Wednesday, July 30, 2014

“May In The Summer”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the final film of the summer semester, “May In The Summer”, a comedy-drama with Bill Pullman and Alia Shawkat. 


When a young woman visits her family prior to her upcoming wedding, long unresolved conflicts arise – but will this cause her to re-consider getting married?


With her wedding only a few weeks away, May (Cherien Dabis), a successful Palestinian writer now living in New York City, returns to her hometown of Amman, Jordan to have a family reunion before marrying Ziad, a fellow Palestinian and college professor at Columbia University.  Upon arrival, she is confronted with outstanding family issues that include her sisters Yasmine and Dalia (Shawkat), her mother Nadine and her estranged father Edward (Pullman).  Add to all of this the fact that tensions rise due to the fact that she is unaccompanied by her fiancé and everyone’s nerves are on edge. 

Nadine is a Palestinian woman who converted to Christianity; devoutly religious, she is against May’s impending marriage because although Ziad is also Arabic, he is Muslim.  When Nadine threatens to boycott the wedding, May reassures her that Ziad is secular and doesn’t practice his family’s religion.  With Edward, there remain some hurt feelings over the fact that he not only left Nadine, but also subsequently married a young Indian woman around May’s age.  As far as her sisters are concerned, Yasmine is the more irresponsible of the two and Dalia may be hiding a big secret about her personal life. 

Ultimately, the pressure starts getting to May; the longer Ziad remains in New York City, the more May questions whether she should marry him.  Soon, she starts flirting with random men she meets, eventually developing what might be romantic feelings for Karim, a local tour guide whom she meets at a nightclub.  When May is led to believe that Nadine might be trying to break up the engagement, May resentfully starts prying into Nadine’s life until she discovers shocking personal information that shakes her belief in marriage.  But will this be enough for May to call off her wedding to Ziad? 


Given the current state of things in the history of the world at the time of this writing, this may be the worst possible time to release a film about a Palestinian family, even though it is apolitical in its nature.  To say that Cherien Dabis, the writer-director-star of “May In The Summer”, has an uphill battle on her hands is a major understatement.  That’s too bad because this film is quite good.  Entertaining, funny and surprising, it could almost be described as humanist since it doesn’t really advance any particular religious or political philosophy – it’s instead about matters to which almost anyone with a family could easily relate.  It just so happens to be about an Arab family. 

“May In The Summer” is a brilliant, wonderful movie deserving exposure to as wide an audience as possible – and even if the issues in Gaza weren’t happening at this specific point, it would still struggle to find acceptance, especially here in The United States.  A real shame, given the quality of the ensemble acting and how well-written its screenplay.  I highly recommend this film; it may be a little work to find either in a theater or online, but if you do locate it, do be sure to see it – you’ll be very glad you did. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed Cherien Dabis.  A personable, articulate young woman, she was raised in the United States after her parents moved here from The Middle East; each year, they would travel to The West Bank in order to visit family.  Dabis hated the travel then, but has since learned to embrace it since she feels it provides a bridge between two very different worlds.  Interestingly, Dabis said the the two films that most influenced her are “The Wizard Of Oz” and “E.T.” – both of which are stories about individuals who find themselves in an unusual land where they don’t belong. 

May in the Summer (2013) on IMDb

Sunday, July 27, 2014

“The Trip To Italy”– Movie Review



This weekend, we had the final bonus screening of the summer with the British comedy-drama, “The Trip To Italy”, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. 


When two men take on a magazine assignment to write about the restaurants of Italy, they leave their family behind – but once issues at home intervene, will they be able to complete their task?


Once Steve’s (Coogan) television show goes on hiatus, his buddy and fellow actor Rob (Brydon) contacts him about an opportunity:  a travel magazine has made them an irresistible proposition – it will send the pair on an all-expenses paid trip barnstorming throughout Italy and in exchange, they have to write an article about the various restaurants they encounter during their travels.  With plenty of free time on their hands, the offer is too good to refuse, so they head out to drive from city to city, stopping at the best eateries along the way. 

Upon setting out on their journey, the two longtime friends begin some good-natured arguing about everything and anything, regardless the triviality.  Whether the subject is music, movies or sex, they can debate just about anything and enjoy each other’s company in the process.  During meals, they continue their conversations, often challenging each other to perform imitations of well-known movie stars.  All the while, their banter challenges each to one-up the other with one-liners, insults and ripostes as they polish off one gourmet meal after another.

With their family at home anxiously awaiting their return, the trip suffers its occasional interruptions:  Steve learns his son isn’t getting along well with his mother and Rob succumbs to temptations to cheat on his wife with a woman he meets on a tour.  After a while, guilt sets in on both men:  for Steve, he feels as though he’s been so busy that he’s been totally ignoring his son.  With Rob, he longs to be with his family despite feeling a strong attraction to this new woman who finds him so uncontrollably appealing.  Given all of these distractions, will the two be able to finish their job?


How could a movie containing beautiful scenery, shots of scrumptious food and two funny actors with obvious on-screen chemistry go wrong?  Well, let’s start with the plot.  Having one would have been nice.  Instead, “The Trip To Italy” merely meanders about; unlike its lead characters, the film seems to be headed in no particular direction and largely suffers from this.  It would seem that this venture is simply a vehicle for its stars to show off their comedic abilities, which it does.  Sometimes.  Therein lies another problem.

While some of their exchanges are genuinely funny, a number fall flat.  This includes a few of the pair’s impressions – there are some that don’t really sound like the movie star they’re supposed to be imitating, yet they seem to pretend as though they do.  Occasionally, the scene will fail because despite a serviceable impression, they clearly don’t have any reliable material from which they can work.  This brings us to another point:  the script.  Or was there one?  An excellent question.  A screenplay credit is given.

“The Trip To Italy” is a sequel to “The Trip”, which starred the same two actors, apparently with a similar premise.  In that one, I’m given to understand that much of it was improvised between the performers.  So was there a script in “The Trip To Italy”?  And if so, to what degree was it followed?  I have no idea, but the look and feel of the movie suggests that to a large degree, it was in fact improvised.  Will this film be a success?  In America, I think that it will be something of an uphill battle, largely due to the fact that Brydon is unknown in this country while Coogan has achieved a degree of fame, especially after last year’s successful “Philomena”. 


The Trip to Italy (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, July 24, 2014

“Very Good Girls”–Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the drama, “Very Good Girls” starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen.


When two young women graduate from high school, they decide they need to finally lose their virginity – but once they realize they are both competing for the attention of the same suitor, will they still be able to remain friends?


Lilly and Gerri (Fanning and Olsen) are best friends enjoying their last summer together at the beaches of Brooklyn before entering college in the fall. One thing laying heavily on their mind is the fact that they are both still virgins – something which they vow to address before their freshman year. On the boardwalk of Brighton Beach, they meet David – an attractive young man whose blonde hair and athletic appearance suggests he spends his days surfing. As it turns out, David is actually an aspiring photographer working various subsistence jobs until his career takes off. While both girls are taken with him, it appears that he may be drawn more to Gerri, whom he starts to see casually.

Meanwhile, Lilly has more urgent issues at home when her father is forced to move out once her mother (Ellen Barkin) learns he’s been cheating. Add to that Lilly’s boss (Peter Sarsgaard) has been hitting on her and she’s feeling understandably stressed. Unexpectedly, David locates Lilly and flirts with her; after seemingly chance encounters, Lilly eventually succumbs to his charms and the two hook-up. This of course causes Lilly immense guilt – Gerri doesn’t know about the tryst and neither Lilly nor David intend on telling her. Complicating matters is the fact that Lilly is falling in love with David.

Following a traumatic experience, Gerri begs David to relieve her of the curse of virginity; shortly thereafter, she proudly brags to Lilly that David has escorted her into womanhood.  Given the circumstances, Lilly isn’t as enthusiastic as she would be if it had been someone other than David. Lilly is now realizing her intimacy with David has caused the monster to break out of its cage as she is confronted by her own sexual urges; unfortunately, conflicted because of her feelings for her friend and her lover, she no longer feels comfortable being with David. With the summer drawing to a close and Lilly preparing for Yale, will she and David be able to keep their secret from Gerri or can she share the truth with her at the risk of losing her best friend forever?


OK, let me get this straight: it’s 2013 in New York City and there are two extremely attractive teenage girls who are perfectly willing to lose their virginity but as yet haven’t, despite the fact that they’re approximately 18 years of age and bound for college? Really? No, this movie isn’t science fiction and yes, apparently the filmmakers actually expect us to buy into a premise that’s about as realistic as “Star Wars”. Given that there are a number of well-known actors in this film (Richard Dreyfus and Demi Moore play Gerri’s parents), one would have to suspect their appearance in “Very Good Girls” was done either as a favor or out of desperation for work.

There is precious little to recommend about “Very Good Girls”, except for the performances of Fanning and Olsen – but it is especially Olsen who really shines here, despite the very flawed material which has been foisted upon her. Although Fanning’s character is the lead, Olsen tends to stand out a bit more in her role, but given the script’s limitations, that may be saying more about her acting ability than the movie itself; I’m certainly not gushing here and if you’re considering seeing this movie primarily for Olsen’s portrayal of Gerri, that might be a mistake (although thankfully, the motion picture is only about an hour and a half should you decide to roll the dice on a viewing).

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Naomi Foner, who wrote and directed “Very Good Girls”. Although Foner has an extensive track record as both a writer and producer, this is her first directorial effort at the age of 68. Foner said that with a modest budget on this independent film, she only had 23 days to shoot; since there are quite a few name actors appearing in the motion picture – mostly in small roles – much of the shooting schedule had to be arranged around their availability. Sarsgaard, for example, was only available for one day, so all of his scenes had to be completed in that time (by the way, Sarsgaard is Foner’s son-in-law; he’s married to Foner’s daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal, sister of Jake Gyllenhaal).


 Very Good Girls (2013) on IMDb

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Monkey Rum –The New York City Launch Party


The poster promoting the event

On one of those sultry summer evenings that’s typical for mid-July in New York City, I happened to spend a rather drunk night attending the official launch party for Monkey Rum.  I blame Zane Lamprey and Steve McKenna for this. 

The party was held at an appropriately-named venue -- The Three Monkeys Bar in midtown Manhattan (near The Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman tapes his talk show).  Not only did I get a chance to taste the rum – both on its own and in cocktails – I also got to meet Zane and Steve. 


First, some background on my history with Zane.  Some years ago, I started watching “Three Sheets” on what was then The Mojo network and became fascinated at how much I learned about the spirits and the drinking culture worldwide. After Mojo went off the air, there were several unsuccessful attempts to revive the show across multiple networks.  During the time when the show was off the air, Zane was planning his next television venture, “Drinking Made Easy” on Mark Cuban’s HDNet (now AXS-TV).  At this time, Zane set up a Web site of the same name as the new television show and was looking for contributors to the blog portion of that site; as a fan of Zane’s, I submitted a writing sample and was asked to be a regular contributor. That was in 2010 and I continue to be proudly contributing to that blog to this day


Although I’ve attended other New York City-based events Zane has held here, this was the first time I’ve had an opportunity to attend one since becoming a blogger for his Web site.  As Zane sauntered amidst the crowd socializing with the revelers, he eventually made his way over to me, at which point I introduced myself and informed him that I was one of the bloggers on his Drinking Made Easy Web site.  Since I can’t immediately think of a word better than “underwhelmed” in order to describe Zane’s reaction, I’ll simply use that one.  After about 15 or 16 years of staring at me after introducing myself (although in reality, it may have been a bit less than that), Zane countered with, “So what do you write about?”. 

“Spirits and cocktails”, I replied, now no longer able to disguise the fact that neither one of us was interested in continuing this conversation. 

“What did you think of the rum?”, he asked, apparently fishing for a compliment. 

“Well, to be honest, I haven’t tasted it on its own yet – only in cocktails”, I answered, trying desperately to extricate myself from an awkward situation that was only getting worse. 

“I’ll get you some, then!”, Zane responded, immediately disappearing. 

Eventually, one of the hostesses for the evening delivered a pair of shot glasses – one containing the spiced version of Monkey Rum and the other being the coconut flavored Monkey Rum. 


I tried the coconut rum first.  Both the aroma and taste of the rum are very strong with the coconut, to the point where I found it overwhelming.  By contrast, the spiced rum is considerably more subtle; it doesn’t have a very noticeable scent and the spice is mostly detected on the back of the palate.  While I have to admit that I’m not that much of a rum drinker, I probably would’ve preferred it the other way around – make the coconut more understated and the spiced version more aggressive.  Possibly the reason for the distinction here was for marketing purposes – grab the male market with the spiced rum while the women would prefer the coconut rum. 


Initially, I had only tried the rum in cocktails that were being passed around; it wasn’t until Zane offered me the shot glasses that I tasted it on its own.  There were two Monkey Rum-based cocktails that were being prepared that evening:  The Monkey Punch and The Orangutan.   

MonkeyPunch Recipe

The Monkey Punch was served over ice.  I found it to be quite refreshing on this humid night.  The mixture of both rums appeared to balance out each other. 


While The Orangutan was not quite as tasty as The Monkey Punch, the orange juice ingredient didn’t add much besides color (and, presumably, a basis for the cocktail’s name).  Perhaps just the spiced rum with the ginger ale would have been better – a variation on The Highball (The Monkey Ball?). 


For additional photos from this evening, please refer to the album on Facebook or Google+.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”– Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”, starring Helen Mirren and directed by Lasse Hallström


An itinerant Indian family opens a restaurant in France – but when they learn the classical French restaurant across the road is Michelin-starred, will they be able to compete?


The Kadam family own and operate a successful restaurant in Mumbai, India – but when their business burns to the ground, they wind up leaving their homeland to seek a new location for their endeavor.  After trying different nations around Europe, they finally choose – of all places! – France.  Finding a deserted building in a remote spot of a small village, they decide to open Maison Mumbai there – and the talented Hassan, the eldest son in the family, will be their chef.  With little in the way of formal training but immense natural aptitude, Hassan made the family’s previous business click and the family is confident he will do the same here.

What they don’t take into consideration, however, is the fact that directly across the road from their place – a mere 100 feet, in fact – is a famous, Michelin-starred classical French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Mirren), who not only doesn’t embrace the competition, she also takes an attitude of condescension when considering they are specializing in cuisine native to their home of India.  Quickly, the two businesses engage in an all-out war, not only competing for customers but also competing for ingredients purchased at the local market. 

Eventually, it turns personal when a racist mob sets fire to Maison Mumbai; when Hassan tries to extinguish the blaze, his hands are severely burned, preventing him from cooking.  As he recovers, Mallory becomes more sympathetic to the family’s plight; when she finally tastes a sample of Hassan’s cooking, Mallory is convinced of his gifts and offers him a job at her eatery.  After a while, Hassan’s influence causes Mallory to earn an additional Michelin star for her restaurant.  When word of this gets out, Hassan is lured away by an elite two-star Michelin restaurant in Paris so he can help them earn a third star.  But can Hassan withstand the pressure that accompanies such a hefty responsibility?


Knowing the types of stories that attract noted director Lasse Hallström, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a film of great sweetness and gentility.  Add to that the fact that this is a Disney production co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, and you walk into the theater pretty much knowing what to expect out of this movie.  That said, I was disappointed in this cliché – filled work that’s immensely predictable and lacking in innovative storytelling.  Although I love Helen Mirren, I did not think this was one of her better efforts; her attempts at a French accent made me want to cringe. 

Another problem I had with “The Hundred-Foot Journey” has to do with the script’s structure.  The movie’s third act tries to cram way too much into the end of the story; in fact, I believe that what was shoe-horned into the final half-hour of  “The Hundred-Foot Journey” could have been an entirely different (and perhaps, much more interesting) motion picture altogether.  For me, the most compelling parts of the tale were rushed through in the last portion of the picture.  Add to this the fact that there are not one but two unrealistic love stories introduced into its telling and it completely loses me. 

Following the screening, the class discussed the movie; despite the fact that everyone pretty much acknowledged all of the clichés in “The Hundred-Foot Journey”, the overwhelming majority really enjoyed the film, so I was once again left in the minority here as far as my own opinion was concerned.  One way I felt somewhat justified was when someone who actually does speak French (I don’t) agreed that Mirren’s accent seemed rather lacking in authenticity.  An area where we probably would agree is that this would likely be a good motion picture for foodies as the shots of the spreads are bordering on so-called “food porn”.        


Thursday, July 17, 2014

“A Five Star Life”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw “A Five Star Life”, a comedy-drama from Italy.


When a single career woman finds her limited support system may be dissolving, she begins to question her life choices – but will this cause her to make drastic personal and professional changes?


By all accounts, Irene’s successful career as travel writer has certainly been a glamorous one. After all, who wouldn’t want to fly to the great cities of the world, stay at the best hotels and get paid for the privilege? But all may not be as well as it seems; in order to enjoy this lifestyle, Irene has been required to make some difficult personal choices, including foregoing having her own family. Now in her forties, she is among the best in her field professionally, but some would insist it’s taken its toll on her private life – in fact, by Irene’s own admission, she has no life. Although no longer a couple, she continues to see (and occasionally sleep with) Andrea during the rare occasions when she isn’t traveling. Aside from that, her sister Silvia is the closest thing she has to family; married to a fellow musician, Silvia is raising two daughters, to whom Irene struggles to remain close.

When Andrea starts dating a woman, the relationship doesn’t turn serious until he learns she’s pregnant and he’s the father. Feeling a sense of duty, Andrea decides to care for the woman during her pregnancy, although she maintains it’s unnecessary because she simply wanted a child and has no expectations of him. Irene has strongly mixed feelings about this because although Andrea appears excited about being a father, she fears his involvement with this woman and their child will put a distance between them which will only increase over time. Additionally, Silvia is panicking over fears her marriage may be falling apart. Without her husband, can she count on Irene the jet-setter to help her to take care of her daughters?

During one of her assignments evaluating a five-star hotel, Irene meets anthropologist Kate Sherman, an older woman currently touring to promote her new book on human sexuality in various cultures. Despite her age, Kate is a lusty, vivacious woman who inspires Irene to more enthusiastically embrace her own life without regrets. Although the two women develop an immediate affinity, their kinship abruptly ends unexpectedly. Realizing that she now suddenly finds herself alone again, Irene is confronted by the reality of her own situation. When Irene starts questioning the decisions she’s made, will this be an end to her career as a travel writer?


The Japanese culture is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection in spite of the fact that they acknowledge it is unattainable. While that belief may be substantially based in truth, there are few things in life that do actually come close to perfection – and as far as movies are concerned, “A Five Star Life” could easily be considered one of them. While it might be easily dismissed as a distaff version of “Up In The Air”, doing so would be a huge mistake.  Itself a five-star triumph that won many awards in Italy, the film succeeds in its realistic portrayal of a career woman’s professional and personal life in a non-judgmental – but frequently humorous – manner. This is no small way is due to the fabulous acting by Margherita Buy in the role of Irene; her protagonist is sympathetic but not pitiable and funny without being condescending.

It all starts with the screenplay and the one for “A Five Star Life” is a winner. The tale takes some unexpected twists and turns, resulting in a deeply satisfying (and reasonable) conclusion. Mostly, it is the unpredictability of the various plot points that keeps you drawn in, anticipating what’s coming next – and likely being wrong in your guess, but that turns out to be part of the fun. Largely episodic in its nature, this is a movie without a clear adversary to root against, yet does contain conflict, keeping the viewer engaged in the heroine’s outcome. While obviously a film meant for a female audience, men won’t be turned off because the male characters aren’t depicted as villains or buffoons.

Some technical notes about “A Five Star Life”: an Italian movie, it contains subtitles, but they are easily read (despite being white rather than an easier color to read). However, there are chunks of the film where English is spoken. The literal translation of its original Italian title is, “I Travel Alone”, which is a terrible name for this kind of motion picture (it sounds almost like a 1950’s film noir crime drama); my understanding is that in the United States, it is being marketed under the name “A Five Star Life”, which I suppose is nominally better – but if you do look for this picture and can’t find it under one title, try looking for it as the other title. This is one worth the effort.


A Five Star Life (2013) on IMDb


Monday, July 14, 2014

The Versatility Of Agave




The agave plant yields so much to the world. It has long been used for clothing, food and shelter, among other things. Oh, and did I mention that this plant also happens to be used for two of the world’s most flavorful and favorite spirits? Namely, tequila and mezcal. Well, although I knew about its use for manufacturing spirits, I have to admit that I did not know about its other uses – and that’s why I’m glad I took a course at The Astor Center of New York City called, “Agave Smackdown: Tequila Vs. Mezcal”, taught by Tess Rose Lampert.

Upon entering the class, we were greeted with a cocktail – a Negroni. But it’s not the standard Negroni you’d expect – this one substituted mezcal for gin. The Negroni was distinctly different from the ones I’ve had before and I was delighted to be introduced to a new way of incorporating mezcal in a cocktail. As we sipped the drink, our instructor said that we should think about being a little more experimental when making cocktails at home, using mezcal instead of the standard base spirit that would normally be included in the recipe. One example she gave was making a Manhattan with mezcal!


Agave plants take a while before they can be used for spirit production – specifically, they take anywhere from eight to 30 years to mature. There are over 200 species, 30 of which are used to make spirits. Although we tend to think of the agave as being native to Mexico, they have also been known to grow in the southwestern United States and some have even been reported in Africa. Just as grapes grown for wine, agave is very dependent on its terroir for flavor, quality and other vital characteristics.


Pulque is a pre-hispanic ritualistic and religious drink that was made by fermenting agave juice for four days. Low in alcohol – about 5% alcohol by volume – it is lightly sweet and effervescent, with a slightly sour finish. While it’s similar to wine in the way it’s produced, it’s closer to beer in its taste. It has a tendency to be thick and rather viscous. Although it’s possible to purchase pre-packaged, it’s thought to be best when fresh. Some believe it has hallucinogenic qualities, but due to its low alcohol content, it would require at least five glasses before you could even begin to expect getting any kind of a buzz.


As far as the differences between tequila and mezcal, tequila tends to be lower in alcohol; while tequila is usually around 40% alcohol by volume, mezcal can be as high has 65% alcohol by volume. Tequila can only be made from blue agave plants, but mezcal can be made from any type of agave plant. While tequila is made by steaming agave plants in ovens, mezcal is roasted in pits (this is what gives it the smokier taste compared to tequila). Also, tequila’s manufacturing process is considered more industrial in nature – it’s mass produced; by comparison, mezcal uses a more artisanal production method, often made in smaller quantities. In Mexico, only five states can actually manufacture tequila, whereas with mezcal, a total of eight states are capable of making the spirit.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

“The Last Of Robin Hood”– Movie Review



The Summer Semester of my movie class resumed with a screening of the drama, “The Last Of Robin Hood” , starring Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Kline.


When actor Errol Flynn has an affair with a teenage girl, will her mother approve or try to end the relationship?


In Hollywood of the 1950’s, actor Errol Flynn (Kline) is an aging movie star whose days of playing in swashbuckler roles like his legendary Robin Hood are long behind him. With his current marriage in its final stages, Flynn spots Beverly (Fanning), a young woman who – like many in this town – is an aspiring actress. Taking her back to his home, Flynn seduces her, unaware of the fact that at the time, she is only 15 years old. Ever the ladies’ man, Flynn butters up Florence (Sarandon), Beverly’s star-struck mother, who lives vicariously through her daughter. Whether she’s simply naïve or deliberately ignorant, she acts unaware of her daughter’s tryst with this Hollywood icon.

Ultimately, the illicit affair is revealed to Florence and she is none too pleased (or so she wishes the couple to believe). Nevertheless, the couple convince Florence that their mutual affection is genuine, so she agrees to help in hiding their unconventional romance from the press. Flynn’s influence gets Beverly small movie roles, so he takes her on shoots in Africa and Cuba, despite Florence’s apparent objections; believing that the movie legend is truly making an effort to help her daughter break into show business, Florence chooses not to interfere.

Unfortunately, after years of substance abuse, Flynn’s body is starting to betray him and he becomes ill.  While on a trip to Vancouver in October of 1959, Flynn finally dies and is discovered by Beverly, who has by this point become his fiancée. Upon returning to her home in Hollywood, Beverly is naturally besieged by the press, who have chosen to spin their romance into a lurid tale of tabloid fodder. Florence’s alcoholism spirals out of control and a court rules to take Beverly away from her once she is deemed to be an unfit mother. But when Florence seeks her own fame and fortune by collaborating with a writer who hopes to author a book on Flynn’s affair with her daughter, what impact will this have on her relationship with Beverly when she learns of the scheme?


This is a very peculiar movie and I’m not quite sure where to begin. With so many familiar names in its cast, it’s a wonder how they chose to appear in a film with a script so questionable. Putting aside some occasionally illogical and contrived dialog, “The Last Of Robin Hood” suffers from some structural problems as well. As it turns out, the majority of its story is told via flashback as Florence is interviewed by the journalist who tape records her for his proposed book; this might not ordinarily be a problem, except for how it’s presented. The script starts out right after Flynn’s death, then flashes back to tell how the two met, followed by flashing forward to see Florence beginning her interviewing sessions. Follow that so far? 

As stellar as its cast may be, therein actually lies another problem. Kevin Kline is perfect as Errol Flynn, but given the story, was he the right choice for the role? Basically, the story is about the relationship between mother and daughter, with Beverly ostensibly being the heroine and Florence the antagonist; as a result, the character of Flynn takes something of a backseat to the tale – that character is merely the instigator for the difficulties between Beverly and Florence. In fact, Flynn dies well before the end of the film. Therefore, this causes the movie to be thrown off balance; with a major star playing the role of Flynn, an audience might reasonably expect the character to have greater prominence throughout. It’s not until considerably after Flynn’s death that you realize the motion picture is supposed to be about the mother and daughter instead of the daughter and the movie star. Casting an actor of lesser notoriety in the role of Flynn might have helped somewhat here – but again, setting the expectations properly in the setup portion of the screenplay would’ve been best.

In discussing “The Last Of Robin Hood” after the screening (and really, shouldn’t it have been something like, “The Last Days Of Robin Hood”?), our instructor shared with us some production notes. In real life, Florence did collaborate on a book; it was titled “The Big Love” and was eventually turned into a stage play. The filmmakers read the book and reached out to Beverly about making her story into a motion picture; although by then she preferred to guard her privacy, she gave her consent to the film. However, she passed away in 2010 before the movie could be realized. This pictured played at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was said to have been well received.

 The Last of Robin Hood (2013) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

“Life Itself”–Movie Review



In The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Releases Series, I saw the documentary, “Life Itself”, about the late film critic Roger Ebert.


When Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert is diagnosed with terminal cancer, how will he and his family deal with his final days?    


When Roger Ebert graduated from college, the last thing that entered his mind as a career objective was to be a movie critic.   In fact, he had higher goals in mind – to be a journalist.  Working for his school newspaper, he concentrated on serious stories and was careful to veer away from the trivial.  Growing up in the Chicago area, Ebert realized his dreams when he finally got a job writing for his hometown paper, The Chicago Sun-Times.  However, when the position of film critic became available, Ebert assumed the role; in writing movie reviews, he also rewrote the book on how the reviews themselves should be written.

Ebert, well-educated at the University of Illinois despite not making it to the Ivy League school that was his original choice, wrote articulate, thoughtful reviews that were clearly both intelligent and thoroughly researched.  Instead of flaunting his erudition, Ebert wrote for the average guy, almost as though he was addressing his family – his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife.  Over time, Ebert’s reputation grew and he eventually wound up doing various television stints before landing a local show with Gene Siskel, his crosstown rival from Chicago’s competing newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. 

Following Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert continued with his television show; about seven years later, however, he was diagnosed with cancer and was not expected to survive.  As a result of the very surgery that was intended to save his life, Ebert wound up losing his ability to speak.  Although he continued to write – for his newspaper, blogs and the author of various books – Ebert’s television career had effectively come to an end.  When documentarian and fellow Chicagoan Steve James set out to film a documentary on Ebert’s life, plans changed shortly after shooting began when Ebert landed in the hospital; although he eventually went home, Ebert returned to the hospital shortly thereafter and died before the documentary could be finished as originally intended.     


A review of a documentary about a film critic is a hard one to write – especially when the critic in question is the late great Roger Ebert.  Giving the movie either a “Thumbs Up” or a “Thumbs Down” might in some odd way be a tribute to Ebert’s memory, but it would simultaneously be a facile response and inadequate to both the film and its subject’s life.  Sometimes with documentaries, the filmmaker accidentally finds him/herself stumbling upon their story; this was certainly the case with “Life Itself”.  Originally intended to be something of a follow-on to Ebert’s book of the same name, it wound up taking on a life of its own when Ebert suddenly entered the hospital and passed away during the shoot.

While the film is certainly a salute to Ebert’s life and to his loyal wife Chaz, it does fall short in some respects.  Namely, the time after former colleague Gene Siskel’s passing is given somewhat short shrift; specifically, there is no mention of Richard Roeper in Ebert’s post-Siskel period.  How this was possible is difficult to understand; Roeper is not only not mentioned in the documentary, he’s not even among those interviewed for the film.  Given the fact that he spent a number of years as Ebert’s partner after Siskel’s passing, this is something of a head-scratcher. 

According to director Steve James, this oversight was not accidental.  James said that when Ebert’s condition worsened, the contrast with Siskel’s situation weighed more heavily on shaping the story.  As a result, some things had to be cut out and Ebert’s collaboration with Roeper was one of them.  Supposedly, Roeper was notified by James that he would not be needed for the documentary and Roeper is said to have taken the news extremely well, albeit disappointed about the fact that he would not be able to make his own contribution to the movie about his friend and former colleague. 


Life Itself (2014) on IMDb