Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Dinner and a Movie

Ultron Cucina

By Steve Herte

After a morning of removing weeds from my front lawns and around the hedges, I was achy and a little stiff but I found a cure. A friend from work cued me in to another “karaoke coffeehouse” being held at St. Adalbert’s church in Elmhurst. It was easy to get to from my home and I needed the fun. It was awesome – lots of good singers (including one who has never tried karaoke before and loved it), and a wide variety of musical styles, from Broadway to Rock to Sinatra. It made me think of Helene when she said to me, “Do you realize how many karaoke venues we’ve closed?” Yes, I remember.

Besides about 15 places in New York City, we sung karaoke in Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, Calgary, Alberta, and Ocean City, Maryland. It all started with one song. I guess I’ve become a karaoke addict (or at least a Diva).

Speaking of Divas, what do you get when you have group of people that should be a team but contains only Divas? The Avengers, of course. Enjoy!

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel/Disney, 2015) – Director: Joss Whedon. Writers: Joss Whedon (s/p), Stan Lee & Jackl Kirby (comic book). Stars: Robert Downey Jr.), Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Thomas Kretschmann, & Claudia Kim. Color, PG-13, 141 minutes.

From the first scene there is no doubt about this being an action film. The Avengers: Tony Stark/Ironman (Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Ruffalo), Thor (Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) are in mid-battle and things are flying everywhere (but strangely, not toward the audience). They are trying get Loki’s Scepter from the evil Strucker (Kretschmann) before he uses it to create a new and devastating weapon. How Strucker acquired the Asgardian artifact is not explained.

Also, from the beginning we see a relationship building between Natasha and Bruce, as she’s the only one who can calm him down. This will be our only hint at romance.

Once the scepter was safe (relatively) at Stark Industries, Tony and Bruce begin studying its potential powers. Bruce is the only one of the group that Tony confides in (being a scientist specializing in biologic fields) and reveals his latest breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (Here we go again!). Bruce is horrified when he sees the hologram of Jarvis/Vision (Bettany) – the computer that controls most of Stark Enterprises, including Ironman’s remote control suit assembly – with a new matrix called Ultron (Spader).

When Tony and Bruce leave to attend a victory party, the Ultron matrix insinuates itself into the Jarvis matrix and inhabits a prototype robot being assembled in a lower level of the complex. It crashes the party and causes havoc until the Avengers subdue it (they think) and the audience hears it say, “I’m free.” And Disney’s song “I’ve Got No Strings (On Me)” from Pinocchio plays briefly in the background. This could have been extremely hokey if it weren’t so subtly done. Ultron has entered the Internet and is gone.

Meanwhile, Strucker is not to be defeated. He enlists the service of a pair of twins, Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson) and his sister, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Olsen), to get what he wants, namely the A.I. project Tony is working on. The twins agree to help him because they blame Stark for the bombing death of their family and their own near death when an unexploded bomb entered the second story of their house with the name Stark imprinted on the nose cone.

Strucker has also aligned with Dr. Helen Cho (Kim), whose invention, “the Cradle,” will be capable of fleshing out an A.I. robot into an android. But Ultron has his own agenda. He intends to use the power of Loki’s Scepter combined with the Cradle to give himself the invincibility to destroy all of mankind and restart evolution the “right” way.

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner use the latest technology (and most of the 2 hours and 21 minutes) to find Ultron while the other members of “The Avengers” are stupefied by Tony’s arrogance in trying to “keep peace” using an untested A.I. Frankly, I think Windows XP would have found the robot faster than whatever system Tony was using. Ultron has enough time to swipe Loki’s scepter, Dr. Cho and her Cradle, mine a new element for use in the destruction of mankind and build a formidable army of smaller robots linked to his mind. (So much for Stark technology.)

They finally locate Ultron in a small town in Slovakia and the battle rages on while Ultron carries out his evil plan of raising the entire town high enough above Earth’s atmosphere to send it crashing back down as the “killer asteroid,” thus causing global extinction.

But the Avengers have an ace in the hole. When the Scarlet Witch invades the minds of a few of the Avengers, Thor sees something in his vision and returns to Asgard with the solution to the problem. Ultron had not destroyed Tony’s matrix for Jarvis and the Cradle was not fully finished absorbing Ultron’s programming. Thor slams his hammer down on the Cradle and…out pops Vision – a kind of anti-Ultron – who assists (and leads) The Avengers in their final battle with Ultron.

Did I mention that this movie was too long? I had to shift twice in my seat to stay comfortable. Thank goodness the writer/director Joss Whedon, along with Stan Lee (writer of the original Marvel comic book), included a lot of clever dialogue and comebacks to keep the relationship among the Avengers light and the audience chuckling. Danny Elfman’s musical creations exemplified his usual spectacular job. And the computer graphic effects are stunning. Ultron’s movements were so fluid you forgot he was a machine, especially his mouth. The Hulk’s face had a greater range of emotion than any of the human characters, even to evoking an “I’m sorry” from Ironman for piston-ing his fist in Hulk’s face.

The acting was good, not great. None of the characters performed well enough for me to care whether they lived or died. Maybe this was on purpose. After all, it took a character like Vision to force this loosely formed band of self-centered Divas into a team. And he had to do it by proving he was more powerful than any of them (he even was able to handle Thor’s hammer).

It was good to see Nick Fury (Jackson) captaining S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier back in active duty as a Deus Ex Machina when things didn’t look promising toward the end. With the assist of James Rhodes/War Machine (Cheadle) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie), the battle was more evenly matched. Thank goodness also for the slow-motion effects during the most furious action, which made seeing what was happening a lot easier. It even had a running gag. Every time a naughty word edged its way in, Captain America commented on its non-necessity. Soon every character was taking up the job. It’s definitely a kid-friendly movie.

Still, I expected to be “Wowed!” by this film and I wasn’t. Maybe I’ve seen too many better action films. Instead, I concluded that if it weren’t for Tony Stark’s hubris, there would be no film at all. By the way, be sure to stay through the credits. There’s an extra scene at the end signaling a sequel, involving a baddie from Asgard.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Petrarca Cucina E Vino
34 White St. (corner of Church Street), New York

In the last 13 years of working in downtown Manhattan, it consistently amazes me how many restaurants pop up and fold in short spaces of time. I knew there was a place on the northeast corner of the intersection of White and Church Streets but it never impressed me as a place to visit. The southeast corner was a destination of mine several times under different names and I thought I was heading there again. That is, until I arrived.

Apparently, Petrarca has been in existence for at least six years to mixed reviews on Google and is the offspring of Arquà (the latest of the southeast corner’s incarnations). The slate-blue exterior looks impressive with the name imprinted in gold lettering on the large windows. A cardboard sign tacked up advertising “Fresh Sangria” lessens the impression. Inside, just past the wind curtain, is a space featuring a good-sized bar and black marble-topped tables with simple red chairs. The overall effect is like dining in an above ground wine cellar. Everywhere one looks there are racks of wine bottles.

I met a gentleman at the door, who would turn out to be the wine expert, and announced my reservation. He led me to a table near the back, which was perfect for my preference. My waiter, Emilio, soon appeared to take my water choice and presented me with both the menu, and beer and wine list. A Czechoslovakian pilsner called Staropramen from a brewery in Prague caught my attention and I ordered it. It was a good-tasting beer with nice golden color, sufficient character and hops to serve as a cocktail.

Another server brought the breadbasket filled with crusty bread which, I learned, came from a nearby bakery owned by the restaurant owner’s wife. With the extra-virgin olive oil provided on the table, it was delightful.

The food menu included Pizzas, special Bruschettas (Italian bread with toppings), Antipasti (appetizers), Insalatas (Salads), and Pastas, Pesce e Carne (fish and meat dishes). After learning from Emilio that they do not serve half-orders of pasta, I was able to make my choices. I saw that they featured cannelloni on the pasta list but it was filled with cheese instead of ground meat. (The proper title for the dish would have been manicotti. But that’s beside the point.) I knew I would have to pace myself.

When Emilio cited the specials of the day, I was intrigued by the pasta but didn’t remember the soups. Emilio admitted that he neglected them. The mushroom soup soon became my first course. It was a rich brown soup loaded with four kinds of mushrooms; hearty and earthy without being creamy. I commented that I thought it was illegal to have so many mushrooms in a soup and Emilio smiled. It was excellent.

The wine list, like the racks lining three walls, was extensive and there were many I’ve not tried. Emilio sought the wine expert, as his selection talents were in beer alone. I asked for a full-bodied Italian red that was not too pricy, and the gentleman suggested the Dal Maso Colpazzarda Tai Rosso Colli Berici (Veneto) remarking that it was comparable to a fine Amarone. That settled it. The rich nose of this deep red wine was a mere precursor to the full flavor of northeast Italy and it complimented all my dishes nicely.

The next course was one of the day’s specials: Ravioli Stuffed With Dover Sole. The golden, homemade (obviously) pasta patties glistened in their light sauce. The aroma of the sole rose from the dish as I cut one tender pocket with a fork, and was delicious; I only needed fresh pepper to perfect it.

The main course was Rolatina di Pollo – chicken breast with mushrooms, prosciutto and cheese – served with broccoli and mashed potatoes. It was the only disappointing dish. The rolatina was softer than it should have been fresh from the oven, the prosciutto and cheese could not be tasted or seen. The broccoli, on the other hand, was perfectly cooked, crunchy, and the mashed potatoes were wonderful (and I don’t particularly like mashed potatoes). I thought that, with five out of seven meat dishes on the menu being chicken dishes, chicken would be better.

But, the good news was that I was ready for dessert and one on the list was novel to me. The Vanila Gelato al Cognac – two balls of vanilla gelato in a bath of cognac (what else?) – soon made me forget the main course.

A double espresso and a glass of Grappa Alexander (like the wine, also from the Veneto region of Italy) ended my dinner at Petrarca on a high note. I learned that Arquà Petrarca is a town in the Veneto Region of northeastern Italy in the province of Padua. It is appropriate that restaurants with these two names should be across the street from each other. Before I left I asked Emilio about the lamb special (marinated in Moroccan spices) and he said that so far, no one has ordered it. Maybe I will if I return and they still feature it.

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