Sunday, June 30, 2013

Monsters University

Dinner and a Movie

Blue Monster Max

By Steve Herte

My quartet is having its reunion in White Plains so I rescheduled my dining and movie night. Also, I’m in Connecticut for my third week of vacation with my sister and brother-in-law and part of the adventure is a stay-over at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods (wish me luck). I won't need to bring my laptop on this trip because they're very computer literate (in fact he's a software trouble-shooter for Traveler's Insurance) and I won't be out of the loop on anything. Who knows, maybe we'll be totally decadent and stop by Mohegan Sun as well. Enjoy!

The Blue Umbrella (Pixar, 2013) – Director: Saschka Unseld. Color, 7 minutes.

This adorable short from Pixar is a mix of animation and imagination. The scene is a city street as it starts to rain. Normally inanimate things such as a downspout, a traffic signal, the window of a café, and a manhole cover develop facial features (but within the limits of what they really are) and begin to smile. A sea of black umbrellas open up as the rain becomes heavier but the one blue umbrella is the only one with a face and he’s happy to be open in the rain. As the crowd passes, a red umbrella catches his eye and she sees him. They both act coy as love blossoms between them. 

But then her handler goes one way and his handler tries to enter the subway. Fortunately, the wind from the oncoming trains blows him high into the air and he soars over the crowd. Eventually, he sees her. He gets tossed back and forth by the wind and the other formerly inanimate objects repeatedly save him from destruction until he’s lying upside down by the curb. We see the boots belonging to his handler and a gloved woman’s hand holding the red umbrella. The camera pans back and the couple, with their umbrellas, sit at the window of the café and all is happy. It’s a very clever story: there’s no dialogue, and only a simple tune ties this little adventure/love story together. Directed by Unseld, this petit gem deserves some recognition, maybe an award at Cannes?

Monsters University (Pixar/Disney, 2013) – Director: Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Julia Sweeney, Nathan Fillion, John Ratzenberger, & Noah Johnston. Color & 3-D, 104 minutes.

The Disney Corporation is very fortunate to own Pixar because their animation far exceeds that of Disney proper. The prequel to Monsters Inc. is every bit as entertaining and fun to watch as its predecessor. Scanlon’s direction and his story and screenplay (in conjunction with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird) give us a beautiful back-story that flawlessly flows into the hiring of Sully and Mike at Monsters Inc.

The story starts with Mike as a little monster (Johnston), on a field trip with his class to Monsters Inc. Because he’s smaller than everyone else in the class, his classmates ignore him. However, his ambition to be a “Scarer” towers over his physical proportions. A group of professional Scarers pass the children and one recommends Monsters University to him. In an effort to see them in action, Mike steps over the line into the “danger” zone and follows the same Scarer into one of the doors to the “real” world. Everyone is horrified except the Scarer, who is impressed that he “didn’t know Mike was in the room with him,” and hands him a Monsters University cap. Mike is hooked.

Then the timeline switches to older Mike (Crystal) getting off the bus to attend Monsters University. In the dormitory he’s paired up with Randy (Buscemi) a slithery lizard-like creature who can disappear at will. They go to their first Scarer class taught by Professor Knight (Molina), and just as Mike is answering a question Sully (Goodman) appears with a roar – right on cue – and takes a seat. Professor Knight is impressed by both Sully’s entrance and his heritage (he’s a Sullivan), and Mike is ignored again. Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren) makes a dramatic and frightening entrance and Professor Knight yields to her commentary. She’s extremely unctuous in speech for a dragon-winged centipede but she makes her point. Those who are not scary do not belong in this class. Mike and Sully are by now competitors and in the process destroy a canister containing her famous scream. She boots both of them out of the class.

To prove themselves worthy of re-entering the class Mike decides to enter the Scare Games. In order to qualify he has to be a part of a fraternity but none of the cool fraternities want him. He’s relegated to Oozma Kappa (we’re OK!) where he meets Squishy (Sohn) a multiple-eyed pale, plump (not scary) kid, Don (Murray) a Dutch Uncle type with a bat-wing mustache and octopus arms (also not scary), Terri (Hayes) and Terry (Foley) a two-headed creature with four arms and tentacle feet (too silly to be scary), Art (Day) a purple furred monster consisting of two big legs and a face in between and two tiny arms dangling down (maybe scary) and the house-mother, Ms. Squibbles (Sweeney), who is also Squishy’s Mom. None of these frat brothers could possibly win the competition if they tried. But Mike is determined and they need six contestants to compete (and a two-headed monster only counts as one) so Sully becomes the sixth in their group, much to Mike’s protests.

The competition is in six stages with one team being eliminated in each. Oozma Kappa makes it to the final stage under Mike’s coaching and with a little luck. They only have to beat Roar Omega Roar (the really cool guys – by the way, they accepted Randy right away when they saw him disappear) and two by two they compete in the final round, with the score tied before the last heat. Now Mike has to break a record scream to win against Johnny Worthington (Fillion) – a huge, purple, horned creature. No one is more amazed than Mike when he wins.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Sully recalibrated the final test so Mike would win and thereby cheated. In his outrage Mike sneaks into the room of doors to the real world and enters one but gets trapped when he fails to scare any of the bunkhouse full of children. Sully barrels in to save him and between the two of them they manage to totally frighten a group of adults, thus exploding the door and lighting up all the scare canisters in the room of doors, and escape.

This surprises Dean Hardscrabble and she tells them so but nevertheless they both are expelled – Sully for cheating, Mike for not being scary. They’re buddies now and both apply for job in the mailroom of Monsters Inc. where their first boss is a Yeti (Ratzenberger) and they work their way up the corporate scale.

Monsters University goes beyond great animation. The writing is clever, the background scenery is amazing, the 3D effects are only used to enhance the action on screen (not just to throw things at the audience), and it’s just plain good clean fun. In writing this article I noticed that even Frank Oz had a part, the character Fungus, a fair-weather friend to Mike who deserts him in the beginning of the film. The time flew by without my getting saddle sore. It fully deserves my four and a half rating and I love Dean Hardscrabble (my kind of character). Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini Glasses.

Max Trattoria Enoteca – Tribeca
181 Duane Street, New York

Walking from Greenwich Street up Duane Street one can find this seven-year old bôite on the north side just before Duane Street forks and continues across downtown Manhattan. Inside is a Spartan, yet cozy, space between open-brick walls with bare wood topped pedestal tables and solid non-cushioned benches. Jaime, the acting captain led me to one of the six small tables just past the bar and I was surprised that he sat me next to two chattering girls (usually a restaurant likes to space their customers – but not this one) and I asked if I could be relocated to one of the four other tables. “No, they’re all reserved.” was my answer. “Strange,” I muttered and sat down.

Jaime brought me a glass of ice water, the menu, and the wine list and returned to his duties as captain. The two-sided menu has an impressive amount of Antipasti listed in a column down the left side, with Insalate (salads), Pasta, and Secondi (Entrées) on the right. On the reverse side they feature their Pizza selection and toppings, Side Dishes and Soup (only one, the Zuppa Del Giorno). I was so taken aback by Jaime that I deliberately took longer to study the menu until someone else noticed me and asked her if they had Beefeater’s gin. “No,” she said and listed three flowery, disgusting Yuppie gins. How about vodka? They had Stolichnaya so I ordered a Stoli martini straight up with a twist (very James Bond). Jaime brought it to the table and I noticed the small glacier of crushed ice riming the surface. But otherwise it was well made. I didn’t order a second.

After another deliberately long study of the menus and the “Specials” blackboard on the wall facing me, I told Jaime I intended to make it a three-course dinner consisting of antipasto, salad and pasta. Frankly, the main courses did not interest me and I saw the size of the pasta dishes at the next table as clearly as I heard “like” every second word and “really?” every third. Jaime brought out the bread basket and a dish of olive oil.

I started with the Polpette di Max – three good-sized beef meatballs with a hearty tomato sauce served in a steaming crock – and it was very hot. The meatballs were fork-tender and delicious. I ordered a Pinot Noir from the Piedmont Region of Italy (Monte Degli Angelo) 2012 and it was wonderful. The two parrots to my left were paying their bill and leaving and I sighed that I might actually enjoy the meal in relative quiet. No such luck. A rookery of three cawing yuppie women was seated to my right. I started to wish I were seated upstairs at one of the dozen or so tables there when a family of five (three of them pre-teen girls) arrived and mounted the stairway. Oh well, carry on.

The nice crusty bread helped finish that thick tomato sauce and my Insalata Tropicale arrived – an eleven-inch plate mounded with frisée (did I mention it’s my least favorite green?) and hiding the hearts of palm, chunks of avocado, and halved yellow and red grape tomatoes, topped by slats of Parmigiano cheese in a vinaigrette dressing. It was better than I thought, especially with freshly ground pepper, and I finished it. Meanwhile the Alpha female at the next table was explaining Burrata and how it was made with Mozzarella cheese. She was correct, but I couldn’t help injecting that it can be made with Ricotta as well – I’ve had it that way. You should have seen the stare I got.

Since the Lasagna was touted as “Fatta in Casa” (homemade) I chose it as my main course. Like the meatballs, it was served in a crock and, also like the meatballs it was hellishly hot. However, the pasta was delightfully tender and the ground beef filling with béchamel was mouth-watering and yummy and the sauce tangy. The lasagna must have been a good two inches high and I realized it would be a challenge to finish it. Hey, I had a good wine, and I took my time, enjoying every bite. It got to the point where I could just barely hear the racket to my right.

The “ladies” inhaled half of their food and had the remainder packed to go when Jaime asked them about dessert – three dull choices, including tiramisu (which I’m tired of) – and this helped me eschew dessert. That’s right, no sweets, no coffee, no after dinner drink! I wanted out. The noise was getting to me and I was full anyway. I paid the check, bid them a fond “Buona Sera.” and left. I think if I ever come back to Max I’ll see if I can get the upper level; either that or order to go.

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