Wednesday, February 3, 2016

More Reunion Cinema: Aging Rock Star Edition


A few months ago, I noted that movies have an insulting tendency to treat frayed familial relationships as something that can be fixed during a long-awaited trip home. The formula is predictable and transparent: tense/angry/awkward confrontation followed by somebody snapping followed by an epiphany followed by an apology (implicit or otherwise) and viola, things are different now. Two more films from this past year – Ricki and the Flash and Danny Collins – tried their hand at this premise, and while they showed some unexpected nuance in places, both still engage in some predictably shallow navel-gazing with regard to the complexity that is family.

The twist in both these outings is that the titular protagonists are past-their-prime musicians. Ricki (nee Linda, played by the always-great Meryl Streep) walked out on her family years ago to pursue her rock star dreams, ended up releasing one album, and now plays the bar circuit while working a register at a Whole Foods knockoff. She’s drawn back home when her ex (Kevin Kline) informs her that their newly-divorced daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life spawn) is having a rough time. Danny (Al Pacino, whose usual haminess suits the character for once and is balanced by a healthy dose of genuine affability), in comparison, hit both higher highs and lower lows, becoming a much more successful musician (one who can fill arenas with the AARP crowd despite not having written new songs in decades) albeit one with more vices and a son he never even got to know before abandoning. His reason for reuniting is also more aggrandized: his manager (Christopher Plummer) unearths a letter of encouragement written to him years ago by John Lennon, which prompts Danny to get his act together. As far-fetched as this premise sounds, it actually happened to singer Steve Tilston – life is strange.

While both movies follow predictably redemptive arcs, what sets them apart is the absence of loud, messy drama. Yes, Gummer’s character angrily confronts her absent mother, but blames her medication and reconciles (to an extent) relatively quickly. And Danny’s grown son (played by the usually hot-headed Bobby Canavale) is none-too-pleased to see him, but nary a window is broken nor a death threat muttered.

Avoiding histrionics helps to ground these films and show a broader range of reaction to parental alienation, but it also has some adverse effects. In the case of Ricki and the Flash, the end product is light to the point of fluffy at times, a disappointment given what the director (Jonathan Demme) and writer (Diablo Cody) are capable of. Danny Collins, on the other hand, fills the void by giving us Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), Danny’s hyper, high-pitched granddaughter. The character is meant to have ADHD and we are meant to sympathize and find her endearing, but she comes across as both unbearably annoying and a questionable representation of the condition.

It is unlikely that Hollywood will develop a take on family dramedy that doesn’t grossly oversimplify any time soon, but these two films at least don’t watch like retitled rehashes of forgettable fare. Both are flawed and both feature engaging leads, but Danny Collins’ superlative supporting cast (Plummer, Cannavale, Annette Benning, and a quick – but plot-important – Nick Offerman appearance) gives it the edge.

Ricki and the Flash: 6.75/10

Danny Collins: 7.5/10

Monday, January 18, 2016

Taste of Troy


Located at 1236 Guilford College Road in the Guilford Crossing Shopping Center at the edge of Jamestown, Taste of Troy offers Greek and Mediterranean fare for lunch and dinner. Specials change weekly and takeout is available.

I am spoiled by having decent Greek and Mediterranean options within walking distance of home, but the recommendation of a (Turkish) former student led me to give Taste of Troy a shot. While it isn’t a place I would hurry back to, it made for a satisfying lunch.

Taste of Troy can be found on the side of the shopping plaza facing Piedmont Parkway. It’s a small space though there is enough signage to avoid passing it by. There are a few tables and some counter seating inside. It’s a cozy joint, but compared to blue-and-white appointments of Mythos and Mad Greek, it comes off looking a bit Spartan (pun intended).

The menu offers little in the way of novelty, but if you’re craving a gyro, kebab, or mezes (spanakopita, baba ganoush, etc.), you’ll find it here. I went with a gyro and a side of fries and did not regret it. The gyro was well-seasoned, the meat was flavorful, and the accompanying veggies (lettuce, tomato, and cucumber) were fresh. The thick-cut fries could have done with more seasoning, but at least they were crisp. The staff here are friendly, and the food arrived quickly.

If there is one area where Taste of Troy lags behind, it is pricing. The gyro runs $7.25 if you are willing to settle for chips as a side; fries are $1.75 more, and a small Greek salad is $3.95 more. By way of comparison, Mythos offers a $7.45 lunch combo that includes a gyro, fries, and a drink. The entrees are even worse offenders. Kebab platters start at $12.95 and top out at $16.95 for a mixed combo. Nazareth Bread’s mixed grill is listed at $11.99. Tasty as it may be, Taste of Troy’s food is not far enough ahead of the competition to justify what they charge.

Food quality and service make Taste of Troy an appealing option for those traveling along Guilford College Road, but the pricing is simply not competitive.


7.75/10

Taste of Troy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Hateful Eight

In the middle of a Wyoming blizzard, Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union officer turned bounty hunter, happens across a stagecoach hired by an acquaintance, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is transporting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock so that he can collect $10,000 and she can hang for murder. The two are later joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), an ex-Confederate militiaman who claims to be the sheriff-elect of Red Rock. With the snow intensifying, the party holes up at Minnie’s Haberdashery where they encounter Bob, the Mexican caretaker (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray, Red Rock’s well-mannered hangman (Tim Roth), notorious Confederate Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and stoic cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). The more time they spent snowed in, the more old tensions rise, and the more Ruth begins to suspect that one or more of the men is an imposter in league with Domergue.

More than two decades into his filmmaking career, and even the non-fan will likely know of Quentin Tarantino’s calling cards: stylized, unrepentant violence and profanity, dark comedy, elevated B-movie/genre film concepts, 60s-80s pop music (regardless of when the film is set), and clever nods to cinematic history. Suffice it to say, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but even Tarantino’s detractors shouldn’t mistake him for a one-trick pony. The past decade saw him break from a personal revenge tale (Kill Bill) to examine the larger societal implications of war (Inglourous Basterds) and slavery (Django Unchained) in his typically excessive fashion. His latest offering, The Hateful Eight, changes trajectory once again, ditching an “issue” focus (and its attendant controversy) in favor of telling a story on a smaller scale. That he is able to get so much mileage (nearly three hours’ worth, and none of it dull) from such a staggeringly simple premise – a bunch of shady characters are snowed in together – is a testament to how much he has honed his craft.

Part of the reason The Hateful Eight works as well as it does is the fluidity with which it changes gears. The first third of the film functions as part classic Western, part seriocomic stage play. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone contributes a chillingly dramatic score and a Russell, with an epic moustache, channels his inner John Wayne. Meanwhile, every entrance into the stagecoach – and later, the lodge – begets a recurring joke. It’s hard not to laugh at a room full of louts clamoring for the door to be nailed shut to keep the cold out. But then, as the film moves into its latter half, the tension ramps up dramatically, the long-expected violence finally commences, and another influence emerges: the paranoid terror of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Unlike many movies that try to juggle tonal shifts, this one gets it right: when it’s funny, it’s funny, and when it’s grisly, it’s grisly. One does not undermine the other.

The cast is comprised mostly of recurring Tarantino players (Jackson, Roth, Madsen, etc.) with a few new faces, and by and large, they are a great fit. Jackson gets one of his best roles in years as the ruthless, cunning Warren, made likeable only by the targets of his wrath. Goggins supplies hillbilly exuberance, Leigh is captivatingly vile, and even poor James Parks, as a put-upon stagecoach driver, handles his role well. If there is one weak link here, it’s Channing Tatum: though his character speaks multiple languages, his Southern accent is distractingly bad.

Even with all it has going for it, there are moments where Tarantino’s dedication to excess is a liability. Did he really need to repeat dialogue in exaggerated slow motion? Did he really need to insert himself as a previously-unheard narrator in the middle of the film? Did he really need that much vomiting? One might point to this as Tarantino being Tarantino, but one might also expect a 52-year-old to steer clear of antics that would earn him a high-five from a 15-year-old.

Despite this, The Hateful Eight is immensely watchable. The dialogue is sharp, the score and casting are inspired, and with nothing resembling a hero in sight, you’ll find yourself rooting for one or more of the bad guys.


8.25/10

Sona's Indian Cuisine

Located at 1568 Highwinds Boulevard in Greensboro, Sona’s Indian Cuisine offers Northern Indian, Southern Indian, and Indo-Chinese dishes for lunch and dinner. There is a lunch buffet, alcohol is available, and delivery is offered through Dining Dash.

With Agni, Tandoori Junction, and now Sona’s joining the mix, Greensboro has seen an influx of Indian during the past two years. As is the case with the others, Sona’s reception has been hit and miss. If you are partial to a local favorite like Saffron or Tandoor, this newcomer is unlikely to win you away. But those without any such allegiances may find it a serviceable, if not superlative, alternative.

Housed in a shopping center near the Fresh Market off of New Garden, Sona’s is housed in a clean but simple space. It’s not unappealing, but don’t expect decorative wall art or music from the subcontinent.

I opted for the lunch buffet for my first visit. At ten or so items, it isn’t the biggest buffet in town, but the assortment was certainly decent. Quality tended to vary from dish to dish. Both chicken dishes that I sampled – tandoori and tikka masala – were excellent. The meat was juicy, and the expected flavors were there. Speaking of flavors, Sona’s deserves praise for keeping some spiciness in its buffet items, a move that several competitors have been too risk-averse to make. On the other hand, a few of the dishes seemed off. The goat biryani, for instance, contained an unexpectedly colorful rice and very little meat while the palak paneer had some firm, almost rubbery triangles of paneer. Lastly, while the dessert halwa was not bad by any means, it left me missing kheer or mango custard.

The service here is friendly and attentive – I never had to go long without water – but the pricing leaves a bit to be desired. The buffet ($10.99 Monday-Thursday, $12.99 Friday-Sunday) isn’t a bad deal provided that you avoid the weekend, but even their vegetarian entrees start in the mid-teens.

Overall, Sona’s is a mixed bag, offering some things (Indo-Chinese dishes, for instance) that you won’t find elsewhere while falling short in other areas. It may not emerge as your go-to place for Indian, but the service and the chicken alone make it worth at least a try.


7.5/10

Sunday, January 3, 2016

ex_machina

Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of the Bluebook software company, to spend a week at his isolated estate administering a Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent robot that Nathan created. Though Caleb is at first excited by the opportunity, the more time he spends with Ava and Nathan, the more he comes to question the latter’s true motives, and he begins to wonder who is testing whom.

Written and directed by English sci-fi vet Alex Garland (28 Days Later), ex_machina is part paranoid thriller, part character study, and part philosophical reflection on the nature of humanity. It’s an intriguing film that keeps you guessing and leaves you thinking until the end, but it also leaves quite a bit of untapped potential on the table.

Aesthetically, ex_machina makes great use of both setting (the Norwegian landscape makes for some breathtaking exterior shots) and set design (the innards of Nathan’s multichambered estate give the film an appropriately claustrophobic feel). The electronica score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury makes for a fine accompaniment.

The real lure here, however, is the interplay between the characters. Aided by a talented cast, Garland is able to use ambiguity and misdirection to complicate an overly simple premise. As Nathan, a nearly unrecognizable Isaac hides his cunning behind a drunken jock façade, but even after the audience (and, eventually, Caleb) realizes there is more to him than meets the eye, his true motives leave viewers guessing. Is he a visionary who utilizes some shady tactics to everyone’s ultimate benefit, or is he a manipulative, selfish control freak who uses science to cloak his sociopathy? This uncertainty extends to his creation as well. Vikander convincingly portrays Ava as self-aware and worthy of Caleb’s (and the audience’s) empathy but enigmatic as well. How much of what she says and does reflects an autonomous will and how much is simply whatever Nathan programmed her to say and do? Of the three leads, Caleb is the least interesting. Though his requisite tragic backstory gives him something going on beneath the surface, he is, for most of the film, a nice guy who appears to be in over his head. Ordinarily, this would make for a disappointingly bland protagonist, but Caleb functions reasonably well as an audience surrogate. At any rate, contrast the characters played by Gleeson and Isaac here with their roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and you’ll get a good idea of their impressive ranges.

The tensions between these characters build toward an ending that, while foreshadowed previously, still manages to catch viewers off-guard. It also leaves questions unanswered and fudges some continuity details. Despite this, ex machina is a film that lingers, not because of it indulges our appetite for the fantastic but because it grants an unsettling look toward a plausible future.


8/10

Osteria

Located at 1310 Westover Terrace in Greensboro, Osteria offers Northern Italian cuisine for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Specials change regularly, the wine menu features Italian grapes, and private dining is available.

Though Greensboro has no shortage of Italian eateries, few can boast what Osteria has to offer. More upscale fare with spot-on execution, efficient service, and higher prices to match make this a departure from the classic red sauce joint, but rest assured, you’ll be glad you went down this divergent road.

My fiancée and I made this our New Year’s Eve destination and put in a reservation well in advance. Since others had the same idea, this proved to be a prudent maneuver: Osteria was mostly full upon arrival. The inside of the restaurant is well-appointed with red leather booths and wine bottles on the walls. It is, however, rather small, and the fact that I was nearly elbow-to-elbow with a gentleman at an adjacent table crosses the line from “cozy” to “crowded.”

Spacing issues aside, the rest of our experience was very enjoyable. Travis, our server, was knowledgeable, confident, and poised, and the wait for the food was reasonable-to-quick given the aforementioned volume. Osteria’s standard menu is somewhat limited – a few salads, a few pastas, a few entrees – but the specials at the time of our visit made for some tough decisions. Everything from chicken Florentine to stuffed fish got our attention, but in the end, we went with a calamari arrabbiata starter and two pasta dishes: maltagliati (wide noodles with a wild boar ragu) and pappardelle (with salmon, spinach, and sundried tomatoes).




The food was consistently excellent. The calamari was among the best I’ve ever had: there was no chewiness, and the sauce had just enough heat to complement it without drowning out the flavor. The salmon was also well-prepared, as were the house-made pastas. The boar ragu was sweeter than expected but still hearty and satisfying. We wrapped everything up with a scoop of tiramisu gelato that captured the richness and cocoa notes the dish is known for.

Given the quality and portion size – the pastas were plated generously – pricing leaves little room for complaint. Our starter, which fed two, was $10 while our pastas were $18 and $16. Granted, several of the entrees are priced higher, but they include a side of pasta, among other things. Only the $5 for a scoop-sized portion of gelato seemed like a stretch, but the tastiness made up for it.

With so many eateries plagued by mismanagement or inconsistent execution, it is a relief to find one that has both the front of the house and the back of the house in order. What Osteria lacks in size, it more than makes up for in both food quality and service.


8.75/10

Osteria Italian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Wooden Nickel

Located at 105 North Churton Street in Hillsborough, The Wooden Nickel offers craft beers and pub fare. There is a full bar, limited outdoor seating, and bulk orders of wings are available for catering. Food and drink specials change regularly.

This is a bar. It’s not a sports bar, it’s not a gastropub, it’s not a “bar and…” It’s a bar. It’s small, the décor is predictable (beer signs and televisions), and it can be loud. Accept that about it and expect no more or no less from it, and The Wooden Nickel can be pretty satisfying.

The menu here is limited (wings, apps, sandwiches, and burgers), but there is no shortage of appealing options. Appetizer aficionados can take in everything from homemade pork skins to fried banana peppers while burgers come in more than just beef. For our first visit, I went with a kobe burger (with horseradish cheddar, onions, and ale mustard) and fries while my fiancée opted for the burger-of-the-week (blue cheese and onion relish). Both were tasty with creamy cheeses and sauces that were sharply flavored without being overwhelming. Moreover, the natural-cut fries were crisp and so well-seasoned that they didn’t even need ketchup.

At $12.50 and $12 respectively, pricing may seem high for “bar” food, but it’s on par for a good-quality half-pound burger. The fast and efficient service means you won’t wait long to enjoy it.

The lack of space may make coming here at a popular time a bit of a gamble, but if you’re able to find a table and don’t mind paying a bit more for better-than-usual pub grub, The Wooden Nickel is a good place to enjoy a drink or a casual meal.


8/10 

Wooden Nickel Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato