserved reputation, as it turns out. In denial about her aging and lack of independence, Jean initially refuses to socialize with the other inhabitants of Beecham House, choosing instead to take all of her meals in her room – this despite the fact that she was greeted with cheers and applause by a number of her fellow ex-performers. Not all of those at Beecham House are happy at Jean’s arrival, however – among them is Reggie (Tom Courtenay) – a former lover of Jean’s from the distant past.

Having thoughtlessly broken Reggie’s heart when they were engaged to be married, Jean wound up having a life filled with many men – husbands, both her own and those belonging to other women – while Reggie was so despondent that he never married after that experience. Suddenly finding themselves cohabitating (after a fashion), they are now forced to confront that which originally drove them apart. During this time, the residence is planning an upcoming concert – a yearly gala to celebrate the birthday of famed composer Giuseppe Verdi. What would sell tickets – and raise a considerable amount of money for Beecham House – would be a performance of the Quartet from Rigoletto in which Jean would be a featured singer. With this being one of Jean’s greatest performances, she is immediately asked to participate. But will the fear of having lost her skills at this stage result in her letting down the others or can Jean summon up the courage to join her fellow singers for one last public appearance?


In his directorial debut, Award Winning actor Dustin Hoffman certainly doesn’t embarrass himself with “Quartet”. For that matter, neither does the film’s stellar cast – with Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins leading the way in their roles: he as an unrepentant lothario and she as a septuagenarian suffering from the early stages of dementia. Clearly, this movie is aimed at the same audience that made “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” such a big hit earlier this year – and if that is indeed its intention, it may very well succeed. “Quartet” triumphs on many levels – well-delineated characters, good acting, an interesting story and visually compelling shots (the scenes of the grounds surrounding location referred to as Beecham House being particularly well photographed).

The artfully-told story is multi-layered with a romance, the challenges of aging in a youth-oriented society and the relevance of art as its form changes over time to suit an ever-evolving audience. Although the story takes place almost entirely at Beecham House (it was originally conceived as a stage play before being adapted into a screenplay), it never appears static and maintains a reasonably good pace throughout (it’s just over an hour and a half in length). In spite of having to suspend a reasonable level of disbelief while watching this movie (e.g., How are these characters able to afford such luxurious care?), it never gets in the way enough to deter your enjoyment of “Quartet”.

Hopefully, the film will do reasonably well – it’s professionally done and has a story with considerable heart without appearing mawkish. That said, however, it does feel a bit of a conceit – albeit an understandably necessary one – when we are led to believe that we are going to hear some of the characters singing, but the film cuts away before it occurs. There are, however, a number of singers who do in fact perform – a couple of gentlemen who have what appears to be something of a vaudeville act and one woman who sings opera. The cast includes a number of people who are in fact retired singers and musicians, a few of whom are provided the opportunity to shine brightly in the coda to a brilliant musical career.


Sunday, December 09, 2012

“Barbara”– Movie Review


This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the German drama “Barbara”, starring Nina Hoss. 

When an East German physician is sent to work at a remote hospital, she schemes to escape to be with her boyfriend – but will her plans be thwarted by the secret police?


In 1980 East Germany, Dr. Barbara Wolff (Hoss) is forced to work in a hospital in the middle of nowhere.  Displeased with her situation in general and the people in particular, Barbara immediately applies to be transferred to another facility.  What’s especially bothersome to her is her supervising physician, Andre, who attempts to befriend her despite the fact that he is required to report on her behavior and performance to the East German secret police – something Barbara is well aware of and isn’t shy about communicating to Andre. 

Given her circumstances, Barbara remains resolute in not making friends with her colleagues or neighbors – as a result, she is aloof and quite unfriendly whenever approached.  One of Barbara’s secrets, however, is the fact that she has a boyfriend in West Germany who occasionally makes the journey to enjoy a tryst with her.  During one such meeting, they hatch a plot where he will get her some money to pay off someone to sail her by raft to Denmark where Barbara and her boyfriend will meet and live out the rest of their lives together. 

Unfortunately, complications develop when Stella, a young woman who is a former patient of Barbara’s, suddenly shows up unexpectedly seeking her aid after having escaped from a prison work farm.  Loyal to her patients and ready to offer help to one who is in dire need, Barbara agrees to bring Stella with her when she leaves for Denmark later that evening.  Together, Barbara and the wounded Stella head off to the shore where they will meet the man with the raft.  But when the secret police discover that Barbara is now missing, will they be able to find and catch her before she and Stella can flee to Denmark?


Often referred to as “The German Meryl Streep”, Nina Hoss gives an amazing performance as the stoic physician who could probably give any Englishman a run for his money in a Stiff Upper Lip competition.  Hoss’ Barbara appears so emotionally detached from everyone she comes into contact with you would almost think she was a robot rather than a human being; this façade melts away, however, in the scenes with her patients and her boyfriend.  As an actress, Hoss has made brilliant choices here and they all seem to work.  

Also of note is the screenplay, which was co-written by the film’s director, Christian Petzold.  Cleverly interwoven into the main plot are subplots concerning some of Barbara’s patients; initially, it would seem that the justification for these scenes’ existence in the script is to portray Barbara’s human side as well as her professional dedication to the ill and needy, however, the story has been crafted in such a way as to eventually make these tales necessary to the main plot.  If I were to find any fault at all in “Barbara” it would be the fact that many of the references and much of the context throughout the movie require something of a reasonably keen understanding of the East German situation during the Iron Curtain years; fortunately for us, our instructor gave us a bit of a crash course in this prior to the screening, which I found helped considerably when viewing the movie. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the star of the film, Nina Hoss.  She said that having already done several films with Petzold, he allowed her the unusual opportunity to help collaborate on the role of Barbara during the writing of the screenplay; Hoss said that he would send her about 10 or 20 pages at a time so she could read them and offer her feedback or ask questions.  Hoss said that she grew up in West Germany (Stuttgart, the home of the Mercedes Benz) and wound up studying acting at a school in East Germany during the mid-90’s, approximately six years after the fall of The Berlin Wall; she added that this time in East Germany helped her to form an understanding of how to play the role of Barbara in this movie. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

“Any Day Now” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Any Day Now”, starring Alan Cumming.


When a handicapped teenager is abandoned by his mother, he is adopted by a gay couple – but will they legally be allowed to keep the boy?


In the Los Angeles of 1979, Rudy (Cumming) spends his nights performing the disco hits of the day as one third of a trio of lip-synching drag queens at a West Hollywood gay bar; by day, he’s trying to get his own real singing career going. One evening, when Paul (Garret Dillahunt) walks in, it’s lust at first sight with this new patron; shortly after Rudy’s gig, they hook-up and seem to hit it off right away. Afterwards, Rudy reveals he knew he was gay since he was a boy, but Paul admits that he didn’t come to his own awareness until long after he found himself in a dissatisfying marriage; recently divorced and moved to Los Angeles from Walla Walla, Washington, he is currently pursuing a career as a lawyer with the local District Attorney’s office.

One night in his apartment building, Rudy discovers Marco (Isaac Leyva), a 14 year old boy with Down Syndrome who lives in the apartment next to his. Marco’s junkie mother has left him after being recently arrested by the police; Rudy does his best to care for the boy, but seeks Paul’s legal advice as he attempts to navigate his way through the system. When Family Services takes the boy in and places him in a foster home, Marco runs away; once Rudy finds him, he requests Paul’s assistance in getting Marco’s mother to sign the boy over to them for guardianship. Rudy and Marco wind up moving in with Paul and together, they try to carve out some form of a family life.

But when Paul’s employer learns of his secret life, Paul is not only fired from his job, but also, he and Rudy are brought into court so that it could be proven that they are unfit to raise Marco. While they are temporarily able to regain custody of the teenager, the couple is eventually forced to return him to his mother upon her release from jail. Seeking counsel from a more experienced attorney, Rudy and Paul fight vigorously to wrest Marco from his drug-addled mother. But can they reacquire custody of the boy before Marco is completely neglected by his mother?


While “Any Day Now” is supposed to be based on true events, I have no idea how accurate the events in the story are in relation to what actually occurred in real life; I do know, however, that the ending of the movie did change multiple times in subsequent drafts of the screenplay. Having said that, I did find the film difficult to sit through – not because of the nature of the story, but because of the way it was told. To me, it felt as though every possible cliché was pulled out in this script to the point that it had quite the feel of a melodrama that would be a good fit on either the OWN, Lifetime or Oxygen networks.

Alan Cumming is a very gifted actor – however, I do not consider “Any Day Now” to be one of his better performances. For one thing, his character Rudy is supposed to originally be from Queens, New York; Cumming’s attempt at a New York accent is downright awful. It would seem as though Cumming took the role because it gave him an opportunity to play a flamboyant character and provide him with a chance to sing; however, his Rudy is so unlikeable in his irrational, childish histrionics that he became immediately unsympathetic to me – once this happens, it winds up being rather difficult to root for the character, regardless of what he may attempt to do in order to redeem himself.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the movie’s star, Alan Cumming. Cumming said that he was sent the script for “Any Day Now” in early 2011 and wound up shooting it in Los Angeles in the summer of that year, during his hiatus from the New York City – based television series, “The Good Wife”. Interestingly, he said that he was an amateur magician; he believes he is drawn to that because it would allow him to use his acting skills in order to deceive and misdirect the audience. Cumming announced that he always carried around with him a magic trick that he could perform at any time. At the urging of our instructor (and he really didn’t have to urge very hard), Cumming successfully performed his lone card trick.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

“Deadfall” – Movie Review

Deadfall movie poster
This weekend in my movie class, we had a bonus screening of the crime-thriller “Deadfall”, starring Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek. 

When a brother and sister team’s heist goes awry, they split up to try to escape the law – but after they reunite, will their team survive?

Addison (Bana) and his sister Liza (Wilde) have what they believe is the perfect plan when they hold up a Michigan casino – but when a horrific automobile accident ruins their getaway, they must re-think how to proceed.  Addison decides they should continue on their current path north to Canada, but that it would be best for them to both go their separate ways and meet at their ultimate destination. Fearful of going alone, Liza urges her brother to keep together; however, when he convinces her that separating would throw off the police, she agrees to hitchhike north while Addison finds a way on his own. 
Freezing at the side of the road, Liza is eventually discovered by Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a former prizefighter recently released from prison after conviction in a boxing scandal; headed up to northern Michigan to meet his parents June (Spacek) and Chet (Kristofferson) for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, he agrees to help this attractive young damsel in distress in the hope that he will achieve some form of redemption for his past misdeeds.  However, when Liza correctly sizes him up as an easy mark, she starts to play him by being flirtatious.  Ultimately, however, the tables are turned on Liza when she suddenly discovers she’s actually developing feelings for Jay. 
Following a number of adventures and ordeals, Jay brings Liza to his parents house, where she has told Addison to meet her.  As it turns out, Addison has managed to beat them there and decides to take June and Chet hostage until his sister shows up with Jay.  However, once they are all together, Addison soon comes to realize Liza no longer wants any part of his plan and instead wishes to set off on a new life with Jay.  But with the police hot on their heels and possibly moments from being captured and sent to prison, can Addison convince his sister to stay with him or will he lose her to Jay?

It is rare that my movie class shows a film such as “Deadfall” as it tends to lean towards fare that might be considered more “intellectual”.  It is also rare that my class allows me the opportunity to stumble across a real gem that I can enthusiastically recommend – but such is most certainly the case with this motion picture.  “Deadfall” is so action-packed that it hits the ground running from its first scene and doesn’t for a moment let up on its audience; it is a fast-paced thrill ride that will keep you guessing from beginning to end.
Bana is nothing short of excellent in his role as the psychopathic Addison and Olivia Wilde – what else can I say? – is scrumptious as always.  Old pros like Kristofferson and Spacek are equally enjoyable to watch – he as the gruff retired sheriff who gives no quarter to the bad guys and she as the unflappable wife who has seen it all in the decades she has spent with her husband.  If there are any negatives about “Deadfall”, it would be that there are some moments which might briefly take you out of the movie or make you challenge your suspension of disbelief (e.g. – Where did Jay get the pickup truck?  Are Addison and Liza engaged in an incestuous romance?  How does Addison survive the brutal beatings his body takes throughout the story?).  But this may be nitpicking – if you’re really enjoying the movie, these questions won’t slow you down very much.
After the screening, the class discussed the movie; most students appeared to enjoy it as much as I did, including our instructor, who claimed that much of the criticism of this film that he has read in the trade papers seems to harp on a good deal of the story being clichéd and predictable; he disagreed with this assessment and so do I – “Deadfall” takes hold of you and you never quite know where you’re headed.  For some time now, this movie has been playing as one of the Video On Demand selections from my local cable TV provider, but I hadn’t had a chance to view it until now.  If you likewise see it in your movie listings or find it playing at a local theater, I urge you to check it out – “Deadfall” is quite the welcome respite from the warm and fuzzy holiday product typically available this time of year.  All of that said, however, be aware of the fact that the movie is chock full of explicit bloody violence that might be a deal-breaker for some of you.

Friday, November 30, 2012

“In Our Nature” – Movie Review



This week in in my movie class, we saw the drama “In Our Nature” – an independent film starring Zach Gilford, Jena Malone, John Slattery and Gabrielle Union.



When a father and his grown son accidentally find themselves at the family vacation house simultaneously, they’re forced to confront each other to deal with their issues – but will their respective girlfriends be of assistance or get in the way?



One summer morning, Seth (Gilford) and his girlfriend Andie (Malone) embark on the two and a half hour drive from Brooklyn to his family’s vacation house in upstate New York to spend a romantic weekend alone.  Unfortunately, once they are there and in the process of making The Beast With Two Backs, they are caught in flagrante delicto by Seth’s father Gil (Slattery) and his own much-younger girlfriend Vicky (Union), who have also planned a nice romantic weekend of their own. 

While both couples toy with the idea of vacating to allow the other to enjoy the space, the women finally agree that all four of them should stay and share the place together for the entire weekend.  Resolved not to ruin the time for their women, the two men begrudgingly agree to remain at the house, despite the awkwardness it would obviously create.  One thing that the women aren’t yet aware of – but will soon learn the hard way – is that their men have experienced something of a strained relationship with each other throughout the years. 

Gradually, it becomes evident to both Andie and Vicky that Seth and Gil struggle to be civil to each other.  Ultimately, this highlights weaknesses in the relationship these women are having with their men as well, causing increasing tension around this pastoral setting.  Andie is insulted when she discovers that Seth has withheld information about her from Gil, while Vicky is equally hurt when it is perceived that she has ulterior motives for being with Gil.  Despite the fractious nature in this placid environment, can these four people manage to make peace with each other?


Admittedly, I’m a big fan of the AMC television series “Mad Men”, so I’m a bit prejudiced here when it comes to John Slattery.  I found his performance in this movie to be very reminiscent of his character on that  show; however, whether it’s merely my perception or his own screen persona alone is hard to say.  While watching “In Our Nature”, I kept thinking Slattery had improvised his character’s lines because they just seemed so much more clever and interesting than everyone else’s. 

As for the rest of the film, it is considerably less exciting.  For one thing, it seems quite a bit like the hit Broadway play and movie “On Golden Pond” revisited.  First, since it’s set in a single location, it very much has the look and feel of a stage play -- even though the story is taken outside of the house in many scenes, it nevertheless feels a bit claustrophobic.  Second, there’s the obvious fact that the vacation house is what triggers a good deal of the central action.  Finally, the story focuses on a parent-child relationship, although instead of daughter-father, it is about son-father.  The title of the movie doesn’t help much either; it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s producer Anish Savjani and its writer/director Brian Savelson.  Savelson said that he wound up meeting Savjani after viewing another movie he produced (“Wendy & Lucy”) and decided that Savjani might be interested in his film.  Following the screening, “In Our Nature”’s star Zach Gilford was interviewed.  Gilford talked about how he grew up in a suburb of Chicago and knew he wanted to act since childhood; with his parents’ support, he attended college where he studied acting and later went on to do TV work, including “Friday Night Lights”. 


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Night Of Passage: The Glenlivet



As a proud member of The Glenlivet Guardians, I am occasionally honored to receive invitations from this renowned organization to attend some very special private tastings of their venerable scotch.  There are certain tastings called The Nights Of Passage where new Guardian members are both introduced to – and educated about – the scotch, the company that manufactures it and its history.  Recently, I was excited to get another invitation to such an event – an evening I looked forward to witch great anticipation, having attended last year’s.


Immediately upon entry, we were generously welcomed with numerous drams of The Glenlivet 12 year old, which were served either neat, on the rocks or with a drop or two of water – your choice.  While we sipped and awaited the commencement of the ceremonies, the group was then treated to quite a few tasty hors d’oeuvres served either hot or cold; they ranged from savory to refreshing and were well-paired with the drinks.  With this kind of a greeting, the excitement was palpable. 


Eventually, we were brought into the tasting area, which felt more like a combination of livingroom and classroom replete with multimedia system components.  At each station was a setup with three glasses, each containing a dram of a different expression of The Glenlivet – the 12 year old, the 15 year old and the 18 year old, each one specially picked to illustrate how distinctly the taste can be influenced based on how it is aged.


Leading us through the evening was Craig Bridger, The Glenlivet Brand Ambassador for the Northeast.  He pointed out that scotch flavors generally tend to fall into any one of four categories known as Top Notes:  Fruity, Spicy, Floral or Smoky.  Because The Glenlivet is unpeated, none of the expressions we would be sampling on this evening contain a Smoky characteristic.  That left the remaining three categories to be found in each of the drams that were being offered to us at the tasting. 

In the first of the tulip-shaped glasses, we tried The Glenlivet 12 year old.  While you can detect elements of all of the first three Top Notes in its scent, Fruity is probably the most dominant.  Some found that on the finish, you could pick up spiced pineapple and apricot in the back of the palate. 

Next was the 15 year old, which was aged in French oak barrels, yielding a much greater complexity.  Subtle spiciness of cinnamon and nutmeg can be found when tasted; it’s got a somewhat creamy texture to it, reminiscent of caramel. 

Finally, the 18 year old, which is probably the most highly regarded of all of The Glenlivet’s offerings.  With a silky smooth feeling in your mouth, this one highlighted the Floral Top Note.  Attendees found chocolate and toffee in its taste; this, we were informed, was due to the fact that it is finished in Spanish sherry casks.   

At the evening’s conclusion, all attendees were presented with a gift of a pair of whisky glasses bearing the official logo of The Glenlivet.  While I already have a wide-ranging set of many whisky glasses, I was nevertheless glad to get such a fine memento of this outstanding event. 



Sunday, November 18, 2012

“Lincoln” – Movie Review



This past weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the historical drama “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day – Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg.



While the Civil War rages on, United States President Abraham Lincoln seeks to end slavery nationwide – but can it be accomplished despite resistance from within his own political party?



At the beginning of 1865, United States President Abraham Lincoln (Day - Lewis) starts his second term after being re – elected only a couple of months prior in spite of the fact that his country’s Civil War relentlessly continues, seemingly without an end in sight.  While he is fully aware of the fact that something must be done soon to end the war, he nevertheless struggles to simultaneously abolish slavery by getting Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to The Constitution which would forever abolish slavery throughout the entire nation. 

Knowing that he might not have enough votes to pass the Amendment in The House Of Representatives, Lincoln has his Secretary Of State William Seward (David Strathairn) commission a team of men to lobby a group of Democratic Congressmen to vote in favor of the Amendment.   This, however, will not be an easy task for a number of complicated reasons.  For one thing, many people believe that the President’s focus should be on ending the war which has already taken many lives and gone on for far too long.  Second, not only is there significant opposition to the end of slavery, there is a fear that doing so would have a ripple effect of granting equality to Negros, leading the way to give them the right to vote.  Additionally, Lincoln’s fellow Republicans do not agree with their President, who insists that abolishing slavery will hasten the end to the war. 

All the while, this is taking a toll on the President’s personal life as well.  His eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon – Levitt) is rapidly losing interest in school as his desire to enlist in the Army increases.  Learning of this, his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), applies pressure to her husband to convince Robert that he must return to school; still suffering from the loss of their son Willie who died from typhus several years prior, she desperately wants to keep her first – born son alive if at all possible.  But as the votes to pass the Amendment are being secured, it appears as if the war might end before the Amendment can have the chance to come to a vote – and if that happens, the likelihood of its passage greatly diminishes.  Will President Lincoln be able to get The House to vote on the Amendment before the war concludes so his legacy will be the abolition of slavery? 


Daniel Day – Lewis’s performance of Abraham Lincoln is reason alone to see this movie.  Day – Lewis never ceases to amaze at his range and ability to make each character he portrays utterly unique and totally believable.  Despite this, however, I did have some reservations with the film, which may be considered by some as minor quibbling since the overwhelming majority of the students in the class seemed to enjoy “Lincoln” quite a good deal. 

At two and a half hours, “Lincoln” can tend to feel every minute of its length.  The periodically excessively wordy dialog of Tony Kushner’s screenplay leaves a number of scenes at times seeming as though they belong in a stage play instead of a motion picture.  Other problems with the script include its opening scene (the graphic depiction of a Civil War battle which includes hand – to – hand combat that appears somewhat derivative of the opening of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”) and the cheesy quality of a subsequent scene that occurs shortly thereafter where Lincoln meets with a handful of enlisted men who proceed to quote his Gettysburg Address speech verbatim. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor informed us that while “Lincoln” is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team Of Rivals”, the movie only adapts a small portion of that sweeping work, rather than covering the whole thing as the motion picture is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s life, just a depiction of a segment of it which was particularly historic.  Another point he made was that this film is not what some would refer to as a hagiography – a biography of an individual that shows its subject in only the best possible light.  Instead, “Lincoln” reveals sides of the man which display a deeply flawed character and in no way makes any attempt to canonize him. 



Friday, November 16, 2012

“The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” , starring Edward Burns, who also wrote and directed.


When a father who abandoned his family years ago attempts reconciliation at Christmas, he is unanimously rebuffed – but will his new secret cause them to change their mind?


In a family of seven adult children, one of them is often saddled with the responsibility of caretaker for the entire brood – and such is the case with Gerry (Burns), who has two brothers and four sisters and is the owner of The Fitzgerald Tavern, a friendly (albeit not often busy) Irish pub in Queens, New York. Living with his long-divorced mother Rosie (Anita Gillette), he desperately tries to round up his siblings in order to celebrate her 70th birthday – however, with Rosie’s birthday inconveniently two days before Christmas, the majority of her children would much rather blow off the party and instead celebrate with her when they all gather at Rosie’s house for Christmas.

Running around town to try to herd his siblings together, Gerry stops off at the house of Mrs. McGowan (Joyce Van Patten), a long-time family friend, who is now rather sickly. Upon inviting Mrs. McGowan to Rosie’s birthday party, Gerry meets Nora (Connie Britton), there to fill-in for Mrs. McGowan’s regular nurse, who has taken a vacation during the holidays. Immediately attracted to each other, Gerry and Nora start dating and a blossoming romance seems imminent. But just as things appear as though they can’t get any more complicated, Jim (Ed Lauter) – Rosie’s ex-husband and the father of her seven children – resurfaces seeking an invitation to celebrate Christmas with the family.

While Gerry feels a bit more forgiving, his siblings do not share his generous spirit and instead side with their mother in declining Jim of his wish. Seeking to express remorse for his past transgressions, Jim meets with Gerry in order to plead his case. In the course of their reunion, Jim reveals his secret reason for wanting to rejoin the family he deserted decades ago in order to bring some degree of closure to everyone’s individual situation. But even if the clan learns of their absentee father’s hidden agenda, will this new information thaw their hearts enough to let them reconsider and permit his return to the family?


Fans of some of Edward Burns’ more successful movies – especially something like “The Brothers McMullen” – will likely enjoy “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas”. Among the highlights of this small independent film are the verisimilitude of the familial relationships – for better or for worse – and the fact that the characters are drawn particularly well. Each individual – particularly the Fitzgerald offspring and especially the women – are unique, realistic characters with their own personality, issues, quirks and perspectives. Considering how male writers have traditionally been hamstrung by their inability to delineate female characters, this is quite an accomplishment for the exceedingly talented Burns.

The movie, however, is not without its drawbacks. First and foremost for me is the fact that it has too many characters to be able to follow each individual subplot with much clarity. Presumably, that is the sacrifice that Burns made when choosing to tell the story of a large, closely-knit, feuding, extremely dysfunctional Irish Catholic family. For another thing, the film has the look and feel of a soap opera and ultimately drags on a bit at points, limping to the finish line. I found myself waiting for an occasional joke to be thrown in just to lighten the mood ever so briefly, but unfortunately, this was never to be the case.

Following the screening, our instructor briefly interviewed Edward Burns, writer/director and star of “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas”. Burns said that he originally got the idea for the movie when shooting the film “Alex Cross”; the star of that motion picture – Tyler Perry – started discussing future projects with Burns and he wound up suggesting that Burns return to the earlier themes from some of his past successes because Burns had found a niche that no one else could emulate with as much aplomb. Burns said that this conversation immediately inspired him to start writing the screenplay; instead of taking his usual three to six months to churn out the first draft of a script, Burns was able to complete this one in only a matter of weeks by drawing on his childhood – he grew up in Queens with other Irish Catholic kids who also came from big families and these were some of the people on whom a few characters in “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” were based.



Friday, November 09, 2012

“Hitchcock” – Movie Review



This week, after a temporary break following Hurricane Sandy, my movie class resumed with a screening of the biographical drama “Hitchcock”, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson.  


When Alfred Hitchcock decides upon making “Psycho” as his next movie, the studio balks and he is forced to finance the production himself – but will the financial and emotional stress cause his long-time marriage to end?


By the end of the 1950’s, film director Alfred Hitchcock (Hopkins) has amassed so many suspenseful movies in his oeuvre that he has become a legend. However, the big secret that most people don’t know is that the key to his success has been his wife Alma (Mirren), to whom he has been devoted for many years. With filmmaking expertise known to Hitchcock long before they were married, Alma is a capable screenwriter and editor, among many other talents. Although they mutually agreed she would never get a credit on any of Hitchcock’s movies, they both knew that the true genius of the Hitchcock films did not originate from a single voice.

Paramount Pictures, the motion picture studio to which he is under contract, has been urging Hitchcock to make his next movie identical to one of his previous hits. Hitchcock, however, saw himself as a creative artist and had no interest in making cookie cutter movies. Fearing that at the age of 60 his best work may be behind him, Hitchcock undertook a search for an exciting new project that would be different from anything else he had ever worked on before. Coming upon a book titled “Psycho”, Hitchcock found the real-life story of a transvestite mama’s boy serial killer to be compelling; informing the studio that his next picture would be based on this book, they quickly declined, citing that its subject matter would be too controversial with no chance to get passed the censors, much less be a commercial success.

Believing in his ability to make a truly great movie out of this story, Hitchcock decided to mortgage his house and finance the project with the $800,000 he was given by the bank. Paramount agreed to this and would only act as distributors of the film. Meanwhile, Alma is feeling increasingly marginalized in Hitchcock’s life and winds up seeking the attention of a well-known writer who beseeches her to help adapt a screenplay from his latest novel. But are his interests in Alma strictly professional or backed with a hidden agenda of romantic intentions? With possible designs on his stunningly beautiful leading lady Janet Leigh (Johansson), both Hitchcock and Alma now suspect each other of infidelity. Suddenly fearing Hitchcock may have lost his touch in filmmaking, tempers erupt between not only Hitchcock and Paramount, but also between Hitchcock and Alma. Will “Psycho” be the end of both Hitchcock’s career and marriage?


While the movie “Hitchcock” is at times just as amusing and entertaining as its true-life subject, it contains a certain degree of whimsy, which, for me, does not always help. The story is sometimes told with a smirk – occasionally to its detriment, I believe; for example, its opening and closing is bookended by Hopkins doing the version of Hitchcock from his famous old TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”; so, if you are familiar with that classic, you will likely get a good laugh from those scenes. Hopkins’ performance is at certain times hindered by his all-too-obvious make-up and other times attributable to his own undoing – he occasionally slips in and out of character, in some scenes sounding more like himself than Hitchcock.

Among the highlights were Hopkins’ co-star Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife Alma. Mirren gave a terrific performance; while Hitchcock appeared as something of a caricature, Alma came across as a real multi-dimensional human being, with all the associated attributes that naturally brings. Johansson – while smokin’ hot – was merely some very lovely eye-candy, despite playing an essential role in both movies.

Based on what we are told in the movie, Hitchcock and Alma appeared to be more of a professional partnership than a marriage since romance seems to be absent from the relationship. The depiction of their relationship was that Alma was just as responsible for Hitchcock’s success as he was because of her own talents. One area where Hitchcock may have not gotten enough credit was for his marketing savvy – he was able to build suspense about the movie going experience as well as the film itself.

Ultimately, “Hitchcock” might have been better off as a made-for-TV movie – and likely would’ve been, if no stars had been attached to the project, which is apparently what justifies this as being a theatrical release. I might’ve enjoyed the film a bit more if it had been done on HBO to pair with their recent production of “The Girl”, which focused on Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren , star of “The Birds”.



Saturday, November 03, 2012

WhiskyFest Weekend – Day 2



As mentioned in my previous post, I recently attended WhiskyFest Weekend this year in New York City – the first time ever that this event has ever been held on multiple nights.  It was two consecutive nights filled with good food (served buffet style) paired with great whiskies made from all around the world.  The event was held on the evenings of Friday, October 26, 2012 and Saturday, October 27, 2012.  While my last blog post covered the first night (Friday), this post will summarize my experiences on Saturday, the concluding night. 


One of my go-to scotches is Bowmore, so I made sure to visit their exhibit early in the evening.  The night before, I learned that possibly the most interesting question you could pose to a whisky manufacturer or distributor at one of these events is the ostensibly simple and seemingly benign, “What’s new?”.  On this night, I asked the same question to the Bowmore representative and got the most delightful surprise to this innocuous query.  At the start of 2013, I was told, Bowmore fans can look forward to being treated to a new expression – Dorus Mor, a single batch release.

Aged for 10 years in first-fill oak casks, this is a non – chill filtered single malt that has a stunning alcohol content of 57% .  According to the company representative, this scotch is about as close as you can get to actually drinking it straight out of the barrel in which it was aged.  Despite the high alcohol content, I found it to have a rather gentle nose – but that can be deceptive once you take a taste because it has quite a kick to it on the backend, which is really where you can feel the high amount of alcohol. 


Above, I made reference to my go-to scotches – as something of a devotee of Islay-based scotches, another one that’s especially high on my list is the great Laphroaig.  This intensely peaty, smoky scotch doesn’t really have what you might call a brand new product coming to the market – instead, the company is trumpeting the return of a product that had been taken off the market for a while but is just now returning.  Their Triple Wood had been off the market for quite some time, but is now being re-introduced to the scotch-savvy public.  The reason for its absence was simple – they just ran out after a while. 


When I inquired about its age, a Laphroaig representative told me that it averages about 10 years, but in reality, it can be aged anywhere from eight to 13 years.  As you might have already guessed, Triple Wood takes its name from the manner in which it is aged.  The types of wood barrels in which it is kept are first-fill bourbon, toasted French oak and European sherry casks.  This particular scotch has something of a complex flavor profile – you can taste sherry on the front, followed by black pepper on the end. 


As frequently occurs whenever I attend one of these whisky tastings, I discovered one that was unfamiliar to me.  This year, I was introduced to a Canadian Whisky called Black Velvet.  They were attending WhiskyFest in order to announce a new product to the market called Toasted Caramel.  Made by blending their regular whisky with a caramel-infused barrel and aging for three years, it contains 35% alcohol (70 proof).  Best served chilled, it could be used either as a digestif (as it tastes very dessert-like) or it can be mixed in a cocktail; technically, it’s got too high a proof to be considered a liqueur, but its hint of sweetness slightly masks the taste of the alcohol.  Initially offered to me with ice, I subsequently tried it in an Old Fashioned.  It’s a refreshing change and if you’re in the mood to try something different, then I definitely recommend this one.

WhiskyFest Weekend in New York City has been over for a while now, but many great memories of the fun linger; these memories provide some modicum of comfort, especially in the aftermath of an unwanted and unappreciated visitor we had in our area named Sandy.  Next year, WhiskyFest in New York City will again take place over a weekend, as it did this year; I look forward to attending then, as well – my only hope is that by that time, we don’t get another one of Sandy’s distant cousins as we did this year. 



Wednesday, October 31, 2012

WhiskyFest Weekend – Day 1



This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending WhiskyFest Weekend in New York City.  The event was a pleasure for two reasons:  for one thing, because this was the first time WhiskyFest had ever been held over a weekend; usually, it is just one night and as a result, you don’t get the opportunity to visit as many whisky manufacturers – there are so many present that trying to obtain a sample from each and every one is a daunting task, to say the least.  Therefore, holding the event over two nights gave you the chance to visit more companies and in general, move at a slightly slower pace. 

WhiskyFest Weekend NYC 2012

For another thing, this provided an excellent occasion to get your party on before all hell broke loose – by the time the weekend concluded (and WhiskyFest was long over), Hurricane Sandy decided to pay us a visit and wreak all kinds of havoc.  The 2012 report on WhiskyFest Weekend New York will be in two parts, each one covering a single night.  This blog post is part one, which describes my experience on the first night of WhiskyFest Weekend in New York City, which took place on Friday, October 26, 2012.


This year, I started off my WhiskyFest tasting by visiting the Jack Daniel’s table.  As I began with sampling the utterly luxurious Gentleman Jack, I did something very dangerous, although I didn’t know it at the time:  I asked one of the company representatives what I thought was a rather simple and straightforward question:  “What’s new?”  What followed was a most devilish glint in his eye as he smiled, proudly giving an answer for which my unsuspecting ears were totally unprepared.  “In January of 2013”, he began, “we’ll be introducing an unaged rye to the market”.  I almost did a spit-take.  While I was still choking after his announcement, he continued:  “It’s made up of 70% rye, 15% corn and 15% malted barley”.  Being the naturally curious type, I asked if they were pouring some – which it turned out they were – you can see it in the clear bottles from the photo above, which were clearly marked “NOT FOR SALE”.  As you might expect, it had a most pungent moonshine aroma, with a distinct spiciness that hit you immediately.  This might be interesting to experiment with to start the new year.

 Chivas Maple25Next, I proceeded to the Crown Royal booth, where they also surprised me with something new – Crown Royal Maple!  Having just arrived on the market this week, it’s an 80 proof Canadian Whisky – definitely NOT a liqueur, as you can tell by its alcohol content.  Please don’t be fooled by the appellation “Maple” on its label – it is absolutely not sweet.  You might understandably assume that it’s made from maple syrup, but that’s not the case; that would add a good deal of sugar and make it considerably sweeter (as well as lowering its alcohol content).  The way it is made is by taking their Crown Royal Deluxe and finishing it in barrels that have a level 4 char; these barrels have been laced with sap from maple trees.  Its aroma has a most distinct maple smell to it but there is an unmistakable whisky taste.  It was served shaken on ice, then poured into a small cup neat – it was great!  If you can ever find this, I highly recommend trying it this way. 



Lastly, I stumbled upon a booth setup by a company called Single Cask Nation.  I had never heard of this company before, or its product, so I chatted with one of the company representatives for a while and learned that they have an interesting business model.  As much as you might like their whiskies having sampled them at WhiskyFest, you cannot buy them in any liquor store because they are only sold on their own Web site.  And even then, not just anyone can make a purchase because in order to buy a whisky from their site, you first have to be a member.  They have a multi-tiered annual membership ranging from $180 to $960 that has increasing levels of privileges with the greater cost; once your membership is up for renewal, you only pay $36 for the next year.  Also, there are no minimum purchase requirements each year – if you don’t find anything that suits your needs, you don’t have to buy anything and there is no penalty.

In part two of my WhiskyFest Weekend report, I’ll provide a summary of my activities on Day 2.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

“Chasing Ice” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new documentary “Chasing Ice”. 



An experienced nature photographer spends years photographing various icebergs around the northern hemisphere in order to illustrate the impact of global warming on the planet. 


Photographer James Balog certainly never started out life wanting to be considered an environmentalist – but that seems to have been the life path that he wound up taking, as accidental as it may have been.  With a background in geology and a passion for photography, he wound up combining two of his greatest interests by forging a long, successful career as a professional photographer of many outdoor scenes.  But it was one particular shoot from a few years ago that eventually sent him off on a new obsession – one fraught with great controversy.   

During a photographic expedition to the arctic region in order to capture climate changes, he gradually became a true believer regarding the issue, despite having a great many doubts previously.  This experience inspired Balog to the most ambitious project of his or any other photographer’s career:  to obtain visual verification that the earth’s temperature is increasing by showing the melting of massive icebergs around the world. 

Balog then set out on his mission with a team to help him set up photographic equipment in Iceland, Greenland, northern Montana and elsewhere.  This equipment included new and as yet untested technology for time lapse photography techniques in an environment that was as unfriendly to the technology as it was to humans.  Despite frequent challenges and occasional failures, Balog was able to successfully obtain evidence that the increased use of carbon emissions over the centuries has had a direct impact on icebergs receding and glaciers rapidly melting. 



Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Chasing Ice” is the number of stunning visual images that were captured both on video and in still pictures.  Among these include an event referred to as “calving”, which is where huge chunks break off from icebergs and then become glaciers, which then aimlessly float throughout the ocean, eventually melting if they wind up managing to travel far enough to the south.  Additionally, evidence which proves over a period of time – usually years, but in some cases months – that ice caps are shrinking in size at an alarming rate. 

There are parts of the film that are quite dry, specifically when much of the technical and statistical details are delivered – so from that standpoint, viewers can certainly be somewhat grateful that the documentary is under an hour and a half.  However, the filmmakers do make an effort to humanize the subject matter by showing the effects of Balog’s extensive travel and adventurous behavior on his family as well as how health problems occasionally limited his active participation in his own project. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed both Balog and the documentary’s director, Jeff Orlowsky, who was also a member of Balog’s team.  Orlowsky explained that originally, the plan was not to shoot a documentary to be released in theaters, but instead, to act as the project’s videographer in order to record the actions taken on this expedition.  It was only after a certain amount of footage was recorded did he go to Balog and tell him that it appeared as though they had the makings of an actual film on their hands.  Balog talked at great length about the technological advances that have occurred during his long and illustrious career as a photographer and how that has changed how he works;