Monthly Archives: November 2016

Sour Grapes

Rich people problems.

Do I have a wine cellar? Yes I do. It’s quite nice. On any given day it houses exactly the number of bottles I neglected to drink last night. We are not wine snobs. We don’t even aspire to be. But as Sour Grapes will tell you, the world’s already got enough of those. Too many, maybe.

In the 90s, during the tech boom, people had too much money. “Fuck you money” they call it, the millions in excess, to be pissed away rather than spent. The kind of money I will never see and have a hard time just reading about. Riches needed to be conspicuous, so after the cars were bought and the art hung and rare coins sought out, they turned to wine, which can be literally pissed away given a certain amount of time. Wine became such a commodity that auction houses made bundles selling the stuff. Rare bottles were gobbled up; demand was high but resources extremely finite.

The “angry men” (so called because they’re the ones who bring exceptional bottles of wine to the dinner party while the rest of us just pick up whatever’s on sale at the grocery store and this makes them ANGRY) began hosting wine tastings where $200 000 worth of wine was consumed in a night. Auctioneer John Kapon pushed this new culture of big wine being sexy and exotic, and why not? It’s not like auction houses make a 20% cut on whatever they sell. And by golly did they sell: millions at a time.

Rudy Kurniawan was a buyer and a drinker. He chased the elusive bottles and dropped big cash on them. His palette was legendary. In fact, he was legendary. He was deliberately mysterious, and a mythology built up around him. But he was generous, gracious, and extremely well-liked and respected. He bought wine compulsively; some he drank, some he shared, and lots he turned around and sold for profit.

103503968-koch_cellar_1-530x298Until Bill Koch noticed something peculiar in his wine cellar that has more square footage than my house.  Among his 43 000 bottle collection (including 4 bottles reportedly owned by Thomas Jefferson for which he paid $100k per bottle) he started to notice some fakes. Those fakes were traced back to none other than Rudy Kurniawan.

It’s thanks to Koch and an honourable vintner named Ponsot that Rudy was eventually brought down (justice for Burgundy, Ponsot passionately believes). The story is pretty engrossing, and it turns out that even more fraudulent than the wine is Rudy himself.

The documentary also explores the collaboration between forgerer and dupe – obviously lots of people wanted and needed to believe their wine was real. Otherwise it’s just a bottle of vinegar the price of a Ferrari. They all wanted to possess something rare – maybe so rare that it didn’t even exist anymore. Or ever.

Bill Koch seems to have lost the taste for wine collecting since these events; he just sold 20 000 bottles for $22 million dollars at Sotheby’s. And yourself? What’s the most you’d ever pay for a bottle of wine? Go ahead and uncork (unscrew?) your favourite $10 bottle and watch this movie. It’s streaming on Netflix right now and it’s worth savouring.

 

 

“Buy ’96 champagne. If you can’t afford that buy ’02. If you can’t afford that, drink fucking beer.”

 

 

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The Intervention

Four couples convene at a cottage for a weekend getaway, or at least that’s what one of the couples thinks. The other three are there to tell the fourth to get divorced already. Ruby  (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza) have been at each other’s throats for as long as anyone can remember, and their friends have determined that this is the time to spring a martial intervention on them. It’s not that easy to tell your friends to quit their relationship though, especially not when your own is on somewhat rocky ground.

Jessie (Clea DuVall) and Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) are in love, but they lead separate lives, perhaps because Sarah is not exactly Jessie’s “type” , but you do you know who is? Jack’s the-intervention-still3-natashalyonne-jasonritter-benschwartz-aliashawkat-cleaduvall-melanielynskey-bypollymorgannew girlfriend! Everyone thinks it’s kind of tacky that Jack (Ben Schwartz) brought a hot young date named Lola (Alia Shawkat) to the shindig, and they doubly don’t appreciate their sloppy pda all over the place. Not when Annie  (Melanie Lynskey) and Matt (Jason Ritter) are on their umpteenth postponement of their wedding and Annie’s drinking again, not that anyone minds so much when her drunken outbursts break the ice during a very tense dinner.

Have you ever guided someone towards divorce when they themselves have never put divorce on the table? It’s a little dicey, but Clea DuVall’s script is often funny in the right places. We don’t get to know the characters very thoroughly, but we do get a front row seat to an epically disastrous friends’ weekend. The plot is a little old-hat but the incredible dynamism between the lead actors gives the movie some verve and even if it plod a little in the middle, it was a good Netflix risk that made me feel just a bit better about the stupid stuff I get up to with my friends, who as far as I know, are pretty comfortable with my marital status.

The Edge of Seventeen

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, an awkward teenager. Scratch that. Make it a super awkward teenager. So awkward that I kept ducking behind my coat (the only thing available to be in the theatre), blushing, needing a buffer between myself and all the squirm-inducing goodness on screen.

Was I ever 17? I doubt it. I bet Nadine feels like she’ll be 17 forever though. The the-edge-of-seventeenawkwardness just goes on and on. To make matters worse, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) has it easy: perfect skin, perfect grades, the perfect apple of his mother’s eye, and a perfectly terrible person to be compared to for the rest of your life. To make matters EVEN worse, Darian starts dating Nadine’s best friend (read: only friend), which means he’s getting all the comfort that used to be hers, and she’s forced to be at war with them both while still, you know, blundering her way through life and high school, with only an irascible teacher (Woody Harrelson) in her corner – and believe me, that’s a bit iffy.

Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig seems awfully comfortable behind the camera for a first-timer, but it’s the writing you’ll admire most. Nadine is largely unsentimental, and unsentimentally portrayed. You love her despite the fact that she’s a dumpster fire. She makes all the wrong decisions, usually in the most flamboyant way possible, and yet it’s impossible not to care. Maybe it’s that we can all find some small part of ourselves and our experience in Nadine, in her struggle just to survive a pretty delicate (read: embarrassing) edge_of_seventeentime in one’s life.

All of the performances are exemplary – even the adults have secrets and dimension. The ensemble works together in a very dynamic, authentic way that would be depressing if it wasn’t so funny. Craig’s writing is snappy and smart, and she manages to keep her protagonist’s unlikeability an asset to the film. It’s an observant film, and universal enough to exceed the confines of a teen movie and appeal to the awkward teenager in all of us.

Moonlight

hero_moonlight-tiff-2016Moonlight is the quietest tour de force I’ve probably ever seen. Never have I rooted for a drug dealer in this way, and never have I sympathized so much with a kid who wanted to follow in that drug dealer’s footsteps. Moonlight is spectacular in its simplicity. It is also entirely different than the movie I expected.

That difference comes in its approach. This is a coming-of-age story focused on a likeable outsider named Chiron who has been dealt a terrible hand. His father is absent, his mother is barely there, and he’s a walking bully target. He’s called soft but he’s got an obvious inner strength, and I loved him right from the start. He didn’t have to say a word to get me on his side. Which is fortunate because he’s not much of a talker.

081816-celebs-janelle-monae-s-film-moonlightChiron’s adolescence is the subject of three tightly focused vignettes. It’s a wonderful storytelling choice that perfectly explains Chiron’s choices as he grows up, without having to engage in any exposition. Moonlight is brave in many ways but to me it’s the choice to let us figure things out for ourselves that makes this film great. It makes the journey more fulfilling, the experience more real, and greatly increases our empathy for Chiron. Moonlight helps us understand Chiron to a degree that I would not have thought possible. Regardless of your race, wealth, or sexual orientation, we are all a lot like Chiron.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins somehow enhances that commonality at every turn, and also finds beauty everywhere he takes us.  His efforts are supported by wonderful performances from top to bottom. moonlight_1-5-1-e1477472370758Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes each take remarkable turns as Chiron and the extent to which they feel like the same person is incredible. Mahershala Ali is not the only other actor deserving of mention (the supporting cast is consistently great) but for my money his performance as the aforementioned drug dealer shapes Chiron’s life and makes us understand his growth to a degree that is virtually unmatched in film.

Moonlight has been on my watch list for a long time. It was well worth the wait and deserves every bit of acclaim coming its way.  It’s perfect from start to finish. Go see it!

A Christmas Melody

This movie is achingly bad from the very first. Lacey Chabert, aka, the littlest Party of Fiver, aka one of the mean girls, aka hasn’t worked since “stars” as a single mom who has to give up her dream of being a fashion designer in L.A. to move back home to Ohio for Christmas, with her young daughter in tow.

Things look up very briefly when Kathy Najimi makes a brief appearance as her bubbly aunt, but it’s fleeting and as soon as Najimi’s offscreen, things go downhill rather fast.

So fast in fact that before I know it Mariah Carey is now making my day much worse, downloadappearing as the PTA mom who’s about to make Lacey Chabert’s life even more unbearable, as if being exiled to Ohio wasn’t bad enough. Now she has to put up with some old rival from high school one-upping her and flaunting the lifestyle that dentistry bought her. Some very talented directors have occasionally elicited some not-terrible performances from Carey (I’m thinking of Precious here, and I’m not sure what else) but whoever directed this monstrosity is clearly cowed by her. She’s more wooden than a nutcracker and she’s making hand gestures like she’s Celine Dion, live in concert.

The movie unfolds exactly as a Christmas movie must: little girl finds acceptance by singing in the school pageant, mom falls in love with the music teacher, a major department store wants to buy her designs but she’s already so happy in Ohio she doesn’t need to pursue her other dreams anymore. Oh, and the school janitor may or may not be Santa Claus.

Questions?

 

 

Zero Days

I was so nervous the morning of the election that I could barely concentrate on anything else. I worried about voter intimidation at polling stations and about what would happen if Donald Trump and his supporters refused to accept a Hillary Clinton victory. I think my biggest fear  was a close enough race that would send the message to future candidates that, despite Trump’s loss, there was still a place for his brand of inflammatory rhetoric.

Well, most of you now know that I may have lacked imagination when dreaming up Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Keene, New Hampshirethe 2016 American Election’s worst-case scenario. Misogyny and xenophobia  seem to have its place in American political discourse after all- the Oval Office on weekdays and Trump Tower on the weekends. A lot of people have said a lot of things to try to make me feel better. “Geez, give him a chance. If he succeeds, we succeed,” they say. “He’s not going to do any of the things he said,” seems like a popular response, which even if true seems to miss the point. One person even made the bizarre claim “Don’t worry. Orange people never do anything”.

zero-days“Sure, he’s unprepared and easily distracted but give him time,” would makes more sense if the world was a simple place where nothing all that important or complex were going on. Zero Days, the new documentary from Alex Gibney and the film I’m using as an excuse to talk about the feelings I can’t shake since the election, paints a scary picture of the complexity of the security threats that face the United States and the world. Specifically, Zero Days is focused on cyber security and the story of  the Stuxnet virus.

If you are as unfamiliar with Stuxnet as I was, I won’t spoil it for you. Even thoughzero-days-2 Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie, Going Clear) takes his subject seriously, his documentary can’t help feeling like a Hollywood thriller and the twists can feel pretty exciting until you remember that this is real life. The director is wise to play up the suspense given that all this talk of worms and centrifuges can get a little technical and continually reminding us how high the stakes are is an excellent motivator to pay attention to all the tech talk. The interviews with the security company that discovered Stuxnet, the politicians who can neither confirm nor deny anything, and the NSA whistleblowers are all gripping.

Maybe it’s all these film festivals that have me so worried. If you’ve been watching the documentaries we’ve been watching lately, the future- even without Trump- can seem like a pretty uncertain and scary place. From cyber attacks to nuclear weapons, climate change to sexting scandals, the challenges facing our and future generations can seem overwhelming. Electing wise and level-headed world leaders would have seemed like a logical place to start.

 

 

Moana

Moana is the daughter of a chief of an island nation, destined to one day be a chief herself. Her father keeps his people land-locked, afraid of the ocean and 03748b7cd1294b61233c6165a16cb68bits violence. But Moana is called by the sea, and encouraged by her water-loving grandmother, she discovers that her ancestors were once voyagers who travelled the ocean in impressive “canoes” to find new islands to inhabit. With this in mind, she takes off on a self-taught sailing adventure to find the demi-god Maui and set things right for her ailing homeland.

Moana is a simpler story than Zootopia. It’s about a young woman who defies her father and follows her calling in order to be the leader and hero of her people. I’ve heard some people critique it as having less of a social message than the latter, but let’s remember that while Zootopia does have a subversive message about race, Moana is a Disney princess who happens to be a person of colour, and maybe that’s an even bolder statement about diversity than any bunny could hope to make. Moana, animation-boat-demigod-disney-favim_com-4688729like Lilo & Stitch before it, should be celebrated for being a Hawaiian movie that actually features Hawaiian people (I’m looking at you, Aloha).

Moana looks incredible. The marine influences are everywhere, colourful and wonderfully animated. And the songs are an absolute delight. As you may know, the guy responsible for the raging success that is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is behind a lot of the lyrics and songs, but he shares credit with Opetaia Foa’i who provides a necessary and flavourful injection of Hawaiian influence that make Moana’s music distinctive and familiar. While perhaps not instantly hummable by 5 year olds the way Frozen was, I think Moana is a step up in terms of Disney’s moana3.jpgmusical ventures. Jemaine Clement, playing a oversized crab, sings a song called Shiny which sounds an awful lot like something Flight of the Conchords would have done, though it is indeed written by Miranda (and performed with a David Bowie flair by Clement). And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the little girl (14 at the time of recording) who voices Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho, who has a powerhouse of a voice, rich and full, and sounds authentic in the role too. I’m very glad to report that Disney cast this movie using a plethora of Polynesian performers, and it really pays off.

Moana is a bit feminist in terms of Disney films: female wayfinders would have been extremely rare in the Polynesian culture since navigators typically read the swells of the ocean by sitting cross-legged on the bottom of their boat to feel the movement of the ocean in their balls. In the movie, she learns to moana-disney-princess-39692804-268-140read currents and measure the stars from the demi-god Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson. The animators do a really great job of bringing a few identifiable Johnson traits into Maui’s features, and Miranda carefully crafted a song that he could sing successfully, without having a traditional talent for singing (“You’re Welcome” is a heck of a song!). Maui’s body is covered in tattoos that represent acts of heroism, or particular challenges that he’s overcome. Unlike the rest of the computer-animated film, his tattoos are hand-drawn, and add an extra layer of fun to the story, as well as acting as his moral compass. Maui often pokes fun at tumblr_nzxjpmXSCt1u78wepo1_250.gifMoana’s insistence that she is “not a princess”, a self-aware bit of humour from a studio known for relying on certain formulas.

There’s a lot to like in Moana: she’s a plucky, courageous self-starter surrounded by a lush and magical world on which to feast your eyes. There’s even a tribute of sorts to Mad Max: Fury Road, if Imorten Joe’s army had been a lovely bunch of coconuts. That sounds odd, or impossible, but trust me. Moana doesn’t hold on to you the way a great movie might, but it’s sure to win over audiences this holiday season, and there’s not likely to be a better way to spend two hours with your family.

[Moana is preceded by a fun and vivacious Disney short called Inner Workings. It’ll remind you a little bit of Inside Out since it’s about one man’s struggle between head and heart. Inside Out was accompanied by a short called Lava, about an island volcano. Synergy! Read more about Inner Workings here.]

Green Room

I think we can all agree that Jeremy Saulnier would make a terrible dinner party guest. He’s the writer-director of the most sadistic movies I’ve ever seen and I think someone needs to give him a houseplant and one of those sappy Hallmark cards with a nice beach scene on the front. Like, the man needs a hug only I wouldn’t recommend anyone get close enough to give him one. A man who makes movies this crazy has to be a little deranged, right?

Okay, I don’t really know a single thing about Saulnier, and judging by his IMDB profile pic, I’d say he’s a Mumford & Sons listening, Wholefoods shopping, Keds wearing dude like any other. Only he’s also a brilliant writer and director who just happens to like fucking with people.

I watched Blue Ruin all by my lonesome and survived. Green Room is even downloadmore of a trial. It’s about a not very successful punk band on a tour of tiny bars and rec rooms about to head home when they get one last gig that pays too well to ignore. They should have ignored it though because the neo-Nazis who show up to hear them play are a little more than they bargained for. Shit goes down, and it’s not just uncomfortable racist undertones, it’s more the literal tearing out of your throat variety.

It’s a horror-thriller that doesn’t apologize for relishing the bloodiness of greenroom4the genre, but this one has the surprising addition of exceptional acting. I liked Blue Ruin for defying my expectations of the genre, and Green Room of guilty of the same, to some extent. It has a real plot and a set-up that won’t make you cringe in its obviousness or its thinness. When Saulnier’s name is attached to a film (this is his third – the perfect opportunity, and maybe his only opportunity to indulge and be indulged in such a gorefest) you’re pretty much guaranteed a nail-biter. There’s breathtaking cruelty around every corner, but I was even more surprised by the tiny flickers of humanity that sneak up on you.

Green Room is not an easy watch, but if you think you have the stomach for it, you should probably put Saulnier on your watch list.

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-joe-alswynOn a snowy Sunday afternoon, Jay and I found ourselves alone in a theatre watching Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Having just been reminded on the way to the theatre that this was two time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s latest, I thought it was particularly odd for the theatre to be empty, even accounting for the fact that Fantastic Beasts was playing simultaneously on four or five other screens at the multiplex. But by the end of the film I got it. This is just a terrible movie.  We shouldn’t have been there either.

I can’t even begin to list all the things that are wrong with this movie. Well, okay, since you asked, I can start:

  1. The extreme facial closeups are horrible.  You will hate every single one and they make up at least 25% of the movie’s run time. I’m not sure whether Vin Diesel or Steve Martin had more facetime but I didn’t ask to see up either one’s nostrils.  The closeups detract from the movie to the point that Jay and I were compelled to imitate the viewpoint over and over, while the movie was still running.  Naturally, it’s hilarious when we do it but it’s not at all funny on the screen.  Okay, maybe a little but I don’t think the humour was intended.
  2. The characters are lame. They are completely flat and consistently struggle with dialogue that is almost Herzogian in its ridiculousness.  The only positive was we got another catchphrase from it.  Now when I tell Jay I love her, she says, “Roger that”.  Thanks, Ang Lee!
  3. The story is pointless.  The movie has nothing interesting to say about war.  Which is really too bad because they almost had a moment during the Destiny’s Child halftime show to show how insensitive our society is to PTSD, but then the film just dropped that idea without any payoff whatsoever.  Billy is then given the option to be taken to a doctor to get treated for his PTSD but instead he chooses to return to Iraq, in order to impress a cheerleader.  Hooah!
  4. And then there’s the stadium security team that picks several fights with the soldiers for no discernible reason.  Was there a point to that?  Was there a point to any of it?  Because there should have been, but the writers couldn’t put a complete thought together in the movie’s two hour runtime.  There’s no meaning to be found anywhere.

By the way, this movie does not feature any actual members sad-hulkof Destiny’s Child so don’t get your hopes up, Beyhive.  They couldn’t even get Michelle.  But since the real Destiny’s Child 2004 Thanksgiving halftime show doesn’t feature Billy Lynn, I guess that’s only fitting.   I watched all 6:22 of that clip looking for him.  Just one more letdown.  This whole experience was a bigger disappointment than Ang Lee’s Hulk.  Sean sad.

A Little Bit of Heaven

My bullshit meter was flashing big red lights when I read Netflix’s description of the Kate Hudson film, A Little Bit of Heaven: she plays a “woman who has everything – including cancer.” Hell yes I was wary, but it seemed like it would be light enough that my head cold could deal with it, so I gave it a go. It was actually a little bit of hell.

I mean, first, kudos for giving Kate Hudson ass cancer. Well, that came out a-little-bit-of-heaven-01wrong. But you know what I mean: usually a pretty blonde will linger with some glamorous kind of cancer that makes you pale but otherwise untouched. Colon cancer is a mother fucker. I mean, you wouldn’t know it from the movie. She even keeps all her hair! But she does get to suffer the indignity of the old camera up the wazoo trick, and has to admit to cute guys that she’s bleeding in her poop. So that’s kind of wonderful. A laugh riot, if you will. At least that’s what they’re striving for. In reality, the movie’s quite tone deaf.

They try really hard to make Marley (Hudson) an edgy, new kind of female character, one that doesn’t need love to be happy. Except of course it’s her Earthbounddying wish. And of course her oncologist happens to be dreamy Gael Garcia Bernal. But there are even worse travesties than this afoot. First, as she lays dying, Marley talks to “God” (Whoopi Goldberg), who apparently is in the business of granting 3 wishes, like a genie. Even more egregious is Peter Dinklage, who pops up as a little person hooker whose nickname is – you guessed it – A Little Bit of Heaven. Because when the jokes about butt cancer dry up, why not make a joke out of someone’s sexuality? Ugh.

But just when you’re about to really give in to this sexy romcom -slash-terminal cancer hilarity, director Nicole Kassall shoves a funnel down your throat to make sure your overdose on sentimentality is complete. It’s the kind of movie that has you wishing Kate Hudson would just die already.