Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a mechanically skilled thief, has been released from prison and is trying to reconnect with his daughter. He is recruited by former SHIELD scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his doubtful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to steal a piece of dangerous size-altering technology engineered by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s former protégé, from Pym’s earlier research. To do so, Lang must embrace Pym’s former identity as Ant-Man.

If last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy showed that Marvel Studios can make the unlikeliest of properties into a success if the tone is right, then Ant-Man largely repeats that lesson, albeit on a smaller scale (puns semi-intended). Here, a lower-tier character powered by ridiculous science is given a boost by energetic direction, a capable cast, and a focus on fun.

Up until the moment of a release, this was a film that may have had even Marvel’s staunch supporters second-guessing. First came the news that Hank Pym – the primary Ant-Man of the comics – would be portrayed by Douglas and thus shunted off into a mentor role. Next came the announcement that director Edgar Wright, beloved for his Cornetto trilogy with Simon Pegg, would be stepping aside. Add to that his replacement by a lightweight comedy director (Peyton Reed) and a lead better known as a Judd Apatow ensemblist than an action star (Paul Rudd), and this film had disappointment written all over it.

Fortunately – and perhaps surprisingly – a lot of those perceived liabilities proved to be strengths. Douglas keeps Pym’s prickliness even as he serves in a largely benevolent capacity. Rudd, who would not have been convincing as a typical hero, plays Lang as a down-on-his luck everyman and largely succeeds. And Reed, freed from the constraints of lofty expectations, focuses on delivering solid entertainment. The pace is brisk, the action sequences, CGI-laden as they may be, are credible, and the screenplay (cobbled together by Wright, Rudd, Joe Cornish, and Adam McKay) allows for plenty of humor, at the expense of everything from Baskin-Robbins to other Marvel properties.

The supporting roles are somewhat thinly drawn, but the cast handles them well. Lilly plays Hope as both capable and conflicted, forced into an alliance with a father she resents and a new recruit she distrusts. As a bald, ruthless, tech-savvy CEO, Cross is easily read as a second-rate Lex Luthor ripoff, but Stoll fills his shoes with menacing zeal. And Luis, Lang’s fast-talking criminal accomplice, would be an insulting sidekick caricature…if Michael Pena’s comic timing wasn’t as great as it is here.

So what’s not to like? Refreshing as the film’s lightness is, it also renders it somewhat insignificant. Guardians of the Galaxy may have been comedy-heavy, but the introduction of Thanos and the Infinity Stones had grave and far-reaching implications for the universe. Here, we are left with a guy on a personal mission (to prove himself a competent father) who is pressed into taking care of a problem that could have been handled by half a dozen other heroes had they been available. Only a post-credits scene really makes an effort to tie this film into the broader fictional universe, and even in that context, it’s clear that Ant-Man will have a much smaller role to play going forward.

In the grand scheme of things, Ant-Man may not be one of Marvel’s stronger offerings, but it’s still a highly watchable action-comedy. For those reeling from the doom-and-gloom of Avengers: Age of Ultron shrink your expectations and ant-ticipate a fun if somewhat forgettable flick.


7.75/10

Undercurrent

Located at 327 Battleground Avenue in Downtown Greensboro, Undercurrent offers fine dining using locally and regionally sourced ingredients. There is a full bar, a private dining room, and patio seating. The menu changes every few months and wine tastings and specialty dinners are held periodically. Reservations are recommended.

“Downtown” plus “fine dining” plus “farm to table” seems like a winning formula for getting away with overcharging and underwhelming, but Undercurrent actually gives patrons reason to take those buzzwords at face value. Excellent food, competent service, and a comfortable atmosphere combine to make for a decidedly decent dining destination.

Though many of Greensboro’s downtown eateries tend to be a bit cramped, Undercurrent is fairly spacious. The main dining area features columns, high ceilings, and large windows that offer a view of the cityscape. The ambiance doesn’t compare to that of Print Works, and more space between tables would have been nice, but it still made for a cozy dining environment.

The menu here is narrow, but it does not lack appeal. Soups, salads, small plates, large plates, and entrees make good use of seasonal fruits and vegetables (they are big on compotes here), and the dishes are complex without seeming too pretentious to succeed. For my first visit, I opted for a garam masala rubbed duck breast. It came at the desired doneness and was plated beautifully atop rice and vibrant veggies. The duck had a nice char, and the accompanying blueberry puree added some welcome sweetness to play off of the dish’s savory components. My companion went with a red snapper dish on special and was equally satisfied: the fish was cooked well, and the sides (okra and a farro tabbouleh, if memory serves correct) seemed to suit it nicely. For as good as the entrees (and the fresh bread) were, however, dessert may have been the highlight. A white chocolate-blueberry bread pudding was gooey, rich, and decadent, but both the freshness of the berries and a sprig of mint kept it from tasting like pure sugar.



Both service and pricing here were what was expected given the level of food. The former was attentive without being overbearing. The latter was high but not exorbitant. Our entrees ran in the upper $20s, and portion sizing was adequate.

Undercurrent isn’t for the faint of wallet, but unlike certain other high-priced concept eateries, you will get what you pay for here, and you will most likely enjoy it.


8.5/10

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Serena

In 1929, timber magnate George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and his new wife Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) look to profit from their holdings in western North Carolina. The threat of government encroachment and Serena’s inability to conceive a child push the couple to take desperate and violent actions.

After both Cooper and Lawrence have achieved so much success (both individually and collaboratively) these past few years, any film featuring them as the leads seems a safe bet to continue along that trajectory. Despite this, Serena was bafflingly released direct to video on demand. Yet for its impressive pedigree, it isn’t hard to see why. This inept adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel is inept on many fronts.

Both Suzanne Bier’s direction and Christopher Kyle’s script leave a lot to be desired. The former somewhat underplays the handsome scenery of the setting and suffers from pacing that feels at once rushed and (a chase sequence aside) dull and devoid of much tension. The latter succeeds in giving George more of a backstory, but reduces Rachel, the mother of his child (a more important character in the book) to a minor role. It also changes Serena’s characterization for the worse. In the novel, she was a frightening figure: collected, confident, supremely competent, and ruthlessly ambitious. Here, she gets a cool and composed veneer that cracks almost immediately following her miscarriage. While this might be done to make her more sympathetic, this more wounded version of Serena is also less formidable.

Not all of the fault here can be placed behind the camera. The accents are simply atrocious. Cooper conveys conflicted motivations as he mumbles his way through something resembling Bostonian (the character hailed from New England) while the usually reliable Toby Jones is utterly unconvincing as a southern sheriff. Lawrence is OK in the lead – she offers enough sincerity to keep Serena from being a mere femme fatale cliché – but this is far from her best work.  

“Read the book instead” is often used as a put-down by those who disapprove of any changes, no matter how pragmatic, a film makes to the source material, but in this case, it’s sound advice that will save you almost two hours. This woodlands wannabe Macbeth simply doesn’t cut it.


5.25/10

Friday, July 17, 2015

Freeman's Grub & Pub

Located at 1820 Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, Freeman’s Grub & Pub offers eclectic American starters, salads, sandwiches, entrees, and desserts. There is a full bar, and outdoor seating is available.

The building at the intersection of Spring Garden and Chapman has housed several businesses over the years, so the odds of Freeman’s still being here at the start of the next decade aren’t great. If history does in fact repeat itself, be sure to enjoy this spot while it lasts.

For starters, the menu is a definite eye-catcher. Much like Crafted: The Art of Street Food, Freeman’s offers novel (or inauthentic, if you’re a purist) takes on banh mi and the Cuban sandwich. However, Freeman’s also brings jazzed-up versions of fried chicken, French fries, and other American fare into the mix. The liquor infusions make use of everything from rosemary to jalapeno while several desserts incorporate bacon.

Rest assured, however, that this is not mere gimmickry. A fried chicken sandwich came with chicken that was crisply breaded without being dry and collards and whipped potatoes that provided good textural contrast to the crunch. The shallot crusting made for a very strong flavor, but a dip in the rich accompanying demi glace took the edge off. Though a mess to eat, it was a good bite through and through. A side of fries was fresh and well-seasoned. I opted for rosemary and garlic, but several combinations are available. All told, there were no weak spots in the execution.

Given both quality and quantity, pricing here proved agreeable. Freeman’s sandwiches (“crusts”) all run $9 and come with a choice of side (“and”). The entrees are only a dollar more while the apps and salads average about $6. Those who come here expecting bar snacks may balk, but think bistro instead of bar and it all begins to make sense.

If there is one drawback to Freeman’s, it is that it is tiny. There are only a few tables within, so you are most likely looking at bar seating. This wasn’t a problem during my visit — there were few patrons and the lone bartender was both capable and amiable – but I wouldn’t want to be here when it’s at capacity.

Time will tell if Freeman’s endures and if subsequent visits deliver the same caliber experience, but for now, this is a welcome addition to the UNCG area.


8.25/10
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La Hacienda

Located at 1218 Bridford Parkway in Greensboro, La Hacienda offers Tex-Mex cuisine for lunch and dinner. There is a full bar and daily food/drink specials are available.

I was running errands on West Wendover and had a craving for huevos rancheros, so La Hacienda won my patronage by way of geographic proximity. I wasn’t expecting much from this place and yet I was somehow still disappointed.

La Hacienda is strictly paint-by-the-numbers Mexican. There are tacos, burritos, enchiladas, ACP – in short, nothing you haven’t seen before elsewhere. This dearth of creativity isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re in the mood for what they offer, and it turned out that I was. Unfortunately, the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. My huevos rancheros were quite bland, and the accompanying tortillas had all clumped together. My companion’s steak quesadilla fared slightly better in the taste department but came with a miserly portion of guacamole.

Unlike other mediocre Mexican (here’s looking at you, Poblano’s), La Hacienda is, at the very least, a relative bargain. The total for both meals came to $14, and there was a respectable amount of food for the money. Add to that pleasant décor and efficient (if utterly joyless) service, and it’s almost enough to salvage the experience.

With both a Chipotle and a slightly better Tex-Mex restaurant (La Fiesta) in the immediate vicinity, La Hacienda doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. There are certainly worse options, but aside from pricing, it’s hard to see the appeal.


6.5/10

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

You Can’t Go Home Again: The Failings of Reunion Cinema


For some of us, “home” and “family” evoke gooey nostalgia. For others, they are catalysts for heavy drinking and therapy bills. Regardless of our reaction, the idea that returning home can produce strong – and often complex – emotions is one that registers with many people. While this built-in pathos makes for an appealing premise for fiction and film, it is one that is routinely mishandled.

The past year produced two such disappointments: The Judge and This Is Where I Leave You. Though they differ in tone, they begin in almost the exact same way: a professionally successful younger son with a troubled personal life is called back home following the death of a parent. In The Judge, it’s slick Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) who puts his divorce/custody battle on hold to return to small-town Indiana to bury his mother; in This Is Where I Leave You, recently cuckolded Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) comes home to bury his father. Of course, there is tension with surviving family members: Hank is seen as a disappointment by his ornery father (Robert Duvall), the town judge while Judd bristles at his sister’s (Tina Fey) nosiness and his brother’s (Adam Driver) immaturity.

Truth be told, these set-ups work well enough to establish character and conflict. It is how they play out that causes viewers to shake their heads. Often times, family friction takes years to mend if it mends at all. In these films, however, everything is one climactic argument or fight away from being OK again.

Moreover, these movies take a rather uncharitable view of those don’t put (emotional or physical) distance between themselves and family. In both cases, there is a responsible older sibling who stayed close to home. The Judge’s Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) is treated as a broken-down former athlete rather than esteemed as a small business owner while This Is Where I Leave You’s Paul, who took over the family business, is shown to be a (possibly) impotent killjoy. The protagonists’ former flames have it even worse: instead of getting on with their lives, they are trapped in the thankless role of torch-bearer. Not does this waste the talents of Vera Farminga and Rose Byrne (respectively), it sends a clear message that if you don’t bolt for greener pastures, you must be emotionally stunted and stuck in the past.

To be fair, both films have highs and lows that are independent of the callow messaging and false narrative. The Judge is generally well-acted (by Downey and Duvall), but it’s at least 20 minutes too long. This Is Where I Leave You mixes amusing moments with tasteless and saccharine ones and offers us one of the least Jewish Jewish families in recent memory. Both films compare poorly to the previous year’s August: Osage County, which took a similar premise and spared us the artificially tidy wrap-up and hollow characterization.


The Judge: 7/10                                              
This Is Where I Leave You: 6.5/10

Friday, July 3, 2015

Skippy's

Located at 624 West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Skippy’s offers hot dogs, sandwiches, and sides. The restaurant is open from 11 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday. Vegetarian hot dogs are available.

Hot dogs are a rare indulgence these days, but when the craving strikes, it is good to know that Skippy’s is there to satisfy it. At first glance, this place doesn’t look like much. It’s small, the menu is limited, and aside from some old-timey cans and articles on the history of the pretzel bun, it is sparsely appointed. However, what Skippy’s does, it does well. The dogs are all beef and nicely grilled – nothing transformative, but quite tasty. I had mine Reuben style, and the spiciness was a nice complement. The pretzel bun was soft yet strong enough to hold everything together, and an order of fries came out hot, well-crisped, and addictively delicious (though in need of seasoning).

While gas station hot dogs will undoubtedly run cheaper, prices here leave little complaint given how filling the food proved to be. The dogs were $3.50 and a shareable basket of fries cost about the same (side portions are less).  Add to that friendly service, and you’re left with food that is worth the wait.

This bears mentioning because there most likely will be a wait. As Skippy’s is both quite compact and popular locally, it fills quickly. Even if you should be able to snag a table, expect a delay before your food reaches you. We aren’t talking Chinese Democracy levels of postponement, but rather long enough to make you question (especially if you are hungry) how long it takes to grill a hot dog.

With a winning concept, reasonable prices, and competent execution, Skippy’s shows that simple can still satisfy. Enjoy it for what it is: a doggone good bite.


8/10


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