Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

Oblivious Alison

By Steve Herte

I knew from the start that the movie would be well-attended and made sure to arrive early enough to get a good seat. Good thing, for when I arrived there was a line of people waiting to get in the theater. It turned out, however, that they were waiting for the cleaning crew to finish from the previous showing. The theater was quite large considering today's megaplexes and it was a good way toward half full by the time the movie started. I gathered that Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman were the main draws. As for the film itself, well, read on.

Oblivion (Universal, 2013) Director: Joseph Kosinski. Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, & Melissa Leo. Color, 126 minutes.

In the trailers for Oblivion we hear “We won the war, but lost the planet.” In a decades-long war against an alien race referred to as “Scavs” (short for scavengers), the Earth is devastated, although the audience never sees more than the eastern coast of the United States and the movie stays in New York City. We briefly see the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., buried up to its cupola while the Washington Monument is free of debris and leaning and the Pentagon – also not buried – wears a large blast hole. 

Manhattan, once figuratively called a “canyon,” is now literally a canyon, entirely underground, complete with waterfalls pouring out of skyscraper windows. The Empire State Building is buried up to its observation deck, and all that’s visible of the Statue of Liberty is her torch. For some unknown reason, the Queensboro Bridge is the only bridge left and is recognizable from the roadway by its tilting support towers but it no longer spans a river.

The year is 2077. The war started sometime in 2017. Earth is being salvaged for its remaining resources. Enormous “Hydro-rigs” are greedily sucking up the oceans to desalinate them and transporting the water to Saturn’s moon Titan, where the remaining population of Earth is living. Ball-shaped drones fly the skies guarding the hydro-rigs from attack by Scavs and can fire with deadly accuracy from either side. Jack (Cruise) is one of the few drone repairmen left on the planet and he lives in an ultra-modern structure perched high on a mountaintop with Victoria (Riseborough), who monitors his activities and the status of the drones and hydro-rigs from a touch-screen computer station. She also communicates with Sally (Leo) who resides on an immense, inverse pyramid shaped space station called the “Tet” and gives her progress reports.

Jack cruises the surface of Earth in a rotor-less white helicopter-like vehicle with twin rotatable jet engines to locate downed drones. On one of these excursions, he locates the remains of the main Library at 42nd Street and lowers himself via a cable inside. The place is crawling with Scavs and he almost returns to the surface when the cable is cut and he’s captured. It is then he meets Beech (Freeman) who reveals the unbelievable truth to Jack that the “Scavs” are really what’s left of the human race and he’s actually a part of the enemy. Jack knows that his memory had been wiped at some time in the past but he has repeated dreams of a girl he knew back in 2017 on the upper deck of the Empire State Building. Beech tells him to go into the forbidden “radiation zone” for the answers.

An escape pod from a spaceship makes a fiery reentry one day and in the process of inspecting the damage, Jack finds humans in cryo-pods. One is the girl in his dreams, who he learns is his wife, Julia (Kurylenko). Needless to say, he’s very confused.

As Oblivion progresses through its two-hour, six-minute length, the entire truth is slowly revealed. It’s an interesting twist on the alien invasion theme where the maxim from the comic strip “Pogo” is true – “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

The cinematography of the film is breathtaking, as are the high-speed flights through narrow canyons. The acting is good for a sci-fi movie but I don’t anticipate any nominations. In several instances, the dialogue is mumbled incoherently both by Cruise and Riseborough. The soundtrack is effective at enhancing the visuals and never gets overpowering. In quiet moments we hear “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum. There’s only one “Wow” moment when we enter the gargantuan “Tet” but it turns into a disappointment when we actually meet Sally. Oblivion is a nicely conceived movie but once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. 

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Alison Eighteen
15 West 18th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) New York

A black banner with a white script letter “A” over the maroon awning means you have arrived at Alison’s, the second restaurant belonging to the same owner as Alison on Dominick in downtown Manhattan. When I researched this restaurant I was intrigued by the fact that trying to read the menu online set off the firewalls at work. But there are more ways than one. Through Menu Pages’ website I was able to view it and liked what I saw.

The bar/breakfast area/to-go counter is the first thing one sees upon entering, with the main dining area in the back. The wallpaper depicts pencil drawings of café scenes, trees, fanciful animals and people. The clothless tables are black, as are the chairs and banquettes. A large vase filled with branches of pink apple blossoms dominates the center of the room while soft lighting emanates from the shaded wall sconces and spidery chandeliers. A black curtain separates the dining area from the bar. The hostess led me to a table in the center of the room near the large vase, produced the wine list, cocktail list, and menu and got me a glass of water.

The cocktail list featured a “Classic Martini” but it was made with Hendricks gin, a bit too flowery for my tastes, so I asked my waiter, Paul, if I could substitute another. He suggested a Brooklyn gin (I didn’t know Brooklyn had a gin) and I agreed. He returned shortly with a red-colored cocktail with an orange zest in it. I tasted it and it wasn’t bad, but it was not what I ordered. He apologized and took it back explaining that there was a mix-up at the bar. I could see they were doing a brisk business, as all the tables were occupied except the one next to me. He brought back a drink that was the correct color this time but with no inclusions. “Did we run out of the bleu cheese stuffed olives?” I asked. That sent him hustling back to the bar and he returned with two bamboo-skewered olives on a plate. Wonderments about the professionalism of the staff began to run quickly through my head.

The menu was a single card and I noticed right away that the rack of lamb entrée and quinoa side were not on it, as they appeared on the online menu. Oh well. On the left were the Appetizers, Soup, Salad and Sides, and on the right, the Entrées. I saw three courses that I liked and when Paul explained the specials it clinched the main course. I told him I’d like to choose a wine first and he left me to my decision-making. Next thing I know the sommelier swoops down on me and starts recommending the ridiculously-priced wines. Seriously? I complimented her on her choices but chose the more moderately priced 2010 Titus Vineyards Zinfandel which, she assured me, was an excellent wine. And it was.

Another server brought out the bread – two baguette rolls in a white cup and a plate with a circular slice of butter. The bread was warm and crusty and the butter soft and sweet, just as I like them.

The English Pea Soup was my first choice. It was a nice, thick puree with four croutons and a quail egg floating on top in a lovely white bowl. When I tasted it I was glad they provided a salt-shaker and a pepper mill on the table. It was tasty but bland – needed both.

The second course was dubbed “Duck Egg,” and was a hard-boiled duck egg sitting in a slightly vinegary broth surrounded by morel mushrooms, topped by a good-sized crisp of fried Romano cheese. This dish had more flavor than the soup thanks to the morels, but the egg still needed the two standard seasonings. When I later read the mission statement at Alison’s I understood. They create dishes to bring out the natural flavor of the food without having to instill any.

It took a little while for the main dish to come but that only added to the anticipation. Paul told me beforehand that the featured “Grilled 35 Day Aged Sirloin Steak” was indeed a wagyu (a more marbled version of Kobi beef) beef “imported” from – of all places – Nebraska. A company had imported cattle from Japan and was raising them as the Japanese would. It was served medium rare (which was perfect for me) juicy, and sliced appetizingly over asparagus and potatoes and topped with watercress. It was excellent. A side dish of Glazed Hen of the Woods mushrooms accompanied it perfectly.

After a rocky start, Alison was coming along pretty well. The Maple Butterscotch Pudding with Pecan Brittle and Sweet Potato Financier was exactly what should follow a meal like this. I left nothing in the glass. Then, a hot cup of Earl Grey tea and a glass of Trimbach Framboise (raspberry) eau de vie and I was quite comfortable. Alison had redeemed itself. The staff was friendly and helpful throughout the entire time, even agreeing that my table should be moved slightly to facilitate the servers’ passing between it and the overweight gentleman at the next table whose chair was too far from the table.

I applaud Alison Price Becker for her new place after a little over a year (it opened in January 2012), especially after having to close Alison on Dominick 10 years before. Perhaps Alison Eighteen will see me again soon, maybe for breakfast or lunch.

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