Friday, June 17, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Warcraft (Universal, 2016) – Director: Duncan Jones. Writers: Duncan Jones, Charles Levitt (s/p), Chris Metzen (story & characters). Stars: Travis Flimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Nega, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkeley Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Michael Adamthwaite, & Dean Redman. Color, 3D, PG-13, 123 minutes.

It seems more and more movies are coming out inspired by video games. Some really do not need to be made. This movie is one of them.

The problem with making a movie based on a video game is that of translation: will those who have not played the game be able to understand what is going on? Unfortunately, in this case, no. The film comes off as a sort of Tolkien-Lite (with a little Star Wars mythology added along the way), stealing his concept of Orcs, which are described as larger than goblins, hideous, warlike and not very bright. They are led by as spiky green shaman named Gul’dan (Wu), who wields a magical power known as “the fel,” which has the ability to drain or instill the life force within its victim. Because their world has been destroyed by some form of apocalypse, Gul’dan has opened a portal for his warriors to run through, beginning a war with a world called Azeroth, home to humans, elves, dwarves, and much more, though in this movie we’re mainly introduced to the humans.

Along the way, Gul’dan is busy subjugating other Orc clans to his will, such as the Winter Wolf Clan, led by Durotan (Kebbell) and his mate Drakka (Galvin). They are quick to figure out that Gul’dan is not only the cause of the devastation of Draenor, their homeland, but that the magic power he wields, “the Fel,” is evil. Later they will join the forces of Azeroth in opposing the evil warlord. 

The human kingdoms in Azeroth are led by King Llane Wrynn (Cooper), his faithful warrior sidekick, Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), and the Guardian Magna Medivh (Foster). When Lothar learns of the Orc invasion, he along with the Dwarf King Magni Bronzebeard (Adamthwaite) urge King Wrynn to summon Medivh to stem the threat.  After a quick flight to Karazhan, Medivh is enlisted and brought to Azeroth, Llane is convinced and a scouting party is formed.

The scouting party is beset by orcs and saved though the magic of Khadgar (Schnetzer), a wizard who abandoned his monk-like order. They capture a half-breed orc/human named Garona (Patton). Knowing Gul’dan is evil, she convinces Lothar and Llane to meet with Durotan to join forces against Gul’dan. But working against them is the fact that Medivh has been perverted by the fel and is working for the orcs. As the movie continued, I had the feeling that the plot was not headed for a resolution so much as a sequel.

The problem with Warcraft, as mentioned above, is that it’s directed to those who are serious and frequent players of the video game. Director Duncan Jones – son of the late, great David Bowie – who previously made the excellent Moon and Source Code, is better as director than co-writer, as the battle sequences are far more accomplished than any of the scenes in which characters stand around spouting various inanities concerning the fel.

Like so much of the fantasy jargon employed in the film, there’s absolutely no wider explanation of what it is or how it works; it’s just assumed that the audience should understand what’s going on. The film’s characters spout monologues about the “Guardian of Tirisfal” or the rules of ancient orcish battle rituals. The result is that things quickly become hopelessly muddled, and it’s impossible to keep track of what’s going on.  

One of the most annoying irritating aspects the film to me was that it plunged me right into its plot without a concern for those, like me, who have never played the game. The characters just begin talking about even more creatures I haven’t yet met. A good movies gives out its information carefully, trusting that those who don’t quite get what’s going on will be able to catch up without too much time having passed. Warcraft feels like it should be accompanied by a guide explaining what it’s all about.

Unlike Tolkien and unlike other fantasies, this video game adaptation has veritably no comic relief. We yearn for a wisecracking character like Han Solo to relieve the tension and the seriousness. The lightest moment in the movie is when Lothar is holding Durotan’s head by the hair with a short sword to his neck, threatening to kill him if his mount, an enormous, snarling white wolf, does not back off. It does, and Lothar says, “Too bad. It would have made a nice coat.” Other than that, there is no lessening of the direness of the situation.

On the good side, though there is gratuitous violence throughout, the gore factor is at a minimum, even when heads are crushed or removed. Parents, judge accordingly. The 3D effects are excellent and the action scenes are not dizzying. But seriously, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team would have a field day with this film. The fact that the orcs’ hands were twice the size of their heads made me think of Wreck-It Ralph. At one point, the plot turns Biblical when Drakka, seeing no other option, commits her child to the river in a basket. (I’ll bet he’s renamed “Moses” or something similar.) Yes, there will be a sequel. Sure, why not? Hollywood has no new ideas and there are five chapters to the original sequence of Warcraft games.  

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

438 Greenwich St., New York

Located along a lonely stretch of Greenwich Street, two blocks from Canal, is Azabu. The restaurant is one step up from the sidewalk, identified only by a white sign with its name. A sign on the door reads, “Open the green door to the left.” There are three. I tried two wrong ones until I found the correct one. 

Once inside, it’s a golden, simply decorated place with seven butcher-block tables on one wall and an eight-seat sushi bar on the other. Behind the sushi bar were two chefs busily working in front of a lighted, smoky lucite panel whose only decoration was a pictograph of a carp/catfish. The faux bamboo ceiling added to the Zen atmosphere. 

I was cheerily greeted by Su, whom I had spoken to on the phone confirming my arrival. She directed me to one of the only two open tables and I sat on the cushioned banquette facing the sushi bar.

Looking over the menu I noticed that, contrary to the information I gleaned online, the restaurant does not serve cocktails. Su explained that since they “lost” (she didn’t elaborate) the upper floor (meaning the ground level) they had to simplify their menu as well as eliminate the more complex cocktails. She recommended the sake, of which there were at least nine varieties. With her help, I chose one that turned out to be very nice; understated, but promising not to interfere with the flavors to come, and at the same time having potency.

Again with Su’s help, I was able to chart out a three-course meal that began with Wagyu Tataki (seared Wagyu beef with onions and a soy dipping sauce). For those not familiar with Wagyu, it’s as excellent and succulent as Kobe beef but with more marbling and more flavor. The bite-sized pieces of meat were served on a bed of thinly sliced white onions resting on a banana leaf in the long narrow opalescent platter. It’s a good thing chopsticks force you to eat slowly. I could easily have finished this dish in a minute.

Next came a six-piece sushi platter, consisting of O-Toro, the much-prized bright red fatty tuna (delightful and sweet), Kohadaa (Gizzard Shad, which was salty, not as sweet as the tuna, and a little denser in texture), Awabi (Abalone, which I first had at Foxwoods; once you try it you’ll be hooked.), and two Uni (Sea Urchin) from two areas of Hokkaido (believe it or not, there was a difference in flavor, with one being slightly sweeter than the other.) Last on the plate was Anago (Conger Eel), the only sushi served marinated in soy sauce. I love eel any way you prepare it and this was no exception.

I would like to call the next dish my main course from the way Su described it: Grilled King Crab with crab butter. Prying the crab meat loose with chopsticks was relatively easy. But calling the heavenly dressing simply “crab butter” was insulting to the herbal, rich flavor I received from this remarkable topping. The crab meat was perfect and tender and the whole experience was transporting.

I was still hungry, so I had Su bring back the menu (I believe she took it when we thought I was through ordering). I chose the Shiso Kanpachi Roll, a California style roll (rice on the outside). Six pieces were served on a shiny oval plate rimmed in gold and were comprised of Yellowtail, pickled radish and shiso leaf (a fragrant member of the mint family). Topping each piece with a dab of wasabi (hot Japanese horseradish) I alternated between sushi and slices of ginger and sips of sake. Very good. 

I asked Su about dessert and she cited various ice creams, sorbets and gelatos. I chose a combination of green tea and strawberry ice cream. Green tea, like red bean ice cream, is an acquired taste and I acquired it a long time ago. Such intense tea flavor! It outclassed the strawberry (usually my favorite) by a long shot and I told Su. No, they don’t make their desserts on site, they get them from a distributor who is very particular about the flavors.

Su’s only faux-pas was assuming I was finished then. She brought the check. There was no indication of any hot tea on the menu – odd for a Japanese restaurant. I had her bring back the drinks menu because I remembered “flavored sakes” as a category. I chose a glass of spicy plum flavored sake, thinking “how in the world could plum wine be spicy?” It was. The pinkish-orange beverage in the tall thin stemmed glass had a nice spicy kick to it.

Azabu may be in a lonely spot, they may have “lost” their ground floor, but it’s a gem to be found. A little on the expensive side, but when you consider that the fish is flown in fresh from Japan daily and the expertise of the staff, it’s worth it.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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