Sunday, August 2, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

From Fantasy to Fantastic

By Steve Herte

Pixels (Columbia, 2015) – Director: Chris Columbus. Writers: Tim Herlihy (story and s/p), Timothy Dowling (s/p). Patrick Jean (short film). Stars: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Cad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Dean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Ackroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ron Mustafa, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Jared Riley, Anthony Loughran, Jacob Shinder, & Andrew Bambridge. Color, PG-13, 106 minutes.

Galaga, Space Invaders, Frogger, Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong and Q*bert are well known to the gamers of yesterday. The “Arcaders” competed for high scores and were proud of their relatively meaningless titles. Brenner (Loughran), Cooper (Riley) and Ludlow (Shinder) were addicted Arcaders in their teens (even to swiping the jar of quarters from a girl selling lemonade – played by Sadie Sandler – to feed their habit) and all competed against Eddie (Bambridge) who dubbed himself the “Fire Blaster” and basically showed nothing but contempt for the other three.

Then one day in 1984, a Grand Championship was held and the winner’s score would be included (along with the various games) in a space probe to announce Earth’s presence to intelligent alien life forms. Brenner and Eddie made it to the finals playing Donkey Kong and the MC (Ackroyd) announced Eddie as the winner. Brenner grows to adulthood (Sandler) believing it was his worst game.

Brenner is now part of a “Nerd” squad fixing and installing electronic devices. On one of his house calls he meets Matty (Lintz) and his mother Violet (Monaghan), who is going through a messy break-up with her husband (he left her for a 19-year-old – fantasy, remember?) Cooper (now James) has become President of the United States (I did mention this was a fantasy, right?), and Ludlow (now Gad) well . . . he’s Ludlow. As for Eddie (Dinklage), he’s in prison for various felonies.

The scene suddenly switches to the island of Guam (as good a place as any, I guess) where an alien attack is underway. Every time alien fire hits a structure it breaks up into sparkling cubes (pixels, if you will). Since there is little effective resistance, the attackers consider it a win and take a soldier as a trophy. Cooper learns of this and contacts Brenner, who recognizes the patterns of the game “Galaga.” White House officials do not want to hear that occupants of a distant galaxy misinterpreted our probe as a war challenge for planetary dominance. They are given coordinates for the next attack/challenge and the location changes to Agra, India.

A young couple in love strolls by the Taj Mahal and, as he kneels to present the ring, she screams as the Taj Mahal is gradually destroyed by a real-life version of “Space Invaders.” Again, since Earth does not want to recognize what is going on, the aliens win another round and take as a “trophy” the young boy (Mustafa).

Brenner and Cooper now realize what’s going on and receive the next coordinates. They attempt to train a squadron of select warriors to combat the alien threat. Of course, none of the soldiers take them seriously. Violet, who is really a lieutenant colonel with DARPA, supplies the men with “light cannons” (conveniently) to counteract the space weapons. The new coordinates lead them to London and the game is “Centipede.” The varicolored mushrooms appear in the sky and Brenner instantly recognizes his best-scored game. The soldiers are clueless, so Brenner and Ludlow take over and win the round. The Earth people are congratulated by a video of Mr. Rourke and Tatoo from the TV show Fantasy Island and receive a pixilated version of the dog from the game “Duck Hunt.”

The next coordinates indicate New York City, and Brenner, Cooper and Violet realize they have to spring Eddie from prison to get his expertise. But Eddie has a list of demands: an island, a helicopter, freedom from paying taxes for the rest of his life and Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House. An agreement is reached: no island, no helicopter, yes to tax freedom and only a date with Serena. The game is “Pac-Man.” Once again, Violet comes through with the weapons, i.e. the “Ghosts,” cars painted the colors of the four ghosts in the videogame. Brenner, Ludlow and Eddie each one with Professor Toru Iwatani (Akiyama), the “inventor” of the Pac-Man game, occupies the fourth car.

Any doubt that the aliens are serious are wiped away when Iwatami tries to “reason” with his pixilated “son” and gets his hand chomped in the deal. The game continues in the maze of New York streets with Violet guiding the ghosts in the control room. Earth wins another victory thanks to Brenner’s expert backwards driving in a multi-level parking lot while counting off the 10 seconds Pac-Man has to eat his ghost, and Eddie’s clever maneuvers. The Earth people are presented with another “trophy” – a pixilated Q*bert (the best character in the movie), who eventually tells the team how his people felt intimidated by the probe/time capsule and thus, the reaction.

Later Matty discovers at a White House ball that Eddie cheated (just as he cheated in the first competition against Brenner). The aliens know he cheated as well, and not only take Matty as a trophy, but also send a barrage of videogame characters including Frogger, Smurfs, and giant robots to destroy the planet. With Q*bert’s help, Brenner, Cooper and Violet are invited by Max Headroom (voiced by Matt Frewer) to challenge “the Master” aboard the mothership. The game? “Donkey Kong.”

Brenner is dismayed. This is the game he lost when he played that last round against Eddie. But he learns of Eddie’s cheating from Matty, who is stranded on the top level with the other Earth trophies (where the princess would be) and Brenner rallies and wins the game, thus saving the world.

Make no doubt about it, Pixels is a very silly movie. But it is colorful, very entertaining and full of action scenes. Adam Sandler does one of his best performances, and does so without doing something disgusting or peppering the film with vulgarity. I was surprised at how clean the language was in general. The audience laughed many more times than I did. I guess I’m not up with the trend of what’s funny. But I did laugh when I thought it was.

Several famous names have cameos in Pixels, including Lainie Kazan, Madonna, Daryl Hall, John Oates, Martha Stewart, and the entire immediate Sandler family. Parents, it’s safe to bring the kids to this one. If they understand it they still won’t believe it but they’ll enjoy the craziness. I particularly liked the view from the ground of a centipede curling down out of the sky (my favorite game back when).

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Tasca Chino
245 Park Ave. S. (20th Street), New York

I had several choices of restaurant in mind for the “special” title of number 2,680 on my life list and eventually it would come back to confuse me when the time came to dine. Tasca Chino won the spot with their fusion of Spanish and Chinese cuisines. Chef Alex Ureña has managed to serve Tapas opposite steamed dumplings and Paella as well as the finest duckling.

I told you I got confused. That was because the other finalist “Upland” stayed in my mind (26th Street and Park Avenue South) and instinctively I went to that address first. Fortunately I had left myself sufficient time to be fashionably late for my 7:00 pm reservation at Tasca Chino.

Open to the street, as so many New York restaurants are (It saves money purchasing permission to build a sidewalk café), Tasca Chino stands out in brilliant white with the name emblazoned in large gold letters. The sidewalk café look is accomplished with potted boxwoods and tropical trees just outside the windows. I announced my reservation to the two lovely young ladies at the Captain’s Station and one led me to a perfect table by a window at the far wall.

The primary color of the restaurant is red, which works for both cuisines. A red Leroy Neiman-ish modern art painting of a bullfighter confronting El Toro faces an Andy Warhol-ish quartet of Mao Tse-tung profiles on the opposite wall. Adjacent to Chairman Mao is a kung-fu fighter in full attack mode on a red background. The chairs are all red-cushioned and so are the banquettes. The tables are shiny wood, with no tablecloths. The well-stocked bar was on the wall facing me.

The young lady who seated me presented me with the menu and the wines/cocktails list. The title of one of the specialty cocktails was simply Chinese calligraphy. The pages of the wine list fanned to the last page where the “spirits” were and I saw they served my favorite gin. When my server Monty arrived for my water preference I ordered my favorite martini. Though the menu was a mere two pages, there were many interesting choices under its categories: Tapas, Terracotta Dumplings, Salads, Large Plates, Vegetables, and Paella (four to choose from).

It was difficult to set my mind on food while sipping my perfect martini in its elegantly etched glass. I asked Monty, “What do people usually do here when they’re really hungry?” “Order a lot of food.” He shot back, not missing a beat. “Good answer!” I said, “But you know what I mean. I’m thinking a three-course meal.” He suggested maybe two Tapas, and a dumpling dish because I had my eye on a paella main course. I needed more time and I stopped him as he tried to remove the wine list upon leaving.

I had pretty much chosen my meal but the wine list posed a conundrum. There were a great many reasonably priced wines from different countries (including Mallorca) that I’ve never tried. The next time Monty arrived I asked for someone who knew wines, and soon a young man was at my table to assist. He looked vaguely familiar. He pointed out and described an Italian, a Spanish and a Portuguese wine as fitting my requirements and I chose the Portuguese. Then he left but returned posthaste when he realized that my choice was sold out. I chose the next one down on the list per his advice. It was 1980 (yes, a wine older than 2000, a 35-year-old) Caves São João Dão Porta do Caveleiros, a red blend of four grapes that does not taste its age. The cherry fruitiness makes the medium body wine last throughout the dinner and it was delightful with all my dishes. When the steward tried to remove the cork with a two-pronged implement I’ve never seen before, it was a surprise that the cork plopped into the wine instead of coming out. He almost blushed as he told me he would decant the wine first.

First to arrive was the Black Bass Ceviche – with tomatillo, avocado, tomato, onion and lime – served on a beautiful wavy glass dish that reminded me of the moonscape on the Kodak Pavilion at the 1964/65 World’s Fair. Monty suggested eating it with chopsticks and I agreed. The fish was delicate, and a little spicy, but the avocado helped tone down the spice.

The other tapas, the Garbanzo Frito & Kimchi – a crispy cube of chickpea cake, house-made kimchi (Korean spiced pickled cabbage), ponzu and wasabi mayo – arrived before I was finished with the ceviche. But that was okay, because ceviche is served cold and the three cubes of chickpea cake were hot. The kimchi was not as spicy as the national dish of Korea, but it accented the garbanzos nicely.

Next to grace my table was the Wild Mushroom and Truffle Steamed Dumplings – with delicate wild mushroom garnish – served in the traditional bamboo steamer. They were glistening, snow white, tender and full of rich mushroom flavor, almost erotic. The wine tasted particularly good here.

All these dishes paved the way for the main course, which I knew from the menu took 25 minutes to prepare fresh, the Paella de Coco – chicken pieces, lamb strips, soybeans, English peas over rice in coconut milk and with drops of yellow curry served in an iron pan. I took Monty’s caution about the hot pan seriously and tasted the dish. It was heaven! I’ve been craving a good lamb and rice dish with a little curry flavor for a long time and this was it. The pure white chicken was just a fancy garnish to me. I told Monty about the best part, scraping and eating the socarrat (the rice stuck to the pan).

That was wonderful, and I had room for dessert. What else? The Chocolate Bomb! In another fanciful glass dish was a shiny, perfectly spherical dark chocolate delight with passion fruit mousse and a raspberry and mango crumble. It surprised me when it deflated shortly after Monty left, but it was good. The dark chocolate was smooth and the fruits played around the flavor like nymphs in a forest.

Double Espresso? Of course. After dinner drink? New York Malmsey from the Rare Wine Company in Madeira was deliciously sweet and almost syrupy rich! I’ve definitely got to get a bottle of this. The wine steward checked in with me at various times during the meal, as did Monty. During my last conversation with the steward, he gave me his card. I was sure I saw him before and the card proved it. He was the sommelier at Barbounia restaurant a block away. His name? Tayfun Saracoglu. Admittedly not as memorable as his presence, but we discussed the delicious Greek fish “barbounia” and its diminishing supply until I had to leave. Tasca Chino is definitely worth a second or third visit. It’s friendly, it’s good, and it’s affordable. Most of all, it’s a great fusion of cuisines.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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