Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Muppets Most Wanted

Dinner and a Movie

Partying with The Muppets at Jack’s

By Steve Herte

This day has been very different; for a Sunday, that is. My sister whisked my father and I to her house in Floral Park for breakfast and to await the arrival of my other sister from her home in Florida on a visit. I didn’t get to start my reviews until after 3:00 pm. I set to work as soon as I got home. But Friday was very interesting and proved a challenge to sum up. The movie came preceded by a short and the restaurant was a Pandora’s box of revelations. But then, life, if it is to be lived, is a journey of discovery. Enjoy!

Party Central (Pixar, 2014) – Director: Kelsey Mann. Writers: Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Charlie Day, Dave Foley, Julia Sweeney, Sean Hayes, Joel Murray, & Peter Sohn. Color, animated, 5 minutes.

The Monsters University crowd is back in this animated short where all the fraternities of the school are ready to greet the new freshmen with competing parties. Of course all the major frat houses have the cool decorations, music, lighting effects and food. Not so for our heroes at Oozma Kappa. They have none of that and, consequently no guests. That is until the arrival of Sully (Goodman) and Mike (Crystal), bringing their secret weapon “transport doors.” Using these, they “steal” guests, girls, DJs, food, and decorations from the main frat house while sneaking through an unsuspecting couples’ bedroom.

It all goes smoothly until Mrs. Squiggles (Sweeney) catches them in the act. They think the jig is up; that is, until she introduces “Door Jamming” – something she did in the old days – where the doors are placed side by side on the floor and the jammer makes a flaming dive through one and out the other. Needless to say, the human couple get suspicious with all the unseen, but felt, comings and goings into and out of their closet until Mrs. Squiggles flashes into view and just as rapidly zips out their bedroom entrance. It’s then they see the scary creatures in their closet on a background of flames. The end results? The “trendy” frat house ends up with no party, Oozma Kappa has the best party ever, and the human couple beg their son if they can sleep with him tonight, because “there are monsters in our closet.” “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” replies their son.

The constant action of this clever short makes it entertaining to the point of the audience wishing it were longer. The excellent Pixar animation and writing by Docter and Stanton exceeds that of the original movie – written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird. I think the writing crews should share notes in case another sequel is being planned.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Muppets Most Wanted (Walt Disney, 2014) – Director: James Bobin. Writers: James Bobin & Nicholas Stoller. Based on Jim Henson’s characters. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, & David Rudman. Color, 112 minutes.

Have I ever explained what a Kina Hora is? It’s Yiddish for a kind of “evil eye” curse one can put on oneself by simply voicing a disaster. The opening number to the new Muppet movie, “They’ve Ordered a Sequel/We’re Doing a Sequel,” containing the lyric: “That's what we do in Hollywood, and everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good.” And this was their kina hora. I sat for the entire hour and 52 minutes wondering why my beloved Muppets (I watched all the TV shows and had seen the previous movies; “this is actually the fifth sequel” per Doctor Bunsen Honeydew) were not taking me on a hilarious journey into madcap fun. Thinking back on the reasons why I can only conclude that the voices were just wrong.

With Jim Henson’s death in 1990 and the retirement a decade later of Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam the Eagle) the characters are mere shadows of their former selves. Instead of getting lost in the crazy story I was unnerved by what happened to my memories. Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is sedate compared to the original and Eric Jacobsen could not fill Oz’s size-tens.

The story this time is that the Muppets have just finished filming a movie and are wondering what to do next. Of course, a sequel! They meet Dominic Badguy (Gervais) who corrects Fozzie’s pronunciation of his name to “Bahd-jee…it’s French.” Dominic is in league with Constantine (Vogel), the most dangerous frog in the world, and who differs from Kermit only by a black mole on his right cheek. Together, they use the Muppets in a caper to steal the Crown Jewels of England. The Muppets convince Kermit to sign Dominic on as their manager against his better judgment and embark on a “World Tour.” Meanwhile, Constantine, who has broken out of Gulag 28B in Siberia, meets Kermit in a back alley, glues a fake mole to his cheek and has him captured by Nadya (Fey), head of security at the Gulag. He then applies green make-up to hide his own mole and, practicing Kermit’s voice (badly, he never loses the Russian accent), takes his place as leader of the Muppet troop. Kermit, on the other hand is hauled off to Siberia in a straitjacket and Hannibal Lecter mask.

The only Muppet to not accept the new Kermit is Animal, shouting “Bad Frog, Bad Frog!” as he proceeds to bite Constantine’s arm. Walter (Linz), the newest Muppet, is suspicious from the beginning but goes along with the general cluelessness of the rest, accepting this strange-talking Kermit who lets them all do whatever they want. The show’s performance suffers as a result. Gonzo’s (Goelz) “Indoor Running of the Bulls” skit nearly kills Salma Hayek one of many guest cameos in the movie). Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s lengthy rock performance, with an even longer drum solo by Animal goes for hours and Miss Piggy’s medley of Celine Dion songs puts the audience to sleep. Waldorf (Goelz) is applauding madly. Statler (Whitmire) asks why. “They’ve accomplished the impossible! The show is even worse!”

It’s not until Fozzie picks up a newspaper whose front page features a photo of Constantine and, accidentally covering the mole, sees Kermit’s image. He shows this to Walter and the lights go on for both of them (literally). Walter and Fozzie take Animal and go to Siberia to break Kermit out.

Meanwhile, Nadya has made Kermit the director of the annual Gulag Follies Show and has also fallen in love with him. When Walter, Fozzie and Animal free him, she follows relentlessly.

The crimes committed by Constantine and Dominic over the course of the Muppets’ tour are also being investigated by the unlikely team of Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Burrell) representing respectively the CIA and Interpol.

Constantine (under Dominic’s tutelage) woos Miss Piggy with the high-powered disco song “I’ll Get You What You Want” and convinces her to marry him. What Miss Piggy doesn’t know is that the engagement ring is a bomb.

The musical numbers take center stage in The Muppets Most Wanted, and while they are excellent and well composed, the comedy should have that position. Previous Muppet movies were consistently funnier. The storyline is good and the gags (way too intermittent) clever (in one or two cases abstruse). I laughed when no one else did. But I was not transported as in earlier episodes. For this I blame the distracting voices. Yes, there is a happy ending and the inevitable gimmick-billed “that stunt never works” actually works when needed (the Muppet Ladder – you have to see it to believe it) but the whole could have been much better. Even the list of “guest star cameos” didn’t help because I did not know (or recognize) most of them. I did see Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Celine Dion, Zach Galifianakis, Josh Groban, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci and Usher but the 20 others were lost on me. On the positive side, kids not familiar with previous Muppet voices will love it.

Rating 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Jack’s Sliders and Sushi
171 Third Avenue (Between 16th and 17th Streets), New York

I know: the name of this restaurant could make you wonder how two such diametrically opposed styles of food preparation could coexist in one place. I did. Then I looked at their menu online and saw that sliders were a small part of the generally Japanese bill of fare. With that I was encouraged.

Hoping that “Jack” was a Japanese chef and that none of the number of seedier-looking eateries on Third Avenue was the one I was heading for, I finally located the pure white exterior and sedate stenciled windows of my destination. The white sign over the door with the restaurant name inscribed over a golden shadow of a bulldog intrigued me. The “A” card rating in the front window emboldened me.

Passing the heavy muslin “wind curtain” at the entrance, I was astounded at the small size of this restaurant. It could easily have fit inside the living room/dining room area of my house. The 12 marble-topped tables leading to the kitchen and single restroom in the back surmounted by the white wood latticed ceiling lit by caged bare bulbs and spots were mostly occupied by young diners. The young woman who would become my waitress asked if I had a reservation and seated me (after moving a table away from two girls seated in the front window) next to the wind curtain.

Daniela brought me a bottle of water and a tumbler along with the menu and wine list (both single cards) and asked if I wanted a drink. Looking up at the blackboard on the left wall and chose the Ommegang Beer from Cooperstown, New York. I was curious about it since seeing it in a previous restaurant. Daniela brought the bottle and an appropriate beer glass. When I poured it I was amazed at the foamy head filling the glass rapidly. I haven’t seen a head like this since I was in St. Joseph, Missouri, at a Barbershop convention. It took a while to dissipate and allow me to drink, but the beer was flavorful and herbal with a refreshing tang.

The menu was divided into Starters, Salads, Soups, Sliders (8 of them), Jack’s Ramen (noodle dishes), Off the Grill, Specialty Rolls, Sushi Entrees, Rolls & Hand Rolls, Drinks and Desserts. I asked Daniela if one starter, a soup and two Specialty Rolls would be too much food. She assured me it was not. 

Determined to go unusual I chose the Old Bay Garlic Fries as my starter. They were served in a cardboard basket and were crisp, lightly salted and garlicky. A ramekin of mustard colored dipping sauce, with a “happy face” drawn on the surface in catsup, accompanied them. It was neither of the above ingredients, but it was amusing and tasty.

Soon after, the soup arrived. I had chosen the Spicy Kimchi Soup (marked “new” on the menu). Yes, I know Kimchi is the spicy cabbage national dish of Korea, but I’ve never seen it in a soup. It was just as fiery but mixed with onions, zucchini, tomatoes and tofu. The large bowl of hearty soup lasted a good while and the fries effectively cut the spice.

Not surprisingly, the Specialty Sushi Rolls arrived well before I finished either the starter or the soup. This didn’t bother me, however, because the soup was hot enough to last, the fries were still great even after they had cooled down, and the sushi was cold to begin. Besides, the main course was beautifully presented on a white square platter (I decided to choose the animal representations of Yin and Yang) the Tiger Roll (Tuna, Kani – snow crab, spicy mayonnaise, and avocado inside with salmon, eel and “crunch” outside) lay diagonally on hoisin sauce flanked by the Dragon Roll (eel and cucumber inside rice with Massago - Smelt Roe on top). It got admiring comments from the girls at the next table and delighted reaction from my taste buds. The tender fish plus the hoisin sauce was sweet and delicious and also helped cut the spice of the remaining soup.

When I finished the sushi and the beer I decided that I wanted to try a glass of the 2008 Terre Del Barolo wine. It was dry and medium bodied, with a nice finish that went well with the remaining soup and fries.

Daniela asked if I had room for dessert and I noted that there were two on the menu that were interesting. On second glance, the Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding won the contest. It arrived in a small ceramic cup topped with a ball of green tea ice cream. It wasn’t as chocolate-y as I expected but it was tasty, soft and with a crunchy crust and the ice cream added a nice touch. What drink to finish with? “What’s Bubble Tea?” “It’s Tapioca with tea.” Another adventure. It came in six flavors and a choice of hot or cold. I chose Passion Fruit and hot. “My favorite!” said Daniela. It was hot, sweet but slightly tart and the tapioca was chewy and had absorbed the flavor of the Passion Fruit.

Before I asked for the check I asked Daniela if the was indeed a “Jack.” She smiled and told me that “Jack” was the owner’s bulldog – a representative of which (stuffed) was sitting on the counter in the rear of the restaurant. I was glad I didn’t ask that at the first. The check was another adventure. My credit card was attached to a small electronic device with a touch screen to choose a tip percentage and one’s signature could be done with a fingernail. It took me a while to figure it out, but I did.

Despite its small size, Jack’s Sliders and Sushi delivered a world of flavor and, judging by the other patrons, a future foray into dining diversity after Lent, when I can try those sliders.

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