Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Gods of Egypt

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Gods of Egypt (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Alex Proyas. Writers: Matt Sazama Burk SharplessStars: Brenton Thwaites, John Samaha, Courtney Eaton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Paula Arundell, Alia Seror-O’Neill, Emily Wheaton, Elodie Yung, Rachael Blake, Bryan Brown, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Emma Booth, Felix Williamson, Chadwick Boseman, Gerard Butler, Rufus Sewell, Kenneth Ransom, & Nathyn Bolton. Color and in 3D, Rated PG-13, 127 minutes.

In a spectacular opening, the audience is soaring over mountains, fields and the river Nile until we come to a city dominated by a colossal gold statue (presumably of Ra) while a narrator explains. “The gods of Egypt so loved their worshipers that they lived among them. The gods were taller (much taller) and could transform into animal shapes.” Osiris (Brown) (king of the gods and Egypt) is preparing for a celebration. He will be handing his crown and his rule over to his son Horus (Coster-Waldau). Horus, meanwhile thinks very little of this honor and even less of his ardent adorers.

The narrator turns out to be Bek (Thwaites), a young mortal thief deeply in love with Zaya (Eaton), a pretty, but poor mortal girl. He knows she’s preparing for the coronation and swipes a bejeweled gown for her to wear to it. Together, they head for the temple along with hundreds of other people bearing gifts for the gods.

At the temple, a stage has been set and the gods and goddesses are being announced as they arrive, comparable to a Hollywood premiere, except that I couldn’t understand a single word the barker was saying (the background noise was too loud). Osiris steps forward and calls Horus to his side. But just before the crown is to be bestowed, Set (Butler), brother to Osiris, finally arrives. Set has spent his entire life in the desert while Osiris was living a life of luxury (one can understand why he might be bitter). Set presents Horus with a hunting horn made from a special ram and invites him to try it out.

Foolishly, the vain Horus does and it summons Set’s mortal troops, a seemingly endless line of red-clad, spear-toting soldiers who storm through the center of the crowd like a river of blood, eventually surrounding them. They then turn to the people and threaten them with their weaponry. Osiris is outraged. Set kills him with one spear thrust and then has to do battle with Horus. This fight literally brings the house down as the two transform into their golden animal forms – Horus the falcon versus the unknown animal hybrid. Onstage, Nephthys (Booth), Set’s winged sister, protects Isis (Blake) and Hathor (Yung) with her outspread wings.

Set wins the battle and steals Horus’ “all-seeing” eyes, blinding him. Horus goes into hiding in the desert and Set takes over the kingdom of Egypt, enslaving the entire populace and forcing them to build an enormous tower to Ra. Zaya is fortunate enough to be enlisted as the maid servant to the Master Builder Urshu (Sewell) and we see how indelicate he can be when a gust of wind blows his papyrus scrolls from his desk and she has to pick them up while being berated for not closing a shutter.

Bek however, has eluded capture and enslavement and visits his love unseen. He has her take him to the library, where he learns the location of Horus’ eyes (of course, not in the same place) and he travels to Set’s treasure room, braving the three death-trap bridges to secure one of them. But when he returns to Zaya, he finds that Urshu knows where he went, what scrolls were out of place, and demands their return. Bek hands him a small trinket but then pulls out the Eye of Horus, temporarily blinding all in the room, and escapes with Zaya in a chariot (conveniently parked outside) drawn by two white horses.

But Bek doesn’t consider Urshu’s skill with bow and arrow. Urshu kills Zaya before they leave the city. When he arrives at Horus’ hideout, he makes a deal with the blind god to bring Zaya back from the dead for the return of his eyes. Horus agrees, knowing this is something he cannot do.

Set’s delight at his ridiculously tall – 2,220 cubits/3,330 feet (the Dubai Tower is only 2,722 feet tall) – monument to Ra pales at his anger at a mortal who successfully thwarted the traps set by his Master Builder in his treasure room. He’s also not happy learning that Horus is no longer blind and in prison.

Horus and Bek climb another impossibly high mountain to a shrine to Ra that looks strangely like a child’s version of a Stargate. Horus implores Ra to grant him the power to transform (taken away, we assume by the loss of his eyes and not returned by regaining one) and Ra allows the two to travel to his celestial chariot. But Ra is too busy fighting Apophis (God of snakes, war and chaos), who manifests himself as a colossal dust storm with several rounds of sharp teeth in a gaping mouth. Without direct help from Ra, Horus scoops up a vial of the Heavenly river with which to put Set’s “fire” and therefore defeat him.

Shortly after crashing to the ground back in Egypt, Bek and Horus are beset by minions of Set led by Khnum a ram-headed god and Set’s guard (voiced by Bolton). Bek is thrown off another impossibly high cliff and Horus plunges after him, breaking their fall with his spear between two upright columns of stone. I had no idea Egypt had so many high places that remind me of a Road Runner/Coyote cartoon.

Meanwhile, Hathor, the goddess of love, tries to conjure up a dust-devil crystal ball to find Horus’s location. Set catches her but she uses her bracelet of 42 stars to transport to the underworld and out of his reach before he can kill her. She pops back into the mortal world to warn Horus about the sphinx at Set’s shrine. The three head for the secret palace of Thoth (Boseman), god of wisdom, who seems to be more interested in singing the praises of a head of cabbage than helping to save the world. But Bek uses his vanity to trick Thoth into accompanying them to Set’s shrine to get Horus’ other eye.

At the pyramid shrine, there are more traps, including the gigantic, lumbering sphinx (Ransom), whose riddle has be answered or you die. (And…it’s not the easy one Oedipus had to solve.) They manage to get it right after two incorrect answers and two violent reactions when Bek tells them to stop thinking like gods. Unfortunately, when they get to Set’s fire, Horus and Hathor are imprisoned in a trap, Set appears and steals Thoth’s brain and stops Bek from pouring the heavenly water by revealing Horus’ lie about being able to bring Zaya back. Set brings the house down once again, and collapses the entire pyramid on them, but Horus saves everyone with a huge circular stone as an umbrella.

Feeling the love Bek has for Zaya, Hathor lets him talk to her once more through one of her dust-devils, but Anubis cuts them off: “It is forbidden for the dead to speak to the living.” Zaya is almost at the eighth gate of the underworld where she will be judged and she has nothing to offer as a price. (In true Egyptian mythology, her heart has to be weighed against a feather and come off lighter to gain the afterlife.) Hathor summons Anubis, gives Bek her bracelet, and is captured by the demons it wards off. Bek accompanies Anubis to the underworld.

Set was surprised at the killing of four of his best soldiers and the wounding of his guard but remains undeterred. He continues with his plan as he viciously cuts off the wings from Nephthys and has them attached to his back, has the brain of Thoth installed in his head, and the remaining Eye of Horus plugged into his forehead like Bindi. He then can fly to Ra for his approval to rule all of Egypt and the Underworld. But Ra wants him to take his place fighting Apophis. No, he doesn’t want that. He battles Ra, stabs him with his spear and casts him into the heavenly waters.

Taking Ra’s sun spear, Set calls down Apophis to engorge himself with the Nile and spread chaos. In the Underworld, Zaya and Bek are reunited, but she’s insubstantial and suddenly chaos breaks out there as well and Anubis does his best to hold it off. How can Set, the super-god, be stopped? Rely on Bek.

In the golden age of movies, this film would have merited the headlines, “Colossal,” “Grander than Grand,” and “Cast of Thousands!” But today, we know most of those people are CGI, as are the huge sets. I was impressed that the sphinx had more than one riddle. I loved the effect of the human-looking gods transforming into their animal forms and was amazed at the lack of gore considering the violence (the gods bleed gold).

Gods of Egypt is a fanciful version of Egyptian mythology and has many parallels to the writings in The Book of the Dead. But it has one real problem: According to legend, when Set killed Osiris, he cut him up into 42 pieces (the number of provinces in Egypt) and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis searched for the pieces and reassembled them. Then, in the form of a bird, she copulated with the complete Osiris and gave birth to Horus. So Horus could not have been present at the killing of Osiris. Oh well. But this is the movies, where details are adjusted for plot enhancements.

There is plenty of action in the film, though at times it became dizzying (the flight scenes in particular). The dialogue was occasionally clever and funny, though most times it was trite and often incomprehensible. The big draw here are the special effects, but even in this category the makers didn’t pull out all the stops. All the major gods transform except Thoth! I wanted to see the Ibis-headed god, not just a self-centered effeminate know-it-all. I actually didn’t want to see Hathor transform into a cow-headed thing though and they didn’t do that either.

Agreed, Egyptian mythology is complex with many illicit relationships (which are not mentioned, thank the gods), but there was more to do in this movie. I enjoyed and marveled at what was there, but given a $140,000,000 budget, I expected more.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

102 Lexington Ave., New York

When you’ve dined at over 140 Indian restaurants, you’d better keep a database if you want to keep visiting new ones. I really had to make sure. The picture on Opentable.com didn’t look familiar and the name was almost, but not quite, like another. I checked my list. The area around Murray Hill and into Kip’s Bay is a second enclave of Indian restaurants in Manhattan. (The first is 6th Street in the East Village.)

Haldi’s menu variety was perfect for a Friday in Lent, with lots of vegetable dishes and different seafood recipes. As I approached 27th Street, I saw a place called Haandi and momentarily thought I had misread the name. But, across Lexington Avenue, was Haldi with its name in big, yellow, Broadway style lights. 

I entered and found myself in a small bar section where there were about five tiny tables for two and one occupied by a jolly, smiling Indian gentleman who greeted me. A little farther and two servers met me. I announced my reservation and one led me to a table in the main dining area right in the middle of one wall. I sat on the green, brown and beige banquette and faced the wall-sized mirror. I looked up at the chandeliers (made of green glass bottles) surrounding a globe-shaped bulb and the bronze woks attached decoratively to the ceiling. The effect was amazing. The 15-table room looked much bigger than it actually was.

My server, Sarin, brought me the menu and the wine list on two separate cards. He brought a bottle of tap water, poured me a glass and left me to consider. The food menu had many choices I’ve never seen before and imaginative categories: Starters, Hemant Mathur’s (the Chef) Famous Kebabs, Biryani, Spicy Club, Celebrating Calcutta, Traditional Favorites, Lamb and Goat, Seafood, Vegan, Vegetarian, Breads, Sides, Desserts. I tried to choose exotic. It was easy.

When Sarin returned, I ordered an interesting cocktail, the Kamasutra – vodka, gin and rum blended with mango and fresh strawberries – served in a stemmed, margarita-style glass. It was sweet, fruity with a slight kick. Very nice.

My “starter” arrived soon after. The jhal nuri – tossed puffed rice, cucumber, peanuts, and lime topped with shredded coconut – was delightful, a house specialty. Using a spoon I tried to get every layer of ingredients from this beautifully formed dish. It was crunchy, slightly spicy, aromatic and very filling. I ate cautiously and eventually decided to only eat half, knowing what was coming.

The second course arrived before I was halfway through the first dish, but there was no problem. The jhal muri was not a hot dish, only room temperature, and I set it aside. The tandoor bharwan was described as paneer (cheese) stuffed potatoes but it was so much more. Also a house specialty, the hollowed-out potatoes were filled with crumbled yellow home-made cottage cheese and topped with sharp red onion slices and a lemon wedge for a little citrus zing. It was hot in temperature and I figured it would not be so good if it got cold.

The wine arrived with the tandoor bharwan. Frankly, I was surprised at there being two Greek red wines on the list for an Indian restaurant. I chose the 2012 Eurynome Blend Xinomavro/Negoska Greek red wine named after an ancient Greek goddess from the creation myth. (Eurynome split sky from sea and danced on the waters giving birth to the elemental entirety of Earth uniting wisdom and divinity.) It was a perfect accompaniment, not too tannic, medium bodied, and a lovely accent to the spices.

Sarin noticed that half of my first dish was still there and asked if he could bring the main course. I told him to bring it, I could always nibble. Meanwhile, two gentlemen were seated to my right and one was enjoying the papadum to an extreme, sounding like a chipmunk with a cracker. (A lot of little crunches.) I gave him the remaining half of mine and he was very grateful.

Beside the fact that it was a seafood dish, I chose the goan balchao – shrimp in a creamy sauce with coconut, jaggery (a sugar made from the date palm tree) and vinegar – because it was a Goan dish. Goan cuisine is a rare find on Indian menus because of the level of spice. But I was in for a surprise. The tender shrimp in the pumpkin-colored sauce was delicious and only mildly spicy. It was excellent over the basmati rice with the splendid garlic nan bread. The manager came to my table and asked how it was. I told him how wonderful it tasted… “But you were expecting more spice.” “Yes, it is a dish from Goa.” He went on to explain that they purposely tone down the spices for American tastes. I told him that if they had asked me about the level of spice, I would have requested that the dish be made authentically, not changed in any way.

Packing the remainder of the rice and the first course to go, I was ready for dessert. There were only three on the menu. One I’ve had in almost every Indian restaurant I’ve enjoyed. I chose the rasmalai this time – flattened cheese balls in cream with nuts. It’s a simple dessert but very nice and light. This, with a cup of hot masala chai (spiced tea) ended my feast in the place whose name means turmeric in Hindi.

Haldi surprised me in several ways. The photo on the website showed simple, bare-topped tables and chairs in shades of green and yellow. What I saw was neat white tablecloths and butcher’s paper on all the tables. It added a touch of class to an informal dining room. Not all Indian restaurants have interesting cocktails. This one does. And then there’s the food menu with all those choices. I would return just to celebrate Calcutta. Haldi is only four months old but it makes quite an impression.

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