Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Dinner and a Movie

Banking on Davio’s

By Steve Herte

Groundhog Day always reminds me of a Peanuts episode where Snoopy is looking very proud of himself and Lucy is touting the fact that it's "His Day.” That is until she’s corrected by Linus and has to embarrassingly explain to a deflated Snoopy that she thought it was “Ground Dog Day.” As the day did not repeat itself over and over as it did with Bill Murray, I was happy. For some reason all my search engines are failing to find the Internet on my new laptop. I had to use my Kindle Fire for references. I will now search for solutions. But first I wanted to keep you up to date on the movie and dining scene. Enjoy!

Saving Mr. Banks (Walt Disney Pictures, 2013) – Director: John Lee Hancock. Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. Cast: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Annie Rose Buckley, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Rachel Griffiths, Jason Schewartzman, & B.J. Novak. Color, 125 minutes.

Usually I lose interest in movies that keep flashing back and forth in time but this film is an exception. The opening scene is set in 1906 and P.L. Travers is a young girl (Buckley) in Australia with a great imagination fed by her endlessly fantasizing father. Everything seems ideal until we learn that Daddy is also an alcoholic and cannot seem to keep a job for long. The family has to move from the lovely little suburb to the Australian version of the little house on the prairie in Allora (the end of the line on the train) where Travers (Farrell) has his new job working for a bank.

The scene switches to 1961 and Thompson plays the adult Travers who has written the extremely popular “Mary Poppins” two decades ago. Money from the royalties apparently is drying up (she had to let her maid go) and Walt Disney (Hanks) has been trying yearly to get her permission to make the book into a movie. She has been resisting his offers stubbornly up to now but her agent convinces her to travel from London to Los Angeles to meet Disney.

She doesn’t go quietly but she goes, haughtily refusing every courtesy offered her along the way even to the point of rudeness in one instance, asking a mother on the plane if her child will be a nuisance during the flight. When she arrives in Disney’s office the whole conflict of the movie begins. It’s a classic example of “irresistible force meets immovable object” and the games begin. She takes the unsigned contract, places it in her purse and goes with him to meet the team of writers she will be consulting. In the beginning she is dead set on the movie being a musical, certainly not with Dick Van Dyke, having any animation or even the hint of a cartoon, and employing the color “red” anywhere. The team endures one frustration after another until slowly, cleverly, and with Walt’s help, they cajole and coax her to see their way of thinking that the movie takes shape. It isn’t easy. Every step of the way she’s looking back in memory to her father, whom she adores and envisions as the father figure, “Mr. Banks” in the book. Meanwhile, Walt is doing the same, but Mr. Banks is his father, Elias Disney, who made him deliver newspapers in the worst Missouri winter weather.

It’s not until they have a heart-to-heart talk about this in London (she stormed out of his office upon learning of the scene where Van Dyke dances with animated penguins and took the first flight home) that she signs the contract and the movie is produced.

It’s a beautiful film that uses the frequent flashbacks to explain some of the outlandish things Travers does as an adult. For example, she throws all the pears included in a fruit basket in her hotel room into the swimming pool from her balcony. Why? The last thing her father asked her for before he died was pears, and he died before she could deliver them. Thompson does a superb job of playing the Aussie girl (nee Ginty Goff) who takes her father’s first name for her last as an author, and plays the prim and proper English lady totally at odds with anything American. Hanks does such a great performance as Disney that several times I forgot who he was. Only the roundness of his face brought me back to Hanks. (I remember Disney as having narrower cheeks.) The supporting cast was wonderful in its reactions to the intractable English woman, as well as the subtly all-powerful Disney. There were two scenes of pathos, so bring a handkerchief or a tissue or two. Otherwise you won’t survive the Hollywood Premiere scene or the prior scene when she dances to “Let’s Fly a Kite.” Giamatti plays the lovable and ever-present Ralph, the chauffeur who becomes “the only American I ever liked” in an autograph of “Mary Poppins” that is presented toward the end of the film.

Saving Mr. Banks is in entertaining study of interpersonal relations, prejudices and the effects of childhood experiences on our growth into adulthood. Amazingly it accomplishes this without violence, vulgarity and sex. Both music and cinematography are beautiful and used effectively when switching time periods. Be warned, the movie is over two hours long and will be a guaranteed sleeper for small children. The story is geared to adults.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

451 Lexington Avenue (45th Street), New York

When searching for new and exciting dining places I discovered that a restaurant in Boston where I had two lovely dinners (in two locations) had opened another in Manhattan. Davio’s is a Northern Italian Steakhouse, a unique combination that melds the creamy cuisine of Alpine Italy with the hearty flavors and side dishes of a grand steakhouse. The Boston location on Newbury Street has been in operation since 1985 and since then restaurants have opened in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and of course, New York.

The entrance to Davio’s on Lexington Avenue is understated to say the least, just a glass enclosed space and a small patio with a table upon which is a silvery floral arrangement. Inside is an elevator for handicapped patrons and a stairway down to the restaurant.

The young man at the Captain’s Station led me to my table in the back from where I had a perfect view of the entire space. The décor is as understated as the exterior with the exception of the far wall, which had a mural depicting a typical hillside town in Italy (possibly Amalfi) with an outrageously colorful sky. Otherwise, the colors are burnished with deep golds and olive greens and large, disc-shaped chandeliers for lighting.

My waiter, the affable Rupert, brought me the menu and wine list and took my water preference and cocktail order. The menu is organized in the usual Italian style; Antipasti (appetizers), Insalate (salads), Farinacei (pastas), Caserecci (a new term for me – main courses literally “homemade”), Carni (meat dishes), Pesce (fish dishes), Salse (sauces available for steaks), and Contorni (sides). There is even a gluten-free menu for those who don’t know what “dining out” really means. I learned this when I opened my menu and found out I had the wrong one. The wine list is impressive and one can certainly find an affordable one to satisfy one’s tastes among the several over-priced bottles. Wines by the glass are available and a good selection is listed. One notable difference in Davio’s is the list of more expensive “reserved” wines by the glass that they are able to serve without removing the cork. Rupert demonstrated this device for me which looks like a larger version of a cork remover, only it pierces the cork with a slim metal “proboscis” (it reminded me of a mosquito piercing skin) that allows wine to be pumped directly to the glass. When removed, the cork fills in the minor hole it made and it is as if the wine were never opened. I’m rarely that amazed – and I got to taste a new wine in the process.

Rupert asked if I would like to hear his list of favorite dishes and I said “yes.” Within five minutes he described my three-course meal. It was like having a psychic waiter. A few more minutes of mulling the menu while sipping my perfect Beefeater martini and I was ready to order. Rupert gave me his favorite side dishes but didn’t mention the one I had my heart set on.

I ordered the wine first, a 2011 Mendocino County Zinfandel from Edmeade vineyards turned out to be the best bet for my meal. I still say I’ve never met a zinfandel I didn’t like. I chose it because I’ve already tasted (and liked) the two other zinfandels on the menu. A delightful amuse-bouche later and the bread dish arrived with homemade focaccia, a substantial bread stick and a slice of crusty dark bread, accompanied by a selection of three spreads, an herbal butter, a garlicky eggplant spread (Delicious!) and a roasted peppers topping. All were wonderful.

The Pan-Seared Foie Gras, resting on three Fig-Stuffed Gnocchi (potato pasta) in a Vin Santo sauce, provided a delightfully sweet start to my meal. The bite-sized trio was more like having dessert first. The gnocchi shaped like pillows were different from gnocchi I’m used to but were obviously homemade.

Next was the Cappellacci (“large hats,” supposedly inspired by one worn by Lucretzia Borgia) pasta dish with slow roasted squash, and Amaretti cookie and in a walnut cream sauce. Again it’s obviously homemade, and the flavor? It was earthy, slightly sweet and sinfully creamy. I loved it and used the bread to get every drop of that fabulous sauce.

The main course was the Veal Tenderloin rolled in Urfa Biber (a rich pepper flake from Turkey with a smoky, earthy, spicy flavor) with Romanesco (an heirloom Broccoli) and Salt-Roasted Potatoes in a Barolo wine sauce. The upright tender cylinders of medium-done veal were easy to cut, chew and savor before swallowing. Davio’s has transported me once again to sunny Italy. Of course, the Roasted Brussels Sprouts with carrot purée and almonds helped make that vision complete.

Did I need dessert? No. Did I have dessert? Yes, indeed. The Affogato (gelato and whipped cream with espresso poured over it) was there to be enjoyed, especially with a glass of Grappa Torcolato. “Affogato” is “drowned” in Italian, but it just might have meant finished and happy for me. Salute, Davio’s!

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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