Friday, January 24, 2014

The Nut Job 3D

Dinner and a Movie

Nuts on the Tablao

By Steve Herte

If you had told me in 1964 that I would get up from my table at a restaurant to talk with real musicians I would have told you that you were crazy. Before I discovered Barbershop quartet singing and karaoke after it, I was classified as “painfully shy.” There was no way I would get up onto a stage, much less sing from one. But now I know that performers are just ordinary people who realize they have a gift to share and they love talking about it – especially to fellow performers. The crazy things that have been happening at work (I mean crazier than usual) prepared me for a fun night out and it was.

You’re asking when it was that the shyness left me? The end of senior year in high school (1968) when I imitated Tiny Tim performing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on a dare for the class night out. Barbershop and karaoke were not until 1972 and 1973. First quartet song – “California Here I Come.” First karaoke song – “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.” Enjoy!

The Nut Job 3D (Open Road Films, 2014) – Director: Peter Lepeniotis. Writers: Lorne Cameron & Peter Lepeniotis (s/p), Daniel Woo (story). Voices: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Stephen Lang, Maya Rudolph, & Jeff Dunham. Color and 3D, 83 minutes.

From the first trailer I’ve been attracted to The Nut Job for the beauty and detail of its animation, the excellence of the writing by Lorne Cameron and Daniel Woo in coordination with Director Peter Lepeniotis, and the voice of the main character, Surly Squirrel (Arnett). Not since the Easter Bunny in Rise of the Guardians have I witnessed the creation of such a strong character in an animated film. He’s almost real.

Surly – as his name suggests – is a tough-talking loner whose main concern is “number one.” His only friend is a rat named Buddy who never speaks until the end of the movie, where he says two words, “Best friend,” even after being pushed around and generally ignored by Surly. The rest of the park animals consider Surly an outlaw and keep their distance from him until one day, in the attempt to grab a bag of nuts from a nut cart, he manages to light the gas tank heating the cart. It rockets into the park and torches the oak tree containing what little food the park animals have gathered for the winter.

For this final outrage, Raccoon (Neeson), the self-appointed leader of the park animals, has them vote to exile Surly from the park to live on the city streets. Andie, a female red squirrel (voiced by Heigl), protests that this is not according to the rules they set up in the beginning but she is overruled.

Surly finds the city streets hostile with people nearly stepping on him, vehicles almost crushing him and finally, in a deserted alley a pack of mangy city rats ambush him. Only with the help of Buddy (who follows him everywhere, even when told not to) does he escape them. Hungry and scared, he finally discovers the Nut Shop where the former cart got its supply. He comes up with a plan to purloin as many nuts as he can carry and live in luxury the rest of his days. Thanks to Buddy, they find a way in through a transom, negotiate a maze of rat traps and meet the guard dog, a female pug named Precious (Rudolph). Precious makes it difficult for them until Surly notices one of the humans using a dog whistle to stop Precious’ barking. Once he obtains it, the pug is under his control.

Back at the park, arrangements are being made to find food to replace what was burned in the oak tree and Andie and Grayson (Fraser), a narcissistic local hero-type squirrel with a resplendent gray tail, are chosen to scout out possibilities. It isn’t long before Andie and Grayson run into Surly and Buddy and discover that the nut shop has enough food for the whole park community. Enlisting the services of two flatulent groundhogs they burrow into the nut shop – a very funny scene. Mole (Dunham) is there to help but being blind as a bat, he can’t. Besides, true to his character, he’s a double agent and is conniving with Raccoon to limit the food in order to control the park creatures and reports all to Raccoon.

While the animals are busy digging their way into the Nut Shop, the thugs who own the store are digging their own tunnel under the street to the bank vault on the other side. Their intention is to steal the bags of money and leave bags of nuts in their place. Their leader is a dark character who looks like the antagonist in Stephen King’s Needful Things and who is also affected by anyone blowing the dog whistle, a set-up for humor in the beginning and a saving device at the end. The many interactions between the animals and the humans are the source of craziness and comedy in this film.

The Nut Job distinguishes itself over other animated films by being a novel story told in a lightly moralistic, sensitive and almost allegorical way. One can’t help but notice that the animals are drawn in minute detail right down to the finest hair on a squirrel’s tail while the humans are blocky, minimally defined and decidedly oafish. The audience cannot help but to side with the animals. The use of color is interesting as well. Surly has a dark blue, almost black coat and thick black eyebrows to darken his frowns. He’s slightly unkempt, while Grayson is extremely well groomed. Andie is a bright red, possibly to point out that she’s a female and the love interest. And one need not say why a raccoon was once again a villain; the facial mask gives them a bad rap as well as a hoodlum look.

The 3D effects in The Nut Job were beautifully done and didn’t hinder the forward motion of the movie. The only scene where things are thrown at the audience was the burning oak tree scene, and the projectile was popcorn. The story was wonderfully conceived and the tale is smoothly told without dead spaces or even hiccups. The one-hour, 26-minute timing was perfect, except for the children sitting around me in the theater. The scripted humor is geared more to adults; the children hardly ever laughed when I did and were squirming after an hour. Adults keep confusing animated films with cartoons – they are not the same. Most often cartoons are mindless, silly entertainment while animated films have a serious, educational side – this one in particular – about friendship, sharing, family and community. If your children have limited attention spans, this is not their movie. Otherwise The Nut Job is a cinematic marvel and a joy to watch.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

361 Greenwich Street (near Franklin Street), New York

People who read my reviews ask me if I ever go to a bad restaurant. Not intentionally. I know what they mean because mostly I’m raving about the food or the service or the atmosphere. No one ever deliberately goes to a dump to dine. Occasionally, one thing or another (or many at once) happens to diminish the dining experience and rarely (thank God) is it detrimental to one’s health. So if you’re one of those people who feed on negative reviews and thrive on trashing an establishment read no further. This is not one of those.

This relatively new (three-months old) Spanish restaurant attracted me with the photo on, where it appeared to have purple lighting under the bar (which dominates most of the restaurants’ length). It is separated from rows and tables by graceful arches supported by slender columns. At first, the wall to the left sports a series of elliptical mirrors in Moorish frames, yielding to open brick over mosaic tile. The high ceilings are decorated with a loose latticework of light wood boards, and the lighting over the bar is from a series of oblong chandelier supporting lamps shaped like fat candles in various stages of melting.

The full title of this restaurant is Tablao Tapas Y Restaurante to accent the serving of both Tapas and Spanish cuisine. “Tapas” is a plural word. A “tapa” (meaning lid or cover) was originally thought to be a slice of ham or cheese placed over one’s drink to hide the smell of the wine (from fruit flies I would imagine). It evolved to become small portions of various recipes; meant to be served with drinks to avoid drinking on an empty stomach. 

There are even legends of kings decreeing that this be the way to serve drinks – always with food. In my previous experiences with tapas, the plates have never been more than six inches in diameter with the food occupying the inner four-inch circle. Tablao has a selection of 26 of these, plus six that were served “a La Plancha” (on the grill), four Montaditos (served on toasted bread), and four “Pinchos” (what they call “spiked bites”). Then there are four Ensaladas (salads). The Plato Principal (main dishes) number 12, so if you don’t find something you like on this menu, perhaps you should not be dining out.

The lovely young lady led me to my table a little bit past halfway through the restaurant and between the bar and the stage (which I nearly tripped over). Did I mention that a Tablao is specifically a place where Flamenco is performed? Tonight was the night and I had just been seated ringside. My server, Evan brought a glass of water and asked if I needed other libation and I chose the Spanish Manhattan – a darker, sweeter version of the original combination of rye and sweet vermouth. It was delicious. Evan then proceeded to help me understand the menu better. He explained that some of the tapas were bigger in portion, depending on whether the dish had been fried, boiled or merely marinated. That said, I chose two tapas and a main course and he approved of my selection.

Tablao’s wine list includes wines from Spain, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Italy and South Africa, all at reasonable prices. I chose a 2007 Viñohonda Monastrell from Spain and marveled at its good strong nose and full body.

While my wine breathed and I was sipping my cocktail the Flamenco group was assembling on stage – two men, the singer and the guitarist and the two women dancers. The entertainment started as my two tapas arrived. I was glad I didn’t order three. The portions were significantly larger than any tapas I had had before. 

The Pulpo Diablo – imported Spanish octopus cooked in a spicy Spanish creole sauce – was sheer delight. The tomato-y sauce was just spicy enough to accent the slices of tender octopus and the onions and peppers included in the dish. Two slices of crispy-crusted bread topped the dish, which explains why the only dish I did not finish was the bread, served with olive oil for dipping. 

The second tapa was Tablao’s Manchego Chips – homemade potato chips seasoned with shredded Manchego cheese. These large (you would never fit one of them into a Pringle’s container) crisp, slightly salty and wonderfully cheesy masterpieces formed a mound on a seven-inch plate – more like a side dish than a tapa. But you won’t hear me complaining. Between these two and the wine I was clapping my hands along with the dancers.

The main dish, Baby Pernil, was a roasted Berkshire pork shank served over a corn and chorizo (Spanish sausage) stew. The formidable serving looked worthy to be served to Henry the Eighth and I had to remark, “This is the baby?” But, slow and steady wins the race and, between sips of wine, the tender juicy meat fell off the bone and was consumed by a very satisfied customer. During their break I had the opportunity to speak to three of the four performers, compliment them on their expertise and learn that Flamenco groups are rarely the same gathering of people, just like banjo groups or Barbershop quartets. Once they have enough for a performance, they rehearse to get a program together. I thought they were marvelous.

It was by now dessert time and I was ready. The Fresas con Jerez was a lovely stemmed bowl of sliced strawberries macerated with sherry wine and served with sherry whipped cream. Oh my! It went perfectly with my Carajillo – Spanish coffee mixed with brandy.

On their website, Tablao calls themselves “the perfect relaxed environment for hours of lounging, dining, drinking or just hanging out with friends…” I definitely agree and will be back with friends, maybe Monica when she returns from Japan.

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