(Publication date: July 2, 2004)

Grabbing a Bite

What’s the deal with 1403 Solano Avenue? It’s like restaurant quicksand. In my memory,
Greek, Japanese, and Italian joints have sunk out of sight at that corner. Restaurants flourish
all around it, but this spot seems cursed. The latest attempt to survive there is called the
Albany Bistro and we went in the other night. Interior pleasing, wait staff friendly, food
good—three big plusses so far. Oh, and a fourth: owners courageous. Opening at this address
must be like walking through Dracula’s front door when you left your cross, garlic, and silver
stake back at the coach with the snorting black horses.

In other words, the owners are like Hugh Jackman as the title character in
Van Helsing. In
this one, he works for the Vatican’s super-secret international Homeland Security Department
and earns his frequent flier miles careening from castle to cavern in search of otherworldly
beings to engage in sardonically witty repartee and, if possible, to kill. Target Numero Uno is
a guy who, at age approximately 400, is a little long in the tooth, turns into a bat at the drop of
a hat, and never made it into a Dr. Seuss book.

Van Helsing’s main squeeze is Anna, played by Kate Beckinsale. In last year’s
she played a vampire. This time she’s flipped and is a vampire hunter, no fangs, which I
figure is a good thing. I mean, in the dental department she’s no Julia Roberts--or Eric
Roberts, for that matter--but still, the last thing Kate Beckinsale needs is more teeth.

This movie is like a monster encyclopedia. You’ve got your Frankenstein creature, parts of
whose face keep coming unhinged, revealing what appears to be a sparking intra-cranial neon
sign telling us to Eat at Joe’s. You’ve got your Mr. Hyde, played by Robbie Coltrane, looking
as big as he does as Hagrid in the
Harry Potter series but not quite as cuddly; and Dr. Jekyll,
looking like Kate Moss, the original supermodel, before she bulked up to 87 pounds. And you’
ve got your werewolf, looking like a nine-foot-tall German shepherd crossed with Joan Rivers
before she had a chance to shave her legs.

In this film, you keep seeing things you swear you’ve seen before: a protagonist who wears a
big-brim hat and flails around on top of and underneath a team of rampaging horses, just like
Indiana Jones; a rabble-rouser with a scary smile, wearing a top hat, and looking a lot like
Malcolm McDowell in
A Clockwork Orange; a festively menacing costume ball just like in
Amadeus; a geeky assistant who fits out Our Hero with gadgety weapons, just like Q does for
James Bond; a circular-saw-blade/Frisbee that performs the same unsettling function as
Oddjob’s bowler hat in
Goldfinger; and a gaggle of Dracula’s personal assistants, who appear
to be on loan from
Star Wars and look like the love children of R2D2 and a band of amorous

Van Helsing is great fun. I kept expecting Mel Brooks to show up as Dracula’s goofy
uncle, with a sign slapped on his back saying, “I suck.”  And, with its 19th century
characters slinging 21st century wisecracks back and forth, this movie doesn’t appear to
confuse itself with anything directed by Ingmar Bergman.

So fangs up from me on
Van Helsing. Go see it and have a good time. Afterwards, to help
cement the triumph of good over the forces of darkness, have dinner at the Albany Bistro.
Then, for some extra fun, tell your date you can’t have anything with garlic and have to be
home by sunrise.

Life Is a Movie