Saturday, August 30, 2014

“Starred Up”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening of the new prison drama from The United Kingdom, “Starred Up”, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


When a young man is transferred to an adult prison, he struggles to adapt – but with his father also serving a sentence there, will their fractious relationship threaten them both?


Despite being only a teenager, Eric (Jack O’Connell) is sent to a prison populated with hardened criminals after he becomes too violent to be able to stay at the youthful offenders facility where he was previously.  In their vernacular, he’s been “starred up” – recognized as an up-and-coming criminal that he’s deserving to stay with the more serious career criminals.  The only problem is that the prison authorities and correctional officers have underestimated just how incredibly violent Eric can become; a young man full of pent-up rage, he is a constantly ticking time bomb awaiting to explode at a moment’s notice. 

Once Eric has been set up in his cellblock, the inevitable occurs – he runs into his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) in the prison yard.  It is hardly a heartwarming family reunion.  Neville is perhaps one of the few people in life who can even come close to intimidating Eric.  Never having had a particularly good relationship with his father, Eric mostly tries to avoid him, but Neville goes out of his way to seek him out when he learns of his son’s arrival.  Is Neville trying to threaten Eric to prove to him once and for all that he’s the biggest badass in the family or is he instead trying to scare him enough to force him to behave and do his time with minimal problems?

Neville pulls a few strings and arranges to have Eric entered into a group therapy for inmates with anger management issues – much to the consternation of the prison authorities.  When it appears that the therapy is doing Eric no good, the warden has him removed from the sessions and the therapist is fired.  More enraged than ever before, Eric now sets out on a violent path, making enemies of his fellow inmates and prison authorities alike.  Some of the more influential inmates collaborate with the prison guards to have Eric murdered.  But by the time Neville learns of the plan, will he be able to save his son in time?


With a compellingly realistic performance by Jack O’Connell, “Starred Up” is one of the more intense prison dramas.  O’Connell portrays Eric possessing an innate animalistic brutality that verges on erupting in nearly every scene, regardless of who the other character may be.  Director David Mackenzie excellently sets up Eric’s introduction to the facility relies on visual depictions with a minimal amount of dialog for an extended period of time at the beginning of the movie, creating a palpable sense of tension that never quite lets up until the film’s conclusion. 

Jonathan Asser, who wrote the screenplay, offers an intriguingly original story, based on his years working in a prison.  With this in mind – as well as the fact that the story takes place in The U.K. – there are some things that didn’t seem to make sense to an American viewer in terms of how the prisoners were handled; this could be due to the cultural differences, so it may be petty to make a big deal of such matters.  For example, it struck me as odd that a guard escorted an inmate out of his cell without handcuffs.  Also, the correction officers did not seem to be particularly well-supplied in terms of weapons.  Again, this may be the difference with the American penal system. 

Following the screening, director David Mackenzie was interviewed.  He mentioned the entire picture was shot in an actual prison, but one which was not active at the time of the shoot; the dismal, drab surroundings informed every scene, he said, so he tried to use this to his advantage when planning each shot.  During the 24 day shoot, Mackenzie found that some days were more tedious than others due to so many action scenes; all of the fights needed to be choreographed in detail so as to figure out where the camera needed to be placed and also, of course, for the safety of the actors involved. 

Starred Up (2013) on IMDb


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“The Last Bohemia”– Book Review



Recently, I read, “The Last Bohemia:  Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn” by Robert Anasi

As a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn for over a quarter of a century, there was no way I was not going to read this book when I saw it on a stack atop a table at the Barnes & Noble in the Union Square section of Manhattan.  If nothing else, I yearned to compare notes with its author, who lived in Williamsburg for 14 years (from 1994 to 2008).  In the event you’re looking for a detailed historical account of this Brooklyn neighborhood, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.  On the other hand, if you’re interested in one man’s personal history of this bygone era about a place that’s developed into something of a Hipster enclave over the years, then Robert Anasi’s “The Last Bohemia” may very well hit the spot. 

Reading “The Last Bohemia” really took me back to the good old/bad old days of what is now considered The Hipster Haven (or is that The Hipster Heaven?) – days when rents, restaurants and yes, even life itself, was cheap.  The Dangerous Days – or the era before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had a chance to clean up New York City – are my earliest memories of this area, a time when Greenpoint (the neighborhood to the north of Williamsburg) was so crime-laden it was known as Gunpoint.  As I now look around and find myself surrounded by newly-constructed luxury condominium complexes with tax abatements aplenty, I am forced to come to the bitter realization that those days are long gone.  Anasi’s “The Last Bohemia” reminisces for those days, perhaps to the point of even romanticizing them – although if you managed to survive that time, I would hardly characterize it as romantic. 

Anasi’s tales of dive bars, easily available drugs and various illegal if not perilous activities are filled with characters so rich, you might swear it was a work of fiction if you had not actually lived here in Williamsburg during that period.  Ultimately, Anasi felt it was time to leave in 2008 when, after being a loyal denizen of 14 years, he was confronted by the  changing crowd and rising condos that resulted in this place no longer being the same Williamsburg he had come to adore and expect.  What was once a rough and tumble Bohemia had transformed into more of a Utopia – and a rather pricey one at that. 

But certainly the transmogrifying landscape in this small corner of The County Of Kings was not the only justification for the author’s relocation to California; it was inevitable, given time and the effects of aging.  Having moved here in his mid-twenties, Anasi woke up one day 14 years later and suddenly found himself on the cusp of real adulthood as he neared 40.  Somehow, life as a starving, struggling artist had worn out its welcome and lost whatever perceived luster it may have seemed to possess at some point. 

Williamsburg is no longer what it once was, but neither are we.  At least with “The Last Bohemia”, we have documented evidence of how some of us used to live. 


Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Love Is Strange”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Love Is Strange”, starring John Lithgow, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei.


When a gay couple is forced to give up their longtime home, they wind up temporarily staying in separate locations – but will the friends and family putting them up lose patience before the couple is able to find a new place to live?


After nearly 40 years together, George and Ben (Molina and Lithgow) are finally going to get married in their home of New York City.  While their friends and family are positively ecstatic for them, not everyone is quite as pleased about their nuptials.  George, a music teacher at a Catholic school, is fired from his job once the diocese learns of his union.  With Ben on a small pension, the pair immediately realize that they can no longer afford their current living quarters; as a result, they will have to sell their co-op apartment and rent a smaller, cheaper space. 

But with a sale of their co-op imminent and in search of a new rental apartment as George remains unemployed, the two are in desperate need of a place to stay temporarily until they can get situated.   Unfortunately, no one they know has a place that’s big enough to accommodate the both of them; they will have to split up for the time being.  Ben winds up staying with family – nephew Elliot and his wife Kate (Darren E. Burrows and Tomei) while George rooms with a younger gay couple who are neighbors. 

Before too long, both Ben and George realize that their current arrangements are not working out terribly well.  Elliot and Kate’s teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) grows resentful of Ben’s various intrusions into his life.  Meanwhile, George is having a difficult time adapting to his surroundings since this much-younger couple likes to stay up late and party hard.  With the two spending way too much time apart, their need to find a new residence grows even more urgent.  But will they find an affordable new home in New York before they’ve completely ruined the relationships with their gracious hosts?


“Love Is Strange” is certainly an interesting title for this movie; it could just as easily have been “Life Is Strange”, given the weird twists and turns of various events here.  Perhaps “Love Is Strange” was chosen because the film is about various forms of love, beyond just the obvious.  Certainly, there is the romantic love of the motion picture’s newlyweds, but I would suggest that there is much more to it than merely that; there is the familial love that’s put to the test as well as the love for loyal friends when you are in need.  But there is another strange kind of love that I think the picture touches on:  the love of New York City.

There are a couple of reasons why I say this.  First of all, when Ben and George initially realize they can no longer afford their apartment, an opportunity arises for them to move out of New York City – an option which they reject right off.  These two have spent their entire life together in this city and they are not about to leave it this late in life.  Another reason why I believe the love for New York City is one of the key themes here is due to the way in which the movie is shot; New York is made to look so beautiful and so romantic at times that you would almost think you were watching a Woody Allen film. 

If I had any reservations about “Love Is Strange”, it would have to be with the way the camera is pointed during some of the musical scenes.  There are a couple of scenes where someone is supposed to be playing a piano, but their hands appear in the shot and it doesn’t look like they are actually playing; why the director felt it was necessary to include the actors’ hands in the shot will forever remain a mystery to me.  Also, while the script is generally quite good, there are occasional moments where a scene will fall a bit flat because of certain dramatic contrivances that might be difficult for some to overlook. 


Love Is Strange (2014) on IMDb


Monday, August 18, 2014

“Abuse Of Weakness”– Movie Review



Recently, I attended the opening night of the new French drama starring Isabelle Huppert, “Abuse Of Weakness”, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, . 


After suffering a stroke, a filmmaker begins a seemingly professional relationship with a known con artist – but when he becomes a financial drain on her, will she be able to put a stop to him?


Hospitalized as the result of a severe brain hemorrhage, Maud (Huppert) is discouraged to learn that the entire left side of her body has betrayed her.  During her extended stay, she is forced to undergo extensive physical therapy in order to re-learn how to walk, talk and dress, among other daily activities she previously took for granted.  Finding herself permanently debilitated, this fiercely independent woman is eventually discharged and tries diligently to return to life as usual – although once home, she quickly realizes that life as she used to know it is no more and she must adjust to a new version of “normal”. 

Recuperating, Maud plans a return to work; developing her next film, she becomes enchanted by Vilko (Kool Shen), whom she sees interviewed on a television show.  Promoting a new book about his previous career as a con man, he now claims to have been reformed, thanks in no small part to a long prison sentence.  Newly free, he renounces his past and insists he will devote his future to educating others about how to avoid being swindled by professional crooks who have no compunction about stealing someone else’s hard-earned money. 

Maud arranges to meet Vilko, whom she would like to cast in an upcoming movie – or at least, so she says.  During their working relationship, Vilko conjures some rather creative excuses for Maud to lend him money so he can get back on his feet.  After pretty much reaching the outer limits of the credit line her bank will extend and having almost completely exhausted her own personal savings, Maud finally comes to the bitter realization that Vilko will never repay her – nor, apparently, did he ever have the intention of doing so.  Confronted with this, will she be able to summon the will to call an end to his scam once and for all?


The main reason to see “Abuse Of Weakness” is for Isabelle Huppert; throughout much of the film, her physically challenging performance as a stroke victim with the entire left side of her body virtually useless is truly amazing to watch.  Beyond that, I’m afraid, the movie is a bit wanting in a number of ways – not the least of which being the ending, which I found somewhat unsatisfying.  Although concluding with an “intervention” of sorts involving Maud’s family – including her adult children, demanding an explanation of how their potential inheritance managed to be squandered so easily – it does precious little to resolve all of the motion picture’s preceding events. 

“Abuse Of Weakness” is based on true events that occurred a decade ago to its writer-director Catherine Breillat, who somehow found a way to survive her ordeal.  Despite all of this, it feels very difficult to believe.  Why a successful woman would allow herself to be so obviously manipulated to such an extreme and for so long is hard to fathom; were it not based in reality, it would’ve seemed too fantastic to be believable in any movie.  Perhaps therein lies the main problem with “Abuse Of Weakness” – reality does not always make for the best story. 

It may be the flaw here is that Breillat fell victim to her own vulnerability – so much so that she wished to dramatize it in a movie.  Since it actually happened to the filmmaker herself, rather than to a close friend or relative, she lacked sufficient objectivity to be able to make a dramatically compelling film on the subject matter; “this really happened to me and therefore it’s interesting” isn’t enough.  Breillat wasn’t making a documentary here; a bit of embellishment was necessary in order to make the audience more emotionally involved in this motion picture. 

Abuse of Weakness (2013) on IMDb


Monday, August 11, 2014

“The Giver”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club invited its members to attend the New York City premiere of the new science-fiction drama, “The Giver”, based on the award-winning, best-selling young adult novel of the same name by Lois Lowry; it stars Jeff Bridges (who also co-produced) and Meryl Streep.


In a futuristic society where citizens have no memories after an apocalypse, a young man is given the duty to learn all about the past so he can help guide the citizens of this new community – but once he discovers the secrets from their history, his life and the life of those close to him are endangered.



In the re-populated society that follows an event called The Ruin, the survivors live in a dystopia that they are led to believe is more of a utopia.  People here are not allowed to have emotions or memories of occurrences prior to The Ruin; the good news – if you can call it that – is the fact that The Elders, a collection of older citizens who run the community, make sure that everyone is clothed, sheltered, fed and employed.  The only problem is that no one has any choice in the matter – The Elders are the lone body responsible for making those decisions.   

When he comes of age, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is specially chosen by The Chief Elder (Streep) to assume a job known simply as The Receiver; he must study under The Giver (Bridges), who will impart knowledge and memories to Jonas about the past.  All of the history of the time before The Ruin will become known to Jonas, but he is not allowed to share this information with anyone else.  The purpose of him learning about it in the first place is to be able to ultimately assume the role of The Giver when he matures; in doing so, he will eventually be tasked of using the understanding of the past to share wisdom he has learned with the citizens of this new community in order to advise them. 

Jonas does not fit well into this unusual occupation – something that his parents (Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) as well as his childhood friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are quick to suspect when they start noticing substantial personality changes.  When Jonas learns about a failed attempt at training Rosemary (Taylor Swift) as a new Receiver a decade ago, he has reason to believe that he may be imperiled.  After Jonas manages to escape to an area known as The Boundary of Memories, he tries to make it to the next region, where all of the memories of the past will be revealed to the citizens of his community.  But after The Chief Elder learns of his plan, will she be able to stop him before everyone in this society becomes informed of the history behind their culture? 


In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit to never having read the novel on which this film is based (nor do I even recall hearing of it before getting the invitation to this screening).  While I did overhear other members of the audience heaping some praise on “The Giver”, I got the impression that they might have been familiar with the movie’s source material; if you read the book, you might like the adaptation – however, if, like me, you are unfamiliar with this particular literary work, then it’s quite possible (if not likely) that you’ll be left a bit dissatisfied with the film version. 

Although the story of “The Giver” could easily be dismissed as a new-age Orwellian drama that should be popular with the crowd that gave “The Hunger Games” so much success, it at least has to be given credit for trying to spread its message of humanity and individualism to teenagers willing to listen.  Unfortunately, putting such a story on the screen is a bit of a challenge to say the least; it is rather difficult for actors to portray characters that have no emotion since by their very job description, actors are supposed to emote.  The sum total of “The Giver” is a muddled mess of ideas that are never fully explained, much less realized. 

A few unusual notes about this premiere that I thought were worthy of inclusion in this review:  Prior to the viewing, the audience in the theater was treated to a live-video streaming from right outside the theater, which featured the red carpet interviews with the stars.  Things took something of a strange turn when Jeff Bridges was interviewed because he alluded his friend Robin Williams, which caused him to burst into tears; in this awkward moment, the interviewer was forced to explain to the everyone viewing that it had been reported earlier that Robin Williams had died.  Audible gasps were heard from the audience, as this was clearly the first everyone was learning of the incident.  Right before the movie was shown, the musical group One Republic appeared live in the theater and performed their song, “Ordinary Human”, which can be heard during the end titles of “The Giver”. 


Saturday, August 09, 2014

“The Dog”– Movie Review



This week, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center began a showing of the documentary “The Dog”, about the man whose story was depicted in the movie “Dog Day Afternoon”.


When a man discovers his homosexual tendencies, he finds himself on a long, destructive road which leads to both personal tragedy and an odd sort of fame. 



By all accounts, John Wojtowicz had a fairly normal childhood growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  Upon graduating from high school, he took a job as a bank teller and began dating his co-worker Carmen Bifulco; with the Vietnam war escalating and John being a self-described conservative Goldwater Republican, he joined the army and participated in some combat efforts overseas.  During his time in the service, however, he had an experience that would forever change his life:  he and a fellow soldier engaged in a homosexual encounter.  Despite being introduced to this alternative lifestyle, he nevertheless made good his promise to Carmen and married her upon his return. 

Although John and Carmen wound up having two children, their marriage was not as stable as it appeared.  John’s homosexual desires increased and this caused the two to separate.  Spending more time in the gay community, he became a member of The Gay Activists Alliance; soon, this led to him meeting Ernie, a transvestite who chose to assume the name of Liz.  The two ended up falling in love and were able to have an unofficial marriage ceremony, even though John hadn’t divorced Carmen and gay marriage was not yet legally recognized in New York State. 

This union was similarly unhappy; the two fought over the fact that Ernie wanted to make more of a commitment to being Liz by having a sex change operation.  After opposing the procedure for a long time, John finally consented to it, if for no other reason than it would simply make his partner happy.  Unable to pay for the surgery, he decided to rob a bank in order to get the money; he enlisted the aid of a couple of allies in the gay community and together, the three men set out to rob a Brooklyn bank on a steamy afternoon of August in 1972 – but when the job was botched and they were cornered by police, the gang took hostages.  The story made the news in New York City, then, due to its length and inherent drama, extended to make a national news story throughout the United States.  In 1975, the story was made into the Academy Award-winning movie “Dog Day Afternoon”, starring Al Pacino. 



No doubt about it, John Wojtowicz was certainly a real character.  If you thought the movie “Dog Day Afternoon” was compelling, you need to see “The Dog” to hear the real life story told directly from the man about whom the film was made.  His mother, Terry, is also interviewed; she gives a considerable amount of background and insight about John, which helps to fill in the gaps a bit.  One interesting technical note is that Terry’s Brooklyn accent is so thick that subtitles appear during her scenes; this, however, is not done with John’s narration. 

Normally, a major criticism of most documentaries is The Talking Head syndrome – too many people being interviewed on-screen.  In the case of “The Dog”, it works; hearing and seeing John and Terry – in addition to certain other key players – telling their side of the story in the manner in which they tell it is part of the pleasure of watching this documentary.  These people are as simple as they are complex and that’s what makes them so endlessly fascinating.  There’s plenty to be learned about them that never made it into “Dog Day Afternoon”. 

Prior to the screening, I viewed a showing of photographs of John that were on display in an anteroom of the theater that had been converted in to a gallery for the week.  The photos were taken by fellow Brooklynite Marcia Resnick, whose specialty during the 1970’s was using the various stars of the Punk Rock scene as her subjects.  The photos were as much of a trip as the documentary because they gave you a great view into who John was – basically, an attention-seeking egomaniac who loved being photographed.  Basically, this guy was a filmmaker’s dream – too good to be true, even the most creative screenwriter couldn’t have enough of an imagination to invent someone like him. 

The Dog (2013) on IMDb


Friday, August 08, 2014

“When The Game Stands Tall”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club held a screening of the new sports drama “When The Game Stands Tall”, starring Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern. 


When a popular high school football coach suffers a heart attack, will he be able to return to coaching even after his team’s legendary winning streak has been broken?


Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) is riding the wave of success – he coaches the De La Salle High School Spartans football team, which has an unheard of 151-game winning streak over the course of more than a decade.  Despite this, though, he is not without challenges in his life.  His loving wife Bev (Dern) brings to his attention the fact that their oldest son, who plays football on the same high school team, is experiencing Bob more as a coach than as a father.  Add to that the sudden death of one of the team’s more promising players and Bob’s got plenty of worries. 

Just when things look like they can’t get any worse, they do – Bob is stricken with a heart attack and has to be hospitalized for a while.  During his recuperation process, Bob will be unable to coach his football team, so his assistant coach Terry (Chiklis) is forced to take over in the meantime.  At the start of the next season, the team suffers a major upset and their extraordinary winning streak is snapped when they lose to a lesser team.  After dropping their subsequent game and falling to a record of 0-2 at the beginning of the season, everyone is getting concerned. 

With pressure mounting from within the community and from the parents of some of the players, Bob decides it’s time for him to step up and return to his coaching position in a more hands-on manner.  Although he observes the players working hard during their daily practice, he believes their strong effort there is not being carried over onto the field come game-time.  When the importance of their next game is enhanced due to the fact that it will be against a team in their own division, will they be able to pull off a victory to salvage something or will they be relegated to their first losing season in many years? 




With a story about how a high school football coach recovering from a physical setback having to teach his players how to recover from emotional and competitive setbacks, you would think that a greatly human, touching tale of the value of sports – and perhaps more importantly – the value of a good teacher would be compelling enough to resonate with audiences.  Instead, we have been presented with a film from a screenplay that is without any semblance of humor, containing one predictable cliché-filled scene after another.  While I certainly don’t want to seem like the big city snob looking condescendingly at small town life, I have to believe that the way in which “When The Game Stands Tall” is laid out, it is more proselytizing than storytelling. 

“When The Game Stands Tall” is nothing more than a missed opportunity – and it is missed by a long way.  It is a drama that takes itself way too seriously and as a result, fails to see how it winds up being unintentionally funny.  Laura Dern’s character is somewhat contradictory; in an early scene, she is heard criticizing her husband for not considering a better job as a college football coach, then shortly thereafter, she’s complaining that he isn’t spending enough time with the family.  Caviezel’s character is apparently also a theology teacher, inculcating his boys with Christian religious beliefs just as much as football techniques; of course, anyone in this fable that appears to be something of a heathen is therefore evil. 

In watching this movie, one can get the distinct impression that the filmmakers may have never even seen a football game, much less played in one, even at the level of a pick-up game with the family at Thanksgiving.  For one thing, the sports announcers calling the game are heard declaring the score as “seven-to-zero” instead of something like “seven-to-nothing” or even “seven-nothing”.  Another example would be some of the scenes from the games themselves; although we are led to believe that De La Salle’s defense is quite good, we never see anyone from their secondary picking-off a pass.  It would seem that high school quarterbacks are better than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. 


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

“Mr. Mike : The Life & Work Of Michael O’Donoghue”–Book Review



Recently, I completed reading the biography “Mr. Mike: The Life & Work Of Michael O’Donoghue” by Dennis Perrin.

For those of you who may not remember either the early years of “Saturday Night Live” or the glory days of The National Lampoon, Michael O'Donoghue was a writer and sometimes performer. Occasionally popping up on the syndicated radio program, “The National Lampoon Radio Hour”, he also portrayed the character of Mr. Mike on “SNL”, known for his ghoulish recurring sketch, “Mr. Mike’s Least-Loved Bedtime Tales”. O'Donoghue was a brilliant but deeply troubled comedy writer who helped to shape the tone of The National Lampoon’s style and also define part of what “Saturday Night Live” would become in television satire.


Raised in upstate New York, O'Donoghue was a sickly child often forced to stay in his room if not in bed; this resulted in the boy entertaining himself in various ways, which also wound up with him developing a fiendishly sharp comic wit. Encountering difficulty in finishing college, O'Donoghue was ambitious and wanted to strike out on his own as a writer. In his small community, he started a theatrical troupe that did original plays which O'Donoghue would often write and in which he would frequently act. Moving to New York City, he eventually got some work published and developed something of a cult following among the literary set; when The National Lampoon magazine was formed, people familiar with his work invited him to contribute material, even though he was not among the original graduates from Harvard (or any other Ivy League University).

O'Donoghue’s reputation grew there not only because of his output but because of his ego – he was prone to some rather severe temper tantrums and violent outbursts with colleagues and strangers alike; yelling at a customer service representative on the telephone in his office, he smashed the device to bits and it had to be replaced. After differences with the periodical’s management, he quit and spent quite a bit of time out of work and in debt financially. Ultimately, he was saved when he was offered a writing job on a new NBC television show based in New York City, “Saturday Night”, produced by Lorne Michaels (the show did not become “Saturday Night Live” until later because at the time, there was a primetime show on the ABC network by that name; once it got cancelled after its first season, NBC’s show assumed the “Saturday Night Live” title).

While a member of the writing staff at SNL, O'Donoghue was seen as being in something of a leadership position – but instead of mentoring the less-experienced writers, he wound up both berating and competing against them; O'Donoghue arguably may have made just as many enemies as he did friends there – but despite the bitterness, most of his co-workers did admit to admiring him because he was so talented. After too many arguments with NBC over censorship, O'Donoghue finally quit the show; although he aspired to loftier goals like producing and directing feature films in Hollywood, this was not to be for many reasons.

After a lifetime suffering from migraine headaches, O'Donoghue was awakened one morning in early November of 1994 in excruciating pain, thinking it was another migraine; when his condition worsened, he was rushed to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53.



As a fan of National Lampoon, “Saturday Night Live” and especially Michael O'Donoghue , I relished the opportunity to read this book. But be sure, this biography is not at all new; “Mr. Mike: The Life & Work Of Michael O’Donoghue” was originally published back in 1998, a scant four years after its subject’s death. For whatever reason, it took me a very long time to get around to reading it and I’m very glad that I did. “Mr. Mike” is extremely well researched by its author, who himself was an aspiring comedy writer and admirer of O’Donoghue’s work. Be advised though that despite being a fan, Perrin did not compile a hagiography of O’Donoghue’s life; many of O’Donoghue’s failures – both professionally and personally – are extensively documented.

Fans of O’Donoghue’s work will eat up “Mr. Mike”; many of his written pieces – including comic strips he authored – are reprinted here, either in full or in part (those who remember such classics as “Phoebe Zeitgeist” and “Tarzan Of The Cows” will find this especially pleasing). While great artists tend to have equally great egos – it seems almost a necessity to have that degree of confidence in your work when you are that original – this ego, sadly, also turned out to be part of O’Donoghue’s downfall in the sense that it prevented him from reaching both a larger audience and the financial success he sought and (in my opinion) deserved.


If I were to have any criticism of the book, it would be of a technical nature; there are only a few chapters here, but they are extremely long – 50 or 60 pages at times. Each is broken up by sections with titles that are either quotes or jokes from O’Donoghue. The problem here is that the typeface used, although clearly different from that of the main narrative, is frequently recycled when not dividing chapter sections – e.g., they are used to include extensive quotes, passages of pieces written by others or transcriptions from interviews or radio programs. The result is that it can be somewhat confusing, temporarily taking the reader out of the moment in order to determine what’s going on here and why.

One last personal note: my experience in reading this book was bookended by two quite pleasant surprises. Before I read the first chapter, I noticed that one of my other heroes, the late Christopher Hitchens, had written a blurb for its back cover, extolling the virtues of not only the author’s work, but the book’s subject as well. The other thing happened upon finishing “Mr. Mike”; in the last chapter, the author enumerates other writers and humorists who appear to owe a debt to O’Donoghue because of their style. The final paragraph of this last chapter mentions Howard Stern as being among those humorists; as a 30-year Stern fan, I appreciated this and could not agree more with the comparison.

For those of you unfamiliar with O’Donoghue from “SNL”, here’s a video of him when he performed his very first “Least-Loved Bedtime Tale” as his character Mr. Mike.



Monday, August 04, 2014

Perfecting The Gin & Tonic



What do you think of when asked to name the best, most refreshing summertime cocktail?  Many people will answer the gin ant tonic.  Why not?  It’s simple to make, tastes great, and is quite the pick-me-up on those sultry summer nights.  But what ingredients should you use?  Well, the tonic water can be purchased at almost any supermarket, but a number of folks might prefer getting something more specialized at a gourmet shop.  The key ingredient to this drink, of course, is the gin – after all, it’s called the gin and tonic, not the tonic and gin.  The gin comes first, so it’s the most important part of the mix. 

Recently, I attended a tasting at Union Square Wines & Spirits called “The G&T Invitational”, where attendees had an opportunity to sample a variety of gins – both on their own and mixed with tonic water.  As varied as the gins were, they each yielded their own unique taste when combined with whichever tonic was used; I encourage you to purchase a few of these and conduct your own tasting to see which one you prefer and which one you believe makes the perfect gin and tonic cocktail. 






The first one I tried was Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin; it contains five botanicals from The Highlands region of Scotland, which is also where its distillery is located – specifically, The Balmenach Distillery in Speyside).  Although its primary production is its Scotch, their Master Distiller was also quite passionate about gin and that’s how Caorunn came to be made there.  On its own, the gin is pleasantly aromatic with a very satisfying taste.  Mixed with tonic water, add a couple of thinly-sliced pieces of apple to garnish and the result is a rather refreshing cocktail. 


Next, I visited the table where the production manager from The New York Distilling Company was stationed.  The New York Distilling Company makes a Navy Strength Gin (a whopping 114 proof!) called Perry’s Tot.  Since the liquor is so strong, they recommend that when you use it in a cocktail, consider a smaller portion – instead of say 2 ounces, try only an ounce and a half, for example.  In addition to, of course, juniper, other botanicals include lemon, orange and grapefruit; they also add spices such as cinnamon, coriander and Star Anise. 

Interestingly, New York State honey is yet another ingredient, but the sugar is removed.  I was informed that they do not derive the higher proof by distilling the gin less than normal; instead, they control the amount of alcohol by a judicious use of purified water in their manufacturing process – in other words, the higher the proof of the gin, the less water is used. 



Last, I had an Old Tom gin from Spring 44.  Based out of Colorado, this company produces a very unusual type of Old Tom gin in that it’s not quite as sweet as you might expect due to the fact that there isn’t quite as much a presence of sugar, which is typically what’s added to the spirit to qualify it as an Old Tom.  Instead, its sweetness comes from the agave nectar that has been included; this almost makes it a “healthy” spirit as the sweetness from the agave nectar has a lower glycemic index, which means that your blood sugar won’t spike (and also results in fewer calories). 



In addition to the smoky taste given to it by the inclusion of the agave nectar, it also has something of a nutty-woody flavor; it attributes the nuttiness to the fact that toasted nutmeg is one ingredient and the woodiness comes from the spirit being aged for three months in chardonnay barrels.