Friday, November 4, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Inferno (Columbia, 2016) – Director: Ron Howard. Writers: David Koepp (s/p), Dan Brown (novel). Stars: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Alessandro Grimaldi, Fausto, Maria Sciarappa, Gábor Urmai, Robin Mugnaini, Paul Ritter, Vincenzo Tanassi, & Alessandro Fabrizi. Color, Rated PG-13, 121 minutes.

If you’re looking for the Indiana Jones-style plot of The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) in this third installation, get that out of your head right now. The cosmic nature of the first two films is lost in the down-to-earth terrorism of the third. It seems we can’t get enough of that today.

Robert Langdon (Hanks), a Cambridge professor and symbologist, awakes in a hospital in Florence, Italy, thinking he’s still in Boston. His beautiful doctor, Sienna Brooks (Jones) questions him like an FBI agent though it’s clear he has amnesia (even she admits that) and when assassin Vayentha (Ularu) arrives with guns blazing, she hustles him out of the hospital and into a cab with the efficiency of the Mission: Impossible team. The questions begin for the audience. What hospital door not only locks, but resists bullets from an automatic weapon?

Meanwhile, billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Foster) is being chased by Christoph Bouchard (Sy) working for the World Health Organization to the top of a campanile (bell tower) of a church in the same town, from which he plummets to his death rather than be captured. It seems that Zobrist is obsessed by overpopulation and has engineered a plague that will kill off half of people on Earth (How in the world can he know that? It didn’t work that way in Stephen King’s The Stand.) and like all fictional sociopath geniuses, has given those who would stop him 24 hours to find it. With Zobrist out of the picture, Bouchard teams up with Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen), head of WHO and former love interest, to find Langdon, the only man who can read the clues and find the plague virus.

If that weren’t enough we have Harry Sims (Khan) who works for a mysterious company called “The Consortium,” Zobrist’s major competitor, and who “cleans up” messes (like dead bodies) leading a third team to find the poor, beset Langdon.

But Langdon doesn’t remember the last 24 hours and the memories are only coming back in several painful dribs and drabs. Sometimes they help and sometimes they make the mystery more confusing. The best part about it is that Langdon has learned nothing from the previous two movies. He should know not to trust anyone because no one is who they appear to be. But you know he’ll figure it out by the end of the movie.

The title refers to the name given the plague virus and it in turn was taken from Dante’s Inferno and his nine circles of Hell, depicted in a Botticelli painting. Langdon is in possession of a Faraday pointer which can project said painting on a wall. But the painting has been altered and the circles are in the wrong order. This gives him his first clue. It leads him and Dr. Brooks to the Uffizi Gallery to seek out the death mask of Dante. Marta Alvarez (Darvish), a pregnant curator familiar with both Langdon and the mask, leads them to the empty display case. The security tapes reveal that Langdon and his friend Ignazio Busoni (Urmai) are the ones who stole it. Now the Italian police are after him, along with the other three groups. This could be an old-time comedy with Charlie Chaplin with the right music.

Knowing that Tom Hanks has to stay alive until the end of the movie makes every getaway pedestrian and not that exciting, not even when the two are negotiating the ceiling rafters of the Uffizi. There is only one exciting scene and it’s at the climax of the movie during an orchestral concert in the cistern underneath the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Up until that point I was shifting regularly in my seat. At two hours and one minute, it needs cutting, but I could not say where. Maybe the scene in the rain where Tom Hanks almost looks like John Wayne. The strange camera angles were not only distracting but at times dizzying; from the bottom of a car door shooting up, the tail of a plane entering clouds, and the like.

From what I’ve read of other reviews, the story is a radical departure from the book as well. Hmm. Aside from the one scene, Hanks is the best part of this film and the only draw. He is superb, but his character is a bit of a disappointment. The rest of the cast was just along for the ride. But on the positive side, there were only two four-letter words in the entire movie and they were justified. The gore is kept to a minimum though the sound effects of stabbing are unnerving. The cinematography is excellent and it brought back pleasant memories of my times in Italy. I came out of the theater with one quote from Zobrist, “Our population is spiraling out of control. Inferno is the cure.” But did I believe it? No.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Death Avenue Estiatorio & Zythopoielo
315 10th Ave., New York

Who in the world would name a charming Greek restaurant “Death Avenue?” I thought they might have used the Greek word Thanatos, which is much more romantic than the stark English word “Death.” But I admit, being so close to Halloween, it drew me in.

The restaurant gets its name from a time in New York when railroad tracks ran down 10th Avenue and was dubbed “Death Avenue” due to the number of fatal accidents. It has been operating successfully for five years with beautifully paneled wooden doors opening to cream colored walls, heavy, ornately gilded mirrors, and faux Medieval chandeliers..

My hostess led me through a mini-labyrinth to a hidden room in back. Only five bare-topped, polished wood tables were in the room with simple wooden chairs and equally bare-topped banquettes. As soon as I was seated I met my server, Michael, and ordered a Black Ink Martini – Singani 63 (a Bolivian brandy), agave, lime juice, sweet vermouth and squid ink. I know it sounds a little disgusting. It was limey-flavored and strong. I liked it.

Michael, my waiter, was invaluable in selecting my dinner courses. When we had the dinner order set, we discussed wine, and he asked what kind of wine I liked. He suggested the 2013 “Staphylus” blend of Xinomavro and Cabernet Sauvignon from Chatzivariti vineyards, Goumenissa, Greece, a new wine on their list, and offered me a taste. It was exciting, a nose of fine wood in an old library and a taste of deep tannins with a leathery smooth overtone. It was the taste of antiquity. He explained that Staphylus means grapes in ancient Greek and the name also refers to a legend on the back label of the wine bottle.

Michael and I had decided that the appetizer and side dish should arrive first and soon I was presented with the eight-hour octopus – sushi grade Portuguese octopus slowly braised in an earth oven for eight hours and flash grilled. Its artfully posed tentacles rested on a bed of red and white beans, onions and spices and all was coated with parsley leaves. 

The eight hours were well spent. The octopus was almost tender enough to cut with a fork. Octopus doesn’t taste like any fish. It’s closer to conch (that’s scungill to Italians) in flavor and texture and has the “dusty” consistency of chick peas.

The side dish was a new favorite of mine, fried pickles. Only this time, they were Greek style, served with tzatziki (a Greek yoghurt sauce), skordalia (mashed potatoes with lots of garlic) and barbeque sauce. 

Michael warned me about how hot this dish was, but after the first pickle, they were finger food. In fact, mixing the tzatziki with the barbeque sauce made a delicious new flavor. The pickles were sliced and simply breaded and deep fried.

Next was the entree: lamb shank braised over a light tomato sauce with chopped vegetables and home-made Hilopite pasta (otherwise known as orzo). Michael sided it with an extra order of skordalia because I raved over it. As expected, the lamb shank fell of the bones with the touch of a fork and was rich, tender and had just enough fat to enhance the flavor. My only comment was that the orzo was over-done and not solid enough. Homemade pasta cooks very fast and disintegrates if over-cooked.

By now Michael was asking me if I was Greek. He said I look like one and eat like one (and can pronounce the names of the dishes) and that was enough for him. It was dessert time and Michael listed only two. I asked which was more Greek. That’s how I got the “spiced fig bread pudding” with a big ball of vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. Unfortunately, they did not make Greek coffee, and I settled for my usual double espresso. Michael was surprised that I ordered a glass of Ouzo neat. He commented that it was strong that way. I reminded him that it was the same thing he said about the martini and the wine and he told me the dessert, coffee and drink were on the house.

Michael and I were buddies now and he helped me negotiate the mini-maze to the rest room. I asked for a business card, we gave each other a bro-hug and I left feeling very content. Next time, I must try their tacos. I learned a history lesson and had a great meal at the same place.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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