Friday, November 23, 2012

Anna Karenina

Dinner and a Movie

To Karenina and Beyond

By Steve Herte

Anna Karenina (StudioCanal, 2012) - Director: Joe Wright. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Matthew Macfadyen.

The year is 1874, the setting is St. Petersburg, Russia, a hulking steam engine caked with snow pulls its train of equally snow-covered cars into the station. The beautiful Anna steps down onto the low platform, looking for someone. She confronts a grotesque peasant and is startled before locating her husband, Aleksey Alexandrovich Karenin. The train chugs into motion and we hear women screaming. The scene changes to reveal the same peasant under the wheels of the train, dead. 

Thus begins the version of Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice – 2005, Atonement – 2007, The Soloist – 2009, Hannah – 2011) and screenplay by Tom Stoppard. The story is set in 19th Century Russian high society. Karenin (Jude Law) is married to Anna (Keira Knightly), sister of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) who is good friends with Karenin. Oblonsky has another good friend, a righteous farmer named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who is in love with high-society debutant, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and he arranges their meeting. The meeting doesn’t go well and Kitty rejects Levin because she has her heart set on the dashing (and more than a slight bit effeminate) Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Vronsky, on the other hand, has fallen head over heels for Anna Karenina and seduces her into a scandalous affair (not that she protested too much).

Karenin tries to gloss over this impropriety many times but eventually, after Anna gives birth to a daughter by Vronsky (she already has a son by Karenin), he sees that not only she is being rejected by Russian society for her illicit actions, but he as well. He makes a divorce agreement with Anna that she can stay with Vronsky but her children must stay with him if they are to survive the ignominy. Anna becomes more and more unsettled with the arrangement, the accusing looks and gossipy whispers from society members when she’s in the room, and Vronsky’s own response (which she interprets as losing his love) that she throws herself under the same train we saw at the beginning of the film.

A tragedy? Maybe not completely. Subsequent to her rejection of Levin, Kitty is reunited with him through a second arranged meeting by Oblonsky. They play a parlor game consisting of arranging lettered blocks into words and communicate their feelings through it. The game ends when Levin reveals “I L Y” (I love you) and she agrees to be his wife.

Tolstoy wrote: “The French fashion of the parents arranging their children's future – was not accepted; it was condemned. The English fashion of the complete independence of girls was also not accepted, and not possible in Russian society. The Russian fashion of matchmaking by the officer of intermediate persons was for some reason considered disgraceful; it was ridiculed by everyone, and by the princess herself. But how girls were to be married, and how parents were to marry them, no one knew.” This seems to sum up the story beautifully. At two hours and 10 minutes, the movie condenses his tome fairly well.

The 2012 version of Anna Karenina is an extremely arty film featuring intense drama which is watered down in credibility by the sets. All scenes in St. Petersburg are in a theater (literally, there are balconies, a stage and catwalks above it for the “street” scenes). The gala balls and the ice rink are in the seat-less loges, the horse race goes across the stage like a vaudeville act, Karenin and Anna’s home is on-stage in front of the footlights. In contrast to this, all scenes in Levin’s life take place in the real world and the great outdoors – fields being mown by scythe-wielding men, lakes, trees and mountains. Whenever Anna wishes to visit her son Serhoza (who is only seen in bed until the end of the movie) she literally steps into a picture frame and becomes a museum artwork. There are numerous tableaus where all action stops around Anna to further isolate her. Even Oblosky’s office is a choreographed scene of men stamping and re-stamping documents and turning over meaningless pieces of paper.

The 1935 version starring Greta Garbo and Frederic March, and brilliantly directed by Clarence Brown, eclipses this one in talent, continuity and comprehensibility and does so in black and white. As for Academy Awards, the best this film can win would be Costume Design (quite elaborate in many cases), Choreography (the dance scenes are very impressive), Musical Score or Cinematography. The lead actor and actress will probably be nominated. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Prime & Beyond
90 East 10th Street (3rd/4th Avenues), New York City

Since my movie theater was in the East Village section of Manhattan, it gave me the opportunity to go “native” and make my 2,510th restaurant a Village steakhouse. Prime & Beyond is three steps down from the sidewalk behind an impressively heavy glass and steel door and a black velvet curtain. From there the décor is unremarkable, but definitely steakhouse. The tables are bare dark wood, preset with tall stemmed wine glasses and dark brown napkins wrapping the silverware and sitting in square white ceramic dishes. On the wall facing the bar are chalkboards describing where on a cow a cut of meat would be located, the difference between “wet” and “dry aging” and other steakhouse-related data. I sat at a table facing the door, anticipating the arrival of Mark, a former quartet member and main influence on my joining the Barbershop Society.

My waitress arrived with two glasses and a bottle of water, the wine and beer list (they do not have a full bar yet, having only arrived from Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 2011, where they were established in 2003) and the menus. After ordering and receiving a good-sized glass of Terroir Malbec, I considered the menu, noticing immediately that this restaurant would not only be my 85th steakhouse, but my 8th Korean restaurant – as the entire specialty dishes were Korean influenced. I was immediately intrigued.

After Mark arrived, and after getting caught-up on times and events since we last met, we ordered. Mark started with the Mixed Green Salad which arrived in an attractive bowl and proved to be a hearty portion. He enjoyed it. They were out of the Zesty Duck so my waitress recommended Pork Soo Yook, a new dish on the menu consisting of a tender fillet of pork breaded and stir fried in Korean spices and topped with a half red pepper. It was wonderful.

Then Mark had the Bulgogi Rice dish topped with tender slices of sirloin steak and vegetables and I ordered the Filet Mignon Stir-Fried Chop Steak. Both dishes were decent portions served on black wooden trays and sided by smaller bowls of Kim Chi (Korean national dish – spiced cabbage), Korean pickles, and a Tofu dish in a light sauce. Mark was delighted with his dish but kept wondering if we should have chopsticks. It did indeed look that way, but we never asked.

My dish was exactly how it was titled, the “Chop” steak was in inch-or-two-sized pieces, nicely browned, tender and juicy and served with stir-fried vegetables including grape tomatoes, green beans and onions. It smelled great and tasted even better. I had ordered an extra side dish of Grilled King Oyster Mushroom which arrived late, accompanied by apologies from our waitress, but was excellent. The three-inch length-wise slices of mushroom were perfectly cooked, earthy and buttery, and went well with everything else.

When dessert time came around Mark agreed to taste whatever I chose because he was too full. So, with advice from our waitress I chose the Melted Carmel Cheesecake flavored with Sea Salt. This sounds stranger than it was. The cheesecake was a whipped cheese topped with a thin layer of sweet caramel only accented by the salt enough to keep it from being cloyingly sweet. It was actually very good. Mark eschewed coffee or tea for just a cup of hot water. (Hey, to each his own.) I couldn’t resist the Oolong Tea or singing “Sip a little Oolong Tea!” (from the movie The Road to Hong Kong with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) to the waitress. She smiled sweetly and brought the tea (but didn’t get the reference), which ended the meal perfectly. I can honestly say that this was my first time in a Korean restaurant where I truly enjoyed everything about the experience.

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