Monday, October 17, 2016

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (CBS Films, 2016) – Director: Steve Carr. Writers: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer & Kara Holden (s/p). James Patterson, Chris Tebbets (based on the book by). Stars: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Alexa Nisenson, Andrew Daly, Thomas Barbusca, Retta, Rob Riggle, Adam Pally, Luke Hardeman, Jessi Goei, Jacob Hopkins, Patrick Fagan, Isabella Moner, Isabella Amara, Madeleine Stack, & Efren Ramirez. Color, Rated PG, 92 minutes.

Variety’s review of this film included Francois Truffaut’s sagacious observation that adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who cannot remember. I believe it. My schooling did not involve a Middle School per se but I do remember my experiences from sixth to eighth grades in my Elementary School. They weren’t the worst years of my life, but I wouldn’t want to repeat them.

This realistic fiction, based on the book by James Patterson and Chris Tebbets, reminisces Patterson’s time in Middle School. Hills Village Middle School represents the last chance for Rafe Katchadorian (Gluck), a sixth grader who has been expelled from several other schools. His mother Jules (Graham) works double shifts at a diner and considers herself a sous-chef. She also worries about him a lot, realizing that not having his father around (the film was not clear on where or when he disappeared) has affected his social skills. That, plus the loss of his younger brother to cancer probably contributes to his antics.

His sister Georgia (Nisenson) argues with him, providing and gives additional unwanted motherly advice despite Jules’ requests to leave the mothering job to her. If this weren’t bad enough, Mom is dating a self-centered loser named Carl (Riggle) whose hairiness provides the children a few laughs. Rafe’s only friend is Leo the Silent (Barbusca), and he’s imaginary (though this fact is not immediately apparent in the movie). His passion is drawing caricatures. He keeps a sketchbook with him at all times containing various cartoon characters he’s created and their adventures, languages and travels. He’s put a great amount of time into developing it.

Rafe’s first encounter with the obsessive Principal Dwight (Daly) is at the front door of the school where he’s informed of his breaking the dress code – too many bright colors, no floral prints. How obsessive is Dwight with winning on the test scores? He has a tall number one topiary sculpture planted in front of the school to represent the school’s consistent ranking on the B.L.A.A.R.T. test. When he sees the student body lined up like convicts in a prison, Rafe realizes something’s really wrong with this school, especially when Vice Principal Ida Stricker (Retta) tells him in no uncertain terms to stop loitering in the halls. He also meets the class bully Miller the Killer (Hopkins), who sits behind him in homeroom, kicks his chair, threatens him and refuses to pronounce his name correctly. The only relief from this is in his homeroom teacher, Mr. Teller (Pally), who recognizes Rafe’s talent for drawing and is somewhat of a rebel himself.

At a student body meeting to elect a class president, Rafe develops his first crush on Jeanne Galetta (Moner). Her platform is more leeway for the students and less rules, and he’s the only one who applauds her as Principal Dwight hurries her away from the microphone. But when he’s caught sketching in the assembly, Dwight destroys his sketchbook in the dreaded “yellow bucket” filled with acid. This drives him and Leo to set in motion Operation R.A.F.E. (Rules Aren’t For Everyone) and to break every rule in the book he was handed by Principal Dwight on the first day. The pranks are some of the funniest moments in the movie and include papering the principal’s office and school halls with colorful Post-It notes, putting pink hair dye in Dwight’s fedora, filling a utility closet with multicolored balls, and injecting blue, red and yellow dye into the fire sprinkler system before setting it off.

Though a comedy, this movie has some sensitive, emotional scenes and at the same time makes a statement about pigeon-holing children with standardized tests. It addresses bullying and unfair practices as well as not allowing children to be children. It skirts the scary and potentially dangerous issue of the “acid bucket” with clever dialogue. Scenes seesaw from reality to the imaginative animations in Rafe’s sketchbook, which are as real to him as his family. The animated scene where Carl becomes Bear is hilarious.

Andy Daly’s over-the-top acting keeps his character from being a hateful villain and modulates it into a strict but silly obsessive. Alexa Nisenson is a convincing crier and a great little sister. Rob Riggles succeeds in creating the guy you’d love to hit with an anvil. Griffin Gluck plays the perfect straight man to the unpredictable Thomas Barbusca.

At only one hour and 32 minutes long, the film is well timed, has no dead spots and has great forward motion. I never shifted in my seat. If you’re a student, teacher or a principal you will not find any of it offensive, only entertaining, and you’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief knowing your school’s not like this one. I enjoyed it so much I never expected the final plot twist.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Mastro’s Steakhouse
1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York

An unparalleled dining experience!” So boasts the website of this two-year-old New York steakhouse with a Broadway-style entrance, ablaze in bluish-white neon. 

Inside is a large space with dark walls, a chic bar on the left flanked by faux marble columns and tables with white tablecloths and little electric lamps with gold shades. As I confirmed my reservation, I was directed to a table toward the back of the long room with a comfortable leather banquette which (surprise!) had an armrest. I had heard live music and could see a trio off to my right playing mellow rock and swing style at just the right volume. I was charmed.

Soon my server Paolo arrived, oozing confidence and foodie knowledge and smiling conspiratorially while describing the intimacies of the menu. He presented me with the food menu and wine list, both bound in brown leather (matching the banquette).

When he returned I ordered a Beefeater martini. He acknowledged having all the ingredients and dashed off to the bar, returning to stir and pour my martini at the table. He noted that there would be more in the shaker once the glass was filled and how I was to hold it to pour the remainder. Nice touch, but unfortunately, even with the personal attention, it was more than a little watered down and didn’t have that familiar kick.

I told Paolo that I intended to have two appetizers and a main course. He recommended my choosing the wine first so that he could uncork it and give it time to breathe by my first course. I chose the 2013 Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel from Contra Costa County, California. It was a beautiful wine with a delicate nose but a disappointing lack in body. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I expect of a zinfandel. It worked with every course but didn’t speak for itself.

The two appetizers arrived within minutes of each other. The king crab stuffed mushrooms were served in a little silver frying pan along with a lemon half in yellow netting. They were delightful. The crab meat was only slightly hashed and not pulverized and the mushroom caps were tender with a slight crunch. The second appetizer was one Paolo tempted me with and won: a slab of maple bacon, fully 10 inches long and three-quarters of an inch thick with a maple sauce drizzled over it and a small cress salad.

Paolo confided that he would leave time for these dishes to “settle” before bringing out the main course, an 8-ounce filet mignon with its blanket of truffle butter in the middle of its plate and sautéed wild mushrooms (Shiitake, Cremini, and Porto Bello) next to it. The mushrooms were a mix of and were cooked to perfection losing none of their individual earthy characters. The filet was seared nicely on the outside and my kind of rare on the inside, juicy and tender. This was one time the meal outshone the wine.

As I had room for dessert, I ordered the pecan pie a la mode, a wedge that looked like a quarter of a pie and was crowned with a tennis ball of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and served with gobs of fresh whipped cream. I had to take part of the pie home, but it was good.

Mastro’s is my 98th steakhouse and was impressive in its way. But though it’s chic, has live music, both the food and service are excellent, it doesn’t quite come up to my benchmark steakhouse. Uncle Jack’s still reigns supreme. I would gladly return to Mastro’s to try several other menu items, but I’ll be more careful of the wine ordering and more specific in my cocktail.

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