Friday, December 18, 2015

The Good Dinosaur

Dinner and a Movie

Four-Footed Farmers and Other Mythical Creatures

By Steve Herte

Helene once said, "Approach everything with no expectations and you'll never be disappointed." It was something she learned from someone else in her past. I should put this maxim into practice more often. It applies to both the movie and the restaurant. Enjoy!

Sanjay’s Super Team (Pixar/Disney, 2015) – Director: Sanjay Patel. Color, PG, 7 minutes.

As with many animated feature films, there was an animated short to (I guess) get you into the mood. This seven-minute delight told the story of young Sanjay, an Indian boy nearly glued to the television watching his favorite Super Hero cartoons. His father enters the same room and opens the family shrine to meditate before Siva, Krishna and Hanuman. He lights the wick in a small dish and everything is fine until he begins chanting “OM.”

Then it’s a contest of sound. Sanjay turns up the volume on the TV as the father chants louder while lowering the television volume. Eventually, the father turns the television off and brings Sanjay to the shrine. Sanjay is bored and daydreams an entire adventure inside the shrine when he accidentally blows out the flame. A giant purple monster emerges from the dying wick and it destroys the images of the three deities and assumes their physical properties.

But Sanjay manages to re-light the wick and the three deities appear to fight the demon using their various special talents. But it’s Sanjay himself who defeats the creature with his action figure. He now has a greater appreciation for the religion his father follows and he incorporates the deities in his crayon drawing of a Super Team. His father joins him in admiring the picture.

It’s a beautiful little film, a bit on the abstract side, very colorful, and it states its point effectively.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Good Dinosaur (Pixar/Disney, 2015) – Director: Peter Sohn. Writers: Bob Peterson (orig. concept & development), Peter Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann, & Bob Peterson (story), Meg LeFauve (s/p). Voices: Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Tepple, Jack McGraw, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Peter Sohn, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, & Sam Elliott. Color, PG, 93 minutes.

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I was horrified at the goofy way dinosaurs were depicted and drawn, even the Tyrannosaurus Rex family. The exceedingly big eyes on the star character, Arlo (voiced by McGraw when young and later by Ochoa) reminded me of those early Japanese cartoons now called animé, another style I’m not too fond of. Owned by Disney (not a name to draw me in), the movie’s primary producer is Pixar, and that was the hook.

Not too many animated features have what I’ve called the “Wow!” factor, but this one does. The reason is Pixar’s superior team of talented animators. One forgets the unbelievably ludicrous characters when one realizes that the scenes, backgrounds and everything they interact with are eye-poppingly real, right down to the water effects. In 3D, this remarkable juxtaposition is downright breathtaking.

The movie starts out in space, in the asteroid belt 65 million years ago, as one rock bumps into another and the second sends a bigger one hurtling toward Earth. The music increases in urgency as it nears our planet. Herbivorous dinosaurs are calmly eating. The asteroid rockets by overhead and misses its target as the beasts raise their heads to watch it go by and continue eating.

The “what if” continues in the next scene, “millions of year later…” We see an expectant couple of brachiosaurs (not apatosaurs, as I’ve heard they should be) named Henry and Ida (Wright and McDormand) plowing a field with muzzles, planting corn, and watering it by gulping river water and acting as fire hoses. Dinosaurs have the ability of speech and these two are farmers.

Ida’s three eggs are hatching. The two smallest produce Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and Buck (Tepple, later Scribner). The largest egg unfortunately reveals the runt of the litter, Arlo. Arlo is terrified of everything and doesn’t take too well to farming chores. He’s clumsy and shy.

Henry has built a silo out of stones to store the corn for the winter and he and Ida place their mark on it by leaving muddy footprints on focal stones. As Libby and Buck perform well at their tasks, they too place their marks on the silo. But not Arlo, he has trouble feeding the chickens.

To bolster Arlo’s courage, Henry sets up a trap to catch whatever has been stealing their corn and puts Arlo in charge of dispatching any creature they catch. It’s a cave boy who acts more like a dog than anything else and Arlo lets it get away. Henry leads Arlo in chasing it down, but a storm brews up while they’re on a narrow riverbank and it sends a flash flood roaring toward them. Henry tosses Arlo out of harm’s way, and is swept away by the raging waters and drowns.

Arlo associates the lightening and rain with that moment through the rest of the movie. It’s not too long after that he finds the boy in the silo again. But in the process of subduing him, they both wind up in the river.

Now far from home and hungry, Arlo is forced to learn survival skills. But how? The cave boy finds him, somehow knows he’s hungry, and brings him an iguana (which he refuses), a giant beetle (he even tears the head off, but Arlo turns his nose up at it), and some berries. These he likes and asks for more. The boy leads him along a narrow cliff ledge to the tree, but there’s a large red snake defending it. More like a wolf than a human, the boy fights off the snake, much to Arlo’s wonder.

A voice seeming to come from nowhere reveals Forrest Woodbush (Sohn), a styracosaurus who not only blends in with the trees but also has various forest creatures perched on the horns of his collar. He sees the value in having the boy around and says, “If you name him, you can have him.” Several horrible names are tried until Arlo chooses “Spot,” and the boy reacts. Ever after, Spot (Bright) is his companion on his journey home.

Along the way, they become separated when another storm catches them and Arlo runs from it. He meets three Pterodactyls, Thunderclap (Zahn), Downpour (Freund) and Coldfront (Hunter), who pretend that they’re saving creatures from the ravages of the storm but are in fact carnivorous scavengers. They only see Spot as food.

Arlo and Spot are on the run from the ferocious flyers when they encounter the Tyrannosaurus Rex family of Butch (Elliott), his son Nash (Buckley), and daughter Ramsey (Paquin). The three of them overpower the pterodactyls and they fly away. Butch agrees to help Arlo get home if he can help them find their herd of “longhorns” (actually a mix of bison and auroch). Spot sniffs the herd out effectively, but the “rustlers” are still with the beasts. Butch convinces Arlo to mount a rock in the middle of the herd to attract the attention of the rustlers with a loud scream. Arlo is too terrified to scream until Spot bites his leg.

Soon, they are surrounded by velociraptors talking like cowpokes in a Hopalong Cassidy episode. Bubbha (Boat), Lurleane (Paff), Pervis (Grant) and Earl (Ratzenberger) take the bait and are ambushed by the T-Rex family. Butch holds up his end of the deal and after a short while Arlo sees the triple peaks of “Saw-Tooth Mountain” (actually, the Tetons) that mean home to him and he and Spot leave the company of the herders.

A howl in the distance makes Spot turn around and we see an adult cave person in the distance, but Arlo ignores it and heads home. Another lightning storm develops, the pterodactyls return and carry off Spot, leaving Arlo tangled up in vines and unconscious from hitting his head on a rock. The dream he has of his father makes him realize he loves Spot and he wakes up, untangles himself and chases after the pterodactyls.

The concept behind The Good Dinosaur is as valid as it is strange – the extremely big “what if?” The lessons it teaches about family and friendship are pretty clear. The parallels to The Lion King are pure Disney – the father being killed and the son in exile who learns to be an adult. I enjoyed it in spite of the trailers. But the scenery blew me away. When Spot teaches Arlo to swim, I was convinced that this cartoony character was actually in the water. Even when he’s standing awkwardly on a rock and craning his neck to reach a clump of berries, and falls when the rock rolls out from under his feet. It looked real. I was advised to see this one in 3D and I’m glad I took that advice. It was stunning. The best deal Disney ever made was to buy Pixar. Bring the whole family to this one.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

244 E. 46th St. (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues), New York City

Normally, I would dismiss any restaurant that doesn’t think enough of itself to maintain a website as being unworthy of a visit. I like to see the décor and view the menu ahead of time to know how to dress and consider what dishes would attract me. The fabulous beast this very Italian gem was named after was part of the reason I chose it anyway (it being semi-lion) and the stuffed artichoke on the menu – I had to find it on – was the clincher.

One block’s walk farther from the theater than last week’s restaurant (I passed Aretsky’s on the way), Grifone is nearly on Second Avenue. The entrance is a simple maroon awning with the name in white script over the door and not too much window facing the street. It’s very understated and appears more like a private club. Inside, four steps up, you’re facing the bar, which continues to the front window on one side and into the main dining area on the other. There are two or three small tables on the window side and more flanking a central walkway in the dining area. Everything is low key, beige walls, butterscotch leather on the banquettes, a single large vase of flowers, and small vases of rapidly wilting alstroemeria on each table.

I confirmed my reservation with the captain and checked my hat and coat (number 33). The first thing I noticed was that all the servers were male. The only woman was in the coat checkroom. Old-School Italian? Definitely. I was led to a table about midway and was asked about water preference as I was being seated. Another thing about traditional Italian ristorante behavior is that no ONE is your server; everyone is your server. I never saw the same face twice in a row.

When I was settled at table another server asked about a cocktail and I ordered my standard martini. It was served perfectly mixed and chilled. A different server brought a platter of ante paste with gherkins, cheese, olives and prosciutto. Oh yes, very old school. I knew exactly where I was then. I could have told you the order in which things would happen.

Halfway through my martini and munching on the last piece of cheese wrapped in prosciutto, I was asked if I would like to see the menu. I said yes and he presented it to me. The categories were what I would expect: Antipasti, Zuppe (soup), Insalate (salad), Pasta, Vegetali (sides), Pollo (chicken), Vitello (veal), Pesce (fish), Manzo (beef), Dolci (sweets/desserts), and Caffe.

My previous reviews would tell you that I prefer a three-course meal, but one reading of this menu told me it would have to be a four-courser. The server who would take my dinner order caught my glance and asked if I had any questions. I told him about the online menu featuring my favorite appetizer, stuffed artichoke, and noted that it was missing from this menu. “We have one left.” He said. “I’ll take it.” I gave him my choice of soup and pasta and undecided, asked him for a recommendation on the main course. He said his favorite was the day’s special baby lamb chops and I agreed. When he had all the food listed I asked for the wine list and he left to put in my order.

By the time he came back I had my wine chosen. Some of the prices were ridiculous but I found a 2010 Barolo “Marchesi di Barolo” at a reasonable price (especially for a Barolo). It’s still one of my favorite Italian wines, a deep red, rich nose, fruity but tannic, a wine with a solid character to stand up to the intense flavors of Italian food.

Another server brought the silver breadbasket of crusty, fluffy Italian bread – it looked like half a loaf – and a small glass bowl of olive oil. Then the carciofi ripieni (stuffed artichoke) arrived. The upper half of the vegetable was totally obscured by a mushroom cloud of fragrantly herbed breadcrumbs baked golden brown. I almost forgot to photograph it before tearing it apart. I was never the one who left the last anything on the plate and I was glad they saved this one for me.

I love stracciatella, the ever-present spinach and egg drop soup that says, “Italianissimo!” There was so much egg in this soup only a slight grating of cheese was necessary. It also made getting every last drop of broth easy.

As I didn’t have to over-describe my martini, I never had to inform the servers of my slow eating habits because it was automatic. No dish arrived before I was finished with the one before and had time to enjoy a sip or two of my lovely wine. The pappardella pasta with veal ragout was an appetizing eggy yellow and obviously homemade. Just the right degree of al dente, it was graced with the veal sauce, which was not too salty and wore a tiara of the appropriate amount of grated cheese.

Each dish up to now was picture-perfect on plate but the baby lamb chops over arugula with potatoes was clearly the star. My server (whichever one he was) was correct. Juicy, tender and full of that wonderful lamb flavor, they were easy to cut from the bone, and the arugula was as fresh as could be, not even a hint of wiltedness. I was amazed to find the simply cooked potatoes as delicious as the rest of the dish. And, this may seem like overkill, but I couldn’t resist the Brussels sprouts with artichoke hearts side dish. No complaints there. Also, nothing was left on the plate.

No one shows appreciation for an empty plate like the Italians. The term “Buon Appetito” was repeated several times. While I was having my martini I saw my dessert being served to a couple at the next table. The millefolia (thousand leaves) cake was the perfect ending to a big dinner. It was light, custard-y with delicate layers of filo pastry. Of course a double espresso is de rigueur with this dish. The manager must have been impressed and brought me a glass of strega on the house. At this point, I didn’t care if they had a website or not.

I learned later that Grifone has been in business since 1985 and that this year was their 30th Anniversary. Buona Fortuna! I would definitely return to repeat this very Italian experience.

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