Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Monuments Men

Dinner and a Movie

Monuments In Southeast Asia

By Steve Herte

In case you’re wondering how long it takes to write a review, I started at 11:00 am and finished at 3:30 pm. But every good story needs time and I had two to tell. After a busy, sometimes emotional, workweek it’s a release to relate Friday’s fun. Seriously, I learned of a friend hospitalized with two heart attacks and a marriage break-up in less than 24 hours. But enough of that, let’s enjoy Dinner and a Movie!

The Monuments Men (Columbia, Fox 2000, 2014) – Director: George Clooney. Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (s/p), Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter (book). Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Dimitri Leonidas, & Justus Von Dohnányi. Color, 118 min.

The entertainment factor of war movies has always escaped me, especially any war since the invention of firearms. The very concept of being able to kill another person from a great distance without knowing or caring about him is extremely cruel and dehumanizing. Fortunately, this movie kept that aspect to a minimum. This is a very different story set toward the end of World War II. A motley platoon of seven men is gathered by Frank Stokes (Clooney) to seek out, protect and retrieve great works of art stolen and secreted away by the Nazis. His crew of James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (Murray), Walter Garfield (Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) are not soldiers but architects and art experts who know the real thing from the fake.

The movie begins with priests dismantling the Ghent Altarpiece, a large segmented painting on wood, and attempting to hide it before Hitler’s army finds it and in Italy, people working frantically to build a sand-bag wall to hide and protect Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” from bombs. Stokes’ men go through basic training, as do other soldiers and are brought to Europe at Normandy. They get a major lead at an American encampment when Sam Epstein (Leonidas) overhears and translates the private conversations of German prisoners. From there they split up into pairs of two (except for Jeffries who goes solo to Bruges, Belgium) and track down the various paintings, sculptures and precious works of creative society taken from homes, churches and museums.

Meanwhile, in another scene, we meet Claire Simone (Blanchett) working both as secretary to Viktor Stahl (Von Dohnányi) and secretly helping the Resistance through her brother. It seems to be going well until Stahl makes the connection when her brother is killed in the act of smuggling art works. Eventually Simone is captured by the Allies and imprisoned. Granger is sent to speak to her to discover how much she knows. His French-Canadian dialect is so bad that she insists he speak English (this is a running gag every time Damon tries to speak French), and they slowly develop a rapport. He eventually obtains a logbook from her that categorizes every piece of art and where it was taken.

Jeffries makes it to Bruges to find Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” still in place, only to be shot dead when seven or eight Nazis arrive (three of whom are officers) to remove it (amazingly without a block and tackle). Back in France, Stokes learns that the Ghent Altarpiece has also been stolen. Indications are that the artworks were heading to Siegen, Germany, but when the team arrives in Siegen, the town is in such rubble they don’t even know they’re there. While in Siegen, they learn of two more towns, Merkers and Altaussee, as well as the Castle Neuschwanstein on the Rhine. Thanks to Epstein’s clever deduction they connect the significance of the three towns by the major mines located in them (one copper and two salt).

At Siegen, they find a major cache of art in the copper mine. The war has ended and Germany has surrendered by the time they get to Merkers. But all they find is the charred remains of Nazi flame-throwers. (According to an edict from Hitler: if Germany falls or he is killed, all is to be destroyed.) A partial frame reveals all that’s left of a Picasso. However, they discover a “storage room” full of gold bricks and barrels full of gold teeth. The next thing you know the media is congratulating the Allied leaders at a high-profile photo-shoot and giving credit where credit was not due. “They don’t care a thing about art, but gold they care about,” says Stokes. At Neuschwanstein, a huge trove of sculptures is found, but not the Bruges “Madonna and Child.” The miners in the town of Altaussee managed to blow up the entrances to the salt mine before the Nazis could destroy the art inside. A small explosion later and the mine is reopened. In the end it was estimated over 5 million pieces of art culture were recovered by this team who were now only five (Clermont was shot in field when he and Garfield stopped to rest – he should have taken a clue from the horse that ran off suddenly).

The Monuments Men is a good film telling an excellent story (based on actual fact) about something positive being done at an eminently negative period of history. It will never be a great film because of the direction and the writing, which were both lackadaisical. With the exception of Blanchett (who was fabulous), the whole cast were playing themselves. Maybe that was intentional, but I hope not. As usual, the marionette version of Damon from Team America did a better job of acting than Matt himself. The talent of both Murray and Goodman talents was wasted.

The humor in the movie depended on repeated lines and one running gag. There is a scene where Damon announces that he thinks he has stepped on a land mine. “Why did you do that?” says Clooney. Then, when Goodman enters the scene he gives the same response to the revelation. (These are the jokes, son.) Even the soundtrack was so-so: the music attempted to soar but sounded so forced it fell flat. Otherwise Monuments Men is a clean film the Legion of Decency would approve (no sex, no f-bombs, no gratuitous violence); but it also has no pathos and very little drama; with the suspense (where it should have been) not supported by the soundtrack. Hitchcock would have left the building mid-way. It borders on being a documentary.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

157 Duane Street (near West Broadway), New York

The team of Executive Chef Soulayphet Schwader and Marc Forgione is responsible for this seven-month old restaurant featuring dishes inspired by the cuisine of Laos. When I heard that country’s name I couldn’t resist making this my next dining experience. It actually completes my Southeast Asian collection. I have visited Vietnamese restaurants (quite a few) and several Thai establishments; a couple of Burmese, and one visit each to Cambodian (in Boston), Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian restaurants. As this was the only Laotian, I was ready for novelty.

The location of Khe-Yo (they pronounce it Key-Oh) was, by my past experience a French restaurant called Tapis Rouge and more recently Duane Park – both fine dining. The façade is dark wood with a little bas-relief filigree over the front window and a small hanging sign with the restaurant’s name in gold. Inside, I had to squeeze past the lively bar crowd to get to the Captain’s Station at the end of the bar only to discover a packed house. Every one of the 24 tables in the open-brick walled space with occasional dark green drapes was occupied, with more than half the occupants being Asian. This was both a bad sign and a good one. Fortunately I was early for my reservation but I had to wait. On the other hand, the large proportion of Asian customers assured me the food was authentic and desirable.

Shortly after my reservation time arrived I was seated at a table next to the end of the bar with a good view of the room. The occasional spotlights along the tops of the walls barely augmented the muted 15 bare bulb chandelier in the middle of the room looking – for all intents and purposes – like a squatting spider. Individual votive candles on the tables added a softer glow to the room.

My waiter, Tenzing, arrived to get my water choice and proffer the simple menu card (wine and cocktails on the reverse side). He was to be my guide to the heights of Laotian cuisine. From the cocktail list I found the drink called “Lao-Lao” interesting and indeed it was. The butterscotch-colored concoction was sweet and sour at the same time with a slight twinge of chili. You might say it prepared me for things to come. Next to arrive was a warm hand-towel to cleanse my fingers for the very same things.

The wine list was entirely French, which I thought appropriate since Indochina was once under French control and Laos was a part of it. I chose a 2011 Syrah/Grenache varietal called “Sauvage” from Anne Pichon vineyards in Ventoux, a medium red with a spicy aftertaste that proved itself worthy throughout the meal.

The next thing to arrive was, per Tenzing, Laotian-style “bread and butter.” A good-sized bamboo steamer full of sticky rice and a wooden tray with dishes of a spicy sauce called “Bang-Bang” on one end and an eggplant paste on the other. The menu advised that sticky rice tastes better when you eat it with your hands. At first I hesitated putting my fingers into the still steaming rice but it got easier with experience. The Bang-Bang was definitely an acquired taste, a highly spicy, sour tang that was mitigated by the cooling effects of the eggplant paste. The combination of the two was a must.

Tenzing assured me that the sizes of the appetizers and salads (Laap) were small enough to have both and an entrée without ordering too much food. So under his guidance I chose the Sien-Heng – Creekstone Farms Sesame Beef Jerky with smoked chili sauce and fresh radishes – as my appetizer. I had seen a picture of this dish on their website and it intrigued me. Another flat wooden tray was placed carefully on my table. The sesame beef jerky was nearest to me appearing like slender dark-brown fingers of speckled driftwood. It was tender and sweet – nothing at all what it appeared to be. At the other end of the tray were several inch-long radishes sliced in half lengthwise. The flavor was delicate and mild. My learning experience so far told me that Laotian food has a spicy side, but it also has some ingredient to mitigate the spice. Then I tasted the smoky chili paste in the center of the tray. Whoa! Four different chilies mixed with fig paste made a fiery-sweet amalgam not to be underestimated. I used it sparingly between bites of jerky and radish and the dish was wonderful.

The Laap-Pa – Kona Kampachi salad with Fresh Mint, Kaffir Lime Leaf and Shrimp Chips – arrived very soon after. It was a good thing neither dish was supposed to be served hot. The lime flavor dominated the salad with only a slight vinegary taste from the light mayonnaise. The Kona Kampachi is a delicate game fish from Hawaii, and it added a contrasting soft texture to the crunchy salad. The Shrimp Chips are the first thing I’ve seen before. If you’ve ever been to a Chinese restaurant when you first are seated and they present the hot mustard and duck sauce with colorful light pastel puffy chips, those are Shrimp Chips.

The main course was Mikha-Ti – Pork Curry Noodle with Pickled Chili and Banana Flower. This time the tray was almost square and had sides. The bowl-full of bits of pork, delicate rice noodles and two pork bones was disguised by the orange curry soup they were in and resting on a banana leaf. Outside the bowl were small piles of shredded red cabbage, bean sprouts and something that looked like green beans (I guessed that this part was the banana flower, which I’ve seen before in botanic gardens – it’s green) along with a small bowl in which were three chili peppers, two bright red and one black with a slice of lime.

Tenzing advised me that all the ingredients outside the bowl were to be put in the bowl at my discretion. Lying across the bowl were my chopsticks and, after confirming with Tenzing that the black chili was the hottest, I starting filling the bowl with the outside ingredients. It all came together very nicely. The curry was unlike any I’ve had before. It was lighter than the Indian curries, more delicate than the Chinese curries, much milder than the Thai curries, more like Malay curry – a flavorful, aromatic mildly spicy soup with pork and noodles. The red chilies didn’t stay in long before they got in the way and I took them out. But it still needed some spice. I had some of the chili paste from the appetizer and that did the trick.

I was actually becoming full and definitely wanted to try a dessert. They only had one, a bright pink grapefruit sorbet. It was delightfully tart, cold and pure grapefruit. That, with a cup of hot white tea and a glass of Kubler Absinthe (I poured it over the ice myself) and I felt totally decadent. Khe-Yo was worth the wait and as the only Laotian restaurant in New York will see me again.

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