Friday, December 26, 2014

Night at the Museum 3 – Secret of the Tomb

Dinner and a Movie

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

By Steve Herte

I've discovered that I rush my life more during Christmastime. A couple of time I've thought that appointments are more imminent than they actually are. I know there are many people in my situation. That, and with the end of the year in sight, I have my own little traditions to accomplish. The first is that the last restaurant in the old year is always my favorite restaurant in Manhattan: City Hall. The second is that the first restaurant of the New Year is always my favorite one in Brooklyn: Henry's End. Is that rushing my life or just anticipation? Anyhow, I was confronted with a party, with food included, on the same day I was going to the movies. This preempted a penultimate restaurant review. Instead, I've listed my top ten and bottom five for the new places I've visited this past year. Enjoy!

Night at the Museum 3 Secret of the Tomb (20th Century Fox, 2014) Director: Shawn Levy. Writers: David Guion, Michael Handelman (s/p); Mark Friedman, David Guion & Michael Handelman (story); Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant (characters). Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Ben Kingsley, Crystal the Monkey, Percy Hynes White, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Anjali Jay, & Bill Cobbs. Color, 97 minutes.

There is a qualification for my ratings, which I describe simply as the “Wow” factor. It’s when you leave a movie feeling almost tired from the adrenalin coursing through your system and breathe deeply outside the theater, and either say or think the word. That’s the only thing this film was lacking in, and only minimally at that. I guess I can say that after the original and the first sequel I was inured to the spectacular computer graphic effects and had come to love and accept the cast as good friends. When I left the theater this time I was almost sad because I realized that there was no chance of another Museum movie in the series. Believe me, it was obvious when, at the end of the credits there were “loving memory” dedications to both Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney.

It begins in 1938 at an archeological dig in Egypt when young Cecil (White) accidentally crashes through the ceiling of the very tomb his father was seeking just as a violent sandstorm is nearly upon their caravan. Although warned by the locals not to touch anything because “the end will come,” Dad orders that the trucks be loaded quickly and the sarcophagi and treasures are removed before the storm’s fury hits. The key piece of this discovery is the gold tablet with the three by three matrix of rotatable cartouches. This enables everything in a museum to come to life after sundown.

Well, something bad is happening to the tablet, something like a creeping green mold that diminishes its power. Larry Daley, (Stiller) the night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has by now become so familiar with the various characters in the exhibits that he orchestrates “special effects” entertainment at formal galas in the new glass-enclosed Rose Center, where the Hayden Planetarium is now housed in a globe representing the sun. Everything is going beautifully on cue: Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) trots in on his horse and gives an elegant monologue introducing the Constellations. Led by Leo, the Lion, they sparkle as they sweep into the hall and dance around the ceiling. Dexter, the capuchin monkey, descends from the center of the ceiling on ribbons and performs a Cirque du Soleil- like acrobatic routine... until the mold creeps farther up the tablet and everything goes crazy. Animals and Neanderthals charge into the room, Orion starts shooting arrows at any target he can find, and Dexter attacks Larry. The guests are terrified and Dr. McPhee (Gervais) is mortified.

The next night, Larry holds a confab with all the animated characters and, with Ahkmenrah (Malek), concludes that the deterioration of the tablet is the cause. Ahkmenrah suggests that his father would be the one to fix it. With a bit of research, Larry learns that the only living member of the original archeological team was Cecil (now Van Dyke) and he visits him in the nursing home where he lives, along with Gus (Rooney) and Reginald (Cobbs). Those who saw the first movie remember this trio as the former night watchman and his cronies. Cecil reveals that the sarcophagi of Ahkmenrah’s parents were sent to the British Museum in London. Now Larry has to find a way to get there. He begs Dr. McPhee (who is about to be fired for the debacle at the dinner party) to take Ahkmenrah on a loan to the British Museum. He’s forced to reveal that all the “special effects” that night were actually happening and that the tablet was the source. Begrudgingly, McPhee sets up the loan and Larry travels to London with his son Nick (Gisondo), hoping this will also improve his relationship with him. (Nick doesn’t want to go to college, but rather wants to “spread his wings.”)

It’s now sundown at the British Museum. Larry drives his truck to the loading area, where he convinces the night watchwoman, Tilly (Wilson), that he’s only dropping off a traveling exhibit from New York. Delivery made, he parks the truck out of sight, sneaks back to the door, and upon his knock Ahkmenrah opens it from the inside. Tilly, meanwhile, has fallen asleep at her post. The crate is open and to Larry’s surprise, out pops Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea (Peck), Attila the Hun (Gallagher), Octavius, the Roman soldier (Coogan), Jedediah the cowboy (Wilson), Dexter, and Laaa, the Neanderthal (also Stiller). Upon seeing Laaa, Larry’s face falls. They met at he confab (Laaa is a recent addition to the Neanderthal exhibit) and Laaa, noticing their facial similarities, calls Larry DahDah. But now he’s here in London and to keep him from getting into trouble, Larry assigns Laaa the guardianship of the door (which takes a good bit of time to explain to him).

The rest go searching for the Egyptian wing while dodging all the new animations in the museum, including a Triceratops skeleton (to become known as “Trixie”) that doesn’t like to play “fetch” as does Rexy the T-Rex in New York. In the chase, Octavius and Jedediah fall into a ventilation duct, and Larry has to shut off the power to save them from destruction. Then he straps his son’s iPod to Dexter’s back (for the GPS tracker) and sends the monkey to locate them. Just as Dexter is about to find them, his presence scares the cowboy and Roman into leaping onto a model of the town of Pompeii complete with erupting volcano.

Meanwhile, Larry and company are tracking Octavius and Jedediah, and meet Sir Lancelot of Camelot (Stevens). He joins them in their “quest,” thinking they’re after the Holy Grail. After getting past a gold statue of Garuda guarding a many-headed Chinese snake and defeating it, all are eventually reunited in the Egyptian wing where they are greeted by Shepseheret (Jay) and MerenKahre (Kingsley). They learn the tablet is powered by exposure to the moon when Lancelot swipes it thinking it to be the actual Holy Grail and gallops off on a horse to Camelot (the musical, not the mythical place).

What else could go wrong? Tilly wakes up, sees Laaa eating packing peanuts at the door on her closed circuit TV, and tries to arrest them all. Nick and Teddy lock her in her kiosk with Laaa as a guard while the rest chase Lancelot. One of the great moments is when Lancelot passes Trafalgar Square and the four huge lions surrounding it come alive. “They want to play!” says Jedediah. Larry takes out his flashlight and, like kittens, the four huge beasts start chasing the light spot.

Night at the Museum – Secret of the Tomb is every bit as entertaining and funny as its two predecessors. The cast does an excellent job (most remarkably, Dexter – his training plus, I imagine, a bit of CGI, made his performance amazing). It’s a movie where much going on in the background, the viewer don’t know where to look for fear of missing something. The whole family will enjoy it. There is physical comedy as well as clever lines. Yes, I was sad to see this cast go but, as Robin Williams said in one of his last lines, “Let us go. It’s time for your next adventure.”  

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Top Ten New Restaurants (and Five Bottom) of 2014

This is a special edition of my usual Dinner and a Movie column because I didn’t go to a restaurant the evening of the movie. Instead I was convinced to attend “the best holiday party of the year.” Apparently, this particular party has gained a reputation and, since they had the included attraction of featuring karaoke, I signed up. Timewise, it was better to have my “dinner” at the party first and then go to the movie. I figured out a schedule that wouldn’t get me home too late and was surprised by the incredible variety and amount of food and drink being served. And…it was all pretty good, for a buffet. The KJ (Karaoke Jockey) played dance music right up to the “witching hour” of my schedule when I was forced to do a Cinderella (without leaving a shoe) or miss the movie. Ergo, I didn’t get to sing. Oh well, it’s their loss.

I’ve entitled this article emphasizing “new” restaurants with the understanding that my two all-time favorite restaurants, City Hall in downtown Manhattan and Henry’s End in Brooklyn Heights were not surpassed. The top ten came close, very close. You’ll see that the list contains one Cantonese, two Spanish, two Mexican, a Steakhouse, an Italian, a Latino, an American and a Ukranian. Each one in their own way had me purring with delight and if you’ve kept up with my reviews you know the particulars. Therefore, now I present this year’s winners of “Most Likely To Be Revisited”:

311 West 43rd St. (bet. 8th and 9th Aves.)New York

Hakkasan is a tour de force of décor, caring and prompt service, innovative cuisine and intriguing cocktails. Even the menu is transporting. I went to this restaurant with preconceived notions about Cantonese food and came away with a new respect for regional cuisine and the chef. He took a style of cooking and made it into a true cuisine. Though a little bit pricy I enjoyed every course and every drink. They truly deserve their Michelin star.

Giorgio’s of Gramercy
27 East 21st Street (bet. Bdwy. and 5th Ave.)New York

Giorgio’s is one of those restaurants that are an established part of the New York City scene. No one I met has anything but praise to say about it. The confidence of the staff in the quality of their dishes was addictive as was the actual consistently spectacular food. Though there are crystal chandeliers and enormous floral arrangements, Giorgio’s is not snooty or pretentious. It’s home. That and the amazing roasted oysters would get me to return at the mere mention of the name.

El Vez New York
259 Vesey StreetNew York

I was overjoyed when I saw this import from Philadelphia arrive in Battery Park City. How good is it? I have not had a trip to Philly without dining at El Vez for either dinner or lunch. Helene cued me into this fascinating Mexican and I’m slowly trying everything on their menu. Now that they’re at walking distance, the goal of completing my tastings is in reach. The virtually identical menu allows me to do just that. It’s not your Mama’s home cooking but new twists on Mama’s recipes, ones she’d have been proud to create. New Yorkers who have mistaken this place for Chevy’s (which occupied the address previously) have found out that it is superior in every way.

361 Greenwich St. (near Franklin St.), New York

Tablao takes Tapas and makes it not only and art form but a substantial meal. With excellent food and wide selection of Spanish wines it is difficult not to get caught up in the joy of Spanish culture, especially if you arrive on Flamenco night (Friday). I’ve quoted their website before and I quote again now, “the perfect relaxed environment for hours of lounging, dining, drinking or just hanging out with friends...” I've already recommended Tablao to several friends.

Taberna del Alabardero
1776 I Street NW, Washington, D.C.

This is the only non-New York restaurant to make this elite list. Even though I was late for my reservation (frankly, was a little lost and walked the wrong way first) I was treated like a member of Spain’s royal party. With 25 years in operation, this Taberna has developed a class act and sensitivity to their customers. Every dish was superb and made to my specifications (my waiter’s suggestions helped greatly in making these). The very next time I’m in D.C. I promise to revisit.

Distilled New York
211 West Broadway (at Franklin St.)New York

Distilled claims to be redesigning the public house and, to a certain extent they are achieving that. People there are not only enjoying the food but also the company of other diners as well. I generally refuse if given the choice between a seat at the bar or a table, but not here. Here, it’s called the Chef’s Table and it’s not only comfortable but it’s fun. Where else can you get Mead and Moonshine, Paté and Fried Duck and Waffles? As they sing in the song “42 Street,” Distilled is where “the underworld can meet the elite.” And they both have a good time.

165 Allen Street (bet. Stanton and Rivington Sts.), New York

The tree growing in the center of this restaurant is not the only thing that makes it unique; nor the banquettes that are wider than your legs are long. They are both a part of the free style of this wonderful Latino eatery named after a version of hopscotch. In business for seven years before I discovered it, Rayuela has been serving excellent, well prepared and extremely flavorful food to many satisfied customers. I know, I was one of them. And anyone who has set ideas about flan should try Rayuela’s.

Korchma Taras Bulba
357 West Broadway (bet. Grand and Broome Sts,)New York

When the Old World is recreated so well that it brings a tear to the eye you know you’ve arrived at this charming (and extremely rare) Ukrainian restaurant. The food is simple and hearty and the portions are just right. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, there’s plenty of vodka in several flavors (and a shot before you leave). The staff dresses in peasant costumes and will let the patrons wear their straw hats if asked. Who knew there was more than one recipe for Borscht?

Añejo Tribeca
301 Church St., New York

This Mexican was a true discovery. For a small place, it delivered satisfaction on a grand scale. Where else can you have a tasting of three guacamoles and all are artfully spiced and delicious as well as unique? The staff treats the customer as if they’ve known you forever. There’s a palpable homey atmosphere. It was here that, once again my expectations about flan were proven wrong. Imagine the amalgam of caramel custard and the technique and texture of crème brûlée?

Tender Steak & Sushi
132 West 47th St., New York

On my last “staycation” in New York City I had two disappointing experiences with hotel restaurants. One was with the one where I was staying and the other was at the sister hotel of the one where I stayed. Meanwhile, all the time there was this marvelous, sexy dining spot right across the street from me. The intimate décor melded with the top-notch cuisine mixing steakhouse with Japanese created an excellent dining experience. That coupled with great service by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable, caring staff more than made up for my temerity in dining at a “hotel-restaurant.”

The Bottom Five

For every “Top Ten” list, unfortunately there has to be a “Bottom Five.” These are restaurants that I would not return to unless they were proven to have had a major upgrade one way or the other.

S Dynasty
511 Lexington Ave.New York

You’re almost lulled into a false sense of security and classiness by the décor of this Midtown Chinese. Then, when you experience the undeservedly snooty service and the ordinary food you know that your local take-out place is friendlier, more comfortable and tastier.

Trapp Family Lodge
700 Trapp Hull RoadStowe, Vermont

For a lodge that is so filled to the brim with Swiss architecture and charm, and delightful rooms with balconies facing the scenic mountains of Vermont, one might expect better service and food in the dining room. I know I did. When my main course was so inedible that I had to send it back after waiting patiently for an inordinate amount of time I was shocked. The replacement meal was not much better and my dining companions were disappointed as well. But the uncaring service was unacceptable.

The Trading Post
170 John Street (South St.), New York

Just let it be said that when this place was the Yankee Clipper it was many times better than what it devolved into. Before, it was a great and homey seafood restaurant – rustic, welcoming and comfortable. Now, it’s unsure if it’s a pub or a burger joint. The food is pedestrian at best, run-of-the-mill at worst. Now they have a formidable doorman and the service is “whenever we get to you.” And the bar crowd sound like a lot more fun than dining there.

Bierhaus NYC
712 3rd AvenueNew York

If the almost deafening noise of this German wannabe and the close quarters with other customers is what Oktoberfest is really like, then I’m glad I never attended one. The beer is excellent and the pretzels tasty, but I don’t have to go to a place where I have to flag down the servers to get my meal and shout to be understood. The food was good but uninspired. No return here.

Ted’s Montana Grill
110 West 51st StreetNew York

The only reason I dined at Ted’s (named after Ted Turner, who has a ranch where bison roam free) was for the several bison dishes. Previously, I first tasted bison in Banf, Canada, and loved it. Ted’s did not improve on the recipe. As people may tell you, you don’t know how good a place is if you don’t go there. Well, I did. And it scared me that I knew more than my server. Sorry Ted. Next time it will be one of the other two major steakhouses one the same side of the same block.

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