Monday, July 30, 2012

The Gin & Tonic Invitational



Recently, I attended one of my favorite summer tasting events at Union Square Wines & Spirits – The Gin & Tonic Invitational! 

While many of the gins were indeed served with tonic water, some were served on their own and a few even offered in different types of cocktails altogether. 


Can you wrap your head around a brown-colored gin?  That was the offering from Ransom this year with their Old Tom Gin.  Aged in American Oak barrels that previously held Pinot Noir, this is something of a unique Old Tom Gin in the sense that they do not add sugar.  Instead, the sweetness comes from the Pinot Noir that remains in the barrels in which it was aged.  Traditionally, Old Tom Gin was made by adding sugar to kill the taste of the bad home – made bathtub gin done during Prohibition which necessitated an amateur distillation process. 


It’s hard for me to remain completely objective about The New York Distilling Company, especially since they are located in my very own Brooklyn neighborhood.  But they have a very unique gin that I wound up purchasing after the tasting – it’s called The Dorothy Parker American Gin.  At 88 proof, it contains a total of eight botanicals, including Juniper Berries, Lemon Peel, Orange Peel, Coriander, Cardamom Pods, Sweet Cinnamon, Elderberries and Dried Hibiscus Petals; the Juniper is 12:1 to Elderberry and 26:1 to Hibiscus Petals.  This combination of botanicals results in an unusually pungent gin that would go well in a Negroni. 


Another Brooklyn-based gin manufacturer is a company called The Greenhook Ginsmiths, located a short distance north of my own neighborhood in that borough.  Their name comes from Greenpoint, the area in Brooklyn where they are headquartered; the original Dutch name for that section was Greenhook, so that is how they came to name their company.  Having only been around since February of this year, they have only two products on the market – one a gin (The American Dry Gin) and the other a gin-based liqueur (The Beach Plum).   

Hayman’s is a London gin producing company I’m familiar with, having enjoyed their Old Tom Gin for quite some time now.  They now have a new product on the market – in fact, it’s only been around for a couple of months.  It’s called The Royal Dock Navy Strength Gin and is some mighty powerful stuff at 114 (or 57% alcohol, for those of you keeping score at home). Made with a total of nine botanicals, it has a distinctively sharp taste but a very subtle nose.   The reason for the name comes from the high level of alcohol in the spirit.

Basically, the British government discouraged their sailors from drinking, but knew this would be an unrealistic goal to achieve.  So instead, they set a requirement that whatever gin that was on board ship had to have an unusually high alcohol content.  The reason for this was due to the fact that the gunpowder used to fire their cannonballs would sometimes get wet and as a result, would not ignite when the cannon’s fuse was lit; the Navy eventually determined that if a spirit was, at a minimum, 57% alcohol, then it would not have a deleterious impact on the gunpowder – it would still light, even when wet, and they would be able to shoot their cannonballs successfully. 



Thursday, July 26, 2012

“Robot & Frank” – Movie Review





This week in my movie class, we saw the comedy-drama “Robot & Frank”, starring Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon.


When a semi-retired jewel thief gets a robot to help him deal with his early-onset senility, will he be able to teach the robot how to help him score one last big heist?


Frank (Langella) appears to be mellowing late in life after multiple long-term prison stretches for burglary and tax evasion. But in his later years, his son and daughter find that time has taken its toll on the old man as he seems to be suffering from memory losses that grow more frequent and increasing in severity. When Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) fears his father may soon no longer be able to take care of himself, he takes matters into his own hands and purchases a robot to serve as a home health care aid to ensure his father is eating properly and doesn’t endanger himself.

Unwilling to adapt to essentially having a babysitter, Frank is extremely resentful of his brand new robot and staunchly resists offers of assistance or advice. One of the few things keeping Frank mentally engaged in life is planning new robberies. As a frequent visitor to his town’s library, the main reason he keeps returning is to see its librarian, Jennifer (Sarandon), who also looks forward to his visits. On one trip, Jennifer shows Frank a rare and highly-prized copy of the book “Don Quixote”, which inspires his next heist. Learning he can teach his new robot how to pick locks, Frank enlists its aid as an accomplice in burglarizing the library. While he succeeds in lifting the book, he unwittingly leaves behind evidence causing him to be a suspect in the crime.

Meanwhile, the quaint, old-fashioned library is endangered when a consultant is brought in to renovate and update the space. Discovering that the wife of this well-to-do consultant has an expensive jewelry collection, Frank sees where his next job is going to be. Once again recruiting his trusty robot to support him in his venture, Frank and his assistant set out to case the house where the consultant and his wife live. But with advancing memory loss and escalating signs of senility, will Frank still be able to successfully pull off the job, even with the help of the robot?


Robot & Frank” is an independent film that will have a hard time finding an audience. For one thing, let’s look at the title: “Robot & Frank” isn’t exactly a title that would motivate most people to see this movie – to me, it sounds more like the title of a play. For those that might choose to view it, they might face some degree of disappointment because their expectations aren’t exactly met – the title conjures up an image of a Science Fiction motion picture, when, in fact, “Robot & Frank” is hardly that. I characterize it as something of a comedy-drama because most of its elements fall into that category than into that of Science Fiction, even though viewers are informed upfront that the story takes place in the not – too – distant future.

I found some of the internal logic in the script to be inconsistent – broken, even, in portions. Maybe this is because I didn’t totally buy-in to the premise to begin with and completely submit to the story; when you prevent the suspension of disbelief that is usually done when viewing most movies, this may cause you to question certain things that you might normally just accept, especially on an initial viewing. Since this was not the case with me, I wound up having substantial problems with the credibility of the fantasy world that the filmmakers attempted to create. While there are many funny moments in the film, I don’t know that I could recommend “Robot & Frank” unless you are merely interested in Langella’s portrayal of the elderly jewel thief, which is quite good.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s star, Frank Langella. Langella told us that he came to do “Robot & Frank” shortly after hiring a new agent, who also represents actor Christopher Walken; when Walken originally turned down the offer, the script was sent to Langella, who ultimately accepted. He said that the role of Frank’s daughter was originally supposed to be played by Katie Holmes, but she had to drop out of the project and eventually it went to Liv Tyler. In addition to promoting the movie, Langella was also publicizing his book “Dropped Names”, a memoir of sorts about famous people he met throughout his long acting career – most of whom are now deceased.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

“Ruby Sparks”–Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we had a bonus screening of the new romantic comedy “Ruby Sparks”, starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (who also wrote the screenplay and co-produced).



When a lonely author with writer’s block conjures up a female character he falls in love with, he’s surprised to learn she’s real – but can their love last?



Calvin (Dano) is currently seeing a psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) to help him work through his writer’s block.  Barely 30, Calvin published his first novel a decade ago; a huge hit, he was never able to equal or surpass its success in subsequent attempts.  Not helping matters any is the fact that he was dumped by his girlfriend right after his father died, which further served to immobilize him.  Dreaming of this lovely young woman he’s imagined as a new character named Ruby Sparks (Kazan), he tells his shrink about her.  As a way of getting him back behind the typewriter, the psychiatrist suggests Calvin start writing about her. 

Finding that the prose comes easily to him, Calvin writes about Ruby, obsessing over her even more with increasingly frequent and realistic dreams.  One day, he awakes to find her living in his house!  Convinced he’s going mad, he takes her out in public – but once he realizes that other people can see her, too, he’s relieved to discover that he’s not going crazy and immediately succumbs to Ruby’s charms.  One curious thing he learns is the fact that anything he writes about her will come true – as a result, he can get her to do just about anything merely by writing it on his typewriter. 

Things take a dark turn when Calvin brings Ruby to a party, only to find her flirting with the host.  Upon returning home, they start to argue right away and it is then that Calvin finally confesses to her that he can control her thoughts, actions and emotions by writing them on his old-fashioned manual typewriter, which infuriates Ruby.  But when the pressure of the responsibility of having Ruby subject to his every whim and whimsy becomes overwhelming, will Calvin and Ruby be able to sustain their relationship or must they somehow find a way for it to end?



Part romantic comedy and part fantasy, “Ruby Sparks” is a delightful, charming and amusing new film from the very creative mind of Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of controversial director Elia Kazan).  While probably intended as a work to showcase her acting ability – which clearly has an enormous range, judging from her performance in this work – “Ruby Sparks” also has the side benefit of showcasing Kazan’s writing talent.  The fact that she can do both so incredibly well speaks of how enormously gifted this young woman is.  Hopefully, she can produce many more screenplays like this one without suffering Calvin’s writer’s block. 

The cast is utterly perfect here, including Annette Bening as Calvin’s mother and Antonio Banderas as her new love interest.  Since this is one of those small independent films with no bankable stars and likely a miniscule advertising budget, any chance it may have at success will probably come through word of mouth.  With that in mind, I will gladly assist in sharing how wonderfully lovely this movie is and urge you to see it as soon as it opens.  Its screenplay has been crafted with an excellent structure and a deeply satisfying ending. 

After the screening, the class had a brief discussion about the movie.  The majority of the class seemed to enjoy the film as well, including our instructor.  One observation a couple of students had was the fact that “Ruby Sparks” reminded them of a Woody Allen film, in the best ways possible (except that here, the action appears to take place in California, not New York City or Europe).  I would tend to agree with this assessment with the exception that while Allen’s movies have more of a tendency to be laugh-out-loud funny, the humor in “Ruby Sparks” tends to be more on the droll side.  Either way, it is a pleasure and a film well worth your time to see at least once.   


Thursday, July 19, 2012

“The Queen Of Versailles” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary, “The Queen Of Versailles”, which played at the Sundance Film Festival. 



When a billionaire family loses much of their wealth in the economic downturn of 2008, can they recover before all is lost?



David and Jackie Siegel seem to be living the perfect life – in his mid-70’s, he’s an extremely wealthy man who has earned his fortune in the time share business and his wife, a former model and beauty contest winner, is devoted to him, despite their age difference (she is 30 years younger).  Having given him seven children – plus taking in one who was abandoned by one of her relatives – this large family enjoys conspicuous consumption in their 26,000 square foot south Florida mansion.  Despite their large home, they decide that they need an even bigger space, so they start construction on a palatial estate they call “Versailles” because it was inspired by a trip to France where they saw the Versailles palace. 

Concurrently, David is expanding his business into Las Vegas, where he’s just built an immense condominium for his company is selling expensive time shares to vacationers who can’t really afford them.   While he’s collaborating with an adult son from a previous marriage in order to build their individual wealth, serious complications ensue when the stock market crashes in September of 2008, signaling the beginning of the nation’s economic downturn.  With easy credit no longer available to David or his potential customers, his business swiftly plummets to the point that he is forced to layoff thousands of employees – including much of the service staff that helps Jackie around their household. 

Once David downsizes, he realizes that he can no longer afford construction on Versailles, so he chooses to put it on the market at a greatly reduced price in the hope that he can see some kind of return on all of the money that he has poured into it at this point.  Jackie, however, is unable to live within a budget due to her acquisitive, self-indulgent nature.  Eventually, David becomes disenchanted with their marriage because he sees his entire family as spendthrifts and leeches who take him completely for granted.  Under great stress to hold on to his business before it completely fails, can he save his fortune without losing his family?



If I had to pick a word that best describes what I felt while viewing “The Queen Of Versailles”, I suppose that word would be schadenfreude.  With such garish displays of their wealth, I found it hard to root for The Siegels – although I guess that some people would admire them for having built a fortune after coming from modest beginnings.  But for me, it seems that The Siegels feel that they never have enough and that now, they are getting their just desserts.  Even David himself describes his situation as something of a “riches to rags” story. 

One quibble I have with this documentary is its title.  To call this film “The Queen Of Versailles” suggests its focus is on Jackie Siegel, which I believe is incorrect; to me, the movie is about the family dynamic as a whole, especially that between husband and wife – especially how it seems to deteriorate over time as their financial situation grows increasingly desperate and David is under tremendous pressure to retain his wealth. 

If you have an opportunity to see “The Queen Of Versailles”, by all means, please do so.  Its morality tale for our times is a lesson to be learned – and re-learned, if need be.  An interesting post-script to this movie is the fact that Siegel is currently in the process of suing the filmmakers because he feels that he was misrepresented in the film and as a result, comes off badly.  From what little I know about this lawsuit, it has little merit and Siegel’s main (if not only) purpose behind filing it is to save face. 



Thursday, July 12, 2012

“The Odd Life Of Timothy Green” – Movie Review



This week, the 2nd half of the summer semester for my movie class began with a new drama from Disney, “The Odd Life Of Timothy Green”, starring Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton.


When a married couple learns they cannot have a child, they fantasize what their imaginary offspring might be like – but when a boy appears claiming to be their son, can they raise him as if he was their own?


Cindy & Jim Green (Garner & Edgerton) are a married couple who yearn to have a child. After a physician informs them that it will be medically impossible for them to conceive, they try to move on from their pain by making a list of the qualities their imaginary son would have. Symbolically, they put this list in a box and bury it in the fertile garden located behind their house. After it rains overnight, they awake early the next morning to discover the ground where they planted their box has been disturbed and to their shock, a 10 year old boy has arrived – his name is Timothy (CJ Adams) and he maintains they are his parents.

Among the myriad unusual things about this event is Timothy’s foliage growing on his shins. Fearing the boy would be picked-on for this unusual appearance, Cindy & Jim immediately cover his legs in a pair of socks and instruct him to keep his unique feature a secret from others since no one would understand. They summon a friend, an expert landscaper, to trim the leaves off Timothy’s legs, but he only succeeds in breaking his tools in the process. When family visit and question the boy’s presence, the couple tells them that Timothy was sent to them by an adoption agency.

Delighted to now have a child, the couple immediately embraces parenthood but soon realize that despite their intense desire for a family, they are actually ill-equipped to be parents. Among many mistakes and poor decisions, they are miserable and fear they are doing the same to Timothy. But Timothy takes it all in stride and doesn’t let any of the misfortune bother him – in fact, his calamities allow him to find Joni, a friend who quickly turns confidante. But when autumn arrives and Timothy defoliates, how will this impact life with his parents?


Is Disney’s “The Odd Life Of Timothy Green” fairy tale, fable or fantasy? Maybe a combination of two, if not all three. Regardless of category, what is its message? That parents are imperfect? Is it the importance of family? Is it about tolerance and acceptance? (“It’s OK to be different, even if you are a little weird!”, as one character states) Therein may be the problem as its intent is arguably a bit muddled. To me, the movie is ultimately about how necessarily flawed parents are, regardless of their best intentions; the parents screw up with Timothy, yet seem undeterred by the responsibilities of parenthood because they are outweighed by its rewards.

Will this muddling of the message negatively impact how the film is received either commercially or critically? Perhaps, but this could be one of those movies that’s critic-proof due to the fact that it’s family-friendly fare, which has been quite popular and successful lately. In order to view “Timothy Green”, you really have to understand you are seeing a “magical” or spiritual story. The reason, of course, is due to the fact that there is so much for which you must suspend your disbelief even though it otherwise seems to be based in a real world. This may not be a problem for movies that are obvious from a trailer, advertisement or movie poster that they are in such an unreal realm, but a good deal of the success of this movie may in fact wind up depending on its marketing.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s director, Peter Hedges, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ahmet Zappa. Hedges has an impressive filmography, including “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, “About A Boy” and “Pieces Of April”. He said at the time he became aware of the project, he was not interested in collaborating on someone else’s work; coming from a background as a novelist, he was more inclined to concentrate on his own ideas instead. However, after introduction to Zappa, who had the original idea for “Timothy Green”, Hedges was sufficiently curious about the originality of the concept that he decided to dedicate himself to working on the story with Zappa.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Great Champagne Cocktails



Whether you enjoy them to accompany your weekend brunch or use them as a refreshing aperitif during the warm-weather months, cocktails with a sparkling wine base can be a tasty treat that’s boozy enough to get you relaxed, but not so strong as to knock you on your butt.  Recently, I took a class with Jenn Smith at The Astor Center in New York City called “Great Champagne Cocktails” where we learned about different types of sparkling wines and their associated cocktail recipes. 


To start off the evening, all students were greeted with a Bellini, which originated at Harry’s Bar, located in Venice’s Cipriani Restaurant.  It is said that the Bellini, which contains peach puree (skin removed), was created in that region of Italy because of the fact that it is known for its extremely high quality peaches, which give the drink its pinkish color.  The cocktail is believed to be named after an artist famous for painting monks as its color is said to resemble that of the monks’ robes.  After pouring 2 ounces of the puree into a coupe glass, fill the rest with Prosecco, which is used because its taste has peach notes that accent the puree (also, since it’s Italy’s version of a sparkling wine, I’m sure that doesn’t hurt either). 


According to Smith, an American era often referred to as The Golden Age Of Cocktails began shortly after The Civil War and lasted right up until the time of Prohibition.  Back in those days, a cocktail was any spirits-based drink that contained sugar and bitters; a spirits-based drink that included sugar without bitters was considered a julep.  Perhaps the most famous brand of bitters is Angostura, which has a spicy nose and contains roots, seeds and an infusion of flowers.  At 90 proof (45% alcohol), it is considered to be good for an upset stomach; some pharmacists even dispensed it for such ailments.


The use of bitters in a cocktail is what brings us to the classic Champagne Cocktail.  Its recipe is as follows: 

  • Place a single sugar cube into a champagne flute
  • Add three dashes of Angostura bitters
  • Fill the glass with six ounces of Champagne
  • Garnish with a lemon twist

Keep in mind that you don’t need to stir anything here because the combination of the bitters and the Champagne will automatically cause the sugar cube to dissolve on its own. 


The last mixture we made on the evening was perhaps my favorite sparkling wine-based cocktail, Death In The Afternoon.  Being a Hemingway fan, I personally find this one irresistible.  Legend has it that the drink was invented by Papa back in 1934 when he fell out of his fishing boat during a storm; trying to recover from the incident, he is said to have created it in an effort to remedy the chill he experienced as a result.  A simple recipe, it merely requires using an ounce of Absinthe, then top with ice cold Champagne, making sure that mixing the two causes the so-called louching effect when the combination of the two results in an opalescent milkiness. 



Sunday, July 01, 2012

“2 Days In New York” – Movie Review




This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the romantic comedy “2 Days In New York” starring Chris Rock and Julie Delpy.



When a woman’s family visits her from France, they stay in her tiny Manhattan apartment – but after tensions mount with her live-in boyfriend, will this threaten their relationship?



When Marion (Delpy) realizes her marriage has fallen apart shortly after giving birth to a son, she shares her tale of woe to her colleague and confidant Mingus (Rock).  Over time, a bond forms between the two and eventually, they become romantically involved, with Marion moving herself and her son into his apartment.  Sharing the space with Mingus’ daughter Willow, they try to make a go of things as both seek career advancement while balancing personal and family life.  With the four of them crammed into the small space that’s barely enough room for Mingus and Willow, they try to carve out something of a family. 

Marion’s father Jeannot, a widower, contacts her to say that he and her sister Rose will make the trek from France to visit her in New York City.  Unable to afford the big city hotels, Marion offers to put them up in the apartment she shares with Mingus and the children.  Upon their arrival in town, things are already chaotic – Jeannot is detained by guards from Homeland Security for trying to bring various foods into the country.  To make matters worse, Rose has decided to bring her boyfriend Manu to join them in the already cramped apartment – and as if things aren’t awkward enough, the crazy Manu is also Marion’s ex-boyfriend!

The stress of having the entire family living together over the course of a few days sets everyone’s nerves on edge – Mingus is getting sick of the fighting and other disruptions being caused and Marion is put out by the fact that Mingus is airing all of their dirty laundry on his local radio show.  Meanwhile, Marion is stressing out over the showing of her photographs at a downtown art gallery, fearing negative reviews from art critics and resulting meager sales.  Between the neighbors complaining about the visitors and their children being negatively influenced by their presence, will this cause Marion and Mingus to break up? 



In the intent of full disclosure, I will admit upfront that I am a Julie Delpy fan – always have been and probably always will be.  Having said that, however, I cannot recommend her directorial debut, “2 Days In New York”, which she also co-wrote.  As what appears to be an attempt at a Woody Allen-style retread at a quirky romantic comedy, the attempts at comedy are rather weak, at best; not even Chris Rock – who is one of the best stand-up comedians around – comes across at anything more than mildly amusing.  In the credits at the end, there is one writer credited with “Additional Dialog” – presumably, someone who came in at the last minute in an effort to punch-up the script with jokes.  It didn’t work. 

Although the movie is only an hour and a half long, it feels much longer and eventually wears on your nerves – much as I imagine the visitors were supposed to be wearing on the nerves of the main characters.  There are so many plot contrivances in the script that you just have to wonder how the writers thought an audience would buy into the foolishness.  The attempts at cute, charming characters and situations only results in some obnoxious, pretentious leads that wind up in unrealistic situations. 

It may just be that this was Delpy sticking her toe in the water as a filmmaker and she’ll either never attempt it again or learn from her mistakes to discover the elusive secret of how to make good movies.  It is always nice to see Delpy on screen and “2 Days In New York” is no exception – the overall quality of the movie itself notwithstanding.  You can’t help but think that she really missed a bet by not allowing Rock to improvise more in the script; certainly he would’ve come up with snappier dialog than any of the credited screenwriters.