Thursday, June 26, 2014

“I Am Big Bird”– Movie Review




This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” .


Puppeteer Caroll Spinney has been playing the role of Big Bird on the Public Television Show “Sesame Street” for over 40 years; in this documentary, we learn how his background informed his puppetry and how he endured various challenges in both his personal and professional life.


Nearly 80 years old, puppeteer Caroll Spinney has spent about half his life portraying a very famous character on a wildly-popular television show. Although his might not be a household name and no one recognizes him when he walks the streets of New York City, he is famous all around the world because he plays the character Big Bird on TV’s “Sesame Street”; because of the longevity of both the show and the character, both are beloved by not only children but also by adults who grew up watching “Sesame Street” when they were children themselves. However, Spinney’s life, both before and during his long success, has been considerably less idyllic than either his character or the TV show that spawned it might suggest.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Spinney was the youngest of three sons; he was close to his mother, an artist, who strongly encouraged Spinney’s creative side when she became aware of his love of puppetry. On the other hand, his relationship with his father was quite difficult; the father had quite a temper and even as a small boy who almost never got into trouble, Spinney was able to raise his father’s ire with just about anything he did. The father developed a low opinion of his son and was convinced he would amount to nothing in life. Spinney wound up joining the military to escape his father; upon leaving the service, he resumed his dream of being a puppeteer by getting work on various television shows, including and especially Bozo The Clown.

After meeting Jim Henson at a puppetry convention, Spinney was invited to join The Muppets as “Sesame Street” was in its nascent form. Although he initially had a hard time fitting in with the rest of the group, Spinney found he was more comfortable performing as a puppeteer on his own when he played characters such as Big Bird and the trashcan-dwelling Oscar The Grouch. With Big Bird seen as being an overgrown six year old child, many of the children in the audience were immediately drawn to the character as they found him to be easily relatable and non-threatening. But in later years, when the show developed other popular characters such as Elmo, would Big Bird still be able to sustain his success?


While “I Am Big Bird” gives an interesting insight behind the man behind the puppet, it does beg the question, “Why are we being told this story?”. I suppose the argument can be made that while Spinney himself may not be well known, the show and the puppets he portrays are very famous both around the country and around the world; add to that the fact that he’s the lone surviving puppeteer from the original Muppets team that is still working on “Sesame Street” and there’s probably justification for a documentary. That said, I think the filmmakers had to work hard to make this interesting in terms of adding external conflict to Spinney’s story – the man isn’t exactly the most volatile or controversial personality you’ve ever encountered.

For all of the mild-mannered nature that Spinney appears to have, he does sometimes come across as a bit of a ham – maybe a necessary attribute if you’re going to be a puppeteer. However, the fact that he’s not much of a team player – he preferred to perform as a lone character rather than as a part of a group of puppets – certainly does suggest he’s got quite an ego despite his soft-spoken demeanor. The documentary seems to be something of a puff piece for its subject – Spinney comes across as a flawless, almost saint-like character. Although mention is made that his decade long first marriage ended in divorce, he makes it clear that it was all his ex-wife’s fault and he was entirely blameless. Is it true? Who knows? But even if it is, it doesn’t make for much of a dramatically compelling character in a documentary.

Following the screening, Spinney was interviewed by our instructor. He talked a bit about the technical aspects of the Big Bird puppet. In the documentary, we saw that when Spinney is in the Big Bird costume, he has to wear a miniature television strapped to his chest so he can see everything going on around him since he’s unable to view out of the costume itself; he mentioned in the interview that it’s more difficult now to tape the script above the camera because there are now more pages than there used to be (the scripts have gotten considerably wordier over the years). Additionally, he mentioned that high definition television has not exactly been kind to the Big Bird character; the costume simulates movement of the character’s right wing by using fishing wire that loops through the underside of the beak – although this was never a problem in the old days, the wire is now visible when watching the show on HDTV. While the Big Bird costume was a little too bulky to transport, he did bring along the Oscar The Grouch puppet and performed as that character for a while, conducting part of the interview as Oscar.

  I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014) on IMDb


Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Jersey Boys”– Movie Review



This week, the Summer Semester of my movie class began with a screening of “Jersey Boys”, the musical drama directed by Clint Eastwood.


When four young men from northern New Jersey form a singing group, they attempt to make a career in show business – but will competition and internal conflicts impede their success?


In the early 1950’s, life choices were limited if you grew up in a blue collar town of northern New Jersey: if you wanted out of the area altogether, you either entered a life of crime, signed up for the armed forces or went into show business. For Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and his friends, going into show business was their only viable option. These young men formed a band and Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), one of its leaders, invited Frankie to be their lead singer; with his unusual falsetto voice, this musical group would be sure to stand out. Together, they played at every opportunity they could get, finally recording a demo tape they submitted to music industry professionals in the hope of being signed to a recording contract.

Soon, they would find that with so many aspiring performers attempting to knock on the door of fame, being discovered as a new musical talent was more of a challenge than they had anticipated. Their luck takes a turn for the better when they run into Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), a music producer who hires them to sing back-up on other people’s records. Eventually, they tire of this and express a desire to record their own tunes, written by fellow band member Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen); Crewe tells them that if they can raise the money to pay for the studio time, he will record them. Unfortunately, Tommy’s only way of raising the money is through his connections with organized crime, which he has due to his association with gangster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken).

Between Bob’s songwriting talent and Frankie’s unusual singing style, their act, now known as The Four Seasons, gradually starts piling up one hit single after another and they discover that they have somehow beaten the odds and managed to achieve the level of success they dreamed. They find, however, that this success only breeds new problems instead of making them deliriously happy. Internecine squabbles begin to tear things apart. When Tommy’s fiscal irresponsibility puts their group nearly a million dollars in debt with the mob, Frankie assumes the onus of paying back the money by working it off over time. But in order to do so, will he be able to balance both his personal and professional life?


To be up front about this: Despite being a New Yorker, I’ve never seen the Broadway musical version of “Jersey Boys”, so if you’re hoping for a comparison between the play and the movie, you’ll have to look elsewhere. That said, much of the story in the movie adaptation of “Jersey Boys” is narrated by its characters; rather than a voiceover narration, this is done by having each band member taking a turn at directly addressing the audience on camera. While this technique of talking to the audience while on stage may have worked effectively in the Broadway play on which this movie is based, I found this to be a bit off-putting and disconcerting when utilized in the film version.

Although there are movies that have done this in the past – the technique is certainly not new – it has been done sparingly. “Ferris Bueller”, “Goodfellas” and “Annie Hall” are films that come immediately to mind in this regard; while the style was implemented here, it was done with a specific intent and in order to set a tone in the story. In “Jersey Boys”, the narrator changes, so you are not being told the story from a single perspective (some have inappropriately and unfairly compared it to “Rashomon”); another way in which it becomes confusing is one particular scene where Frankie is seen in a room talking and the audience does not see anyone else in the shot. Is he talking to himself? Is he addressing the audience? In fact, it turns out he is having a conversation with another character in a different room.  One positive note was the performance by Piazza; although the character of Valli is the star, it is Piazza’s portrayal of DeVito that really stands out – he really nails the regional accent accurately (not surprising since I’ve heard he’s from New York City originally). 

Another problem I had with “Jersey Boys” is with respect to its ending. The movie tracks 40 years in the life of these men – from the early 1950’s to the early 1990’s; after that, when the film is effectively over for all intents and purposes, there is what you might refer to as an “encore” – the motion picture seems to flashback to The Four Seasons’ heyday in the 1960’s where the group is performing a medley of their hits on a street corner, presumably in their old neighborhood in New Jersey (a cheesy looking and unconvincing back-lot set at Warner Brothers). They are soon joined by all of the other characters who had appeared in the picture. I found this to be not only gratuitous but cringe-worthy as well. Apparently, Eastwood was afraid that there might be some backlash over the fact that he didn’t include enough of the performance of The Four Seasons’ songs in his picture as I’m given to understand there are in the play.

Jersey Boys (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

“To Have And Have Another”– Book Review




If you’re a fan of cocktails or Ernest Hemingway or (like me) both, then “To Have And Have Another” by Philip Greene is a must read for you.

Both a quick and fun read, this book is a compendium of many different types of cocktails that Hemingway either referenced in his writing or enjoyed himself (and frequently, both).  In addition to containing the name and recipe of each cocktail, “To Have And Have Another” is extensively annotated with the short stories and novels where the drink was mentioned.  Greene uses an effervescent writing style to provide not only a history of the cocktail but also how it came to be known by Hemingway; it’s clear from his descriptions that he had a great deal of fun both researching and writing his book. 

What makes Greene’s book particularly delightful is the fact the chapters can be read out of order; if there’s a specific cocktail you want to learn more about, then you can read that chapter by itself and not have to worry if you’ve missed anything vital in any previous chapters.  Alternatively, if you merely want to locate drinks connected to a particular novel or short story, then it can easily be done by looking at the Suggested Reading section at the beginning of each chapter.  There are also quite a few photographs of Hemingway from the good old days and old post-Prohibition advertisements of various spirits. 

Why should you read this book if you’re not a big Hemingway fan?  Well, if you don’t admire the writer, my first question would be, “Just what the hell is wrong with you anyway?”.  But be that as it may, even if you don’t care that much about Hemingway – but you are a big fan of cocktails – then there’s still plenty here to love.  Clearly, the author has a strong passion for both aspects – cocktails and Hemingway.  When you consider his background, it’s no wonder; Greene is one of the founders of The Museum Of The American Cocktail in New Orleans. 

Despite the fact that the author is a Hemingway enthusiast, he is not in denial about the writer’s many flaws and shortcomings.  Greene admits that Hemingway indulged in drink to excess, which may account for the many personal problems the man encountered in his life.  Where Hemingway may have had discipline when it came to writing, he appeared to lack discipline when it came to drinking.  That said, the author is instead addressing people who are not out of control when it comes to their admiration of either Hemingway or fine cocktails.  

Although the chapters may be read in any order as alluded to earlier, they are not randomly organized; instead, they appear in alphabetical order based on the name of the spirit or cocktail that is the focus of that particular chapter – it starts with Absinthe and ends with the gin-based cocktail called The White Lady.  As to which one was my favorite chapter, it’s hard to say.  I love the drink called Death In The Afternoon (named after the Hemingway book) so I enjoyed that one quite a good deal.  Additionally, the chapter on Martinis was quite good; although the chapters in this book are generally short, this was by far the longest chapter. 


Monday, June 09, 2014

“Le Chef”– Movie Review




This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the French comedy “Le Chef” starring Jean Reno and Michaël Youn.


When a famous chef is threatened with losing his job, will he be able to adapt to the new ideas from an aspiring chef in order to survive – even if it means abandoning some classic dishes in favor of molecular gastronomy?


Alexandre (Reno) is a highly-regarded chef of classical French cuisine; with his own television show and proudly cooking for a three-star restaurant, he has attained a rare level of success and notoriety in his country. Unfortunately, the executive at the management company that now owns the restaurant is looking to improve the business by updating the cuisine – and that involves getting rid of Alexandre, whom he believes is just too staid and unwilling to change or to try anything new and daring. Deep down, Alexandre suspects that he may be right – his success has made him too comfortable in what he already knows.

Jacky (Youn) is an aspiring chef who hasn’t yet found the right opportunity. In fact, he keeps getting fired from every cooking job he’s had because he’s just a little too fancy for the clientele dining wherever it is he’s working. This is becoming increasingly problematic due to the fact that his girlfriend is pregnant with their first child and she is demanding he have a steady income so that they can maintain some security and stability in order to raise their child. Ultimately, he winds up having to take a non-cooking position temporarily just as a subsistence job (and to keep his girlfriend off his back).

The executive devises a plan for getting Alexandre out: he’s inviting professional food critics to the restaurant to sample the new Spring menu. If their review is sufficiently negative that the restaurant loses one star of its three-star rating, then contractually, Alexandre can be fired. When Alexandre learns of Jacky’s cooking abilities – not to mention his detailed knowledge of Alexandre’s many inventive recipes over the years – he hires Jacky on a temporary basis to help him at the restaurant. But when Jacky suggests changing some of Alexandre’s classic recipes and including molecular gastronomy dishes on the new menu, will Alexandre be able to embrace the revolution in order to save his position or will he remain stubborn and resist any and all change?


Just as some cooking follows a recipe, so does certain filmmaking follow a formula. That appears to be the case in “Le Chef”, which has the feel of filmmakers who went down a list checking off boxes for every scene. Except for the fact that we’re in a different setting – the world of French fine dining restaurants – “Le Chef” has the déjà vu look and feel; we’ve seen this movie before. Same wine in a different bottle – except this one hasn’t aged terribly well. Despite excellent performances by Jean Reno and Michaël Youn, the material they have to work with is not quite as interesting.

After a while, “Le Chef” seems to go off the rails a bit when its comedy turns unexpectedly and inappropriately broad. Specifically, there is a scene where Alexandre and Jacky decide to go on a spying mission by visiting a competitor’s restaurant in order to see how the chef there pulls off the whole molecular gastronomy gimmick. They wind up going incognito for fear that they would be recognized; the disguises they wear for this scene are way over the top and are more reminiscent of an old Jerry Lewis movie (well, these filmmakers are French, after all … ).

“Le Chef” is a rather short film, coming in at under an hour and a half; while this generally tends to work well for comedies, it might be more the case that this came about as a result of the material being so thin. The filmmakers try to take on quite a good deal of other matters here, including Alexandre’s personal life; he has a dysfunctional relationship with his grown daughter who resents him for ignoring her throughout her childhood in favor of his career. This is wrapped up a little too neatly and it’s also unclear why Alexandre got custody of the daughter in the divorce. There is also another subplot that involves Alexandre exploring a possible romance, but that doesn’t go too far (nor did it need to). 

Le Chef (2012) on IMDb  

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Strong Cocktails




For well over a century, our culture has had an alluring appeal towards strong stirred cocktails.  It was with this thought in mind that I enrolled in a class at The Astor Center of New York City called, “Martinis, Manhattans And More”, taught by Jenn Smith. 


Strong cocktails are usually stirred for a very good reason:  stirring in ice makes the drink cold and dilutes it without aeration; shaking with ice also makes the drink cold, but in addition, creates air bubbles for a lighter, frothier texture.  Stirring cools, but leaves the drink with a heavier texture; the tongue is coated and the drinks tend to have a higher flavor profile.  Shaking waters down a cocktail.  Water that results from melted ice has a tendency to increase the volume of a cocktail (sometimes by as much as 25%); the water also impacts the smell, taste and balance of a cocktail.  Since spirits have a higher alcohol content than wine, the water from the melted ice can make a cocktail seem less strong. 


Cocktail 1-2

When making a cocktail to be stirred, fill the glass to its top with ice after adding all of the ingredients; you put the ice in last because if you put it in first, it would melt and further dilute the cocktail.  Use a long bar spoon to reach the bottom of the glass; when stirring, be sure to move the entire contents of the glass together.  When stirring, the back portion of the spoon (known as the convex) should be against the glass; the stirring should be quiet – if you hear a clicking sound while stirring, you’re not doing it properly.  The bar spoon should be held much in the same way as if you are holding a pencil to write.  Stir until you see the liquid level rise a bit. 

Cocktail 3-4

In the 1600’s, gin was originally used primarily for medicinal purposes due to its main ingredient of juniper; in particular, it was popularly applied for gastrointestinal illnesses.  The first gins were Dutch with a combination of malt and juniper, giving them a lightly sweet taste that eventually evolved into what we know of as genever.  Old Tom gin started in the 1800’s; this was also quite sweet but considerably less malty and had light citrus notes (primarily lemon).   


Vermouth was later discovered to be useful in mixing cocktails by aromatizing the drinks and is used to fortify neutral spirits.  One of its best qualities as part of a cocktail’s recipe is the fact that it is extremely absorbent when combined with other ingredients.  As a fortified wine, it can have a long shelf life if refrigerated; the word “vermouth” is actually the German word for “wormwood”, one of the main parts of absinthe. Although it started in Germany, Italy made an art of it by using red wine; this produced the “sweet” vermouth known as “rosso”.  By contrast, the French made theirs with white wine, producing what eventually came to be known as “dry” vermouth. 



Monday, June 02, 2014

“Hitch-22”– Book Review



Recently, I finished reading “Hitch-22”, the memoirs of journalist, author, gadfly and one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century, the late Christorpher Hitchens. 

For all of the risks and controversy he experienced throughout his far-too-short life, Hitchens appeared to play it somewhat safe in writing these memoirs.  Normally a more daring man, Hitchens refused to reveal who he really was when given the opportunity to do so – or at least that appears to be the case for the overwhelming majority of the book.  The very beginning chapters and the final chapter are the few times we are ever truly given a chance to learn personal information and insights about Hitchens.  The rest of “Hitch-22” unfortunately reads like a collection of his essays; if the book was published in that context, perhaps I would’ve been less disappointed – but given that these were his memoirs, I had considerably higher expectations. 

Early on, Hitchens shares background about his childhood, including his strict father, a Captain in England’s navy and his mother, who proved to be the more intriguing of the two.  Leaving her husband for another man, she eventually committed suicide once Hitchens had grown; after her death, Hitchens is shocked to learn that she was Jewish, therefore obviously making him partly Jewish.  This new way of viewing himself helped to shape how he in turn viewed the rest of the world for the remaining days of his life.  Much later, Hitchens reveals he has a brother, with whom he never got along. 

Throughout much of the book, Hitchens talks endlessly about the various acquaintances he’s had and experiences from being sent around the world’s many hotspots as a war correspondent.  It would seem that Hitchens is more comfortable writing about other people than he is writing about himself; that would certainly explain the absence of personal information.  If you are looking for tales about his love life, his relationship with his wife and children or other peeks into the man’s personal life, then I guarantee you that you will be sorely disappointed. 

This of course is not meant to suggest that “Hitch-22” isn’t well written.  How could any book by this author be anything other?  Hitchens is his usual caustically funny and sarcastic self, it’s just that he’s rather stingy with the background details.  Mostly, he focuses on his professional life and concentrates on the metadata – information about the politically oriented articles this journalist has written over the years.  Clearly, the self-insight this man has chosen to disclose in this book is simply that he is what his work is, nothing more and certainly nothing less.  Nothing else is anyone’s business. 

What we do know about Hitchens already even before having read this book is that he smoked extensively and drank way too much.  In fact, one of his most insightful and humorous lines in “Hitch-22” is when he advises, “cheap liquor is a false economy”.  Truer words have never been spoken.  But did his excessive drinking ever get him in trouble?  Did he ever seek treatment for alcohol abuse?  Sadly, he has taken any such information to his grave, if indeed it ever really existed in the first place.  There is no dearth of war stories about actual wars; war stories about his antics during his non-working hours won’t be found here.

Do admirers of Hitchens come away from “Hitch-22” learning a good deal more about this man?  Unfortunately, no – or perhaps more accurately, not nearly enough.  The saying is, “always leave them wanting more”; in this case, “always leave them wanting” may be a more precise description of these memoirs for Hitchens’ fans. 

Hopefully someday, another writer will take on the immense task of composing a biography of Hitchens that is more worthy of the great man’s memory than this book.  He certainly deserves the tribute. 


Sunday, June 01, 2014

“Edge Of Tomorrow”– Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had the first bonus of the Summer Semester with a screening of the new science fiction tale, “Edge Of Tomorrow”, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.


When an inexperienced soldier is sent to fight an alien invasion of earth, he learns that battling the aliens has given him special powers – but will he be able to figure out how to use those powers to defeat the aliens before they completely take over?


When aliens invade the Earth, nations of the world unite in an effort to beat them, forming The United Defense Forces.  Finding the task something of an uphill battle, they enlist the aid of William Cage (Cruise), a Major in the United States Army.  Cage, with a background in advertising during his civilian years, seems the perfect choice to be in charge of Media Relations, where he’s responsible for effectively “selling” the war to the inhabitants of the planet by interviews with the news media and telling them what a terrific job the UDF is doing, despite various setbacks.

One day, Cage finds out  he’s going to the front lines to fight the aliens, known as Mimics.  Despite being untrained on any of the latest equipment and completely lacking in combat experience, he is embedded in a company of soldiers effectively on a suicide mission.  Upon engaging the enemy, he surprisingly manages to kill a special type of alien known as an Alpha – but when the Alpha contaminates Cage with his alien blood, he perishes.  The effect of the alien blood is that Cage finds he is able to re-live that day and engage in the exact same battle again and again and again. 

Cage then meets Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a fellow soldier who’s developed something of a legendary reputation as a hero during this war; he confesses his ability to “reset” – to re-live each day after he dies in battle and Rita admits she used to have this skill herself until losing it following a blood transfusion.  They team-up to try to defeat the aliens by killing the Omega, who is essentially their brain.  Rita mentors him on the resetting ability and trains him in combat; eventually, they get closer to finding the Omega.  But when Cage suddenly loses his powers, can the two still find and kill the Omega?


Stories about temporal fluidity can be hard to depict in film; the ability to convey time movement in subtle ways without confusing the audience are challenging, to say the least.  When you see how perfectly logical the way “Edge Of Tomorrow” is laid out, you can really appreciate how skilled director Doug Liman is when it comes to telling a tale as complex as this one.  There have been descriptions of “Edge Of Tomorrow” as “Starship Troopers” meets “Groundhog Day”; while the comparisons are certainly understandable, they are also unfair – the characterization severely and unnecessarily trivializes the movie.

This movie is likely to be one of the big early summer hits, and deservedly so.  As much as it may pain me to say so, Tom Cruise is actually quite good here; he plays an unsympathetic coward who admits to fainting at the sight of blood, but as a result of suffering through one hardship after another, he learns how to become heroic.  This screening was of the 3D version; there are a few battle scenes with flying debris where the 3D effects are well-utilized, but other than that, there isn’t much to substantially recommend the 3D version over the regular version. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed director Doug Liman.  Liman said that one of the biggest surprises of this movie was how involved he wound up being with the sound designer; he didn’t anticipate having to spend so much time and effort deciding things like how the aliens’ growl would sound, when it would be used and its volume.  He found Cruise to be a particularly good physical comedian, which he felt was especially evident in the scenes where Cage hadn’t quite learned how to use the weapons in the suit of armor the soldiers had to wear in battle.   

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) on IMDb