Sunday, March 23, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Dinner and a Movie

Persians and Grecians and Thieves, Oh My!

By Steve Herte

With the Ides of March behind us and spring (hopefully) here, I can honestly say that I'm not sad to see this winter go away. I’m starting to think of warmer days when I can be out in my garden. I’ve even planned my vacation time and July 4th week is all set up. Friday was a catch-up day for movies and proved an interesting experience. It even had me looking up my ancient history books. The restaurant on Friday was a landmark for me (you do know I keep a database since the beginning in 1973) and was not only the 2,590th place I’ve dined, but also the 353rd Italian. How the time has flown! Enjoy!
300: Rise of an Empire (WB, 2014) – Director: Noam Murro. Writers: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad (s/p), Frank Miller (graphic novel). Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headley, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, & Igal Naor. Color and 3D, 102 minutes.

Having seen the first movie 300 and knowing that the Spartan army (300 strong) under King Leonides was defeated and slain to a man in the Battle of Thermopylae (meaning “Hot Gates”) by the Persian army under Xerxes I wondered what the sequel could possibly be about. I mean really, the “300” just weren’t anymore.

This film starts 10 years earlier with the Battle of Marathon when the Persians under “good” King Darius (Naor) first invaded the shores of Greece right into the waiting arms of the Greek forces as they landed. Under the narration of Queen Gorgo (Headey) of Sparta, we witness the brutal bloodshed, culminating in the incredible bowmanship of Themistocles (Stapleton) as he shoots the fatal arrow into Darius, who is still on his ship and a remarkably long distance from shore. Darius dies in the arms of his son Xerxes (Santoro) and his final words are, “Only the gods can defeat the Greeks.” This greatly affects Xerxes until Artemisia (Green) comes along. She’s a Greek defector who witnessed the murder of her entire family and who suffered brutality and abandonment by the people she once loved. Having become proficient in Persia at all martial arts, she now is the commander of the entire Persian fleet. (Hey, why not? Check your Herodotus.) She convinces Xerxes to go to god-making school, a kind of intense combination of religious retreat, self-deprivation therapy and body-building clinic with a touch of WWE theatrics thrown in and he emerges as a hairless, golden, buff hunk draped in gold chains and swaggering better than John Wayne. So the history books depict Xerxes with a full head of black curly hair and an even fuller beard, this is show biz.

Xerxes directs Artemisia to lead the fleet against the much smaller Greek fleet under Themistocles and the Battle of Artemisium (a strangely coincidental location) begins. Themistocles’ strategies take the Persians by surprise at first when he directs the Greek triremes to ram the Persian ships amidships (…”they are weaker in the middle and stronger at the front”) thus saving his ships for the next battle. Then, when the Persians try suicide bombers (yes, this is 480 BC) covered in tar and swimming under a layer of tar (to be lit by flaming arrows) and he directs his archers at the fire-hurlers, who stumble and light their own ship in a huge explosion, Artemisia decides she must have this guy on her side.

Under a flag of truce, Artemisia has her men bring Themistocles onto her barge and, after a ridiculously violent sex scene the two are at a standoff. Themistocles desires a united Greek offensive and goes to Queen Gorgo (now mourning her husband after Thermopylae) to hopefully gain the support of the Spartan fleet, but to no avail. (He thinks.) He has to use his considerable talents as a motivational speaker to rally the “…farmers, sculptors, and poets…” who by now are discouraged by the never-ending resources of the Persians. He succeeds and once more they sally forth to uncertain victory. The battle rages on until Themistocles and Artemisia have each other’s necks at sword point (in one of the thousands of tableaux in the movie) and suddenly, the Spartan navy unfurls their black sails in the distance and swoop in to aid their Athenian countrymen.

Granted, Xerxes’ army has meanwhile swept behind the Athenian forces and now has Athens in a burning, ravaged ruin, but on the waters it’s a Greek victory.

300: The Rise of an Empire, like the first movie, is more of a fanciful painting with motion than a motion picture. The brutality of the battles is made blatantly obvious using copious amounts (sometimes unbelievable) of blood in suspended animation by the ever-present slow-motion photography. The lighting also lends an oil-on-canvas look to the film, and the heroic build of the men and women added a larger-than-life quality to the story. (There are no fat people in the cast – one hunchback, the traitor Ephialtes, played by Andrew Tiernan, but no one is even overweight.) The amount of slicing and dicing that goes on throughout the movie would turn the strongest stomach and possibly traumatize anyone under 15. Even I found myself wondering when the hour and 42 minutes were going to end. Oh no, there’s yet another battle? More slashing, more blood-spatter on the camera? Give me a break. But, what 300: Rise of an Empire did do was give me an insight on the kind of audiences that are now going to movies. They’re accustomed to gobs of gore and even seek it out. Hopefully there will be no more sequels.

On a horticultural note, Artemisia is the genus for the plant Wormwood, from which we extract Absinthe.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Il Brigante
214 Front Street (Beekman St.), South Street Seaport, New York

Blending in with the quaint landmark brick buildings of New York’s South Street Seaport we find Il Brigante (“The Thief” or “The Brigand” in Italian) under a blood red wooden sign with gold lettering. The two front windows have the words “Trattoria” and “Pizzeria” stenciled on them respectively. Inside, once past the heavy draft-curtain is the hustle-bustle of a restaurant staff trying desperately to keep up with this influx of diners. The relatively small room barely contains the 25 bare-topped tables, which are periodically being shifted and re-arranged to accommodate more customers. I was glad I had a reservation. The table in the center of the room was mine and from the beginning I learned to limit my movements when I accidentally elbowed my waitress as she was passing by.

After Tehela and I apologized to each other we were friends. The friendly gentleman who seated me brought my glass of water, the wine and beer (no full bar here, not enough room) list and the menu. I went right to the wine list and ordered the 2009 Montepulciano D’Abruzzo “Colle Salle” from Barone di Valforte, which from its description, was an “intense, full-bodied red,” and it lived up to that appellation. The breadbasket arrived. Sipping my wine and dipping the crusty, fluffy bread into the oil/vinegar dish I listened to the maître d’ cite the specials.

The single room is decorated very simply, like a country eatery in a little village in Italy – a bare brick wall leading to the pizza oven and kitchen in the back and cream colored walls and ceiling elsewhere with simple swags for lighting. Here and there hang small paintings or cooking implements.

I asked Tehela about half-orders of pasta but she assured me they don’t do that (Gee, a first!), but that I could always wrap up dishes to go. There were three dishes I wanted to try and if that meant taking half of one home, no problem. I started with the Parmigiana di Melanzane, listed as “a tower of eggplant, tomato, basil and mozzarella baked in our brick oven.” I was intrigued. What came out was a tomato-ey mound on a white plate with black eggplant skins slipping out the side like forlorn ribbons after a Christmas morning. It was steamy hot, tasty and cheesy but far from a “tower.” Just today I looked at the photo of the dish on their website and it does appear that it should have been hamburger-shaped. But at the time I was just baffled.

I skipped the salad list on the menu and went right to the pastas from which I chose the Trofie al Pesto. Trofie is a thin twisted pasta originating in Genoa in Liguria. The name is oddly from the Greek, meaning “nourishment.” The tender, two-inch homemade pasta were nestled in a white bowl with the rich green pesto sauce peeking out and shaved Romano cheese gracing the top. The dish looked and smelled so good the man at the next table asked what I was having. Indeed it was the star of the meal. I ate it carefully; keeping in mind that half of it would have to go home. It wasn’t easy, but I accomplished it.

This left me hopeful for the main course. Online there were two interesting seafood main dishes, a whole Branzino (which I love, but didn’t think I could finish, and would not last the trip home) and a Sea Breem, another fish I’m familiar with and also like. The Branzino was there but the Sea Breem was not. 

However, there was a swordfish dish, Pescespada alla Griglia – swordfish topped with chopped tomatoes and sided with steamed broccoli and crispy fried potato slices. Once again, the plate was steaming hot, the piece of fish was moist and tender, the broccoli lightly crisp and the potatoes delicious. I was surprised at the small size of the swordfish steak and noted it to Tehela. The chopped tomatoes had a chill to them as if they just came from the refrigerator. I wondered if they could have heated them up a bit before topping the fish. On the whole, the dish was wonderful, but it could have been that much better.

Now, with the paper bag on my table containing the remaining half of my pasta I asked Tehela for the menu, which had the “Dolci” or sweets at the bottom. Tehela touted the Tartuffo and I could not resist. I ordered a double espresso with it. The generous serving of chocolate-covered chocolate and vanilla ice cream bombe (a cherry at the center) was served quartered on a plate with a mound of fresh whipped cream in the center and a sprig of mint. I commented to Tehela that it was the best I’ve ever had. She told me that it’s the only item not homemade, but comes from a bakery in Brooklyn. It was divine, especially the thick, dark coating. The dark coffee paled in comparison.

Il Brigante (from what I can discern from previous reviews) has been in operation since 2007 and whose owner, Venanzio Pasubio is passionate about the quality of the food to the point that there is no microwave in the kitchen. The cuisine and name hearkens back to Sila, the mountainous region of Calabria, Italy where “Robin Hoods” (Brigante) abounded. Also from the reviews I gleaned that the pizzas (several were served while I was there – and my table shifted to accommodate customers) are exceptional. Maybe, at a luncheon hour I will order one to go and enjoy it while watching the river traffic a block away.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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