Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Dinner and a Movie

Comedy and Comida

By Steve Herte

Sometimes it takes a mechanical breakdown to launch an inspiration. Our digital converter box failed this week and Dad and I reverted to watching taped movies, which was wonderful. Re-viewing “Dolores Claiborne” made me think about how some films made from Stephen King’s books were excellent and some were “Eh!” So, my next project will be another top 10 – adaptations from books to film. So far I only have the good ones. Give me time.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Lionsgate, 2015) – Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak. Writers: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak. Based on characters created by Nick Park. Voices: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimat Vyas, Sophie Laughton, & Nia Medi James. Color, PG, 85 minutes.

The laborious process known as stop-action animation goes all the way back to 1898, to a short entitled The Humpty Dumpty Circus when Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton brought a toy carnival to life by shooting the film frame by frame and physically re-arranging the characters in small increments each time. When Willis O’Brien presented his version of The Lost World in 1925 the live action scenes were combined with 49 stop-action dinosaurs fighting and interacting with film’s stars. The style developed further when Ray Harryhausen worked his magic with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Continuing to evolve with better technology and finer camera equipment through the years, the art form brought us Wallace and Gromit – The Case of the Were-Rabbit (2005), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014)and now, Shaun the Sheep Movie. How painstakingly difficult is this process? Very. This movie was four years from concept to release. If you stayed through the credits at the end of The Boxtrolls, you saw the blur of movements made by the animator in a visual demonstration, while the characters moved naturally.

Shaun the Sheep (a great play on words) has been a successful TV series since 2007 in England. Made by the producers of Wallace and Gromit (Aardman Animation) we see similarities in character design. In fact, the character Bitzer the farm dog looks remarkably like Gromit, only a different color (Gromit is brown, Bitzer is yellow).

I admit my fascination with this film stemmed from my past experiences viewing stop-action animation and marveling at how clay figurines can be made to appear alive, right down to blinking eyes and waving hair. The animators have gone great lengths to make silly-looking models move, react and entertain like live actors. And…as in the Pink Panther cartoons, this presentation is made without a single word. Granted, each character has someone doing their voice, but no one has anything more than a grunt, bark or baa to say. When I did my research, I was surprised to learn the casts’ names and their associated voices. None are mentioned in the film except Shaun.

The story? When Shaun was a little sheep (you couldn’t call him a lamb – he’s just a smaller version of the other sheep) the Farmer (Sparkes) loved his flock and they loved him. But as time goes on and Shaun grows up, life on the sheep farm has become humdrum and boring. The Farmer is losing his eyesight but still wakes up, knocks the alarms clock on the floor, uses deodorant, shaves, open the front door – slamming it in Bitzer’s (also Sparkes) face, opens the barn, feeds and shears the sheep, and suddenly the day is over and they go to sleep.

One day, Shaun (Fletcher) sees a city bus stop by the farm with a poster touting, “Take a Day Off!” and he formulates a plan. He gathers Shirley (Webber), Timmy (also Fletcher), Meryl, Timmy’s Mom (Harbour), the Twins (Greenall), Hazel (Tate) and Nuts (Nyman) and they lead the farmer to a field gate where, one by one, they leap the gate (as in counting sheep) and thus put the farmer to sleep in a wheelbarrow. They dress him in his pajamas and roll him to his Caravan trailer and put him to bed. Shaun, being accomplished with chalk, draws a night scene on the window of the trailer so that, should the farmer awaken, he’ll go back to sleep thinking it’s still nighttime. They even put a fake alarm clock on the nightstand near the bed. To keep Bitzer from finding out what they’ve done, they pay the duck six slices of bread to tie a bone to a string and keep it just out of Bitzer’s reach.

Then they take over the house, make sheep-style cocktails, watch television, eat snacks and relax. But Blitzer is not fooled long and he walks in on them with the duck under his arm. There’s a scramble and in the confusion, the log blocking the Caravan comes loose and the trailer rolls downhill toward the big city. Torn over his loyalty to his master and his job, Bitzer chases after the Caravan.

The sheep couldn’t be happier. They head back to the house, but it’s locked. The pigs (who laughed when Shaun was shorn, making him look more like a poodle) have now taken over and are making a sty out of the house. What to do? Shaun finds a photo and cuts the farmer out of the picture, prints the word “Missing” on it (I told you he was clever) as a wanted flyer and decides to take the next bus into the city. After eluding the bus driver and all the passengers he gets to the bus depot, only to see Trumper, the Animal Containment Specialist (fancy name for a dog catcher, but this guy’s obsessed with catching anything not human) – voiced by Djalili – snatch Slip (Hands) a poor orphaned, snaggle-toothed dog and pop him into his wagon.

Shaun is trying to keep out of sight when the next bus pulls in and Timmy waves to him from the window, followed by the rest of the flock! He’s horrified. But they elude Trumper by raiding a second-hand store and dressing up as people. The disguises fool Trumper. He even hands Hazel her purse when she drops it (though it’s obvious her flip-style hairdo is a mop).

Bitzer has followed the Caravan to where it became airborne and stopped suddenly, giving the farmer a hard knock on the head and from there, he follows the ambulance to the hospital. But the hospital will not allow pets and he must sit on the bench outside. But, as soon as a laundry bin rolls by, Bitzer stows away in it, and, once in the hospital, he dons scrubs and a facemask and starts searching for the farmer. He finds him, but to escape security, he backs into the operating room and is mistaken for the chief surgeon. It almost gets scary when he’s handed a scalpel; he sees a teaching skeleton and can’t resist the femur bone (well, he’s a dog, right?)

Meanwhile, the flock is getting hungry. One stops at a green market and downs a few red hot peppers until steam comes out his ears and mouth, and he runs for a fountain (with Hazel on his shoulders) and starts sloppily lapping up water. The effect is hilarious. They eventually find a restaurant and, after a difficult time making themselves appear seated, are given menus. What does a sheep do with a menu? One starts eating it, another starts cutting it with a knife and a fork, until Shaun notices the Celebrity (Paulson) at his table. He copies everything the celebrity does, and so do the other sheep – until the Celebrity burps. Despite Shaun’s flailing motions we hear a prolonged burp from the flock, getting the attention of all the other diners. Still, this doesn’t blow their cover. But Timmy, who up to this moment has been disguised as a backpack, and who is under the table, sees the dessert cart and plunges his head into a layer cake. When Shaun manages to extricate him, the yarn of his sweater gets caught on a hook and unravels as he walks back to the table. Cover blown. Trumper is called in, and Shaun is captured and put in the same cell as Slip.

The Farmer gets tired of being in the hospital and reads his chart, which says “Memory Loss.” He crumples the page and tosses it and leaves the hospital. He wanders around and finds himself at a hairstyling salon and is mistaken for a hairdresser. The Celebrity had just come in and imperiously sat in one of the chairs because his hairdo was seriously askew from the melée at the restaurant. The farmer sees the electric clippers and remembers using a pair to shear sheep. Taking him in a headlock, he gives the Celebrity a poodle cut and, instead of being shocked by it, the Celebrity is delighted. The style becomes an overnight sensation and “Mr. X” is in demand, even to getting his picture on a poster.

The flock tries to break Shaun out of jail (essentially) but choose the wrong window. Shaun uses his skill with chalk to convince Trumper they got the right one by drawing a hole in the wall of his cell. Once Trumper is in the cell, Slip and Shaun are out and they lock Trumper in. Using Slip’s city smarts he leads the flock to a safe place. Bitzer joins up with them and they find the poster, complete with directions and a map. Slip leads them to the location of the salon. But the farmer, now Mr. X, doesn’t remember them. The crumpled paper from the hospital eventually makes it to the safe place and now the flock knows what’s wrong. Shaun devises a plan to get the farmer back to Mossy Bottom. And the real hilarity begins.

Shaun the Sheep is not only a tour de force of stop-action animation; it’s a non-stop fun machine and the height of the art form. It’s difficult enough to make a comedy with dialogue but when you depend on gestures, non-syllabic vocalizations and subtleties (without using pantomime), it’s Herculean. There are laughs in every scene, not just for kids but adults was well, action galore, and beautifully orchestrated pathos. Bring the whole family, except that guy who thinks beaning a cheerleader with basketball is funny. Him you can leave home. Anyone else will love it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

La Palapa
77 Saint Mark’s Place (bet. 2nd and 1st avenues), New York

At one time, the East Village was the funkiest place to be in New York City, the hippest corner of the Big Apple, and Saint Mark’s Place was the soul of groove. It’s still crowded, still selling crazy souvenirs, and still has the tattoo and body-piercing parlors and sidewalk cafés, but you can no longer get a contact high from what’s being smoked, the prices are higher and it’s much more cosmopolitan. It’s no longer an adventure. I miss the old days. But I didn’t come for that side of Saint Mark’s Place (between 3rd and 2nd avenues). I came for the gentrified side one block farther along.

Under a neat white awning with a maroon strip is the Mexican restaurant La Palapa. The front is open to the street in a small café. I entered the front door and turned right to be at the Captain’s Station. The young lady gave me a choice of outside (no), near the extremely active bar (no), or near the back (definitely!). She seated me next to a distinguished, well-spoken gentleman who I learned later was the author of two books and was planning trips to Malta and Stockholm (finally, someone interesting I can talk to).

The décor of the restaurant is simple white stucco, simple archways and a white ceiling with avocado green rectangles to dampen the noise. Intricate Mexican paper designs hang like flags and festoon the overhead area. The bar is full of young people and lit by four swags shaped like dunce caps. Occasional spots provide the rest of the lighting (what there is); rather dark, but intimate.

The server known as “Mair” gave me a glass of water and the food menu, with the specials menu/cocktail list. She then attended to the gentleman next to me, apparently fascinated by his exploits. I had hardly the time to peruse one of the two cards when she asked if I wanted a drink. I chose one of the specials, the Verano Cocktail – Endless Summer Tequila 1800, coconut, Grand Marnier, lime juice and chili-lime spiced rum. It was an interesting twist on a margarita. The Grand Marnier added an orange-y accent and the rum made it spicy, but not hot.

Barbara Sibley, the Chef and Owner of La Palapa, was born and raised in Mexico City and for 14 years has been successfully turning out traditional as well as innovative Mexican dishes at this location. She has published a cookbook and is quite a personality. If I didn’t meet her, both menus I held proved this. I love Mexican food and I was hard-pressed to find three courses without ordering everything on the menu. I decided to keep to the unusual and not revert to my all-time favorites.

Though Mair kept referring to the specials, I had seen too many dishes on the main menu that were intriguing enough. I started with the Sopa de la Casa: Pozole Rojo (Red Stew) – hominy corn and chicken in a thick chile guajillo broth accompanied by avocado, radishes, oregano and fresh lime. This is no small dish. It’s a hefty, square bowl full of tomato-y spicy chicken with a good slice of avocado bathing in it as if it were a hot tub. After tasting the red radishes served separately, I added them to the stew and sprinkled the dried oregano on top. It was excellent and went with the Verano cocktail nicely.

Ever since I attended a house party in Westchester, I’ve been touting the flavor of jicama, and, appropriately I ordered the Jicama Picante – market style crisp jicama seasoned with chile piquin (a hot chili pepper) and queso cotija (a dry, firm cheese with a light salty flavor). Jicama is a sweet root vegetable resembling a turnip and often called the Mexican potato. It tastes more like an apple than anything else, but it’s actually in the bean family and the plant that grows from the root produces pods similar to lima beans. I loved it the first time I tasted it and I loved it simply spiced in this dish. It didn’t matter that this dish arrived before I was finished with the soup because it was served cold. I alternated between the two and finished both.

Noting how soon the appetizer followed the soup, I waited until almost finished with both before ordering the main course and side: the Barbacoa de Cordero al Chile Ancho Estilo Catalina – barbequed lamb shank braised with ancho chilies and avocado leaves, guacamole, black beans and red tomato rice. (Before I get comments, I know what I did. I saw a film about sheep and then dined on lamb. Get over it.) It was served with a plate of tortillas for folding the tender, juicy meat, a little guacamole, and some rice and beans into a delightful finger-food burrito. In the tortilla or out, the lamb was fall-off-the-bone consistency, slightly spicy and delicious. Everything was.

I’ve had Nopalitos before as a side dish but the Nopal Asada – Braised Opuntia (prickly pear cactus pads) with lime – astounded me. The cactus pads were sliced into fans on the plate and grilled to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness – like grilled green peppers should be. I ordered a glass of Pinot Noir to go with it all. I nixed Mair’s suggestion of a rosé wine.

By this time, the author had left and a young couple took his place. Two young ladies sat on my left conversing lively but using the word “like” to extreme excess. Five young men (I dubbed them the Frat Boys) occupied the circular table in front of me.

When I was seated, Mair placed three salsas in small black bowls on the table with three spoons to use to add their flavor to the meal. It shocked me to see one of the Frat Boys taste each salsa using the respective spoons (as if they were soups) and replace the spoons in the bowls. “I hope no one at that table wants salsa,” I told Mair. I stopped observing the boys when one spilled his beer on the other.

Several of the desserts attracted me, especially the Copa de Rosa Carmina – rose petal ice cream parfait with Belgian chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream. But then I got to the end of the dessert menu and saw the Parfait Azteca De Oro – sweet harvest corn ice cream parfait with homemade cajeta (a caramel sauce made from goat cheese) and toasted macadamia nuts. Served in a beautiful stemmed glass, glistening with the golden cajeta, it got the attention of the two girls to my left. “What’s that?” I told them. “Ew, is that the one with goat cheese?” I told them they would not be able to tell it was there and that I love macadamia nuts. But they ordered the brownies and chocolate cream. Their loss.

I didn’t have to tell Mair about wanting a double espresso. She knew. And after asking her to retrieve the tequila list, I chose the Sauza Trés Generaciones Tequila Añejo as an appropriate after dinner drink. Lovely.

The couple to my right was now a trio and one girl was dredging the guacamole with a taco chip and then reaching across the whole table to dip it into one of the salsas. I stopped looking that way too.

La Palapa is a restaurant worthy of a return visit, maybe several, because it will always be new – there’s that much variety. I even considered asking a friend who lives in the neighborhood to join me. It’s also only the third Mexican restaurant of my 118 to serve Crepas de Huitlacoche (pronounced “Wit-Lah-Coat-Chay”), a corn mushroom folded into crepes with poblano crema and baked with queso chihuahua. Seeing this dish brought back fond memories of Helene when we dined at the now closed (boo-hoo) Zarela on the Upper East Side.

What’s huitlacoche?” “I don’t know, but I’m ordering it anyway.” “What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. Try it.” Neither of us could identify the tasty fungus that is huitlacoche. I’m going back just for that. Oh, and the manager explained that a “Palapa” is one of those umbrellas you see on the Yucatan coast that are made out of palm fronds. No wonder my Spanish friends couldn’t translate it.

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