Deli Man: The Movie


Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

(2014) Documentary (Cohen Media Group) Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker, Fyvush Finkel, Mimi Gruber, J. Mackye Gruber, Freddie Roman, Zane Caplansky, Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex, Adam Caslow, Alan Dershowitz. Directed by Erik Anjou

In their heyday, there were more than 1500 kosher Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, there’s a tenth of that in all of North America. The great Jewish deli, once a mainstay of American culture, is slowly dying out.

This is a movie celebrating the deli and they choose for their spokesman David “Ziggy” Gruber, a genial man with a bit of a pot belly and an engaging grin. He also has a genuine passion for delis, having grown up essentially in the business; his grandfather founded the legendary Rialto Deli in Manhattan while his dad owned Long Island’s Woodrow Deli. He was stuffing cabbages as a pre-teen.

He would get himself to the Cordon Bleu Institute in England to learn to be a chef, but it was in the deli that his heart belonged. After going to a meeting of Deli Owners and discovering to his shock that nearly all of the owners were in their 70s and 80s and had nobody taking over for them when they retired, he felt that it was up to him to keep the culture alive and so he founded a deli of his own – in Houston.

Don’t laugh. There is a fairly large Jewish population there, as there is in many big American cities. In any case, his business took off and became a huge hit, to the point where he has been opening new restaurants although to date Kenny and Ziggy’s remains his only deli.

The film centers on Ziggy although it talks to various Deli Men from around North America including men from such legendary places as Cantor’s and Nate ‘n’ Al’s in Los Angeles, 2nd Avenue Deli and Carnegie Deli in New York, Kaplansky’s in Toronto and Manny’s in Chicago. They all admit given the labor-intensive nature of deli food and due to the high price of meat (deli tends to be meat-centric) the low return on investments that are modern delicatessens.

Part of why there are so few delis left is simply attrition. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, from where the initial flood of Jewish immigrants came to New York, were all for the most part wiped out in the Holocaust. There are no new immigrants coming to America from that region or at least very few and the children of those who are here aren’t interested in taking over a deli when they could be a doctor or a lawyer. Thus, the recipes for some of these dishes are fast disappearing – Ziggy bemoans that his grandfather’s gravy recipe died with him and that while he can get close, he can’t quite duplicate the taste. It’s easy to understand, given the grueling work schedule of the deli owner, why a lot of modern kids shy away from the business as a career.

The story of the delicatessen is also the story of the Jewish community in America; delis were places that they would gather to eat and became de facto cultural centers for the Jewish faith. For many, it was a taste of home, bringing with it the recipes of the old country – I’ll bet you didn’t know that pastrami was a Romanian invention despite the Italian-sounding name. However, with less and less people coming from the old country, the nostalgia factor has become less compelling and even in Jewish homes the meals that later generations grew up with became more Americanized.

We also see Ziggy, who had been married to his calling more or less, find someone who is willing to accept that – his massage therapist/acupuncturist Mimi. When the two decide to tie the knot, he insists on doing it in Budapest, Hungary in the synagogue where his grandfather had his bar mitzvah. If the site of Ziggy, tears streaming down his face, listening to the rabbi speak about the full circle of the grandchild coming to the temple where he breathes the air his grandfather breathed doesn’t make you misty-eyed, well, you are made of sterner stuff than I. I found him an engaging man, one who his brother said, not unkindly, that he was an 80-year-old Jew even as a child. He definitely seems to be an old soul and I’d love to sit down with him for an hour and just chat but I’d be willing to bet that it is a rare thing that he has an hour to spare for such pastimes.

Critic Sean Howley advised me not to see this hungry and it is sound advice. At the very least you will be jonesing for some good deli sandwiches after seeing this and the very next day I headed over to TooJays, our local deli. Matzoh Ball soup, pastrami on rye, carrot cake and a Dr. Brown’s celery soda. Oy vey it was delicious!

Gastronomy aside, the movie is surprisingly informative but doesn’t ever condescend. There are a number of Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout but they are thoughtfully defined with on-screen graphics in case you don’t speak it or haven’t been around it. There is a joy in what these deli men do, and even if they sometimes shake their heads in wonder at their own insanity it is clear that they feel what they do is not just a living but a calling. Not everyone feels the call as fervently as Ziggy does but all of them understand that what they are doing is not just piling a sandwich high with corned beef – they’re preserving a lifestyle and a culture that is in danger of disappearing. That makes the case that every time you head out to your local deli to pick up a sandwich, a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, you are doing more than sating your appetite; you’re helping them preserve something precious. Who knew that grabbing a knish could be so important?

REASONS TO GO: Ziggy makes an ideal face for delicatessens. Informational without being boring and entertaining without being disrespectful. Merges cultural aspects and foodie aspects nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Will make you hungry. Doesn’t really delve into why delis declined other than the financial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ziggy was once a line cook under Gordon Ramsay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Search for General Tso
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild Card

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The Jackal


The Jackal

Anyone think Bruce Willis is overcompensating just a bit?

(1997) Suspense (Universal) Richard Gere, Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora, Mathilda May, J.K. Simmons, Richard Lineback, John Cunningham, Jack Black, Tess Harper, Sophie Okonedo, Daniel Dae Kim, Leslie Phillips, Stephen Spinella, Larry King. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

 

The old saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, which to my mind is utter claptrap. Plenty of thieves have been caught by people who aren’t thieves. However, if you’re going to follow that logic, then it follows that it takes an assassin to catch an assassin.

A raid on a Russian disco by the FBI and Russian military cops ends up with the brother of a high up figure in the Russian underworld getting shot. He blames the FBI for his brother’s demise and enlists the services of the most notorious assassin – only known as the Jackal (Willis) – who accepts a payment of $70 million to off the director of the FBI.

Deputy director Carter Preston (Poitier) gets wind of this and is presented with quite the dilemma; nobody knows what the Jackal looks like which is quite handy if you’re an assassin. Actually, that isn’t quite true – there is the former terrorist for the IRA named Declan Mulqueen (Gere) who knows what he looks like. And, if he is willing to help Preston and Major Valentina Koslova (Venora) track down the Jackal, well, the feds would be grateful. At least he’ll be able to get out of prison and see his former girlfriend, a Basque terrorist named Isabella Zanconia (May) who is now married to another man and living in Northern Virginia, who also knows all about the Jackal. For somebody whom law enforcement agencies have so little information on, these ex-terrorists sure have the goods on him.

Even with Mulqueen’s help, the Jackal leads them on a merry chase around the globe. He’s building a big bad remote control gun with which he can take out his target without actually being on the site; poor Jack Black (in an early role) plays a rawkin Canadian gunsmith who asks one annoying question too many and gets perforated by his own creation. That sucks rocks, dude.

Things get far more personal between Mulqueen and the Jackal and it turns into a kind of mano a mano cat and mouse game between the two. Still, how do you stop him when you don’t even have the target right?

This was based loosely on the 1973 thriller Day of the Jackal which in turn was based on a novel of the same name by Frederick Forsythe which was based on a real life plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle of France. That movie is considered one of the classic thrillers of its day and still holds up well nearly 40 years later.

I don’t know that this one will hold up as well in 2037. It has been utterly Americanized and comes off with the Jackal as kind of a cut-rate anti-Bond, with all sorts of gadgets and disguises – Willis has a goodly share of wigs, hairpieces and fake moustaches which must have been fun for him, and he has a different personality with each look from a frumpy Canadian to a suave gay man to a no-nonsense cop. Willis makes a pretty credible bad guy.

Gere’s performance is pretty good. Although his Irish brogue is inconsistent, he has the charisma to make what is essentially an IRA terrorist a sympathetic character although they backpedal and make the good guy terrorists in the movie mostly non-lethal who were more freedom fighters than terrorists. I wonder how sympathetic Gere would have been if we found out that Declan Mulqueen had taken part in a school bus bombing, something that the IRA actually did. Still, he is in full-on movie star mode here and carries the movie pretty well, although Poitier who was undergoing a career renaissance when the film was made, is reliable and gracious enough not to steal the movie out from under his nose which he was fully capable of doing.

The plot often takes ludicrous twists and turns and requires some pretty severe leaps of faith as logic often fails here. There is also a kind of Eurotrash undertone particularly in the soundtrack and some of the scenes that have Willis posturing a little overly much. The ending is a bit of a groaner too. However as empty-headed action thrillers go, this is one that I still view from time to time with enormous affection. However for real thrills I would suggest you see the 1973 version first.

WHY RENT THIS: Poitier is as always terrific. Some terrific action scenes. Willis is excellent as the villain.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s accent is unconvincing. Takes itself too seriously. Too much Eurotrash. Poor ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fred Zinnemann, the director of the original Day of the Jackal reportedly asked that the title of the remake be changed shortly before he passed away because he felt the original stood the test of time and was a completely different film from the newer one, which should warrant a different title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the DVD is sorely lacking in features, the Blu-Ray has a bunch including an unusually informative commentary track and a nice featurette comparing the 1997 version with the original 1973 film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159.3M on a $60M production budget; this was profitable (more than).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day of the Jackal

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Barry Munday

Shrek Forever After


Shrek Forever After

Rumpelstiltskin is hacked off when he finds out this isn't The Incredible Hulk.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kathy Griffin, Craig Robinson, Walt Dohrn, Jane Lynch, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Meredith Vieira, Ryan Seacrest, Larry King, Regis Philbin, Kristen Schaal. Directed by Mike Mitchell

One of the great ironies of life is that we rarely appreciate what we have until it’s gone, even when we are fully aware that we have everything we want. This is true of people and also true of ogres.

Shrek (Myers) has everything; a wife who loves him madly, three cute little ogre kids and good friends. Still, he is beginning to reach a bit of a mid-life crisis. He has lost his inner ogre-ness; no longer is he scaring villagers with his mighty roar. In fact, his ogre roar has become a party trick. He spends more time changing diapers than relaxing in his mud pit. To add insult to injury, tour buses stop regularly by his house to watch him stomp into his outhouse. It’s humiliating.

After an argument with his wife Fiona (Diaz) at their son’s first birthday party Shrek finds himself wondering what his life would be like if he hadn’t rescued his wife from the Dragon’s Keep all those years ago. This is overheard by Rumpelstiltskin (Dohrn), an evil little wizard who specializes in magical agreements that carry with them terrible consequences.

He offers Shrek the opportunity to return to being an ogre for a day. In exchange, he wants one day from Shrek’s childhood, one that Shrek would never remember. Shrek, after some initial misgivings, agrees.

He is whisked away via magical maelstrom to the village, where he enjoys terrorizing the villagers and their livestock and pets, and wallowing in the mud. Things are going swimmingly and he is enjoying his inner ogre again, but when he goes home he discovers his home is deserted. His friend Donkey (Murphy) doesn’t know him, and Far Far Away has a new king – Rumpelstiltskin.

It turns out that the evil little munchkin had taken the day Shrek was born, which means that when his 24 hours end, Shrek will cease to exist. In fact, in this reality, he’d never been born, so nobody knows who he is. It’s sort of a twisted It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the meantime, Fiona has become the leader of a rebel underground, the proud owner of a now fat, sassy and lazy Puss in Boots (Banderas). Her right hand man is a lantern-jawed ogre named Brogan (Hamm). And she has no time or sympathy for crazy stories about magical agreements and alternate realities. The only thing that can save Shrek and restore the world to as it should be is what freed Fiona in the first place – true love’s kiss. This time, however, Fiona doesn’t know Shrek and how can she love someone she doesn’t know?

This is billed as the final film in the series and there is a bit of an air of closure here. Director Mike Mitchell gets to rearrange Shrek’s universe pretty much as he will, but really doesn’t do much with it. One of the trademarks of the Shrek series is the number of pop culture references skewered, but strangely Mitchell chooses to rein that in, preferring to spend more time developing the story. That’s a mixed blessing. Mitchell is taking a chance which gives him points with me, and marks this movie as a bit different than any other entry in the franchise – but at the expense of some of the characteristics that made these movies so special to begin with.

Dohrn is a bit of a revelation here. He worked on the previous Shrek the Third as a writer, story artist and voice actor. He has a more pivotal role here and works it nicely, a bit of a cross between Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride and Jason Lee in The Incredibles. Rumpelstiltskin may well turn out to be the best villain in the Shrek franchise, right up there with Lord Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother.

At its best, Shrek Forever After is as good as anything in the four Shrek movies. However, the movie suffers from being a bit uneven; the moments of genuine hilarity are a bit rarer than in previous efforts and when the movie isn’t at the top of its game, it’s actually a little flat. That lack of consistency is often frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie has plenty of charm, and fans of Shrek are not going to be disappointed with this. It’s certainly much better than Shrek the Third. Unfortunately, it is far too uneven to rank with the first two movies of the series which may not be the fitting send-off that the series deserves, although again, there are moments that make for quite a graceful exit.

For me, Shrek should be irreverent, funny to both kids and adults and this one doesn’t have those elements to the same degree as Shrek and Shrek 2. It does have enough of those items to allow me to recommend the movie, although if you go in with high expectations you’ll probably be disappointed. I find the best I can do here is damn the movie with faint praise. If you don’t have kids who will absolutely drive you crazy if you don’t take them to see it, you might well wait for this to come out on video and see Toy Story 3 when it comes out instead.

REASONS TO GO: There’s a goodly amount of charm and some of the moments here are among the best in the series.  

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat uneven and leaves one with the impression that the series has run out of ideas.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of cartoon violence and some scatological humor but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dohrn, in addition to voicing Rumpelstiltskin is also credited as being “Head of Story.”

HOME OR THEATER: 3D didn’t add a whole lot to the movie; this would be fine at the multiplex but really, home video would do this just as proud.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Away We Go