Thursday, May 25, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (WB, 2017) – Director: Guy Ritchie. Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram (s/p). David Dobkin & Joby Harold (story). Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Rob Knighton, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinley, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Jacqui Ainsley, Annabelle Wallis, Oliver Zac Barker & Geoff Bell. Color, Rated PG-13, 126 minutes.

With all the movies made about King Arthur and the legendary sword, “Excalibur” there is nothing like this tale. It’s jarring, exciting, shocking in places, offensive in others, myth shattering, unbelievable and a bit too long. There is nothing charming or comical in this film. Everything is dark. Merlin is only mentioned in passing (he lives with the other mages somewhere, far off) and the residents of Camelot do not trust the mages.

And why not? Because Mordred (Knighton) has made an unholy alliance with Vortigern Pendragon (Law), pretender to the throne, to share increasing magic powers and dethrone Uther Pendragon (Bana). And you thought Arthur and Mordred were the same age. Not here. Mordred conjures up Godzilla-sized elephants to help attack Uther’s castle. One easily destroys a high viaduct. But with Excalibur, Uther succeeds in entering Mordred’s howdah, beheading him. That breaks off the attack, but there is still his brother to contend with. He hurries his wife and two-year-old son Arthur (Barker) down to a pier in the bowels of the castle to get them to safety. But Vortigern has murdered his wife as a sacrifice to three sea witches to summon up a demonic, fiery warrior who kills Uther’s wife and bests Uther in battle. Arthur runs for the skiff and is sent drifting downriver to Londinium (the old Latin name for London) and is picked up by prostitutes and raised in a brothel. This could be a play on the Moses story, except for the brothel.

Arthur (now Hunnam) learns to fight from a kung fu master, George (Wu), and becomes quite skilled. (I said this is a very strange version.) He amasses coffers full of coinage from the patrons and from those who refuse to pay. Unfortunately, one of those was a Viking guest of the crown and Arthur has to flee Vortigern’s “Blackleg” army. However, he is quickly caught and forced onto a shipload of men of similar age.

Mysteriously, the tide went out in a cove near the castle revealing a sword embedded in a stone. The legend is known that he who pulls the sword free is the true “Born King” and Vortigern is monitoring the trials so that he can kill whoever succeeds. We think we know the rest, right? But when Arthur slowly (agonizingly slowly) extracts the sword, the power emanating from it reveals scenes from his childhood and his escape from Camelot, and he passes out from the exertion. 

Meanwhile, a very serious, almost bored, female mage (Bergès-Frisbey) and follower of Merlin (the only time his name is spoken) meets with Uther’s general, Bedivere (Hounsou) and convinces him to help her rescue Arthur from execution. Between her magical manipulation of animals and his battle savvy, they succeed.

But Arthur doesn’t want to be king (Ever read The Reluctant Dragon?) He has to be convinced. Bedivere, despite his misgivings, accedes to the advice of the Mage and leads Arthur to the “Blacklands,” (the area in every fantasy story where nobody dares go) where he’s forced to fight off every manner of vicious creature (giant bats, giant rats, wolves, etc.) just to stay alive. It’s here he learns of Vortigern’s crimes and Mordred’s source of power. But we already know that. As the film begins there’s a strange scene with what looks like an Aztec pyramid carved out of the side of a mountain leading up to a tower shaped like an elaborately carved firehose, with a roaring flame at the top. That’s Mordred’s Tower of Power (a little corny, but effective). Merlin destroyed that one, but Vortigern is building a second one.

In Londinium, Arthur has gathered a small contingent of comrades and they learn from Vortigern’s maid Maggie (Wallis) that he will be meeting with the major land barons and they plot to kill him. It fails, but in his anger at seeing the Mage at knifepoint, Arthur unleashes the full power of Excalibur and slaughters a troop of blacklegs in an alternating slow-motion/riotously quick battle scene.

Discouraged by the failure, Arthur hurls the sword into the sea, where it is retrieved by (who else?) the Lady of the Lake (Ainsley). Dragging him through a mud puddle to her world, she shows him the future if he doesn’t take action and assume the throne. Now you think you know the rest. But there are still some outrageous surprises ahead.

Though King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is indeed exciting in many parts, there are several scenes that detract from the forward motion of the film and, if cut, would make it just as effective in under two hours. It’s immensely imaginative and disregards the traditional noble tale of the mythical king. The 3D special effects had me blinking several times, especially in the slow-motion battle scene where an arrow or a spear would come right at the audience. It was too long at two hours and nine minutes, and often the thick British accents obscured the dialogue, especially the use of idioms. I would have to see it again to catch everything that was said.

Amazingly, for all the carnage and violence in the film, there was a minimum of bloodshed, but I would not take my kids to see it until they reached teenage. I enjoyed most it but was distracted by the mish-mash of architectural styles. I loved the Roman look of Londinium though. It even had a Colosseum being built.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Martini glasses. 

Fonda Chelsea
189 Ninth Avenue, New York

Lately, Mexican chefs are working to raise the status of their recipes in the eyes of the pooh-poohers while at the same time retaining their authenticity. Fonda’s Chef Roberto Santibaῆez is doing just that. The website claims that all the dishes are 100% Mexican while tantalizing jaded New York tastes and prejudices.

Outside, there is a small sidewalk café under a black awning with the name in white gothic letters. Inside, it’s flaming red walls, butcher block tables, black banquettes, startling artworks and brouhaha. The hostess seated me at a window-facing table in the bar (the entire first floor). Up a narrow, steep flight of stairs is another equally sized room with more seating and the rest rooms. 

My server, Jhon, brought me the menu with a single-card beverage menu tucked inside. I decided that the Piñata Margarita – Silver tequila, pineapple, lime juice, orange liqueur, and a spicy chili rim – was for me. Served over ice in an old-fashioned glass, it was definitely citrus with the kick of the tequila and the smoky spice bite of chipotle, a good starter.

I chose the Zarape de Pato. Having dined in over 100 Mexican restaurants I was not prepared to be amazed. The soft corn tortillas filled with tender, shredded braised duck were invisible under the thick, spicy, roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce, with each bite an adventure. 

The wine list was very small, but reasonable. I chose the 2014 Alto “3” Reserve Malbec from Catamarca, Argentina. I don’t know if “organically grown grapes” had anything to do with it, but this potent, velvety-smooth, dark red embraced the flavor of my spicy appetizer like a lover.

When Jhon came back to see how I was doing I told him how great the duck was and ordered my second course. I love Sopa de Tortilla (tortilla soup), but this one was superior. Made with roasted tomato pasilla (a species of chili), chicken broth, chunks of grilled chicken (both light and dark meat), Chihuahua cheese, avocado and creme, it was almost a meal in itself. I asked Jhon for his help on choosing a main course.

The Pescado con Calabacitas was an achiote (another chili) marinated Chatham cod fillet over creamy stewed zucchini with jalapeῆos, corn kernels and cilantro. Admittedly, cod is not among my favorite fish, but this was delightful, as the marinating process transformed the sometimes salty fish into a sensory wonder. The meat, tender enough to cut with a fork, was mildly spiced and served really hot. All the vegetable ingredients were perfectly cooked. The zucchini still had a crunch to it and the cilantro was not overstated. I was glad I didn’t order a side dish, because refried black beans and scallion-topped white rice accompanied the dish.

The ladies at the table to my left ordered the only dessert that sounded interesting (the Budin de Banana – a bread pudding with guava and cajeta sauce), but when it arrived, I was not impressed – not enough guava. I chose instead the Trio of Helados, a rich, creamy vanilla, an impressively semi-sweet dark chocolate and a luxurious salted caramel. I don’t eat ice cream often, but I really enjoyed these.

When I ordered “regular coffee,” I was pleasantly surprised to be served Café Press. It was very good coffee – no milk or sugar required. Jhon brought back the beverage list for the after-dinner drink and I picked the Milagro Reserva Reposado Tequila. It was just as velvety smooth as my Malbec and ended my dinner like a well-scripted play.

Fonda has three locations in Manhattan. I took a business card to remember that I have two more to go.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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