Friday, October 13, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Synthetic human “replicants” are designed for slave labor, but after repeated uprisings, their production is banned. By 2049, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has circumvented the ban by creating a new series of (supposedly) completely obedient replicants. One of them, “K” (Ryan Gosling), works as an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with hunting down and “retiring” older models. But when K discovers evidence that replicants are capable of reproducing, his loyalties are tested. His commanding officer (Robin Wright) wants the evidence destroyed to prevent a civil war, Wallace wants to harness the reproductive abilities for his own purposes, and K wants to find out the truth.
Though it’s hard to fathom given its outsized influence, the original Blade Runner was not a well-received film when released thirty five years ago. This can be chalked up to a combination of studio interference (including a terrible voiceover and altered ending) and being ahead of its time. In contrast, 2017’s much-anticipated sequel has received both more creative liberty (as the nearly three-hour run time attests) and more immediate praise despite being, in many ways, a lesser film.
It should be noted, however, that “lesser” does not equate to “bad,” especially when given such an iconic measuring stick. For instance, 2049 is one of the more visually impressive films of recent memory, surpassing even the original. It retains the dark, crowded, neon-infused cityscapes and adds to it an exploration of the ruined world around Los Angeles. San Diego is a ruinous garbage dump, Las Vegas is a golden irradiated desert, and elsewhere, snow falls like ashes. Hans Zimmer’s score evokes the futuristic tones Vangelis used in the original film but with the tension ratcheted up at key moments of discovery (Zimmer has proved to be a master of this).
Though original director Ridley Scott gave up his chair for a producer’s role, his replacement, Denis Villenueve (known for Prisoners and Sicario) has proven himself more than capable. 2049 is a tightly controlled film that doesn’t feel its length due to an absence of lags and clutter. Returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher penned a script that makes a few of its turns predictable while still allowing for some misdirection and suspense (The emergence of a certain group toward the end is a blatant sequel hook but ultimately a forgivable one).
On the other side of the camera, Gosling gives a credible performance as the competent yet conflicted K, Sylvia Hoeks radiates unstable menace as Wallace’s enforcer Luv, and despite having far less screentime this go-around, a returning Harrison Ford gives arguable a better performance as Deckard, the now ex-blade runner touched by loss. In smaller roles, Leto gives another singularly creepy performance as Wallace, a ghoulish blind visionary while Dave Bautista continues to expand his acting range as a haggard yet still formidable replicant ex-combat medic-turned-farmer. The only character to really strike a false note was Joi, K’s holographic A.I. girlfriend, but that had less to do with Ana de Armas’s wide-eyed benevolence than it did with the way the character was written. Though she frames it has her own evolution/actualization, Joi’s role throughout the film is to continue to support K in various capacities, a rather sexist take on becoming more real.
Despite the richness of the scenery and (most) performances, 2049 lacks the depth and complexity that it deserves. The original film trafficked in moral ambiguity: Deckard was not a noble or particularly competent hero, rogue replicant Roy Batty had a conscience and a reasonable goal (survival) despite his violent tendencies, and replicant creator Dr. Tyrell, for all of his amorality, was an avuncular presence. In contrast, K is both more effective and more heroic, Luv is loyal yet psychopathic, and Wallace is an overtly sinister and megalomaniac. Beyond lacking complex characterization, 2049 also feels thematically underdone. The original asked some very pointed questions about what it means to be human; here, we’re entreated to explorations of “real” vs. “created,” but perhaps because so many conversations have taken place in the past thirty five years, it doesn’t feel nearly as profound.
Blade Runner 2049 is an aesthetically dazzling film with strong performances to match the high production values. However, it frustratingly never digs as deeply as it needs to.


8.25/10

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

WP Kitchen + Bar

Located at 607 Green Valley Road at the Friendly Center in Greensboro, WP Kitchen + Bar specializes in upscale pizzas, pastas, and cocktails. There is a full bar, and patio seating is available.

I gave this establishment a try a few years ago when it was Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar and walked away unimpressed. In the hopes that more had changed here than just the name, I decided to give WP another chance. For the most part, I’m glad that I did so.

As with before, this restaurant makes the most of its somewhat limited space. Low lighting and classy wall art make for an inviting atmosphere, and there is more seating than one might think. The acoustics are such that it can get a bit loud in here at capacity but not uncomfortably so.

Excluding specials, WP’s menu leans toward the traditional, combining familiar Italian fare with Southern staples. Spaghetti with marinara, pizza margherita, and shrimp and grits are among the classics represented here. While there is nothing wrong with keeping things simple per say, the specials, thankfully, seemed to offer a bit more variety (such as a stuffed trout or the previous concept’s duck sausage pizza). My wife and I tried a mix of old and new, opting for an app on special (toasted feta with speck and fruit compote), a pepperoni pizza, and an orecchiette dish.





All of our dishes were executed fairly well and provided good depth-of-flavor. Toasted feta is no warmed brie, but it’s quite enjoyable in its own right, and the accompanying prosciutto (salty) and berry compote (sweet) balanced each other nicely. The small ear-shaped pasta came with broccolini and tomato for a burst of freshness, and the savory, brothy sauce was the perfect accompaniment. WP sourced the pepperoni for its pizza from Giacomo’s, which went a long way toward elevating such a simple dish. The sausage (standard in the pasta, an add-on for the pizza) was full of fennel flavor.

Though the food did not disappoint this time around, pricing and portion size remain points of contention. Our app ran north of $10, the pasta was $15, and the personal-sized pepperoni pizza was $13 before any add-ons. While WP does use quality ingredients, this price point is unfortunately coupled with small portions, rendering it a poor value.

To the establishment’s credit, service was on-point. Our server was knowledgeable and attentive, and the kitchen had certainly picked up its pace since my last visit. Even still, one should count on a leisurely meal here, especially if dining during peak hours.

All told, WP Kitchen + Bar does a number of things well, but it doesn’t do anything well enough to avoid seeming overpriced.


7.75/10

Monday, September 11, 2017

Four Flocks and Larder

NOTE: This establishment has stopped accepting Groupons.

Located at 433 Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, Four Flocks and Larder specializes in poultry and Southern fare. It is open for dinner seven days per week and also offers a weekend brunch. A full bar with a juleps menu is available as is patio seating.

Four Flocks and Larder is one of several (alongside Revolution Burger and the Baker and the Bean) establishments that Fresh Local Good Food Group opened in the old Morehead Foundry Building last year. My previous experiences at FLG eateries have been somewhat mixed, and Four Flocks proved no exception. In this case, that translates to good, but not as good as it could have been.

This fairly spacious restaurant is homey, bright, and inviting if a bit quirky. There is a market area, a large bar, and plenty of tables. The wood shelves and other touches give off an appropriately rustic feel and the carved birds up front definitely stand out. The overhead ductwork, however, serves as a reminder of this space’s industrial origins.

Four Flocks’ menu gathers an enticing collection of small plates, sides, salads, soups, and breads. Poultry is the star here, and chicken (fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, smoked wings), duck (roasted duck breast, spaghetti and duck meatballs), turkey (turkey frittes), and quail (cornbread stuffed) are all represented here. They also do ribs, beef fillet, shrimp and grits, and very few vegetarian dishes (most notably, a blackeyed pea ravioli). Decisions did not come easily.

Ultimately, my wife and I split a sea salt bread pot starter, a cup of pumpkin soup, pan roasted duck breast, southern fried chicken, and a side of white cheddar mac and cheese with country ham. The bread was deliciously flaky and came with a nice herb butter. The soup was a generous portion (the “cup” was a deep turret-shaped vessel), hearty, and comforting. The duck didn’t top Undercurrent’s version, but it was still very good in its own right: fatty and flavorful and paired well with a cherry sauce and Brussels sprouts (the latter of which I enjoyed despite finding that thought inconceivable a year ago). The mac and cheese is an addictive homestyle preparation, and the ham adds a smoky, salty touch.





Unfortunately, for as good as these dishes were, not everything was a hit. The fried chicken looked appealing, and it thankfully wasn’t dried out, but it was thinly battered and, disappointingly, very bland. In addition, the accompanying grits seemed like they used enough butter to make Paula Deen blush.

Four Flocks was not remotely busy during the time of our visit, which meant we didn’t have to wait very long for our food (something I sensed would not be the case otherwise). Our server, Brooks, did an excellent job, and we have him to thank for recommending the bread pot and the mac and cheese. Pricing proved to be surprisingly affordable: all of our food (a bread, a soup, a side, and two plates) ran under $40 pre-tip.

As with other FLG eateries, the menu and concept hold lots of appeal, and Four Flocks has the best food, ambiance, and service of any in the group. However, it’s still several inconsistencies away from flying high and realizing its full potential.


7.75/10
Four Flocks and Larder Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Villains

Released last month, Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album shows that sometimes, the way forward is back. Whereas the past few releases featured high-profile guest contributors – Mark Lanegan, Billy Gibbons, and Dave Grohl come to mind – Villains features the band alone.

And yet this is not exactly a throwback album. Rather than trying to recapture the stoner rock sound of its self-titled debut, the band has expanded its repertoire, taking on multiple genres at once. The opening track “Feet Don’t Fail Me” features a funky bass line while “Villains of Circumstance” is hauntingly melancholic at times (and reminiscent of Songs for the Deaf’s “Mosquito Song,” a personal favorite). Other cuts dabble in electronica-tinged dance rock (“Un-Reborn Again”), uptempto hard rock (“The Way You Used to Do”) and more.

It’s tempting to lay credit for this diversification at the feet of producer Mark Ronson, best known for his work with Adele and Bruno Mars. And yet while the production here is sharp, it doesn’t feel intrusive. Vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme still sounds very much himself, not a manqué of a better-known name, and the album’s theme – the plight of the dastardly – is definitely the kind of vaguely sinister oddity that Queens of the Stone Age would embrace.

Though longtime fans may balk at the band’s branching out, but Villains is among Queens of the Stone Age’s most enjoyable releases in years. Varied, polished, and darkly entertaining, it commands a listen or five.


8.5/10

Umami

Located at 3123 Garden Road in Burlington, Umami offers Japanese cuisine for lunch and dinner seven days a week. There are happy hour specials from 4:30-7:30 Monday-Wednesday as well as rotating food specials. Beer, wine, and sake are available.

Teppanyaki-style Japanese steakhouses, at least in this area of North Carolina, imply a tradeoff: you will pay a bit more than you think you should and eat shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers in exchange for watching food get diced before your eyes and set on fire. Even with this give-and-take firmly in mind, Umami walks a very thin line between delicious and disaster.

Some restaurants of this ilk aim for bright lighting, soothing music, and classy décor, but Umami has opted for a more accessible downmarket approach. The dark red walls are not unsightly, but the low lighting and the hip hop playing in the background run counter to expectations. The restaurant is divided into a sushi side and a teppanyaki side. Should you opt for the latter, you’ll find several tables each arranged around grills, each with its own wisecracking cook. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but a firmly “family friendly” approach.

While Umami’s pricing (hibachi dinners starting in the mid-teens on up) is in line with competitors, it’s likely a better value: you get a lot of food for your money. My chicken, steak, and shrimp special ran $20 while my wife’s steak and chicken was slightly less. Both meals came with salad, soup, vegetables, rice, noodles, and sauce in plentiful portions.



The food offered more hits than misses. Though the salad was simple and its accompanying ginger dressing paste-like, it tasted better than it looked. The chicken-flavored broth is no substitute for miso but not bad in its own right. Our cook proved to be as good a culinary hand as he was a corny joke-teller: the vegetables were nicely cut, the chicken coated in a tasty teriyaki sauce, and the cooked-to-order steak was thankfully tender.

Our server/hostess was polite and left us with no room for complaint. Not so the couple beside us, however, whose hibachi order was forgotten (a problem quickly remedied) and whose request to add cream cheese to a sushi order resulted in dollops of the stuff placed atop (rather than inside of) a roll.  

All told, Umami offered a lot (definite leftovers) of fairly tasty food for the money charged, but its various quirks call a return into question.


7.25/10

The Defenders

When sinister ancient ninja organization The Hand sets its sights on the destruction of New York, its archenemy Danny Rand, aka The Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones) resolves to stop it at all costs. Meanwhile, superpowered private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is hired to investigate a missing man who has knowledge of The Hand’s activities. When she attracts police attention, blind attorney Matt Murdock, secretly the masked vigilante Daredevil (Charlie Cox), bails her out. The Hand’s decision to hire local youths as a cleanup crew also attracts the attention of recently released Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a nigh invulnerable watchdog who was wrongly imprisoned. The four heroes are brought together by a common foe, but will they be able to set aside their considerable differences long enough to make a difference?

Fresh off disappointing fans with Iron Fist’s mediocre solo series, Marvel’s Netflix team has again gone out on a limb. This time, the risks include a shorter format, a mystical menace, and a decision to use The Defenders name for a team that doesn’t resemble its comic book counterpart. While not all of these risks paid off, they do show that Marvel is capable of adapting and responding to criticism rather than doubling down on past mistakes.

Series creator Douglas Petrie is an old television hand (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and despite the short run, The Defenders has an episodic feel in the early going, gradually laying groundwork before ratcheting up the action in the latter episodes. This mitigates some of the pacing problems present in the characters’ solo series, but there is still some lag.

The decision to utilize The Hand as antagonists is both a blessing and a curse. The organization poses a threat of an appropriate scale to unite the heroes, and a look at its inner workings – there are five “fingers” that don’t always see eye to eye, mirroring the heroes’ dischord – humanizes the group to some extent. On the other hand (pun not intended), for a supposedly secretive organization, the group’s disruptive activities are laughably conspicuous.

The decision to involve the hand also places Rand front and center, a questionable move giving his poor reputation among fans. However, to the credit of all involved, he comes off better here than in his own show. His fight scenes are more fluid and convincing and his teammates regularly call him out on his stubbornness and immaturity. Still, the mysticism inherent in his plotline seems an odd fit for the grittier exploits of Daredevil, Cage, and Jones.

Though Rand (and Finn Jones’s portrayal of him) remains a point of contention, the rest of the cast generally comes off well. Luke and Jessica, a married couple in the comics, enjoy some nice banter, and their incredulity at the show’s supernatural turns casts them as audience surrogates. Matt reveals the difficulty of trying to compartmentalize as his worlds come perilously close to colliding. The supporting roles continue to showcase strong characters, from repentant ex-Hand swordswoman Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) to tough yet sympathetic cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick) to Matt’s crusty, badass mentor Stick (Scott Glenn) to everyone’s mutual acquaintance/favorite nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). On the villain side of the spectrum, Elodie Yung gives a nuanced, emotional performance as Elektra, a recently revived Hand assassin with conflicting loyalties while Wai Ching Ho continues to drop veiled insults with aplomb as the recurring foe Madame Gao. Though Sigourney Weaver lends star power and a touch of deadly class to the role of Hand honcho Alexandra, the character is bland and familiar, with some clichéd dialogue to boot.

These performances, coupled with some well-choreographed fight scenes and a lively soundtrack, make The Defenders consistently watchable though it never reaches the highs of the best of the characters’ solo outings. Those who have yet to break faith with Marvel’s Netflix offerings will not be driven to do so now, and by the groundwork is laid for further developments. However, The Avengers this is not.


7.5/10

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Culichi Mexican Seafood Bar & Grill

Located at 4512 W. Market Street in Greensboro, Culichi serves Mexican fare for lunch and dinner seven days per week. There is a full bar and occasional live music.
Mexican restaurants in Greensboro never truly die; they merely rebrand. The Southwestern-style building that Culichi calls home was previously Los 3 Potrillos and before that Casa Don Lupe. While an emphasis on seafood sets Culichi apart from its predecessors, only time will tell if can enjoy greater longevity.
My wife and I made our first visit on a Sunday night. There was a largeish group there for a birthday party, and a mariachi band was playing, so it was loud but not unbearably so.  The interior layout was largely familiar (bar on the right, booths along the walls, tables in the middle) although the décor is more sedate than that of Los 3 Potrillos.
Culichi’s menu has a lot of the expected (carnitas, ACP, burritos, etc.) as well as some truly impressive-looking – and massive – seafood platters. I opted for the costa azul (shrimp, crab, and scallops with cheese, rice and salad) while my wife went with cazuelon tapatio (chicken and chorizo with rice, beans, and cheese) Wait times for the food were reasonable given the restaurant’s volume, and service left no room for complaint.


The food proved mostly satisfactory. The proteins were seasoned well, portion sizes were generous, and they didn’t skimp on the shrimp. On the other hand, the chicken in the cazuelon tapatio was dry, and the chips, salsa, and rice were all fairly pedestrian. Pricing was fair: seafood entrees run into the teens while plenty of menu items can be found for under $10.

Greensboro has so many Mexican restaurants that standing out from the pack is an uphill battle. In Culichi’s case, Mexico Mexican Restaurant, El Camino Real, and Carniceria el Mercandito are all a short distance up the road while Luna and Villa del Mar also offer a focus on seafood. That and the lack of a “wow” factor are definite challenges, but they are not proof positive that Culichi can’t compete. The food and service showed enough promise to suggest viability. As with many restaurants, consistency over time will ultimately be what makes or breaks this place. 

7.5/10