Saturday, September 28, 2013

“Captain Phillips” – Movie Review



This past weekend, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center kicked-off The 51st Annual New York Film Festival, and I was fortunate to secure a ticket to the premiere of the new drama by director Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips”, starring Tom Hanks. 


When a band of Somali pirates hijack an American cargo ship, they kidnap its captain – but will the Navy be able rescue him or will the pirates kill the captain first?


In the early Spring of 2009, Rich Phillips (Hanks) departed his Massachusetts home to helm a cargo ship from Oman to Kenya.   Supplied with a crew of union workers, things began rather ordinarily, until he started getting notifications of piracy warnings in the waters around the Somali Basin.  Shortly thereafter, the ship was attacked by two small skiffs, but Capt. Phillips eluded them.  Later, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a scrawny member of the group of pirates, shows ambition and courage and quickly evolves into being their leader; the next day, a smaller group head out to siege the ship yet again.

Upon their second attempt, the pirates are successful in boarding the ship and demanding money from Phillips, who had his crew hide in the engine room in order to evade danger from the thieves.  Muse, however, correctly suspects that Phillips is playing games with him, so he has the captain take him for a tour throughout the ship to try to uncover the rest of his crew.  The crew manages to capture Muse and convince him to accept the small amount of petty cash on hand if they will go on their way; just when it seems as though the crew are rid of the pirates, they abduct Capt. Phillips and take him with them in the lifeboat as they escape. 

Phillips’ crew immediately snap into action and chase the pirates after reporting the kidnapping to the Navy, who deploy their own anti-piracy task force to hunt down the pirates.  Despite the fact that Muse and his group are greatly outnumbered by a well-equipped Navy force, their poverty-borne desperation drives them to continue on their mission to bring both the money and the captain back to Somalia.  But will the United States Navy with all their power be able to bring the pirates to justice or will the kidnappers somehow manage to get away with their crime?



Having started his career as a documentarian, director Paul Greengrass brings with him many of those story telling techniques in the dramatic narrative of motion pictures based on true events – both in “United 93” and here again in “Captain Phillips”.   Therein lies part of the problem with this movie; his extensive use of what is apparently a hand-held camera becomes distracting – at times, even unnerving and nauseating (hey, we’re at sea in this story so maybe it was his intent to make us seasick?).  Perhaps he did this to create the documentary-like feel or the underlying sense of chaos.  An occasional use of the steady-cam might’ve been nice.  Just sayin’ …

For what it is – a vehicle for which its star Tom Hanks can appear heroic even while in the throes of being forced to speak with a Boston accent – “Captain Phillips” is quite good and at over two hours, is nevertheless relentlessly fast-paced.  While you’ll never be bored, the movie is rather limited in the degree of suspense it is able to maintain – mostly due to the fact that we pretty much know its outcome.  The film “Captain Phillips” is based on the book by the real Richard Phillips, “A Captain’s Duty”, his recounting of the attack on the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and his subsequent kidnapping.

Although Capt. Phillips is portrayed as something of an heroic character in the movie, the real heroes of “Captain Phillips” are the members of The United States Navy, including and especially The Navy SEALS, all of whom execute to perfection a plan that not only rescues the kidnapped Phillips but also captures the leader of the pirate group and bring him to justice back in The United States.  As a result of this, during much of the third act of the film, they manage to overshadow the character who is supposed to be the protagonist, the eponymous Captain himself.   


Sunday, September 22, 2013

“Rush” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class held yet another bonus screening – “Rush”, a drama based on a true story, starring  Chris (“Thor”) Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl and directed by Ron Howard.


When a rivalry between two Formula 1 race car drivers heats up, who will choose to take the most risks in order to win, even if doing so may ultimately mean losing his life?


In the 1970’s, a heated rivalry developed between two competing Formula 1 race car drivers – Britain’s James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Austria’s Niki Lauda (Brühl).  Although both shared a passion for racing, the two men could not be more polar opposites as far as their personality was concerned:  Hunt was a reckless playboy and partier while Lauda was more disciplined and methodical in his approach to the sport; Hunt was right-brain, Lauda was left-brain; Hunt was all about having fun whereas Lauda was all-business.  And therein lay the key making each other better racers, whether or not either of them was aware of it. 

Lauda was not merely a good driver but also superb at engineering – he knew how much weight and horsepower a car could support while still optimizing its speed.  Hunt, alternatively, relied on luck and charm to succeed in life – both on and off the racetrack – and somehow managed to be a driver whose skills were comparable to Lauda’s.  Seeing his image needed severe improvement, Hunt decided to marry the successful model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) to appear that his life was stabilizing.  But when Suzy realized the marriage was a joke, she left. 

During the 1976 season, things between Hunt and Lauda came to a head when Lauda was leading in points, chased closely by Hunt.  Once, the severe rain caused Lauda to call a meeting with the racing committee to postpone a race due to weather; a vote was taken among the drivers and Hunt was able to convince them to proceed.  When the race commenced, Lauda wound up crashing, suffering severe injuries when his car exploded; after many medical procedures, Lauda’s competitive spirit amazingly willed him to resume racing the next month.  By this time, however, Hunt had almost caught up to him in points.  In Japan, they raced in a similar teeming rain with Hunt needing to finish among the leaders to achieve points to be champion.  Would the two combatants be willing to race to the death to be declared winner or would caution eventually prevail?   


Here in the world’s media center of New York City, there are two sports that are – almost inexplicably – ignored, while the rest of the nation obsesses over them:  one is college football and the other is race car driving (specifically, NASCAR).  While I could theorize on why, it is somewhat irrelevant to this review – although it might be relevant as to why a story about a pair of Formula 1 race car drivers might not resonate quite as deeply among American audiences as the filmmakers might hope.  “Rush” is not a bad film, but this lone qualification might be one of the factors that could prevent it from being a big hit in the United States (while being a hit worldwide). 

I’m a fan of Ron Howard’s work, but one of the problems with the film was his directorial style, as much as it pains me to admit this.  At times, I felt it was a bit too heavy-handed; it would seem that he might have lost faith in his audience’s ability to be intelligent enough to infer certain information, so he felt it necessary to spell it out to all of us instead.  This is a movie; as such, please don’t tell the audience what it needs to know – instead, show the audience what it needs to know.  If you’re good enough at your story telling ability, it will be clear and unambiguous to them. 

After the screening, an interesting discussion ensued among the class.  While most really seemed to enjoy the film and believed it to work quite well, a few had some misgivings – so, although I may have agreed with them, I think that I may have been in the minority, so please keep that in mind when considering to view “Rush”.  Some felt it was miscast (asserting that bigger stars were necessary), others insisted that the story of Formula 1 racers from Europe would be pretty much lost on American viewers.  I believe that ultimately, neither lead character was worth rooting for because both men were jerks – which each one might admit was what they thought about the other.  Ultimately, there lacked any kind of emotional investment on my part because I didn’t really care about the outcome of either racer.  Therein, I suspect, may lie the real problem with “Rush”.   

Rush (2013) on IMDb 8.4/107,734 votes


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

“Enough Said” – Movie Review


Enough Said

As a recently-joined member of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, I was invited to the premiere of “Enough Said”, the new romantic comedy starring the late James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.


After a woman starts dating a man she met at a party, she soon learns that he is the ex-husband of her new client – but will she let the client’s negativity about him poison the relationship or will she be able to trust her own instincts about him?


After being divorced for nearly a decade, Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) decides to start dating again when she meets Albert (Gandolfini) at a party. Despite the fact that she’s not particularly physically attracted to him, Eva finds Albert to be a decent enough guy who is something of a kindred spirit – in addition to being divorced himself, they both also have college-bound teenage daughters. The more time they spend together, the more they appear to be hitting it off and become quite fond of each other, each helping to fill a void of some kind in the other’s life.

Coincidentally, Eva also met Marianne (Catherine Keener) at the same party. Marianne decides to hire Eva’s services as a masseuse; throughout the course of their sessions, the two women bond while sharing a considerable amount of personal information. As Eva reveals she may be in the early stages of a new relationship, Marianne confesses the enmity she has for her ex-husband. However, as more information is forthcoming, it becomes clear that Albert is actually Marianne’s oft-maligned dreaded loser ex-husband.

Once Eva has put all of the pieces of this puzzle together, she realizes that it is imperative for her to keep this secret from both Albert and Marianne. However, Marianne has developed into more than just a client for Eva – she has become her confidante.  On the other hand, Eva’s relationship with Albert may have all the makings of something that could turn out to be quite serious for them both. But besides whether or not Eva will be able to hide her personal life from the both of them, the greater question is whether or not she will allow Marianne’s criticisms of Albert to determine the future of their relationship?


“Enough Said” is a delightfully funny romantic comedy that tries to explore the complexities of relationships of mature adults. Nicole Holofcener has crafted an extremely clever screenplay and her direction neither distracts from nor obscures its story (although I found the shot selections made during a Skype conversation to be briefly disconcerting, but nothing that seriously harms the scene). Characters – especially Eva, whose story this is – are fully-formed human beings with career challenges and sundry personal crises that interfere with life.

Among this cast of outstanding actors (Keener being my favorite), Louis-Dreyfus shines brightly and shows off her comedic skills to great advantage. After having enjoyed her on TV sitcoms for many years, it was nice to be able to watch her featured in a film. In my opinion, she is the reason to see this movie and as its star, she really carries it. If I were to criticize anything about “Enough Said”, it would be the contrivance of Eva meeting both Albert and Marianne on the same evening at the same party; this is never alluded to until near the end of the motion picture, which was a bit of a dramatic conceit, I felt.

Prior to the screening, an executive from Fox Searchlight brought up the film’s writer/director, Nicole Holofcener, who introduced the cast and bemoaned Gandolfini’s glaring absence, although members of his family were in attendance on that evening. I was a big fan of HBO’s television series “The Sopranos”, so following the screening, I was delighted to find that a number the show’s former cast members were also present; among those I spotted in the audience were Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior), Aida Turturro (Janice) and Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack).  

Enough Said (2013) on IMDb 7.1/10123 votes

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“Prisoners” – Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had another bonus screening, “Prisoners”, a crime thriller starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello.


Once two little girls are missing, the father of one of them decides to hunt for the suspect on his own when he believes the police are failing – but will he be willing to do whatever’s necessary to find the girls?   


On Thanksgiving Day, Keller Dover (Jackman) and his brood head over to neighbor Franklin’s (Terrence Howard) house for both families to spend the holiday.  After their daughters run off to play together, they suddenly realize that no one can locate either one of them.   The police are contacted and Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case.  Before long, Loki apprehends a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who ultimately must be released when the police conclude that they cannot formally charge him with anything.  

Understandably frustrated and angry, Dover decides that since the police aren’t doing enough to find his daughter, he must take matters into his own hands, so he sets out for Jones himself.  Dover captures Jones and brings him to an abandoned ramshackle house where he tortures Jones in order to get a confession out of him.  But when the slow-witted Jones proves to be a tough nut to crack, Dover chooses to imprison him until information is forthcoming.  In the meantime, Loki is pursuing other leads that may turn up information about the girls since he’s convinced chasing Jones may ultimately turn out to be fruitless.

With several known sex offenders in the area of this rural Pennsylvania town, Loki follows-up on each one of them but turns out to be unsuccessful in obtaining any substantial information until one young man starts behaving in a suspicious manner.  At this point, Loki relentlessly chases after this new suspect while Dover has reasons to believe he may have suddenly discovered the person who might turn out to be the key to recovering both daughters.  But do Loki’s suspicions have any merit?  And if Dover is right about his latest hunch, is he truly capable of doing the unthinkable in order to bring his daughter home safely? 


How often have you seen a movie that was billed as a suspense that turned out not to be terribly suspenseful at all?  Or a horror flick that wasn’t all that scary?  For me, I know that’s happened far more frequently than I would like.  That’s why it’s such a delight to be able to report that “Prisoners” truly delivers on what it promises.  Excellent story telling technique from both the screenplay and the directing highlight this film, which is in no way intended to undercut some rather fine performances by its stellar cast.  This is a true thriller at its very best and is surely every bit as scary – if not more so – than any CGI – inflicted horror flick that Hollywood ever tried to produce. 

Misgivings about “Prisoners” are certainly few and far between and would truly be nitpicking – although to be honest, it is not a perfect film; some of the information occasionally gets a bit muddled along the way and there are some things that of course require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but if you’ve bought into the story by the point these incidents occur, it’s highly unlikely they will deter you from enjoying this motion picture, which is both satisfying and entertaining, right up until its eye-popping denouement. 

Prior to the screening, Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove – the film’s producers –were  were interviewed.  Kosove said that he and Johnson had met years ago when they were in college; neither one of them were studying filmmaking – instead, they majored in business.  Upon graduation, they decided to form Alcon, a production company, despite the fact that neither one of them knew how to make a movie.  He also made what I regarded as a rather astute observation – in most businesses, the practice is to discover a formula to make a successful product that is consistently reproducible.  When it comes to filmmaking, however, this is not the case; with each movie, you are starting up a new business with different goals and another set of employees.  In the business of movie making, there is no precise formula for success. 


Prisoners (2013) on IMDb 7.9/10519 votes



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

DIY Whiskey With Smooth Ambler



CoverMany little kids fantasize about running away to join the circus.  As adults, we learn to give up that dream – or at least trade it in for another.  For example, how many of us who are whiskey aficionados have ever dreamed about quitting the day job to open our own distillery in order to manufacture an amber-colored spirit that would bear our very own name?   I know I certainly have.  Alas, I never had the kind of courage it required to take such a mighty step.  But John Little did.  John is the Head Distiller for Smooth Ambler, a West Virginia-based craft distiller that has been rapidly growing in popularity during the short time it has been in existence. 

Attending a class called, “How To Make Your Own Whiskey” at The Astor Center Of New York City, I eagerly listened to the story behind how John created Smooth Ambler from scratch and in only a few years, made it one of the most talked-about small distillers in the entire country.  Oh, and the fact that we would also get to sample their array of product wasn’t exactly a painful experience, either. 


Starting out life as a purchaser of furniture and fixtures for hotels, one day John decided that he wanted to be a manufacturer.  After trying his hand at making belts, he read an article in Time magazine about micro-distilling back in 2008 and got the idea that he could begin by building a small distillery in his own garage.  Shortly thereafter, he attended a conference to learn about the distillation process and business, then took classes in college to further extend his studies.  Equipment manufacturers and suppliers of grain and yeast contributed initial supplies to help John make his initial product as an independent, in a field known as Merchant Bottling. 

We started our tasting with three variations on Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout brand, each subsequent one increasing its content of rye.  Beginning with Old Scout 10 Year, it contains 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malt, and is 100 proof.  Sweet tasting due to the high concentration of corn, clearly identified in its taste are vanilla, honey and caramel.


Next was Old Scout Bourbon, which contained an unusually high 36% rye; most bourbons contain only about 15 – 20% rye.  As a result, this 99 proof bourbon is less sweet and more spicy due to its high rye content.  Aged seven years, this is a mingle of seven and eight year old barrels; the rye component is used as what is called “the flavor grain” to balance out the corn’s sweetness. 

Last was the Old Scout Rye; at 99 proof, it contains 95% rye – the rest is malt (there is no corn here).  Between the large amount of rye and the high alcohol content, its taste seems considerably hotter than the first two.  It’s got something of a minty nose, which can sometimes mask some of its other aromas – honey, straw and grass. 

John then treated us to a couple of cask strength samples which were considerably higher in alcohol content.  The first was the Old Scout 10, but this version was 120 proof.  Best sampled without water, this expression experiences something called flocculation, which causes small white flecks to appear in the bottom of the bottle; while some people see this as a flaw, it is actually the oils produced during the aging process – these oils add flavor to the spirit.

This was followed by the cask strength version of the rye.  At 126 proof, this one had more nose than any of the others. 


Wrapping up the evening, we were offered their 92 proof Yearling Bourbon and the Barrel Aged Gin.  Aged for only two and a half years, the Yearling is known as a wheated bourbon because it contains 20% wheat.  The gin contains only seven botanicals in order to keep the recipe simple, but it is nevertheless distinctly aromatic; aside from the required juniper, there is also lemon peel and cardamom.  The gin is just slightly yellow in color due to the fact that it is aged in a barrel, but only for three months. 


Sunday, September 08, 2013

“Thanks For Sharing” – Movie Review



The bonus screenings for the fall semester of my movie class began this weekend with the comedy-drama, “Thanks For Sharing”, starring Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Gwyneth Paltrow.


When several men form a friendship while in group therapy for their sex addiction, will they be able to support each other in moments of crises or will they just lapse into their self-destructive nature?


Adam (Ruffalo) is celebrating five years of “sobriety” – at least that’s what it’s called when recovering sex addicts are able to successfully avoid the kind of behavior that drove them into group therapy in the first place.  As anyone in a similar position can tell you, an accomplishment such as this cannot be done alone; he’s been fortunate to have Mike (Robbins) as both a friend and a sponsor.  Mike, a long-time husband with a decade of sobriety himself, has served as a stable influence for Adam, who is single; together, they have had each other’s back in their darkest moments.

New to their group is Neil (Josh Gad), a young man similarly addicted – in fact, his addiction has gotten so bad that it recently caused him to lose his job.  As a result, Adam is assigned as his sponsor, whose role is to educate, nurture and support his weighty charge.  However, when Adam correctly senses that Neil lacks both the dedication and discipline to make the commitment to this task, he bails out as Neil’s sponsor.  Soon, Dede (Alecia Moore – AKA Pink) joins the group as its only female member.  After hearing each other’s tale of woe, Neil and Dede exchange phone numbers and decide to become each other’s sponsor. 

Attending a party, Adam meets another guest, Phoebe (Paltrow), a bright, beautiful woman who is clearly attracted to him.  With great trepidation, Adam starts dating Phoebe and it looks like things may get serious between them.  But when she learns of his addiction, can their relationship survive?  Meanwhile, Mike and his wife Katie (Joely Richardson) are mysteriously visited by their drug addict prodigal son Danny (Patrick Fugit), of whom Mike is understandably suspicious.  When Mike and Danny entangle in an explosive fight over Danny’s potential substance abuse, will the father and son ever be able to repair their family?    


While far from the ultimate film viewing experience, “Thanks For Sharing” is an enjoyable little movie that started out a bit shaky but eventually won me over, in spite of its flaws.  Early on, its script contains hackneyed jokes and questionable choices of character attributes, but eventually, manages to overcome those deficiencies with more clever writing than it began with, combined with some extremely palpable chemistry between the members of its cast  -- ultimately, we can believe the friendships that develop between certain characters might just really exist. 

Although I can’t honestly admit to being a big Gwyneth Paltrow fan, her performance in “Thanks For Sharing” is especially spicy – in particular, a scene where she gives Mark Ruffalo a lap dance in some rather tempting lingerie.  So much for her being perceived as the squeaky-clean Ice Princess, I guess!  Ruffalo holds the film together with his typically strong acting and Josh Gad – perhaps best known for his role in the Broadway musical “The Book Of Mormon” – dutifully fulfills his role as the movie’s comic relief in a number of scenes with Pink and Carol Kane as his mother. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s director, Stuart Blumberg, who also co-wrote the screenplay.  Blumberg, who made his feature-film directing debut with “Thanks For Sharing”, also co-wrote the movie “The Kids Are Alright”; he gave an interesting interview, which included his writing process for this script.  Co-writer Matt Winston is an old friend of Blumberg’s; they collaborated on another script prior to writing this one.  For “Thanks For Sharing”, they collaborated over Skype, despite the fact both writers were living in Los Angeles at the time. 


Thanks for Sharing (2012) on IMDb 6.1/10416 votes