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