Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sour Cocktails – A Mixology Boot Camp




Are you an amateur mixologist with a home bar that could use a good refresher course?  Well, I certainly am.  That’s why I recently took a class at Union Square Wines & Spirits called Mixology Boot Camp, taught by Kelley Slagle.  Slagle is part of Cocktail Kingdom – an Internet outlet where you can purchase many different kinds of bar tools and accessories.  If you’re in New York City, you can find Cocktail Kingdom at this location.  In this class, we learned about the various types of shaken cocktails that are frequently referred to as “sours”. 

To start off the evening, we were welcomed with a gin-based cocktail called Aviation, which contains Maraschino liqueur and Crème de Violet liqueur for color. 

Generally speaking, a cocktail is any mixed drink that contains at a minimum three ingredients – a base spirit, a modifier and a third ingredient, which exists for flavoring.  The key to any good cocktail is its balance – not too strong, not too sweet and not too sour.  Having said that, however, everyone’s palate is different – what may be too strong to you may be absolutely fine to someone else.  Likewise, what may be too sweet to you may be the perfect cocktail to another person. 




Whenever shaking any cocktail, make sure you fill up the edge of the shaker with ice – that said, however, be sure to put the ice into the shaker last.  The reason why you would do this is quite simple – basically, if you put the ice into the shaker first, it will obviously melt due to the heat to which it is now exposed when it is at room temperature; if you put the ice into the shaker first, it will then start to melt and clearly begin to dilute the other ingredients you add.  Not a desirable result when it comes to the taste of your cocktail, believe me. 

Also, when pouring the ingredients into your jigger, start with the cheapest one – that way, if you somehow manage to mess up mixing the drink, you can always pour everything out without worrying about wasting the most expensive ingredient (in other words, the base spirit). 

What constitutes a cocktail as a “sour”?  Essentially, a sour is 2 ounces of your favorite liquor (the base spirit), followed by anywhere from 1/2 oz. to 3/4 oz. of your sweetener, then adding 1 oz. of your choice of sour (e.g., the juice of a fresh lemon or lime, etc.).  This can easily be remembered as a recipe of 2:1:1. 

After shaking your drinks, what is the condition of your ice cubes?  Well, if they are still reasonably large, that may indicate that you did not sufficiently shake the drink either hard enough or long enough; on the other hand, if the ice has shrunken considerably, then that may indicate that you shook the cocktail too much, thereby diluting the drink. 



One final suggestion:  whenever possible, make sure that if you are using fruit juice in your cocktail, be sure to make it freshly-squeezed, whether it be lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit or whatever – it makes a significant difference in the way your cocktail will taste, compared to a bottled fruit juice.  The caveat to this, however, is that once you squeeze the fruit, be sure to throw it out if you haven’t used it after a day – if you try to use it after that, it will start to turn and won’t taste as fresh as it did when it was originally squeezed. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

“Blancanieves” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw a silent film from Spain, “Blancanieves” (“Snow White”), inspired by fairytales from The Brothers Grimm.


When an orphaned young woman is adopted by a group of dwarves, they discover that she is a skilled bullfighter – but will her fame turn into her ultimate downfall?


In the Spain of the early 20th century, Carmen is born during a calamitous time – her mother (after whom she has been named) perishes during childbirth and on the same day, her father Antonio is severely gored as multitudes watch his latest bullfighting display at the coliseum in Seville.  Upon discharge from the hospital, Antonio finds himself permanently wheelchair-bound and makes the ill-fated decision to marry Encarna, the gold-digging nurse who cared for him during his extended stay. 

With an incapacitated father and an indifferent stepmother, Carmen is sent to live with her grandmother, who raises her.  But shortly after her First Holy Communion, the grandmother dies and the little girl is then whisked off to an immense mansion where a cruel woman forces her to live in the basement and perform demeaning and exhausting manual labor.  What Carmen doesn’t yet know – but eventually comes to learn – is that this evil woman is Encarna, her stepmother, and that her quadriplegic father lives upstairs, where she is forbidden to roam. 

Accidentally discovering her father on the second floor one afternoon, a delighted Carmen instantly bonds with him and he teaches her some of his bullfighting techniques.  But as Carmen grows to be a woman and her father suspiciously dies, she is forced from the mansion, narrowly escaping to the woods, where an attempt on her life is made.  Unconscious, Carmen is found by a dwarf, who returns her to his colleagues – a group of fellow dwarves who travel Spain as a troupe of bullfighters.  When she displays her own bullfighting skills, Carmen quickly becomes their star performer and gains nationwide notoriety.  But once Encarna becomes aware of Carmen’s fame, will she be able to succeed in her plot to do in the young woman whose mere existence seems to forever torment her? 


Blancanieves” is a film that has won many awards both at film festivals and at competitions in Europe; as a silent movie shot in black and white, comparisons with Oscar-winner “The Artist” are inevitable.  There is no denying that writer-director Pablo Berger’s motion picture takes a rather clever twist on the legendary Grimms’ fairytale of “Snow White”.  Likewise, it is also clear from the way that “Blancanieves” is shot, edited and scored that the filmmaker has a genuine affection for silent film classics – it is, quite simply, a beautiful film to watch. 

Despite the critical kudos and lauds from award ceremonies and film festivals, I found some issues with “Blancanieves”, mainly concerning its story structure.  While visually stunning, the real story here – Carmen as bullfighter – takes an unnecessarily long time to unfold and is given considerably short shrift with respect to screen time; I would estimate that this aspect of the movie isn’t introduced until approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through.  Much of the extended setup becomes rather boring after some time as the viewer is led to believe the gist of the motion picture will involve one thing before taking a rather drastic detour.

Another problem I had with the story structure was that the resolution of the film actually seems to take off onto another story – the ending of which is either suggesting a sequel or at the very least a somewhat ambiguous conclusion which may arguably be open to interpretation.  Keep in mind that this is not exactly an overly long movie -- “Blancanieves” is well under two hours, so the fact that I found its second act to be dragging along a bit is not a terribly good sign. 


Monday, March 18, 2013

“The Sapphires” – Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we had a bonus screening of the Australian comedy-drama “The Sapphires”, starring Chris O’Dowd. 



When a group of Aborigine sisters decide to form a singing act, they’re discovered by a failed musician who offers to become their manager – but after they pass an audition to tour Vietnam in order to entertain the troops, will they survive so they can pursue their career at home?



In 1968 Australia, Aborigines – the people indigenous to the area – are still being treated as second class citizens.  Open racism is encouraged by not being discouraged and light-skinned Aborigine children are being seized by government officials so they can be turned over to non-Aborigine families who will raise them and teach them “white ways”; these youths would eventually come to be known as The Stolen Generation.  Amidst all of this tumult, a family of Aborigine sisters decide to seek their fortune as a singing group performing American Country-Western tunes. 

While competing at a talent contest, the young women catch the eye of Dave (O’Dowd), the Master Of Ceremonies.  Despite the negative reaction of the bigoted white audience, Dave realizes that these girls are the only true talents among the competitors.  When he learns of their ambition to pursue a career as professional singers, he offers to become their manager, which they reluctantly accept.  Deciding that they must switch their repertoire to soul music, he is able to market them as an all-girl singing group called The Sapphires, an Australian version of The Supremes. 

Getting an opportunity to audition for a visiting contingent from the United States military, they are tendered an offer to perform for the fighting men in Vietnam – their first paid professional gig.  Disregarding the danger of their assignment, the young women head for southeast Asia to commence chasing their dream, joined by their manager, Dave.  But the unanticipated intensity of the situation puts enormous stress on the young women, resulting in a great many internecine battles.  During an attack by the Vietcong, can Dave and the girls survive in order to return home to continue their professional career?



The motion picture version of “The Sapphires” is based on a stage play, which in turn was inspired by true events.  Based on the lecture from our instructor, this movie was a big hit in Australia and won many awards – understandable, because it is one of those warm and fuzzy feel-good type of stories.  Being loosely based on real-life people, this is one of those films that includes an epilogue at its conclusion, informing the audience of the subsequent events after the big adventure featured in this flick. 

While the overwhelming majority of the class – including and especially our instructor --  seemed to enjoy the movie quite a good deal, I couldn’t really share in their enthusiasm.  For me, “The Sapphires” collapses under the oppressive weight of its own interminable cuteness.  Being relentlessly adorable eventually takes its toll on one’s nerves and despite the fact that the film is under two hours, I grew increasingly impatient with the cutesy-pie failed attempts at romance between some of the characters. 

On a positive note, there are a number of good performances in “The Sapphires”, especially when you consider the fact that a number of the lead characters had not acted before; again, according to our instructor, the movie supposedly took a long time to cast because the filmmakers were looking for people that did not have an extensive acting résumé, yet had enough innate ability to carry off the roles.  Chris O’Dowd, of course, was quite good and really seemed to serve as an anchor to the rest of the cast. 


Thursday, March 14, 2013

“Olympus Has Fallen” – Movie Review




This week, the Spring Semester of my movie class officially began with a screening of director Antoine Fuqua’s new action-thriller, “Olympus Has Fallen”, starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman.


After a Korean paramilitary team successfully invades The White House, a downgraded Secret Service Agent tries to save the day – but can he both rescue The President and prevent a nuclear holocaust?


Long-time Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) is so trusted by United States President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) that he’s almost developed a personal relationship with The President’s family, far above and beyond the professional relationship necessary to be a bodyguard. It is for that reason that Banning is crushed when he’s demoted to a Treasury Department job following the death of Asher’s wife (Ashley Judd) as the result of an automobile accident when The President believes Banning could have saved her. A year and a half later, Banning is still grieving about being stuck at a desk job and yearns for his previous role.

While President Asher meets with his guest, the Prime Minister of South Korea, The White House suddenly finds itself under attack by a group of terrorists. Fearing for Asher’s safety, he and his team are immediately whisked away to a secluded underground bunker, along with the Prime Minister and his associates. Unfortunately, once everyone has secured themselves in the bunker, it is learned that vital members of the security team have been infiltrated with traitors who have allowed some of the insurgents access – included among them is their leader, Kang (Rick Yune).

Witnessing this insurrection first hand, Banning immediately leaps into action and utilizes all of his skills to fight his way into The White House in an effort to defend his country from the attackers – an independent paramilitary group originally from Korea, but disavowed by the governments from both the North and South. Since both the President and Vice President are being held, House Speaker Trumbull (Freeman) is now in charge while witnessing the kidnappers execute their hostages. With both time and hostages running out, can Banning rescue President Asher as well as prevent nuclear explosives from blowing up The United States?


Olympus Has Fallen” (or, as it could alternatively be titled, “The Koreans Are Coming! The Koreans Are Coming!”) can be forgiven for its trite scenes and corny dialog only because of the relentlessly explicit violence, gunplay substituting for foreplay and massive explosions – all of which are requisites for fans of action-thrillers who will happily sit munching their popcorn and sipping a 64 ounce sugary soda. In the spirit of full disclosure (and to fend off anyone who thinks I may be pretentiously berating this movie), I should tell you that I am also among those fans.

Admittedly, “Olympus Has Fallen” is just plain goofy – there are a number of scenes that had me giggling, although I’m fairly certain that was not the reaction intended by its filmmakers. It occurred to me often that they probably had to shoot many takes of quite a few scenes because the actors must’ve had a difficult time keeping a straight face while having to say some of these lines. So, even if you’re not into this movie for the action and violence (which, let’s face it, are reasons just as good as any), it also rates well for its high degree of corn appeal. On a side note, I should add that it’s not lost on me how timely this flick is for a number of reasons: the recent rumblings from North Korea, Ashley Judd contemplating running for Senate and the Drone controversy (yes, “Olympus” features a scene with one of those, too!). If for nothing else, this motion picture should expect to get some traction due to its obvious overlap with current events.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed actress Angela Bassett, who had a small role in “Olympus Has Fallen” as Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs. Bassett said that she did the movie despite the tiny part because she had wanted to work with director Antoine Fuqua for quite some time now. She added that another motivating factor to play the role of the Secret Service Director was due to the fact that the role had originally been written for a man; clearly, the filmmakers wound up casting against type with an African-American woman for the part of Gerard Butler’s boss – probably thinking it appropriate since it’s 2013, after all.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

“Strip Strip Hooray” In New York City



Last year, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to seeing the latest Dita Von Teese show, “Strip Strip Hooray” as it toured around the country.   Unfortunately, last autumn’s scheduled shows were forced to be cancelled due to a most unwanted New York City visitor that coincided with the arrival of Ms. Von Teese’s performance troupe – Hurricane Sandy.  Due to this “superstorm”, as it was called, the shows had to be re-scheduled for late winter 2013; this misfortune quickly turned to a new opportunity for me as this time, I was able to purchase a VIP ticket which offered a swag bag in addition to the chance to meet Ms. Von Teese and have a photo taken with her following the show. 

With four sold-out performances at Manhattan’s Gramercy Theater, I attended the closing night of this series of shows, which included Dirty Martini, Catherine D’Lish, Selene Luna, Perle Noire, Lada Nikolska and Monsieur Romeo among the other performers who danced on the T-shaped stage featuring the traditional runway. 

The evening featured four performances by its star:  The Martini Glass, The Rhinestone Cowgirl, The Powder Puff Pin-Up Show and The Opium Den.

The show opened with Ms. Von Teese performing The Martini Glass number, where she started dressed Marlene Dietrich-style in a man’s tuxedo with tails and a top hat.  Dancing to the song “A Guy Who Takes His Time”, she eventually stripped down and climbed into the water-filled martini glass, swirling around as if she was the world’s sexiest swizzle stick.   

Later, she appeared as The Rhinestone Cowgirl, an aptly titled western-based routine where Ms. Von Teese wore a rhinestone covered outfit with various other rhinestone bedazzled accoutrements, including pistols and a holster.  During this number, she danced to the tunes “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Walkin’ After Midnight”, ultimately winding up sensuously riding a mechanical bull.  


Following an intermission, Ms. Von Teese’s first number of the second act was The Powder Puff Pin-Up Show.  This number features the star emerging from a powder compact and dancing about in a skirt that resembles a cross between a powder puff and a ballerina’s tutu – appropriately so, because she wore ballet shoes and danced en pointe.  Without a doubt, this was my favorite performance of the night by Ms. Von Teese for a couple of reasons.  First, because she displayed her perfect self to her sexiest and most seductively feminine best.  Second, this act gave her the opportunity to show off her talents as a dancer; judging from the reactions by some of the other audience members around me, I was clearly not the only one who was both surprised and delighted to observe Ms. Von Teese’s highly skilled toe-dancing. 

The show concluded with the star performing the Asian-based routine called The Opium Den.  This act features Ms. Von Teese starting out dressed in a Dragon Lady style outfit, after which she performs something akin to a Sally Rand reminiscent fan dance behind an immense Chinese folding fan. 

Thanks to my VIP pass, I had the opportunity to meet Dita Von Teese following the show and have a photograph taken with her.  If you accused me of being star-struck, I wouldn’t deny it for a second – and if you ever met this gorgeous woman, you would not blame me a single bit.  A gracious and friendly Ms. Von Teese went out of her way to make a nervous admirer feel comfortable during the quick photo shoot.  Granted, I was near the front of the line of nearly 40 some people who would have a similar moment with her, so I have no idea how well she was able to hold up by the time the last person in line reached her – yet she came across as so charming and personable, I don’t doubt she made every one of her fans feel as welcomed as this one. 


“Oz The Great And Powerful” – Movie Review


This weekend, my movie class held a bonus screening of the new Sam Raimi directed film, “Oz The Great And Powerful”, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. 


When a cheesy carnival magician accidentally finds himself in a mystical new land, he sees an opportunity for the success he’s longed for – but after learning that the place is overtaken by evil witches, will he be able to defeat them in order to achieve his goals?


Early in the 20th century, Oscar (Franco) has been working as something of a small-time prestidigitator at a traveling carnival for quite some time now, utterly frustrated by the fact that he hasn’t received the professional recognition he feels he so sorely deserves for his abilities.  Unable to achieve his high aspirations, he instead resorts to seducing women – whether they be local residents of the current Midwestern town the carnival is visiting, audience members or co-workers.  However, when Oscar is caught romancing the wife of the carny’s strong man, he escapes his wrath by flying off in a hot air balloon – but when the balloon gets caught in a twister, it eventually lands him in an unusual, faraway land straight out of a fairy tale … a land named Oz. 

Immediately upon emerging from the now-destroyed hot air balloon, Oscar meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young woman who believes he is the legendary wizard who has come to save her village from an evil witch who oppresses all of the townspeople.  But just as a mutual attraction grows between the two, Oscar learns the truth about Theodora – that she herself is also a witch, albeit a good one.  Bringing Oscar to The Emerald City where he will live as its ruler, Theodora introduces him to her sister, Evanora (Weisz), who, as luck would have it, is also a witch.  Once they are alone, Evanora explains to Oscar that for him to become king, he must kill the evil witch who holds the residents under her power. 

Upon entering The Dark Forest, Oscar confronts Glinda, the evil witch about whom he has heard so much.  Soon, however, Oscar comes to learn that he has been fooled – Glinda is, in fact, a good witch while Evanora and Theodora are actually the evil witches who must be defeated.  Together, Oscar and Glinda decide to join forces to reclaim the land of Oz for its good citizens – but once Glinda realizes that Oscar is not the great wizard that everyone hoped for, will he still be able to rescue the people of Oz from the evil witches?


A prequel to the classic movie “The Wizard Of Oz”, “Oz The Great And Powerful” was a movie that had a strongly mixed reaction by the students in my movie class; it was one of those films you either liked quite a good deal or absolutely hated.  For those in the audience that brought their kids (or grandchildren), it seemed that while the younger generation appeared to enjoy the motion picture (at least somewhat), the grownups were considerably less enthusiastic. 

Oz The Great And Powerful” is not a movie I feel comfortable recommending – even though what some would believe to be its intended audience of younger viewers might like it (at least based on the small, random sampling from the class).  It lacks a great deal of the charm one might expect – at least based on the classic film – and the story feels a little cluttered at times with the whole relationship between the witches being hard to follow, at least during portions of the film.  However, if the movie is being geared more towards an adult audience, then it has certainly missed its mark; while its attempts at humor are clear, the viewer is increasingly overwhelmed by special effects rather than maintaining a focus on compelling characters engaged in an interesting (and entertaining) story. 

Both before and after the screening, our instructor shared information about the background of this movie.  For those unfamiliar with the literary history, the iconic “The Wizard Of Oz” was based on a novel by L. Frank Baum, who authored a series of books about this mythological town; “Oz The Great And Powerful” is one of the books in that series, coming well before the one that inspired the motion picture that starred the young Judy Garland in the 1930’s.  The movie “Oz The Great And Powerful” has a rather convoluted background; originally planned to star Robert Downey, Jr., he bailed out on the project and it eventually went to Johnny Depp, who also wound up leaving.  Eventually, James Franco was cast and finally with a lead for the role, Disney was able to produce the movie.