Sunday, January 5, 2014

47 Ronin

Dinner and a Movie

A Ronin At City Hall

By Steve Herte

47 Ronin (Universal, 2013) – Director: Carl Rinsch. Writers: Chris Morgan (s/p & story), Hossein Amini (s/p), Walter Hamada (story). Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Min Tanaka, Jin Akinishi, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, & Rinko Kikuchi. Color, 119 minutes.

This action/adventure/fantasy film begins with a view of Earth from space. The globe turns until the islands of Japan are in full view. The voice-over introduces “Feudal Japan” and gives a small background as to the conditions in this brutal period with a strict code of honor and a caste system equally as unfair as it is adhered to. We see a band of Samurai of Ako hunting down a fantastic beast that has been terrorizing their people. It is easily twice as large as the largest bull (and indeed its shape is mostly comparable to a bull) with an excessively long, whip-like tail, which it uses to deadly effect. Its head has an elongated snout filled with teeth, bull-like horns facing forward, branch-like antlers sprouting up on both sides, and six to eight fierce yellow eyes. Among the hunters is the half-breed Kai (Reeves) whose martial skills and hunting prowess are both obvious to the audience but are both ignored and denied by the Samurai because of his social status. Even when he succeeds in killing the beast he lets another take credit.

Back in Ako, the Daimyo, Lord Asano (Tanaka) is preparing for a great tournament of the Samurai from various regions celebrating a visit from his lord, Shogun Tsunayoshi (Tagawa) – a ruthless leader and not easily pleased. Asano’s beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) however is eagerly awaiting the return of the man she loves (and shouldn’t, because she can never have him), Kai. The delegations arrive from the neighboring lands but Lord Kira (Asano) stands out. He has designs on taking over Ako by disgracing Lord Asano and he has a witch (Kikuchi) to help him do it. Kai has seen her in the form of a grinning white fox with two different colored eyes while on the hunt and tries to warn Ôishi (Sanada), leader of the Samurai but he will not believe him.

The day of the tournament dawns and the witch disables Ako’s champion with her spells. When Kai takes his place and is discovered, Lord Asano is disgraced. The Shogun (mercifully?) decrees that he deserves a Samurai’s death (a ritual self-killing) to die with honor. All Ako’s Samurais are declared Ronin because they failed their lord and are exiled. Mika is given a year to mourn her father, at the end of which time she will be Lord Kira’s wife, Kai is beaten senseless with clubs and Ôishi is thrown into a pit to “break his spirit.” (Did I mention it was a brutal time?)

Kai escapes and becomes a fighter in an entertainment venue (much like a cock-fighting ring). Ôishi finds and rescues him and together they and the 45 Samurai (now Ronin) vow to avenge their lord, even though the very act itself is punishable by death. But they need swords. Kai takes them to the haunted Tengu forest where he was raised. Swirly, misty ghostie thingees surround them as they journey to a cave. Only Kai and Ôishi enter. Kai advises Ôishi that, no matter what he sees, he must not draw his sword. It’s pretty touch and go for a while but he remains true and the men get the finest swords.

The plot is hatched, Ôishi beheads Lord Kira, his Samurai defeat Kira’s and, after a long scene, Kai defeats the witch (now changed into a ferocious white dragon) using the magic he learned growing up. (Happy ending, no? No! This is feudal Japan). The mirthless Shogun decrees that all the Ronin – with the exception of Ôishi’s son – deserve the Samurai’s death and all, including Kai, obey.

In the Shakespearean sense this movie is neither a Tragedy nor a Comedy. There is no happiness in it at all. Only human automatons following a cruel code of honor and mindlessly mistreating a man whose only sin was being born (although it is a real stretch to believe Keanu as a half-breed). The parts are played as if Japanese acting has not evolved since Godzilla. The only character who acted convincingly was the witch – who was quite sensual. No acting nominations here. Maybe Special Effects or Costumes, but not acting. 47 Ronin was an interesting, if exaggerated, window into a colorful but inhumane period of Japanese history. Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

City Hall
131 Duane Street (West Broadway), New York

One of only two restaurants to impress me every time I visit, this downtown delight in a landmark 1863 building (once a shoe corporation) has become an annual event. If I don’t dine at City Hall sometime in the year, it is always the last restaurant of the old year. Their outside seasonal décor consists of colorful pastel spots on the building, multicolor lights on the orange awning, and purple twinkle lights in the shrubbery lining their outdoor café. Inside all warm earth tones and smiling faces who greet and serve you with sincerity and aplomb. The lovely young lady at the Captain’s Station was almost apologetic at not having a booth for a “regular,” but knowing that the individual tables are just as comfortable, I was happy to accept one toward the back of the restaurant (but centralized). It’s actually the best view, as it faces toward the front windows.

Service is job one at City Hall and it shows. Three people attended me (one for the water, one for the crudités – a platter with pickles, olives, radishes, raw carrots and celery and one pickled green tomato – and one for my martini) until eventually it settled down to my old friend, Dominic. Dominic has been with City Hall as long as I’ve been going there and he knows what’s good. My martini arrived and I took my time with the large one-sided menu, the specials list and the wine list. A young blonde girl told me how good the New Zealand Lamb Chops appetizer was and that settled that. But I was torn between the Delmonico steak, the City Hall Surf Meets Turf, and the Monkfish over Risotto. Dominic proved himself by helping me choose the Monkfish.

Knowing that this is one of very few restaurants (maybe three I can remember) to have Renwood Zinfandel by the glass, I didn’t need the wine list anymore. As I sat awaiting my first course, what to my wondering eyes should appear but Chef/Proprietor Meer himself with a small bowl of tonight’s Lentil Soup! We exchanged greetings and pleasantries until the enticing aroma from the spices in the soup caught my nostrils in a siren’s lure. A crisp salt stick spanned the bowl’s mouth and augmented the enjoyment of the dish. This is not your mother’s lentil soup. It’s not thick, the vegetables and lentils are clearly visible in the exotic broth but what a flavor!

The New Zealand Lamb Chops (two) were brought to me leaning on slightly salty, grilled Escarole. They were tender, juicy, garnished with a mint chimichurri and bare bones when I finished with them. There was even a roasted half-tomato gratin on the plate. Martini done, Zinfandel poured, I was ready for the main course.

Tender juicy Monkfish on a nest of fragrant, slightly salty Arborio rice with mushrooms can bring even a big man to his knees. I challenge Tony’s Di Napoli to make anything close to this. But then again, this is real Italian food. And . . . I couldn’t even conceive of getting Curried Onion Rings at Tony’s. Every time I’m at City Hall I order them. It’s like an addiction. I know I can’t finish them, but I still enjoy them reheated at home.

One further advantage City Hall has over Tony’s Di Napoli (and Tony’s was not to blame for this) was in not having to listen to a longwinded blowhard from out of town blather on about something so trivial that I was nearly bored to death. (I was attending a fellow employee’s retirement party and his speech – like a so-so wine – was the perfect compliment to the mediocrity of the food that was served.) Thinking back on it makes me appreciate even more the combination of flavor, excellence and quietude City Hall is justly famous for providing.

I get so sated at City Hall that dessert never makes it out of the kitchen and this time was no exception. A simple double espresso later and I was once again completely happy. I’m glad to have made City Hall a personal tradition.

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