Saturday, December 28, 2013

12 Years A Slave

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Steve McQueen
Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: R

"12 Years A Slave" is a remarkable film, based on a remarkably true story. It's incredibly hard to watch, but you probably should, because it's going to win the Oscar. Hans Zimmer's score soars, as we spend over a decade with Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It lingered a bit in some scenes, but the performances in this movie are gut-wrenching, emotional and raw.

Why hadn't the world really heard of Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced CHOO-it-tell EDGE-ee-oh-for) until now? This supporting-turned-leading man shines as Northup, a wrongly enslaved man from New York. He soon realizes that it's his word against a white man's word, and in the days before cell phones and fax machines, there was no chance he'd be able to get a hold of his free papers before being sold. The fear he experiences will give you shivers. SNL favorite Taran Killam portrays one of his kidnappers. This made me even more sad.

I was pleased to see the odd face of Benedict Cumberbatch (love Sherlock!). Cumbie plays Northup's first master, Ford, who seems to have the slightest glimmer of a heart. He is well aware the Northup is an exceptionally smart man, and he quickly becomes the "favorite" at the plantation. Unfortunately, Ford does nothing about Northup's circumstances, and instead sends him to work everyday under the overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano.) Dano keeps popping up as disturbed characters and his performances are outstanding.

It's going to be difficult to pull for Michael Fassbender to win Best Supporting Actor, but he deserves it. The ease with which he portrays Northup's heartless and cruel second master is scary. Fassbender is gorgeous, but unrecognizable as this drunkard, Edwin Epps. He was a terrible, terrible man. Alfie Woodard stands out in her 5 minutes, as a former slave who didn't push away her horny master, ended up marrying him and gained her freedom. She tries to tell Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the apple of Epps' eye, to just go along with things. This is disastrous. Brad Pitt's two scenes make an impact. There is little that man can't do.

The quiet intensity throughout the film leads to a tear-jerking climax. There were a violent few scenes that seemed to last entirely too long. I would have really appreciated a timeline throughout the film, telling us when and where he was the longest. Northup's memoir was published in 1853. I imagine reading it will be as difficult as watching it, though it is a tremendous tale that we shouldn't try to pretend never happened. I predict this movie will sweep the awards shows this season.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Blu Margarita

Still in the "soft opening" stages to work out the very few kitchen kinks, Blu Margarita is on the right track in so many ways. Located in the former "Ganache" space on Elm Street in downtown Greensboro, Blu Margarita is gorgeous, with aquatic colors saturating the walls. TVs mount the wall beside the swanky bar, so oddly reminiscent of an aquarium that I had to do a double take. Impressive Mexican cuisine and a killer bakery selection, Blu Margarita has my name written all over it. A revisit to the inconsistent pricing and clarifying the hostess - server - bakery counter roles would be an improvement.

Crisp, thin, salty tortilla chips are served with technically perfect salsa, containing just the right amount of heat and cilantro. Seconds of both were brought, as if the server could read our minds. The Perfect Margarita is essentially that, combining Tequila, Cointreau, Fresh Lime Juice and Simple Syrup. The words Cointreau and Margarita are a match made in heaven. (Seriously. My uncle introduced me to the addition of the Orange Liqueur to the tartness of a Margarita and it has rocked my world.) The Epic Sunset is a whirlwind of Stoli Orange, Grand Marnier and Campari with Orange and Passion Fruit juices. This is for bitter drink fans. I'm looking at you, Negroni-lovers of the world, ie. my sweetie. I will be back for the Spicy Samba - Tanteo Jalapeno Tequila, Lime Juice, Jalapeno Infused Agave Nectar, Cilantro and Cucumber Slices. Olé!

The taco selection is awesome, and upon first glance, super affordable. Tacos are ordered a la carte, and the most expensive one is $3.45. They don't skimp on the fillings, if that's what you're thinking. Taco de Camarones features plump, Grilled Shrimp with a Roasted Bell Pepper Aioli. The Shrimp is cooked perfectly, and was falling out of the Corn Tortilla. Taco de Pescado is described as Marinated Fresh Fish, with a Spiced Yogurt Sauce. I very much enjoyed this, though I would have like to know that the fish is fried, not grilled. For some reason, I associate the word "fresh" with "grilled." My bad. Still tasty. The Taco Al Pastor rocks Pork and Pineapple, in a savory sauce. All tacos are supposed to be served with Avocado, Radish, Lime and Grilled Jalapeno, but upon my second visit, I was shorted on the Radish and Jalapenos.

A colleague's huge lunch of 1 Taco (+protein), 1 Enchilada (+protein), Spanish Rice, Refried Beans and Pico de Gallo Salad was $5.95. My two tacos were $6.25, and smaller than the taco my colleague was served. I would have paid $3 extra had I opted to get the rice and beans combo. A suggestion to diners - look for the better deal. A suggestion to management - revisit the pricing structure on certain items.

I would be remiss if I did not go on and on (and on) about the bakery display. It's as if Ganache has been reincarnated, under a different pastry chef. Just about any cake imaginable is available, and they all look just delectable. Italian Cream Cake is moist, with thick layers of frosting, with Coconut and Pecans piled on. It's a winner. I was let down by the Raspberry Cheesecake, but I was intrigued by the Almond crust. (I just had Cheesecakes by Alex the night before so it's almost impossible to compare). I was hoping that the Tres Leches Cake would be drippingly moist, but it was moist-ish. It features a layer of flan in the middle, with a light whipped topping. My favorite part of this was the Butterscotch Candy glass shard that perched out of the cake.

With the addition of an outdoor bar upstairs, I know where I'll be come summertime. I just hope they survive the winter. Blu Marg could gain a cult following. They've done a tremendous job with the place, and my reviews are (mostly) soaring.

Friday, December 13, 2013


Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Running Time: PG
Rating: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Upon seeing "Frozen," I'm 8 years old again. I'm transported to the innocent world of soprano-voiced princesses, Barbies, gowns, long hair, jewels, castles and dashing princes that every young girl fantasizes about. I've been waiting for this movie, it's the epitome of Disney - stunning visuals, soaring ballads - but there's much more to it than that. This time, though there is magic, the antagonist isn't an evil sorcerer, witch, colonist, what have you - it's the "self." Yes, Disney gets deep.

Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel bring sisters Anna and Elsa to life. Growing up, the girls are best friends, and relish in Elsa's ability to freeze things with her hands. A late night game quickly ends in a near-death experience for Anna, resulting in the separation of the two girls for the remainder of their childhood. Anna has no recollection of the accident, and grows up down the hall from her sister, who has become a stranger. The sadness here penetrates the screen.

When she becomes Queen, Elsa's ability to control her powers spirals out of control, and a harsh winter is cast upon their village. She retreats into the woods, singing (and nailing) "The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway." We've been waiting to Idina to belt like this since 2005's movie version of "Rent." Surprisingly, Kristen Bell gives Idina a run for her money, but I think it's because she has more solos. Idina is still queen.

The film is absolutely beautiful. I saw it in 2D, and the colors and effects still practically jump out at you. I hadn't seen an animated movie on the big screen in quite a while, so I was almost wondering if it was supposed to be quite SO "in your face." Though it further separates her from the world, we can't wait for Elsa to use her magic and create another ice sculpture. The frozen palace she builds is breathtaking. (Pun intended - this movie gave me the shivers! It's funny how watching characters in the cold snow will make you reach for your jacket.)

Supporting characters are especially noteworthy. Olaf : Frozen :: Dory : Finding Nemo. Voiced by Josh Gad, Olaf is the most lovable snowman, who has no idea that he will melt when the winter curse finally ends. His much anticipated one-liners will make you laugh out loud. The Duke of Weselton (jokingly mispronounced as Weaseltown) was also standout in his dance sequences, as his toupee flopped on and off his head.

This story is a unique concept. It is heart-warming for kids and the young at heart alike. I would have liked a few more songs, though they weren't all up to Disney standards, but you should see this movie. You'll be beaming for the entire thing.

**Golden Globe and SAG noninations are out!!! Award show season is upon us!!

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Book Thief

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Ben Schnetzer
Director: Brian Percival
Running Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Oi. I was so hoping to LOVE this one. Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, "The Book Thief" takes us on a journey through Nazi Germany, and our protagonist is a young girl, Liesel. The film seems to have so much promise, but I was disappointed that this turned out to be kind of a doozie. There are shining moments, namely every scene with Geoffrey Rush, but it went just a little too long, where it could be much tighter in spots. The film’s narrator is Death, which brought me down a little, even more so than a story about the Holocaust would anyway.

Hitler’s removal of all suspected communists from Germany includes Liesel’s mother, so the young girl is sent to live with Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.) For each one of Rosa’s nags and complaints, Hans gives a wink and a grin. Geoffrey Rush gets better and better with every role. Illiterate when she arrives to their house, Hans teaches Liesel to read and write, using a chalkboard that covers the walls of their basement. I would have had so much fun playing school with this! It is touching – the only book little Liesel has to read is one about grave digging.

One evening, there is a knock at the door: it is Max, the son of family friends, to whom Hans and Rosa owed a favor. They are essentially forced into hiding Max (Ben Schnetzer), being that he is a Jew, but they don’t seem to think twice about helping out this young man and keeping their word to his parents.

Max and Liesel’s friendship revolves around reading, writing and books. Liesel begins breaking into people’s homes (namely the Mayor’s), bringing home books to read to Max. The family’s secret is almost ruined when Liesel’s friend Rudy catches and confronts her. Rudy is played by the adorable Nico Liersch. He’s sweeter than Dennis the Menace, but reminds me of him. I want this blond headed child.

Thinking back, I still don’t fully understand why Death had to be the narrator of the story. I would have much preferred it to be Hans, Max or Liesel. Or anyone else. That was kind of a downer. Several scenes could be shaved off to pick up the pace. I didn’t necessarily see the point of showing Hans going to serve in the Army for about a week, or little Rudy’s fascination with Jesse Owens. The story shifts its focus so much that we sometimes forget about Max hiding in the basement.

I did enjoy Geoffrey Rush’s accordion playing. See this movie for that charming element, but be warned that you won't feel good at the end.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running Time: 2 hours, 33 minutes
Rating: R

This isn’t the easiest movie to watch, but you won’t really be able to look away. The tone of the movie is dark, the story is gloomy, even the cinematography is super grayscale, with spouts of rain and snow in nearly every scene. Hugh Jackman's intensity as a father dealing with the abduction of his daughter is frightening, as he chooses to take matters into his own hands. The all-star cast shines in their own moments, but Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis get lost in the background.

On Thanksgiving Day, two young girls are abducted, and the primary suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) couldn’t look more creepy and guilty. When he is released due to lack of evidence, Keller (Jackman) decides to take it upon himself to force a confession out of the boy. The torture he puts this kid through is inhumane. 

Melissa Leo is such a brilliant character actor. Her turn as Alex's aunt is almost unrecognizable, though her distinctive voice gives her away. This woman could win an award for every film she's in. As Detective Loki, Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderful. Loki hasn’t left a case unsolved since he was hired by the Pennsylvania Police Department. On “Inside the Actors Studio,” Gyllenhaal discussed his reasoning behind adding the character’s eye twitch, and how he notices similar tics in people of extremely high intelligence. This makes sense when watching the film - there are moments when we want Loki to say what he’s thinking, because we can see the wheels churning in his head. 

The story quickly becomes a game of cat and mouse, as Loki (and the audience) begin to suspect Keller. Could he possibly be related to the crime? Is he wrongly suspecting and torturing Alex? Everyone becomes a suspect, and you won’t see the end coming. Everyone in the story is a ‘prisoner’ at one point or another - whether it’s mental, emotional, physical, temporary or permanent. There are many times when you don’t know who to trust or believe, though the clues do make some moments more predictable than others. This one will stick with you long after you leave the theatre.