Friday, August 30, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Last of the Summer Cocktails

Ah, Labor Day. Our final chance to get summer right.

Instead of posting a new cocktail, here’s a medley of seasonal classics and one new favorite, all of them designed to help you beat the heat one more time. With base spirits a’plenty!

The Tom Collins (gin)
The Cuba Libre (rum)
The Moscow Mule (vodka)
The Dark & Stormy (dark rum)
The Harvey Wheelbanger (rye, and no, I don’t want to talk about Matt Harvey yet)
The Paloma (tequila)

And if you’re hosting a farewell to the summer blowout, here’s the can’t-miss, make a batch early, equal parts recipe for the Corpse Reviver #2.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Movie: The Gamers: Hands of Fate (2013)

The main thing I want to convey is that you can watch this movie for free if you act quickly. And you should. But first ...

Full Disclosure #1: I’ve got history with the primary mover and shaker behind it, co-writer/co-director Matt Vancil. We put in time in the videogame salt mines together. So believe me when I say Vancil is one of the funniest people I know. I’m also friends with several members of the cast.

Full Disclosure #2: I backed the movie on Kickstarter, where it was, for a time, the most funded feature film in the website’s history. What wrested the title from it? A stop-motion project written by Academy Award winner Charlie Kaufman and produced by Community creator Dan Harmon. Which, in turn, has been supplanted by Spike Lee, Zach Braff and Veronica Mars. So believe me when I say Vancil and his colleagues at Dead Gentlemen and Zombie Orpheus were crowdfunding when it meant something, dammit.

Hands of Fate is a romantic fantasy adventure comedy that takes the Gamers characters from the realm of RPGs (role-playing games) into that of CCGs (collectible card games). Speaking of which, this would be a good time for ...

Full Disclosure #3: I’m not a gamer. At all. I had to look those terms up. I had no inkling of how Dungeons & Dragons even worked until I saw 2008’s The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. After watching these movies, I have zero interest in ever playing games of either the RP or CC variety. But that lack of knowledge didn’t diminish my enjoyment one iota, because what the film has in spades – and what it’s fundamentally about – is passion. Recently, I was sitting in a minor-league ballpark in Tacoma having an intense conversation about how defensive baseball metrics like UZR are unreliable and the now-critical stat Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is dependent on the performance of a non-standardized hypothetical athlete. Everybody’s got their something where (almost) nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about. In my case, I have several. (See: film noir, crime fiction, cocktails, the aforementioned baseball ...)

Bringing me to the first thing I love about the movie: its refusal to water down its content. It’s aimed squarely at the hardcore gaming community, larded with jokes that only the cognoscenti will cognoscent. But Vancil and his cohorts trust that in making the details of their subject specific, the underlying emotions will become universal. Plus there’s the added anthropological benefit of translating the lingo; early on, Rosemarie said, “I feel like I’m watching a movie in Lithuanian.” And she liked it more than me.

I also love its ambition. The Gamers: Hands of Fate develops characters from previous films and unfolds in worlds real and imagined that frequently collide. At times it’s overly ambitious; there are clunky subplots and complicated ideas introduced without sufficient set-up. (An extended edition is in the works.) But for its occasional stumbles the movie brims with enthusiasm for the notions it plays with, and sets up tantalizing possibilities for future installments.

Above all, I love its humor. I said Vancil was funny. At its core, the movie is about a guy who falls for a girl, immerses himself in her favorite thing, and gets more than he bargained for. Including an army of the undead. What’s not to love?

The Gamers: Hands of Fate is streaming in its entirety for free via YouTube through Saturday, August 31, after which it will be available for a pittance. It’s a holiday weekend. You’ve got time.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The French Intervention

Yes, it’s my second consecutive tequila drink. Once I didn’t even like tequila. I’m expanding my comfort zone, trying new things. Stop inhibiting me!

This cocktail comes courtesy of Amy Stewart’s best-selling The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks. Her book is a fascinating exploration of the biology behind booze that features multiple recipes, including one for a cocktail that Stewart has called “a better tribute to the agave plant than a margarita is.” Both its name and its ingredients stem from a historical incident. I will now change one of those ingredients and wreck that symmetry completely.

The French Intervention refers to Napoleon III’s 1862 invasion of Mexico. Under President Benito Juárez, Mexico opted to stop paying its foreign creditors. Three of them – Spain, England and France – joined forces to make the debtor nation come across. But when the first two countries learned that France, hoping to forge a Catholic hegemony in the New World, had designs on taking all of Mexico, they stopped answering their phones and were all, like, What? Was that this weekend? We were at Jordan’s the whole time.

France eventually installed a Habsburg, Maximilian I, as emperor, because who better to rule Mexico than an Austrian? They’re two countries separated only by an ocean, a few other bodies of water, several mountain ranges, language, temperament, cuisine and culture. Maximilian’s reign lasted three years and ended with him losing Mexico and his head.

This global misadventure inspired numerous cocktails, including the Maximilian Affair and several drinks marching under the French Intervention banner. To honor its namesake, most variations have a base spirit from Mexico (tequila or mezcal) and a modifier from France such as elderflower liqueur. Stewart’s version incorporates Lillet Blanc.

Mine doesn’t. I have of late been substituting Cocchi Americano for Lillet in cocktails, and made no exception here even though it throws the narrative out of whack. Stewart at least prescribes a dash of green chartreuse, which is also French. And Cocchi Americano’s Italian origin also suits the tale, given that Pope Pius IX blessed Maximilian before he left for his ill-fated bid at monarchy. (One of Juárez’s first acts as President was to nationalize church property.) Later, when France was on the verge of abandoning Mexico, Maximilian’s wife Empress Carlota returned to Europe to plead their case and, paranoid, demanded to stay overnight in the Vatican, becoming the first woman to do so. Meaning that if anything, my take on this cocktail is more attuned to the subtleties of 19th century geopolitics.

The French Intervention buttresses Stewart’s belief that agave-based spirits play well in cocktails. The trace of chartreuse accentuates the tequila to salutary effect, with Cocchi Americano’s extra snap of cinchona a welcome addition. I wouldn’t rank it ahead of the margarita, but it’s still a drink both magnifico and formidable.

The French Intervention

Variation on a recipe by Amy Stewart

1 ½ oz. tequila (or mezcal)
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano (originally Lillet Blanc)
dash of green chartreuse

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Movie: Drug War (U.S. 2013)

The latest film from the hugely talented Johnnie To is the best movie I’ve seen all summer and stands at an impressive 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – yet I feel like nobody’s talking about it. So here I am, days late, telling you to go see it while you can.

An epic policier set in mainland China, Drug War opens with Timmy Choi (To regular Louis Koo) fleeing an explosion in his meth factory that kills his wife and several members of his family. He’s not fast enough to escape Captain Zhang and his drug squad, however. Facing the death penalty, Choi agrees to wire Zhang into an already-in-the-works deal that could ultimately bring down the biggest cartel in Asia.

What follows is a taut, fast-moving film as the deal grows, involving more players and layers of deception. Sun Hong-Lei is astonishing as Zhang, a laconic presence with a preternatural flair for role-playing. He’s always on his guard with Choi, though, whose grief masks ruthless calculation. The cops are constantly dealing with transportation issues and lack of sleep, and the script’s random bits of strangeness and low comedy further ground a heightened tale in reality. Find a theater where it’s playing. Thank me later. Here’s the trailer.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Paloma

Forget what you’ve heard – possibly even from me – about the margarita. The real national drink of Mexico is a simpler concoction that showcases tequila to greater effect than its better known relative, and if anything may be more refreshing.

Paloma means dove in Spanish. It’s also a native infestation that attacks the leaves of maguey (agave) plants, source of mezcal and tequila, so calling a cocktail by that name may be ironic or a bid to ward off bad luck. Like the margarita, La Paloma incorporates tequila, lime juice and salt. The primary difference with the last ingredient is that instead of going on the rim of the glass, the salt is typically tossed right into the drink. That step, unfussy in the extreme, is essential to the Paloma’s street-level appeal; there’s no worry about even distribution as the salt gets right to work on the ice and unleashes the tequila’s flavor. The absence of triple sec also allows the spirit to shine more brightly.

Still more important is the final element: grapefruit soda. It’s a magnificent time-saving step, adding sourness and sass in one fell swoop. The traditional choice in Mexico is Squirt, with some favoring Ting from Jamaica or, madre de dios, Fresca. My personal preference is Jarritos, for two reasons:

1. It’s authentically Mexican.
2. It’s available in the store in my building.

As La Paloma has caught on north of the border, bartenders are classing them up with fresh grapefruit juice for tartness and club soda for fizz. These Palomas, along with those made with mezcal, tequila’s smokier cousin, can be sublime. But I have no quarrel with the down-to-earth original. I’ve always been a man of the people.

Alcademics offers a round-up of twenty Paloma variations including an earlier Cocktail of the Week, the 212.

The Paloma

2 oz. tequila
½ oz. lime juice
pinch of salt
several oz. grapefruit soda

Combine the first three ingredients in a Collins glass. Add ice, then soda. Stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Between The Sheets

Dr. Egon Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Why?

Dr. Egon Spengler: It would be bad.


The timeless advice of a trusted academic is also my usual response to the mixing of base spirits. One, typically, is enough. The case of the Between The Sheets isn’t abetted by its name, which can also be appended to anything read from a fortune cookie. It was a bitter disappointment, then, that the Playboy Bartender’s Guide, always a reliable source of vaguely smutty drink advice, simply observed that the Between The Sheets is a variation on the rum Sidecar.

The cocktail dates back to the Prohibition era and is credited to the usual places; Harry’s New York Bar Paris comes up, but Harry’s New York Bar Paris always comes up. Given the combustible combination of potent potables, it’s not surprising that some experts viewed it askance. In early editions of The Official Mixer’s Manual, it was branded with the advisory asterisk that was essentially Patrick Gavin Duffy tossing up his hands and saying, “I’ll tell you how to make it. I’m not telling you to drink it.” Charles H. Baker, Jr. first sampled it in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on a day of rioting between Arabs and Jews. “We won’t go into the politics of the thing,” he observes in his customary style in The Gentleman’s Companion, “but it was a nasty mess.” As for the cocktail itself, he declares it “totally sound.”

And it is. Partisans of the Sidecar may want to give it a whirl, the rum bestowing a tropical kick on the proceedings. There are versions prescribing Benedictine in place of rum, but if you’re going to baffle the palate, says I, baffle it but good. I personally don’t sugar the rim of the glass, as you would in a standard Sidecar, because the rum (or the Benedictine) will provide sufficient sweetness. And depending on which recipe you consult, the amount of lemon juice varies from a dash to a portion equal to the other ingredients. Here I’ve opted for enough to keep the drink squarely in the Sour family, where it belongs. Whatever preparation you settle on, the Between the Sheets is better than its name.

The Between The Sheets

1 oz. light rum
1 oz. brandy (Cognac)
1 oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Movies: The Hitchcock 9

The British Film Institute recently undertook the massive project of restoring all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films. (Of the ten he made, only his second, 1927’s The Mountain Eagle, is lost.) The nine movies span and frequently combine genres, linked mainly by the director’s restless cinematic intelligence. The series is currently on tour, and recently wrapped up a run at Seattle’s SIFF Cinema. Where else would you expect your correspondent to be?

It’s a mixed bag of titles, but essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan. The thrills come from watching the director discover his voice, charting his burgeoning command of visual narrative, glimpsing the first Hitchcock blonde, his debut cameo. Adding to the experience was the performance of a live original soundtrack, making each screening a singular event.

Blackmail (1929). Czech actress Anny Ondra of the hugely expressive eyes is Alice, who slips away from her boyfriend to respond to the flirtations of an artist (a magnificently odious Cyril Ritchard). When he attempts to rape her, she kills him. Alice is still reeling from the discovery that the investigating detective is her boyfriend when a criminal who witnessed everything threatens to destroy them both unless they pay up. A masterful piece of work, stronger than Hitchcock’s more celebrated The Lodger. It already shows the director’s love of climactic set-pieces with a chase through the British Museum achieved through camera trickery, and features an unsettling ending that never would have passed muster at a U.S. studio. Hitch made a sound version simultaneously, with Ondra lip-syncing dialogue spoken by off-camera actress Joan Barry. That version closes SIFF’s tribute tonight, but having seen this gorgeous print of the silent film I’m in no hurry to watch a weaker iteration. The soundtrack was by Diminished Men, their music described as a combination of Link Wray and Ennio Morricone. Not what one typically associates with Hitchcock but their surf noir sound worked wonderfully, adding a contemporary dimension to a nearly-85-year-old film that remains plenty lively on its own.

The Farmer’s Wife (1928). Billed as a comedy but steeped in sadness. A gentleman farmer and widower watches his daughter marry and leave home. Afraid of spending the rest of his days alone, he and his devoted housekeeper draw up a list of eligible women, and the farmer goes a’-courtin’. Once romance is in the offing the stoic farmer becomes a stubborn, hapless fool, forever saying the wrong thing. The women who are his quarry are given definition, each spurning him for her own reasons. This warm and funny film, also a gentle burlesque of village life, was the find of the festival, abetted by the strongest soundtrack. Violinist Julie Baldridge and a DJ whose name I didn’t catch played in deft counterpoint, the DJ using samples to serve as motifs for the characters.

The Pleasure Garden (1925). Hitch’s first film, made when he was twenty-five, is a strange one. It begins as a backstage melodrama, with a penniless chorine arriving from the sticks only to be watched over by “poor but honest” Patsy Brand. Then it becomes a bizarre tale of Far East survival. I wish it had stayed in the theater, a proto-Showgirls. You can tell from the opening shot of chorus girls’ legs that’s where Hitchcock’s heart lies. A jumble goosed along by an inventive, multi-instrument soundtrack courtesy of Miles & Karina.

The Ring (1927). Hitch’s boxing drama was the film I was most excited about, so naturally it proved the biggest disappointment. Like many of his early efforts it’s a love triangle, about a carnival fighter signed to be the sparring partner for an up-and-coming heavyweight – only to have the champ fall for his wife. While the midway milieu feels authentic and lived-in, the boxing world (aside from the use of champagne to spritz the pugs between rounds) is never remotely believable. And there’s not enough boxing. The cello/vocal score emphasized that The Ring is a chamber piece and only made a constrained film seem even smaller.

Downhill (1927). Schoolboy honour leads to disgrace. Then-heartthrob Ivor Novello, fifteen years too old for the role, willingly besmirches his own name to save a chum’s and winds up a taxi dancer in the south of France. It’s impossible to tell how seriously to take this story when Hitchcock himself seems to be playing it for laughs. Further complicating my reaction was the soundtrack, provided by a local DJ and the one authentic misfire. The DJ wasn’t scoring the film so much as commenting on it, playing obvious yet inappropriate selections (The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ during scenes of schoolroom romance) and banking on the audience’s associations with tracks by the Doors and Rihanna. Worse, of all the films in the series Downhill has the most opportunities for music to make an impact given its structure and the DJ squandered them all, settling for glib choices. SIFF’s programmers deserve credit for thinking out of the box, but here the music nearly overwhelmed Hitchcock’s artistry.

Champagne (1928). Screwball Hitchcock, complete with runaway heiress. Betty Balfour is the flapper who finally pushes her wealthy father to the point of feigning poverty – but that only unleashes the girl’s inner moxie. The sole surviving print is a back-up consisting of second-best shots and takes, but even B-level Hitchcock has its charms. Featuring Rosemarie’s new all-time favorite line of dialogue: “I’ve met some lively people, invented a cocktail, and bought a lot of snappy gowns!” Harpist Leslie McMichael contributed a suitably effervescent score.

The Manxman (1929). Anny Ondra again stars in yet another triangle drama set on the Isle of Man. Possibly the best-looking film of the bunch, but a one-note melodrama only occasionally enlivened by the director’s eye, and with too many instances of histrionic “silent movie acting” by the male leads. Another cello/vocal score, heavy on the keening, only underlined how frightfully intimate the action is.

Easy Virtue (1928). The restoration of this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play was struck from a 16mm print with more than fifteen minutes whittled out of it. As such it feels fragmentary, only hinting at the expansive approach to the source material. Another fine Miles & Karina score helped.

I skipped 1927’s The Lodger because I’ve already seen it, it didn’t feature live music (instead using a recording of the BFI-commissioned score), and nine movies in three days is too much even for me. SIFF continued the Hitchcock tribute with a selection of his early U.K. films. I ventured back to the Uptown for a few that I’d missed.

Murder! (1930). A famous actor (Herbert Marshall) seated on a jury reluctantly votes to find a fellow thespian guilty of the title offense, then applies the tools of his trade to clear her name. A who-done-it was not the ideal vehicle for exploring the use of sound in a movie. Hitchcock occasionally succeeds, as in a multi-party interrogation set in the wings of a theater during a play, and even pushes what the medium was then capable of; to achieve the relatively simple effect of having Marshall hear his thoughts while listening to the radio, Hitchcock played a recording of the actor’s voice while an orchestra thundered on the other side of the set’s wall. More often than not, though, the new technology results in scenes in which dialogue is barked too fast to be processed. And the plot is ridiculous. The curio does have a tip-top big top climax, though.

Number Seventeen (1932). An old dark house story. Mysterious characters – including a hobo best described as The Wire’s Dominic West meets Gollum – turn up at said structure, all lying about who they are. Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of the original play and didn’t want to direct the film, so his solution was to treat the entire enterprise as a joke, piling on the twists and keeping the pace moving. It’s a fleet hour of gimcrack nonsense culminating in a daring race between a model bus and a model train. Once I embraced its silliness, I had a fine time.

Young and Innocent (1937). By the time Hitch made this film, which he felt great affection for, he’d already become ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage. He’d reached the point where he was capable of tossing off bon-bons like this – about a wrongly accused man on the run, a favorite theme – effortlessly. Sly, flirtatious banter, barbed send-ups of social mores, and multiple bravura shots. It’s a Hitchcock movie, fully formed, and he’d be in America soon enough. With the divinely named Nova Pilbeam.