Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girl

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), the wife of writer-turned-bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) goes missing under suspicious circumstances. As the police investigate the disappearance, Nick commits some social blunders under media scrutiny, and Amy’s hidden diary points to a once-happy marriage that has since deteriorated into hostility and fear. Though suspicion falls on Nick, Amy’s ultimate fate may not be what it seems.

Directed by David Fincher and scripted by Gillian Flynn from her own best-seller, Gone Girl is both a solidly crafted piece of cinema and an enigmatic disappointment. Fincher is a master stylist, the movie is sharply written, and the cast exudes competence, yet the film never quite grips its audience to the fullest extent.

This failure to go for the jugular is born of both perspective and pacing. In the novel, readers are treated to dueling unreliable first-person narrators, and characters come to life in the discrepancies between the accounts. On film, we get traces of this – Amy gets a diary voiceover and the camera often follows Nick – but the amusingly sordid confessionals are largely lost. Further, while the film has plenty of tense moments (a shocking discovery toward the middle, a bloody act of desperation toward the end), that tension isn’t sustained through the second half. There is an episodic quality here that undermines what is at stake. We should feel the walls closing in on our protagonist, but we never fully get that sense of pending doom.

These flaws mar what is otherwise a very well-executed film. The cast is beyond reproach. Affleck, a real-life hate-magnet for many, seems born to play Nick, a character that embodies both sides of the laid-back nice guy/smug jerk dichotomy. Pike never fully gets across the bubbly naiveté of Amy’s diary narration, but she otherwise nails the character’s otherworldly cleverness and limitless determination. Among the supporting roles, Neil Patrick Harris is appropriately creepy as Amy’s obsessive ex, Kim Dickens delivers a healthy dose of skepticism as a dogged detective, and even the usually clownish Tyler Perry does quality work here as a media-savvy high profile lawyer. There is nary a weak link to be found.

In addition, although Fincher fails to impart the same spark here that made his past thrillers so gripping, Gone Girl is far from stylistically limp. There is a convincing sense of place as the film hops from New York to Missouri and beyond, and the few violent set pieces are visually arresting. Frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross supply a score that  is handily unsettling when it needs to be.

Ultimately, Gone Girl may have more resonance for those unacquainted with the source material. The novel’s twists – and twistedness – were punches to the reader’s gut, and the film, faithful as it is, offers familiarity to cushion the blows. Even with this diminished thrill, there is still a lot to really like here, just not enough to love.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Devall's Cajun Cuisine

Located at 3932 West Market Street in Greensboro, Devall’s Cajun Cuisine specializes in Cajun starters, sandwiches, and entrees for lunch and dinner. There are food and drink specials, a full service bar, and catering is available.

Though Devall’s is in walking distance and I love Cajun, I have visited only a few times since the restaurant opened last year. There are reasons for that infrequency, just as there are reasons I won’t swear off this place completely.

First, the good: Louisiana-bred owner/chef Roger Devall knows what he’s doing. The menu here is full of Cajun staples, and every one that I’ve had has been well-executed. The etouffee (available with shrimp or catfish) in particular is a standout: the rich brown roux is addictive. The red beans and rice features a nice, spicy Andouille and provides the hearty comfort of a stew. The jambalaya is quite good too albeit markedly different from the more familiar Creole style: this one is drier and smokier without a strong tomato presence.

Stray from Cajun, however, and the quality varies. The hush puppies, long and oddly shaped as they may be, are served fresh and are above average, and the cheesy twice-baked potato earns no complaints. But the coleslaw lacks much flavor, and on a recent visit, a steak ordered medium well came out leather tough (a mistake that our apologetic server did try to remedy).

Other aspects of  Devall’s are similarly hit-and-miss. The establishment is small, and the bead-adorned bar area with the television gives off sports bar vibes. However, the inviting red walls and tastefully placed Mardi Gras décor add considerably more class. Every server I’ve ever had here has been attentive and personable, but the kitchen operates at a leisurely pace. Most entrees are priced in the teens, certainly not a bad value for the quantity, but one wishes the sides were on par with the mains.

Devall’s location – in a half-abandoned shopping center between Guilford Country Republican Party Headquarters and a Chinese restaurant – isn’t doing it any favors, so here’s hoping it can stay afloat. The restaurant is by no means a sure thing, but there is enough here to make it at least an occasional option.


Devall's Cajun Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Drop

In Brooklyn, unassuming Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) tends bar for his Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), the former owner who was pushed out by ruthless Chechen gangsters. The bar occasionally serves an underworld money drop, and a recent robbery leaves the Chechens angry and suspicious. Meanwhile, Bob finds himself caring for an abused and abandoned puppy brought to him by the mysterious Nadia (Noomi Rapace). Though he is reluctant at first, Bob takes to the dog, whom he dubs Rocco. Dog ownership brings Bob closer to Nadia, but it also invites trouble in the form of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), Rocco’s psychotic former owner.

Though modern Brooklyn has gentrified in recent years, the borough remains a go-to backdrop for mean streets and shady doings. That The Drop would make use of this locale is no surprise. That it would do it so well despite its pedigree is a bit of a shocker. Writer Dennis Lehane, who adapted his short story “Animal Rescue” is a diehard Bostonian while director Michael Roskam is a Belgian making his American film debut. Add to that a cast led by an Englishman and a Swede, and it’s amazing how convincing this film pulls off “the neighborhood.”

Of course, sense of place isn’t the only asset here. The pacing is wonderfully taut with nary a wasted minute (at least until the last five or so). Roskam’s camera work and Marco Beltrami’s score work to imbue paranoid tension. Watching the goings-on leaves you with the unavoidable sense that something terrible is going to happen, but Lehane’s story cleverly plays with whom the audience expects to find in the crossfire.

This misdirection is made possible by Hardy’s complex, layered performance. Like his idol Gary Oldman, Hardy has proven capable of incredible transformation, and he slips seamlessly into his role here. We see Bob as something of a laid-back loser, but we also know, through bits of dialogue and pivotal gestures (he seems awfully handy with saran wrap) that there is more to him than meets the eye.

Hardy is very nearly equaled by Gandolfini, who makes his last performance a memorable one. At first, the bearded, balding Marv seems like an anti-Tony Soprano, a washed-up schlub grubbing for lost respect. However, the two characters actually have quite a bit in common. Like Tony, Marv is a bad man made sympathetic by his generosity toward friends and family and the presence of even worse people around him. And like Tony, Marv will lie, scheme, and use violence for personal gain, all while still garnering his share of apologists and defenders.

The remaining portrayals are somewhat less glowing. Rapace gives Nadia some street smarts and mystique, but her accent slips to a distracting degree. Schoenaerts plays Deeds like a pathetic-if-volatile mental case rather than a classic bully, which makes him simultaneously easier to believe and to dismiss. John Ortiz, the cast’s rare actual Brooklynite, plays well off of Hardy as a sly detective who knows more than he lets on.

If there is one knock against The Drop, it is that it isn’t transformative. It doesn’t deconstruct or rehabilitate the crime film or call attention to the genre the way that Goodfellas did, and there is an air of familiarity about it. It is less “epic” and more “story,” but it is a story that is told nearly perfectly.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chef Samir Shaltout

Located at 4212 West Wendover Avenue in Greensboro, Chef Samir Shaltout serves Egyptian cuisine for lunch and dinner. Hot and cold appetizers, salads, beef/chicken/fish/seafood/vegetarian entrees, tagines, pasta dishes, and desserts are among the menu offerings. Alcohol is not served, but catering is available.

Television is flooded these days with clueless wannabe restaurateurs who are in dire need of rescuing (often by a stern, British-accented kitchen veteran). Chef Samir Shaltout is the antithesis of all that. His eponymous eatery serves up fantastic food, crafted with competence and care. Whether a newcomer to Egyptian cuisine or one who knows what to expect, there is a lot to love here.

The location isn’t one of those things. Sharing a plaza with a Staples on Wendover, the establishment is small and awkwardly placed. The dark interior isn’t by any means shabby, but it lacks the colorful ambiance of a Cleopatra’s. In the grand scheme of things, however, this proves to be quite a minor letdown.

Chef Samir’s menu is varied and large. It offers most of the familiar Egyptian staples – hummus, babaganoush, falafel, shawerma, kabobs, etc. – as well as some appeals to the American propensity for eating large (cases-in-point: a half duck or a whole fish fried or broiled). For our first visit, we opted for a babaganoush starter and a mixed grill (chicken and beef shawerma, chicken, beef and kofta kabobs, rice, and salad). The appetizer was creamy and fresh with lemon notes. All of the meats in the entrée were juicy and well-seasoned, and the kofta kabob in particular had a lot of flavor. The herb rice, however, seemed too understated.

Pricing here is as varied as the menu. Appetizers run $4 to $6 and most entrees are in the teens. However, you can easily build a meal through a few of the starters. In addition, the mixed grill proved a good option for two: there’s no plate sharing fee. For $19, the portion was certainly adequate though plating could have been a touch more delicate (everything was piled together on one dish).

Thankfully, the service was held to the same standard as the food. Our server was friendly and fast. He happily shared favorite dishes and answered questions. Chef Samir dutifully made his rounds as well, a welcome gesture of accommodation.

A deep menu and consistent execution are often at odds with each other, but Chef Samir proves that both are attainable in the right hands. If you can get over the location, you’ll likely leave happy.


Chef Samir Shaltout on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 1, 2014

Foothills Brewing

Located at 638 West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Foothills Brewing serves craft beers and brewpub fare (apps, soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees). There are daily specials and specialty beers rotate seasonally. Catering, party hosting, and outdoor seating are available. Foothills also hosts live music and entertainment.

After sampling their wares at a local event a little while back, Foothills became a must-see for our next visit to Winston. The in-person experience did not disappoint. The spacious pub is adorned with brick and wood for a classic look, and there are different areas (dining room, bar, and patio) to accommodate different seating preferences. The real draw here is the selection. From the dozen-plus locally brewed beers to the unexpectedly versatile (Vegetarian? At a brewpub?) menu, there is quite a bit to like beyond the anticipated wings and burgers.

For our first visit, we started with Ale-Battered Shrooms. They were batter-heavy – which was not a problem, the batter was good – and came with both a tasty homemade ranch and a mild horseradish sauce. There were quite a few to the plate, which helped justify the $6.99 pricetag. I then followed this with the Brewhouse Cuban. The juicy, beer-braised pulled pork gave the sandwich a flavor unlike any other Cuban I’ve ever encountered, and it – along with the mustard (a combination of three different types) – made for a delectable bite. The fries that accompanied it were nice and crisp though in the future, I’ll ask for traditional ketchup. The house-made ale-infused variety was oddly sweet. My companion, who opted to go lighter with a Greek Vegetable Pita, seemed satisfied with both the fresh vegetables and the warm, fluffy bread. Her side, a cucumber-tomato-feta salad, was similarly successful.

Both sandwiches were $9.99 apiece with a side included (premium sides, such as homemade chips, invite an upcharge), way north of being a bargain, but not high enough to merit outrage. Service was a just bit on the slow side though our server was helpful in making recommendations, steering my companion toward a coffee porter that was clean, bold, and free from bitterness.

On a busy Friday or Saturday night, Foothills Brewery may tell quite a different story, but on a Monday afternoon, it met and surpassed all expectations. And while it may not impress well-traveled pubsters, it safely ranks among the best breweries the Triad has to offer.


Foothills Brewing on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Grand Budapest Hotel

Beside his monument, a girl reads the memoirs of a famous author. From his desk in 1985, the author (Tom Wilkinson) tells his tale. In the late 1960s, he (Jude Law) journeyed to an impoverished communist-run European republic and visited the once-esteemed Grand Budapest Hotel. The author happens to come across the hotel’s humble, enigmatic owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who then shares his story. In the early 1930s, young Zero (Tony Revolori) joins the hotel’s staff as a lobby boy under Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hypercompetent concierge who romances wealthy older female guests. When one such guest, the aristocratic Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies unexpectedly, she wills a valuable painting to Gustave, much to the chagrin of her scheming, belligerent son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Gustave soon finds himself in a lot of trouble, Zero becomes his heir and accomplice.

Wes Anderson’s latest quirky, ensemble-driven concoction is very much in keeping with the spirit of his prior successes while still offering something new. As is Anderson’s wont, artifice is on full display here: fake setting, fake newspapers, even fake nationalities (This makes Brody’s part as a supposedly European nobleman with a New York snarl all the more hilarious). Indeed, style – which includes exaggeratedly bright hues and a perfectly paired Alexandre Desplat score – takes center stage.

However, there is a considerable amount of substance behind that style. The ugly specter of fascism (and, later, communism) looms large here, as do classism, nativism, and a number of ugly –isms. Grand Budapest Hotel shows that even a director as whimsical (and there is plenty of whimsy here) as Anderson isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and with a few gruesome murders and a good, old-fashioned shootout, this is easily his darkest film to date.

That darkness is offset by the stealth humor of the script and the incandescence of the cast. From the main players to the fleeting cameos, this film is impeccably cast. Fiennes has an air of irrepressible handiness (even whilst cursing and preparing to die), Willem Dafoe injects menace as Dmitri’s hired thug, and Saorise Ronan lends a plucky determination (and finally gets to use her native Irish accent!) as Agatha, a baker who wins Zero’s affection. Among the smaller roles, Harvey Keitel leaves an impression as a tattooed convict and a number of famous faces (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and, of course, Bill Murray) play disaffected hotel staffers.

If there is one shortcoming here, it is that Grand Budapest Hotel, in contrast to a great many other films, isn’t long enough. The story feels truncated, particularly with regard to Zero and Agatha’s relationship and the aftermath of Gustave’s heroics. This is undoubtedly intended to foster a sense of loss (the past can’t all be whimsical, after all), but it contributes to the film’s smallness.

While Anderson aficionados will find a lot of familiar idiosyncrasies here, you don’t have to like – or even be familiar with – his work to appreciate this film. Elegant aesthetics and a deceptively smart script make Grand Budapest Hotel well worth a visit.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

In sordid Basin City, corruption and violence are a way of life. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot young gambler, rolls into town to challenge the powerful Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) in high-stakes poker, but there is more than money up for grabs for both men. Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), a repentant private detective looking to leave his old life behind, gets sucked back in when old flame Ava Lord (Eva Green) seeks his help. He knows she can only lead to trouble, but he just can’t help himself. Exotic dancer Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is haunted by memories of Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who sacrificed himself to keep her safe. Gradually losing her sanity, Nancy tries to find a way to avenge Hartigan by taking out the man responsible for his downfall: the untouchable Roarke. In the midst of all this stands Marv (Mickey Rourke), an unhinged bruiser who helps the innocent and punishes the guilty in supremely bloody fashion.

In 2005, director Robert Rodriguez staged a coup when he faithfully – and successfully – translated comic book writer Frank Miller’s paean to hard-boiled noir to the big screen. After a lengthy nine-year wait, this continuation continues to remain faithful to Miller’s vision albeit with less success this time around.

At first glance, the drop-off is puzzling. A Dame to Kill For retains many of the previous film’s key players (Rourke, Boothe, Alba, Willis, Rosario Dawson, and others return) with a few substitutions (Brolin for Dwight Owen, Dennis Haysbert for the late Michael Clark Duncan) and new faces (Green, Gordon Levitt, Christopher Meloni). It also retains the original’s style and sensibility, which is to say bleak, ultra-violent, and visually striking. But what was novel (a pitch-black digital underworld) in 2005 has lost a bit of its luster in 2014.

Another shortcoming here is the confusing continuity. Like its predecessor, a Dame to Kill For consists of loosely connected vignettes (the title story is taken from the comics; the others are new creations penned by Miller himself) that share characters and themes. Some are set prior to episodes in the first film while others take place several years later. Trying to keep up with who is supposed to be dead or alive or intact or disfigured at any given point becomes a laborious task.

The quality of the episodes themselves varies. In the title story, Brolin offers a different (re: less cool and composed, more struggling to keep it together) take on Dwight than Owen albeit not an inferior one. Williamson lends some more depth to the character Manute, a hulking-but-eloquent enforcer whereas Meloni’s casting echoes his most famous television-cop role. Green tries her damndest to pull off a stole femme fatale, but her French accent is occasionally distracting, and she seems too young to have such a sordid past. Rumored choices Angelina Jolie and Rachel Weisz may have fared better here.

Johnny’s tale – “The Long Bad Night” – is probably the strongest piece here. Gordon-Levitt turns in a strong performance as a cocksure young man who knows a lot more than he lets on. His antics win the admiration-turned-loathing of Roarke, which allows Booth to add a veneer of affability to what was previously a one-dimensionally malevolent character (the faux-chumminess actually makes him more dastardly). The episode also treats us to a rare, humorous Christopher Lloyd cameo as a degenerate back-alley doctor.

“Nancy’s Last Dance” features both some of the strongest acting and weakest plotting of the whole film. Nancy may expose herself for a living, but she is a complex, tormented character, and Alba shines in plumbing the depth of her guilt, self-awareness, and suffering. It’s also nice to see Willis back even if he’s only here for a brief appearance, and Rourke is having a blast as Marv. But the machinations of Nancy’s revenge are both overly simplistic (and insulting to her character development), and the hint of the supernatural the film drops toward the end undermines the payoff.

A Dame to Kill For satisfies on a visceral level with its stylish brutality, but it still comes across as a missed opportunity. Had it not taken so long to produce, had more of the original casting choices worked out, had Miller not entered a period of decline as a writer, this may have been on par with the original. Instead, it’s a somewhat disappointing – but still worthwhile – slice of sequeldom.