Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Film Society Of Lincoln Center Honors Rob Reiner



This week, I attended The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s honoring of filmmaker Rob Reiner at the 41st Annual Chaplin Award Gala.

The star-studded evening included tributes by James Caan, Carol Kane, Michael Douglas, Meg Ryan & Billy Crystal; at the end, the award was presented to Reiner by Martin Scorsese, who directed Reiner in “Wolf Of Wall Street”. There were also previously recorded video tributes by Morgan Freeman, Tom Cruise, Mandy Patinkin and Reiner’s father, Carl.

Presenters gave speeches in praise of Reiner, then introduced film clips from various movies Reiner was involved with, either as director or actor. Although references were made to Reiner’s years playing “Meathead” on the old television sit-com “All In The Family”, the evening contained no film clips from that show.

Among the highlights of the evening was when Billy Crystal joined Meg Ryan on stage as co-presenters to talk about making “When Harry Met Sally”; Crystal was his usual funny self and said that this was about as close to a sequel to “When Harry Met Sally” as we were going to get.

One of the funnier stories from the evening had to do with the infamous fake orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally”. Meg Ryan’s first few takes weren’t exactly what Reiner was looking for, so he sat at the table with Billy Crystal to demonstrate more of what he wanted (“I felt like I was on a date with Sebastian Cabot”, Crystal joked). In the end, Reiner was dying of embarrassment because his fake orgasm was witnessed by his mother, who was on the set for that scene (you may recall she was one of the restaurant customers who witnessed Ryan’s fake orgasm and reacted by saying the line, “I’ll have what she’s having!”).


Reiner’s career in show business was only part of the evening’s tribute. Also discussed was Reiner’s political activism throughout the years; he has a reputation for being quite sympathetic to liberal causes in the Hollywood community and has often contributed his own time and money to causes particularly meaningful to him – one of the more recent ones being marriage equality.

Michael McKean spoke about working with Reiner on “Spinal Tap” (the scene with the amps set to 11 was shown) while Carol Kane discussed her scenes with Billy Crystal in “Princess Bride” (she said that Reiner ruined the takes because he laughed so much at Crystal’s improvised jokes).

Michael Douglas talked about not only working on the Reiner-directed “American President”, but also acting with Reiner early in his career in a little known movie (“Summertree”, from which a clip was shown).

At the end, Martin Scorsese made a speech before presenting Reiner with his award. He revealed that he always secretly thought that Reiner was spoofing him when he appeared as the documentary director in “Spinal Tap”; basically, he believed Reiner was sending up Scorsese’s work on “The Last Waltz”, a documentary about the rock group The Band.

Finally, one negative note about the evening was the fact that Lincoln Center had abruptly changed the time of the event and I was almost late for the beginning; although the ticket showed a time of 8PM, they apparently had switched the start to 7PM. Fortunately, I got there early, but had just taken my seat about a minute after the ceremonies began.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

“Belle”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the historical drama “Belle”, with Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson.


In 18th century England, an illegitimate mulatto girl is brought into her wealthy white father’s family – but will she be accepted as part of the family or will she forever be considered an outsider?


Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a Captain in Britain’s Royal Navy during the 1700’s, finally meets his illegitimate daughter, Dido Belle, after her mother – a freed slave – passes away. Lindsay brings Dido to his family’s estate and introduces her to his uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Watson), who are immediately taken aback by the fact that the girl is half-black. Despite their skepticism that Dido will fit in, they care for her while Capt. Lindsay returns to his duties at sea. Quickly adapting to her new home and family, Dido soon befriends her cousin Elizabeth, who becomes more like her sister as well as her best friend.

Nearly a decade later, when Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) grow into adulthood, Dido is informed that her father has passed away and as his most immediate heir, will now inherit his fortune. Continuing to live with the family at their estate, Dido struggles to enter the British aristocracy due to her mixed race background. Believing that it will be unlikely she’ll ever find an appropriate suitor, Lord and Lady Mansfield decide that Dido should be charged with taking care of the estate instead of having the false hope of ever marrying and raising her own family. However, when Dido and Elizabeth are introduced to brothers James and Oliver Ashford (Tom Felton and James Norton), everyone is surprised when Oliver shows a definite interest in Dido, despite his brother’s misgivings.

Dido meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar and an aspiring lawyer when he attempts to work under the tutelage of Lord Mansfield, a judge. Although they have a rough going at the outset, it eventually becomes clear to both that Dido and John are drawn to each other – but despite professing his love for her, the fact that he is not high in the ranking of the British aristocracy causes Dido to doubt whether she should pursue a more serious relationship with him. When Oliver subsequently proposes to Dido, she initially accepts, but begins to question whether or not she should go through with it when she is confronted by James’ racism. Will Dido be able to overlook James’ objections to her being brought into his family or will John prove to her that he is more deserving of her love than Oliver?


While “Belle” may insist that it’s based on a true story, the way in which it has been told in the movie is a bit too tidy to be considered an actual account of a significant incident in a person’s true life. That said, as a film it seems to work on its own merits – but mainly if you forget about its supposed historical derivation. As strange as it may sound, the story this motion picture tells will almost feel more real if you temporarily forget that it is based on a person who really existed centuries ago. Although “Belle” ostensibly is about racism, it is also – and perhaps more so – about socioeconomic class struggle, regardless of race; what differentiates it, of course, is that it is told within the framework of 18th century British aristocracy.

As both a period piece and costume drama, “Belle” may certainly be enjoyed on those levels, independent of the story. The screenplay occasionally gets in its own way, making certain relationships and events a bit unclear; contributing to this potential confusion is the way that it has been directed – because some of characters may sometimes look a little too similar to each other, recalling who they are can be a bit of a chore at times, taxing the memory of the audience in certain scenes. Although I enjoyed “Belle” somewhat more than I anticipated, I would have to give it a borderline recommendation, despite its earnest attempts.

Following the screening, our instructor provided the class with some interesting information from the production notes supplied by the studio. Apparently, while a number of the characters in “Belle” actually existed during the stated time period, many of the incidents portrayed in this drama did not; as a result, this movie might arguably fall into the category of “historical fiction” – it presents verisimilitude in the absence of historically accurate facts. The reason why this seems to have been done – again, based on what we were told by the production notes – is that when researching the character of Dido, the screenwriter found precious little in the way of details about her, so the writer fictionalized a good deal of the plot. However, among the things that are historically accurate are the portrait as well as the court case highlighted in its final act.



Belle (2013) on IMDb



Thursday, April 17, 2014

“Transcendence”– Movie Review



This week, the Spring Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the new science fiction drama, “Transcendence”, starring Johnny Depp.


When a technologist is poisoned by a terrorist group, his mind gets uploaded to the supercomputer he’s built in order to resume his work – but when his plans spin out of control, can he be stopped before things go too far?


Will Caster (Depp) is a technologist determined to continue a project developing a powerful neural network designed to surpass the classic model of Artificial Intelligence systems: Instead of learning via heuristics, it acquires knowledge and experience from a wide variety of sources, whether they be publicly available records, photographs or even information from deep within another person’s brain. Since it’s designed to transcend traditional Artificial Intelligence, he calls the technology Transcendence. However, in order to proceed with his research, he needs to raise money, so he reluctantly gives a talk to a collection of potential investors in the hope they will help fund his work.

But there are forces at work who wish to block Caster’s efforts. RIFT is an anti-technology terrorist group that sees Caster’s work as sacrilegious; they interpret his intentions as playing the role of God. As a result, they attempt to assassinate Caster; although he initially survives the bullet and recuperates, Caster is subsequently hospitalized.  Lab tests reveal that he’s suffering from radiation poisoning as a result of chemicals laced on the bullet that penetrated his skin; with the poison working its way through Caster’s system and no way to treat it, physicians give him a fatal prognosis.

Despite the fact that Caster knows he’s dying, he is steadfast about having the work advance; towards this end, he has his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) upload his brain to the Transcendence system to give him not only immortality but also the ability to further improve the sophistication of the computer network. However, not long after Caster enters the system, things appear to go awry when the power at his disposal allows him to control others, turning them into a form of android. When Evelyn finally comes to terms with what has happened, can she join RIFT in order to stop Caster or will RIFT’s worst fears become realized?


It would seem that after the misfire of last year’s “Lone Ranger”, Johnny Depp is now in Damage Control Mode with “Transcendence” – the only problem is that with this movie, he’s only dug himself a deeper whole, career-wise. I can’t imagine too many people – either critics or consumers – liking this film. It’s boring and confusing; I must admit that I had a difficult time understanding this rather muddled story. At times, it tries to make a nod to such predecessors as “The Matrix”, touching somewhat on religion, politics and the theme of everlasting love, in addition to technology’s power. While it tries for a bit of timeliness – technology’s intrusion of our personal lives – its reach exceeds its grasp.

Perhaps the reason for this costly mistake (I’m given to understand the budget was somewhere in the vicinity of $120 million) may lie at the feet of its first-time director, Wally Pfister. Pfister, whose main experience is as a cinematographer, seems to have lost sight of the story in favor of making pretty pictures – a not uncommon problem when a cinematographer directs his first feature. This can be a challenge to overcome as it requires a significant shift in perspective from the technical aspects to narrative story structure. Whether or not Pfister gets another turn at bat to sharpen his directing skills may depend on the success (or lack thereof) of “Transcendence”.

One of the reasons why “Transcendence” is hard to follow is because there’s a considerable amount of story that gets lost in the sauce: too many characters to remember (and their relation to Caster isn’t always clear); too many plot points glossed over; confusion over protagonist vs. antagonist (characters’ roles change at various points, possibly throwing the audience a bit off balance for a while). Another thing that hurts the movie is that Depp’s character is seen in a head-and-shoulders shot on a computer monitor during the majority of the film; his “virtual” relationships with the other characters is about as two-dimensional as the image on the monitor.

Transcendence (2014) on IMDb


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cocktails Of “Mad Men”




If you’re as much of a fan as I am of AMC’s television show “Mad Men”, then you’re likely both anticipating and dreading this season – looking forward to it because it’s been a while since the previous season ended and you’re anxious to see how The Draper Drama continues.  But at the same time, you’re dolefully aware of the fact that you’re facing the beginning of the end – the seventh season of “Mad Men” will be its last.  One of the things that this successful series has re-introduced to our society is the drinking culture that was so prevalent back in those days.  So, it was with great pleasure that I took a class at The Astor Center of New York City called “Cocktail Classics:  The Mad Men Era” taught by Lauren Davis. 



Upon entry, we were welcomed with a cocktail – The Gimlet.  Fans of “Mad Men” will recall that Betty Draper ordered a Gimlet in season 1 when she went to a bar; while the Gimlet we had was made of gin, it was not uncommon then to make Gimlets with vodka.  In “Mad Men”, Lauren said that drinking is considered to be just an additional character added to the cast – it is the crucial element which causes other things to happen. 



The character of Roger Sterling was rather partial to martinis, as evinced by the fact that he always kept a bottle of vodka (Smirnoff) in his office.  As a result, the first cocktail we made this evening was the martini – except that we made ours with gin instead of vodka because our instructor properly noted that gin adds more flavor.  Frequently, you may hear about or see martinis shaken, but Lauren correctly pointed out that they should be stirred because their ingredients are all booze (cocktails that contain juice should be shaken).  She said that stirring the martini keeps a silky smooth texture to it that you cannot get by shaking, which dilutes the martini with melted ice. 


The mixing glass in which the cocktail is stirred should be filled with cracked ice; you can crack ice by taking an ordinary ice cube and hitting it hard with the back end of a bar spoon. Our instructor informed us that the martini was originally called The Mahoney Cocktail  and was made with half vermouth, a fortified wine that is less popular now than it was in the 1950’s.  

Vodka, we were told, became popular after World War II because it had no taste and it allowed other ingredients to flavor the cocktail.  Additionally, it was felt that gin had too much flavor and was considered old fashioned – a spirit that grandpa used to drink prior to Prohibition. 

Next, we made The Old Fashioned.  Although Canadian Club was a whisky made popular in The United States during Prohibition (it was frequently smuggled into this country from our neighbors to the north), Rye was the whisky that became popular in America after prohibition, once the distilleries were given permission to restart; a spicy spirit, it was frequently used in The Manhattan.  In one episode of “Mad Men”, we saw how Don Draper made an Old Fashioned, arguably his favorite cocktail before he ultimately switched to straight whisky.  In this video clip, we see his technique – but be warned, this is not the proper way to prepare the cocktail.



We finished the evening by making a Mai Tai, a cocktail associated to The Tiki Culture.  How does The Mai Tai connect to “Mad Men”?  Well, the instructor believes that this was a cocktail popular with many of Don Draper’s dates.  The Tiki Culture came to be something of a fad in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Post-World War II, the south pacific was seen as an exotic location and lifestyle which resulted in influences on dress, drink preferences, restaurants and bars.  Very kitschy, this style is now viewed as more ironic and humorous.  The Mai Tai is best made in a shaker filled with crushed ice; add a mint sprig to garnish, but don’t muddle it – instead, just smack it with the palms of your hands to awaken its scent, then place it in the Collins glass (add a straw to sip).


Thursday, April 10, 2014

WhiskyLive 2014 New York City



After missing last year’s event, I was fortunate to return this year to New York City’s annual springtime whisky celebration, WhiskyLive, held at The Chelsea Piers.

As the popularity of the brown spirit seems to grow by leaps and bounds every year, one thing that never ceases to amaze me is the number of players who wish to enter the manufacturing game, both nationally and abroad. While we have been long accustomed to whiskies from The United States, Canada, Ireland and Scotland, recent years have seen other countries make their own offerings; by now, many whisky aficionados know well the quality of Japanese products, but there are other countries you would least expect that have come to the market. WhiskyLive 2014 in New York City gave me the opportunity to taste whiskies from France, India and Bhutan!



Brenne Whisky has a unique flavor to it and is a whisky which I highly recommend you try if you’re looking for something different; if you’re also a brandy drinker, you might enjoy Brenne as well. The reason I say that is because Brenne is made in the Cognac region of France; French Cognac is considered to be among the best types of brandy in the world, due in part to its manufacturing process, which is as strict as that of Champagne. When tasting Brenne, the primary distinguishing factor is its finish – you can really get a sense of the Cognac influence on the back of your palate. Aged for eight years, it starts out spending five years in French Oak barrels, then is moved to Cognac barrels for its final three years. Specifically, they use XO Cognac barrels since XO Cognac is the most mature form, spending 10 years or more aging in the barrel.



Amrut is a single malt whisky made in India – with occasional help from The United Kingdom. On this evening, they were pouring their original product in addition to three others: their peated version, an expression called Fusion and concluding with something called Old Port Deluxe. Their original product is aged for three years in American Oak and ex-bourbon barrels, which becomes immediately apparent both on the nose and on the tongue. Their peated version uses peat imported from Scotland; although it’s peated, it doesn’t have the overwhelming smokiness to it that you might expect. This is due to the fact that the time it takes to transport the peat from Scotland to India allows it an opportunity to mellow a bit. Fusion is a combination of their original product with the peated version; specifically, 75% is the single malt and 25% is peated. Old Port Deluxe contains butterscotch and vanilla notes; aged in new oak barrels, its taste is influenced by its location – at 3,000 feet above sea level, the heat and humidity make the aging process similar to that of whiskies made in Kentucky.



And now for something completely different: a whisky from The Himalayas! Spirits Of Bhutan has a product called K5 Premium Spirit Whisky. Made in Scotland, it’s actually distilled in Bhutan, where they add natural spring water from The Himalayan Mountains at a distillery nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. A blend of vatted malts aged anywhere from eight to 12 years, it spends a significant amount of its time in casks formerly used to age sherry. This entire operation is completely supervised by The Army Welfare Project (AWP), the commercial arm of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA); according to Wikipedia, AWP provides benefits for retired RBA members (e.g., employment, pensions, loans).