Friday, October 24, 2014

The Book of Life

Dinner and a Movie 

From Mexico to Montana in One Night

By Steve Herte

This was a week of learning. I'm always learning new things and I'm of the opinion that when you stop learning new things you die, but this week was impressive in the amount of knowledge gained.

· I learned that it's very difficult to please a girl from Ecuador. You have to be satisfied if you make her happy, and I did.
· I've always known that I was a good listener but I surprise myself every Tuesday night with how little I get to talk about myself. I came up with a new dance step Tuesday and Betty keyed into it right away. Likewise, I finally learned the Texas two-step she's been doing every week to "Folsom Prison" and was able to accompany her.
· I learned that either I'm a lucky (or really good) gardener or that irises are easy to grow and transplant.
· And lastly, I learned that my pastor at church can hardly wait for me to retire and take over the music program.

My quartet is reuniting at the Cheesecake Factory in White Plains with the higher purpose of determining if we have a chance at winning the Senior Quartet Contest, perhaps next year. One thing I know I can depend on is that nights where the movie AND the restaurant are both excellent are rare, and so you'll see. Enjoy!

The Book of Life (20th Century Fox, 2014) – Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez. Writers: Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Langdale. Voices: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Dan Navarro, Genesis Ochoa, & Placido Domingo. Animated, Color, 95 minutes.

All Souls’ Day is celebrated in Mexico as Dia de los Muertes, the Day of the Dead, and it is on this day that this movie takes place, November 2. A bus of bored, spitball-flinging school children pulls up to a museum and nearly terrorizes the aging tour guide. But deftly using her “Follow Me” sign as a shield, a beautiful red-haired tour guide takes over and leads them through an invisible door and into a spacious hall to witness “the glory of Mexico.”

The children are dazzled and follow her to the far end of the hall, where the Book of Life resides. She opens the book and, using wooden toys to help illustrate it, reads a tale. She starts, “As we all know, Mexico is the center of the universe…”

The story begins in the town of San Angel (the ‘g’ is pronounced like an ‘h’) on November 2, where we meet little Maria (Saldana) and her two friends, Manolo (Luna) and Joaquin (Tatum), who are constantly vying for her attention. Maria is General Posada’s (Alazraqui) daughter. Manolo Sanchez, is from a long line of bullfighters and Joaquin is descended from mighty warriors. Joaquin’s father was the last to repel the fearsome bandito, Chakal (Navarro), and his men.

One day, Maria sees pigs in a pen and decides to free them from bondage with help from Manolo and Joaquin. The pigs stampede into town and cause a bit of havoc, but are followed by a large tusked boar. Joaquin fends off the boar with the skills he’s learned and Manolo demonstrates his keen aptitude for bullfighting to send the boar careening into a wall, where it’s knocked out.

Meanwhile, in the ethereal reaches we see La Muerte (del Castillo) and Xibalba (Perlman), the rulers of the Lands of Remembrance and the Forgotten, arguing over why they rule the places they do. Xibalba sees the two boys competing for Maria and makes a wager with La Muerte over which one will win her hand. He chooses Joaquin and she chooses Manolo. If Joaquin marries Maria, they will switch kingdoms. If not, they will remain in their lands forever.

After the dust clears in the town square the general makes a judgment that Maria is to be sent to a convent to learn how to be a lady, hoping this kind of behavior will be stopped. The two boys are heartbroken. Manolo presents her with the little pig she saved from bondage and she names him “Chewy.” She boards the train with the pig and the boys will not see her again until they are all adults.

While Joaquin learns swordsmanship and battle techniques, Manolo reluctantly learns bullfighting. He really wants to be a singer and play guitar, a talent he clearly possesses.

On the day of Maria’s return there is a spectacle planned in the arena, starting with Joaquin demonstrating his prowess in horsemanship and followed by a bullfight featuring Manolo. They are both amazed by how beautiful Maria has become and both show off for her. But though his techniques are flawless in the ring, Manolo’s refusal to kill the bull embarrasses his father Carlos (Elizondo), and he’s left alone in the arena with his guitar. (Even the bull shakes his head at him.) Maria is clearly attracted to Manolo’s singing and playing, but her father insists she be with Joaquin because, “he is the only one who can help us fight Chakal.”

That night, Manolo arranges a tryst with Maria on the bridge to the town, and it looks like he’s going to win her when Xibalba intervenes. He sends his staff, transformed into a poisonous snake, to bite Maria. Manolo is blamed for her death and becomes an outcast. He vows to bring her back from the Land of Remembrance, and Xibalba is only too glad to accommodate him. The snake now has two heads, and bites Manolo twice. When he wakes up, he’s a skeleton version of himself in the Land of Remembrance.

Soon Manolo learns that Xibalba tricked him as well as cheated on the wager with La Muerte. The single bite Maria received was easily cured by a kiss from Joaquin and she accepts his proposal thinking that Manolo is dead forever. Manolo now has a different quest, to find La Muerte and return to the land of the living.

He meets his entire family who died before him including his mother Carmen (de la Reguera), Grandfather Luis (Trejo), and the opera singing Jorge Sanchez (Domingo). In the land of the living, Chakal attacks San Angel, and Carlos is the first to defend the town and the first to pop up in the Land of Remembrance. Manolo, Carmen, Carlos and Luis travel to the Land of The Forgotten to find La Muerte, but it’s not easy. Only with the help of the Candlemaker (Ice Cube) do they achieve their goal.

La Muerte is outraged that Xibalba has cheated her, and Manolo makes him a wager -- any task he chooses -- to return him to the land of the living. Xibalba chooses fighting every bull his ancestors ever fought at the same time. Eventually Manolo is faced with a coalesced giant bull with flaming red eyes and the choice of his sword or his guitar.

The Book of Life is a glorious animated production on a par with Rio for sheer scope of theatricality and with Madagascar in clever scripting and character development. Even though all the characters are obviously wooden toys, their movements convince the audience they are real. The music and soundtrack are wonderfully chosen songs from pop favorites such as “Creep” by Radiohead, and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by Elvis Presley, to original tunes written for the film. The colors are dazzling and the 3D special effects help pull one into the story. It’s a movie for all generations and all ages. It’s squeaky clean in language and the only violence is more slapstick than serious. Even the credits are fun.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Ted’s Montana Grill
110 West 51st Street (just off 6th Avenue toward 7th)New York

Walking east on 51st Street from 7th Avenue I realize an interesting anomaly. I pass Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, then one door down, the Capital Grill (steakhouse), and then Ted’s Montana Grill with its sleek black awning and white lettering. Hence, there are essentially three steakhouses in a row on one street. This shouldn’t surprise me after being on 6th Street in East Greenwich Village where there are at least 30 Indian restaurants in one block, but steakhouses are different. They’re grander, less intimate places. Ruth’s Chris was my benchmark steakhouse until Capital Grill came from Rhode Island, but when I discovered Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, the new standard for excellence was carved in stone.

Inside, Ted’s is mahogany paneling, wood flooring, milk chocolate colored faux-tin ceiling, and art deco swags for lighting. There is an enormous bison head hanging on the far wall along with a large antique mirror. The bar is off to the right side attended by a lively young crowd. The young (almost incredibly young) man at the Captain’s Station led me to my table (which was set for four – 6:45 is a good time to get a table with Broadway so near), and I sat for only a short while before Lincoln, my server, took my water preference and cocktail order and presented me with the single laminated card menu. The wine list was on the reverse. Lincoln didn’t appear much older than the man who seated me; even his acne gave him away.

At this point I noted that some people indeed had come with the intent on making an eight o’clock curtain at some show, and brevity and prompt service would be a must to get them on their way. I was not in that situation, but I forgave Lincoln for not introducing himself on that count. He returned with my Beefeater martini in an impressively large glass and asked if I had any questions about the menu. I had hardy begun to read it, but I did ask him how many ounces the filet mignon, Delmonico, and T-Bone steaks weighed. 10, 14, and 16, was his answer. Satisfied with that I told him I needed more time and he left. While the martini was not the best I’ve ever had, it was far from being the worst.

Another server brought a small bowl of sliced sweet dill pickles – a nice touch – and I munched on them while deciding. I was tickled that the menu had appetizers abbreviated to simply “Apps.” The Bison nachos were appealing, but Lincoln assured me it was a hefty dish. I told him that I wished it were Wednesday, because then the Soup of the Day would be Chicken Gumbo. He agreed, as it was his favorite. I settled for the New England Clam Chowder, a Caesar “Side” Salad (as opposed to an entrée salad), and the Bison Delmonico steak with a side of Roasted Mushrooms. The wine list was impressively reasonably priced and I ordered a bottle of the 2012 Ravenswood Zinfandel. Lincoln left to put in the order.

The good-sized bowl of chowder arrived along with the salad first. It was comparable to my benchmark chowder at the Chart House in Boston (hot and with more clams than potatoes), but it wasn’t as amazingly creamy. The salad, though beautifully green Romaine lettuce and crunchy croutons, had no visible (it was there, the leaves were glistening) or tasteable dressing. I asked Lincoln for some chopped garlic to liven it up and he brought back a ramekin of exactly that. It helped. (At least they left off those nasty anchovies.) Lincoln asked me if I wanted the wine with my steak and I told him to bring it as soon as the martini was finished.

I had just finished the chowder and was starting the salad when a young lady brought the main course. “Way too early!” I told her and sent it back. Lincoln apologized and I responded that I neglected to tell him beforehand that I was a slow eater and not going to a show (but he could have asked as well). When my martini was finished, right on cue, Lincoln brought a glass of wine. “Bottle?” I reminded him. And he was off again to correct the mistake. At this time I saw something resembling a breadbasket on other tables and not on mine. Hmm.

I’ve had Ravenswood Zinfandel before and knew it to be a consistently reliable wine and this time was no exception. When the salad was finished the main course reappeared. I couldn’t help thinking that it was put under heating lamps because it looked identical to the dish that came out first, right down to the angle at which the tiny American flag toothpick was leaning. I realize that bison meat is leaner than beef, but my 14-ounce filet mignon last Friday had way more meat on it than this “14 ounce” Delmonico. It was tasty and prepared almost medium (not my stated preference), but also not as wonderful as the Delmonico I enjoyed at the restaurant of the same name downtown (where the dish was invented). The nine (yes, I easily counted them) Bolide mushrooms were golden brown and again, tasty, but …. this is a side dish in a steakhouse? Maybe I’m jaded, but side dishes are usually unfinishable.

I was totally ready for dessert after consuming the main course (the pickles too). Here was where Ted’s finally put their best foot forward. The Banana Parfait, though it looked nothing like a true parfait, was so yummy I started eating it before I remembered to take a picture of it. All of the desserts at Ted’s feature Häagen-Dazs ice cream. That, plus the bananas and the fresh whipped cream, set me on a feeding frenzy. The double espresso was standard but the Grand Marnier was the crown on a dinner that cumulatively didn’t deserve to wear one.

It was 11 years ago that Ted Turner and George McKerrow Jr. opened the first steakhouse in Columbus, Ohio, celebrating bison on the menu and encouraging ranchers to keep and breed them. This is their 50th location, and it’s been open at least a year. I know why tourists like it: the prices are great. Maybe I’ll just have to return on a Wednesday.

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