Monday, December 24, 2012

Hemingway’s Cocktails



As a fan of both Ernest Hemingway and good cocktails, it was something of a no-brainer for me to attend a class taught by author Philip Greene at The Astor Center of New York City called, “To Have And Have Another:  A Hemingway Cocktail Companion”.  Greene conducted the class as a way of publicizing his new book of the same name


Greene started the evening talking about how Hemingway wrote about drink with incredibly compelling descriptions in such a way that it added great depth to the characters in his novels.  The act of writing left Hemingway like a rung-out dishrag, Greene added; Hemingway would get up early in the morning and write, then drink in the afternoon and at night.  Somewhere along the way – especially when he lived in Key West, Florida and in Cuba, he would find the time to venture out on a boat and go fishing. 

To start the evening, we were greeted with a cocktail Greene had previously prepared himself – the Jack Rose, which was made famous in Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises”.  There are two recipes for the Jack Rose – the traditional one and a more elaborate one derived from what is believed to have been used in Paris during the 1920’s.  We had the latter, which was quite good; the traditional recipe, which is considerably less ambitious, may be something worth trying – but the mixture of so many different ingredients from the Paris recipe adds so much greater complexity. 


Next, we moved on to a classic – The Martini!  Specifically, the gin martini, which is my preference over the vodka martini.  Hemingway liked his martinis in extra dry – a way which I would have no argument with because he was very stingy with the vermouth to keep it clean (the ratio of gin to vermouth would often be something like 15 to 1).  The type of martini that Hemingway preferred might be described as something close to a Gibson because it would include a cocktail onion.  In fact, he preferred his onion to be frozen (at 15 degrees below zero, when possible).   To keep the drink clear, stir; shaking it will make the martini cloudy (Hemingway liked his stirred so it would remain clear). 




We followed this up with the Daiquiri – something which Hemingway particularly enjoyed in the warmer climates, especially when he was in Cuba.  This drink was written about in the novel “Islands In The Stream”.  There are two versions – one which was called The Hemingway Special and the other referred to as Papa Doble (“The Wild Daiquiri”) because it contained twice as many of the ingredients as The Hemingway Special.   On this evening, we made the simpler (and arguably weaker) Hemingway Special, which was supposedly named when a bartender was given instructions for its preparation by Papa himself, so he named the libation after the great author. 


Finally, we made The Americano – although this one is something of a mystery to me, since it seemed a bit out of place, having been attributed to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, in “A View To A Kill”.  Basically, this is a Negroni without the gin. 



Sunday, December 23, 2012

“A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” – Movie Review



This week, my movie class snuck in one final screening before the holidays – a French-made drama titled, “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea”. 



When a young woman in Israel and a young man from Palestine begin communicating with each other, will they eventually be able to meet or will the political strife besetting their respective lands forever keep them apart?



Tal is just barely 17 years old when her family has moved from France to Israel.  Adjusting to a new culture in the city of Jerusalem is difficult enough when this teenager is shaken to her core after a terrorist bombing nearby.  In her frustration, she writes a note to The Palestinians and seals it in an emptied scotch bottle, then beseeches her older brother Eytan, a soldier in the Israeli army, to toss it into the Gaza Sea in the hope that it will eventually reach its intended audience. 

Ultimately, the bottle washes up on the shores of Gaza when a group of young Palestinian men are horsing around on the beach.  They open the bottle and read the note, each taking their turn ridiculing the naive young woman who was its author.  But it is one of these young men – Naim, a 20 year old college dropout – who dares to take up Tal’s challenge to respond via e – mail.  Thus begins something of an epistolary courtship between the two. 

Initially, their e – mails to each other are intense, angry and antagonistic.  Slowly, however, each one reveals their own truths and personal realities to the other and over time, they begin to acquire greater sympathy to the other’s plight.  This turns out to be potentially dangerous as Naim’s fellow Palestinians begin to suspect that he may be a traitor while Tal’s family fears that knowledge of their existence and whereabouts by a Palestinian may endanger the entire family.  With mutual curiosity and affection for each other increasing, they plan to meet – but will they actually be able to achieve their plan or will it only manage to imperil them both?       



“A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” is a story that takes many unanticipated twists and turns, right up to – and including – its climax.  While it is at its heart something of an updated version of “Romeo & Juliet” told via 21st century technology’s missives, it remains nevertheless a classic tale made even more memorable by the mere fact that so much of its story is based in some rather ugly historical facts.  The ending of this movie is one that will – as trite as it may be to say – have you on the edge of your seat; the filmmaker does an excellent job of building suspense toward the finale. 

If I were to cite any flaw in “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea”, it might be its dizzying array of dialects that fall upon the ear of the audience.  As stated above, this is a French – made film, so there is some French spoken in the scenes with Tal’s family.  But you also hear Hebrew and Arabic as well as some English.  Granted, the movie has subtitles – all of which are in English – but nevertheless, it can be a little distracting (especially so, I would assume, if you speak one of more of those languages, which I don’t – I personally find that English is enough of a struggle without venturing to a foreign tongue). 

While “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” isn’t exactly the kind of movie I’d normally run out to see on my own, I’m certainly glad that I did have the opportunity.  Given the recent news headlines about Hamas-led attacks on Israel followed by their own response, this film is certainly timely, if nothing else.  Unfortunately, I suppose you could make the case that any motion picture about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be timely whenever it was released.  It may be hard to say that this is a film you would enjoy, but “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea” is one that should definitely not be ignored, either. 


Friday, December 14, 2012

“Quartet” – Movie Review



This week in the final session of the Fall Semester of my movie class, we saw the British comedy-drama “Quartet”, starring Maggie Smith and directed by Dustin Hoffman.


When a former opera singer moves to a nursing home, she has trouble adjusting – but after the other residents ask her to sing at an upcoming performance, will she consent or will they be disappointed?


Beecham House in England is an old age home for retired musicians; its residents include a number of classical musicians and opera singers, all of whom are in varying degrees of health, both physically and mentally. One sad fact about this institution is that due to the advanced years of its occupants, someone will eventually expire before too long; the upside of this is that it provides an opportunity for someone new to move in – which is exactly how Jean (Smith) wound up being the latest slab of fresh meat. Having years prior left behind her illustrious career as an opera singer, she has decided to make Beecham House her new home.

But hers is not an easy transition – having spent decades as a big star in the opera world, Jean has a reputation for being something of a diva … a rather well-deserved reputation, as it turns out. In denial about her aging and lack of independence, Jean initially refuses to socialize with the other inhabitants of Beecham House, choosing instead to take all of her meals in her room – this despite the fact that she was greeted with cheers and applause by a number of her fellow ex-performers. Not all of those at Beecham House are happy at Jean’s arrival, however – among them is Reggie (Tom Courtenay) – a former lover of Jean’s from the distant past.

Having thoughtlessly broken Reggie’s heart when they were engaged to be married, Jean wound up having a life filled with many men – husbands, both her own and those belonging to other women – while Reggie was so despondent that he never married after that experience. Suddenly finding themselves cohabitating (after a fashion), they are now forced to confront that which originally drove them apart. During this time, the residence is planning an upcoming concert – a yearly gala to celebrate the birthday of famed composer Giuseppe Verdi. What would sell tickets – and raise a considerable amount of money for Beecham House – would be a performance of the Quartet from Rigoletto in which Jean would be a featured singer. With this being one of Jean’s greatest performances, she is immediately asked to participate. But will the fear of having lost her skills at this stage result in her letting down the others or can Jean summon up the courage to join her fellow singers for one last public appearance?


In his directorial debut, Award Winning actor Dustin Hoffman certainly doesn’t embarrass himself with “Quartet”. For that matter, neither does the film’s stellar cast – with Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins leading the way in their roles: he as an unrepentant lothario and she as a septuagenarian suffering from the early stages of dementia. Clearly, this movie is aimed at the same audience that made “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” such a big hit earlier this year – and if that is indeed its intention, it may very well succeed. “Quartet” triumphs on many levels – well-delineated characters, good acting, an interesting story and visually compelling shots (the scenes of the grounds surrounding location referred to as Beecham House being particularly well photographed).

The artfully-told story is multi-layered with a romance, the challenges of aging in a youth-oriented society and the relevance of art as its form changes over time to suit an ever-evolving audience. Although the story takes place almost entirely at Beecham House (it was originally conceived as a stage play before being adapted into a screenplay), it never appears static and maintains a reasonably good pace throughout (it’s just over an hour and a half in length). In spite of having to suspend a reasonable level of disbelief while watching this movie (e.g., How are these characters able to afford such luxurious care?), it never gets in the way enough to deter your enjoyment of “Quartet”.

Hopefully, the film will do reasonably well – it’s professionally done and has a story with considerable heart without appearing mawkish. That said, however, it does feel a bit of a conceit – albeit an understandably necessary one – when we are led to believe that we are going to hear some of the characters singing, but the film cuts away before it occurs. There are, however, a number of singers who do in fact perform – a couple of gentlemen who have what appears to be something of a vaudeville act and one woman who sings opera. The cast includes a number of people who are in fact retired singers and musicians, a few of whom are provided the opportunity to shine brightly in the coda to a brilliant musical career.


Sunday, December 09, 2012

“Barbara”– Movie Review


This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the German drama “Barbara”, starring Nina Hoss. 

When an East German physician is sent to work at a remote hospital, she schemes to escape to be with her boyfriend – but will her plans be thwarted by the secret police?


In 1980 East Germany, Dr. Barbara Wolff (Hoss) is forced to work in a hospital in the middle of nowhere.  Displeased with her situation in general and the people in particular, Barbara immediately applies to be transferred to another facility.  What’s especially bothersome to her is her supervising physician, Andre, who attempts to befriend her despite the fact that he is required to report on her behavior and performance to the East German secret police – something Barbara is well aware of and isn’t shy about communicating to Andre. 

Given her circumstances, Barbara remains resolute in not making friends with her colleagues or neighbors – as a result, she is aloof and quite unfriendly whenever approached.  One of Barbara’s secrets, however, is the fact that she has a boyfriend in West Germany who occasionally makes the journey to enjoy a tryst with her.  During one such meeting, they hatch a plot where he will get her some money to pay off someone to sail her by raft to Denmark where Barbara and her boyfriend will meet and live out the rest of their lives together. 

Unfortunately, complications develop when Stella, a young woman who is a former patient of Barbara’s, suddenly shows up unexpectedly seeking her aid after having escaped from a prison work farm.  Loyal to her patients and ready to offer help to one who is in dire need, Barbara agrees to bring Stella with her when she leaves for Denmark later that evening.  Together, Barbara and the wounded Stella head off to the shore where they will meet the man with the raft.  But when the secret police discover that Barbara is now missing, will they be able to find and catch her before she and Stella can flee to Denmark?


Often referred to as “The German Meryl Streep”, Nina Hoss gives an amazing performance as the stoic physician who could probably give any Englishman a run for his money in a Stiff Upper Lip competition.  Hoss’ Barbara appears so emotionally detached from everyone she comes into contact with you would almost think she was a robot rather than a human being; this façade melts away, however, in the scenes with her patients and her boyfriend.  As an actress, Hoss has made brilliant choices here and they all seem to work.  

Also of note is the screenplay, which was co-written by the film’s director, Christian Petzold.  Cleverly interwoven into the main plot are subplots concerning some of Barbara’s patients; initially, it would seem that the justification for these scenes’ existence in the script is to portray Barbara’s human side as well as her professional dedication to the ill and needy, however, the story has been crafted in such a way as to eventually make these tales necessary to the main plot.  If I were to find any fault at all in “Barbara” it would be the fact that many of the references and much of the context throughout the movie require something of a reasonably keen understanding of the East German situation during the Iron Curtain years; fortunately for us, our instructor gave us a bit of a crash course in this prior to the screening, which I found helped considerably when viewing the movie. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the star of the film, Nina Hoss.  She said that having already done several films with Petzold, he allowed her the unusual opportunity to help collaborate on the role of Barbara during the writing of the screenplay; Hoss said that he would send her about 10 or 20 pages at a time so she could read them and offer her feedback or ask questions.  Hoss said that she grew up in West Germany (Stuttgart, the home of the Mercedes Benz) and wound up studying acting at a school in East Germany during the mid-90’s, approximately six years after the fall of The Berlin Wall; she added that this time in East Germany helped her to form an understanding of how to play the role of Barbara in this movie. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

“Any Day Now” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Any Day Now”, starring Alan Cumming.


When a handicapped teenager is abandoned by his mother, he is adopted by a gay couple – but will they legally be allowed to keep the boy?


In the Los Angeles of 1979, Rudy (Cumming) spends his nights performing the disco hits of the day as one third of a trio of lip-synching drag queens at a West Hollywood gay bar; by day, he’s trying to get his own real singing career going. One evening, when Paul (Garret Dillahunt) walks in, it’s lust at first sight with this new patron; shortly after Rudy’s gig, they hook-up and seem to hit it off right away. Afterwards, Rudy reveals he knew he was gay since he was a boy, but Paul admits that he didn’t come to his own awareness until long after he found himself in a dissatisfying marriage; recently divorced and moved to Los Angeles from Walla Walla, Washington, he is currently pursuing a career as a lawyer with the local District Attorney’s office.

One night in his apartment building, Rudy discovers Marco (Isaac Leyva), a 14 year old boy with Down Syndrome who lives in the apartment next to his. Marco’s junkie mother has left him after being recently arrested by the police; Rudy does his best to care for the boy, but seeks Paul’s legal advice as he attempts to navigate his way through the system. When Family Services takes the boy in and places him in a foster home, Marco runs away; once Rudy finds him, he requests Paul’s assistance in getting Marco’s mother to sign the boy over to them for guardianship. Rudy and Marco wind up moving in with Paul and together, they try to carve out some form of a family life.

But when Paul’s employer learns of his secret life, Paul is not only fired from his job, but also, he and Rudy are brought into court so that it could be proven that they are unfit to raise Marco. While they are temporarily able to regain custody of the teenager, the couple is eventually forced to return him to his mother upon her release from jail. Seeking counsel from a more experienced attorney, Rudy and Paul fight vigorously to wrest Marco from his drug-addled mother. But can they reacquire custody of the boy before Marco is completely neglected by his mother?


While “Any Day Now” is supposed to be based on true events, I have no idea how accurate the events in the story are in relation to what actually occurred in real life; I do know, however, that the ending of the movie did change multiple times in subsequent drafts of the screenplay. Having said that, I did find the film difficult to sit through – not because of the nature of the story, but because of the way it was told. To me, it felt as though every possible cliché was pulled out in this script to the point that it had quite the feel of a melodrama that would be a good fit on either the OWN, Lifetime or Oxygen networks.

Alan Cumming is a very gifted actor – however, I do not consider “Any Day Now” to be one of his better performances. For one thing, his character Rudy is supposed to originally be from Queens, New York; Cumming’s attempt at a New York accent is downright awful. It would seem as though Cumming took the role because it gave him an opportunity to play a flamboyant character and provide him with a chance to sing; however, his Rudy is so unlikeable in his irrational, childish histrionics that he became immediately unsympathetic to me – once this happens, it winds up being rather difficult to root for the character, regardless of what he may attempt to do in order to redeem himself.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the movie’s star, Alan Cumming. Cumming said that he was sent the script for “Any Day Now” in early 2011 and wound up shooting it in Los Angeles in the summer of that year, during his hiatus from the New York City – based television series, “The Good Wife”. Interestingly, he said that he was an amateur magician; he believes he is drawn to that because it would allow him to use his acting skills in order to deceive and misdirect the audience. Cumming announced that he always carried around with him a magic trick that he could perform at any time. At the urging of our instructor (and he really didn’t have to urge very hard), Cumming successfully performed his lone card trick.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

“Deadfall” – Movie Review

Deadfall movie poster
This weekend in my movie class, we had a bonus screening of the crime-thriller “Deadfall”, starring Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek. 

When a brother and sister team’s heist goes awry, they split up to try to escape the law – but after they reunite, will their team survive?

Addison (Bana) and his sister Liza (Wilde) have what they believe is the perfect plan when they hold up a Michigan casino – but when a horrific automobile accident ruins their getaway, they must re-think how to proceed.  Addison decides they should continue on their current path north to Canada, but that it would be best for them to both go their separate ways and meet at their ultimate destination. Fearful of going alone, Liza urges her brother to keep together; however, when he convinces her that separating would throw off the police, she agrees to hitchhike north while Addison finds a way on his own. 
Freezing at the side of the road, Liza is eventually discovered by Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a former prizefighter recently released from prison after conviction in a boxing scandal; headed up to northern Michigan to meet his parents June (Spacek) and Chet (Kristofferson) for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, he agrees to help this attractive young damsel in distress in the hope that he will achieve some form of redemption for his past misdeeds.  However, when Liza correctly sizes him up as an easy mark, she starts to play him by being flirtatious.  Ultimately, however, the tables are turned on Liza when she suddenly discovers she’s actually developing feelings for Jay. 
Following a number of adventures and ordeals, Jay brings Liza to his parents house, where she has told Addison to meet her.  As it turns out, Addison has managed to beat them there and decides to take June and Chet hostage until his sister shows up with Jay.  However, once they are all together, Addison soon comes to realize Liza no longer wants any part of his plan and instead wishes to set off on a new life with Jay.  But with the police hot on their heels and possibly moments from being captured and sent to prison, can Addison convince his sister to stay with him or will he lose her to Jay?

It is rare that my movie class shows a film such as “Deadfall” as it tends to lean towards fare that might be considered more “intellectual”.  It is also rare that my class allows me the opportunity to stumble across a real gem that I can enthusiastically recommend – but such is most certainly the case with this motion picture.  “Deadfall” is so action-packed that it hits the ground running from its first scene and doesn’t for a moment let up on its audience; it is a fast-paced thrill ride that will keep you guessing from beginning to end.
Bana is nothing short of excellent in his role as the psychopathic Addison and Olivia Wilde – what else can I say? – is scrumptious as always.  Old pros like Kristofferson and Spacek are equally enjoyable to watch – he as the gruff retired sheriff who gives no quarter to the bad guys and she as the unflappable wife who has seen it all in the decades she has spent with her husband.  If there are any negatives about “Deadfall”, it would be that there are some moments which might briefly take you out of the movie or make you challenge your suspension of disbelief (e.g. – Where did Jay get the pickup truck?  Are Addison and Liza engaged in an incestuous romance?  How does Addison survive the brutal beatings his body takes throughout the story?).  But this may be nitpicking – if you’re really enjoying the movie, these questions won’t slow you down very much.
After the screening, the class discussed the movie; most students appeared to enjoy it as much as I did, including our instructor, who claimed that much of the criticism of this film that he has read in the trade papers seems to harp on a good deal of the story being clichéd and predictable; he disagreed with this assessment and so do I – “Deadfall” takes hold of you and you never quite know where you’re headed.  For some time now, this movie has been playing as one of the Video On Demand selections from my local cable TV provider, but I hadn’t had a chance to view it until now.  If you likewise see it in your movie listings or find it playing at a local theater, I urge you to check it out – “Deadfall” is quite the welcome respite from the warm and fuzzy holiday product typically available this time of year.  All of that said, however, be aware of the fact that the movie is chock full of explicit bloody violence that might be a deal-breaker for some of you.