Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Great Wall

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Great Wall (Universal, 2016) – Director: Yimou Zhang. Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro & Tony Gilroy (s/p). Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (story). Stars: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han, & Pedro Pascal. Color, Rated PG-13, 3D, 103 minutes.

Have you ever said, “I don’t want to see that movie because he (or she) is in it?” That was unfortunately my approach to The Great Wall. Matt Damon has done nothing in his career that has impressed me so far and I went to see the movie expecting nothing.  What a surprise!

Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro gave him a script he could handle with minimal lines and short sentences and it worked perfectly! That, and their ingenious teaser at the beginning – “The Great Wall took 1,700 years to complete and stretches for 5,500 miles and this is one of the legends.” – blasted apart all my misgivings and caught my interest right away. It even made me delve into Chinese history.

The earliest record of the building of the Great Wall was in 771 BC in the Chu Dynasty.  1,700 years later would be 929 AD. The story in the film takes place some time during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1129 AD). William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are mercenaries from Europe who, with a band of 20 men were traveling to China in search of “black powder” to make their weapons more deadly. More than half of their group is murdered in attacks by Khitan bandits and they are still on the run. They divide up the supplies of their fallen comrades and William makes sure to keep a large piece of magnetite – which he calls simply a magnet – to hopefully make into compass.

One night around the campfire, the remnant fellowship are beset by strange, voracious beasts and William kills one and lops off one of its forelegs. Against Tovar’s advice, he keeps this as well. With the bandits in hot pursuit, the two top a ridge and find themselves swiftly surrounded by a circle of arrows rained down from a titanic wall manned by hundreds of archers and soldiers. Wisely, they surrender and are taken to Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) of the Nameless Order, a specialized division of the royal army, commissioned by the royal court to defend the Great Wall. No one believes that one man killed the beast they call Tao Tie (pronounced “Dow TeeYeh” – although it was misspelled Tao Tei in a couple of places in the movie). The two are manacled together and prepared for execution when hordes of the creatures attack the wall.

Rather than let them die in the fearsome jaws of the Tao Tie, Peng Yong (Lu Han) frees the Europeans and they prove themselves in battle, William with his bow and arrows and Tovar with his axe and quick movements. William further proves his archery skill at a banquet held in their honor. They learn from Strategist Wang (Lau) that 2,000 years ago, probably in the Zhou Dynasty, the emperor misused his power and was punished by a green meteorite which crashed into Gouwo Mountain, releasing the Tao Tie. The Tao Tie attack every 60 years (hence the building of the wall). The Nameless Order is trained from birth in their various (color-coded) skills.

Those wearing black are foot soldiers the “Bear Troop” melee-specialists, those in red are archers, the Eagle Troop (those in blue, all women) are bungee jumpers with spears, the Crane Troop (in yellow) the siege-engine specialist Tiger Troop. The fifth troop, the horse-mounted “Deer Troop” is also in black. I couldn’t help wondering why no one was wearing green.

They also meet Sir Ballard (Defoe), who has lived with the Nameless Order for 25 years and who taught Commander Lin English and Latin, but who still dreams of escaping with “black powder.” He now sees his opportunity with the two mercenaries.

Commander Lin and William strike up a cautious friendship. He tells her of how many armies and “flags” he fought for and how many causes. She tells him of the concept of “Xin Ren” (“trust” in Mandarin). When a couple of Tao Tie mount the wall one night and mortally wound General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), they decide to capture one of the beasts to figure out the most efficient way of killing them. William’s “magnet” pacifies the beast and cuts off communication with the “Queen” (the Tao Tie have a hive mentality and she directs the entire horde).

The biggest mistake they could have made is to take the creature to the capital, Bianliang (actually Bianjing) to place before the Renzon Emperor (Karry Wang). As near as I can figure, of the eight emperors of the Song Dynasty, the closest one to his youthful appearance would be Emperor Zhezong, who ascended the throne at age nine and died at age 24. Well, things go south from there. The monster awakens when the magnet is taken far enough away and it signals the Queen, and she and the horde attack the capital via a huge hole they’ve excavated in the Great Wall – one of which the Nameless Order were completely unaware. (They heard nothing?)

It’s understandable why The Great Wall had a $150 million budget. They had to build their own Great Wall sections for sets because the Chinese government forbade them to shoot on the actual wall. That, and paying the hundreds of extras needed to defend it, made it the most expensive movie shot in China. Filmed in Qingdao and also New Zealand, the countryside scenes are amazing, with the colorful hills and valleys.

The powerful music by Ramin Djawadi emphasized the dire situation and the strength of the remarkable creation. There was even a suspenseful quiet moment with a sudden action that made the audience jump, as without warning a Tao Tie attacks. The 3D effects were put to good use – several things come at the audience (including a few jaws full of sharp teeth).

Mandarin with English subtitles is used throughout the film to add authenticity. The acting is nowhere near Oscar quality but is never unbelievable. Matt Damon, as I said, is at his best. But Tian Jing outshines him in majesty as well as beauty. The Great Wall is an action-packed fantasy providing a far-fetched (but hey, why not?) reason for the wall’s existence. I was never a fan of history as a subject, but this movie had me researching the Dynasties of China. I was fascinated.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Cut by Wolfgang Puck
99 Church St.New York

Downtown Manhattan has been in a continuous state of flux since 9/11 and the block facing Church Street between Barclay Street and Park Place seemed like it would always be vacant. Suddenly up popped an 82-story skyscraper in that spot. Nobody paid any attention because we have so many large buildings in this neighborhood. In September 2016, the brand new Four Seasons Hotel opened its doors to the first 24 floors. (The remainder is luxury residences.) In October of 2016, Wolfgang Puck opened his first New York restaurant, Cut, on the Church Street side.

I knew what I was getting into from the start. It would be a jacket and tie night; it would be expensive; and, having dined at other Chef Puck restaurants, I knew it would be good. Outside, a simple brown awning looking like it was made from I-Beams has the name of the restaurant on all sides in white lettering slashed horizontally to further accent the meaning of the word. The glass doors lead to a lit display of wines behind glass and from there to the Captain’s Station. A turn to the left and I was in the dimly lit main dining area.

Every table was occupied with the servers bustling back and forth. I received the cocktail and wine list and had a good laugh at the sheer number of three- and four-digit wine prices. My server, Carly, asked if I wanted a cocktail. When she confirmed that they had Beefeater’s gin I ordered my favorite martini. It was very near perfect.

The sommelier noticed my constant page turning of the wine list and asked if I needed help. To which I replied that I had already chosen my wine, the 2014 Flam winery “Classico” – a varietal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah from the Judean Hills in Israel. I chose it as much for its uniqueness as a blend, as a conversation point later on and for its affordable price.

Another server brought a black oblong box with thin cheesy breadsticks protruding and a small napkin-lined basket containing three of the best garlic-knots I’ve ever had. Carly was very helpful with choosing my courses and with her help I narrowed three appetizers down to two. Then she asked me a question I’ve never heard before: “Which filet mignon will you be having?” There were four different cuts, sizes and beefs. Another server arrived with a selection of meats all wrapped in white linen and stacked on a tray. Once she explained the differences I made my choice.

The young lady who brought the beef was also the bread lady, and she carried a selection of five breads. I chose pretzel roll, and sour dough with raisin and focaccia. I would have chosen all five but they didn’t fit neatly on my bread plate. Later on I ordered two more pretzel rolls (very addictive).

The sommelier had poured a taste of my Israeli wine and it had a delightful fruity nose hinting of spice, and an equally fruity, medium body taste with a slight peppery aftertaste. Excellent. My first course had arrived. The homemade tortelloni with black truffles were stuffed with kabocha squash and pumpkin and were in a sage butter sauce and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top as well as shaved black truffles. It was totally heaven and I said so to Carly.

The second appetizer was the Maine lobster and Maryland blue crab “Louis” cocktail with tomato-horseradish dressing. This was nothing like a run-of-the-mill shrimp cocktail, but more like a fluffy crab cake/ceviche hybrid. The shredded crab meat was the main flavor with vinegary overtones. The deconstructed “sauce” surrounded the main part of the dish and only accented it if you chose to let it.

I mentioned that there were four different filet mignons and the American Wagyu 6 oz. appealed to me. It was served with four dips: sea salt, Chinese mustard, Dijon, and red wine bordelaise. Surprisingly enough, the Chinese mustard worked best with the tender, juicy steak that was nicely blackened on the outside, while red on the inside.

The side dish was another of those experiences you wish there was more of: wild mushrooms sautéed with Japanese Shishito peppers. It had all the wonderful earthy flavors of nicely sautéed mushrooms; not overcooked, but still crunchy and with the added kick of the peppers.

For dessert they might have gilded the lily a bit. The Boca Negra chocolate dessert was served on a deep chocolate–colored plate. The tiny, rich cake was topped with glazed chestnuts and sided with a dollop of whipped cream and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Twin wafer cookies sprouted from it like wings. Very nice, but I would have liked it to be bigger.

Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida, was where I last experienced Wolfgang Puck’s style of cuisine and I remember enjoying it. It was definitely brighter lit than Cut. Cut is equally up to his expertise. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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