Friday, January 16, 2015

Into the Woods

Dinner and a Movie

There are Vines in the Woods

By Steve Herte

There’s always a little sadness when it’s time to take down the Christmas decorations, because, being my favorite holiday, I DECORATE! It took all day Saturday to do it and pack everything away and, Sunday morning I found one last ornament. Isn’t that the way? Good thing last Friday was wonderful. The movie was the major competition for Best Musical Adaptation and the restaurant was a revival of a former lovely dining space. Enjoy!

Into The Woods (2014) - Director: Rob Marshall. Writers: James Lapine (s/p, musical) Steven Sondheim (musical). Cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Daniel Huttlestone, Tracey Ullman, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Annette Crosby, Chris Pine, Joanna Riding, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, & Frances de la Tour. Color, 125 minutes.

Having seen Into the Woods on Broadway with Bernadette Peters playing the Witch and once again in a local production featuring two of my nieces, and having viewed the trailers several times I was still stunned by this movie. With James Lapine’s screenplay and Rob Marshall’s direction it takes the five fairy tale allegorical mash-up and faithfully recounts on an epic scale. Interweaving CinderellaThe Baker and his Wife, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, the resulting story is about wishing for more and entering “The Woods” (i.e. finding one’s path in the world) to get it.

Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) is a penniless “very hungry little girl” who mooches bread, cakes and cookies from the Baker and his wife to “take to her Granny.” She even gets a basket to carry her booty from the generous wife (over-generous, to the Baker). She enters the woods having been warned by her mother never to stray from the path, and thinking she’ll be back before dark.

The Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) are childless because of a curse placed upon them by the Witch (Streep) as a result of the Baker’s father’s transgressions against her (He raided her garden and stole her magic beans). To remove this curse the couple has three midnights to procure a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, some hair as yellow as corn, and a shoe as precious as gold. They enter the woods.

Jack (Huttlestone) and his mother (Ullman) are starving in their ramshackle house and their cow, “Milky White,” has ceased to give milk. Jack is ordered to take the cow – whom he loves as a friend – and sell it at the market to get money to buy food. Jack and the cow enter the woods.

Meanwhile, at her deceased father’s house, Cinderella (Kendrick) is the servant and housekeeper for her stepmother (Baranski) and her two daughters Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch). All they talk about is the Prince’s (three-night) Festival and Cinderella really wishes she could go. She sneaks out the back way and enters the woods.

The Baker and his wife meet Jack and the cow first and convince him that the magic beans are worth a pound apiece and buy the cow from him, promising that he could buy it back once he gets the money. Jack brings home the beans. His mother swats him up the side of his head and tosses the beans into the front yard of their house, where they promptly take root and become a giant beanstalk. The Baker sends his wife home with the cow and meets Little Red Riding Hood and, after a lengthy scream from the child, decides he cannot take the red cape from her by force. He lets her go.

No sooner does she escape the Baker than she meets the Wolf (Depp) who hungers after her. But upon learning that she’s heading for Granny’s and he could have a two-course meal he diverts Red from the path by convincing her she should pick a bouquet of flowers for Granny. This gives him time to get there first. Granny (Crosby) gets gobbled up first and after one “what big ears you have,” Red goes down the hatch as well.

Riding through the woods, Cinderella happens upon Prince Charming (Pine), who is immediately infatuated with her. They part hoping they will meet again. As evening falls Cinderella is at her mother’s gravesite where a huge tree has grown and her Fairy Godmother (Riding) appears and grants her wish to attend the evening’s ball. But at the stroke of midnight, she runs from the glittering hall, leaving a perplexed prince.

The Witch is next seen visiting a lonely tower where she calls to Rapunzel (whom we learn is the Baker’s sister, snatched from his father as recompense for the beans). A second Prince (Magnussen) witnesses this, and he falls in love with the girl with hair as yellow as corn, the beautiful Rapunzel (Mauzy), visiting her several times.

In Cinderella’s flight from the palace, she passes the Baker’s wife, who notices the “shoe as precious as gold” and after a struggle, she’s unsuccessful at attaining it. In the struggle, the cow wanders off. The Baker rejoins her and the Witch appears to remind them that the first midnight is past. (Two to go before the deadline) The Baker now has the cape as red as blood because he happened upon Granny’s tree and heard the two voices in the sleeping wolf’s stomach. He frees them with a knife – thus killing the Wolf – and Red gave it to him in gratitude.

Did I mention this movie is two hours and five minutes long?

The Baker and his wife relocate the cow when he accidentally sits on it and shortly thereafter Jack appears with five gold pieces the size of dinner plates to buy Milky White back, but they talk him out of that.

When Cinderella hastily leaves the castle on the second night the prince goes seeking her and encounters Rapunzel’s prince. They sing a song about the “Agony” of loving a girl who is out of reach and are overheard by the Baker’s wife. She finds the tower, tricks Rapunzel into lowering her hair and rips a long piece off on a sharp fence post. Only one more item to get, and the Witch reminds them of the second midnight’s passing.

Jack returns from his second climbing of the beanstalk with a giant golden egg, which he show to Red, who doesn’t believe his story. He tells her about the Magic Harp, she dares him to get it and he’s off. Unfortunately, when he successfully steals the harp, the Giant is in hot pursuit. He chops down the beanstalk and kills the Giant.

Once again, Cinderella flees the palace but gets stuck in the pitch the prince had spread on the stairs. She leaves one shoe as a test and runs off into the woods, where, once again she meets the Baker’s wife. The wife tries to buy the shoe with the last magic bean (which gets tossed over Cinderella’s shoulder and takes root in the forest behind her), but wins the shoe by offering her own shoes for it (to help her run away).

Complex enough? One has to see this story for oneself. Remember, it’s all about wishing and having to be careful what you wish for. Everyone gets his or her wishes. The Baker and his wife have a child, Cinderella and her prince are married, Red Riding Hood has a brand new wolfskin cape and has learned to not stray, Jack and his mother are no longer poor and starving, and Rapunzel has left the Witch to be with her prince. But…the Giant has a wife (de la Tour) who descends the second beanstalk looking for revenge and causes so much destruction the entire cast is lost in the now unfamiliar woods and blaming each other for their problems.

It’s a wonderful tale with excellent special effects and great, award-worthy performances. I was amazed at the singing, particularly Meryl Streep’s “Last Midnight” – the most difficult song in an extremely difficult musical. Stephen Sondheim, depending on how you view him, is either a genius or a looney. His melodies (if you can call them that) are so convoluted as to be unmemorable (unless you practice them for a long time – and then, who would you sing them to?) and the lyrics are fabulous, but they’re sung so quickly the audience could not possibly catch all the clever innuendoes they contain. It took my full concentration and this was my third time around. I loved the movie despite the annoying music and recommend that parents leave the toddlers home again. There’s plenty of visual wonder about the film, but they will still get bored. You’ll like it. And if you’re a fan of tongue twisters, try learning the title song.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Madison and Vine
299 Madison Avenue (at 41st Street)New York (click on Madison and Vine)

When I first visited the website, the photo showed the kind of restaurant I would normally avoid – one completely open to the street. But, this is winter and the location made it perfect for an evening’s dinner. 299 Madison also sounded familiar and, when I arrived I knew I had dined there before. Although, then it was called “Branzini,” and Helene and I would have dinner there rather than the ho-hum food down the avenue at J.T.’s American-Italian Grill, (now “Pera,” a fine Mediterranean restaurant) where we would go for karaoke. The cherry-wood framed window on Madison and the sliding doors on 41st Street all looked pretty dark inside, but I boldly entered the “airlock” which billowed the velvet curtain and announced myself.

The young blonde in the skin-tight sparkling leotards and three-inch Lucite-heeled shoes led me to a table far enough away from the entrance to not feel the cold when other diners arrived. She presented me with the menu and wine list. Soon after, a striking slim redhead with even redder lipstick arrived to hear my water selection. Micaela would be my server that night. When she asked if I wanted a cocktail (their selection appeared way too silly) I asked if they had Beefeater gin. They did, and I ordered my favorite martini, which, surprisingly, was done swiftly and correctly.

The dinner menu had the usual classifications but was amazingly lacking in soups. I decided to ask about the Caesar salad. “Is it garlicky?” “No.” “Can it be made to be garlicky?” “I’ll ask.” By the time Micaela returned, I had a three-course meal planned. The wine list was a two-sided card with whites on one side and reds on the other and several with decent prices. Judging by my dinner choices, I selected a 2012 Sauvignon-Blanc from the Loire Valley (Domaine Alain Cailbourdin) whose crisp dry tones would highlight each course.

The Caesar salad started the meal and was appealing both to the eye and the palate. The crisp, fresh greens redolent of the extra chopped garlic added for my tastes were snowed under by freshly grated cheese, and two toasted slices of baguette stood guard on either side acting as croutons. There was not a hairy fish in sight and I loved it.

Next on the bill were the Maine Peektoe crab cakes with both a double roasted pepper topping and a creamy yoghurt sauce. The garnish of micro greens added color to the dish. Are Peekytoe crabs different? I would say yes, they’re a lighter flavored and not as dense crabmeat as others. The yoghurt proved much better than a mayonnaise, which would have buried their flavor. I chose this dish because I saw the portion of the crispy Rhode Island calamari at the next table. Though they smelled heavenly, it was too much. This dish was just right.

The baked wild trout, dusted with cornmeal and served over “seasonal” vegetables (in this case, baby asparagus, carrots, winter squash and string beans), was totally boneless and easy to cut with a fork. The lemon-herb butter sauce was divine, giving the fish a citrus-y tang, as well as a sweet accent. The vegetables were crunchy and not over-cooked. The portion was ample but not too big for me to order a side of the truffled French fries. They were served in a paper cone supported by a wire frame, which also held a ramekin of homemade catsup for dipping. I had to concentrate so as not to eat all the fries first and forget the wine and fish or vice-versa. All was wonderful. Micaela said the trout was her favorite.

Are you ready for dessert?” said Micaela, sweetly smiling. “Absolutely!” The coconut panna cotta was so irresistible it was gone before I thought of photographing it (I love to take pictures of my meals). There was nothing left to do but relax with a double espresso and an icy glass of Nonino grappa.

When I told them about the previous incarnation both girls asked what it was like. I told them that the cuisine was basically Italian and seafood, but that they made a killer cavatelli that I loved. “Maybe next time,” they suggested. Maybe indeed, but in winter.

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