Friday, April 27, 2012

“The Giant Mechanical Man” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new romantic comedy, “The Giant Mechanical Man”, starring Jenna Fischer, Chris Messina and Topher Grace.



When two losers meet, will they allow themselves to fall in love with each other or will they let the opportunity slip through their fingers?



Life has certainly not been doing Janice (Fischer) any favors.  After losing her job at the temp agency where she’s been sent on occasional assignments, she falls behind in her rent and is eventually evicted from her apartment, forcing her to move in with her younger married sister.  Convinced that being in a relationship would give Janice more focus in life, the sister decides to fix her up with Doug (Grace), the thoroughly obnoxious author of a new book called, “How To Have Winning Conversation”. 

Tim (Messina) is by no means faring any better.  Seeing himself as something of a performance artist, he winds up losing his live-in girlfriend because she finds his lifestyle too much of an embarrassment.  His sole attempt at earning money is to pose in various public places around Detroit as a giant mechanical man painted in silver, hoping people who appreciate his artistry will toss money into his open suitcase.  Finding himself no longer able to afford his apartment once his girlfriend moves out, Tim secures a job as a janitor at the local zoo.  By sheer happenstance, Janice also wins a position as a concessionaire at that very same zoo. 

Upon meeting while on the job, Janice and Tim become fast friends and soon wind up dating, only to discover a much deeper mutual attraction for each other.  Jenna quickly realizes that she’s completely wasting her time with Doug, despite the fact that he’s quite attracted to her, not to mention her sister’s urging to latch on to a man with a successful career.  One thing that might cause an impediment to Janice’s relationship with Tim is that he’s kept secret that he’s Detroit’s Giant Mechanical Man, who has gained a limited amount of notoriety within the city – not to mention that he’s been noticed by Janice in her travels around town.  Can Janice find the courage and self-confidence to finally stand up for herself and continue her romance with Tim or will she be forever destined to defer to the will of others just to make everyone but herself happy? 



Recently, Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival has been ongoing here in New York City and “The Giant Mechanical Man” is one of the movies that had its debut there.  The film has been getting quite a bit of buzz lately, so I viewed it with great anticipation.  This is the first film directed by Lee Kirk (who also wrote the script) and it very much has the feel of precisely that, particularly in its almost fairy tale like screenplay.  “The Giant Mechanical Man” is a cute little love story that is fraught with far too many contrivances, dramatic conceits and convenient coincidences to be able to take it seriously or to suspend your disbelief for very long. 

Fischer seems to have taken her character from the hit television show “The Office” and perfected it to the point that she almost appears to be pigeonholing herself by being cast as a loser with the permanent storm cloud hovering overhead, threatening a monsoon-like downpour at nearly any moment.  Viewing the film practically gives you the impression that she is comfortable in her success and as such, is in no hurry to take chances.  This is a movie that is familiar, safe and unchallenging.  Feel free to cuddle up with it on a rainy day if you feel you must. 

After the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s writer/director Lee Kirk and its star, Jenna Fischer.  From the time that Kirk initially met Fischer to pitch the idea to her until the time the movie had its funding and casting in place to actually begin shooting, it took a total of four and a half years.  In the meantime, Kirk and Fischer spent an increasing amount of time together, sparking a romance, which culminated in their marriage; not long ago, they gave birth to a baby, in addition to this film. 


Sunday, April 22, 2012

“Bernie” – Movie Review


This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the new comedy “Bernie”, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey.



After the funeral director of a small east Texas town develops a relationship with an elderly widow, he eventually winds up being arrested for her murder – but will this pillar of the community be found guilty?



In Carthage, Texas, Bernie Tiede (Black) is both admired and respected as their mortician despite his rather flamboyant behavior.     As a man known for drying the tears of recently-widowed elderly women, his baffling quirks are essentially ignored by other citizens because of his hard-working dedication and personable character.  It is for all of these reasons that Carthage is greatly confused as to why he would wind up befriending Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), a cantankerous old biddy who is almost unanimously disliked by all who live there.  A sympathetic soul, Bernie sees her as lonely and much in need of a friend after working on the funeral of Marjorie’s late husband, so he sets out to show her attention during her period of mourning. 

Eventually, Marjorie warms up to him and much to everyone’s surprise, allows Bernie full access into her life.  Soon, they become close friends and she convinces him to reduce his hours at the funeral parlor so he can spend more time with her.  As a wealthy widow, Marjorie takes Bernie on elaborate excursions both around the country and around the world.   With Bernie assuming power of attorney over her estate, he gains a greater financial grip on Marjorie as she in turn gains a greater personal grip on Bernie’s life, mistreating him as if he was an errant employee or a lowly servant. 

As their relationship crumbles over the course of the next couple of years, Bernie quickly grows weary of her abuse and finally winds up murdering Marjorie by shooting her with her own rifle.  For a while, Bernie is able to convince everyone that Marjorie is either sick or in a nursing home, but people are growing increasingly suspicious.  Under the auspices of the sheriff, some of Marjorie’s family and business associates break into her home.  After a bit of snooping around, police who accompany them finally discover Marjorie’s body stuffed into the freezer stored in her garage.  Shortly thereafter, Bernie is arrested and he confesses to the crime – but despite this, will District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) encounter difficulty getting a conviction due to the endearment Bernie has garnered from the Carthage citizenry?



As the movie’s tag line suggests, perhaps the most unbelievable thing about this story is that it is absolutely true.  Jack Black’s portrayal of Bernie is as funny as it is tragic, bordering on pathetic; Shirley MacLaine shines as a shrew that almost defines the term “justifiable homicide”.  Director Richard Linklater, who worked with Black on “The School Of Rock”, does a masterful job of laying out this tale in a serio-comic way, using documentary-style techniques, particularly by interspersing interviews of actual Carthage residents who purportedly knew either Bernie or Marjorie or both. 

Speaking of which, these interviews are arguably the best – and funniest – part of “Bernie”due to the plain-speaking, unfiltered comments and observations made by the interviewees.  Either intentionally or not, they are often both humorous and insightful about the main characters in this story.  As an example, one long-time Texas resident does an excellent and hilarious job of setting up the story by explaining the distinctions between the various regions of Texas with some snarky – albeit likely sincere – comments. 

Following the screening, the class discussed the movie; the majority of attendees appeared to like “Bernie” quite a good deal and believed it would be both a critical and commercial success when released.     Some of the students who said they were originally from the south said that while the way many of the townspeople interviewed sounded authentic, they weren’t sure if the film would do well in the south, particularly Texas.  Other questions raised were whether or not the comments made by the interviewees were improvised or scripted because sometimes, they sounded just too good to be true. 



Friday, April 20, 2012

“The Five-Year Engagement” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new romantic comedy “The Five-Year Engagement”, starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. 


When a recently – engaged couple is forced to postpone their wedding, will their relationship survive the challenges that occur as a result of the sacrifices they are forced to make?


Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) have been dating for approximately a year. On the first anniversary of their meeting – which just so happens to be New Year’s Eve – Tom pops the question to Violet, who giddily accepts. Delighted, they tell their friends and family – some of whom are equally as happy as the couple themselves, others are skeptical about either their future together or the institution of marriage itself. Regardless, they immediately set out to plan the wedding until Violet is notified that she has been accepted for a job in the Psychology Department at The University Of Michigan, which would require her to move there for at least the next two years.

As a sous chef at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco, Tom reasons that he has the type of job that would easily allow him to work just about anywhere, so he suggests to Violet that she accept the offer – he will then quit his current job and move to Michigan with her, then get another similar position at a restaurant in the city where they will next live. When Tom offers to make this sacrifice, he learns just how painful it will turn out to be because after he submits his resignation to the restaurant’s executive chef, she informs him that his timing is particularly bad because she on the verge of opening a brand new high – end restaurant where she planned on naming him the head chef.

Upon arrival in Michigan, however, things are not looking as rosy for Tom as they are for Violet. The smaller Michigan town in which they have settled doesn’t have that many fine dining restaurants – and the few that exist won’t hire Tom either because he’s overqualified or because they can’t afford him. As a result, he becomes under-employed, taking a job making sandwiches at a small neighborhood cafĂ©. Between Tom’s professional frustrations and dislike of Michigan’s frigid winters, the experience is gradually driving a wedge between he and Violet – whom, he eventually learns, has recently cheated on him with her boss, causing Tom to return to San Francisco. But as they both eventually move on to new relationships, will the time and distance apart cause them to re-evaluate their priorities in life or will it convince them that each doesn’t really need the other quite so desperately after all?


If you liked “Bridesmaids”, you will probably enjoy “The Five-Year Engagement” as well – which makes sense, since both were produced by the prolific Judd Apatow.  For that matter, if you liked “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, then you’ll probably also like this movie as well – again, a no-brainer since the same team (Director Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel) also made both.  Obviously, despite those kinds of brilliant track records, nothing is ever automatic – yet here, this group of clever, inventive and intelligent comic minds have pulled off something that could very well be the next big hit comedy. 

The quality of filmmaking in “5-Year Engagement” is absolutely top-notch – making you laugh (and, frequently, laugh especially hard) while telling a story that sometimes takes something of a dramatic turn here and there.  Segel and Blunt seem a perfect match for each other – but then again, Segel always seems like a perfect match with almost all of his female co-stars because he simply comes across as just that much of a likeable everyman.  Also, in her ample amount of screen time, it is good to see Blunt given a decent chance to show off her skills as an actress equally capable of conveying both comedy and drama.  Speaking of which, a potential spoiler here:  be sure to keep an eye out for Cookie Monster versus Elmo – arguably the funniest scene in the entire movie!

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Director Nicholas Stoller, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the movie’s star, Jason Segel.  Stoller said that the project took roughly four years to reach fruition; after working on “Sarah Marshall”, which was essentially sifting through the remnants of the wreck of a failed relationship, the two wanted to try something that was somewhat the opposite – examining the hills and valleys of a relationship over a long period of time.  Stoller also mentioned that aside from the significant tax breaks that they were awarded by shooting in Michigan, another motivating factor for choosing that location was the fact that he is originally from there and that both of his parents are actually professors at The University of Michigan. 



Saturday, April 14, 2012

Whisky Live 2012 New York City



Every year, I look forward to attending WhiskyFest here in New York City; unfortunately (at the time of this writing), it is approximately six months away and I couldn’t wait for a nice whisky tasting. Thankfully, springtime in The Big Apple brings an event called Whisky Live; if you’re a whisky lover in other parts of the country, you may be familiar with this tasting as it’s held in various regions of the United States. In years past, I have been unable to attend Whisky Live when it hits New York due to other previous commitments; luck was with me in 2012 as I was available to attend the event, held in the hall at Pier 60 of the Chelsea Piers.

This being my first time at Whisky Live -- but far from my first whisky tasting – I decided that my main focus would be on the smaller, lesser-known brands in order to introduce myself (and you!) to products that were unfamiliar yet may be worth purchasing in the future.



Adding to the list of unlikely places that are new to developing whisky is Sweden with a product named Mackmyra. This was the first time I’d ever heard of a Swedish whisky. Mackmyra is the only Swedish whisky in the world. It is a single malt that is aged in small casks made of Swedish Oak for just six years. Containing only rye, it lacks the peaty flavor and aroma of Scotch Whisky.

George Dickel

As it turns out, Jack Daniels is not Tennessee’s only Whisky; in fact, George Dickel has been in business since 1870. Dickel whisky is cold filtered where they chill the distillate, resulting in a more consistent product. Jack Daniels, by contrast, is room temperature. As I tasted their 12 year old 86 proof product, I was informed that chill filtering makes it smoother in winter than in the summer as there is no bite to it. It is made of 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley. They don’t filter in charcoal; anything that is charcoal filtered can technically not be considered bourbon.



Whisky’s poor younger cousin was also represented at Whisky Live this year – I believe they refer to it by the name of “beer” or something like that. Belhaven is Scotland’s oldest brewery. They provided several offerings, but I only tried the Wee Heavy Ale – so called because it contains 6% alcohol, more than any of their other products. They also make an IPA.

Washington Wheat

Washington Wheat is a whiskey that is made of 100% Wheat from Spokane, Washington; this produces a softer taste when compared to something like Bourbon and has little spice. In the sample given to me, I could not detect anything in the way of an aroma, so if some of you whisky drinkers are looking forward to trying it in something like a Glencairn nosing glass as I did, then you might be a tad disappointed. It is aged only two years in full-sized new American Oak barrels. An 80 proof spirit, its taste is sweeter on the front of the tongue, with a distinctly sharp bite on the side of the tongue.



Friday, April 13, 2012

“Unraveled” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary “Unraveled” . 


When former attorney Marc Dreier is found guilty of a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi Scheme involving the law firm he founded, he is placed under house arrest and while awaiting sentencing, consents to a series of interviews about his crime.


With two months remaining before he must go to court for sentencing, Marc Dreier remains under house arrest in his luxurious $10 million Manhattan penthouse apartment with an armed guard keeping watch full-time. During this period, Dreier proceeds to get his affairs in order, packing up his belongings and getting ready to put everything in storage for however long he will be in prison. Being a sports fan, Dreier spends much of his time watching baseball games on television, sometimes with his son, with whom he occasionally watches the TV game show “Jeopardy” as well – all the while bragging that he never gets the Final Jeopardy question wrong.

While at home alone with his thoughts, Dreier uses this as an opportunity to reflect on his life, including and especially all of the events that led up to him being arrested when caught pulling the scam which brought down his high-profile law firm. At the time Dreier LLP went out of business, the firm had in its employ 800 attorneys. Greed being Dreier’s ultimate downfall, he claims, “I didn’t borrow money to buy things – I bought things in order to borrow money”. What Dreier is referring to here is the that he discovered a rather curious fact of life: banks and potential investors would be more likely to loan his firm money if he already looked like he didn’t really need the cash; therefore, if he gave the appearance of already being successful, people would be more likely to want to be part of that success story.

As the day of his court date draws near, Dreier meets with someone who calls himself a “Criminologist”, but is really something of a prison consultant; his purpose is to advise Dreier about exactly what to expect regarding the types of minimum-security prisons in which he will probably do his time. Dreier steers their conversation to such trivial subjects as food, prison jobs and accessibility of sports on the prison television. Additionally, he meets with his lawyers, with whom he argues about how they should present his situation before the judge; obviously, a desperate Dreier connives to get the most lenient sentence possible. Although the lawyers are trying to manage his expectations and bring him back to reality, Dreier insists that he be presented as a good guy who used bad judgment and therefore does not deserve the stiff sentence of 140 years that Bernie Madoff had recently been handed.


Although there was extensive media coverage of Dreier’s misdeeds in the media – including an interview he did with the “60 Minutes” television show – “Unraveled” is arguably more informative due to the fact that it takes a different perspective, serving as something of a postscript to the entire story. While given the opportunity to give an extensive mea culpa, Dreier also makes many attempts to garner sympathy from both the documentarian and the audience viewing this film by talking about his upbringing and scholarly Ivy League background, having studied at both Harvard and Yale. Dreier makes note of the fact that his high school graduating class voted him “Most Likely To Succeed”.

While recommending “Unraveled”, I should note a couple of things that occasionally took me out of Dreier’s story, albeit momentarily. One thing was that at several points in the movie, Dreier recounts various stages of his scam; in some of these moments, the filmmaker cuts away to animated or still artist renderings of the event being described. These drawings generally look like they were lifted from a Marc Dreier comic book (or “graphic novel”, if you prefer); I found this to be somewhat awkward because it was unclear if the filmmaker did this for comic relief or if he intended the audience to take it seriously. The cutaways to the drawings were an attempt to relieve audiences from the boredom of Dreier being merely a talking head during the interviews, which brings me to my second point. Almost all of the exposition of the story is provided directly by Dreier himself because the filmmaker made the choice of not going with a narrator. Depending on your sensitivity to this matter (and how strongly you may feel about Dreier himself), listening to this single voice for almost the entire movie could be somewhat tiresome.

Following the screening, the instructor interviewed the director of “Unraveled”, Marc Simon, an attorney/filmmaker who was one of the lawyers employed at Dreier’s company and wound up losing his job when the firm went under. Simon spoke of how he had been taken under Dreier’s wing during his employ and how Dreier played the role of mentor to him. As much as Simon admired Dreier, he said that he knew he could never be him because he lacked Dreier’s blind ambition for success and instead craved a better balance between his personal and professional life. During the interview, Simon revealed that the reason why Dreier had consented to the documentary is because Simon’s production company had agreed to what Simon referred to as an “Access Fee” – in this case, meaning that they paid for the last month of Dreier’s house arrest so he would not have to be held in a detention facility while awaiting sentencing.



Friday, April 06, 2012

Creative Bartending




As someone who can only mix a drink based on what my bartending bible Mr. Boston tells me to do, I felt that I was long overdue in getting a bit experimental. But where and how to start inventing my own cocktails? Fortunately, The Astor Center of New York City recently held a class taught by April Wachtel called “Beyond Bartending 101: Techniques And Tips For The Creative Process”.

After beginning the evening by serving us a Negroni, Wachtel said that the key to creating your own cocktail is balance. Among the keys to a balanced cocktail include the following characteristics:

  • Aroma –Aroma can influence your senses by as much as 80% with respect to what you think you’re drinking. A good example would be the Negroni; with one of the ingredients being the notoriously bitter Campari, a key element to serving the drink is to toss in either an orange peel or wedge –when you smell the sweetness of the orange, it immediately distracts you from the bitter component of the drink.
  • Taste – Do you want your cocktail taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami (savory)? This decision will inform what ingredients you use.
  • Texture – What kind of texture do you want your drink to be? It can be thick and creamy like a Mudslide or light and refreshing like a Gin & Tonic.
  • Temperature – How you make the cocktail is as important as what you use to make your cocktail. As a result, the temperature of your drink should be appropriate to your ingredients and what you’re trying to serve.
  • Astringency – A certain amount of harshness should be in the drink to keep it from being overly sweet. This could come from either the base spirit or a modifier.
  • Ratios – Ratios are important because they define how boozy you want your drink. If boozier is better, then the ratio of your base spirit to other ingredients should be high; a good rule of thumb is that if you want a boozy drink, then the ratio should either be 2:1 or 2: ½ : ½ , depending on the number of ingredients. If you want it less boozy, then the ratio should probably be something like 1 ½ : ¾ : ¾ . For juicy or sweet, the ratio should be 1 ½ : 1 or 1 ½ : ½ . Note that when there are more than two ingredients, the above ratios given are in the order of Base Spirit:Sweet Ingredient:Sour Ingredient/Modifier.
  • Ingredients – The most important ingredient, of course, is picking which base spirit you will use. This will completely influence how the cocktail is experienced. For example, with vodka being something of a neutral – tasting spirit, the alcohol may be masked by the other ingredients; gin, on the other hand, will add some kind of a flowery flavor due to the botanicals used in its production.

Don’t forget: when playing Mad Scientist at your home bar, you should name whatever cocktail you invent; this can either be done at the very outset or you can wait until the end – just remember to make sure to give it a name of some kind!


Sunday, April 01, 2012

Steve McKenna Quits “Drinking Made Easy”!

I just caught wind of a coup.  It's nothing that will make the headlines, except for the occasional drinking or beard-celebrating blogs.  But Steve McKenna, co-host (stunt-drinker, mascot, drinking buddy) of "Drinking Made Easy" on HDNet, formerly of "Three Sheets" on Spike, will be hanging up his mug.  Permanently.

Late Friday afternoon, I had a scheduled phone interview with McKenna, to discuss the upcoming one hour special of "Drinking Made Easy", where Zane, Steve and their monkey mascot , Pleepleus, will be debunking some alcohol myths, and according to McKenna "Getting a little more crazy than usual… And we usually get crazy."

But McKenna, not in the jovial mood that I expected, told me that the season that's being capped off by the one hour special (which airs at 8pm on April 11th on HDNet) will be his last.  That seemed odd, since Lamprey recently announced that he'd signed up for a third season of the show which will begin shooting 13 new episodes in May.

McKenna told me that he was informing Zane Lamprey's production company, Inzane Entertainment, and Mark Cuban's television network, HDNet, that he will not be joining them for season three of "Drinking Made Easy" which will air on the network’s new designation, AXS (pronounced 'access'), this fall.  With the success of the show, we have every reason to believe that the show will go on without him.  But, we have no doubt that it will affect the format of the show, and leave some repeat viewers disappointed.  McKenna has become a fan favorite and a vital part of the weekly 6-Pack Challenge, where McKenna and Lamprey compete against each other in increasingly impressive activities.

So the question is "Why?".  Why, when the network is about to double its number of households, would Steve McKenna jump ship and be going Three Sheets to the wind no longer?  "It's actually a lot of work," McKenna told me on a phone call from his home in Richmond, Virginia, earlier today. "We're traveling for more than half the year.  I've sort of been the bar-matt for the show, drinking anything that Zane didn't.  I had fun… Too much fun sometimes.  It's just time for me to go down a different path."

Has he truly had a higher calling?  McKenna explained it to me; "We stopped filming last December.  Since then, I've had a chance to reevaluate my life, and my direction.  I want to be healthy. Right now I'm training for the NYC marathon.  I've been speaking with the admissions department of NYU to finish up my Masters.  I'm getting my masters in Theatre.  That was the path that I was on before I started joining Zane in his projects."

Is there something more?  Is he tired of playing second fiddle to Lamprey?  I asked him. "Well that's part of it for sure," McKenna told me. "I got my undergraduate degree in Shakespeare.  When Zane and I met, I was the lead in most of the plays.  Then, our senior year, he shows up out of no where.  I'd never heard of him.  And he took the lead in the main stage performances that the school did that year.  I got a supporting role.  I guess it's been like that ever since..."

McKenna told me that this is something that he's been planning for a while.  He was more coherent and articulate than the character that he's been portraying for the last 50 episodes of "Drinking Made Easy".  As much as I'd like to be impressed, I was a little disappointed.  As a writer, I know how difficult it is to catch a break, a plight that I know we share with actors.  So why would he squander such an opportunity that he could easily parlay into more substantial roles?  As a fan, however, I am very disappointed.  I have no doubt that Lamprey can carry the weight of the show on his own shoulders, as he did with “Three Sheets”.  But it won't be the same without Steve McKenna.

I called the Inzane Entertainment offices in Los Angeles Friday afternoon to get their take on McKenna's departure.  Mel Schilling, the show's producer told us that she was unaware of Steve's recent decision.  Lamprey was not available for comment.

An update as of 4/6/12:  If you haven’t already noticed, take a look at the original date of this blog post.  Yep, that’s right – it was an April Fool’s Day gag that the folks from HDNet’s “Drinking Made Easy” asked my assistance with.  Steve, of course, is still with the show and certainly is NOT about to give up drinking!  Thankfully, the team of Zane & Steve live on for many more outings to come!