Thursday, April 21, 2016

Nostalgic Spy Cinema: Spectre and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

The Cold War, for all its multifaceted awfulness, lined the pockets of many a writer, particularly those in the espionage genre. After all, there was a readily identifiable, ripped-from-the-headlines antagonist: the nefarious Soviet Union and its proxies. Fighting global Communism gave Western secret agents not only the license to kill, but licenses to seduce, betray, assault, abuse, and cause untold millions of dollars in property damage. Even on occasions when Soviet and Western operatives teamed up to face a bigger threat, there were tensions and cross-cultural misunderstandings to be exploited. Of course, it’s always easy to critique decades after the fact, and for many, the nostalgia filter is as sturdy as the Berlin Wall used to be. Love them or hate them, the Cold War years gave birth to undeniably impactful spy franchises, James Bond and Mission: Impossible among them. Half a century of wars, seismic geopolitical shifts, and franchise reboots later, and both series are still very much alive. Not only that, but in an introspective (sort of) feat that wouldn’t have been possible years ago, both find themselves grappling with their very reasons for existing in this day and age. Paradoxically, rather than using that as an opportunity to break new ground, both have instead delved into their respective pasts, with decidedly mixed results.

Both 2015 releases have a remarkably similar plot, to the extent that plagiarism accusations abounded post-release. In both films, the venerable spy agency (MI6 and IMF, respectively) is called to account for its excess and questionable methods and put under the watchful eye of a skeptical bureaucrat (Andrew Scott and Alec Baldwin, respectively). Despite this added scrutiny, the protagonists (Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt) push the envelope to take down a nefarious global organization (SPECTRE and The Syndicate).

For fans of these series, the nostalgia factor is high. Not only does Spectre bring back the eponymous organization, but there are homages galore to prior entries. Snowy mountain chases, deadly fisticuffs aboard trains, and love interests with criminal parents all make an appearance here, as does criminal mastermind Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, who plays the character under an alias for a good chunk of the film) and his white cat. Those who objected to previous Daniel Craig entries being too Bourne-like will have enough here to conceivably tilt their criticism the other way. For its part, Rogue Nation embraces disguises, gadgets, and teamwork, all features of the original television series that were sometimes absent in previous cinematic outings.

Both films, however, offer more than just reference and in-jokes. Directors Sam Mendes and Christopher McQuarrie keep a brisk pace and provide plenty of thrilling action set pieces. By now, Craig and Cruise have had plenty of time to grow into these roles and play them with competence and confidence. They are matched by amusing comic-relief tech support (Ben Whishaw as a dry-witted Q and Simon Pegg doing Simon Pegg things as Benji Dunn), leading ladies who defy expectations (Leya Sedoux’s Dr. Swann initially regards Bond as a crazed thug while Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust leavers viewers guessing as to her true allegiance), and chillingly cold villains (Waltz and Sean Harris).

The biggest distinction here lies in the writing. Rogue Nation incorporates plenty of twists and strains credibility at times, but it avoids biting off more than it can chew. Positioning its antagonists as former spies gone rogue, it shows what might happen if IMF lost its way. Spectre, on the other hand, suffers from overreach. It’s attempt to position SPECTRE as the driving force behind events of the previous three films comes across as an awkward retcon while giving Blofeld a more personal connection to Bond and a revenge-based motivation arguably cheapens the character. Moreover, while Rogue Nation is in some ways an improvement over its back-to-basics predecessor, the previous Bond film, Skyfall, was easily the best Bond film in 20 years and thus gave Spectre too high a bar to reach.

Looking ahead, it is unlikely that either franchise will come to a crashing halt any time soon, but both will need to adapt to survive. The search is already on for Craig’s replacement, and the 53-year-old Cruise cannot run and jump forever. Last year, these franchises showed us the allure of classic espionage. Here’s hoping they can find a way to look forward as well as back.

Spectre: 7.25/10
Rogue Nation: 7.75/10

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

After Superman’s (Henry Cavill) battle against General Zod (Michael Shannon) destroys part of Metropolis, several wonder if Kal-El should be considered friend or foe. The skeptics include a senator (Holly Hunter) holding hearings as well as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), an industrialist who lost employees during the event. Meanwhile, fellow mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) gets his hands on some kryptonite found at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, conceivably to use it as a defense against future Kryptonian attacks. He draws the suspicion not only of Wayne but also of Diana Prince (Gal Godot), a mysterious antiquities dealer. Thanks to Luthor’s secret machinations, it isn’t long before the tide of public opinion is turned against Superman and he is brought into conflict with Wayne’s alter-ego, the vigilante Batman.

Despite producing a superlative Batman trilogy (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films) and failing at nearly everything else (The Green Lantern and Jonah Hex) during the past decade, DC cannot be faulted for wanting to create its own cinematic universe. Nor can it be faulted for turning to director Zak Snyder to serve as its Joss Whedon equivalent. For as dark and divisive as Snyder’s films are, they show a fair amount of reverence for source material, and the grim tone helps distinguish DC’s universe from Marvel’s. No, what DC can and should be faulted for is expecting the thrill of seeing beloved characters brought to screen to outweigh lackluster writing and incoherent plotting. That may have worked when superhero films were a novelty act, but it’s a losing strategy in today’s cinematic climate.

To put it simply, Dawn of Justice is a bit of a mess. Though it achieves its goal of setting up a Justice League film, it bites off a lot more than it can chew. Plot threads (for example, the need to save Lois Lane to prevent an apocalyptic future) are introduced and dropped with no explanation, important characters are shunted into thankless cameos (blink and you’ll miss Jimmy Olsen), and character motivations are left unclear. Presumably, the yet-to-be-released extended cut will remedy some of these flaws, but in its present form, Dawn of Justice sacrifices coherence for enough explosion-heavy action to make Michael Bay blush. Add to that a lack of memorable dialogue and the whole thing adds up to one very sloppy effort.

And yet, in spite of that, there are the trappings of a much better film waiting to be let out. For the most part, the performances do the characters justice. Cavill has evolved from reluctant/uncertain to more unambiguously heroic while Amy Adams brings the “intrepid” to intrepid reporter Lois Lane without sacrificing her credibility. While the casting of the newcomers produced a fair amount of backlash, Affleck excels as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. As the former, he convincingly pulls off grim and jaded; as the latter, he is a criminal’s worst nightmare. The character’s willingness to use firearms (and a fairly ridiculous appearance in a nightmare sequence) may rub fans the wrong way, but the brutal fighting style is reminiscent of the popular Arkham games while the armor he dons for the big confrontation evokes Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns. Assisting him in this is Jeremy Irons as a pitch-perfect (if a bit more tech-savvy than usual) Alfred Pennyworth. Gadot doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she makes the most of it, projecting mystique in her civilian identity and utter fearlessness in combat. If there is one performance that is off-key, it is Eisenberg’s Luthor. This is meant to be a younger version of the character, so his ebullience is explicable if somewhat off-putting. And while he does prove himself to be an effective manipulator, the rationale for his anti-Superman vendetta is underbaked.

In addition, while the finale remains overblown, the film does offer plenty of nicely choreographed action sequences. Beyond the titular fight (which does not disappoint), we’re treated to Batmobile chases and a character – Doomsday – that pushes Superman to his physical limits. The visuals get a nice accompaniment from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score, with Wonder Woman’s motif a particular standout. Snyder may be a style over substance director, but he at least makes sure to get the style right.

Speaking of substance, this film tries for some semblance of meaning. It poses the question, as much to its audience as to its characters, of whether super-powered beings should be admired or feared. Unfortunately, rather than truly giving this questions its due, the film reverts to unambiguous hero-worship the minute a bigger threat shows up. That, coupled with the tendency of non-powered characters to stand around uselessly in the face of disaster, undermines whatever introspection was at play here.

The Dark Knight, still the apogee of superhero cinema, famously closed by having commissioner Gordon tell us that Batman was the hero that Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now. Well, in the case of Dawn of Justice, the inverse is true. After years of build-up, we deserve a better film. But if this does pave the way for bigger – and hopefully better – DC Extended Universe offerings, then it is the film that we need right now.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

City of Thieves

During the Siege of Leningrad, teenaged Lev, the Jewish chess prodigy son of a “disappeared” poet, is arrested for looting the body of a fallen German soldier. He is locked up with Kolya, a garrulous, slightly older Red Army deserter. Together, they are taken before a secret police colonel, who offers them their lives and extra rations if they can locate a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. Their search for the eggs in war-torn “Piter” brings them into contact with cannibals, partisans, German death squads, and other hapless individuals. Along the way, the introverted, virginal Lev and the outgoing, lecherous Kolya form a strange and enduring friendship.

Published between his auspicious debut (The 25th Hour) and his ascendency as showrunner of Game of Thrones, David Benioff’s second novel is a lot more fun than it has any right to be. As the setting suggests, there is no shortage of gloom and doom. Starvation is widespread, parts of Leningrad are in ruins, the murderous Nazis are advancing, and a quintessentially Russian fatalism permeates the novel from beginning to end. But amid all this death and despair, we are treated to a menagerie of toilet humor, sex jokes, shaggy dog stories, and coal-black farce. That, coupled with tight pacing and largely likeable protagonists, makes City of Thieves an immensely entertaining read.

Benoiff brings a screenwriter’s sensibility to the novel, which makes for some snappy banter between Lev (the straight man), Kolya (the obliviously absurd), and others that they meet. This cinematic quality is also present in the build-up to and execution of certain pivotal scenes. Be it the harrowing escape from a cannibals’ den or an assassination plot that revolves around a chess match, there is a fluidity here and a capacity for sudden, shocking violence that foreshadows some of A Game of Thrones’ more visceral moments.

If City of Thieves has one weak spot, it is that it is predictable in places. We know that Lev survives the ordeal as he narrates from a frame story, but astute readers will see far more coming in advance. However, this occasional familiarity is offset by Benioff’s willingness to change gears and alter tones and moods. Hilarious and haunting, breezy and bold, City of Thieves is an egg-cellent read.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Finnigan's Wake Irish Pub

Located at 620 North Trade Street in Winston-Salem’s Downtown Arts District, Finnigan’s Wake serves Irish pub food from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. There is a full bar, daily food and drink specials, outdoor seating, and a brunch on weekends as well as occasional live music. Vegetarian options are also available.

With a handsome wood interior and a menu full of Irish pub staples (fish and chips, corned beef, shepherd’s pie, bangers, and more), Finnigan’s Wake certainly looks the part. However, while there are certainly a few bright spots, the uneven execution leaves considerable room for improvement.

As mentioned, the menu has no shortage of appealing options. Scotch eggs, Guinness stew, mac and cheese and the plowman’s lunch all seemed like worthy contenders, but my fiancée and I opted to split a Reuben with a side of Granny Smith coleslaw and an order of shepherd’s pie nachos. The Reuben featured some quality corned beef and a nice spicy mustard, but it could have benefitted from a thicker bread: ours was rather limp. The shepherd’s pie nachos were a great concept but definitely needed more seasoning, more gravy, and fresher chips. The Granny Smith slaw did not contain any apple chunks but was instead infused with apple flavor. It was easily the best thing on the plate: slightly sweet, creamy, and delicious.

The rest of the Finnigan’s Wake experience proved to be similarly inconsistent. Servers were genuinely friendly, but the kitchen seemed slow given that it was not especially crowded at the time of our lunch visit. The $9.50 charged for a heaping platter of nachos was fair considering the quantity; however, the $10.50 charged for an average-sized sandwich and side seemed a stretch. M’Coul’s in Greensboro, a similarly-themed establishment, does it for $1.50 less.

Given its menu, service, location, and décor, I wanted to like Finnigan’s Wake a lot more than I actually did. Had the kitchen upped its game, this would have likely become a regular stop during visits to downtown Winston. Instead, it’s a place I would consider again albeit with significantly reduced expectations.

Finnigan's Wake Irish Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

In the mid-1980s, drug dealer Eric “Eazy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) and friend Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) join forces with aspiring DJs Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), Antoine “DJ Yella” Carabay (Neil Brown Jr.), and teen rapper Oshea “Ice Cube” Jackson (Oshea Jackson Jr. – Ice Cube’s son) to form pioneering hip hop group N.W.A. Impressed by Wright, veteran music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) helps him start the label Ruthless Records and release the group’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton. The album wins both a massive following and the ire of law enforcement everywhere. As N.W.A. gains stature and success, disputes regarding finances and Heller’s role in the operation fracture the group at the height of its popularity.

Biopics are often actors’ showcases, and, as such, other elements of filmmaking tend to suffer. Real-life figures are shunted into the roles of heroes and villains, personal triumphs and failings are exaggerated and dramatized, and plotting is usually predictable even to those unfamiliar with the subject’s history. To a certain extent, Straight Outta Compton is as guilty of this as any film in the genre: it’s a victor’s history that demonizes Heller, whitewashes Dre’s violence and misogyny, only hints at Suge Knight’s true malice, and downplays the contributions of other group members. Despite these shortcomings, Straight Outta Compton successfully avoids the pitfalls of excess sentimentality and presents a potent retrospective on artists that influenced a generation.

Though there are few big names to be found among the cast, there are several strong performances. Mitchell conveys Eazy E’s charisma and cunning while Jackson, the spitting image of his father, captures the latter’s passion and rage. On the other hand, Hawkins’ Dre is curiously sedate (except where family is concerned) while Giamatti’s serial haminess lends itself to stereotypically (if at times amusingly) apoplectic outbursts.

No one will confuse F. Gary Gray (who previously helmed Friday, among others) for Steven McQueen, but his direction here is more competent than his resume suggests. The film runs at a deliberate pace yet doesn’t feel padded, and there is a convincing period feel. Credit too should go to screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for their gritty, aware writing. Where Straight Outta Compton is strongest is in its ability to tap into the late 80s/early 90s zeitgeist: police were hostile, media were skeptical, and in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, a lot of people were angry. Against this backdrop, N.W.A.’s rise to prominence appears weighty and relevant. That said, the film’s closing segment, which features various artists attest to the group’s (and Dre’s in particular) influence reeks of pandering.

With its historical distortions, self-indulgence, and sins of omission, Straight Outta Compton fails to be all that it could have been. It is, however, a provocatively refreshing departure from the canned staleness that often permeates prestige cinema.


Scrambled Southern Diner

Located at 2417 Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, Scrambled Southern Diner offers innovative, locally sourced Southern fare for breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Breakfast items are offered until closing, and there are rotating specials and a full bar. Outdoor seating is available.

I was an admirer of – albeit an infrequent visitor to – Josephine’s, the upscale eatery that used to occupy this space. When Josephine’s owners rebooted the establishment as a breakfast/lunch concept last year, I was skeptical that a restaurant on Spring Garden that closed at 3 p.m. would be able to stay afloat. If my first visit was any indication, my skepticism was misplaced.

To say that Scrambled does brisk breakfast business is a massive understatement. The compact confines fill quickly, and if lunch is anywhere close, there is no reason to worry about Scrambled going under any time soon. One look at the menu, and you’ll understand the bustle. From burritos and benedicts to pancakes and waffles, Scrambled covers many morning favorites. Come past 11 a.m. and you can also take in a sandwich or the daily blue plate special.

On versatility alone, however, the breakfast scrambles are the real stars: two eggs scrambled, over easy or in an omelet with grits or hash browns, toast or a biscuit, and a bevy of creative toppings all served in an apropos cast iron skillet. For my first visit, I went with the Mariner (crab, lobster, spinach, tomato, scallions, and sherry fondue) while my fiancée tried the Green Eggs and Ham (chorizo, scallions, queso fresco, salsa verde, chile lime crema). Both dishes were generously portioned, colorfully plated, and tasted every bit as good as they looked. The Mariner’s rich, creamy sauce, combined with bites of seafood, called to mind a good lobster bisque while the Green Eggs and Ham had a nice, spicy kick. Biscuits came with a choice of very good housemade jams. The hash browns were rather salty, but they added a great crunch to my skillet.

Given the high volume of patronage, service was surprisingly warm and attentive. There is definitely a more relaxed vibe here than when this place was Josephine’s, but a few constants remain. For starters, the décor (maroon walls and lots of overhead ductwork) remains unappealing. You’ll also continue to pay a pretty penny for eating here. My scramble ran $13.30, a lot to spend on a breakfast dish, but not unreasonable given the ingredients and honestly worth every cent. In all fairness, most of the other scrambles and several of the lunch offerings are in the $10 to $11 range.

Against expectations, Scrambled successfully combines the friendly boisterousness of a Southern diner with the high-level execution of the space’s previous concept. Don’t let the appellation “brunch spot” drive you away: there is something here to please just about everyone.


Scrambled Southern Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hillsborough BBQ Company

Located at 236 South Nash Street in Hillsborough, Hillsborough BBQ Company serves barbeque for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. There is a full bar and catering is available.

There are plenty of establishments that try too hard to be something they’re not, but Hillsborough BBQ is not among them. From the old-timey photos on the walls to the simple, rustic décor to the straightforward menu, this is a classic North Carolina barbeque joint through and through. By that measure, it’s quite a good one although there are a few things that would welcome improvement.

My fiancée and I arrived hungry for our first visit and went with a starter of catfish bites followed by a two-meat combination plate with BBQ pork, brisket, mac and cheese, hushpuppies and slaw. The catfish bites had a nice, thick batter that avoided gumminess and played well with the accompanying remoulade. Both of the meats were juicy, and the pork was among the best I’ve had in quite some time. The mac and cheese was a homestyle preparation done right.

While most of the food satisfied, the slaw was a major exception. We initially went with a red slaw mistaking it for BBQ slaw: it was apple cider vinegar-based and too tangy for our liking. They were kind enough to swap it for a white slaw, but this that wasn’t much better. It was very finely chopped and lacked any creaminess.

That – and the relatively limited selection of BBQ sauces (only two were available) – were the only low points here. Pricing was fair - $8 for the app and less than $20 for a combo that fed two – and despite the busyness of the lunch hour, service was efficient and relatively quick.

Hillsborough BBQ may not rank among the Tarheel State’s barbeque elite, but for the area, it’s a BBQ bright spot. Flavor and service make it a must-try.


Hillsborough BBQ Company Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato