Thursday, December 28, 2017


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Ferdinand (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Carlos Saldanha. Writers: Robert L. Baird, Brad Copeland & Tim Federle (s/p). Ron Burch, David Kidd & Don Rhymer (story). Robert Lawson & Munro Leaf (book). Stars: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Sisto, Colin H. Murphy, Jerrod Carmichael, Julia Scarpa Saldanha, Rafael Scarpa Saldanha, David Tennant, Carlos Saldanha, Lily Day, Jack Gore, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Nile Diaz, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Gina Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Daveed Diggs, Luis Carlos de La Lombana & Juanes. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 106 minutes.

The bull never wins!” 

So says Ferdinand (Cena) after his inadvertent tour of the Casa del Toro becomes a slogan for escape to freedom for his fellow bulls in this elaboration of a classic tale told by Disney in an Academy Award-winning short back in 1938.

A simple child’s story becomes an allegory on the futility of war as four bull calves – Valiente (Gore), Bones (Diaz), Guapo (Jurgensmeyer), and Ferdinand (Murphy) –interact at a farm in Spain breeding bulls for the matadors in Madrid. Their fathers have taught them that to bring down a matador is a glorious battle and to be chosen for the ring is the greatest thing for which a bull could hope. But Ferdinand cares more for the single flower growing in their pen than butting heads with the others.

One day, Ferdinand’s father, Raf (Sisto) is chosen over Valiente’s father (Cannavale) for the big fight. When he doesn’t come back Ferdinand realizes there is something’s wrong and manages to escape. After a chase and a desperate leap onto a freight train, the exhausted young calf awakes to find himself in a remote barn in as florist farm owned by Juan (Juanes) and his daughter Nina (Saldanha), along with their faithful sheepdog Paco (Carmichael). Nina and Ferdinand become fast friends and, even though he grows to enormous size, he’s a family member.

The family always goes to the annual Flower Fiesta until Ferdinand grows so huge that Juan decides he must stay home because “others will not see him as we do.” But Ferdinand goes anyway. When he’s stung by a bee he trashes the town square in his frenzy and is grabbed by Animal Control workers who take him to the Casa del Toro. There he meets a goofy “calming goat” named Lupe (McKinnon) and all of the bulls he knew before, now adults. Also in the pen are a Scottish bull, Angus (Tennant), whose long forelocks completely hamper his sight and Maquina, a silent, almost robotic bull.

All of his mates are eager to be in the ring, which beats being sent to the slaughter house up the hill. Ferdinand still does not want to fight and decides that escape once again is the only choice. However, he’s not a calf anymore, plus there are three Austrian Lipizzaner stallions in adjoining pen who not only look down on the “smelly bulls,” but will loudly announce any attempt at escape.

Enter three hedgehogs who try to steal food from Ferdinand and Lupe’s stall. Una (Rodriguez), Dos (Diggs), and Cuatro (Iglesias). When Ferdinand asked what happened to Tres, the others tell him, “We do not speak of Tres,” while crossing themselves. Ferdinand befriends the trio and together they work out an escape plan.

Meanwhile, Moreno (Raul Esparza), owner of Casa del Toro is being visited by matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre), who is planning his last bullfight. He wants “The best bull to fight, the best!” 

The escape plan works for all but Ferdinand and after a hilarious chase which is televised and seen by Nina and Juan, Ferdinand winds up in the bull ring.

The last time I saw a story stretched out this far was Where the Wild Things Are (2009), an extremely short book that became a one hour and 41 minute movie. In this case, an eight-minute short has evolved into a one hour and 46 minute movie. But I was entertained from start to finish. The animation was excellent, and however bizarre it got, it was fun. The humor was mixed for kids and adults, a lot of sight gags, some satire and puns and plays on words, e.g., “Where do you think the word ‘Bully’ comes from?”

But the big thing is that the film is as near to an anti-war fable as can be. The matador wants the battle so that he can retire in “glory” and the bulls want to fight the matador for the same reason. One last word: be sure to stay through the credits to see the shock on Una, Dos and Cuatro’s faces when Tres appears.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.
5 West 21st Street, New York

I had the pleasure of dining here before, when it was Kat and Theo’s. Only two months ago it was reincarnated as Merakia, a Greek word that expresses the joy of living. I discovered that the recipes of the past are still being served, along with new ones (some new just for Americans, traditional for Greeks).

Lit up like a Broadway marquee, one can’t miss Merakia, even though the name is in simple script in white letters on a gray awning. Once seated, I was greeted by my server, Eirini. I ordered a Rolls Royce Cocktail to start – gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters and Benedictine. It was an appealing apple red with a four inch slice of orange peel straddling the lip of the glass. It had a martini-meets-Manhattan sort of flavor; a great start to a meal with many flavors.

Eirini suggested a special dish that Greeks usually make for the Easter season. She described it as using the lamb offal as well as the meat. It sounded great, though I wondered why they were making it for Christmas, and I agreed to try it. She smiled and went to put in the order. but returned shortly to tell me they were temporarily out of the dish. Figuring it must have been popular (or they didn’t make too many because it was so unusual), I adjusted my order.

The wine choice was easy, as I always accompany a Greek meal with a Greek wine. In this case it was the 2010 Lagara Red “V” from Vourvoukelis Vineyards, Thrace. It’s woody, oak-like nose, deep ruby color and tannic, fruity flavor was a joy with all my courses.

I ordered two appetizers. First up was Katerina’s Keftedes – pan-seared Angus meatballs on a bed of ouzo-infused tzatziki (yoghurt and cucumber sauce). It’s a recipe belonging to the famous “Kat” of Kat and Theo. The juicy, tender meatballs were lined up on a narrow plate with a stewed plum tomato. The flavors of yoghurt, olive oil and vinegar added a Greek tang to the beef and the touch of Ouzo made it ambrosia.

One of my favorite Greek appetizers is Saganaki – fried feta cheese flamed in ouzo. Think of it as pasta, al dente and sweet, only a little salty and with that licorice flavor of Ouzo. Delightful.

Eirini brought out my main course, Mountainthief Kleftiko — slow-cooked lamb stew with two cheeses presented in Karveli (a sourdough bread) — with the restaurant owner right behind her to tell me it was gratis. Wonderful. If you’ve ever had Beef Wellington or Head Cheese and liked them, then you’re ready for this dish. It combined the lean dark meat of the lamb with the liver and other organs to create a decadent diet-killer that tasted both sweet and tart, savory and rich. My own little loaf of a sour-dough-like bread, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside was filled with juicy, tender lamb pieces, peppers and onions and cheese. I wanted to finish it all and did manage to finish the stew, but only the top piece of the bread. I loved it but told the owner that most Americans are not ready for it.

My side dish was Horta, a Greek word meaning greens. It consisted of steamed rustic dandelion greens, Swiss chard, olive oil and lemon. Eirini told me that the dandelion greens were imported from Greece when I wondered where they got them in a New York winter. I rated it as better than spinach: a little tangier, more “green.”

Knowing how well they made the Saganaki I couldn’t resist having my favorite Greek dessert, Galaktoboureko, custard wrapped in crispy phyllo dough with chocolate bits. Chocolate bits aren’t usually contained in a traditional Galaktoboureko, (usually just honey and maybe a touch of rose water) and were a nice addition. Though they didn’t have Greek coffee, I was happy as it was. On my way out I had a spirited conversation with the owner and the manager and was dubbed an official Greek for the evening. I paid the bill and thanked Eirini for her wonderful service and started home feeling very content.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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