Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Mower Minions (Universal, 2016) – Director: Glenn McCoy. Animated. Color, Rated G, 4 minutes.

What do the minions do when they are not serving Gru or searching for Scarlet Overkill? Simple: they’re watching TV and thinking about bananas. 

And that’s what they’re doing in this hilarious four-minute short after they see an infomercial touting a miracle blender full of bananas for $24. 

They quickly get out the piggy bank. One puts several sticks of dynamite on it, while another simply smashes it. A single quarter is inside. What to do?  

They see children outside getting money for mowing lawns and an idea is formed. Pulling the pin from the trailer attached to a professional landscaping outfit’s truck, they have all the tools they need and head for a retirement home. Though the people can’t understand their wacky language and one elderly gentleman is just as incomprehensible, they get the job using a sign indicating $24 and pointing. The rest is pure insanity.

One uses a leaf blower to annoy another, one steps in dog poop while another in a hazmat suit places it in a paper bag. Another has a staring contest with a lawn gnome – and wins when the gnomes head explodes – and is so excited he needs to breathe into a paper bag (you guessed it, the one with the poop). The work really doesn’t get done, but the people are so grateful for the gales of laughter they pay them with a jar filled with 24,000 “shiny pennies.”

I loved the minions since I first saw them in Despicable Me and I still find them very funny. This is an excellent short that had me chuckling minutes into the main feature. Well done, Universal!

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Secret Life of Pets (Universal, 2016) – Directors: Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud. Writers: Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch & Cinco Paul. Stars: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Tara Strong, Sandra Echeverría, & Jaime Camil. Animated, 3D, Color, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

I was talking with a friend about seeing this film when he noted that his son didn’t want to see it for a most unusual (and partly correct) reason. He didn’t want to see another movie where the main character gets lost and all of his friends must go searching for him, a plot of many past movies. Yes, that’s almost it. But unlike Dory or Nemo, Max (Louis C.K.) does not become lost by his own fault.

Max is Katie’s (Kemper) little brown and white dog and he has a good life, that is until Katie has to go to work. His lifestyle is upset when Katie comes home from the dog pound and brings Duke (Stonestreet), a big, long-haired mongrel, to be his big brother. Duke uses his size to lord it over Max, but when Duke smashes a vase, Max uses a doggy form of blackmail to control Duke.

While on a dog-walk with Duke and eight other dogs, they arrive at the dog park and the young man, more interested in girls than the dogs, neglects to detach Max’s leash. Duke sees a way out of the dog park, grabs Max’s leash and runs off with him. The two wind up in an alley presided over by Ozone (Coogan), a mangy hairless Sphinx cat who, with an army of other cats, remove both of their dog collars. They escape, but are caught by the dog catchers and are headed for the pound.

Max doesn’t know he has a girlfriend in Gidget (Slate), a fluffy white Pomeranian living one story up in the next building. Unlike the dog-walker, she notices that Max is missing when his pals Buddy the Dachshund (Buress) and Mel the Pug (Moynihan) come home without him. Inspired by the soap opera she’s watching where Fernando (Jaime Camil) tells Maria (Echeveria) that she must find her true love, she climbs to the roof of her building to look for Max. But then she realizes just how big New York City is when she stands on the ledge. She hears a voice behind her coming from a creepy shed on the roof (which she acknowledges as creepy), and meets Tiberius the Red-tailed Hawk (Brooks), who is more interested in her as food than as a friend. But she manages to make a deal with him to find Max in return for freeing him from his chain.

Meanwhile, in the dog-catchers’ truck, Max and Duke see a ferocious bulldog and are stunned when the truck is ambushed by Snowball the Rabbit (Hart), who is coming to free the bulldog. Snowball chews a key out of a carrot and opens the cage and is about to leave when Duke and Max convince him that they killed their owners and thus, deserve to join his “gang.” This gang consists of every pet that was abandoned or flushed by their owners and includes alligators, snakes, spiders, as well as dogs and cats, and Tattoo the Pig (Beattie).

Tiberius brings Ozone to Gidget and her interrogation methods force Ozone to direct her to the sewer. She rounds up Buddy, Mel, Chloe the obese and apathetic Tabby Cat (Bell), Norman the Guinea Pig (Renaud), who, by the way, keeps getting lost trying to find his apartment, and Sweet Pea (Strong), a parakeet who like video games involving fighter planes. She has to argue all that Max has done for them to get them to agree with Tiberius in the room, but they all head off to see the street-wise Pops, an elderly, partially paralyzed Basset Hound (Carvey), who leads them to the sewer hideout of the “Flushed Pets” organization.

The Secret Life of Pets is much more than a lost dog story. Its purpose is to whimsically posit what pets do when the owners are away and it does so in spades, with a lot of laughs along the way. Leonard is a prim white poodle who secretly prefers heavy metal rock to the classical Vivaldi his owner plays. Chloe raids the refrigerator, which explains her size, and Buddy uses the electric mixer as a shiatsu. The voices are well-matched to the characters and the animation is beautiful. The 3D effects are eye popping, especially when the snakes guarding the sewer lair come straight out over the audience – so does the alligator’s jaw – and opening scene, while the audience is soaring over, under and through the city while Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” plays is almost stomach-dropping.

Speaking of the soundtrack, we hear “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees on the dog walk, “We Go Together” from Grease at the sausage factory raid by Duke and Max as well as “My Best Friend” by Queen, and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams (well, it did come from the people who brought us Despicable Me).

In addition to the stars, we hear Larraine Newman as Chloe’s owner and John Kassir as Leonard’s owner. The writing is great and clever. Chloe has most of the funny lines, but Pops gets in a good one. Talking about Snowball, he says, “That ball of fur has got a screw loose!” The movie is squeaky clean and lots of fun. Bring the kids to this one, even if they’ve made up their minds not to see it. And remember to stay through the first set of credits. There’s a little bit more madcap action to go.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

104 W. 13th St., New York

What caught my attention about this restaurant, aside from the apparent misspelling of the Arabic word for peace (Salaam), is that when I looked it up on, it was listed as Syrian/Lebanese. When I arrived at its below-street-level location, the awning touted Middle Eastern. Upon entering the charming space, I saw the business card, which called the cuisine Arabic. It’s all of the above.

Salam has operated out the lower level of a classic brownstone in Greenwich Village for 20 years and can add 10 more years in a previous location to the expertise of their chef. It’s a family-owned business and quality and care are products number one and two. Inside is a small bar to the right and a few tables in the bar area. My server Karen met me at the door, confirmed my reservation, and seated me. The room was spacious. Three of the walls are mirrored, making it look much larger. The chairs are wrought-iron with gracefully sculpted backs, and the tables are inlaid with ceramic tiles in earth tones and moss greens. I was charmed just looking around.

When Karen asked if I wanted a drink to start, I chose the pomegranate martini – vodka, pomegranate juice and lime. It was delicious, appropriate for the atmosphere. And though the bar was just a room-divider away from me, I never heard her prepare it – no tinkling of ice cubes or shakers. Totally inspired though mysteriously concocted.

Although the food menu has a remarkably large selection for such a small place, I had already thought out my selections from perusing the online menu. 

My first dish was the babaganouj – grilled eggplant pureed with garlic and tahini (a sauce made from baked sesame seeds and vegetable oil) was thick and creamy with that wonderful smoky flavor from the tahini.

An order of stuffed grape leaves arrived shortly after and before I finished the first dish. But that didn’t matter. Babaganouj is served cold and the stuffed grape leaves were steaming hot, slightly vinegary and exciting. Karen brought out the wine and I asked her to wait until the main course.

The 2013 Chateau Ksara Reserve Du Couvent Cabernet from the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, was the perfect complement to the meal, a varietal blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet grapes with a fruit nose and a rich, full-bodied flavor and deep red color.

For my main course, I ordered macloubee – lamb layered with eggplant and basmati rice. The tender juicy lamb paired with the melt-in-your-mouth eggplant under a garnish of spinach and a touch of olive oil to provide a perfect main course.

For dessert, I ordered halvah, which was served in chunks on a beautiful plate so that you could see the pistachios. It exploded into sugary dust in the mouth and brought back memories. Fortunately, I also ordered Lebanese tea to wash it down. The tea was served in an authentic brass teapot with a scalloped top and gracefully curved spout and I half expected a genie to appear from it.

Salam is a wonderfully transporting experience. I raved to Karen about every dish. It was after I left that I saw two Syrian favorites at the bottom of the online menu. That alone would prompt a return, not to mention the Moroccan couscous royale (three meats). I was at peace going home.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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