Slight, off-hand: Oscar-nominated ‘The Illusionist’ aims for twee more than wow

BOTTOMANIA | Flouncy rockers The Britoons show the gay side of a Beatles-like band.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The French filmmaker Jacques Tati was a latter-day Chaplin with Gallic sensibilities. In just a handful of nearly silent films in the 1950s — 30 years before the Griswolds — his guileless M. Hulot got embroiled in a cascade of fiascos that delighted audiences at the time, and some film enthusiasts since.

That was half a century and a full continent ago, and closer in time to when he wrote The Illusionist than when animator Sylvain Chomet adapted it to the current feature-length cartoon, just nominated for an Oscar. You can see why it was nominated: The faded, painterly images evoke the best of 1960s Disney animation, like 101 Dalmatians: Hand-drawn art, not computer-generated commerce.

But just being old school doesn’t quite get you there, entertainment-wise. The Illusionist is sentimental and twee, with a melancholy tone that feels less earned than foisted upon audiences.

It’s the Cold War era, and the title character is a remnant of the age of Vaudeville: A magician whose once-impressive sleight-of-hand tricks seem out of place when groups like The Britoons — Beatles-inspired rockers who make girls swoon but behind the curtain are as queer as three-dollar bills — can pack in teeny-boppers to bigger venues than he can.

While performing his act in Scotland, the Illusionist meets Alice, a lass anxious to brush the cold dust of her provincial town off and see the world — and he’s as sophisticated as anything she’s ever come across. What follows is kind of road movie tracking the growth of their platonic relationship and its inevitable conclusion as his unrequited feelings leave him lonely.

The artwork is fine if not magnificent (the Illusionist’s hands seems weirdly disproportionate to his body) and the story has its charms, but what’s it all about? The plot, if you can call it that, unfolds slowly even for a shortish film, and you don’t need to be a magician to see where it’s all headed. This is more leisurely, “adult” animation that you might get from Pixar, but that doesn’t make it better: I’ll take The Incredibles go Up making Ratatouille with Wall-E any day. The Illusionist? You need to be in the mood for that.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Tex-Maxed out

Are tacos the new frozen yogurt? We gorged the gourmet and the prosaic

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

HOLY GUACAMOLE!  |  The trio of avocado dips at Urban Taco provide a rich, soothing contrast to the spicy salsas. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
HOLY GUACAMOLE! | The trio of avocado dips at Urban Taco provide a rich, soothing contrast to the spicy salsas. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

I’m not a prude. I get that breastaurants like Hooters and Burger Girl coast on the unsubtle innuendo of sex to sell food. It’s not just women being exploited, either. Hell, the name Hunky’s refers as much to the slabs of meat on the plate as those in line ordering them.

But it seems like the current surge in taco stands has pushed the limits of good taste. Rusty Taco on Greenville sounds like the results of a case of chlamydia; everyone calls Fuzzy’s Taco Shop “Fuzzy Taco” — a syntactic sleight of hand that justifies, apparently, grossing me out. (What’s next, a raw bar manned by shirtless gym rats called Muscle Clams?)

But then there’s more gourmet offerings, which we discovered at the new Urban Taco on McKinney. Can you guess which one fared the best?

If I’m gonna eat a place called Fuzzy’s, of course I’m gonna order the fish taco. The version here is a disappointment. I had to organize a search party to find the actual bits of fish crisped in tempura, which had like shriveled tentacles in the sun under a mound of lettuce. The taste was fine, although you had to work for it.

Pairing it with the habanero salsa didn’t help. I’m rarely one to complain about spicy food, but Fuzzy’s fire salsa suffocates the flavor of protein. It did nothing to accentuate the taste of the “special ground beef.” I’m still not sure what makes it special, though it has the appearance of dog food: pulverized and processed into a virtual paste, not rich and beefy.

The goat cheese accents are nice, and the “normal” salsas fine; and for two bucks each, they hit the spot without hitting the wallet too hard. But why settle for an “OK taco” in this town?

Better in appearance and flavor were the tacos at Rusty. Like Fuzzy’s, it has the atmosphere of a truck stop (and the parking of one), with long lines during the lunch rush.

I ordered the namesake creation (an anchiote pork with pineapple, very well-seasoned) as well as their fish taco (much more plentiful, also fried, but with flakier white fish) and the brisket (tender and smoky). Rusty’s seems to personalize its tacos more than Fuzzy’s, and the price is the same. The tomatillo salsa, mild but tasty, was good, and their version of spicy salsa showed restraint. Overall, Rusty trumps Fuzzy. By a hair.

But as gritty taco stands proliferate, appealing to the Von Dutch hat wearers in all of us, my inner dandy ultimately prefers a little refinement.

It’s fair to call the tacos (and the rest of the menu) at Urban Taco gourmet Tex-Mex.

I’m a converted fan. The Urban Taco at Mockingbird Station didn’t wow me when it opened three years ago. Service was spotty, decor seemed cheap. The tacos were pretty good, though.

The McKinney Avenue locale, which opened late summer, fixes those problems and improves upon the food as well. The menu here is substantially expanded from Mockingbird Station or outright new, including ceviches, tostadas and guacamoles — all available, like the salsas and tacos, in trios. (Urban Taco loves its ménages-a-trois.)

The atmosphere is buzzy but unrushed and not too noisy. The change in weather makes the outdoor patio an autumnal delight for al fresco dining. It has the vibe of a South Florida oasis. Service has been friendly and fast.

Tacos cost only marginally more than their counter-service (about $3 each), but the ingredients are a cut above. The Dos Equis barbacoa taco is braised in chiles; the red snapper incorporates the avocado lime crema in its flavor profile.

It’s not just tacos, either, that make Urban Taco a good destination. I like eating salsas that are not served in plastic lidded mini-buckets, but cute porcelain dishes. There’s variety, too: Instead of “mild” and “hot,” you can choose among nine incarnations. You also pay for them, though they are worth every penny. (A trio of salsas plus chips runs $3; add more salsas for a quarter each.)

So how do you pick among the lot? Judiciously. None of the salsas are unworthy, though for my fire-eating taste buds the roster pico is the only unmissable dip. Pair it or the tomatillo Serrano (served warm but also inherently hot, i.e., spicy) with the pineapple pico, sweet with a faint tang that sooths the heat.

The peanut habanero packs a wallop as well, though the boldness of the peanut flavor almost distracts you from your burning tongue. The scarlet smoothness of the roja salsa has a burnt full-bodied flavor. Housemade tortilla chips and fried yucca strips are both addictive, and the salsas all accent the variety of tacos.

Guacamole is usually a side dish; here it could be a meal. Five variations — three named after major thoroughfares in Mexico City — cascade with rich flavor. The smoky Reforma was probably my favorite, although mild Polanco, with its mole and pumpkin seeds, delighted us as well.

It’s worth a visit where you don’t stick only with tacos. The lunch tostada plate presents three exquisitely balanced crowns of protein atop mini crisp tortillas. Best among them is the ahi tuna, a ceviche-style preparation that pulls smoke from the marito sauce. The crab is nearly as delicious, generously dressed with a chipotle bite.

The ceviches also impressed, as did the carne asada ($19), a proper skirt steak rolled into luscious pinwheels and glazed with maple-habanero. Cooked medium rare, it’s a filling — and fitting — example of why man cannot live on tacos alone, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas