June 8th, 2012

The Avengers

On May 31st, we finally made it out to see "The Avengers,which may well be the best comic-book adapted superhero movie ever made. (I will reserve a possible exception for 2008's "The Dark Knight", due largely to Heath Ledger as Joker, but they are two radically different pictures.)

The film open with Loki stealing "The Tesseract" (better known to Marvel readers as "The Cosmic Cube") from SHIELD's underground research lab. This sets in motion events including Nick Fury's activation of "the Avengers Initiative," and Loki leading an invasion of Manhattan by space aliens.

There are a few plot holes, but they are minimal. There's just so much cool stuff in there--. Even the SHIELD helicarrier is almost believeable.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a very effective master villian and plays with the good guys in a nicely evil manner.

One of the classic bits in marvel comics was the hero-vs-hero slugfest which often occurred when the new guy on the scene meets another hero, and each thinks the other is a bad guy. This never happened between Iron Man and Thor in the comics, since both were known heroes by the time they met. The revised timeline of the movies allows this epic battle to happen, with a bit of Captain America in the mix as well. Also, I don't ever recall a one-on-one fight between Black Widow and Hulk, either. Although an obvious mismatch, there's good reason for it happening as it does, and it is played to good dramatic effect. The Hulk in action is truly frightening.

Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye gave good depth and feeling to this character, shown as a SHIELD agent with background in Spec Ops, who evidently has some (at least professional) history with Black Widow. This both harks back to comic origins, and makes it more interesting. We also get to see Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury actually in action this time, rather than just enigmatically lurking.

Joss Whedon is credited with (most of) the screenplay, and gives us a lot of wonderfully characterful smart-alec dialog, as might be expected from his work on "Buffy" and "Firefly."

Character development and plot actually take up most of the 143 minute film--the climactic battle does not actually comprise the last half of the film, as happens in some action/adventure movies. For all that, the big fight vs. the aliens is very well done, again, with a high coolness factor (alien invasion craft that look and move like paeleolthic fish--) satisfactory action, logical consequences, and actual teamwork among the heroes.

It must be admitted that some of the goodness of this movie is buit upon the prior solo features for the main characters, which allow us to get into the story without trying to cram in origins or introductions, so thanks again for the good work done by the prior crews, and to Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannsen and Clark Gregg for carrying on their characters so well, and to Mark Ruffalo for picking up the difficult role of Bruce Banner and doing an equally good job with it.

And, of course, there's an "easter egg" among the end credits that foreshadows even bigger trouble coming in the next installment.

If you like superhero movies, you've probably seen this already. If you haven't, you must.

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

For something completely different, on June 3rd, we went to see "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a sweet and charming movie, featuring an amazing cast drawn from the cream of British cinema.

The story deals with a number of British retirees (or "pensioners") who, for various reasons, have been lured into moving to India expecting that "The Very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful" will be a comfortable old age alternative to dismal prospects in the homeland, only to find that the property does not live up to the marketing hype put out by the optimistic operator, Sonny (Dev Patel, "Slumdog Millionaire").

The crew of expatriates consists of Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade, a recent widow at loose ends; Tom Wilkinson as Graham Dashwood, a retired judge seeking to connect with the India of his youth; Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as the Ainsleys, a couple seeking a better life on a barely adequate pension; Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnely, retired Housekeeper, wanting a faster hip replacment than the National Health Service will provide; Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle, a still vivacious grandmother fed up with being a live in babysitter; and Ronald Pickup as Norman Cousins, a spry eldery gent still looking for whatever might turn up--preferably female and with a bit of money.

The characters adjust--or not--as their predilictions move them. Evelyn tries making the best of it. Graham immerses himself in hunting his past. Douglas Ainsley is entranced by the life and beauty of Jaipur, but his wife, Jean, is determined to be miserably unhappy and let everyone know it. Muriel isn't intending to stay, but still has a hard time not letting her reflexive xenophobia get out of hand. Meanwhile, Sonny has the financial and familial issues intendant on trying to make a go out of the rundown hotel he inherited, while his brothers are being successful in India's tech industries and his mother's busy arranging him a marriage he doesn't want.

It really is a joy to watch these actors work. They all have wonderful comic delivery while still making the drama real. In particular, Wilton's Jean Ainsly makes you want to sympathise with her and want to slap her at the same time. Nighy as her put-upon husband masterfully portrays a man whose doing his best but just will never be able to satisfy his wife's emotional needs.

There are moments of sadness, moments of sweetness, and moments of sheer silliness, which work out to a delightful combination. Highly recommended.

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Dinner at Sanford

Juen 4th, we went out to Sanford Restaurant here in Milwaukee for dinner. As always, it was special and excellent.

After having considered it on prior visits, we decided to start by splitting an order of of the squab as first course. ("Molasses Glazed Squab and Cold Cured Foie Gras, Grilled Mango, Toasted Coconut and Pineapple Granita"). The dish consisted of a number of slices of breast of squab, which was a dark, rich, red meat, accompanied by a portion of light and flavorful pate de foie gras, which was an excellent contrast. The mango, coconut and pineapple garnishes were very effective at highlighting and contrasting the flavors.

For entree, Georgie chose the halibut.("Citrus Seared Alaskan Halibut on Wild Mushroom Risotto Cake, Asparagus Nage.") She hadn't had halibut in a long time, and having determined that the wild mushroom risotto didn't include morels, ordered it with enthusiasm. (Morels are a seasonal hazard for both of us. Georgie just doesn't like them, but I actually have an allergic reaction to them.) She's not a big fan of asparagus, either, but Sanford's preparation was fresh, mild, and not overcooked, so was as good as can be. The halibut was excellent, with a firm, moist texture and distinctive flavor that was well supported by the tasty rissotto.

I ordered the duck breast ("Grilled Duck Breast with Chargrilled Scallion and Green Olive Dumplings, Romesco Sauce"). The slices of duck breast were juicy and flavorful (different from the squab) and the romesco sauce is almost a barbeque sauce, both sweet and piquant. The "dumplings" were small, more like gnocchi or spaetzle,and quite spicy, which made them a good complement to the duck.

We each had a glass of wine from Sanford's always reliable by-the-glass selection, Reisling for Georgie, and a Zinfandel for me.

For desserts, Georgie chose a perennial favorite, the cherry clafouti ("Warm Cherry Clafoutis, Morello Cherry Ice Cream") and I had the "Banana Butterscotch Toffee Tart, Banana Rum Ice Cream," which was also excellent. The banana ice cream was particularly good, being flavored with pureed banana rather than any of the more-or-less dreadful banana extracts or flavorings.

We've been enjoying meals at Sanford since it opened, and we've never had one that wasn't imaginatively conceived and perfectly prepared. This one was no exception, and we look forward to enjoying the cuisine there again.

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