Friday, March 30, 2012

“Bully” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new documentary “Bully” by director Lee Hirsch.


The documentary follows a year in the life of several teenagers from around the country, as well as a couple of parents dealing with the aftermath of the suicide of their child as a consequence of being victimized by bullies. All of the children in these cases were teenagers who attend high school. Alex is a boy beaten up on his Sioux City school bus daily; Kelby is a lesbian whose parents in Oklahoma have revised their opinion of gays since their daughter came out; Ja’Meya is Mississippi girl serving time in a juvenile detention center for brandishing a gun on a school bus from suffering harassment by fellow students.

Alex is a big-hearted but unusual looking 14 year old who derives great pleasure from his family, especially when it comes to caring for his younger siblings. Unfortunately, the bullies at his high school make his life miserable by both physically and psychologically abusing him not only at school but also and especially on the bus ride to and from school each day. Even Alex doesn’t feel good about this, but admits to having great difficulty making friends and as a result, rationalizes the bullies’ behavior.

As far as the residents of her small town know, Kelby is the only lesbian among them. When she came out, both she and her parents were ostracized by neighbors and various other residents of the community, including her teachers. Fortunately for Kelby, she is well-liked by several fellow students resulting in a good support system in which she appears both well-adjusted and philosophical.

Following a long period of extensive taunting and threats, Ja’Meya – a good student and trophy-winning high school athlete – is fed up and decides to steal her mother’s pistol to bring to school with her in order to scare her tormentors in case of any more confrontations. When the bullies begin to go after her on a school bus, a video camera mounted inside the bus captures all of the action as she takes out the hand gun and points it in a menacing way. She then winds up in a detention center, awaiting a hearing and psychiatric examination.


For those of you unfamiliar with some of the controversy surrounding this movie, I’ll try to give you something of an executive summary: MPAA, the board that gives motion pictures ratings, originally gave this movie an ‘R’ rating due to the language. Harvey Weinstein, head of The Weinstein company (the film’s distributor), appealed to the board that “Bully” should be granted a PG-13 rating so that more young people would be able to see the film. The MPAA declined the request, so Weinstein decided not to distribute the movie with an R rating – instead, it will appear in theaters with the unusual rating of NR (Not Rated).

I highly recommend seeing this movie, especially if you have a child who is school age; if not, suggest to a friend or family member to take their child to a screening – it just may wind up inspiring a very interesting and necessary conversation afterwards. While a compelling and well-made film, some of my reservations about it include the fact that there is no mention of modern-age cyber-bullying on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Also, the agenda of the movie appears to be to indict the incompetent school administration and uncaring, bureaucratic authorities unmotivated to actually be of assistance; although these accusations are quite deserved, the filmmakers never make an attempt at offering any kind of plan or possible solution to the problem.

Prior to the screening, there was an interview with Cynthia Lowen, who co-produced the movie with director Lee Hirsch. Primarily a writer, Lowen decided to work with Hirsch on this project because the subject matter is of great importance to her. In filming this documentary, they had a 300:1 shooting ratio (i.e., for every 300 minutes of film shot, only 1 minute wound up in the final version of the movie). Her observation is that there is something of a triangulation in the sociology of bullying: The Bullying Experience is made up of The Bully, The Victim and The Innocent Bystander. Lowen made two salient points about this: first, that The Innocent Bystander is not really all that innocent – their inaction is complicit in the bullying of The Victim because they do not stand up to The Bully or even make an attempt to aid The Victim in any way. Also, she noted that at any point in time and in any given situation, the same person can move to any of the other two roles under different circumstances.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

“Mirror Mirror” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of  the new comedy, “Mirror Mirror”, starring Julia Roberts. 



When Snow White is thrown out of the palace by her evil stepmother, she is rescued by a group of dwarves – but can they help her defeat The Queen and take her rightful place in the kingdom? 



Long after her father The King has turned up missing, Snow White (Lily Collins) is constantly mistreated by her vain and envious evil stepmother The Queen (Roberts). Shortly following Snow White’s 18th birthday, The Queen orders her murdered by one of her courtiers, Brighton (Nathan Lane).  However, Brighton – loyal to Snow White’s kindly father The King – cannot bring himself to do the deed, so he merely takes her out into the woods and sets her free, urging her to escape. 

Lost and without shelter, Snow White is found by a bunch of dwarves who make a living by robbing whoever is unfortunate enough to wander into the woods when they are on the prowl.  Teaching her the skills of their trade, she soon sets out to help them rob travelers in the woods.  Running out of money, The Queen realizes that she needs to find a new source of income since her poverty-stricken subjects are themselves low on funds and cannot be taxed any longer.  When she meets the handsome young Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), she cons him into drinking a love potion so he’ll marry her – something that wouldn’t normally occur to him because the Prince has already met the real object of his affections, Snow White. 

After kidnapping Prince Alcott at the wedding, Snow White and the dwarves bring him back to their lair in the woods.  Seeing that he is under some kind of spell that has caused him to fall in love with The Queen, they set out to find a way to break the spell so he’ll return to normal – realizing that only true love will snap him out of it, Snow White gives him her first kiss and they immediately fall in love.  But when The Queen uses the magical powers of her prized mirror’s reflection to try to kill Snow White, will she prevail or can Snow White somehow find a way to survive and return to the palace? 



Mirror Mirror” is replete with CGI, as its opening sequence setting up the story prepares you for – seeing these effects, you almost might feel as though you may be watching a video game rather than a movie.  In fact, should you see this film and sit through the credits at its end, you will witness an army of software engineers who make up the extensive CGI team that is responsible for these special effects.  Unfortunately, this is not enough to save the movie which I found to be a bit dreary and dull with funny jokes in its script being few and far between. 

Was it my prejudice against Julia Roberts (I’m not in love with America’s Sweetheart the way the rest of the country seems to be) or my resistance to a kids’ movie that informed my opinion?  Quite frankly, I don’t think it was either one.  Roberts gives a pretty convincing performance as Her Bitchiness and there have been family movies I’ve seen in the recent past that I’ve actually enjoyed (see my review of last year’s “The Muppets” as an example). 

Instead, I think it is just that the story -- despite its attempt to reboot this legendary fairy tale to a more modernized, hip version -- just plods along and is boring even though the filmmakers try to jazz things up a bit with all of the special effects.    Unrelated to the quality of the film, I felt that the actress playing Snow White was a bit disturbing and distracting with her bushy eyebrows – I couldn’t help but thinking that they needed a good tweezing.  “Mirror Mirror” ends with a Bollywood-style musical number which seems a bit out of place – not too much of a shock that it’s probably there because the movie’s director is himself Indian.  Despite all of this, it’ll probably still be a big hit at the box office – on my way out of the theater, I heard a little girl remark to her dad how much she loved the movie and looked forward to seeing it again once it opens. 



Saturday, March 24, 2012

“Musical Chairs” – Movie Review


This week, the Spring semester of my movie class began with a screening of Director Susan Seidelman’s new romantic comedy – drama “Musical Chairs” . 



When a young dancer falls in love with a woman who recently became a paraplegic, can he restore her will to live by renewing her interest in dance?



While working as a waiter in his parents’ South Bronx restaurant, Armando dreams of a better life as a professional dancer – toward that end, he teaches the tango to a bunch of elderly women at a Manhattan dance studio while secretly hoping he can break into show business.  His proud Puerto Rican mother, Isabel, thinks his dreams are unrealistic and instead tries to play the role of matchmaker to set him up with a nice Hispanic girl from the neighborhood. 

Unknown to Isabel, Armando is in love with Mia, a fellow dance instructor at the studio where he works part-time.  A beautiful young woman with a promising future in dance, her career is abruptly cut short when she suffers a severe spinal cord injury as a result of a traffic accident; suddenly finding herself a paraplegic, she is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.  Unable to walk much less dance, she falls into a deep depression and completely loses interest in life. 

Armando eventually learns of a rather unique ballroom dancing competition – one that involves dancers whose partners are wheelchair-bound.  Inspired, he enlists the aid of his friends and co-workers to teach Mia and her fellow paraplegics how to dance on wheels so that they may enter the competition.  But with Mia questioning both her own abilities and Armando’s motives, will his efforts go for naught or will he somehow manage to help her find a reason to live?



In “Musical Chairs”, director Susan Seidelman appears to be trying to seek both the success and notoriety she achieved with her hit “Desperately Seeking Susan” around a quarter of a century ago.  Unfortunately for her, this movie lacks the cleverness and charm that characterized her breakthrough film, not to mention the fact that it is also missing a Madonna-type character who is on the brink of being a huge star.  Instead, this is a movie with a painfully corny story, replete with clichés and attempts at humor that totally fall flat. 

With trite dialog (does anyone actually use the word “scram” these days?) and situations that challenge viewers to suspend their disbelief far beyond any reasonable degree, “Musical Chairs” feels more like a made for TV movie – not to put too fine a point on things, but likely a Movie-Of-The-Week that would wind up on the Lifetime network.  While the romance angle is intended for women, the dancing designed to appeal to the youth and the Puerto Rican protagonist directed towards an ever-increasing Hispanic market, there are plenty of business reasons why this movie got made.  Whatever creative or artistic reasons that may be for this movie to exist, however, remain something of a mystery. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed both Seidelman and actress Priscilla Lopez, who played Isabel, Armando’s mother.  Seidelman spoke about what it was like to film the movie in New York City on a small budget; she said that a number of the street scenes were so-called “stolen” shots in the sense that they were done somewhat spontaneously and without getting the proper permits from the city, which are expensive.  Lopez discussed her character; as a mother herself, she said that she could relate to Isabel’s wrong-headed but nevertheless good intentions as she merely wanted the best for her only son.  She compared this character to that of the mother she played in “Maid In Manhattan”.   Ms. Lopez said that this character was easier for her to play because Isabel, although something of an antagonist in “Musical Chairs”, was nevertheless more sympathetic than the character in the J-Lo movie. 


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Irish Whiskey On St. Patrick’s Day




Not all of us were lucky enough to be able to attend a St. Patrick’s Day party this year, so I had to find another way to celebrate this great holiday – fortunately, New York City’s Union Square Wines & Spirits came to my aid by having their annual St. Patrick’s Day tasting of a wide variety of Irish Whiskey products. Of the 16 Irish Whiskeys on the tasting menu, I was only able to sample a few and still remain vertical, so I’ll only focus on a small subset from the menu. Apologies in advance if I’ve somehow managed to skip one of your favorites.


One of the best Irish Whiskeys I’ve tasted at this price point was the Tullamore Dew Single Malt. Aged for 10 years, this 80 proof Whiskey is unique not only among the company’s offerings, but for whiskeys in general. At this tasting, I was fortunate to meet Tim Herlihy, Tullamore Dew’s Brand Ambassador who is obviously quite knowledgeable about their product line. He told me that this is a relatively new item among Tullamore Dew’s selections and that it was something of an experiment by the company in order to try a kind of whiskey that was different for them – they wanted to appeal somewhat to Scotch drinkers without completely alienating their old customers.


Tullamore Dew’s Single Malt is double-distilled, which distinguishes it from the rest of their products right off the bat – everything else they make is triple-distilled; again, the reason behind doing this was just to do an alternate way of manufacturing their whiskey. One other thing that’s quite different about this one – and this is the major distinction here – is the fact that they age their whiskey in a total of four different types of casks. Yep, you read that right, I said four – here’s how it works …


The four casks consist of Old Bourbon, Dry Olorosso Sherry, Madeira and Port Wine. Primarily, the whiskey spends approximately its first nine years in the old bourbon casks. After that, it is then transferred to either a sherry or port cask; a blend of the whiskey from the sherry and port casks is then poured into the Madeira cask, where it spends the next six months finishing. All of the care that is taken to produce this fine whiskey can be experienced in both its rich aroma and smooth taste.


Another item from the tasting menu that I’d like to bring to your attention is Coole Swan Superior Dairy Cream Liqueur. Now, when you think of an Irish Cream Liqueur, naturally, the first thing that comes to mind will be Baileys – certainly, that’s everyone’s go-to. As a result, when you see another Irish Cream Liqueur of a comparable price, you might feel that it isn’t worth trying since it’s likely a Baileys clone. That was the exact same mistake I made when I first encountered Coole Swan, but fortunately, I was not blinded by my prejudice because I decided to take a sample anyway – and now I’m glad I did because Coole Swan is really something special and if you haven’t tried it yet, then by all means, do yourself a favor and grab yourself a bottle the next chance you get.


Coole Swan is made with single malt Irish Whiskey; one caution here is that if you’re on a diet, this may not be the liqueur for you because it contains 16% butterfat cream, the highest amount allowed by Ireland. According to the distributor’s representative, the cream is so fresh that “it goes from cow to bottle within 72 hours”. Surprisingly for a liqueur, there is no sugar added – but make no mistake, it is sweet. Its sweetness comes from other ingredients – specifically, melted Belgian chocolate, dark cocoa and Madagascar vanilla. This one is rich and heavy and will coat your tongue (possibly even leaving a little bit of a film on your teeth after drinking).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

“Jeff, Who Lives At Home” – Movie Review


This weekend in my movie class, we saw the new comedy-drama “Jeff, Who Lives At Home”, starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Susan Sarandon and Rae Dawn Chong. 



When a 30-year-old slacker is asked to help his older brother investigate his wife’s possible infidelity, will he be able to find his life’s destiny?



Jeff (Segel) is an aimless 30-year-old man who lacks ambition in life and as a result, lives in the basement of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana home of his widowed working mother, Sharon (Sarandon).  Having long ago given up on making any attempt to motivate her son, she has instead resigned herself to merely request of him some occasional chores when he’s not watching infomercials on TV and smoking marijuana from a bong.  Unfortunately, this daydreamer with severe Attention Deficit Disorder can barely even manage to do many (if any) of those chores. 

Pat (Helms), his older brother, is arguably more mature, but by no means does he exhibit exemplary behavior.  With a steady job and a marriage to Linda (Greer), Pat has at least gotten himself out of his mother’s house.  But it is Pat’s own particular form of immaturity and selfishness that drive Linda away from him and into the arms of another man.  As soon as Pat learns that Linda may be cheating on him, he prevails upon Jeff to assist in snooping on her to uncover evidence of her affair. 

All the while, Sharon is simultaneously flattered disturbed when she becomes aware of a secret admirer in her office.  She confides in her best friend Carol (Chong) regarding this information and together they set out to try to uncover who this mystery man might be.  Despite enjoying this newfound attention, Sharon is also concerned that someone might be playing a practical joke on her. 

As Jeff proceeds in aiding Pat in his quest, he suddenly has direction for the first time in his adult life – but will he somehow manage to use this experience to turn his life around for the better? 





Jeff, Who Lives At Home” was written & directed by The Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, who also gave us “Cyrus”.  Quickly, they are becoming masters at developing unusual comedies that are also quite poignant – odd stories about even odder characters who are believable, sympathetic and funny amidst their angst.  If you liked “Cyrus” (and I certainly did), then you will probably like “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” as well.  While I don’t usually like quirky movies such as these because they generally tend to have too much, well, “quirk”, “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” is the rare exception because the characters wind up being likeable despite their neuroses. 

While I highly recommend this movie – and I must admit that it had me laughing from the very beginning (including the opening credits) – it can definitely turn off some people.  For one thing, you may not be able to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to be able to accept some of the situations, which can be a little too coincidental.  Also, as I said, this is a story about a protagonist who’s a slacker at heart; certain viewers may find this rather objectionable.  Usually I do also, but not this time.  Although the film might be accused of having a too-perfect ending, I found its eccentric manner charming and providing a satisfying resolution to all characters’ individual situations. 

Following the screening, the class had a pretty interesting discussion about the film; while the overwhelming majority of the students liked “Jeff, Who Lives At Home”, there were some dissidents – however, both sides clearly and articulately made their case for why the film either worked or not in their view.  What most everyone agreed on – regardless of whether or not they liked the movie – was the fact that it would have a difficult time finding much in the way of commercial success.  Clearly, this is one of those movies that will either stand or fall based on word of mouth.   



Tuesday, March 06, 2012

“Cognac & Blues”




Recently, I wrote about a delightful evening I spent at a single malt whisky tasting where we were treated to a jazz band. Shortly thereafter, Union Square Wines & Spirits held another and very similar tasting – this one was cognac while listening to the blues.


Family Tradition Cognacs presented several of their offerings and co-founder Matthew Skoller – who is also a blues harmonica player – performed sets during the tasting, in between discussing cognac and answering questions about the various types that were on display for this evening’s event. Skoller co-founded the company with his brother and sister-in-law. His brother’s wife is originally from the Cognac region of France and as a result, this gave them the entrée to the area’s grape growers necessary in order to be able to purchase the best grapes for their product. Where they decided their business could fulfill a need was in the area of artisanal cognacs – while industrially-made cognacs are widely available throughout the United States, the artisanal cognacs are rare because they are primarily available in France. With Family Tradition Cognac, they decided they could sell smaller cognacs into the United States market.



The evening started with Jean-Pierre Grateaud Cognac Bouquest de Borderies, aged five years. It has a very floral aroma, reminiscent of violets along with a light touch of caramel. This particular cognac is considered an excellent choice if you are new to the spirit and want to try something that may be a little sweeter and less intense than some of the more mature cognacs available.



Next was Laurence et Emmanuel Février Cognac Saveurs. Aged anywhere from six to seven years, it uses grapes from the Fins Bois region of Cognac, France. This one is characterized by its savory taste –hints of both clove and ginger can be detected, supplying a smoky finish.



Finally, there was Jean-Luc Pasquet Cognac Noble de Grande Champagne. At $120 a bottle, this was by far the most expensive cognac of the evening. This one is aged 15 years, using grapes from the Grande Champagne region. Its flavor definitely justifies its price – it has an intense taste that almost explodes on the palate.


Taking a break from his musical sets on the night, Skoller shared with us his expertise on cognacs. Once a bottle is uncorked, he said that upon re-corking it, it can be kept for a long time – up to two years, in most cases, provided not too much air gets inside the bottle that could potentially alter the spirit.

Skoller mentioned that the production of cognacs are traditionally greatly outpaced by wines; for every 10 bottles of wine produced in France, only one bottle of cognac is made. He said that younger wines are usually preferred over older wines when making cognac because older wines prove to be much harder to distill. According to Skoller, the process generally tends to go something like this: the young wine is distilled twice, resulting in a spirit that is 70% alcohol (or 140 proof, if you prefer). From this, a process called reduction is performed in order to decrease the alcohol content somewhat. This process can take a year or slightly more; it is done by gradually adding distilled water to the mix.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

“Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” – Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we saw a bonus screening of the romantic comedy-drama, “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” by director Lasse Hallstrom; it stars Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas.



When a fish expert is engaged to help a wealthy Yemeni Sheik to bring fishing to the region, he reluctantly complies – but after the project results in him meeting a woman who changes his life, can he somehow manage to both win her love and fulfill the dream of the Sheik at the same time?



When Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is contacted by Harriet (Blunt), the representative of a wealthy Yemeni Sheik to help her client bring the sport of salmon fishing to that area of the middle east, he flatly declines.  As a fish expert and a man of science, he knows that salmon need a cold water habitat in which to survive and the climate of the desert will not suit them because the water temperatures are far too high for the fish to be able to thrive. 

While Anglo-Arabic relations worsen in Afghanistan, Patricia (Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s hard-charging Press Officer, decides that it’s now time to seek out some kind of a feel-good story that can in some way help public relations between the two cultures.  Becoming aware of the Sheik’s desire to heighten the awareness of salmon fishing in Yemen, she forces England’s government officials to come to his aid.  As a result of this, Jones is now brought into this project, despite his opposition. 

Working with Harriet on this project, Jones eventually develops a deep attraction towards this young beauty.  In the course of trying to find a way to make this improbable venture work, Jones figures out that if the Sheik is willing to spend the considerable amount of money necessary, it just might be possible to build what amounts to a man-made river and cool the water to the point that the salmon would be able to survive.  But would he be able to overcome the objections from local Muslim fundamentalists in order to make this effort succeed – and, in the process, manage to convince Harriet that he’s truly in love with her?



The movie “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” is adapted from a novel by the same name.  If you read it – and I hastily admit that I did not -- then you might very well notice some differences in the movie from the book.  One of the members of our movie class read the source material prior to this screening and noted that the main distinctions between the film and book were that the beginning of the novel was considerably funnier and that the conclusion of the movie was wrapped up like a neat little package while the ending in the book was substantially more ambivalent. 

As for me, I found this film to be quite an entertaining and pleasant diversion, but by no means a great film.  This ostensible chick-flick is somewhat prone to a bit of magical thinking by its characters – and the degree to which you buy into that will determine whether or not the film works for you.  Among the problems I had with this movie were certain plot contrivances concerning Harriet’s boyfriend as well as believing any kind of sexual attraction between her and Alfred.  While there was certainly a close friendship based on the situations both were thrown into, I did not really see very much of a romance between the two. 

Following the screening, our class discussion focused on whether or not the movie would be either a critical or box office success.  While the critics may favor Hallstrom because of his notable track record, the financial success of this film might wind up hinging on its stars, whose performances were arguably the best part of “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” – especially that of Kristen Scott Thomas, who appeared in a small but nevertheless important role.  Our instructor noted that the film might have some difficulties based on its title, despite the fact that it is the exact same title of the novel on which it is based.