Friday, November 30, 2012

“In Our Nature” – Movie Review



This week in in my movie class, we saw the drama “In Our Nature” – an independent film starring Zach Gilford, Jena Malone, John Slattery and Gabrielle Union.



When a father and his grown son accidentally find themselves at the family vacation house simultaneously, they’re forced to confront each other to deal with their issues – but will their respective girlfriends be of assistance or get in the way?



One summer morning, Seth (Gilford) and his girlfriend Andie (Malone) embark on the two and a half hour drive from Brooklyn to his family’s vacation house in upstate New York to spend a romantic weekend alone.  Unfortunately, once they are there and in the process of making The Beast With Two Backs, they are caught in flagrante delicto by Seth’s father Gil (Slattery) and his own much-younger girlfriend Vicky (Union), who have also planned a nice romantic weekend of their own. 

While both couples toy with the idea of vacating to allow the other to enjoy the space, the women finally agree that all four of them should stay and share the place together for the entire weekend.  Resolved not to ruin the time for their women, the two men begrudgingly agree to remain at the house, despite the awkwardness it would obviously create.  One thing that the women aren’t yet aware of – but will soon learn the hard way – is that their men have experienced something of a strained relationship with each other throughout the years. 

Gradually, it becomes evident to both Andie and Vicky that Seth and Gil struggle to be civil to each other.  Ultimately, this highlights weaknesses in the relationship these women are having with their men as well, causing increasing tension around this pastoral setting.  Andie is insulted when she discovers that Seth has withheld information about her from Gil, while Vicky is equally hurt when it is perceived that she has ulterior motives for being with Gil.  Despite the fractious nature in this placid environment, can these four people manage to make peace with each other?


Admittedly, I’m a big fan of the AMC television series “Mad Men”, so I’m a bit prejudiced here when it comes to John Slattery.  I found his performance in this movie to be very reminiscent of his character on that  show; however, whether it’s merely my perception or his own screen persona alone is hard to say.  While watching “In Our Nature”, I kept thinking Slattery had improvised his character’s lines because they just seemed so much more clever and interesting than everyone else’s. 

As for the rest of the film, it is considerably less exciting.  For one thing, it seems quite a bit like the hit Broadway play and movie “On Golden Pond” revisited.  First, since it’s set in a single location, it very much has the look and feel of a stage play -- even though the story is taken outside of the house in many scenes, it nevertheless feels a bit claustrophobic.  Second, there’s the obvious fact that the vacation house is what triggers a good deal of the central action.  Finally, the story focuses on a parent-child relationship, although instead of daughter-father, it is about son-father.  The title of the movie doesn’t help much either; it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s producer Anish Savjani and its writer/director Brian Savelson.  Savelson said that he wound up meeting Savjani after viewing another movie he produced (“Wendy & Lucy”) and decided that Savjani might be interested in his film.  Following the screening, “In Our Nature”’s star Zach Gilford was interviewed.  Gilford talked about how he grew up in a suburb of Chicago and knew he wanted to act since childhood; with his parents’ support, he attended college where he studied acting and later went on to do TV work, including “Friday Night Lights”. 


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Night Of Passage: The Glenlivet



As a proud member of The Glenlivet Guardians, I am occasionally honored to receive invitations from this renowned organization to attend some very special private tastings of their venerable scotch.  There are certain tastings called The Nights Of Passage where new Guardian members are both introduced to – and educated about – the scotch, the company that manufactures it and its history.  Recently, I was excited to get another invitation to such an event – an evening I looked forward to witch great anticipation, having attended last year’s.


Immediately upon entry, we were generously welcomed with numerous drams of The Glenlivet 12 year old, which were served either neat, on the rocks or with a drop or two of water – your choice.  While we sipped and awaited the commencement of the ceremonies, the group was then treated to quite a few tasty hors d’oeuvres served either hot or cold; they ranged from savory to refreshing and were well-paired with the drinks.  With this kind of a greeting, the excitement was palpable. 


Eventually, we were brought into the tasting area, which felt more like a combination of livingroom and classroom replete with multimedia system components.  At each station was a setup with three glasses, each containing a dram of a different expression of The Glenlivet – the 12 year old, the 15 year old and the 18 year old, each one specially picked to illustrate how distinctly the taste can be influenced based on how it is aged.


Leading us through the evening was Craig Bridger, The Glenlivet Brand Ambassador for the Northeast.  He pointed out that scotch flavors generally tend to fall into any one of four categories known as Top Notes:  Fruity, Spicy, Floral or Smoky.  Because The Glenlivet is unpeated, none of the expressions we would be sampling on this evening contain a Smoky characteristic.  That left the remaining three categories to be found in each of the drams that were being offered to us at the tasting. 

In the first of the tulip-shaped glasses, we tried The Glenlivet 12 year old.  While you can detect elements of all of the first three Top Notes in its scent, Fruity is probably the most dominant.  Some found that on the finish, you could pick up spiced pineapple and apricot in the back of the palate. 

Next was the 15 year old, which was aged in French oak barrels, yielding a much greater complexity.  Subtle spiciness of cinnamon and nutmeg can be found when tasted; it’s got a somewhat creamy texture to it, reminiscent of caramel. 

Finally, the 18 year old, which is probably the most highly regarded of all of The Glenlivet’s offerings.  With a silky smooth feeling in your mouth, this one highlighted the Floral Top Note.  Attendees found chocolate and toffee in its taste; this, we were informed, was due to the fact that it is finished in Spanish sherry casks.   

At the evening’s conclusion, all attendees were presented with a gift of a pair of whisky glasses bearing the official logo of The Glenlivet.  While I already have a wide-ranging set of many whisky glasses, I was nevertheless glad to get such a fine memento of this outstanding event. 



Sunday, November 18, 2012

“Lincoln” – Movie Review



This past weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the historical drama “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day – Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg.



While the Civil War rages on, United States President Abraham Lincoln seeks to end slavery nationwide – but can it be accomplished despite resistance from within his own political party?



At the beginning of 1865, United States President Abraham Lincoln (Day - Lewis) starts his second term after being re – elected only a couple of months prior in spite of the fact that his country’s Civil War relentlessly continues, seemingly without an end in sight.  While he is fully aware of the fact that something must be done soon to end the war, he nevertheless struggles to simultaneously abolish slavery by getting Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to The Constitution which would forever abolish slavery throughout the entire nation. 

Knowing that he might not have enough votes to pass the Amendment in The House Of Representatives, Lincoln has his Secretary Of State William Seward (David Strathairn) commission a team of men to lobby a group of Democratic Congressmen to vote in favor of the Amendment.   This, however, will not be an easy task for a number of complicated reasons.  For one thing, many people believe that the President’s focus should be on ending the war which has already taken many lives and gone on for far too long.  Second, not only is there significant opposition to the end of slavery, there is a fear that doing so would have a ripple effect of granting equality to Negros, leading the way to give them the right to vote.  Additionally, Lincoln’s fellow Republicans do not agree with their President, who insists that abolishing slavery will hasten the end to the war. 

All the while, this is taking a toll on the President’s personal life as well.  His eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon – Levitt) is rapidly losing interest in school as his desire to enlist in the Army increases.  Learning of this, his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), applies pressure to her husband to convince Robert that he must return to school; still suffering from the loss of their son Willie who died from typhus several years prior, she desperately wants to keep her first – born son alive if at all possible.  But as the votes to pass the Amendment are being secured, it appears as if the war might end before the Amendment can have the chance to come to a vote – and if that happens, the likelihood of its passage greatly diminishes.  Will President Lincoln be able to get The House to vote on the Amendment before the war concludes so his legacy will be the abolition of slavery? 


Daniel Day – Lewis’s performance of Abraham Lincoln is reason alone to see this movie.  Day – Lewis never ceases to amaze at his range and ability to make each character he portrays utterly unique and totally believable.  Despite this, however, I did have some reservations with the film, which may be considered by some as minor quibbling since the overwhelming majority of the students in the class seemed to enjoy “Lincoln” quite a good deal. 

At two and a half hours, “Lincoln” can tend to feel every minute of its length.  The periodically excessively wordy dialog of Tony Kushner’s screenplay leaves a number of scenes at times seeming as though they belong in a stage play instead of a motion picture.  Other problems with the script include its opening scene (the graphic depiction of a Civil War battle which includes hand – to – hand combat that appears somewhat derivative of the opening of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”) and the cheesy quality of a subsequent scene that occurs shortly thereafter where Lincoln meets with a handful of enlisted men who proceed to quote his Gettysburg Address speech verbatim. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor informed us that while “Lincoln” is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team Of Rivals”, the movie only adapts a small portion of that sweeping work, rather than covering the whole thing as the motion picture is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s life, just a depiction of a segment of it which was particularly historic.  Another point he made was that this film is not what some would refer to as a hagiography – a biography of an individual that shows its subject in only the best possible light.  Instead, “Lincoln” reveals sides of the man which display a deeply flawed character and in no way makes any attempt to canonize him. 



Friday, November 16, 2012

“The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” , starring Edward Burns, who also wrote and directed.


When a father who abandoned his family years ago attempts reconciliation at Christmas, he is unanimously rebuffed – but will his new secret cause them to change their mind?


In a family of seven adult children, one of them is often saddled with the responsibility of caretaker for the entire brood – and such is the case with Gerry (Burns), who has two brothers and four sisters and is the owner of The Fitzgerald Tavern, a friendly (albeit not often busy) Irish pub in Queens, New York. Living with his long-divorced mother Rosie (Anita Gillette), he desperately tries to round up his siblings in order to celebrate her 70th birthday – however, with Rosie’s birthday inconveniently two days before Christmas, the majority of her children would much rather blow off the party and instead celebrate with her when they all gather at Rosie’s house for Christmas.

Running around town to try to herd his siblings together, Gerry stops off at the house of Mrs. McGowan (Joyce Van Patten), a long-time family friend, who is now rather sickly. Upon inviting Mrs. McGowan to Rosie’s birthday party, Gerry meets Nora (Connie Britton), there to fill-in for Mrs. McGowan’s regular nurse, who has taken a vacation during the holidays. Immediately attracted to each other, Gerry and Nora start dating and a blossoming romance seems imminent. But just as things appear as though they can’t get any more complicated, Jim (Ed Lauter) – Rosie’s ex-husband and the father of her seven children – resurfaces seeking an invitation to celebrate Christmas with the family.

While Gerry feels a bit more forgiving, his siblings do not share his generous spirit and instead side with their mother in declining Jim of his wish. Seeking to express remorse for his past transgressions, Jim meets with Gerry in order to plead his case. In the course of their reunion, Jim reveals his secret reason for wanting to rejoin the family he deserted decades ago in order to bring some degree of closure to everyone’s individual situation. But even if the clan learns of their absentee father’s hidden agenda, will this new information thaw their hearts enough to let them reconsider and permit his return to the family?


Fans of some of Edward Burns’ more successful movies – especially something like “The Brothers McMullen” – will likely enjoy “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas”. Among the highlights of this small independent film are the verisimilitude of the familial relationships – for better or for worse – and the fact that the characters are drawn particularly well. Each individual – particularly the Fitzgerald offspring and especially the women – are unique, realistic characters with their own personality, issues, quirks and perspectives. Considering how male writers have traditionally been hamstrung by their inability to delineate female characters, this is quite an accomplishment for the exceedingly talented Burns.

The movie, however, is not without its drawbacks. First and foremost for me is the fact that it has too many characters to be able to follow each individual subplot with much clarity. Presumably, that is the sacrifice that Burns made when choosing to tell the story of a large, closely-knit, feuding, extremely dysfunctional Irish Catholic family. For another thing, the film has the look and feel of a soap opera and ultimately drags on a bit at points, limping to the finish line. I found myself waiting for an occasional joke to be thrown in just to lighten the mood ever so briefly, but unfortunately, this was never to be the case.

Following the screening, our instructor briefly interviewed Edward Burns, writer/director and star of “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas”. Burns said that he originally got the idea for the movie when shooting the film “Alex Cross”; the star of that motion picture – Tyler Perry – started discussing future projects with Burns and he wound up suggesting that Burns return to the earlier themes from some of his past successes because Burns had found a niche that no one else could emulate with as much aplomb. Burns said that this conversation immediately inspired him to start writing the screenplay; instead of taking his usual three to six months to churn out the first draft of a script, Burns was able to complete this one in only a matter of weeks by drawing on his childhood – he grew up in Queens with other Irish Catholic kids who also came from big families and these were some of the people on whom a few characters in “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” were based.



Friday, November 09, 2012

“Hitchcock” – Movie Review



This week, after a temporary break following Hurricane Sandy, my movie class resumed with a screening of the biographical drama “Hitchcock”, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson.  


When Alfred Hitchcock decides upon making “Psycho” as his next movie, the studio balks and he is forced to finance the production himself – but will the financial and emotional stress cause his long-time marriage to end?


By the end of the 1950’s, film director Alfred Hitchcock (Hopkins) has amassed so many suspenseful movies in his oeuvre that he has become a legend. However, the big secret that most people don’t know is that the key to his success has been his wife Alma (Mirren), to whom he has been devoted for many years. With filmmaking expertise known to Hitchcock long before they were married, Alma is a capable screenwriter and editor, among many other talents. Although they mutually agreed she would never get a credit on any of Hitchcock’s movies, they both knew that the true genius of the Hitchcock films did not originate from a single voice.

Paramount Pictures, the motion picture studio to which he is under contract, has been urging Hitchcock to make his next movie identical to one of his previous hits. Hitchcock, however, saw himself as a creative artist and had no interest in making cookie cutter movies. Fearing that at the age of 60 his best work may be behind him, Hitchcock undertook a search for an exciting new project that would be different from anything else he had ever worked on before. Coming upon a book titled “Psycho”, Hitchcock found the real-life story of a transvestite mama’s boy serial killer to be compelling; informing the studio that his next picture would be based on this book, they quickly declined, citing that its subject matter would be too controversial with no chance to get passed the censors, much less be a commercial success.

Believing in his ability to make a truly great movie out of this story, Hitchcock decided to mortgage his house and finance the project with the $800,000 he was given by the bank. Paramount agreed to this and would only act as distributors of the film. Meanwhile, Alma is feeling increasingly marginalized in Hitchcock’s life and winds up seeking the attention of a well-known writer who beseeches her to help adapt a screenplay from his latest novel. But are his interests in Alma strictly professional or backed with a hidden agenda of romantic intentions? With possible designs on his stunningly beautiful leading lady Janet Leigh (Johansson), both Hitchcock and Alma now suspect each other of infidelity. Suddenly fearing Hitchcock may have lost his touch in filmmaking, tempers erupt between not only Hitchcock and Paramount, but also between Hitchcock and Alma. Will “Psycho” be the end of both Hitchcock’s career and marriage?


While the movie “Hitchcock” is at times just as amusing and entertaining as its true-life subject, it contains a certain degree of whimsy, which, for me, does not always help. The story is sometimes told with a smirk – occasionally to its detriment, I believe; for example, its opening and closing is bookended by Hopkins doing the version of Hitchcock from his famous old TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”; so, if you are familiar with that classic, you will likely get a good laugh from those scenes. Hopkins’ performance is at certain times hindered by his all-too-obvious make-up and other times attributable to his own undoing – he occasionally slips in and out of character, in some scenes sounding more like himself than Hitchcock.

Among the highlights were Hopkins’ co-star Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife Alma. Mirren gave a terrific performance; while Hitchcock appeared as something of a caricature, Alma came across as a real multi-dimensional human being, with all the associated attributes that naturally brings. Johansson – while smokin’ hot – was merely some very lovely eye-candy, despite playing an essential role in both movies.

Based on what we are told in the movie, Hitchcock and Alma appeared to be more of a professional partnership than a marriage since romance seems to be absent from the relationship. The depiction of their relationship was that Alma was just as responsible for Hitchcock’s success as he was because of her own talents. One area where Hitchcock may have not gotten enough credit was for his marketing savvy – he was able to build suspense about the movie going experience as well as the film itself.

Ultimately, “Hitchcock” might have been better off as a made-for-TV movie – and likely would’ve been, if no stars had been attached to the project, which is apparently what justifies this as being a theatrical release. I might’ve enjoyed the film a bit more if it had been done on HBO to pair with their recent production of “The Girl”, which focused on Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren , star of “The Birds”.



Saturday, November 03, 2012

WhiskyFest Weekend – Day 2



As mentioned in my previous post, I recently attended WhiskyFest Weekend this year in New York City – the first time ever that this event has ever been held on multiple nights.  It was two consecutive nights filled with good food (served buffet style) paired with great whiskies made from all around the world.  The event was held on the evenings of Friday, October 26, 2012 and Saturday, October 27, 2012.  While my last blog post covered the first night (Friday), this post will summarize my experiences on Saturday, the concluding night. 


One of my go-to scotches is Bowmore, so I made sure to visit their exhibit early in the evening.  The night before, I learned that possibly the most interesting question you could pose to a whisky manufacturer or distributor at one of these events is the ostensibly simple and seemingly benign, “What’s new?”.  On this night, I asked the same question to the Bowmore representative and got the most delightful surprise to this innocuous query.  At the start of 2013, I was told, Bowmore fans can look forward to being treated to a new expression – Dorus Mor, a single batch release.

Aged for 10 years in first-fill oak casks, this is a non – chill filtered single malt that has a stunning alcohol content of 57% .  According to the company representative, this scotch is about as close as you can get to actually drinking it straight out of the barrel in which it was aged.  Despite the high alcohol content, I found it to have a rather gentle nose – but that can be deceptive once you take a taste because it has quite a kick to it on the backend, which is really where you can feel the high amount of alcohol. 


Above, I made reference to my go-to scotches – as something of a devotee of Islay-based scotches, another one that’s especially high on my list is the great Laphroaig.  This intensely peaty, smoky scotch doesn’t really have what you might call a brand new product coming to the market – instead, the company is trumpeting the return of a product that had been taken off the market for a while but is just now returning.  Their Triple Wood had been off the market for quite some time, but is now being re-introduced to the scotch-savvy public.  The reason for its absence was simple – they just ran out after a while. 


When I inquired about its age, a Laphroaig representative told me that it averages about 10 years, but in reality, it can be aged anywhere from eight to 13 years.  As you might have already guessed, Triple Wood takes its name from the manner in which it is aged.  The types of wood barrels in which it is kept are first-fill bourbon, toasted French oak and European sherry casks.  This particular scotch has something of a complex flavor profile – you can taste sherry on the front, followed by black pepper on the end. 


As frequently occurs whenever I attend one of these whisky tastings, I discovered one that was unfamiliar to me.  This year, I was introduced to a Canadian Whisky called Black Velvet.  They were attending WhiskyFest in order to announce a new product to the market called Toasted Caramel.  Made by blending their regular whisky with a caramel-infused barrel and aging for three years, it contains 35% alcohol (70 proof).  Best served chilled, it could be used either as a digestif (as it tastes very dessert-like) or it can be mixed in a cocktail; technically, it’s got too high a proof to be considered a liqueur, but its hint of sweetness slightly masks the taste of the alcohol.  Initially offered to me with ice, I subsequently tried it in an Old Fashioned.  It’s a refreshing change and if you’re in the mood to try something different, then I definitely recommend this one.

WhiskyFest Weekend in New York City has been over for a while now, but many great memories of the fun linger; these memories provide some modicum of comfort, especially in the aftermath of an unwanted and unappreciated visitor we had in our area named Sandy.  Next year, WhiskyFest in New York City will again take place over a weekend, as it did this year; I look forward to attending then, as well – my only hope is that by that time, we don’t get another one of Sandy’s distant cousins as we did this year.