Sunday, September 30, 2012

“The Oranges” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had its second bonus screening with the comedy–drama, “The Oranges” featuring an ensemble cast which includes Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Alia Shawkat and Leighton Meester.



When New Jersey neighbors have their friendship threatened after the daughter of one couple breaks up the marriage of the other, will they forever remain enemies or can they somehow manage to find a way to forgive and forget?



David & Paige Walling (Laurie & Keener) refuse to allow their moribund marriage to interfere with their long – time friendship with West Orange, New Jersey neighbors Terry & Carol Ostroff (Platt & Janney).  Living right across the street from each other, they spend holidays together and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries as if they were family.  In fact, The Ostroffs’ grown – up daughter Nina (Meester) was once close friends with The Wallings’ daughter, Vanessa (Shawkat) until the adventurous Nina decided to travel the world, where she eventually met Ethan, whom she announces she intends to marry and skip returning home for the holidays – both proclamations causing much consternation with her parents. 

Shortly before Thanksgiving, however, Nina surprises everyone by showing up at home suddenly and confesses that she has broken off her engagement with Ethan because she caught him cheating on her.  Settling in, she is dismayed to learn that Carol wants to set her up with The Wallings’ responsible adult son in the hope that she will finally settle down and start taking life a bit more seriously.  But when Nina discovers that David is estranged from Paige, she sets out to flirt with him relentlessly until he eventually succumbs to her charms. 

Ultimately, Carol discovers their secret affair, which not only breaks up The Walling family, but also, causes an unavoidable schism between the neighboring families.   Wallowing in remorse, David informs Nina that their affair must end, but she convinces him otherwise and they wind up a couple, further infuriating an already embarrassed Vanessa, who now sees Nina as her mortal enemy.  But when Ethan shocks everyone by unexpectedly showing up at their home around Christmastime, will he be able to win back Nina or will she stay with David?   



This ensemble cast is a sheer pleasure to watch – with two of my favorite actresses (Keener & Janney) leading the pack.  While I characterized “The Oranges” as a comedy – drama, I found that while certain scenes were most definitely played for laughs, it felt more like a drama than a comedy – in fact, more like a tragedy than a mere drama.  Another reason why I say this is because despite the fact that this cast includes many actors quite adept – if not known for – their comedy skills, some of the jokes fell a bit flat, especially against the backdrop of this rather unpleasant story. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor described this film as something of an anti-holiday movie – instead of one of those traditionally warm and fuzzy feel-good family flicks, “The Oranges” tended to focus on the dark side of holiday get-togethers with button-pushing family members and friends.  While that’s definitely true, and there might be something of a black comedy element to the motion picture, I would have preferred to have seen it played as a straight drama.  That said, however, I would quickly add that the filmmakers did an excellent job of playing all characters even-handedly – that is to say, not making any one of them out to be either a total villain or a goody-two-shoes. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s producer, Anthony Bregman.  While the title of producer may often be rather amorphous – if not entirely ambiguous at times – Bregman said that he had a rather clear and specific idea of what his role was on almost any given production.  Bregman said that he considered himself responsible for overseeing the entire process, whether it was acquiring the financing, assembling the cast, making budget decisions or supervising the post – production.  Bregman’s interview was excellent in that it not merely focused on producing, but also a wide-ranging discussion on the filmmaking process in general.    


“Butter” – Movie Review



This weekend, the bonus screenings in my movie class resumed with “Butter”, a comedy with a large cast of well-known names, including Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone and Hugh Jackman. 


When a well-known woman in a small town decides to enter a butter carving contest, an obscure little girl with superior skills challenges her for the state title – but can the woman somehow find a way to win by cheating?


In Iowa City, Iowa, Laura & Bob Pickler (Garner & Burrell) are considered royalty.  Bob is a champion butter carver who has gained increasing notoriety over the years having won contest after contest.  Laura has been a supportive wife and has managed to leverage her husband’s success into a small degree of fame for herself.  But when Bob agrees to retire from the competition at the behest of the judging committee, Laura is infuriated – without the gleam of the spotlight shining upon her, she fears loss of her self – esteem. 

Berating Bob for backing down, Laura drives him from their home where he hooks up with Brooke (Wilde), a dancer at a strip club.  But once she feels cheated out of money owed for services rendered, Brooke stalks The Picklers in the hope that she will eventually get paid.  Amidst all of this, Laura decides that the best way to keep positive attention on her is to enter the butter carving contest herself, even though she has no experience either carving butter or being in competitions such as this. 

Meanwhile, a 10 year old girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who has been shuttled from one set of foster parents to another for most of her life, suddenly finds that she may have an artistic talent of her own when she is sent to live with Ethan & Julie (Corddry & Silverstone).  Realizing that she might be able to win the butter carving championship herself, she enters the competition, pitting herself directly against Laura.  But when Laura convinces her old high school flame (Jackman) to help her in defeating Destiny, will her evil plan succeed or will Destiny be able to beat the odds and win the butter carving contest? 



Prior to the screening, our instructor discussed that the movie we were about to see was a satire.  To me, a satire is something that picks a big subject, then pokes a huge hole in it to deflate it for the purpose of targeting something that takes itself very seriously and trivializing it by making it look completely foolish.  Perhaps an excellent example of this to illustrate my point would be Chaplin’s film, “The Great Dictator”, which rather effectively lampooned Adolph Hitler. 

That is where I think the motion picture “Butter” seems to fail.  For me, it starts out being a bit on the mean spirited side by sending up a group of people who aren’t all that worthy of being made fun of – Midwesterners who lead a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle either by choice or by chance.  Many times over the years, we have heard political accusations by the right wing accusing a blatantly biased liberal media -- which does not represent their perspective or values -- of skewing the information they disseminate in order to serve their own hidden agenda.  Regardless of whether or not that accusation has any merit, the film does manage to unintentionally make villains of the intellectual liberals of Hollywood by making them look superior to less sophisticated people who work hard, who may or may not have limited opportunities and who can’t relate to the value system that pseudo-intellectuals of the media seem to hold quite dear. 

There are, however, a number of bright spots to “Butter” – with such a terrific cast, there are a great many fine performances, not the least of which being the little girl who challenges Garner’s character throughout the film.  Also, there are some good jokes that pop up occasionally – but not frequently enough for me.  Last but not least, there is Olivia Wilde as a stripper.  What more do I need to say?  Oh, yeah – she has a lesbian scene. 


Saturday, September 22, 2012

“Adeline” – Movie Review


“Adeline” from Riva Nova Films is a short film that was recently selected to play at The 9th Annual Big Apple Film Festival in New York City screening at the Tribeca Cinemas in late 2012; the film was brought to my attention by its director Joseph Arnone , who collaborated on the piece with its actress, Daniella Alma , who portrays the title character.  The eight minute film may either be viewed below or on Vimeo, where you may also leave comments.  The filmmaker describes his effort as follows: 

The story opens up to reveal a poet’s life or death circumstances. Played by Daniella Alma, the character Adeline decides to literally dig up her past with shovel in hand, reaching deep into the ground to reconnect with a book of her most personal writings. Over the course of this short film we experience the inner battle that Adeline encounters with her darker self.

According to its post on Vimeo, the film “Adeline” is supposed to resonate the following quote from the British writer Virginia Woolf:

'It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality...Had I not killed her she would have killed me.'


The choice of music for this piece was excellent; the film was scored well as it defines an appropriate mood to set up the story we were about to be told – very dark, very foreboding.  Additionally, the filmmaker’s decision to use establishing shots showed some rather solid technique.  Generally, the film was well-shot and maintained a quite professional and elegant look to it all throughout in terms of technical attributes of composition and shot selection.  “Adeline” showed a wise use of its modest resources, as far as its production values are concerned. 

All of that said, however, I must add that stylistically, I found “Adeline” to be Bergmanesque to a fault.  Add Death playing a game of chess with the film’s title character, and it would be complete.  Also, I felt that its attempts at symbolism and allegory were artistically heavy-handed, especially in a short film, where less would have been more.  One note about this film that was otherwise shot rather well is the fact that the lighting was a little too dim at times; while I believe this was to keep with the overall dark mood of the story, it made things a bit challenging to watch at times. 

While I haven’t yet seen any other works by this aspiring director, I would say that based solely on my viewing of “Adeline”, he has a good career as a cinematographer lying ahead.  As a director, however, I found this film to be somewhat lacking in its clarity, narrative and overall story-telling ability.  Alternating between color and black and white was rather confusing; were the black and white scenes supposed to be dream sequences or flashbacks?  Difficult to tell from what I saw. 

What do you think?  Feel free to leave a comment here or on Vimeo (from the link above). 


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mystery Whiskies



As summer ends and the air gets a bit of a chill, I am suddenly reminded that the spirit of choice for the new season will once again be whisk(e)y.  For me, summer is a time to give whiskies a bit of a vacation so I can allow my tongue a few months to cool off.  But with the autumnal equinox upon us, it’s time to get back on that sturdy brown pony for yet another ride.  And what better way to re-train your palate than with a tasting of various whiskies that are new to me – if not new to the market altogether?  That’s why I recently attended a tasting called “The Best Whiskies You’ve Never Had” at The Astor Center of New York City

A mixture of bourbons and scotches, the tasting featured some familiar brands offering new expressions as well as a few brands previously unknown to me. 

By far the best bourbon I had the entire day was 1792 Ridgemont Reserve.  Although I had heard of 1792 before, this was the first time I can recall ever having a taste.  For those of you who are similarly unfamiliar with the brand, 1792 is based in Kentucky – in fact, their home is where their name comes from.  Kentucky was made the 15th state of the United States in the year 1792 – so, as a proud reminder of that landmark, they decided to name the company after the year Kentucky earned its statehood. 

Its 93 proof Ridgemont Reserve is just about as smooth as a bourbon can get; with 51% corn, its smoothness comes from a high concentration of rye in its recipe (the manufacturer keeps its recipe something of a secret, but it is believed that some degree of hops and barley are also included among its ingredients).  During its eight year aging process, the company keeps its spirit in the same barrel all throughout, but interestingly, moves the barrel to different locations in its warehouse during that period of time.  The reason for this is due to the fact that they discovered as much as a 20 degree difference in temperature variations in various parts of the warehouse, which has an impact on the bourbon.  In warmer temperatures, the wood from the barrel tends to absorb more of the spirit, imparting greater flavor; in cooler temperatures, the barrel tends to deflect the bourbon, allowing it to instead just sit untouched in the barrel.  They found that moving the barrel throughout its aging impacts the taste of the bourbon in a way that somewhat evens it out prior to bottling. 

As far as Scotches are concerned, my recommendation from this tasting is the Dun Bheagan Laphroaig 10 year Sherry Cask.  At this point some of you might be scared off by the mention of Laphroaig, given its notoriously smoky taste (“Feels like I’m drinking an ashtray”, as I heard one man describe the sensation).  But do make sure to give this one a chance because it’s quite different from the 10 year old Laphroaig most of us are used to. 

The reason for the difference is due to the fact that it is finished in sherry casks for the last six to eight months of its aging process; this slight change winds up having an enormous impact on its flavor.  Just a relatively short time in the sherry casks imparts a degree of sweetness to the scotch, making the smokiness from the peat considerably less harsh to the taste – but make no mistake about it, you can most definitely still taste that peat!   



Sunday, September 09, 2012

“Arbitrage”–Movie Review



This weekend, the bonus screenings for the Fall Semester of  my movie class began with the drama “Arbitrage”, starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth.


When the billionaire owner of a major investment firm involves himself in cover-ups in both his personal and professional life, will he lose his family and his business as a result?



At the age of 60, Robert Miller (Gere) is proud of both his family and the wildly successful investment company he spent a lifetime building.  But despite this achievement – or perhaps because of it –  he is a man with many dark secrets, both professionally and personally.  In his private life, he has a mistress – Julie (Laetitia Casta), a beautiful young French woman who aspires to become a renowned art gallery owner.  Miller is maintaining ultimate discretion so that his wife Ellen (Sarandon) and daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) remain in the dark.  Professionally, he is hiding his company’s loss of hundreds of millions of dollars so as not to ruin the potential sale of his business – and since Brooke is his Chief Investment Officer, he must keep this a secret from her, too. 

The lies increase by many orders of magnitude when Miller crashes his car while taking Julie out of town for a brief getaway.  As a result of the accident, Julie perishes and he is seriously injured.  Realizing he can’t be connected to this, Miller decides to find a pay phone where he can call for help rather than use his cell phone, which would be traceable.  Making his way down the road, the wrecked car explodes, causing Julie’s body to be burned beyond recognition.  Finding a gas station, Miller calls Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a deceased business colleague.  Jimmy drives out to pick up Miller, who hasn’t reported the incident to the police. 

It is at this point that police Detective Michael Bryer (Roth) becomes involved.  Investigating what appears to be a manslaughter case, he interviews Miller and becomes suspicious; despite frequent attempts to talk with Ellen as well, she rebuffs him at every turn.  Convinced that he has enough evidence to tie Jimmy to the case, Bryer has him brought before a grand jury, where Jimmy might perjure himself.  All the while, Miller’s business deal looks like it’s going to fall through even though his company has somehow managed to pass an independent audit.  Will Miller be able to untangle himself from possible criminal charges while simultaneously close the deal on selling his business? 



The term “arbitrage” refers to the purchase of securities in one market in order to sell them in another market where a profit may be made due to a more favorable price.  I mention this not to insult your intelligence, but rather because I honestly didn’t know what it was and I had to look it up since I’m no financial wizard.  Which brings me to my first point about the movie “Arbitrage” – as an outsider to this world, I feel as though it would’ve been helpful to explain to viewers who were ignorant about such matters what exactly the term “arbitrage” refers to so they could better understand the business dealings here – and also make the title much more meaningful. 

My other gripe with this film has to do with its ending, which I will call a bit abrupt, to say the least.  The story is progressing at a rather good clip and it feels as though the filmmaker suddenly slammed on the brakes because he didn’t quite know how to end the movie.  This was rather frustrating; once the end titles start to appear on screen, I found myself reacting, “Huh?  What?  You mean it’s over?  Really?”.  So after all of that, I was left feeling deeply unsatisfied by the ending of “Arbitrage” because I didn’t get a sense as though the story had been completely wrapped up.  Too bad, since this was an otherwise interesting and suspenseful story.  Tim Roth’s performance alone makes it worth seeing.

Following the screening, our class had a brief discussion of the movie.  While the majority of the class seemed to like “Arbitrage”, our instructor also pointed out the weakness of the ending and expressed a similar disappointment that there were way too many loose threads left dangling.  He mentioned that this was the first directorial effort of Nicholas Jarecki, who also wrote the screenplay.  The instructor pointed out many excellent technical devices Jarecki used in directing the movie, including and especially the use of music to highlight a sense of impending danger, particularly leading up to the car crash. 


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

“Mortality” – Book Review



Death and Christopher Hitchens:  ah, at last, two of the topics I find most compelling contained in a single book!  When the author left us far too early at the end of 2011 after succumbing to esophageal cancer, the question begged to be asked next was whether or not we had seen the last of Hitchens’ writings compiled in book form?  As it turns out, “Mortality”, a collection of essays on his illness written for the magazine Vanity Fair, was recently published for eager fans hungry to scarf down whatever few crumbs might remain from the author’s extensive and impressive oeuvre.  

“Mortality” is a book of eight chapters, sandwiched in between a Foreword by Hitchens’ former Vanity Fair colleague, Graydon Carter, and an Afterword by Hitchens’ widow, Carol Blue.  Of the eight chapters, the first seven were written by Hitchens exclusively for Vanity Fair following his diagnosis of cancer; the last chapter is essentially a mélange of sundry jottings by the author, many of which were used as the seed of an idea for a subsequent article.  

In June of 2011, shortly after commencing a tour to promote his latest book, the autobiography “Hitch-22”, the author was struck with extreme chest pains upon rising one morning.  Not unreasonably assuming he was in the throes of a possibly fatal heart attack, he immediately called the hotel’s doctor and told him he was having an emergency; Hitchens wound up being taken to the hospital and upon further examination, a biopsy was scheduled on the suspicion of cancer.  Unfortunately, as we all now know, the suspicions were well-founded and Hitchens’ time on this planet would only wind up lasting another year and a half after the dreaded diagnosis. 

Despite his illness being exacerbated by seemingly endless rounds of debilitating chemotherapy treatments, Hitchens insisted on pressing on with his work not only by composing these essays for his magazine, but also by continuing with the promotional tour for “Hitch-22”, so as not to disappoint either his publisher or others depending on him.  Yet somehow, he also managed to squeeze out another book, “Arguably”, a massive collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. 

Spending over 18 months living in what the author frequently refers to in this book as “Tumortown”, Hitchens proves that he was as capable of dying just as gracefully as he lived.  The obvious question was whether he would recant his extensively-documented atheistic philosophy in the end as death drew ever nearer; he answered this question resoundingly in “Mortality”, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that a sudden turnabout would simply not be in the cards, unless the cancer had completely eaten away at his brain and bestowed upon him an extra-large dose of dementia in his end-stages. 

One criticism I have of the book – and believe me, it’s a slight one – is the inclusion of the eighth chapter; ultimately, we probably could’ve done without this because of its disjointed ramblings of a writer’s notes likely never intended by its author to see the light of day in that form.  Presumably, the publisher chose to include it in order to justify the $23 price of this hardcover because the book is already pretty short; at just over 100 pages, not including the Foreword, and set in large type, this is most certainly a quick read – in spite of being a slow reader, I was able to conquer this mini-tome within a single weekend. 

Not only was Hitchens scholarly and thorough in the research of his topics, he was also dedicated and often courageous, which doubtlessly added to the palpable authenticity of his writing.  Perhaps no better example of this was the personal peril he risked when investigating waterboarding used as a torture device by the American government at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.  Below is a video of his own experience being waterboarded by “experts” in the field.