Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Grudge Match” – Movie Review



This week, we had the final bonus screening for the Fall Semester of my movie class with a screening of “Grudge Match”, a sports drama starring Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.


When two long-retired prizefighters are enticed to return to the ring, can they still make it a competitive match or will they merely result in embarrassing themselves?


Decades after retiring from the boxing ring, Razor (Stallone) finds himself barely scraping by; in his 60’s, he’s forced to return to the factory work he did before making it big.  Razor did this because he’s completely lost the fortune he earned as a boxer. His main competitor in those days was Kid (De Niro), whose post-boxing life has turned out quite differently; as a bar owner and investor in an automobile dealership franchise, he’s rather well set up, at least from a financial standpoint. Even after all of these years, however, they continue to hate each other; their animosity stems from Razor’s retirement before their final bout, thus depriving Kid from proving he was the better fighter.

One day, Razor is approached by Dante (Kevin Hart), an aspiring promoter who tries to convince Razor to allow his likeness to be used in a computer game since it would bring them both a pretty decent payday. Needing the money desperately, Razor agrees to the deal. Upon arriving at the studio to record the game, Razor finds that his nemesis Kid is there also. It doesn’t take long for them to start tangling; when a video of their fight goes viral on the Internet, the two are offered a deal they both thought they’d never live to see: an opportunity to finally have the boxing match that they wanted to have 30 years ago.

Following some debate, Razor accepts the offer to get a much-needed cash infusion; Kid also signs up for it, but for different reasons – mostly, due to his pride and ego needing him to show the world he can beat Razor again. After they begin training for the bout, Razor comes to the bitter realization that his health limitations won’t allow him to fight, so he backs out. This of course totally infuriates Kid, who believes that Razor is once again refusing to a second rematch. Can Kid talk Razor into settling their score, or will Razor’s concerns for his well -being keep him permanently out of the ring?


Dumb movies can be good. Examples of dumb comedies include “Anchorman”, “There’s Something About Mary” and (obviously) “Dumb & Dumber”. There are, of course, quite a few action movies that would fall into that category, particularly franchises like “Dirty Harry”, “Fast & Furious” or “Die Hard”. “Grudge Match”, unfortunately, would not fall into the “good dumb” category for me – but the sparse crowd  attending this screening might disagree since they seemed to enjoy it a good deal. A silly script with weak allusions to memorable scenes from the iconic films “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” are what contribute to this motion picture’s failure.

As good as Kim Basinger looks in “Grudge Match”, her role as a love interest of both men is something of a waste – pretty much just about anyone could have played this weak part, which is basically just a plot contrivance to get the viewer to more deeply appreciate the rivalry between these two former athletes. Alan Arkin has moments where he’s quite funny, but it seems somewhat of an accident of his talent rather than intentional placement in the film. The familiar names and faces – including LL Cool J, who makes a brief appearance as a celebrity trainer Kid tries to hire—appear to be there merely to keep the audience’s attention.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Alan Arkin, who portrayed Razor’s trainer.  Arkin reminisced about his long and successful career; despite many hits, his life as an actor had many hills and valleys. Playing the character Yossarian in the film adaptation of Joseph Heller’s best-selling novel “Catch-22”, Arkin became severely depressed when the movie failed both critically and financially. He said that for quite some time, he kept refusing roles for fear of being in another flop. A former acting coach advised him to resume working because one of the offers might be good.



Grudge Match (2013) on IMDb 7.9/1065 votes


Monday, December 09, 2013

“The Best Offer” – Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we saw a bonus screening of the new crime drama, “The Best Offer”, starring Geoffrey Rush and Donald Sutherland.


When a successful art auctioneer is commissioned by a mysterious young woman to appraise and sell her late parents’ art collection, he becomes drawn into a relationship with her – but what impact will this have on him both professionally and personally?


Virgil Oldman (Rush) is about as quirky as they come – he’s a vain older gentlemen who dies his hair, maintains an extensive wardrobe and is so mysophobic that he constantly wears gloves to avoid possible infection. Further adding to his quirks are that he doesn’t own a cell phone and also that he remains a virgin to this day. Despite all of this, Virgil has worked hard to become a noted art expert who runs his own auction house and has accumulated great fame and wealth over the years … as well as his own rather impressive and extensive art collection which consists of portraits of various women.

One day, Virgil is contacted by Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), who wants to engage him to appraise her late parents’ art collection so that it may be sold to collectors at his auction house. After much consternation on the part of Virgil following her erratic behavior that causes her to miss scheduled appointments, he tells Claire that he no longer wishes to be bothered; it is at this point she confesses to suffering from agoraphobia, which explains why she does not go out in public. Reluctantly, Virgil reconsiders and decides to check out the paintings and sculptures. While there, he notices a bunch of interesting looking gears which he brings to Robert (Jim Sturgess), a repairman who specializes in antiques; Robert surmises that these gears are part of an automaton from the 1800’s, which he is confident he can rebuild, provided Virgil supply him with most of the original parts.

In the meantime, Virgil conducts business as usual, holding auctions where he conspires with his friend and fellow art enthusiast Billy (Sutherland) – a once-aspiring artist himself – to wind up with the winning bid on many of the items for sale. Virgil finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with Claire, especially given their meetings are held at her parents’ expansive villa, where Claire remains locked in a closet so Virgil cannot see what she looks like. Knowing what a womanizer Robert is, Virgil enlists his advice for how best to deal with her. Eventually, Virgil is able to coax Claire out of her hiding place and they begin to have some semblance of a normal relationship – but once Claire enters his life, will this cause Virgil to lose his friends and business colleagues?


While I would normally recommend almost any movie starring Geoffrey Rush, I have to give “The Best Offer” a borderline recommendation, despite Rush’s good performance as The 50 Year Old Virgin. The reason has to do with the final act is a bit confusing and somewhat contrived. If indeed “The Best Offer” is a tale of revenge by a bitter and angry person, I would suggest the majority of the film is a rather elaborate setup which culminates in an underwhelming resolution. Billy does not have enough screen time or character development to get viewers to understand his degree of involvement in this story of vengeance. Further, it’s a bit misleading as to the intent of the story – in its two hours, there don’t seem to be enough clues earlier to logically lead us to the ending.

Another theme is that of fraud; just as Virgil is able to easily identify a forged artwork, he is equally unable to identify authenticity in real life – especially when it comes from the people closest to him. While Virgil comes across as an oddball, is his behavior so reprehensible that he deserves to be treated as he does? Is the audience supposed to root for or against him? The eventual payoff with the subplot regarding Robert attempting to rebuild the automaton was almost enough to make me wince – the payoff may not have been worth its setup and Robert’s character is merely an added dramatic conceit.

The first two-thirds of the movie are quite enjoyable to watch – which at least in part accounts for why I am giving this a borderline recommendation. Giuseppe Tornatore’s script is adroitly crafted and he photographs many of the artistic settings so beautifully – but it all seems to fall apart in the end when things take something of an abrupt turn. In particular this is so because upon reflection, many of the earlier scenes don’t supply enough clues or sufficient motivation. Ultimately, there’s so much in “The Best Offer” that doesn’t really add up.  I can only recommend it to people who might be entertained by  unraveling a puzzle that is eventually nothing more than confounding and frustrating.


The Best Offer (2013) on IMDb 7.8/1014,923 votes


Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Brotherhood Of The Bubbly



Are you one of The Great Unwashed who (like Yours Truly) has a bad habit of referring to all sparkling wines as Champagne? No, don’t bother raising your hand – I feel your shame. Fear not, fellow hoi polloi member, as I recently attended a seminar at The Astor Center of New York City called “Champagne Alternatives”, conducted by Tess Rose Lampert. The purpose of this class was to familiarize us with different types of sparkling wines that are not only other than Champagne, but are also not even from France. In addition, we would learn that these alternatives could frequently be much less expensive than actual Champagne.

Included in the tasting were the following, in the order listed below:


  1. Gruet Rosé Brut, NV
    This Pinot Noir-based United States product comes from New Mexico. The producer is a family that comes from a classic Champagne background; upon a visit to New Mexico, they found that both the weather and the terroir reminded them of their home region, so they decided they could manufacture good sparkling wine in that location.
  2. Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico, NV
    Fruitier and more acidic, this is a little flatter – fewer bubbles. While the classical method of sparkling wine dictates it undergo a second fermentation in the bottle, prosecco uses the Charmat method where the second fermentation occurs in the tank. If you’re looking for something to enjoy with your at-home brunch, this is the one; it makes great cocktails like mimosas.
  3. Miquel Pons Cava Brut, Nature Reserva , NV
    Generally, cavas make a good, less expensive alternative to Champagne. Because of its low cost, it is a nice sparkling wine for all occasions, whether or not you’re pairing it with food (although if you’re going to eat, shellfish is highly recommended).
  4. Alianca, Red - Tinto Bruto, Metodo Classico, NV
    This is characterized by its smokiness – both in its nose and taste. Despite the fact that it’s bubbly, you really know you’re drinking a red wine here because of the tannins, which makes your mouth go dry and induces puckering. That said, it’s best paired with something strong that would stand up to it like steak, mushrooms or pasta in a heavy cream sauce. It would probably overwhelm a more gentle food like white fish or salad and you definitely wouldn’t want to use it as a dessert wine.
  5. 2011 Paolo Pizzorni Brachetto d'Acqui "Sogno Rosso"
    This last one was my least favorite of the five; that’s because it was way too sweet for my palate – in fact, it almost tasted like a dessert wine to me. This red sparkler’s low alcohol content made our instructor comment that this was basically an adult grape soda; she suggested that it might be paired best with potato chips or salty meats.

Speaking of sweetness, sparkling wines may or may not contain additional sugar; by additional sugar, this means sweetener added as a flavoring agent, as opposed to the natural sugar that is part of the grape on which it is based. The amount of sugar – if any – can be determined based on its category, as seen in the table below. They can range from “dry” (no or little sugar added) to sweet (over 50 additional grams).


Sugar Content In Sparkling Wines

Sparkling Wine Category

Additional Grams Of Sugar per Liter
Brut Nature Up to 3

Extra Brut

Up to 6

Brut Up to 12
Extra Dry (Extra Sec/Extra Seco) Up to 17
Dry Up to 32
Demi-Sec Up to 50
Doux, Sweet Dulce Over 50



Thursday, December 05, 2013

“Saving Mr. Banks” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new comedy-drama from Disney, “Saving Mr. Banks”, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.


When Walt Disney tries to adapt a movie from the novel “Mary Poppins”, he realizes the task is considerably harder than he thought when its author proves difficult to work with.


Over the years, P.L. Travers (Thompson) gained great notoriety for her successful children’s novel “Mary Poppins”. However, after its initial popularity, sales of the book slowed; as a result, she saw precious little in royalties and by the early 1960’s found herself running out of money and forced into wide-ranging cost-cutting measures to maintain her lifestyle. For over a decade, The Walt Disney Company had been pursuing her in order to purchase the option on her book so that they can adapt it into a theatrical motion picture. After long resisting, desperation brought her to the point of capitulation.

Flying to Los Angeles from her home in London, Travers went to the Disney offices to meet Walt (Hanks) and negotiate the conditions under which she would allow the adaptation. Her requirements included making it a live action movie rather than a cartoon and that she would require final approval over the songs and screenplay; to that end, she worked with the composers and screenwriter, having all their sessions tape recorded so there would be a record of her input and their agreement to her instructions. Reluctantly, Disney and his creative people conceded to her demands just to make the movie.

The more Disney and his team work with Travers, the more imperious and unreasonable she seems. What Disney & Co. don’t know, however, are the secrets Travers has been hiding about her childhood which reveal why she is so protective of both her book and its characters. Despite the difficulties with Travers, Disney remains determined to get this movie made – not just because he believes it will be a hit but also because he promised his daughters he would do so since they were huge fans of the book. But what will Disney have to do in order to convince Travers to agree to the motion picture?


When you think of Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in a picture about the making of “Mary Poppins”, you might assume it would get a rating of G. “Saving Mr. Banks”, however, gets a more appropriate PG-13 because it touches on very dark territory, particularly in the flashbacks about Travers’ childhood. Travers’ father, played by Colin Farrell, is initially portrayed as a fun-loving man who adores his daughters – especially Pamela (Thompson) – because of his playful nature. But incredibly disturbing facts lie behind her family life and the truth about the woman who inspired Mary Poppins.

While an interesting story, the film’s execution is flawed because Travers comes across as way too obnoxious for the audience to get behind. This proves problematic because it throws the movie into imbalance – based on the amount of screen time she gets, Travers is apparently the protagonist; it’s her story. Disney – despite being played by a major Hollywood star like Hanks – is really somewhat secondary to the telling of this tale. Yet, because Travers is so downright unpleasant, we wind up rooting for Disney, not Travers.

It’s not necessarily that we actively root against Travers; however, indirectly, we root against her to some degree at least by virtue of the fact that we find ourselves rooting for the character with whom she is doing battle (Disney). Admittedly, the filmmakers do try to make her sternness something of a caricature in order to make her seem more humorous – and thus more palatable – to the general public. For some members of the audience, this may work; for me, however, Travers was so relentlessly harsh for so long I personally found her too distasteful, even after knowing her tragic upbringing.

 Saving Mr. Banks (2013) on IMDb 7.6/101,671 votes

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Have Bar, Will Travel


Are you an amateur mixologist who likes to bring the party with you wherever you go? If so, then I might just have the perfect gear for you – especially if you’re something of a traveler. On the other hand, if you’re not a globetrotting barkeep, but you do know someone who might just fit that description, then this could be the ideal gift for that special someone.

A company called Tumi has partnered with those good folks at Ketel One Vodka to put together some equipment for bartenders-on-the-go. One such item is The Mixology Set and its not-so-evil twin is The Mixology Backpack. While The Mixology Set is being offered again after Tumi introduced it last year, The Mixology Backpack is a new item to the company’s line of products; both of them belong to the company’s Mixology Collection category of items.


The Mixology Set is made of canvas with black leather trim – a design that just so happens to be modeled after the company’s trunks. When opened, The Mixology Set expands into something akin to a totable mini-bar.


This Italian-made kit can carry two bottles of whatever liquor you can fit into the spaces provided (although in the spirit of full disclosure, it should be duly noted that it was originally intended to carry Ketel One Vodka) and contains various barware tools including the following:

  • Leather bottle holders, custom-sized to fit Ketel One
  • Two premium martini glasses with removable supports that double as coasters
  • Ice bucket, tongs and scoop
  • Zester metal bar spoon
  • Vermouth spritzer
  • Two olive picks
  • Removable beech wood cutting board with integrated recess for signature Tumi knife
  • Shaker with 1 oz. and 2 oz. jigger
  • Two complimentary bottles of Ketel One


Does The Mixology Backpack seem more well-suited for your needs?  That one consists of the following:

  • Two exterior, water-resistant pockets to hold liter-sized bottles of Ketel One Vodka
  • Black interior lining around the main opening accentuated gunmetal hardware, fully unzips to reveal a spacious compartment
  • Expandable pockets neatly stock polished, stainless steel utensils including a shaker, 1 oz. and 2 oz. jigger and mixing spoon
  • Sleek removable pouch in main compartment that holds the essential bar accoutrements to blend the perfect drink anywhere, ideal for the on the go traveler
  • Additional zippered opening is perfect for large gear, such as laptops and iPads.


Arguably, that should be enough to keep the Transportation Security Administration agents on their toes, don’t you think? At the very least, I suppose you’ll have some great stories to share with friends about how you tried to get through airport metal detectors with all of this gear.

If you’re considering these lovely adult toys, be prepared to dig a bit deep. The Mixology Set will set you back nearly $5000 and the price of The Mixology Backpack is around $700.

Interested in purchasing? You can either order them from the Tumi Web site or visit a Tumi store near you. If you want to find a store, go here.

Monday, December 02, 2013

“Dallas Buyers Club” – Movie Review



This past weekend, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center invited its members to a special screening of “Dallas Buyers Club” starring Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.


When a heterosexual man is diagnosed as HIV+, he organizes a scheme to get unauthorized medicine for himself and others – but when the FDA learns of his venture, how much longer can it continue?


Full-time electrician, part-time rodeo cowboy and lifelong scammer, Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) has dedicated his life to partying hard – between unprotected sex with multitudes of women, excessive alcohol and drug abuse, he’s pretty well run down his system. Unfortunately, his promiscuity has caused him to contract a sexually transmitted disease and in the early summer of 1985, he is officially diagnosed as being HIV Positive; in fact, his condition is so dire that physicians give him only a month to live and recommend he get his affairs in order well before then. Once word of his diagnosis gets out, he is ostracized by both acquaintances and co-workers.

Soon, Ron learns of a new “wonder drug” called AZT that is believed to be of significant help to patients who were either HIV+ or diagnosed with full AIDS. Unable to secure a prescription from a physician, he bribes a hospital employee to steal samples of the drug so he may use it himself. When the supply runs out, he is referred to a doctor in Mexico who can be easily convinced to write prescriptions of this nature. Upon meeting him, the doctor informs Ron that the side effects of AZT aren’t worth the alleged benefits, so he instead recommends a “cocktail” – a combination of various drugs and vitamins that will build up the patient’s immune system.

When Ron realizes that this cocktail could be used to help others who are similarly afflicted, he sees an opportunity to make a considerable amount of money; talking the doctor into entering a business arrangement, Ron smuggles a large amount of supplies into the United States and sells them to members of the gay community. Needing help in building his new-found business, he employs Rayon (Leto), a transgender woman also suffering from the disease. But when the United States government’s Food and Drug Administration becomes aware of Ron’s dealings, can they successfully shut him down and prevent patients from getting much-needed treatment?



Between “Bernie”, “Killer Joe” and “Mud”, actor Matthew McConaughey has had a rather impressive string of film performances over the past few years. It is therefore a pleasure to report that with “Dallas Buyers Club”, his winning streak continues. Likewise, co-star Jared Leto’s surprising and heartbreaking role as Rayon is equally amazing. With an increasing number of young people from The Millennial Generation coming into prominence, the importance of this movie cannot be overstated; “Dallas Buyers Club” serves as something of a history lesson for them about the state of the early days of the AIDS crisis, when The Millennials were either just children or not yet born.

Woodroof’s story is told quite cleverly; upon his initial diagnosis, he is advised he will only live another 30 days because his present condition as bad as it is will likely rapidly deteriorate. As a result, the director uses title cards to step us through each of those first 30 days – e.g., Day 1, Day 8, Day 27, etc. This is apparently done to not only emphasize how the physicians’ original prognosis was wrong, but also, to illustrate that with the right medicine in the correct dosage, some AIDS patients can find success in keeping their disease in check; while they may never completely have their old life back, they can at least survive.

Normally, I only review movies that haven’t as yet been released; “Dallas Buyers Club” has been out for a few weeks now. So why the review and why now? Well, for one thing, the film has been in only a limited release and just recently went into a wider release. For another thing, as I mentioned above, this was a special screening for Film Society members only – specifically, what made it special was the fact that the screening was followed by an interview and audience question-and-answer session with one of its stars, Jared Leto, who played Rayon.

Leto said that this movie took approximately 15 years to be made; in fact, he told us that he saw the script a few years ago and when it came his way again was surprised that the film was actually going to be made. According to Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club” took 25 days to shoot. Although he didn’t formally audition for the motion picture, he said that when a conversation between himself and the director was scheduled, it was conducted over Skype because Leto was in Berlin at the time. During their Skype, Leto said he was able to convince him he was right for the role by wearing lipstick, a woman’s pink sweater and by engaging in a considerable amount of flirting (which Leto claims made the director a bit nervous).


Dallas Buyers Club (2013) on IMDb 8.0/103,288 votes


Saturday, November 23, 2013

“Weekend Of A Champion” – Movie Review



This weekend, I attended the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s opening night for the re-release of the 1972 documentary “Weekend Of A Champion”, featuring race car driver Jackie Stewart and filmmaker Roman Polanski. 


Filmmaker and car racing fan Roman Polanski spends a weekend with his friend and race car driver Jackie Stewart as he prepares for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in 1971.


On a rainy Thursday in May of 1971, filmmaker Roman Polanski and his close friend, champion race car driver Jackie Stewart, check-in to their Monte Carlo hotel.  Besieged by fans seeking autographs and snapshots, Stewart is amiable but distant as his mind is on the race in which he will compete this weekend.  Although he is accompanied by his wife, they do not have an opportunity to spend too much time together as city officials and sponsors of the race expect him to attend various ceremonies.  Understanding that this is part of the price he must be for his success, Stewart obliges them. 

Stewart takes Polanski on a drive through the route of the race, which takes place on the city’s streets.  Stewart points out the various risks and hazards along the way, explaining the manner in which he must drive by those spots to avoid an accident causing him to lose the race – or worse, lose his life.   Pointing out that the weather forecast for the day of the race is not too promising, he has to keep the possibility of hydroplaning in mind.  On top of all of this, he must work carefully with his mechanics, who have to customize his car not only for his driving style but also to optimize it for the route and weather. 

After Stewart is seen winning the race, the last portion of the documentary flashes forward 40 years and shows him with Polanski in the present day; they are watching the film in the same hotel room where Stewart originally stayed.  They reminisce about their friendship and the period when the movie was shot; Stewart says he is most proud of the his efforts to add safety measures to racing, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in driver deaths.  Perhaps the most surprising part of their conversation is where Stewart admits that he is a dyslexic and to this day, cannot read, write or recite the alphabet. 


I did not attend this screening because I am a racing fan.  As a matter of fact, I’m not even a car guy.  The reason why I was interested in seeing “Weekend Of A Champion” was out of curiosity:  Polanski and Stewart seemed so incongruous to me, I thought you might as well cast them in a remake of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”.  Much to my astonishment, it turned out that not only was Polanski a big fan of racing, but also has maintained a close friendship with Stewart for the past several decades.  The other amazement was how fascinating the film was, even for someone such as myself, who doesn’t claim much knowledge of the sport. 

The only criticism is that the present-day discussion between these two men in their later years was not integrated into the movie more; instead, it appears as an after-thought.  Arguably, a better use of this footage would be to edit the movie in such a way as to intersperse the conversation and observations of these two giants throughout the motion picture.  As it currently exists, “Weekend Of A Champion” suggests something of a false ending when we see the victorious Stewart at the conclusion of the race; in placing the updated footage afterwards, it is almost trivialized . 

An interview with filmmaker Brett Ratner followed the screening.  Ratner’s involvement with the documentary is as a facilitator of its distribution. The story behind this – and the inception of its re-release – is  this:  when the movie originally came out, it was not distributed in the United States; it was only seen in a small handful of theaters in Europe.  When the lab processing the print went out of business, they contacted Polanski and asked him if they should destroy it; instead, Polanski insisted they send it to him.  After seeing it again, he was inspired to shoot the additional footage with his friend Stewart.  Once Ratner saw this version, he knew he had to help get the motion picture seen in this country.  “Weekend Of A Champion” is having an extremely limited release, having opened just this past weekend; if you are not fortunate enough to be in New York or one of the few cities where it is playing, then do be sure to look for it soon on Netflix; according to Ratner, it should be turning up there in the not too distant future.   

Weekend of a Champion (1972) on IMDb 7.3/1084 votes


“Lone Survivor” – Movie Review



This week, I had a chance to attend a Universal Pictures’ advance screening of their new action drama, “Lone Survivor”, based on the best-selling book; the film stars Mark Wahlberg & Eric Bana and is written & directed by Peter Berg.


When Navy SEALs sent to take out a Taliban leader are discovered before they can complete their mission, can they escape or will they be caught by the enemy?


In 2005, Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen (Bana) sends a team of Navy SEALs on a secret mission in Afghanistan to kill a Taliban leader who himself is responsible for the death of United States Marines. Once in the region where their target is located, they spot him and report his whereabouts to headquarters. Shortly thereafter, they are discovered by a group of goat herders, whom they hold hostage. Following much debate on how to handle them, the SEALs decide that proper rules of engagement in war dictate it is best to let them go to return to their village.

Once the hostages are released, one of them informs the Taliban leader of the SEALs’ location. As the SEALs retreat, they try to contact headquarters to arrange for their pick-up, but technical problems prevent this communication from occurring. During this time, a group of Taliban soldiers surrounds them and an extended firefight ensues shortly thereafter. Although the SEALs are able to successfully dispatch quite a few of the Taliban attackers, it is not without a cost – most of them are seriously wounded, their equipment is lost or badly damaged and some lose their rifles in the chaotic battle.

By the end of the gunfight, all of the SEALs have been killed except for one: Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg). Though injured, Luttrell evades his attackers and is rescued by an Afghani man from another village; the man, who does not belong to the Taliban, takes the obviously distressed Luttrell back to his village to care for him and hide him from the Taliban. When the Taliban visit the village and find Luttrell, the man and his neighbors are able to successfully fight them off and once again save Luttrell’s life. But how long can they keep the Taliban from capturing Luttrell and will he ever return safely to his base?


Here’s my dilemma: since “Lone Survivor” is based on a book which itself is based on a true story lived by people far tougher and braver than I, it is difficult to come down too hard on the movie without looking like someone who is wholly unsupportive of the military. On the other hand, if I don’t state my issues with the movie, I’m not being honest. So, let’s just put it this way: taking the film out of its context, I suppose “Lone Survivor” works well enough as an action/adventure picture – buy your ticket, get your popcorn and turn off your brain. Just as long as you don’t question anything, it’s all good.

As a tribute to all of the heroes that personally experienced this horror, however, it seems a bit lacking. First, let’s consider this as only a movie: with a title like “Lone Survivor”, aren’t you tipping off not only the story itself but also its ending as well? My understanding was that this was used because it was also the title of the book on which it was based – but even if that’s the case, there have been plenty of adaptations that don’t use the same title as its source material. Also, if the end hasn’t already been sufficiently tipped off in its title, it’s reinforced by opening with the resolution so you’ll know the ending – then, it proceeds to tell the whole story through flashback. I guess if you title a motion picture “Lone Survivor” and put Mark Wahlberg in it, you can pretty much guess who the Lone Survivor is going to be without even seeing the flick, no?

Following the screening, there was an interview with writer/director Peter Berg and the real Marcus Luttrell, who was portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. Luttrell said that when initially approached, he was reluctant to participate in the adaptation; once a movie executive said they were going to proceed regardless of whether or not he was on board, he decided to join just to make sure that scenes were shot as accurately as possible. Berg became inspired to get involved after reading the book; he was given a copy while  shooting another film and didn’t feel he could devote time to read it then. After being urged to read it immediately, he realized right away that this had to be his next film.


Lone Survivor (2013) on IMDb 7.1/10470 votes


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Guardians’ Chapter From The Glenlivet



If you’ve been following this blog over the past few years, you may recall that as a member of The Glenlivet Guardians, I’ve been invited to a number of unique scotch tastings held by The Glenlivet. Recently, they conducted another such tasting – attendees being limited to Glenlivet Guardians who had participated in previous events. What made this one stand out is the fact that we, as members of the local Guardians Chapter, would participate in the selection of the next expression to be released by The Glenlivet. All around the world, Glenlivet Guardian Chapters have been summoned to tastings where they would try three very different types of scotches recently made by the company and vote for which one they think should be the pick to become the product to be released by The Glenlivet in the autumn of 2014.  Since it was picked by members of The Guardians, it would be known as The Guardians’ Chapter. 

The samples were presented to us under three different categories: Classic, Revival and Exotic. Unfortunately, we weren’t given a substantial amount of background about any of these; that is partly because they didn’t want too much information to influence our voting in any way. That said, just by looking at each dram, you could likely infer that they were aged differently: the Classic was the lightest color and the Exotic the darkest. Since the degree of a whisky’s coloration typically depends on the amount of time it spends in the cask, a reasonable deduction was that the Exotic version was probably aged the longest. But only the whisky-maker knows for sure. And they’re not telling. Yet.


Each one of these offerings was distinct: Classic sweet while Revival relies more on fruity notes and Exotic was spicy. Craig Bridger, Brand Ambassador for The Glenlivet, guided us through the tasting, but for the most part, we were on our own – again, the purpose here was to get an unbiased opinion from members of the chapter. He suggested that we try each one with a drop or two of water after tasting them on their own; unfortunately, this was not always possible for various reasons, so I mostly tried each whisky by itself. As I wandered from table to table to obtain each dram, I nosed each glass carefully prior to sipping; I tried to imagine scenarios under which each one would be best utilized. Would one be best as an aperitif? Or would it be best featured post-meal? Is this a whisky I’d rather use as the base spirit of a cocktail or is it better to drink it on its own?

In coloration, nose and taste, the Classic was very light; it was a stark contrast against the Exotic, which was dark in color and smoky on the nose. The Exotic, yielding a taste somewhat reminiscent of rye, also contained a hint of chocolate. One of the reasons for the complexity of the Exotic, I was to learn, was due to the fact that it was aged in a sherry cask. Ultimately, my vote went to the Exotic. Part of my reasoning for this had to do with the marketing: since we were told that the new expression would be released in the fall of 2014, this one seemed to be most appropriate for that season. While both the Classic and Revival were quite good, they seemed to me to be best suited for a springtime release; I could envision myself enjoying those during the warmer months, then switching to the Exotic as the temperatures dropped.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

“Sunlight Jr.” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Sunlight Jr.”, starring Naomi Watts & Matt Dillon.


When a poor couple learns they’re expecting a baby, will they be able to support the child or will the stress ultimately drive them apart?


Melissa (Watts) and Richie (Dillon) are barely able to scrape by. Between her job as a cashier at Sunlight Jr., a Florida convenience store, and the disability checks Richie gets due to becoming a paraplegic following an accident working at his construction job, they get creative for survival. While Melissa brings home discarded food from the store, Richie spends his time and money drinking, either alone or with friends, at the motel where the couple resides. Despite her steady job, Melissa finds work difficult because of an obnoxious boss and an ex-boyfriend, Justin (Norman Reedus), stalking her there and trying to lure her back to the drug abuse from which she is determined to recover.

Good news finds its way to the couple when Melissa discovers she’s pregnant. With the prospect of parenthood in their future, this happy couple is delighted they can finally start a family. But around this time, Melissa gets a shift change at her job and must now work overnights instead of the daytime period she’s been on for the past eight months. Reluctantly, she tries to work these hours, but after quickly proving unreliable in the new time slot, she is immediately fired. With no job and prospects of work severely limited for Richie due to both his disability and limited skills, they are evicted from the motel.

Forced to move in with Melissa’s alcoholic mother (Tess Harper), the couple’s stress level rapidly increases. Fighting continuously due to a lack of privacy and money, Richie can’t take it any longer, so he leaves Melissa in the middle of the night. Now alone, Melissa questions whether or not she could raise the baby by herself. Even with Richie, could the two properly care for an infant with both of them unemployed? Scared and desperate, Melissa concludes she must get an abortion. Lacking funds, she begs Justin for money for the procedure. But will Melissa go through with this even if Richie returns?


Remember that 47% of United States citizens Mitt Romney referred to during his presidential campaign last year? Well, you might be glad to know that a bunch of them wound up here in “Sunlight Jr.”. This depressing story is more sober than any of its characters as it details a slice of life from a couple that appears to be doomed to poverty for the remainder of their life, either together or separately. While the film might suggest that the poor are by definition pitiable and deserving of public assistance due to the economic system in which we live, it fails to acknowledge that these specific characters are also victims of their own reprehensible behavior and ill-advised life choices.

Laurie Collyer, who directed her own script, has presented us with lead characters for whom audiences may find it an overwhelming challenge to root. Exactly what admirable qualities do Richie and Melissa possess? Why would reasonable people get behind them emotionally and hope they succeed? However Richie became disabled, he decides that the only way he can deal with it is to drink himself into oblivion. Melissa, a woman with clearly limited and unmarketable skill set, ignores how lucky she is to even have a job in the first place and wastes an excellent opportunity to dig herself, her unborn baby and her partner out of an incredibly deep hole. It is only when she takes an action near the end of the film that she shows any capability of making a mature, responsible decision.

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed actress Shirley MacLaine, promoting her new book, “What If?”. While I’d like to be able to summarize her comments on the book, I have to admit that whenever this woman gets into her cosmological and epistemological musings, I do seem to have a distinct tendency to zone out altogether. Instead, what I will focus on is her conversation about the PBS darling, “Downton Abbey”. She said that although she watches PBS, it is mostly for the news; as a result, she was unfamiliar with this particular television show when originally sent the script. Although she was eager to work on something from that time period set in England with elaborate costumes and sets, her primary interest in taking the job was to work with her old friend Maggie Smith, whom she says she has known for over 40 years.

What If . . .: A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know for Sure: Shirley MacLaine: 9781476728605: Books




  Sunlight Jr. (2013) on IMDb 5.8/10418 votes

Thursday, November 07, 2013

“Go For Sisters” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Go For Sisters”, starring Edward James Olmos and written & directed by John Sayles.


When a woman learns her son has been kidnapped, can she rescue him before he’s murdered by his abductors?


As a seasoned Parole Officer, Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) has pretty much heard it all from her clients and reliably detects whether she’s being lied to. One day, Bernice’s job requires her to cross paths with Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), a former high school friend turned ex-con who is confronted by Bernice for possibly having committed a parole violation. Fontayne convinces Bernice that she is desperately trying to turn her life around and that she can’t return to prison for fear that this would cause her to fall further down the slippery slope of recovery. When Bernice chooses to give her a second chance, Fontayne gratefully vows to someday return the favor, should the opportunity ever arise.

For some time, Bernice has been estranged from her son Rodney ever since he returned from a stint in the military. After unsuccessful attempts to reach out to him, she finds out that her son’s whereabouts are currently unknown; digging a little deeper, Bernice gets information that Rodney has been kidnapped by traffickers who smuggle people across the border between California and Mexico. Seeing that she needs help, Bernice enlists the aid of Fontayne, who continues to have many contacts on the street. Through a fellow former prison inmate of Fontayne’s, she and Bernice are introduced to Suarez (Olmos), a retired police detective whom Bernice hires to assist her in tracking down Rodney.

Making their way to Tijuana, each team member works on their own to uncover a trail they hope will ultimately lead them to Rodney. Doing so has its challenges, as they stumble across Mexican crime, complicated by the city’s corrupt police officers. Additionally, Suarez – who took the case only because he needed the money after forfeiting his police pension under some sketchy circumstances – is further debilitated by both his age and illness; add to that the language barrier Bernice and Fontayne have difficulties overcoming with many of the locals and chances of successfully locating Rodney alive grow increasingly dim. Ultimately, can Suarez’s law enforcement experience prove the key to unlocking the mystery behind Rodney’s disappearance?


In the last several decades of Director John Sayles’s oeuvre, he has (rightly or wrongly) gained something of a reputation as a filmmaker whose stories focus more on character than on plot. Whether you see this as an observation or a criticism depends on whether or not you’re a fan of Sayles’ work. As far as “Go For Sisters” is concerned, I believe it hinders the movie considerably. Basically, “Go For Sisters” more or less follows the formula of the buddy road movie (as does “Nebraska”, recently reviewed here), but if you’re following the story (or trying to), it starts feeling extremely familiar – and not necessarily in a good way. You’ll feel you’ve seen the movie before and become anxious for the subsequent scenes which you know are coming eventually; even though “Go For Sisters” is only two hours, you may find yourself squirming with impatience.

On the other hand, a true Sayles fan who enjoys his movies for the social consciousness and character-focused tales will likely appreciate “Go For Sisters” (and boy, do I have a problem with that title … but that may be a rant for another day … ). That said, I believe only those Sayles fans will be including this film on a list of his best works. Yes, he does a good job of filling in some of the background of the major characters in tiny smears here and there, but a large degree of frustration can develop if you’re trying to trace the details of the story, especially if you can’t tolerate suspending your disbelief terribly far.

After the screening, our instructor interviewed Sayles and cast members Olmos and Yolonda Ross. Sayles remarked that “Go For Sisters” was a rather quick shoot which took less than four weeks – what complicated it was that there was a mind-numbing 65 different sets in that short period of time. Olmos also gets a Producer credit on this movie; he said that although he was initially brought in for that job only, Sayles offered him the role of Suarez after reading the script. The actor also went into great detail discussing the fact that his character suffered from macular degeneration and how his research on this enervating vision problem informed his performance.

  Go for Sisters (2013) on IMDb 6.0/1031 votes


Sunday, November 03, 2013

WhiskyFest Weekend NYC 2013



This year, it was a pleasure to attend another WhiskyFest Weekend here in New York City without a portentous super-storm looming in the background, unlike last year.  Here’s a summary of some of the highlights I experienced in the 2013 celebration of the brown spirit. 

FRI Kicking things off was Johnnie Walker Platinum, which will reportedly sell for $110 per bottle.  Aged 18 years, this new expression is peatier than Gold or Blue but not as peaty as Black – it was described to me as a combination of the Gold and Blue and is best tried with a drop of water. 


Bowmore introduced The Devil’s Cask, aged 10 years in only sherry casks; scheduled to be available in the United States in January of 2014, aging in the sherry cask imparts heavy fruit notes, especially raisin and berry. 


Another favorite from the Islay region of Scotland is Laphroaig, who brought Cairdeas.  Relatively new to the market, it is finished for six months in a port cask and retails for approximately $75; although it has been in the American market since earlier in the year, it has a tendency to sell out rather quickly.  So, if you are lucky enough to see a bottle in your favorite liquor store, please do make sure you grab at least one because it may not be on the shelf by the time your next visit rolls around. 



A curious product was introduced by Japan’s Suntory – The Hakushu Heavily Peated.  Expected to be available in this country by the end of 2013, what’s remarkable about it is the fact that they actually import their peat from Scotland!  Brought in from both Islay and the Highlands, it is aged between 10 to 15 years and is sampled best with a drop or two of water.


Finally, Jack Daniel’s has given us a couple of interesting new products.  First, there’s the Winter Jack Tennessee Cider.  At only 30 proof, this is technically a liqueur – and it surely tastes like one, given its sweetness.  Winter Jack is aged in apple cider casks before bottling, thus providing the flavor of cider.  In serving this one to attendees, they heated it up a bit, which, I’m told, is the preferred way to sip.  Even with relatively mild temperatures on this evening, I could easily imagine how this would warm you up on the coldest of nights. 


The way they heated it was by warming up a pot of water, then letting the bottle sit in it for about five minutes or so; while I normally don’t like to drink a liqueur on its own, I must admit that this one was rather tasty, especially when prepared in this manner.  One of the company representatives said that you could also heat it up by placing some of it in a microwave-safe container and nuking it up for a minute or less (depending on how warm you desire).  As you might expect from its name, Winter Jack is a seasonal product, so you’d probably be wasting your time if you try looking for it next summer. 



Their other new product – and this one should be available November 2013 – is Sinatra Select.  Admittedly, as a bit of a Sinatra aficionado myself, I’ve clearly saved my favorite for last here. 


You may already know about Sinatra’s affinity for this fine spirit; this 90 proof offering is done to celebrate the relationship Jack Daniel’s had with Old Blue Eyes, who helped bring the whiskey to national prominence, calling it “The Nectar Of The Gods”.  Sinatra considered Jack Daniel’s to be his exclusive brand and legend has it that he was even buried with a bottle of it at the time of his death.  Sinatra Select is aged in unique casks – they contain grooves in the wood specially designed so that the spirit will interact more with the wood during the aging process, which can last anywhere from four to six years.    This causes the whiskey to deeply soak in the wood in order to have it inhabit the flavor profile, providing it with a rich character, creamy in its texture. 


Thursday, October 31, 2013

“Reaching For The Moon” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the Brazilian drama, “Reaching For The Moon”, directed by Bruno Barreto (“Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands”) and based on the life of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop.


When a woman has a relationship with her college friend’s partner, will the three be able to maintain their unconventional lifestyle together or will it ruin the friendship for all?


In the autumn of 1951, poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) confided in her writer friend Robert Lowell (Treat Williams) that in order to spark her creativity, she would sail from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  While there, she would briefly visit Mary (Tracy Middendorf), her old college friend, who now lives there with her partner Lota (Glória Pires), a brilliant and successful Brazilian architect. Upon her arrival at their sprawling estate, Elizabeth immediately gets on Lota’s nerves due to her admittedly quirky behavior. Despite Mary’s urgings for patience, Lota grows increasingly belligerent towards Elizabeth.

Feeling awkward and not wanting to further inconvenience her old friend, Elizabeth announces a premature departure, but is quickly convinced to remain. As Lota slowly gets to know Elizabeth, she suddenly finds that she is now attracted to her; Lota lets her feelings known to Elizabeth, who has by now developed a similar attraction. Lota proposes that Elizabeth stay, moving in with her and Mary and cancelling the remainder of her trip. Elizabeth consents, albeit reluctantly, as she doesn’t want to hurt her long-time pal. Upon learning that she is about to become part of a threesome, Mary threatens to leave; Lota bribes her into staying by allowing her to adopt the baby she’s craved.

Initially, Elizabeth and Lota share a rather passionate physical relationship while Mary is squeezed out of the picture altogether; Elizabeth focused on her writing, Lota on her architecting career and Mary doted on her infant daughter. As time passed, Elizabeth and Lota gradually grow apart – Lota being turned off to Elizabeth’s alcoholism and Elizabeth resenting Lota’s ambition. Lota’s career advancement was fueled partly by the potential power gained through her political connections and partly by the pseudo-celebrity status enjoyed by her association with Elizabeth, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner. Would these differences eventually drive them apart or could they rekindle their romance?


If you’ve already seen “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and haven’t quite had your lust for Sapphic cinema sated, then “Reaching For The Moon” may be right up your alley. While I have only heard about the scenes in “Blue” (I haven’t yet seen the movie), it should be noted that the scenes in “Reaching” are probably not quite as long or explicit as I am led to understand similar ones in “Blue” are alleged to be. So, depending on your own prurience, you may or may not find the scenes in “Reaching” to be titillating – my own personal caveat here is the standard, “Your mileage may vary”. Just sayin’ …

That said, there are other, more substantial comparisons that can be made between these two recent films. For one thing, the fact that this is a lesbian affair soon melts away as we can see the real issue here may instead be polyamory, which can occur just as easily in straight relationships. The fact that the individuals in question are lesbian quickly becomes irrelevant; rather, we focus on attributes common to intimate relationships of all types – jealousy, ego, selfishness, thoughtlessness, insecurity … the list goes on. The fact that the story’s characters are intelligent, articulate and well educated (not to mention somewhat famous and thus based on actual people and incidents) makes this complex romantic triangle even more intriguing. “Reaching For The Moon” is fascinating to behold both in terms of the way its story is told and the visual imagery used throughout by its director.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed “Reaching For The Moon” director Bruno Barreto. Barreto said that the original idea for the movie came in the late 1990’s when his mother gave him a book about Elizabeth Bishop; one of the reasons why it took so long for him to make the film was his struggle with how to make Bishop a sympathetic character, especially in light of the fact that this really seemed to be Lota’s story – one that would be most easily told from her perspective. Another reason for the delay was the amount of research; Barreto learned a good deal about the relationships by reading a book containing letters between Bishop and Lowell. The theme of loss runs through much of Bishop’s work and Barreto maintained it was imperative for him to have that theme to run throughout his film as well.

 Reaching for the Moon (2013) on IMDb 7.3/10290 votes