Monday, February 24, 2014

The 2014 Bacon & Bourbon Expo



If you were forced to make something of a classic Hobson’s choice of nibbling on bacon, sipping bourbon or none of the above, which one would you select?  Fortunately, I wasn’t forced to make that choice – I spent part of my Saturday evening both eating bacon and drinking bourbon because I attended The 2014 Bacon & Bourbon Expo held at The Astor Center of New York City. 


With mixologists staffed at the bar, I decided to begin the evening with one of the three bourbon-based cocktails being featured on this very special night, The Overlook Old Fashioned.  It’s made with Elijah Craig 12 year old bourbon, Oloroso sherry and Byrrh Vermouth.  I enjoyed this while noshing on passed snacks, which included Neuske’s Applewood Smoked Pepper-Coated Bacon Buttermilk Biscuits. 


Next, I found a table that was being worked by people from a highly-regarded New York City-based restaurant, Fatty Cue, where it appeared as though sliders were being served.  In fact, they pulled pork on a bun with a side order of cole slaw.  After these bites, I now had a firm foundation on which to build a serious drinking experience. 


Returning to the bar, I ordered the second of their featured cocktails, The Smash And Grab Job.  Start by muddling several sprigs of mint, add lemon juice and a drizzle of honey, then the bourbon (in this case, Bulleit was used).  All the ingredients are shaken together in an ice-filled shaker; strain it into a glass with ice, then add a lemon wheel as a garnish.


Following a few more nibbles of the bacon buttermilk biscuits, I requested the final featured cocktail of the evening, Ole Faithful Punch.  The recipe for this one is as follows: 

  • Two slices of a blood orange muddled
  • One muddled strawberry
  • Three-quarters of an ounce of lemon juice
  • A half ounce of simple syrup
  • Half an ounce of Aperol
  • An ounce and a half of Rye (here, Rittenhouse Rye was used)


After stirring all of the ingredients together, pour into either a rocks glass or a highball glass filled with ice.  Top it off with a little bit of club soda, then garnish with a quarter slice of blood orange.  Technically, this wasn’t a bourbon-based drink (although I suppose you could probably substitute it with that if you prefer it over rye), it was nevertheless mighty tasty. 


Some of the more interesting bourbons I tried on this evening came from Wild Turkey.  Although the menu only mentioned Wild Turkey 101 and Rare Breed, I also sampled their Kentucky Spirit; while this one wasn’t officially on the menu, they did decide to include it in the evening’s tasting. 


Both the Wild Turkey 101 and the Kentucky Spirit are 101 proof, but other than that similarity, they are quite different.  The Wild Turkey 101 is aged between four to eight years but is blended in such a way as to avoid any kind of a burn when swallowing.  The Kentucky Spirit, on the other hand, is blended and aged in a single barrel for up to 12 years.  It is somewhat sweet and has only the slightest burn on the palate.  By contrast, the Rare Breed is even higher in alcohol at 108.2 proof.  Aged anywhere from eight to 10 years, it presents itself with more of a burn up front – understandable, given its alcohol content. 


Thursday, February 20, 2014

“In Secret” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the crime drama, “In Secret”, starring Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Lange.


When a young woman is forced into a loveless marriage, she takes a lover – but once they plot to kill her husband, will they be caught or can their secret be kept indefinitely?


In 1860’s France, Thérèse Raquin’s mother has just died; unable to care for her himself, the child is deposited in a countryside house by her father, who returns to Africa to work and promises to regularly send money for his daughter’s welfare. Thérèse is then raised by Madame Raquin (Lange), her aunt and the house’s occupant; Madame Raquin is also caring for her own sickly son, Camille. Growing into a young adult, Thérèse (Olsen) now becomes acutely aware of her own sexual urges – but without any men around, she reaches frustration more easily than orgasm.  After her father dies, Thérèse learns that she must marry the still-sickly Camille (Tom Felton) and move with him and Madame Raquin to Paris, where he has an office job waiting.

Dolefully yet dutifully, Thérèse does as she is told until one day Camille introduces her to Laurent (Isaac), an old childhood friend of his who happens to be a co-worker in the same office. Thérèse and Laurent eventually develop an attraction to each other and wind up engaging in a torrid love affair unknown to either Camille or his mother. Expressing wishes to leave her husband, Laurent convinces Thérèse that they must do away with Camille, so they murder him while in a rowboat, but insist to everyone that Camille’s death came by way of an accidental drowning.

After some months, Laurent and Thérèse marry, but gradually, it seems that the fire in their romance is being extinguished as they are consumed with guilt over their deed. Eventually, Madame Raquin falls ill when she suffers a stroke that causes her to lose both the ability to speak and most of her ability to move. Things worsen between Laurent and Thérèse as they resent being required to care for her. When Madame Raquin overhears them talking, she realizes that both Laurent and Thérèse are equally responsible for her son’s death. Despite her infirmity, can Madame Raquin somehow inform the authorities about what she now knows or will Laurent and Thérèse literally get away with murder?


A case can certainly be made for “In Secret” being visually appealing; one class member commented on the costumes and someone else said the cinematographer’s lighting made certain shots appear as though they could have been a Rembrandt painting. Despite this, though, the movie doesn’t have very much going for it – including its title, which wasn’t terribly creative. The film is a bit corny and a few scenes evoked laughter from the audience, which was a bit uncomfortable since it wasn’t completely clear if they were in fact done with comic intent. Overall, I’d say you could probably either wait for this movie to appear on cable TV or even skip it altogether and instead read the Emile Zola novel on which it was based (“Thérèse Raquin”).

“In Secret” – in spite of whatever uncomfortably humorous moments, intended or not – takes a pretty dark turn the further into the story it progresses. Its primary problem is that it’s difficult to find a protagonist for whom to root in this story; at the outset, we feel compassion for Thérèse because of the unfortunate predicament – but because of her selfish nature, her character evolves into someone who is ultimately rather unsympathetic. Neither Madame Raquin nor Camille are sufficiently sympathetic either, although you could make an argument that you are rooting for Camille in absentia by virtue of the fact that the audience simply wants to see justice done.

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed former “Today” show co-host Jane Pauley, who was there to promote her new book, “Your Life Calling”. Pauley mentioned that even as a young woman, she was aware the fame she acquired from the “Today” show was not necessarily due to any particularly spectacular accomplishment or unusual talent; as she put it, she was a star who didn’t twinkle. Although people are often told, “follow your bliss” to make a career choice, Pauley felt she didn’t have any specific calling in her life until she realized late that she enjoyed telling other people’s stories. Since she came to this realization late in life, Pauley decided to assemble a book of stories about other Baby Boomers who substantially changed either their career or lifestyle after turning 50.

In Secret (2013) on IMDb 7.3/10215 votes

Thursday, February 13, 2014

“Winter’s Tale” – Movie Review




This week in my movie class, we saw the fantasy-drama, “Winter’s Tale”, starring Colin Farrell and Russell Crowe.


When a man thought to be dead a century ago suddenly reappears in the present day, he tries to avenge the death of his girlfriend – but will his devilish former employer, endowed with immortality, ruin his plans?


As an infant in the late 19th century, the parents of Peter Lake (Farrell) try to emigrate to the United States after sailing to New York City from Europe – but when they are denied entrance due to the father’s illness, they decide to leave their baby behind so that he may have a chance for a better life in America. Orphaned, a teenage Peter is eventually taken under the wing of Pearly Soames (Crowe) an evil gangster who leads a group of thieves; Pearly decides that Peter will become his protégé and teaches him how to become a master burglar. Peter then sets off in his new career as a youthful criminal.

Maturing, Peter realizes that this lifestyle is wrong, but when he tries to flee from Pearly’s clutches, Pearly sends his gang after him. During the chase, Peter finds a mystical white horse with special abilities; the horse helps him escape from Pearly’s gang – but Pearly won’t let it end there. Suddenly on his own, Peter realizes he needs one last burglary before he can go straight – but he aborts his attempt when breaking into the Manhattan home of the wealthy Penn family and discovers the beautiful Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), a talented pianist struck ill with consumption. The two fall in love with each other, but Beverly suddenly dies after being poisoned by Pearly; despite Peter’s best efforts, he cannot revive her.

In a later confrontation with Pearly, Peter is badly beaten and left for dead in the waters of The East River at the foot of The Brooklyn Bridge. After a century’s absence, Peter mysteriously resurfaces in the present day of New York City; he doesn’t appear to have aged, but he does seem to have amnesia as he can’t even remember his own name. Obsessing over an image of a young red-headed woman, he can’t recall that the image is of Beverly. Finding mementos from his past, Peter tries to jog his memory about who he is; in his journey, he encounters Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), a journalist with a cancer-stricken daughter who aids him. Meanwhile, Pearly, a demonic disciple of Lucifer, has survived all these decades; when he learns of Peter’s return, can Pearly stop Peter before he has a chance to save Virginia’s daughter?


Prior to the screening, our instructor lectured us on the unusual genre of “Winter’s Tale”, which is called “Magical Reality” – not quite fantasy, it is essentially a reality-based story that contains occasional magical occurrences interspersed throughout. Upon hearing this, I was immediately struck with a dreaded fear that this movie would be a real challenge for me; generally, I try to go into each one of these screenings with a more or less neutral feeling so I can at least make an attempt at being objective. Unfortunately, my worst fears were confirmed – “Winter’s Tale” is a confused mess of cluttered, mawkish thoughts on spirituality, miracles and love in its various forms.

This movie is of course based on the successful novel of the same name by author Mark Helprin; the screenplay was adapted by noted screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who also made his directorial debut with “Winter’s Tale”. Despite Goldsman’s rather impressive credentials, the storytelling technique in this film is particularly muddled; given how much trouble I had understanding the logic of the magical world these characters inhabited, it would be hard to fault the filmmaker for encountering similar difficulties. “Winter’s Tale” might be more well-received (and better understood) by those who actually read the novel that was its source material, as may have also been the case with “Cloud Atlas”.

Following the screening, our instructor read us some information from the production notes sent by the studio; this served to provide a little insight to the movie (and possibly, what went wrong here). When the studio initially read the script for the film, they determined that the budget necessary would likely be somewhere around $75 million, but they were unwilling to commit to that figure; instead, they decided on a budget of slightly more than half of that amount, $41 million. Goldsman was a huge fan of the novel and had long been interested in participating in its adaptation to the big screen. His desire to make this motion picture was restored after his wife passed away prematurely; Goldsman decided to donate his director’s fee to help fund the picture and called in a bunch of favors to people whom he’s known over the years – the big-name talent all worked for scale.

While “Winter’s Tale” may have been successful in serving as much-needed cathartic therapy for the mourning filmmaker, there’s not much of use for filmgoers. Romantics may flock to it in its Valentine’s Day weekend opening, but regardless of whether or not they are enthusiastic about it, the movie will likely fall off everyone’s radar rather quickly, I’m afraid.

Winter's Tale (2014) on IMDb 6.0/10127 votes

Thursday, February 06, 2014

“Omar” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the Palestinian thriller “Omar”, which has been nominated for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Academy Awards.


When a young Palestinian man is accused of killing an Israeli soldier, he tries to clear his name – but will doing so require him to betray his friends and lover?


Omar, a bakery worker from The West Bank, looks forward to his regular visits with childhood friends Tarek and Amjad. Whenever they get together, they practice paramilitary routines as they aspire to be freedom fighters who oppose what they view as the Israeli occupation of their rightful land. Tarek, the ostensible leader of their troika, plans to attack an Israeli army base so they can shoot one of the soldiers.  Secretly, Omar and Nadia, Tarek’s younger sister, are madly in love with each other. Together, the two conduct their romantic relationship chastely, in a chiefly epistolary manner.

On the night of their mission, Tarek informs Amjad that he must shoot the soldier. Despite his initial protests, Amjad eventually relents and pulls the trigger on the rifle, killing the Israeli guard. Amidst a barrage of return fire from the remaining soldiers in the base, the three young men escape – for now. Subsequently, Omar is arrested and through deceptive techniques by Agent Rami, an Israeli police officer, Omar inadvertently admits to having knowledge about the crime. Rami then coerces Omar into spying for him; Omar is then released so that he can attempt to clear himself of the murder.

Upon returning to his village, Omar is looked upon with great suspicion by his friends and neighbors alike. Loyal to him, however, is Nadia, who believes he is innocent, but still wants to know the truth. Following another arrest when he is part of an attempted ambush on other Israelis, Omar is now confronted with the reality that he must either face a life-long prison term or do the bidding of Agent Rami in order to remain a free man. But when Omar begins to suspect that his friends may have betrayed him in various ways, will he remain loyal to them or will he turn into a traitor in order to save himself?


As a thriller, “Omar” attempts to focus more on the lead’s friendships and romance. However, it seems virtually impossible for any Palestinian movie to be completely absent of any political aspects, especially when Israel is involved. Given the tempestuous and acrimonious relationship the two have had for so long, it would admittedly be hard to imagine otherwise. That said, I don’t think that it would be either fair or accurate to say this film is clean of any political axe-grinding any more than it would be fair or accurate to say that it is some kind of political thriller. In point of fact, I suppose it is probably somewhere in between.

When watching “Omar”, I tried to look for what made this worthy of an Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Foreign Film. While I had some trouble with the way the story was laid out – both in terms of the script and visual techniques – I can certainly see what aspects there were to appreciate. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the nomination was done simply for political purposes – to encourage Palestinian filmmaking as a way of expressing disagreements in favor of blowing up innocent people. If that was the case, good luck. Strengths of the movie include the way the action scenes were shot and the suspenseful twists and turns of double and triple-crosses.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed “Omar”’s director Hany Abu-Assad and one of its stars, Waleed Zuaiter, who played Agent Rami. The movie was shot over a period of about a month and a half for a budget of approximately $1.5 million. Abu-Assad sent the script to Zuaiter after previously seeing him in various other motion pictures and stage plays; he asked Zuaiter to read the script and consider playing the role of Agent Rami. Zuaiter wound up not only agreeing to play the part of Rami, but also offered to assist Abu-Assad in raising money to fund the picture. For many of the crew working on the film, this was their first experience as a primary participant; their previous jobs had been assisting on other projects.

Omar (2013) on IMDb 7.8/10970 votes


Sunday, February 02, 2014

Great Scot! It’s A Burns Day Celebration!



Did you have a happy Burns Day?  What’s Burns Day, you ask?  Well, if you’re fan of a certain brown-colored spirit manufactured in Scotland, then you may already know – but if you don’t, I’ll be more than glad to explain.  Robert Burns was a Scottish poet whose birthday is celebrated around the world (but especially in The United Kingdom) every January 25th.  He is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to the song many of us sing every New Year’s Eve. “Auld Lang Syne” and for a certain poem called “Address To A Haggis”, dedicated to a rather infamous Scottish comestible that has been the brunt of many jokes over the years (including a few by Yours Truly).  By now, you may be asking, “OK, so what’s a haggis?”.  All in good time, my dear friends, all in good time  …


The array of Scotch Whiskies was intimidating (to put it mildly), so I decided to take it a bit more slowly and instead try the cocktails.  Naturally, I began with the one named after the day’s guest of honor, The Bobby Burns Cocktail. 


Made with Scotch, Carpano Antica, Benedictine and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters, this tasty treat is sure to make Mr. Burns proud.  Served in a coupe glass, you’ll notice that it’s garnished with an orange peel; this garnish should not be underrated because it’s the real key to making this drink work – the outer side of the peel is run around the rim of the glass so that you can inhale the sweet scent of orange as you imbibe.  Should you choose to make this drink on your own, don’t neglect the garnish!

Next was The Highland Mule.  This cocktail consists of a Highland Scotch, ginger syrup, orgeat and lime juice.  Again, let’s focus on the garnish here, which in this case was a lime wheel.  Notice that the lime wheel goes for a swim in the drink rather than having a small slice in one side and perched along the rim of the glass.  I asked the bartender about her choice here and she said that it was merely for the sake of appearance – she thought it looked better.  While that may be true, I would suggest that there might be more to it than that.  Dunking the lime wheel into the mixture allows some of the flavor of the lime to be imparted to the cocktail and vice versa, for those who like to nibble on the garnish afterward. 


Last but not least was something called The Kings County Punch – Scotch, cherry heering, lemon juice and a splash of club soda.   Normally, I don’t particularly care for anything that would be branded as a “punch” because they can tend to be a bit too sweet for my taste.  In the case of Kings County Punch, however, the other ingredients managed to cut through the sweetness added by the cherry heering, making it somewhat more palatable to me. 


OK, I guess I’ve kept you all in suspense long enough.  Did I try the haggis?  Yes.  What was it like?  Well, hold on to your neeps and tatties boys and girls, here we go …


First of all, just what exactly is haggis?  A good question.  I ate it and I’m still not sure what it is.  Technically, it’s considered a pudding, but not the sweet kind with which you might be familiar.  It consists of sheep innards (such as heart, liver and lungs) combined with spices, salt, onion and other ingredients; the mixture is then packed into the sheep’s stomach, sewn up and simmered for hours in a stock before serving.  Sound yummy yet?


Since this was Burns Day after all, the haggis could not be served without first reading Robert Burns’ poem, “Address To A Haggis”; normally, the poem is recited and a bagpiper plays.  Unfortunately, there was no bagpiper available, but what we did have was a rather fun dramatic performance of the poem, at which point the haggis was sliced with a knife to great cheers from the crowd.  


The haggis was served with the traditional neeps and tatties – or boiled turnips and potatoes mashed up together.  So how was it?  I have to admit in all honesty that it wasn’t bad.  It’s a little embarrassing for me to have to say this after all of the years I’ve spent making jokes about this stuff.  Would I eat it again?  Put it this way – at this celebration, I had two helpings!  As far as the turnips and potatoes were concerned, this was a far more conventional taste to me – very reminiscent of Thanksgiving dinner.