Sunday, March 5, 2017

Rock Dog

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Rock Dog (Summit Entertainment, 2016) – Director: Ash Brannon. Writers: Ash Brannon (s/p & story), Zheng Jun (story), Denise Bradley, Vincente DiSanti, Will Finn, Carolyn Gair, Nicole McMath, Kurt Voelker & Josh Zinman (additional story material). Stars: Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillion & Sam Elliott. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 80 min.

My mind must have been seriously preoccupied when I purchased my movie ticket. I expected the theater to be devoid of people and it was, but I didn’t expect the average age of the theater-goers to decrease so far. Thinking I had bought a ticket to see A Dog’s Purpose, I was at first confused by the Chinese-style music at the beginning of this film. Then, the flat, badly drawn animated characters for the backstory made me think that this would be a cartoon short before the feature movie. Eventually, I realized that this was indeed Rock Dog and not A Dog’s Purpose. A character by the whimsical name of Fleetwood Yak (Elliott) narrates the basic premise of the film.

Somewhere in Tibet there is a lamasery-like village inhabited by sheep on Snow Mountain. They are guarded from the wolves by a large Tibetan mastiff named Khampa (Simmons). Khampa expects his son Bodie (Wilson) to follow in his footsteps and be the future guardian of the sheep. He’s locked up all musical instruments because he knows that Bodie will neglect all of his duties for music. Bodie performs all of his chores diligently, even anticipating ones his Dad could come up with but he hasn’t mastered a kung-fu-like move called the “Iron Paw,” which is his Dad’s secret weapon against the wolves. Khampa explains that it takes concentration and one has to put one’s heart into it and “feel the fire.”

No wolves have shown up in a long time due to Khampa and Bodie outfitting several sheep to look like an army of mastiffs guarding the flock, but that doesn’t mean they are not out there waiting. In my opinion, neither Khampa nor Bodie look anything like mastiffs, but that’s animation for you.

One day, it’s Bodie’s turn to dress up the sheep (who by the way, are dumber than a box of wool) and one costume’s head springs off and rolls away. Bodie chases it to a flock of birds, shoos them away, and they fly off taking the head with them. A single-engine plane appears in the sky heading for the flock of birds. When it veers to avoid them several items fall out onto the snow below, including a working pink radio. Bodie soon discovers that by turning the tuning knob different music forms emanate from this mysterious box. He tunes in a rock and roll station and is transported into a colorful fantasy, thus finding his passion is not just music, but rock and roll. He breaks into the locked cabinet and swipes a dramyin (a kind of Tibetan lute) and starts playing it like a guitar.

Khampa sees his son once again neglecting his duties for music and hatches a plan to scare Bodie out of this dream. He dresses three sheep and himself as wolves and attacks the village. But Bodie doesn’t react the way his Dad expects and he sends a false alarm through the village. In the chaos that results several balls of yarn act like fuses and, when lit by dropped torches, set off the fireworks shack. Khampa discusses this with Fleetwood Yak and Ian (Ash Brannon), the oldest sheep (and head shearer) and, against his better judgment, provides Bodie with a bus ticket to the city. Only one caveat, if he doesn’t “make it” there, he’s to give up music and come home.

The idea of a remote place like Snow Mountain having a bus stop is silly enough, but an Abbott and Costello team of wolves named Skozz and Riff (Thompson) watch Bodie’s every move. These two only remind me of Abbott and Costello in their size and shape, not in their comedic abilities, and the roles are reversed. Riff, the short fat one is the noisy, arrogant character and the tall thin one Skozz is silent and stupid. They are tasked with following Bodie into town and kidnapping him for their leader, Linnux (Black).

Bodie’s first destination in town (per the radio) is Rock and Roll Park, where various bands are competing for the crowd’s attention. He sees one group not playing and guesses they need a guitarist. He introduces himself to Darma (Whitman) a red fox bassist and Germur (Garcia) a spaced-out but likable goat on drums. Before he can start playing, Trey (Dillon), a Snow Leopard challenges him to a riff-contest as an audition and wins when Bodie tosses his instrument into a tree. But Trey knows how to get rid of Bodie. He tells him that he can get guitar lessons from the ultra-famous Angus Scattergood (Izzard) – whom Bodie had already learned of from the radio – and then he can try out again.

Angus is a skinny white cat who lives like a hermit in his mansion with only his robot butler Ozzie. Currently, he has a case of writer’s block and is being harassed by his producer to cut a single in the next three days or his career would suffer. After a few run-ins with Bodie – once where he’s kidnapped by accident by Riff and Skozz – he agrees to let him in and is forced to agree that the dog has talent. Together they write the song “Glorious.” Not an Oscar-winning tune, but good enough.

Nobody at Rock and Roll Park believe that Bodie and Angus composed a song together until they turn on a radio and hear Angus take sole credit for the song. Saddened by this, Bodie retreats from his new-found friends and is anesthetized and captured by Riff and Skozz. In his delirium he reveals that the army on Snow Mountain is actually sheep and, after putting Bodie into a fight cage with the hulking character named “The Griz” (a bear, of course) Linnux and his wolf pack/gang drive off at top speed to eat grilled lamb chops.

This may all sound exciting, but all the action in this film is dumbed down to a child’s level. The children in the audience were rapt. The pre-teens were on their devices throughout the film, and I was wondering why I was there. Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Augie Doggie had much better writers. Fortunately, the only flat-drawing was during the opening narration – which was only good because it was Sam Elliott’s voice – the rest was three dimensional, computer graphic enhanced characters. I read one review where the writer complained that the characters didn’t even have fur. Yes they did, and very well done in CGI. If you didn’t notice the close-ups of Linnux, you might possibly have fallen asleep at that point.

Even though its $60 million production cost made it the most expensive animated film in China, I don’t anticipate it being nominated for any Academy Awards in 2018. The production company, Reel FX also made Free Birds (2013) – seriously funnier – and The Book of Life (2014) – a remarkable achievement – which prompts the question, “What went wrong this time?”

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Banc Café
431 Third Avenue, New York

The Murray Hill/Kip’s Bay area of New York City is a middle-class version of Greenwich Village. It is literally dotted with taverns, pubs, bars and bistros. In the southern part there are as many Indian restaurants as on East 6th Street and the northern section competes with Midtown for sophistication. My restaurant of choice is right in the middle of all this diversity.

The menu was a single card: on one side and drinks on the other. When a server asked if I wanted a cocktail. I chose the jalapeno margarita – fresh lime juice, agave nectar, jalapeno house infused sauza tequila, and triple sec, garnished with a slice of lime and a slice of jalapeno pepper. It was as spicy as it sounds and I thought it wise not to eat the garnish.

I had read the menu several times, decided on my meal and the wine, finished my cocktail and was sipping water by the time my server, Shauna, appeared at my table with a trainee in tow. I gave her my choices which consisted of two appetizers (or small plates, per the menu), a main course, a side and the wine. When I mentioned the braised lamb shank, Shauna interjected the special of the day, also lamb and it changed my mind.

I was halfway through my second margarita, when my appetizers came. The porcini & eggplant “meatballs” were served in two iron mini–skillets, one in a garlic white wine broth and one in a tomato sauce. If you had tasted these you would swear there was meat in them, but Shauna assured me there was only eggplant and mushroom. It was intriguing and delicious. They provided a spoon and I used it to finish both sauces. Oddly, there was no bread dish. I guess it wouldn’t be American Nouveau if there was.

A trainee brought my wine, a 2012 Medalla Real “Santa Rita” Cabernet Sauvignon (special reserve) from Valle Del Maipo, Chile. I’ve loved every Chilean red wine I’ve tried and this one was no exception. It had an almost smoky back-taste with a tart fruit accent, a nice medium body red.

Soon the second appetizer was served, and I noticed it was a larger portion than the original. Again in a little iron skillet there was the potato gnocchi, soft chewy dumplings with a julienne of sun dried tomato in a creamy pesto sauce. The sun-dried tomato was an inspired touch to an already wonderful basil sauce, adding a candy-like flavor. A sip of the wine after each tomato brought waves of pleasure to my taste buds. It reminded me of the fabulous angel hair pesto I loved in the now long-gone Thomas Street Inn.

The rack of lamb turned out to be a good idea, as it came with potatoes au gratin and spinach instead of mashed potatoes. The side dish was one of my all-time favorites, Brussels sprouts with apple-wood bacon and onions, again in its own skillet. There was ample lamb – I counted eight chops and the sprouts were crunchy, perfectly cooked and bacon-y. Unfortunately, once I got past the crispy part and ate most of the cheese, the potatoes au gratin fell wet and flat and the spinach became tired after a while. I left some of each on the plate. 

Normally I wouldn’t order an ice cream dessert, but as you can guess I was becoming sated. The hazelnut gelato finished the meal nicely with a hot cup of organic Earl Grey tea. I wondered why both servers had Irish brogues and learned later on that Banc Café, despite its French-sounding name was established, owned and operated for 12 years by Irish staff. Even the Chef, John J. Loughran is of Irish descent. But he has a history of working in the famous River Café in Brooklyn, hence the imaginative and delicious food.

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