Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Forest

Dinner and a Movie

Wild Game Festival in the Forest

By Steve Herte

Fitting in plans for my Dinner and aMovie was actually challenging. The restaurant doesn’t accept reservations except for large parties and I wanted to ensure I had a table. That meant finding a movie under two hours long nearby. The restaurant is in Brooklyn Heights. Whoops! The nearest theater, the Heights Theater is closed. I ended up at the Court Street megaplex, which I dread because most of the others there talk to and shout at the movie.

I chose a horror flick mainly because I thought everyone would be at the new Leonardo Di Caprio Western. Bad guess. This was opening night and the theater was almost full. As the movie progressed, the girl on my right was gradually creeping into my arms in fright. Normally this would be OK, but I was actually interested in seeing where the movie was going. Yes, people talked to the screen, but the movie deserved it. The whole experience was comparable to a night with Mystery Science Theater 3000. Some comments were very funny.

I’ll still be cautious when going there. Enjoy.

The Forest (Gramercy Pictures, 2016) – Director: Jason Zada. Writers: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, & Ben Keetal. Stars: Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Osamu Tanpopo, Yasuo Tobishima, Ibuki Kaneda, Akiko Iwase, Kikuo Ichikawa, Noriko Sakuura, James Owen, Jozef Aoki, Yuho Yamashita, Taylor Kinney, Gen Sato, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Terry Diab, & Nadja Mazalica. Color, Rated PG-13, 95 minutes.

Let’s hide in the basement! No, let’s hide in the attic! Why don’t we just drive away in the running car! Are you crazy? Let’s hide behind the chainsaws! – Face it. When you’re the star of a horror movie, you make bad choices.” No truer words were ever written into a commercial. Remember Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th? All the characters that ended up dead in those movies made incredibly bad decisions. Worst one of all was venturing alone into a potentially dangerous place.

Sara Price (Dormer) is the practical sister who is always bailing out her twin, Jess (also Dormer) when she gets into trouble. But now, Jess has gone to Japan and Sara has nightmares of her running through a forest screaming for help. She and Jess both admit to “feeling” or “sensing” what the other is experiencing and Sara is so troubled by what she’s perceiving, she decides to travel to Tokyo to find her sister. Even her fiancé Peter (Owen) cannot dissuade her from going.

Sara learns that Jess was seen entering Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, a place known for the many suicides committed there and where the sick and disabled were left to die in olden times. Everyone she speaks to about it is horrified at the thought of her going there and a young schoolgirl named Mei (Kaneda) shrinks from her because she thinks she’s a ghost. Mei has met her sister previously.

Nevertheless, Sara takes the train to the gloomy, out of the way station and has to walk to her hotel. Along the way she stops at a Visitor Center/Morgue and asks the woman who answers the door if she has seen her sister. “Oh yes!” says Mayumi (Sakura). “We have her!” Shocked, Sara follows her (reluctantly) into the basement where three sheet-covered bodies lie on metal tables. Mayumi indicates the one that might be Jess, but is called away by business. Whoops! One of the bodies looks like it’s breathing. Sara edges toward it slowly until she can pull back the sheet covering it. It’s horrifically decayed, the audience screams, but it’s not Jess.

Again, she’s warned not to enter Aokigahara and, if she does, should not stray from the path. She pooh-poohs it as superstition and heads for her hotel, a two-story affair with a bar downstairs, faulty fluorescent lighting and traditional paper walls. After a scare in the hallway, Sara retreats to the bar where she meets Aidan (Kinney), a reporter from Australia who is obviously interested in her. He echoes all the warnings she’s received so far but eventually admits that he accompanies a guide named Michi (Ozawa) on his suicide watch forays into the forest. If they find a body, they note the location and inform the authorities.

On their first trip into Aokigahara, they find a yellow tent belonging to Jess. Sara is overjoyed, because she was told that if someone sets up a tent, they are not serious about suicide (we learn later that Jess has attempted suicide twice before – both with pills, thinking it romantic). She insists on staying at the tent to wait for her sister to return. Michi is horrified. Aidan agrees to stay with her. Michi thinks he’s crazy. And the fun begins. Aokigahara is brooding by day and sinister by night. Something tries to grab Sara through the tent surface and causes her to venture out into the night. She sees the schoolgirl Mei again and chases her through the forest. Remember, this is the practical sister. Fortunately, Aidan finds her and brings her back to the tent.

In the morning, they decide to return to the hotel and use the river as their guide. Sara sees a body floating down the river. Aidan warns her not to get too close to the edge and leads her back the way they came. When she protests, he explains that they are following the river. She looks again at the river and it has changed course.

Although warned not to believe anything bad she sees in the forest, Sara believes she can hear Jess’ voice and is tricked into stabbing and killing Aidan in a dingy shack they find in the forest. Throughout the film, we see misshapen and monstrous beings at a distance that zoom up close in an instant. Sara demonstrates her loss of practicality when she falls into an underground cave, sees Mei again, and follows her into the darkness. Seriously, would you do that? I wouldn’t.

Overall, The Forest is an amalgam of a Guillermo Del Toro film and Blair Witch Trials complete with a hand-held camera filming Sara running through the trees and bouncing all over the place. Instead of creepy little wooden stick creations hanging like kindergarten dream catchers everywhere, there are colorful tapes and ropes strung up in the forest, supposedly put there by people who wanted to find their way out and not get lost.

Natalie Dormer plays her part so well you believe she’s gone totally out of her mind with concern for her sister, who, though played by her, just barely looks like her twin. Taylor Kinney is good, but he’s just along for the ride. Ibuki Kaneda however, is scary. She can look innocent and frightened in one moment, vulpine and predatory the next: The best performance in the movie.

Surprisingly, for a horror/thriller there is a minimum of blood, but the gross-out effect is used profusely. Parents, be advised. There were children in the audience, but it was the adults who were screaming. It was the second most crowded theater I’ve been to since Star Wars last month. If sending chills up your spine was the goal of this film, it accomplished that several times. But the bad decision-making of the main character got to be so tiresome and predictable that the audience applauded when hands reached up from the ground and pulled her under.

And what of Jess? Spoiler alert: She survives the ordeal and is returned to her husband, Rob (Macken). To quote the woman sitting next to me: “This is the stupidest film of all time!”

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Henry’s End
44 Henry St. (between Cranberry and Middagh)Brooklyn, NY

Aside from the New York Aquarium (not scheduled to be fully recovered from Super-storm Sandy until 2017), Henry’s End is the main reason for my repeat visits to Brooklyn. Starting the new dining year there has become a tradition. Admittedly, it doesn’t look like that much on the outside – a simple brick and block-glass façade facing the street with the name in hot pink neon in the window. In fact, it has all the appearance of a small bar. Inside, it’s more gentrified. Once you make it past the velvet curtain over the second door (to keep the warm in and the cold out), all is welcoming. Owner/Chef Marc Lahm will greet you himself, as he did when I appeared at the door.

Some say it’s cramped – there’s barely room for the staff to fit between the two rows of tables going length-wise to the window in back (my favorite table). But I would say it’s just right. The regular customers are sophisticated, but lively, both young and mature, Brooklynites and out-of-towners. The air is always full of enticing aromas from the open kitchen and interesting conversations. I’ve learned to ignore the décor (or lack of it) and have stopped bugging Marc about the tri-color ceiling tiles. The atmosphere has a cozy, lived-in look that instantly calms you as if you’ve just walked into your own front door after a long and tedious trip.

I was full of anticipation this year and had my tastes set for a particular dish. I asked Marc if there was room for one more hungry person and he indicated that my favorite table was waiting. We wended our way back and I got settled, thanking Helene for introducing me to this place. Soon my server, Megan, arrived and asked if I wanted a drink. Usually, I don’t have to describe my martini, because Marc automatically asks and makes the perfect one. But Megan is new and I gave her my preference, assuring her that Marc knows how.

The menu has changed a little since the last time I visited. The usual dishes were in their usual places but the font is simpler, larger and more readable. There are Small Plates, Pastas, Fish Dishes, Chicken Dishes, Duckling Dishes (these are all spectacular for a first-time visit), Veal dishes, Lamb & Beef Dishes, a Prix Fixe menu for tables of more than one, and my favorite, the Wild Game Festival. This year is their 31st Annual Game Festival.

You can imagine my delight when I saw listed the dish I came for; one I had not seen for years. I made my decisions and told Megan what I had chosen. I mentioned my ample time and slow eating habits and she understood (and ensured that no dish arrived with the next). Another server brought the breadbasket containing crusty sourdough as well as a date-nut bread and sesame seeded bread sticks, along with a ramekin of fresh butter.

The first course was a hearty New Orleans turtle soup. Megan served it – as usual, with a bottle of sherry (actually it was an Amontillado, Carlos VII from Pedro Ximenez winery, Spain) – for enhancing the flavor. The mildly spicy soup with finely chopped turtle meat and vegetables was a rich reddish-brown and accepted the sherry I poured into it. I’ve never met a person who’s tasted this soup and wasn’t amazed.

Next was a relatively new dish, the ostrich potstickers – light, tasty dumplings filled with ground ostrich meat, garnished with Asian vegetables and served with a soy dipping sauce. (I discovered ostrich meat in Baltimore and have loved it ever since.) Some call it “the other red meat,” fantastic in this reinvention of Chinese dumplings.

The main course was one I would have asked about if it had not been on the menu: Danish venison stew. My photo does not do this dish justice. The tender cubes of venison in their dark, almost black, sweet and savory sauce were a delight to eat one by one, to make the dish last longer. The garnish in this case is dill-mashed potatoes; one of very few ways I like mashed potatoes. As with the turtle soup, I used the bread to make sure every speck of this dish was finished. Oh, and there was a side dish, spinach with garlic, simply done and simply marvelous.

Henry’s End is a great place to drink wines by the glass. Marc is a master of fine wines and there’s always one you’ll love. I tried the Chateau Gelineau Bordeaux with the turtle soup and switched to the Turley “Juvenile” Zinfandel for the venison stew. Both were excellent reds.

My appetite (believe it or not) was still there for dessert. Again, it’s been a long time since I had Henry’s End’s mudpie, a blend of coffee and chocolate ice cream laced with Kahlua and espresso on an Oreo cookie crust and topped with hot fudge espresso sauce. If it sounds decadent, it is! I don’t have ice cream that often for dessert but this one I enjoyed every bite. Gilding the lily a bit with a cup of espresso was not beyond my hedonistic tendency.

On the way out, I thanked Marc for everything and remarked how reliably great all the food is. We shared sentiments over the closing of City Hall restaurant in Manhattan and I told him of the photo we took with Chef Meer. He also regarded it as the end of an era. I thanked him again and headed for home happy and satisfied.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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