Thursday, April 25, 2013

“Mud” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Mud”, starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon.


When a couple of teenage boys meet a stranger on an isolated island, they befriend him – but upon finding out he’s a dangerous criminal on the run, will their lives be imperiled?


Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are just a couple of teenage boys living in a sleepy southern town looking for their next big adventure. One day, they take a motorboat down the river to a remote island and come upon an unusual sight: a boat hitched to a trailer and mounted atop a tree. Upon climbing the tree, they inspect the boat and decide to claim it for themselves – but when they discover evidence that someone else has recently been there, they realize they are not alone.

Heading back to their motorboat, they meet Mud (McConaughey), a strange but affable man who maintains he’s waiting for his girlfriend. While Neckbone is suspicious, Ellis is more inclined to befriend Mud, so he brings food and when Mud decides he wants to repair the boat so he can leave the island, the boys supply him with stolen equipment. Gaining each others’ trust over time, Mud gives the boys a note for Juniper (Witherspoon), his girlfriend, who is staying at a nearby motel on the mainland. Upon delivering the note, however, Ellis stumbles upon Juniper being beaten by a stranger, a bounty hunter looking for Mud. The truth, the boys learn, is that Mud is staying on the island in an attempt to elude the police because they believe him to be connected to the murder of Juniper’s ex-boyfriend. The bounty hunter was hired by the victim’s father (Joe Don Baker) who wants him to find Mud before the police.

With wanted posters featuring Mud’s photo posted all around, he’s eventually spotted by one of the locals when forced to make a brief emergency trip into town. Once the authorities are notified, the bounty hunter and his team are hot on Mud’s trail. After finally getting the boat seaworthy, Mud sails it over to where Ellis lives with his parents – unbeknownst to him, he is quickly surrounded by the bounty hunter and his men; heavily armed, they are all ready to take Mud dead or alive. But will Mud survive their attempted capture and will Ellis wind up being collateral damage in the process?


Between his recent roles in “Bernie”, “Killer Joe” and now “Mud”, Matthew McConaughey has done an excellent job portraying some rather interesting characters in several high quality movies. Whether he’s finding these roles or they are finding him is unclear.  The bottom line is that he’s obviously and admirably not limiting himself to co-starring in romantic comedy confections with actresses like Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts. While a slightly flawed film, “Mud” is certainly worth checking out; it’s something of a combination of a Mark Twain tale mixed with “Stand By Me”, Rob Reiner’s motion picture adaptation of a Stephen King story.

Unfortunately, it is the ending of “Mud” that prevents it from being an even better movie. This, of course, is not a trivial matter and an inadequate ending has been the downfall of many motion pictures. There are several scenes in “Mud” where the viewer is required to suspend disbelief to one degree or another; generally throughout the film, it doesn’t take you out of the story very much, if at all. Its ending, however, is another matter altogether. Whether the ending alone is too much of a challenge to buy or the sum total of all the previous suspensions of disbelief finally catches up with “Mud”, I’m not quite sure. But it did make for a distinctly cringe-worthy moment for me to finish off an otherwise good flick.

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed director Mira Nair, who was in New York City to promote the opening of her new movie, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (which was previously reviewed here). Nair said that she originally thought she wanted to be an actress and wound up applying to Harvard, being accepted on a scholarship. Eventually, Nair decided to leave and come to New York to study acting at La Mama, when she realized that directing would be a better pursuit because her true calling was to be a storyteller. In “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, one of the characters has a father who is a poet; in real life, Nair’s father was a poet, although more as a hobbyist than as a professional. Included in the soundtrack of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” are songs which use some of her father’s poems as lyrics.



IMDb 7.4/10617 votes

Sunday, April 21, 2013

“Kon Tiki” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of “Kon Tiki”, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.



Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl sets out on an expedition to prove that the Polynesian Islands were settled by South Americans.  



In the late 1930’s, adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his wife spent time living in Polynesia in order to learn more about the people, their customs and their culture.  Heyerdahl’s curiosity is aroused when he starts finding various artifacts that suggest they might have come from another land long ago.  Thus begins a decade-long obsession with researching and writing about these findings to assert that the Polynesian Islands were in fact settled by South Americans, most likely from Peru.

Heading to New York City in late 1946, Heyerdahl presents a manuscript to a prospective book publisher who is skeptical of his theories about the settling of Polynesia.  Of particular question is how someone from South America could make an almost 5000 mile trip by sea in the days long before ships had been invented.  Deciding to make the trip himself, Heyerdahl pays a visit to the office of National Geographic magazine to propose a series of articles for them on this very trek – in exchange, they would help to fund the excursion.  The magazine declines. 

Ultimately, Heyerdahl winds up borrowing some money to buy materials to build the raft and heads off to Peru to begin construction with five other men whom he’s enlisted to accompany him on this journey.  Meeting with the Peruvian government, he is able to convince them to help finance the trip – and they in turn get the United States Navy to contribute supplies.  With the raft constructed, the team sets sail on the beginning of a trip they estimate will last over three months.  But can they and their flimsy raft survive storms, sharks and a potential mutiny?



Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Kon Tiki” is the fact that the film itself isn’t terribly  noteworthy.  Upon his return, Heyerdahl assembled the notes from his journal into a book which was extremely successful – translated into 70 languages, it sold over 50 million copies and changed the explorer’s life forever.  The footage recorded onboard the raft was released as a documentary which then went on to win an Academy Award in 1951.  This version of “Kon Tiki” seems to be trying to piggyback off that success and it’s something of a puzzle to me as to why it was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film this year. 

While the film does a reasonable job of keeping the adventure going at a good clip so you don’t get bored watching six guys on a raft for two hours, you can’t help but wonder how much of what’s presented in this dramatization was based on actual fact and how much of it was merely the invention sprouting from a screenwriter’s fertile imagination.  At the heart of it, maybe that’s the problem – throughout the movie, you can’t help but wish that you were really watching the documentary as opposed to this fairy tale version.  Essentially, the movie failed for me because it was being haunted by its own ghost. 

As part of the lecture accompanying this screening, our instructor told us some interesting trivia about the shooting of “Kon Tiki”:  there were apparently two versions that were shot – one in Norwegian and one in English.  Naturally, we saw the English version.  Supposedly this came about because although “Kon Tiki” was produced by a Scandinavian company, one of the financial backers of the movie was so insistent that it be shot in English that they threatened to withdraw funding if their wishes were not respected.  The result was the filmmakers wound up shooting the entire motion picture twice – once in Norwegian and once in English.  


Kon-Tiki (2012) on IMDb 7.2/1010,812 votes7.2/1010,830 votes7.2/1010,830 votes

Thursday, April 18, 2013

“In The House” – Movie Review


 InThe House


This week in my movie class, we saw the new French thriller by director Francois Ozon, “In The House”, with Kristin Scott Thomas.


When a creative writing teacher mentors one of his high school students, he winds up encouraging the boy to inappropriately engage the family of one of his fellow students – but as the student’s writing assignments turn increasingly provocative, how will this impact all concerned?


At this point in his long career as a creative writing teacher at a suburban high school, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is becoming increasingly bored. Discouraged by uninspired students who appear apathetic about their poor writing skills, he deems them all virtually un-teachable. At the beginning of the new semester, he is surprised at the quality of writing by one of his sophomores, Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), who turned in an intriguing homework assignment. So fascinated is Germain by this student’s capabilities, he decides to share it with his wife, Jeanne (Thomas), who finds it equally absorbing.

Claude writes eloquently about how he has been hired as a math tutor for Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a classmate at his school, whose grades have been slipping. Rapha invites Claude to his house for lessons, where Claude gets an opportunity to meet Rapha’s parents – his father, Rapha Sr. (Denis Ménochet) and his lovely mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). Slowly, and through Germain’s encouragement to continue writing about his experiences, Claude insinuates himself deeply into this family, to the point where Rapha Jr. considers him his best friend and Rapha Sr. invites him to join he and his son in their weekly basketball game. But it is Esther who holds Claude’s attention because he has a massive crush on her.

While Claude maintains that he is merely recording his observations in the form of an essay, Germain insists that these are instead works of fiction – a continuous short story that a gifted student is attempting. As a failed author himself, Germain sees Claude as another chance at success in this field and goes above and beyond the call of duty to assist him in whatever way possible – sometimes doing things of questionable ethics, especially for a teacher. At further urging by Germain as a way to make his story even more gripping, Claude ultimately does the unthinkable and makes Esther aware of his feelings for her – eventually, he acts upon them, as well. Esther, feeling unfulfilled in her marriage, does very little to rebuff his romantic overtures. Having gone too far in this adventure, how will the actions of Germain and Claude influence the lives of everyone involved?


With this work, director Francois Ozon’s newest effort has been compared to fellow auteurs such as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock (the voyeuristic theme of this movie has been particularly likened to his “Rear Window” – and with good reason, I think). In fact, I would say the comparisons are worthy not just because of the content in this film but also because of the shot composition in certain scenes, suggesting something of a homage to Ozon’s predecessors. Either way, “In The House” is a remarkably compelling motion picture that should definitely be added to your “Must See” list – it is an unusual story about the very worst of human nature and our self-destructive characteristics.

Also reminiscent of these other directors – Woody Allen, specifically – is the well-implemented humorous moments interspersed throughout the more suspenseful points. These timely scenes serve to somewhat lighten the mood which might otherwise serve to make the movie oppressively dark. It’s a delicate balancing act that is adroitly handled under Ozon’s guidance. Also – as in the morality of a Hitchcockian dystopia – the evil are punished and the good are either rewarded, redeemed or permitted to escape further horrors.

At less than two hours, this movie has a pace that might almost lead you to believe that it is considerably shorter than it really is; I never once looked at my wristwatch at any point during this screening, which is typically a reliable sign that I’m enjoying a film that has grabbed my interest and refuses to let go. As a reminder, this is a French motion picture; the dialog is not dubbed – subtitles are used instead. Other than that, however, there’s very little suggestion of Gallic culture; given the fact that both Rapha Jr. & Sr. root for NBA basketball teams and love eating pizza and Chinese take-out, you’d almost think you were observing an average American family.

In the House (2012) on IMDb 7.3/104,211 votes

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The 20th Annual Single Malt Extravaganza



Recently, I had the opportunity to attend The Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza when its tour reached New York City.  Having skipped it the last couple of years, I was excited to return to see what new and exciting things they had to offer. 

While the evening was fun, I was a little disappointed by the fact that it was way too much of a challenge to get to more participants’ displays. 

With so many whiskies represented, it was difficult to get to a number of tables in the two hour event – between having to wait your turn behind the crowd at a given display and the fact that you’re engaging the representative from the company to learn about their product, there really wasn’t enough time allotted to get a good variety of brands.  My hope in the future is that they either make the event a longer evening or spread it across a couple of nights as Whisky Fest now does (at least in certain cities, like New York).

Following a scrumptious buffet dinner, I made my way to the hotel’s ballroom where the whiskies were being served.  By far, the highlight of the evening for me was a visit to the Laphroaig table.  Laphroaig has long been one of my go-to Scotches and seeing a large crowd gathered around the company’s representatives, I had a hunch that it would be worth my wait and I was right. 

This year, the Islay-based whisky manufacturer was serving a total of five different expressions:  their 10 year old, the Cask Strength, Quarter Cask an 18 year old and the Triple Wood.  Having purchased the 10 year old many times before in the past and with half a bottle of the Quarter Cask still remaining at home, I only sampled three of their evening’s offerings – I started with the Cask Strength, followed it with the Triple Wood and concluded with the 18 year old. 





Aged for 10 years, Laphroaig’s Cask Strength is by far the booziest Scotch they produce; while they advertise their product at 115.6 proof, the version they brought on this evening was a bit higher – specifically, 58.6% alcohol (or 117.2 proof).  Between the alcohol content and the smokiness from the peat, this one is a real punch in the face.  So, my advice is that if you don’t like the thought of being overwhelmed by your Scotch, then you might want to pass on this one.  However, for those of us that have long enjoyed Laphroaig, it is certainly a most welcomed expression.

The Triple Wood is characterized by a certain creaminess.  It is easy to be fooled by this one when you nose it because initially, it doesn’t seem that strong – which is deceptive because you can better get a sense of its strength once it hits the palate.  Aside from the customary peat, there’s definitely a hint of fruitiness and sweetness to it as well as a hint of sherry on the end. 

The additional aging on their 18 year old really pays off nicely.  It is silky smooth and by far and away the gentlest Laphroaig I’ve ever tasted.  I highly recommend this one if you are able to manage it in your whisky budget.  With a slightly oily texture, the peat only hits you at the very the end.  It has a bright gold color and more of a complex flavor with some notes of spice detected, although its nose suggests a definite sweetness.   

If you think you might be interested in attending future events such as this one, then check the schedule for The Single Malt Extravaganza at their Web site by clicking here

Want to become a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society?  You can fill out a membership application at their Web site by clicking here


The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Membership Application 


Thursday, April 11, 2013

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” – Movie Review




This week in my movie class, we had a screening of Mira Nair’s new drama, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” starring Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland.


After a young Pakistani man returns home following several years in the United States, he suddenly finds himself the target of an investigation for a kidnapped American – but will he be able to prove his innocence in time for the hostage to be rescued?


Changez (Riz Ahmed) leaves his family in Lahore, Pakistan while seeking his fortune in the United States. Following graduation from an Ivy League school, he goes to work for Jim Cross (Sutherland) at a major financial institution in New York City, where he proves to be a quickly-rising superstar. Shortly after starting his job, he meets an aspiring photographer named Erica (Hudson), the beautiful niece of the company’s owner. A mutual attraction develops between them, but their romance is stymied once Changez realizes Erica is mourning over her deceased ex-boyfriend.

Complicating both his personal and professional life are the events of 9/11, which occur during a business trip with Jim in the Philippines. Upon Changez’s return home, he finds the response of his adopted country is that it has been engulfed in terrorist paranoia and its citizens have become extremely suspicious of Muslims either residing in or visiting the United States. Even more hurtful is the behavior he observes by Erica, who uses the opportunity of a gallery opening to showcase her work by exploiting their relationship and playing into the fear of fellow New Yorkers.

Having enough of the nation’s general distrust and bigotry – not to mention a substantial degree of disillusionment with his job – Changez resigns from his position and heads back to his family in Lahore. Eventually, he is able to secure a position as a professor at a local college, where it turns out that the militant students are terrorist sympathizers in their anti-American rhetoric; many of them wind up being recruited by various terrorist organizations. Ultimately, Changez submits to an interview by Bobby (Schreiber), a Pakistan-based American journalist, after an American is kidnapped in Lahore.  The interview forces Changez to realize the CIA suspect both he and his school are connected to the crime. But with the kidnappers threatening to kill their hostage, will Changez be able to prove his innocence and prevent his death?


It would certainly be convenient to report that a collection of interesting scenes all add up to a good movie, which I’ve quite often found to be true, generally speaking. However, in the case of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, this is regrettably not the case. The film is based on a novel – in fact, its author is credited as being one of the screenwriters; structurally, this story may have worked better when reading it in its original form, but the way it’s laid out in this adaptation, it lacks sufficient dramatic momentum to propel the story forward.

Unfortunately, the way the story is told in the movie, there’s too much start and stop, killing its progress; it alternates between present day and flashback so much that you lose the sense of urgency that initially set the story in motion, which was the kidnapping. When the kidnapping occurs, this action automatically creates something of an implied ticking clock for the story – especially after you see the kidnapper’s video with their hostage – in order to create the requisite exigency to reach a conclusion within a couple of hours.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Lydia Dean Pilcher, the producer of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”. Pilcher said that she wound up getting involved in the project at the urging of the film’s director, with whom she’s worked on other motion pictures. Director Mira Nair had been sent a copy of the novel prior to its publication; having read it, she immediately wanted to make it into a movie and asked Pilcher to serve as its producer. Pilcher said that it took several years to get the picture made because she wound up having to spend several years (and plenty of dollars in option money) to raise the $11 million needed for the production.



The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) on IMDb 6.2/10

Sunday, April 07, 2013

“The Angels’ Share” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the new comedy by director Ken Loach, “The Angels’ Share”. 


When a young man with a criminal past becomes a father, he decides to be a more responsible adult to give his new son a better life – but can he pull off one last heist in order to do so?



Robbie has a pretty extensive rap sheet, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when this ex-convict escapes another prison term for his latest escapade, thanks to the generosity of the judge.  Instead, he’s sentenced to community service, along with several other several other loafers who’ve either never held a job or have difficulty keeping the few they do get.  They are sent of to work for Harry, an itinerant laborer in the Glasgow area of Scotland, who has them painting, landscaping and various other tasks. 

When Harry becomes aware that Robbie’s girlfriend Leonie has gone into labor, he accompanies Robbie to the hospital so that he can see her.  However, upon arrival, Robbie is beaten up by some of the male members of Leonie’s family, who threaten him and insist that he have nothing further to do with her because of his background.   Determined to not only see his child but also to have a life with Leonie, Robbie makes a commitment to lead a more admirable life – but with his past, he finds it difficult merely getting a job interview, much less finding employment.  It is at this point that Harry takes him under his wing and befriends him, introducing him to the wonderful world of Scotch whisky. 

Harry brings Robbie to a Scotch tasting in Edinburgh, where Robbie discovers that he’s got a sophisticated palate and olfactory sense when it comes to nosing and tasting a wee dram of The Water Of Life from a Glencairn glass.  While educating himself about whisky, Robbie learns of Malt Mill – a rare and extremely expensive type of Scotch that’s believed to be the best in the world.  Upon hearing that the lone existing cask will soon be auctioned off, Robbie devises a scheme to steal at least some of what’s in that barrel so that he can re-sell it on his own to acquire enough money for he and Leonie to start their new life together.  But can he successfully pull off this heist or will it ultimately land him back in prison? 



If you’ve been reading anything other than my silly-ass movie reviews on this here blog-o-mine, you may have figured out somewhere along the way that I’m something of a whisky aficionado – especially for that peaty stuff that comes out of Scotland.  It is with that in mind that I offer up to you something of a caveat here to advise you of my extreme predilection for the subject matter of “The Angels’ Share”.  Objectivity has rarely been more challenging than when reviewing this movie. 

The Angels’ Share” is a hilarious film and I highly recommend you see it whenever you get a chance.  Even if you aren’t a big fan of whisky, you might like it – especially if you found “Trainspotting” funny.  The majority of the students in my class seemed to enjoy it quite a good deal – and for a nice change of pace, I happened to agree with them.   The writing here – in particular the dialog – is incredibly strong.  It feels extremely realistic in its curt, abrupt and profane way and seems rather natural for the characters. 

One thing I should add about the version of the movie we saw is that it was shown with English subtitles.  I know, this may seem a bit weird since the story takes place in Scotland and the characters are all speaking English already, but believe me, it works.  The accent on the Scottish working class can be so thick as to be almost unintelligible to the American ear, which makes the use of the subtitles a veritable pre-requisite if there’s any hope for success in this country. 


Thursday, April 04, 2013

“No Place On Earth” – Movie Review



My movie class resumed this week with the documentary “No Place On Earth” .


During World War II, Jewish families escape the Nazis by hiding in Ukraine caves.


When New Yorker Chris Nicola takes a vacation from his work as a civil service employee, he enjoys pursuing his rather unusual hobby of many years – spelunking. In the early 1990’s, not too long after the collapse of The Soviet Union, he visited the Eastern European nation of Ukraine to traverse some caves which were believed to have been previously unexplored. While there, he discovered something that made him curious – various artifacts from long ago that suggested some people (including children) had occupied the cave, possibly for an extended period of time.

Almost immediately, Chris started investigating the history behind this, but ran into a major obstacle when he learned that people in the Ukraine didn’t exactly seem particularly inclined to want to discuss this matter very much. As it turned out, the Ukraine government apparently had its own anti-Semitic policies that were in effect independent of the Nazis’ goals to exterminate their Jewish population; in fact, the two governments had seemingly worked together quite closely throughout the war to turn in Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine. After many years of relentless detective work, Chris eventually came into contact with relatives of Jewish families that had emigrated from the Ukraine approximately around that very same time period.

It turns out that while these relatives’ ancestors had originally tried to leave the Ukraine at the time when the Nazis were attempting their stranglehold on Europe, they were thwarted by soldiers who prevented them from exiting the country just as German occupation began. When Jewish families who sought to evade the Nazis were hidden by local villagers, those who offered sanctuary were threatened by German soldiers, informing them that their own lives would be at risk unless they surrendered their Jewish guests. Seeing the increased danger and unwilling to imperil their generous hosts, the Jewish families then set out to seek cover within the countryside caves, where they somehow managed to survive by living in them full time for a year and a half.


The major problem I had with “No Place On Earth” is the fact that the filmmakers tried to cram way too much information into this relatively short documentary (it clocks in at less than an hour and a half). It has something of a schizophrenic quality about it in the sense that at times, it seems as though it is going to be about this odyssey undertaken by Chris Nicola, but then winds up flip-flopping with the story about the Jewish families who spent well over a year living in a pair of caves in order to escape a worse fate in a Nazi Concentration Camp. Ultimately, the net result is that the viewer is left feeling somewhat frustrated by being forced to follow multiple narrative threads.

Another issue is that while this story is indeed remarkable, its recounting is somewhat muddled in that it is a combination of first-person interviews with the survivors and dramatic re-enactments supplemented with voice-over narrations. Regarding the interviews with some of the elderly survivors, a few of them can be a little bit difficult to understand because of heavy accents (there are no subtitles used at any point in the interview portions of this movie). Perhaps help may have come in the form of including some interviews with historians to provide a degree of context that would glue the pieces of the story together.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s director, Janet Tobias and one of its stars, Chris Nicola. Tobias took great care in her use of music throughout “No Place On Earth” and she mentioned that the person who composed the soundtrack was actually a former software engineer who used to work at Google; as an early employee of that company, he was eventually fortunate enough to completely cash-out thanks to his stock options. Still a young man, he decided to follow a new career path writing music for films. Nicola related a story behind one of the scenes in the movie where the filmmakers take some of the survivors and their descendents to the actual caves that were inhabited during the war; he said that one night, he was able to sneak some of them inside by bribing the guards with vodka.