Thursday, June 27, 2013

Some summer events, three unique cinema experiences + two noteworthy, unpretentious restos in Manhattan

Anat Cohen
Large & small festivals of all sorts seem to proliferate throughout New York City during the summer months. As we are all, by now, well aware, there are theater, music, film, food, wine & beer, and street festivals of every ilk:  there is, among hundreds of such summer-long events, the "River-to River, 2013" festival featuring numbers of performing artists, including the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company (scheduled for June 25th @ 7:30 at the Schimmel Center for the Arts; 3 Spruce Street, downtown, in the heart of Pace University); or the Madison Square Park Conservancy / Music 2013 Oval Lawn Series (featuring the likes of Suzanne Vega, Ben Sollee, & the Anat Cohen Quartet this week, June 26th @ 7:00; located between Madison & Fifth @ 23rd/24th Streets); AND a 3-week long 50th Anniversary Ozu film festival at the Film Forum (June 7th-27th; 209 West Houston St; 212/727-8110) commemorating the work of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). 
 Yasujiro Ozu

The festival couples both his well-known masterpieces -The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Tokyo Story,The End of Summer, Late Autumn - with lesser known films (too numerous to list in full), such as one we were able to catch entitled Equinox Flower (1958), Ozu's first color feature, superbly, carefully, sensitively acted but with a light "footprint," focusing on all aspects of marriage & the family - from traditional & arranged marriages, to the rigors of a daughter(s) choosing her own husband & a stern father's having to get used to new, non-traditional ways. Ultimately, according to one reviewer, the film presents "a balanced picture of Japanese family life, made with loving irony." (Don't know if this charming film is currently available from Netflix.) 
Edward Hopper work
One other special (somewhat "summer") event  which should be noted - especially by those living in the Montclair, NJ area, or with easy access to Essex County - concerns a creatively arranged & mounted show entitled The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913. The show ran from February 17th thru June 16th (it has, obviously, just ended). 

Mary Cassatt work
According to Montclair Art Museum publicity material, the "exhibition [which opened 100 years to the day from the original New York City Armory Show] focuses on the diverse range of American art, that was exhibited alongside modern European art by Cezanne and Matisse." Included, for example, were works of Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper (Sailing, 1911), and Oscar Bluemner (Hackensack River, c. 1912). The show was, indeed, a stunning, circumscribed representation of American art earlier displayed at the NY City Armory Show in 1913, providing a fine opportunity for local museum-goers to witness some truly wonderful works in various media (along with some original documents & memorabilia), all assembled tastefully in a few well lighted rooms for relative ease of viewing.

Three new, or recent, films to take note of and that I must recommend to you - without pyrotechnic activity & artificial mayhem - consist in the following: Renoir (2012, directed by Gilles Bourdos); Plimpton (2013, a documentary directed by Tom Bean & Luke Poling); and A Highjacking (2012, a feature film directed by Tobias Lindholm). To even mention these three currently running films is to speak of three strikingly different & original kinds of cinema experiences. 

Renoir is composed of lush scenes & richly colorful vistas to be discovered by the viewer and dwelt upon - "painted" by both Pierre-Auguste Renoir (imperially & imperiously played by Michel Bouquet) and, also, by the film's cinematographer (Mark Lee Ping Bin) ... and set primarily at Renoir's estate in the south of France along the Cote d'Azur. The film focuses on the diurnal life of the working artist struggling in old age with constant, terrific, arthritic pain (his brushes must be strapped to his grizzled hands and fingers so that he can hold them, sketch & paint). This impressionist film, then, is centrally a portrait of an individual - a great impressionist painter - who cannot live without painting and without his current young model & bevy of loyal older models ... and who must endure the pain (both physical & emotional) as he must go on creating during the period of World War I. 

P-A Renoir (Michel Bouquet)
Renoir is also the story of a war-wounded Jean Renoir convalescing on his father's estate and the affair he has with his father's most interesting, youthful, recalcitrant & sensual model, Andrée Heuschling, as he recovers from his leg injury, develops as a man (a thoughtful man) and begins to refine his interest & skills in the art of film. This is a fabulously colorful, sensuous film to view, seemingly "painted" on a broad canvas & finely textured, a film displaying superbly natural acting by all the cast members, en ensemble, a film that is sincere & powerful, deep & natural, and somewhat enigmatic, at times, in its portraits of Jean and his beguiling, difficult, even truculent father, Pierre-Auguste, "le patron."

Plimpton is a black-and-white, feature-length documentary film about the celebrated writer-editor-journalist, himself, George Plimpton. With Plimpton at center stage, the film essentially explores how he involved himself in all kinds of what he calls "participatory" journalistic activities. The film is, for the most part, narrated by Plimpton ... reflecting Plimpton writ large over 3 or 4 decades. And the material is presented throughout in Plimpton's own voice along with a few talking heads, such as Plimpton's good friend, the writer Peter Matthiessen, who invited him to Paris in 1953 to help begin what would become - under Plimpton's diligent editorship -.The Paris Review, one of the most elegant literary magazines in the entire canon of "small" magazines, in America & abroad. 

Plimpton / Quarterback
Indeed, Plimpton, defining & emphasizing his amateur role as a sports figure (though certainly identifying himself as a professional writer) ended up in some very difficult, even precarious, situations - playing a goalie for the Boston Bruins professional hockey team; a 9th-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions; a baseball pitcher pitching to the likes of Willie Mays; a trapeze artist (with a net), very high above the circus crowd swinging and being caught by the legs; boxing (sparring) with the famous champion, Archie Moore; acting alongside John Wayne; taming lions; and playing the triangle & bass drum in the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic. Plimpton is depicted throughout the film participating in all of these difficult professional activities - seemingly sans fear, as an amateur - and ends up writing several books about these stunts (including Paper Lion:  Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback; 1966) and his relatively consistent desire to participate

You can't help but get to know George Plimpton, his ticks, his failings, his strengths at managing a major literary magazine, managing writers, and motivating people - both readers & writers and the athletes with whom his activities coincided. It seems that Plimpton, who died in 2003 at 76, is a literary figure very much missed ... but still, really, very much present & very much on the literary scene!

In summing up this documentary film, I offer you what Plimpton has articulated about himself and his work, in his own words "Well, I have to write. A lot of people forget that. They think I'm some sort of a crazy buffoon who can't quite make up putting his mind [at] what he wants to do in life. But it's not that at all. It's, I'm a professional writer and have this device, really, of trying other people's professions." And so he did ... many times, over many years.

Based on an actual 2007 incident in the Indian Ocean involving the Danish cargo vessel, the MV Rosen, Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking is the incredibly tension-laden, taut, nerve-wracking story of the actual event, a precarious highjacking situation which lasted some four (+) months.  The film examines the bleak events sparely, in almost cinema verite style, from the point of view of the ship's crew (notably the ship's cook, the captain & a mate); the corporate "chief" who negotiates with the Somali pirates that have taken over the ship; and the pirates' enigmatic representative, Omar.  

Scene from A Hijacking / Pilou Asbaek (Cook)
While we don't actually witness the pirates boarding & taking over the ship, we see all of the results: the pirate negotiator continually passing on the hijacker demands (via phone & fax) for millions of dollars in exchange for the safe return of the ship & the crew; the disheartened, edgy & physically diminished crew (seen primarily through the person of the cook who serves as symbolic stand-in for the crew of seven men); the corporate CEO who, choosing to negotiate himself (without this kind of experience) also becomes a prisoner of the hijacking, growing increasingly nervous, sleepless, ragged; the primitive trigger-clinging pirates, ready to pounce on the members of the crew for almost any reason.

To wrap up for the moment, it should be noted that events developing throughout the hijacking - and the prolonged negotiation with the pirates - are depicted in real time with  incredible tension mounting steadily on both the hijacked vessel and in the equally "hijacked" company's corporate conference room. Negotiations do, indeed, move forward, slowly, during what becomes - and we witness as - a fractured & shattering process:  A fast-paced western European corporate culture slowed down to a proverbial crawl in its negotiations (in its "battle") with the all-the-time-in-the-world and nothing-to-lose culture of the Somali pirates. You'll just have to see it all for yourself to determine who, or what, actually wins out - or loses - in the end.

Two West Village restaurants you might want to know about are Mercadito, an exceptionally friendly & unique Mexican resto ("taqueria & cevicheria"), and Pinto, offering up somewhat idiosyncratic but quintessentially tasty Thai-Asian cuisine at very (very!) inviting prices. 

Mercadito - Grove Street
Mercadito (100 7th Ave. South @ Grove Street; tel. 212/647-0830; with another location in the East Village at 179 Ave. B, between 11th & 12th) features, among other possibilities, an array of interesting Margaritas, guacamoles (plural!), ceviches, soft tacos, & large plates (platos fuertes).  But we chose to visit Mercadito because of their announced "regional dinners" served on two nights each month. For these evening events, organized & executed by Executive Chef Aldo Ayala, a special 4-course menu for $25 ($30, if you add beer, wine, or a cocktail) becomes available and ours - during mid-June (the 12th & 13th) - emphasized a menu of Mexican Grilling. What follows is what the chef plated & what we each dined on:

Taco de pescado
We began with crudo de callo de hacha, grilled diver scallops, with watermelon & pickled red onion, in a key-lime habanero broth. Very tender, very tasty; spicy & flavorful! Next came the taco de pescado plate, tacos filled with adobo marinated grilled red snapper, along with sides of apple-jicama slaw & tomatillo salsa ... an interesting mixture of tastes, aroma ... piquant & tender. The main course - carne a la parrilla - was, in short order, placed before us.  The entree comprised a large slice of rib eye steak, grilled to (near) perfection ... prepared with rosemary butter, and enhanced with charred scallions, cactus salad & a side of grilled corn. Simply overflowing, this well integrated plate, with nicely prepared "veggie" accompaniments, surrounding the rosemary butter "daubed" steak, worked well, although it proved a bit too large for my wife to finish. Our dessert - fruta de temporada - while maintaining the regional ("grilled") theme, was slightly disappointing. Anticipating something sweet and, perhaps, creamy, the fruit salad proved singularly tart & spicy. Some kind of "chocolaty," mousse-like, item might have proved a better finale to an otherwise successful meal. Nevertheless, we will, indeed, return to Mercadito to sample another regional, "Taste of Mexico," 4-course menu!

Pinto (at 118 Christopher St., west of Bleecker; tel. 212/366-5455) is, as I alluded to above, an inviting Thai-Asian "bistro" we selected for its eclectic, interesting & varied menus. They serve an $8 prix fixe lunch (an appetizer & a main) and dinner; they also offer a "Sunset Menu" at $15, between 3:30 & 6:00, which includes an appetizer, a substantial main dish & a drink (e.g., a variety of iced teas, Asian beers, house wines). Lots of possibilities in each category to choose from: For appetizers we chose the mushroom crunch (sesame-crusted mushroom served with jalapeno tartar sauce) & the grilled beef salad (succulent slices of beef with spicy tomato vinaigrette). 

PCU noodle dish
We followed up with a delicious, moderately spicy pork PCU noodle dish (rice noodles sauteed with sweet dark soy sauce, baby bokchoy & egg) AND a spicy (& complexly varied) bowl of tom yam fried rice with shrimp (jasmine rice wok-tossed with lemongrass & mixed with lime, fresh pepper-chili paste, mushroom, bell peppers & enoki mushroom). Our "sunset" meal was accompanied by a couple of Asian beers - Singha & Sapporo - both of which tended to temper & complement  the relatively piquant food we sampled.

Food here at Pinto is very fresh and the service is extremely pleasant & accommodating; portions are commodious & prices are, well, utterly reasonable. This spot could easily become our fall-back West Village Thai-Asian resto. Give Pinto a try; it might continue to kindle your interest, too!