Strange Magic, A Tree Bistro
By Steve Herte
Considering the move I saw, the week could have been titled “Strange Days” (by the Doors). I was happy I only had to shovel 11 inches of snow Tuesday morning (not the 24 predicted), and even happier that the office was closed, but sad because the blizzard canceled my going to karaoke. Even though karaoke has a worse reputation than Barbershop, it provides me with a release and a chance to sing the songs I’ve loved over my lifetime. I thank Helene every day for introducing me to it. While Helene was a song-stylist and sang her songs the way she wanted them sung, I’m more of a cover singer. I like to emulate the original song in every way possible, including key, inflections, note values and asides. This passion of mine is a part of the reason for the sour flavor of my movie review this week. You don’t have to sing a song badly to ruin it in my humble opinion, and several songs were, well, just wrong in the movie. See what you think. Enjoy!
Strange Magic (Touchstone, 2015) – Director: Gary Rydstrom. Writers: David Berenbaum (s/p), George Lucas (story). Voices: Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Maya Rudolkph, Peter Stormare, Llou Johnson, Nicole Vigil, & Bob Einstein. Animated, Color, 99 minutes.
“What fools these mortals be!” – Puck
“I can’t dance to that music you’re playin’, you better get yourself together, you'd better do it soon.” – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Back in the ‘60s when A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Wild Weekend came out in the theaters, I thought it might be fun to create a musical incorporating several of the current pop songs of the day. The result was a corny, cobbled together mish-mash of songs with meaningless dialogue and it never saw the light of day.
Today they call it a “Jukebox Musical” and Broadway has seen its share. Of Dance of the Vampires, Movin’ Out, California Dreamin', and Mamma Mia! only the last survived the test of time. Jersey Boys doesn’t fit the category because it’s more of a drama with songs (and pieces of songs) inserted.
Thus we have George Lucas’ attempt at forcing pop numbers into a cohesive whole and calling it an inspiration from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We have a Fairy King (Molina) who is never named (we assume Oberon) but we have no Queen Titania. He’s a single parent (how au courant) of the flirtatious Dawn (Bull), sporting Monarch butterfly wings and her sister Marianne (Wood), who is adorned in blue Morpho butterfly wings.
Marianne (obviously named so that the song “C’mon Marianne” by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons could be included) is betrothed to Roland (Palladio), a vain, self-centered, power hungry fairy in green armor and Hawk moth wings. She’s in love with him and sings Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” until she sees Roland seriously kissing a green-winged beauty. Then the marriage is off and she angrily croons Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Do you see where this is going?) while Sunny the elf (Kelley) tries to console her with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” with the lyrics: “Ev’ry Little Thing Gonna Be Alright.”
The land of the fairies and elves is separated from the “Dark Forest,” where goblins and ghoulies live by a border of primroses. Both sides know that the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) can convert the petals of these flowers into a powerful love potion. Unfortunately, the Bog King (Cumming), who looks like an overgrown mosquito, is currently holding her captive in a spider-web globe. He’s also having his minions Thang (Stormare) and Stuff (Einstein) cut down all the primroses so that no one will ever fall in love again (least of all himself, after a failed past affair).
Roland knows that the only way to become king is by marrying Marianne. Towards that end, he cons Sunny into finding a primrose petal, taking it to the Sugar Plum Fairy and bringing back the potion. For his troubles Sunny will get the hand of Dawn, with whom he’s in love. Luckily, Sunny finds the last petal and enters the Dark Forest to the tune of the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” He manages somehow to get to the Sugar Plum Fairy and she does her magic with strains of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” instructing him to be the first person to be seen by the one he uses the potion on, and to not let a certain mischievous little long-eared rodent-like creature get ahold of it. (This is probably as close to a Puck-like character, though he never speaks. He squeaks.) Her payment for the potion is her freedom. All is accomplished, but not for long. The Bog King recaptures Sugar, and Sunny meets the unnamed Puck creature, who steals the potion, causing Sunny to chase him through the forest to get it back. But as the creature runs, he causes all sorts of weird love-matches throughout the forest.
Back in Fairyland, it’s time for the Spring Ball and Dawn sings Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Sunny is performing “Hey Yeah” onstage and having trouble opening the potion when Marianne arrives and Roland frantically signals him. The Bog King and his minions explode on the scene and kidnap (or rather, fairy-nap?) Dawn as the Puck creature takes off with the potion in the confusion.
Sunny, Marianne and Roland chase the goblins separately to rescue Dawn. Roland has a small army and rides a squirrel, entering the forest to a riff from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Sunny winds up riding a large iguana that fell in love with him (you got it – the potion). Meanwhile, at the Bog King’s palace some of the potion is spilled on Dawn and she sees him first. Then it’s endless choruses of “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops and it’s driving him and his cronies mad.
The Bog King’s mother, Griselda (Rudolph) is delighted, because she sees her son in a love relationship at last. At this point I should warn my readers that none of the songs we hear are the original versions. All are re-orchestrated and re-sung to new beats and tempos. Whitney, Elvis and Jim Morrison are by now all spinning in their graves with William Shakespeare.
When Marianne confronts the Bog King in swordplay there HAS to be a song for that and it’s Heart’s “Straight On” (a stretch, I know). She’s horrified that her sister could fall in love with such an ugly evil creature as the Bog King, but learns from the Sugar Plum Fairy that true love can undo the potion’s effects.
Of course there has to be a finale to all this nonsense and it’s the improbable duet of “Tell Him” by the Exciters and “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. I know, I would never have combined the two songs.
The only thing this animated feature has going for it is the brilliant works of Industrial Light and Magic. The characters move fluidly, the mouths match the dialogue and song lyrics perfectly and, for a fantasy, everything appears real. The only drawback are the hair effects and large eyes on the female leads, which are too Anime. The only song I anticipated being in this silly film was indeed there, in part, not wholly sung or played, Electric Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic.” Parents, your kids won’t get this one. They’ll enjoy it, but they won’t “get” it.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.
190 1st Avenue (11th Street), New York
The outside temperature must have fallen severely while I was in the theater, because the clothing that kept me warm before was now suddenly inadequate. Fortunately, though, it was only a three-block walk to the restaurant. The hanging sign simply saying “Tree” was my cue that I’d arrived and the gold lettering on the front window as well as the black tree-branch pattern confirmed it. The tiny storefront opened onto a cozy boîte with a small bar on the right and about 10 tables in the back. The left wall is open brick with randomly placed framed photos and a strange lacy sculpture, and the right wall was painted off-white and had unframed paintings hanging from it. The lighting was low, but not dim, from the single ceiling globe, and white twinkle lights sparkled from within a glass tube standing behind the statue of a pig wearing a Santa hat flanked by what looked like a formidable artillery shell standing on end. (This is décor?)
The bartender greeted me and I told him of my reservation. Then Jolita, my server, led me to a table under a painting that could only have be entitled, “Ermine Eating Vanilla Ice-Cream in a Snowstorm.” After pouring a glass of tap water and leaving the bottle on the table, she asked if I wanted a drink. I chose a Bellini, but she told me that they don’t serve “hard liquor.” Strange, I thought; it’s on the menu. Later I learned that they’ve been open since 2007 – long enough time to get a liquor license. (Never mind, they have wine.) Jolita introduced me to their sommelier, the third of the trio running the restaurant.
She recommended the Barnard Griffin Cabernet Sauvignon from Columbia Valley, Washington State, and it was love at first sip. After hearing the daily specials from Jolita, I chose a three-course meal and she suggested the order, which I agreed was logical.
First up was Butternut Squash, Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup with ginger. Many times before I’ve had butternut squash in soup form and it has been excessively sweet. This was not. The carrot flavor was equal to the squash and the sweet potato added the thickness, which would be cream in any other gourd soup. Jolita proudly announced that there was not a drop of cream in the soup, and yet it was lovely and hot (my fingers were de-icing).
The next course is an old favorite of mine, Escargot a la Bourguignon, served in the traditional six-pocketed maroon crock with a thick handle. The finely minced shallots and parsley completely obscured the little nooks where the succulent gastropods hid in their garlic butter. Jolita made sure I had enough sliced baguette to catch every drop, and I did. Friends have asked me how I can enjoy this dish. It’s easy. Don’t think about what they are, just enjoy.
When choosing a restaurant, one of the deciding factors is the online menu. My main course was listed and, to my delight, it was available that evening. It’s another all-time favorite French staple, Cassoulet, with duck leg confit, bacon, and garlic sausage all mixed with white beans in a garlic-lovers paradise. Jolita presented me with another knife saying at the same time that she doubted I would need it, and she was right. The duck meat fell off the bone at the touch of the fork and everything else was bite-sized and delicious. The side dish of creamy bacon peas was irresistible, even though too large to finish. The bright green peas and bits of crispy bacon again created the illusion of cream in the sauce, which was essentially a roux. Once again, a healthy dish that seemed sinful. I told Jolita that if my godson had had peas prepared like this when he was a child, he would love them today.
The soup had been a daily special and, now that it was dessert time (the remainder of the peas were packed to go), I received a signal from the bartender. “Try the Chocolate Panna Cotta!” he said with a mischievous grin. I took his advice and told Jolita that I’d been prodded to try it. She smiled and noted it down.
“Panna Cotta” means cooked cream in Italian and this dish was the only one they could not possibly make without cream. A large scoop of gooey, sweet chocolate sat on a long narrow plate with cut raspberries and strawberries scattered around it in their own sauces, crowned by a sprig of peppermint and dusted with powdered sugar. I told Jolita that I felt I was in Montmartre. A cup of double espresso cut the sweetness of the dessert, but the after-dinner drink enhanced it. I chose the Chateau D’Arlay Macvin du Jura Rouge, an unbelievable combination of pinot noir grapes and marc-brandy that the sommelier described as experiencing both a port and a grappa simultaneously. She was correct. The deep orange/red liquor had both the sweetness of a port wine and the kick of a fine grappa. I was amazed.
The Tree Bistro taught me a lesson I’ve heard before. It isn’t necessary to go to big, fancy restaurants to have food so good to make one cry, and one doesn’t have to pay big prices to thoroughly enjoy French cuisine. And there were no pretensions here. Everything was French but without French being spoken. I was ready, but I didn’t need to be. I loved it.
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