Friday, May 3, 2013

The Sapphires

Dinner and a Movie

The Sapphire Without Equal

By Steve Herte 

Sometimes your gut feelings do more for you than rational thinking and diamonds can be found in the coal bin. This happened last Friday night. The movie was not advertised much, was shown in only a few theaters and I only saw one trailer a while ago, but I knew I wanted to see it even though I was familiar with none of the actors. And again, three years of stay-cations in the same area as the restaurant and I never discovered it until now. They say better late than never, true enough. Enjoy!

The Sapphires (Goldpost Pictures, 2012 Australia/2013 New York) Director: Kriv Stenders. Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Miranda Tapsell, Deborah Mailman, Eka Darville, Jessica Mauboy, & Annette Hodgson. Color, 103 minutes.

If this movie were playing in more New York theaters and at convenient times when it opened I would have seen it sooner. The Sapphires is based on the true story of four Aboriginal Australian sisters who sing like angels and want to start a singing group and encounter serious racial problems all along the way.

The movie starts with a little history. Up until 1967 Aborigines were treated much worse than the slaves in America. They were considered “Flora and Fauna,” not even human. Also, up to 1970 the Aboriginal children who were misfortunate enough to have been born with fairer complexions (enough to pass for white) were abducted from their families and raised in white culture in a kind of “civilizing the beast” program.

Their journey starts in 1968 Cummeragunja Station in The Outback where Gail (Mailman) and Cynthia (Tapsell) are planning to compete in an all-white talent contest in Melbourne but their mom, Hendo (Darville) won’t allow their younger sister Julie (Mauboy) to join them because she’s too young. Julie slips away and joins them onstage to perform a beautiful rendition of a Charlie Pride song. The resident piano player and emcee, Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd) was expecting the usual dull, boring, badly sung competition until they come on. They’re easily the best in the show but the prize is awarded to a no-talent white girl named Noelene (Hodgson). Dave wants to help the girls and suggests that since they’re “black” they should perform soul music instead of country-western. A newspaper ad announces “Singers wanted in Vietnam” to sing for the troops fighting the war and the girls ask Dave if he can get them an audition. He makes one phone call and it’s a done deal.

Hendo is real not happy about this and Gail, Cynthia and Julie want their sister Kay to join them. Kay was born with a fair complexion (remember the abductions?) and, thanks to Nanny Theresa (Lynette Narkle) they learn where she lives. Some really difficult moments pass between Gail and Kay but the quartet is reunited and is off to the audition. But first, Dave has some heavy coaching to do. Gail is used to being the lead singer but Julie has the strongest voice, Cynthia has sexy moves while Gail is stiff, and none of them are feeling the soul music beat. 

When asked what they called themselves, the name The Cummeragunja Girls is not only cumbersome but nobody but they can pronounce it. Kay notices Cynthia fiddling with her engagement ring (Jimmy Middleton, played by Meyne Wyatt had jilted her a few years ago) and notices the main stone, a sapphire. “We’re The Sapphires!” she blurts and the name sticks.

In Vietnam, the girls do several rave performances until Dave drunkenly agrees to one in the war zone that they will have to drive to without military escort and protection. Before they go on stage, shooting breaks out and chaos reigns, Dave is hit and the girls are airlifted out by helicopter.

The Sapphires was worth waiting for as a sensitive movie about young girls’ dreams, racial prejudice, love and loss, and the power of music to unite. The soundtrack is excellent and even though Mauboy is the only one actually singing, the songs are great and include “I’ll Take You There,” I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “What a Man,” “Who’s Lovin’ You,” an exciting version of “Land of 1,000 Dances” and an original song “Gotcha” which was co-written by Jessica. “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” by Sam and Dave and “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival are also featured. We even get to hear an Aboriginal song, “Ngarra Burra Ferra” both in a flashback to the girls’ childhood and as young women. The acting is superb, most notably Mailman and O’Dowd. The movie has pathos, tension, excitement and beautiful cinematography. There are even black and white actual videos from the Sixties to flesh out the story featuring Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (announcing Dr. King’s assassination). Girls, bring handkerchiefs!

The only drawback was in the special effects department. Even though the “tracer” bullets were effective (you could see them) the multitude of angles at which they shot into scene stretched believability. Otherwise, I see several Oscar nominations for this film. If you love music or ever sang in a quartet or band you will really enjoy The Sapphires

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Sinigual – NY
640 Third Avenue (41st/42nd Street), New York City

Usually when the database count (yes, I keep a computerized record of all eateries from 1973 on) approaches a round number I try to find a special dining experience for that occasion. Well, Sinigual (“without equal” in Spanish) filled the bill as number 2,530 very nicely as well as took its place as my 114th Mexican establishment. This four-year-old “Contemporary Mexican” uses its hot red neon light script name over the door to trumpet its location on Third Avenue. Then, a few steps up and you’re in a room where one wall is a scene of agave farmers harvesting the main ingredient for tequila and green, white, and red (the Mexican colors) paper decorations adorn every niche. The stars are so big you can touch them (literally) – the ceiling lights are bare bulbs inside eighteen-pointed, star-shaped swags.

After a “where will we seat this guy?” moment at the captain’s station, I was led to a table midway from the door to the back which situated me awkwardly between two chatty tables of girls. I was given the menu and the cocktail list, and had just enough time to look them over when one of the servers came over, apologized and asked me if I would like to change tables – they needed the one I where was for another party. I agreed and was led to the back of the restaurant to a table just outside the glassed-in kitchen – much, much better! That is until two tables of 20 filled up, one in front of me and one to my left – it’s amazing how loud people become after a couple of Margaritas. Since the restaurant offered them in seven or eight flavors I decided to join the group. So when my waitress brought a covered bowl of hot tortillas and a selection of two salsas for dipping and a ball of butter, I ordered it.

It was a Cadillac Margarita made with 1800 Reposado Tequila, triple sec, sweet and sour, Midori Melon liqueur and a shot of Grand Marnier and served over ice in one of the heaviest square glasses I’ve ever encountered – good thing it had a straw. It was a very tasty drink indeed. The menu is a faux-leather bound book with four pages listing Cocktails, Appetizers, Salads and Soups first, then From the Grill and Fajitas on the second, Latin Specialties, Entrées, Combinations and Sides on the third and Desserts and Coffees, and After-Dinner Drinks on the fourth. I asked my waitress if having an appetizer, soup and entrée was too much and she didn’t seem to think so. Great, and since Mexican restaurants never have wine lists my dinner was the only decision to make.

I started with the Taquitos de Tinga Poblana which were crispy, blue corn rolled tacos filled with roasted carnitas, chicken chorizo, red onions and chipotle chili and topped with cilantro crema fresca, tomatillo-avocado sauce, cotija cheese and in an arugula and habanero-lime dressing. I had ordered the Chicken Tortilla Soup as a second course but it arrived before I cut the second slice of my appetizer. The server agreed to take the soup back until I was ready for it. The Taquitos were delicious, quite spicy (but I like that) and a little filling but I forged on.

My waitress brought the awkwardly large shallow bowl of soup and I helped her set it down. Usually Tortilla Soup uses strips of tortilla as the main ingredient. In this version the tortillas took a back seat to grilled chicken breast, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, fresh avocado and jack cheese in a wonderful chicken-lime broth – a good soup with full flavor without being spicy like the appetizer. At this moment I was ready to switch drinks to Sangria and was brought a tall-stemmed glass with a healthy portion of the most amazing and delicious Sangria I have ever had. There were orange and apple slices in it but the net flavor was peach!

My main dish was the Especial de la Casa, a Steak Tortilla, cilantro rice, Lobster Enchilada and Refried Black Beans. The elongated plated featured each in order from left to right. The juicy cubed grilled steak was served simply in a soft flour tortilla with mild spices, the pea-green pasilla-cilantro rice was not overly flavored with the Mexican parsley it was made with, and the refried black beans were thick and had individual beans in it (rather than the amorphous paste one sees in run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurants. The real star of the dish was the Lobster Enchilada. I don’t particularly care for lobster, but this was excellent. The sauce had hints of being made with some liqueur and my waitress confirmed that it was indeed a Spanish cherry liqueur. This, combined with mushrooms, tomatoes, capers and chipotle-coriander sauce and garnished with a piece of lobster claw meat, proved to be ambrosia. All I thought with each bite was “Wow!”

I was rapidly getting full and wanted to save some room for dessert, so I stopped, leaving a little mound of rice and beans, and asked for the dessert list. I chose the Chocolate Flan Brulée which came out in a ramekin sparkling with caramelized sugar crust, raspberries and an egg-shaped ball of whipped cream (slightly frozen). My waitress advised me to dig to the bottom for the chocolate and I did. It was incredibly good and very sweet. After I finished half of it I was officially full. The only thing I had room for was a glass of Peligroso (dangerous) Coffee armed with Peligroso Silver tequila and Amaretto DiSoronno, topped with whipped cream. Not since dining at Maya on the Upper East Side have I been this impressed with Mexican cuisine (There, I said it, Chet – it does exist!) For those who want to know, the lead singer in my quartet is a genuine Chef and claims that Mexican is not a cuisine. Sinigual not only is without equal but it’s creating a cuisine where there formerly was little to none.

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