Sunday, February 26, 2012

“Wanderlust” – Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we saw another bonus screening -- the new comedy “Wanderlust” starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. 



After a married couple find themselves destitute, they seek greener pastures elsewhere – but when they get sidetracked at a hippy commune, can the discover happiness there? 



George & Linda (Rudd & Aniston) are a successful husband and wife living well in New York City.  Having just scored a pricey apartment in a choice Manhattan neighborhood, things are looking up until Linda’s deal for a documentary with HBO falls through and George loses his job when his employer goes out of business.  Desperate to earn a living in these difficult economic times, they decide to move to Atlanta so George can work for his obnoxious brother.

Along the way, they decide to stay at  a small bed and breakfast inn called Elysium, owned by Carvin (Alan Alda).  What George and Linda soon discover about the place is that it’s a commune populated with a number of hippies who’ve completely dropped out of society.  Shortly thereafter, they are taken under the wing of Seth (Justin Theroux), the apparent leader of the group who mentors the couple about the commune’s free and open lifestyle.  Following a brief but pleasant stay at the commune, George and Linda head off on their way to his brother’s place, but George eventually realizes that he’s utterly miserable there and they return to the commune. 

Initially, Linda is reluctant despite George’s enthusiasm for the idea, but their opinions change when George learns that Seth is trying to steal Linda away from him.  Seeing that Linda is now embracing this unusual philosophy, George tries to convince her to leave when he believes he may have a new job opportunity; much to his dismay, Linda decides to remain at the commune.  But when Seth ultimately reveals himself to be a truly unscrupulous person, can George prove to Linda Seth is unworthy and somehow manage to win her back?


Have you ever gone to a movie that you wanted to like and expected to enjoy and wound up mildly – or even greatly – disappointed?  I certainly have – and “Wanderlust” is the most recent example of this occurrence.  Let’s face it – a Judd Apatow comedy with two proven stars seems like a sure thing.  Yet this movie somehow manages to fall a little bit short – not a terrible work, just a bit flat as the truly funny scenes are few and far between as other attempts at humor simply flatline. 

While I certainly wouldn’t recommend that you run out to your local theater and see this movie immediately, there are definitely some good performances and funny moments.  Rudd is particularly funny in a scene where he has to psyche himself up to have sex with another woman and Aniston is also convincing in her humorous transformation from a skeptic to a true believer of this newfound freedom.  In their own contributions, both Theroux and Alda are also extremely commendable in their roles as well. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s director and co-writer David Wain.  At the outset of the interview, Wain seemed rather subdued – eventually, we learned why.  This was the opening weekend for “Wanderlust” and it turned out that it tanked at the box office, coming in 8th among the top 10 grossing movies.  Despite this, the interview with Wain was fascinating and entertaining.  Wain mentioned that he wound up having to reshoot after noticing some story issues during editing and test screenings.  Additionally, he had a rather insightful observation, stating that movies are written a total of three times:  once when the screenplay is typed, again during shooting and finally in its editing. 


Saturday, February 25, 2012

“Boy” – Movie Review


This weekend in my movie class, we saw the comedy-drama from New Zealand, “Boy”, written and directed by Taika Waititi, who also appears in the film. 



When a poor boy awaits a reunion with his father, will he be disappointed to find out who the man really is?



In the New Zealand of the mid-1980’s, an 11-year-old Michael Jackson obsessed Maori youngster who goes by the rather generic name of Boy is forced into a world of his own vivid imagination in order to escape his reality – both he and his 6-year-old brother Rocky are forced to live in their grandmother’s ramshackle farmhouse with several cousins because their father is in prison and their mother died during childbirth while Rocky was born. 

When their grandmother has to leave their small village for a while, the children are left alone with Boy essentially in charge.  During this time, Boy’s dream to be reunited with the father he idolizes finally comes true when Alamein (Waititi) is released from prison and shows up at the farm house with a couple of his friends in what seems in all likelihood to be a stolen car.  Broke, the men stay at the house and immediately set out to try to dig up a sealed plastic bag filled with cash that Alamein buried in a nearby field right before his impending arrest.  The only problem is that Alamein can’t remember exactly where his modest treasure is buried, so they wind up having to dig in random spots throughout the entire patch of land in the hope they’ll eventually stumble upon the prize. 

This being the first opportunity in many years that either Boy or Rocky has had a chance to spend time with their father, they both soon come to learn that Alamein is not the man they – and especially Boy – thought he was.  Prison, it would appear, has done little to rehabilitate Alamein and Boy is now forced to see his father in his true light.  But will they be able to find the stash of money – and if they do, what impact will that have on the relationship between Alamein and his sons? 



As a comedy-drama, the comedy in “Boy” ranges between cute and amusing, but rarely (if ever) truly laugh-out-loud funny.  The dramatic undertone of the movie lurks unsettlingly in the background of just about every comedic scene, possibly causing you as a viewer to be somewhat apprehensive in your reaction to the comedy.  This is something of an oddball film and although it gives an insight into the culture of the Maori of New Zealand, there are nevertheless universal truths about family and relationships that are easily relatable. 

One of the problems I had with this movie was, quite frankly, with the dialog – or perhaps, more to the point, the dialect of its characters.  Between their accents, regional slang and occasional use of Maori words, it was sometimes difficult for me to understand what was being said.  Additionally, while you sympathize with the character of Boy, you realize that ultimately, he will still be stuck in his life of poverty, regardless of what the outcome will be between him and his father, which casts something of a pall over the entire story. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed writer-director Taika Waititi, who also appeared in the film as Boy’s father, Alamein.  To the point I raised above about understanding the characters, he said that he had been encouraged to “clean-up” the sound by re-recording some of the dialog (in a process known as ADR or Automated Dialog Replacement, also known as “dubbing”); Waititi said that he ultimately chose not to do so because he felt that despite the technological advancements made over the years, the dubbing would come across as too obvious in the movie and also the original performances by the kids would lose some of the energy and enthusiasm as a result. 


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Whisky & Jazz



Whisky, jazz and chocolate – if you spent an evening with any one of these three, you’d probably have great fun. But what if you experienced all three in the same evening? That’s what I did recently when I attended a tasting called Whisky & Jazz at New York City’s Union Square Wines & Spirits . During the tasting, we were treated to a variety of single malt Scotches paired with various chocolates contributed by Pure Dark while we were entertained by the jazz styling of The Ralph Williams Trio.


Against my better judgment – and to the strains of the jazz trio’s version of “My One And Only Love” wafting in the background – I started with a real palate-killer from Islay, Lagavulin aged 16 years. As any dedicated scotch drinker knows, Islay is an area of Scotland that’s famous for being The Home Of Peat, contributing to a considerably smoky taste to almost any scotch manufactured there. Nicknamed The Smoke Bomb, Lagavulin is often compared to Laphroaig; generally, Laphroaig (my own personal go-to) is considered just a little bit better than Lagavulin, but anyone who enjoys their scotch with a powerful smokiness can’t go wrong with Lagavulin, by any stretch.


Next was a real treat –The Cask Of Dreams 2011 from Glenfiddich. A limited release 97.6 proof whisky, this was by far and away the most expensive scotch I tried that night at $140 a bottle. This consists of a blend of several 14 year old single malts that are finished in new American Oak barrels for its last few months. On its nose, you can detect notes of vanilla and apricot, while its taste suggests raisins. I found that it almost tasted like a brandy. If you can afford this one, it’s a real treat and something very different from Glenfiddich.


My favorite from the night – and the one I wound up purchasing – was the Springbank from Campbelltown. This 10 year old has a bit of a salty taste – your tongue might detect hints of iodine and brine; this ocean influence comes from being on the coast of Scotland, not terribly far from Islay. Additionally, it’s got a very pungent nose – I dare you to breathe deep with both nostrils!

Finally, a single malt from Islay that’s NOT peated. Yep, you read that right – this one is Bruichladdich’s Un-Peated 92 proof. To someone like myself, this seems like an incredible waste – after all, the reason why a scotch lover would buy something from Islay is specifically for its peatiness. According to the story from the distributor’s representative, an Islay-based factory was shuttered back in 1994, but was eventually re-opened in 2001; by then, however, all of the big scotch manufacturers in the region had already gathered up all of the peat to be had to make their own brand. As a result, by the time this factory had re-opened, there was none to be had. Although un-peated, it nevertheless does have the slightest suggestion of smoke to its taste.


Friday, February 17, 2012

“The Forgiveness Of Blood” – Movie Review




This week in my movie class, we saw a drama titled, “The Forgiveness Of Blood” starring a cast of mostly non-professional actors. 



When two Albanian families engage in a blood feud, one of them experience dissention – but will the experience ultimately result in making the family stronger or completely tearing them apart? 


Despite modern technology creeping its way into even the most remote areas of the tiny nation of Albania, there are still some centuries-old traditions that are clung to steadfastly by its residents – among them, is the bitter and dangerous blood feud.  Blood feuds can arise from even the most petty of differences but can wind up lasting years, decades or longer, with its impact felt by generations of families who have long since forgotten the original cause of the feud. 

One such feud occurs between the families of Mark and Sokol.  Mark modestly supports his family by delivering a local baker’s fresh bread to various neighbors and businesses in his small town; unfortunately, in order to do so in a timely and efficient manner, Mark’s horse-drawn cart must take a shortcut through Sokol’s land – something which Sokol has long resented.  When Sokol confronts Mark about this in the midst of one day’s attempted delivery, Mark becomes so enraged by Sokol’s narrow-mindedness and insistence on embarrassing him in front of his daughter that he threatens Sokol with revenge. 

That night, Mark returns with his brother and they murder Sokol; although the brother is arrested, Mark escapes and goes into hiding.  As a result of this blood feud, the male members of Mark’s family are endangered and must remain indoors; this forces Rudina, Mark’s eldest daughter, to drop out of school and take on her father’s delivery business in order to make ends meet.  In addition, Nik, the eldest son, must also drop out and is confined to the family’s house, turning him angry, bitter and maybe even more than just a little bit stir crazy.  With the family soon turning against itself, can they maintain a united front against their enemy or will they collapse under the oppressive strain brought on by this blood feud?    



Grim, bleak and almost free of sentiment, “The Forgiveness Of Blood” can be quite a difficult film to watch.  Certainly, it is not for everyone.  However, if movies that take you into a different world and introducing an unfamiliar culture are your thing, then “The Forgiveness Of Blood” may very well be right up your alley – assuming, of course, you’re not exactly out looking for the feel-good movie of the year.  If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted romp, then you might be better off checking out Reese Witherspoon’s latest offering. 

Although much of the cast comprises non-professional actors, it is perhaps this very fact that gives the film an air of authenticity.  Sometimes, it almost seems as though you are watching a documentary because things feel so realistic rather than staged.  At the same time, however, it can also be rather frustrating and infuriating to watch precisely because you know that these sort of blood feuds are not only based in reality but also very much part of the Albanian cultural heritage.  The fact that they take this sort of thing so seriously will leave you shaking your head in disbelief. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Paul Mezey, one of the film’s producers.  Mezey had previously worked with this film’s director Joshua Marston years ago on the critically-acclaimed “Maria Full Of Grace”.  Mezey said that this film was one of the most difficult shoots he had ever been on because of the genuine competitive nature of the Albanian people as they sought out respect and dignity at every turn; politely declining someone’s offer of generosity or hospitality is seen as the greatest possible insult, for example, even though no disrespect may have been intended. 


Sunday, February 12, 2012

“Rampart” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the drama “Rampart”, starring Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ice Cube and Steve Buscemi. 


When a scandal threatens the livelihood of a Los Angeles Police Officer, will he wind up losing both his job and his family in its aftermath?



In Los Angeles of 1999, the city finds itself embroiled in The Rampart Scandal, which has caused its entire police force to be under the scrutiny of the media and the public.  With its police seemingly out of control, people are increasingly concerned about whether the law is being fairly enforced.  One such cop that has been at risk for his behavior on the job is “Date Rape” Dave Brown (Harrelson), who sees himself as a courageous soldier working hard to keep his city from being overrun by Hispanic gangs. 

As rigid as Dave is, he maintains a rather unorthodox lifestyle, living with two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), each of whom have given him a daughter.  With neither one of them interested in maintaining any kind of a romantic relationship with him any longer, Dave seeks companionship by picking up women at bars nearly every night.  While on the job one day, his police cruiser is sideswiped by another car; uninjured, Dave exits the car and approaches the driver, who then runs away.  Dave catches up with him and then proceeds to give the man a rather severe beating – all of which has been caught on video and winds up being played ad infinitum on the nightly news of all local area TV stations. 

With the Mayor (Buscemi) and the head of the department’s Internal Affairs (Weaver) calling for Dave’s head, he remains steadfast in his belief that he did nothing wrong and intends to hold on to his job.  Amidst all of this ongoing controversy, things quickly worsen for Dave when he witnesses a robbery while on duty.  In pursuit of the thieves, he allows one to get away, but manages to shoot and kill another – making it appear as though it was done in self-defense by planting a pistol on the corpse.  While an LAPD investigator (Ice Cube) tails Dave determined to arrest him, Dave sinks deeper into an abyss of substance abuse and depression as he’s thrown out of his home and his finances are drained by legal fees.  As the world closes in on him, will Dave be able to keep his job while he risks losing his family? 



Despite a great cast and a solid performance by Woody Harrelson, “Rampart” didn’t work for me largely due to a screenplay which I felt was rambling and often incoherent.  Maybe this was done intentionally, as a way of reflecting the jagged mindset of its protagonist – but as a storytelling device, I believe it failed.  What might’ve proved to be a more cohesive way of telling this tale could have been the existence of a single character with a stronger moral compass than Dave, through whose eyes we could have seen this story.  Lacking that, the audience is instead dragged down into the borderline psychosis of its main character. 

Clearly, the character of Dave Brown is the epitome of an anti-hero – someone so despicable that he is difficult (if not impossible) to root for, yet we are asked to do precisely that as we witness him being beaten up by both the city he had pledged to defend and the “family” (such as it is) he is dedicated to support.  Without an introspective bone in his body, Dave’s downfall seems to ultimately make him want to seek forgiveness from both the family and system he believes have failed him – but he nevertheless remains unable to see that he has done wrong and instead views himself as being victimized. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s director Oren Moverman and its cinematographer Bobby Bukowski.  Moverman said that he became associated with the project when he was hired to do a rewrite of the script, originally written by James Ellroy, because it was deemed unusable; after the revision, the producers asked Moverman to direct the movie as well, which he agreed to do only if Harrelson would star – once he agreed, the rest of the cast fell into place because everyone wanted to work with Harrelson.  As the cinematographer, Bukowski said that one of his challenges came about as a result of the significant amount of improvisation done during the shooting of the movie – due to the fact that the actors would unpredictably move around the set quite frequently, he found filming the action difficult because they would often go into areas he hadn’t prepared to be shot and as a result, didn’t light properly. 


Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Martini Bowl 2012



Did you attend a party on Super Bowl weekend this year? I did, but it wasn’t on the day of the big game – instead, it was held the day before. This party was actually about a competition between Vodka and Gin called The Martini Bowl.



The Martini Bowl is an event held every year on Super Bowl weekend at New York City’s Union Square Wines & Spirits. During the event, customers are allowed to sample the various spirits, both on their own and in cocktails, in order to determine which is best. The winner of The Martini Bowl is chosen by the customers – whichever spirit sells the most on that day is the winner. Over the years, there have been different winners, but the one with the most victories in past competitions has been one of my personal favorites, Bulldog Gin.

Like last year, I only sampled the Gins – and even then, not the entire selection from the tasting menu. Yes, I’m slowing down with age – but I’m going for quality rather than quantity. (But enough about my romantic life)

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Speaking of Bulldog, they served up some rather interesting cocktails this year. One was called The Dirty Dog, a martini with an Italian olive called Cerignola; if you have a Whole Foods market nearby, you should be able to find it there – and remember to include the olive juice when you purchase some, because, as with any Dirty Martini recipe, it’s a crucial ingredient. Either shake or stir the gin with ice (as you prefer), then pour the contents into a martini glass laced with the olive juice, plopping the toothpick-skewered olive into the mixture once you’ve done so. Interestingly, this somehow manages to really highlight the citrus notes in the Bulldog.

Eye Of The Dragon is a cocktail that’s something of a cultural mix between Great Britain and Asia. It’s made with Lychee syrup, Bulldog Gin and a Lychee on a toothpick. If you like your cocktails a bit on the sweet side, this one might be right up your alley.

Finally, there’s The Spicy Pickadilly Circus – a cocktail which includes Bulldog Gin, McClure’s Spicy Pickle Brine and, of course, a hunk of pickle on a toothpick. If Eye Of The Dragon isn’t quite your style, I highly recommend this one – it’s quite different!

Two other gins I tried that day were Caorunn and The Botanist, both of which are made in Scotland. A few months back, I wrote about Caorunn gin; if you want to find out more about it, please click here.

Caorunn featured a Negroni served over ice with an orange slice and a particularly tasty martini with Lillet Blanc instead of vermouth, topped with an orange peel.

The Botanist is from Islay, The Home Of Peat. It includes 31 botanicals, nine of which are fairly standard to most gins, the remaining 22 are unique to Islay. It has a delicate taste, flowery on the back of the palate with a stronger taste of juniper on the front.


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Thursday, February 09, 2012

“Act Of Valor” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the action-adventure film “Act Of Valor” starring active duty Navy SEALs. 


When a CIA agent is kidnapped, a team of Navy SEALs are brought in to rescue her – but after they find out she’s uncovered information about a potential terrorist plot, can the SEALs find the terrorists and foil their plan?


In the jungles of Costa Rica, a young physician named Morales is treating the impoverished children of the area – but as a CIA agent, her real mission is to infiltrate a group of drug dealers and earn the trust of their leader, Christo, who heads a smuggling operation to get illegal narcotics into the United States. However, when Christo’s associates learn she is spying on them, they kidnap and torture her for information she is reluctant to provide. When the CIA discovers what occurred, the Navy SEALs are called into action to extract Morales from the kidnappers and return her safely to them.

Once Morales has been rescued, the SEALs become aware of the fact that the intelligence she has gathered over time leads to a much more sinister plan – a terrorist plot that has the potential to kill and/or injure thousands of people in the United States. While Christo himself is not directly involved in this, information suggests that he is close to the source and additional intelligence points to the leader of this plan as being a Chechen Muslim with strong ties to terrorism in his region, whose resources extend throughout the world. Given this, the SEALs are then called upon to locate his base of operations and do whatever is necessary to prevent the plan from being executed.

The SEALs then set out to invade the terrorist’s base to learn the details of his plan as well as his whereabouts. Soon, they discover that the plan involves suicide bombers being smuggled into the United States with Christo’s aid; once there, they will don vests containing explosive devices that cannot be identified by any metal detector. Each individual will then be sent on a mission to go to various geographic regions in order set off their bombs in business districts, shopping malls and just about anywhere the explosion would cause widespread panic, maximum loss to life and property and in general, further disrupt an already shaky American economy. But can the SEALs safely stop this plot from being carried out and either kill or capture the terrorist behind the plan?



In May of 2011, Team 6 of The Navy SEALs was credited with the execution of Osama Bin Laden; since then, they have gained great recognition and considerably higher visibility in the eyes of the citizens of the United States. Not one to miss out on a marketing opportunity, Hollywood has managed to figure out a way to capitalize on their fame by producing the motion picture “Act Of Valor”. Since the movie stars active duty Navy SEALs, that’s probably believed to be enough of a hook to draw people to theaters and distinguish the film from every other action flick.

It was with great anticipation that I have awaited this movie’s release and was immensely surprised when it was selected to be screened in my movie class, which does not ordinarily show anything from the action-adventure genre. From the outset, I had a predilection to like this movie and I did – but to be honest, I can’t say that it was anything out of the ordinary from other movies of this type that I have seen in the past. The inclusion of active duty Navy SEAL team members rather than professional actors made the typical stiff, cardboard-cutout acting usually seen in movies of this ilk even stiffer and more one-dimensional. The stunts, however, were quite good and performed, of course, by the actual SEALs themselves. Needless to say, the movie often has the look and feel of a video game.

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed the filmmakers, Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh. They said that the reason they did this movie is because it came as a request from the SEALs themselves, who felt that portrayal of their true story has been inaccurate in other film representations; Mouse and Waugh were chosen by the SEALs based on their background in making action movies. Although they worked from a script, there was a considerable amount of improvisation on the set, especially when it came to the dialog. The filmmakers said that they shot on digital video, utilizing up to 15 lightweight handheld cameras simultaneously; this gave them the opportunity to not only have backup coverage on many of the action scenes (especially the explosions) but also, greater maneuverability – since the cameras were so lightweight, they were able to get many different angles and generally move around more freely than they normally would have with the heavier, bulkier movie cameras.



Friday, February 03, 2012

“Undefeated” – Movie Review


This week in my movie class, we saw the Academy Award nominated documentary titled “Undefeated” .



When the coach of a high school football team is at the end of his rope, can he somehow manage to turn them into winners and reach the playoffs?



The Tigers are the football team for Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee; they have a long reputation as a bunch of losers, but their coach, Bill Courtney, is determined to turn around the fortunes of the team and its individual players, who come from a very poor section of town and have precious little in life to look forward to except for playing football.  Courtney, a local businessman, has been a volunteer at Manassas High School for over six years and he may have finally reached his breaking point. 

It’s bad enough that this team has a history of never having won a playoff game, but what’s particularly painful for Coach Courtney is the fact that the boys on the team have so many personal problems that distract them from their athletic pursuits; Courtney finds he also must be something of a surrogate father in addition to a football coach.  For a volunteer, Courtney is giving quite a bit of himself, at the risk of his business and his own family, which consists of a wife and four children. 

Courtney’s players are a motley bunch, to say the least:  one missed a year of school because he was in prison; another is a key member of the team missing most of the football season due to torn ligaments in his knee; and yet another is actually audacious enough to hope to go to college, but his poor academic showing in high school shows no indication he’ll have any chance to keep up in advanced education.  Despite all of this, Courtney has not given up on any of these young men – but will all of that good faith all go to waste or will it prove to be well-founded?


With all of the stories about Penn State and Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky still fresh in the minds of most people, it is both reassuring and somewhat healing to see the tale of a modest high school football coach who is without corruption and earnest in his efforts to do the right thing by the underprivileged youth for whom he’s responsible, at least on a part-time basis.  It is easy to see why “Undefeated” wound up with an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary; it has heart and plenty of it and isn’t at all ashamed. 

If there can be any criticism of “Undefeated”, it is that it trips over itself in trying to deliver its own message – mainly with respect to the racial component.  For one thing, it tends to completely gloss over the obvious – the fact that all of the players from the poor side of town are Black while the coach and most of the people he brings in to help are White.   The other part – and one which some Black audiences might find objectionable – is the fact that the documentary’s theme tends to appear to be “White Man As Savior”; that is to say, without a White Man’s insinuation of his own experience and value system, these young men would continue to be nothing and have nothing for the rest of their meaningless and likely incarcerated life.  Assuming you might be able to put these things aside, you will find “Undefeated” not only enjoyable and entertaining, but also, a documentary that may restore your faith in humans. 

After the screening, our instructor interviewed the filmmakers, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin – both of whom share not only Director credit, but also Editor and Director Of Photography credit as well.  These young men said that they wound up shooting for about nine months, filming every practice by the football team.  Although the documentary is under two hours in length, they actually shot around 500 hours of film and had to edit it down until they found a coherent narrative containing a beginning, middle and ending (in that order).