Dinner & a Movie: Shelter From the Retail Storm

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Where would the Na'vi go for dinner at the shopping mall?
?The Dinner : Margaritas, chips, and sautéed jumbo shrimp at Mexico Cantina y Cocina

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Dinner & a Movie: Shelter From the Retail Storm

  • Dinner & a Movie: Shelter From the Retail Storm

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    avatar_blog.jpg
    Where would the Na'vi go for dinner at the shopping mall?
    ?The Dinner: Margaritas, chips, and sautéed jumbo shrimp at Mexico Cantina y Cocina (Pacific Place)

    The Movie: Avatar at Pacific Place

    The Screenplate: T'was the Wednesday before Christmas, after work, and downtown was gridlocked with swarms of last-minute shoppers. The Santa line at Nordstrom was around the block. The sidewalks were packed to capacity; you almost didn't have room to stroll. Inside Pacific Place, the scene was, if possible, even more crowded. Every level was teeming with customers--a good sign, we hope for retailers.

    Up top of the mall is the multiplex and food court (though Pacific Place would never use such a downmarket term), where no less than seven dining options confront the hungry moviegoer. Playing on three screens at Pacific Place (including the 3-D version), Avatar is a long sit at 160 minutes, one that requires sustenance (plus a popcorn break during the movie). So where to dine beforehand? We opted to go south of the border...

    Among pre-show dining options at Pacific Place, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant seems the most crowded, no matter what the season. Passing by, I heard patrons grumbling about a 20-minute wait (and yet they waited). My usual favorite before a movie is Thai Ginger, for a quick Singha and chicken satay plate: in and out in a half-hour.

    Mexico Cantina y Cocina is designed for both quick drinks and longer visits. Up front, the Cantina portion offers a nice happy hour for the after-work crowd. Margaritas top out at the 24 Carat Margarita ($30, featuring Cuervo Reserva de Familia and Gran Marnier), but the $8 Pomegranate Margarita tasted just fine, with the fruity taste cut by triple sec. (During happy hour, margaritas start at $4.50; beyond chips, the finger food ranges from $5-7--we like the pork taquitos.)

    To venture deeper into the grotto-like cocina for a sit-down dining experience is something like the tree-root home of the 12-foot-blue Na'vi who inhabit Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar. Giant glowing peppers hang from the ceiling, something like the magical, oversized fauna encountered by intergalactic mercenary Jake Sully (Australian actor Sam Worthington) when he's piloting his avatar body by mental remote control. Sully is a colonist of sorts on this foreign world, an ex-Marine sent to provide muscle and intelligence (when in avatar form) about the natives, who are sitting on the precious mineral "unobtanium" (groan) needed back on Earth in the year 2051, when we humans have apparently wrecked the place with our environmental mismanagement.

    Of course, Mexico (and all the Americas) were also visited by colonists and conquistadors beginning some five centuries ago. And the Native Americans who peopled the lands from Tierra del Fuego up to the Arctic lived in stone-age harmony with nature, just like Cameron's Na'vi. (Only not as tall, and not so blue.) To some critics, the movie is Dances With Wolves all over again. Certainly, the movie--which Cameron began writing before Dances--also bears similarities with Terrence Malick's The New World and the John Smith-Pocahontas story. The warrior, this time in a wheelchair, discovers a new Eden, goes native among its people, and finds redemption. It's a theme older than Cameron's imagination (or Kevin Costner's).

    Not that dining back in the cocina portion of the place should be an historical exercise. The traditional Mexi menu has a coastal flair. Besides your expected dishes, the menu is full of shrimp, sea scallops, and tuna. At $17, the Camarones Carlitos offer a decent-size portion of jumbo shrimp sautéed with garlic, lime juice and the house salsa. The greens and beef are represented as being organic. How much lard goes into the refried beans is anyone's guess. But Mexico C&C definitely feels less heavy in the gut than what's served by the average burrito merchant.

    And if you insist on cheese-covered nachos, order them in the restaurant, not in the theater. The Pacific Place 11 multiplex has two large snack bars on its two levels, both clean and well-stocked. Butter, grease, salt, and corn syrup are the culinary principles at work. (There's also a pitiful beer garden upstairs, set out on a catwalk and surrounded by TV screens; no one ever seems to use the perch.) Nothing is good for you, and parent company AMC makes no effort to disguise the fact that it--like most movie theaters--makes about half its nickel at the concession stand.

    Given Avatar's long run time, I'd recommend one box of candy, preferably Junior Mints, to be rationed through the first 90 minutes of the film. Some viewers may be bored from 60 to 90 minutes, as Jake learns all about Na'vi culture and language from warrior princess Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), but I found this extended middle section charming, as Cameron renders his CGI world in such detail. Every rustling leaf, every strange creature, every glowing seed pod floating, jellyfish-like, in the air receives the same careful rendering by supercomputer. Never has so much technology been employed to depict a world free from technology.

    After the long second act, there's a big attack on the Na'vi stronghold--a tree that towers over the forest like the World Trade Center over Manhattan--where you don't want to be distracted with food. The inevitable regrouping, as Jake fully embraces his destiny and steps up to a Na'vi leadership role, isn't so dramatic or compelling. That's the time to sprint for the rest room and concession line. (Remember to first remove and pocket your 3-D glasses, if watching that version of the film, which I recommend.) For the last 45 minutes, two water bottles and a large bag of popcorn are ideal. No butter, lightly salted, less mess and high blood pressure.

    If, after the climactic battle between man and Na'vi, you find yourself asking whether Avatar is a great film, my answer would be--not quite. Cameron's eco-sermonizing isn't so fresh as his visual effects. It is, inescapably, another save-the-rainforest picture, but the biggest and best thing ever produced in that genre. And the movie borrows many plot elements from his prior Aliens and The Abyss. But it's tenth on my 10 best list for 2009, because it's such a breakthrough in hybrid storytelling. For the first time ever at the movies, I really didn't mind all the CG effects. And though I usually hate 3-D, it works for Avatar.

    And after such a long, blue immersion in Cameron's alien world, before returning to the familiar, mechanized world, you may wish to decompress back at the cantina with a Catalina Blue margarita ($8).

     
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