Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

The Balade of Robocop

By Steve Herte

You’ve probably heard the quote from Robert Burns’ poem “...the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” Well choosing a movie last Friday proved it. I wanted to see either “Son of God” or “A Winter’s Tale” but neither was playing at convenient times, and the former is two hours and 18 minutes long. So I turned to my third choice, and it surprised me. Working where I work I often say that nothing surprises me, but every day, something does. It’s the same with somebody doing something you consider dumb. There’s always something dumber waiting for you in the future. But this time it was a good surprise.

I may have a dilemma (but not too much of one) this coming Friday. The sequel to 300 is coming out as well as Particle Fever a documentary on the building of the Large Hadron Collider (remember, I am a Mathematician with Physics background), and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Which do you think will win out? Enjoy!

Robocop (MGM/Columbia, 2014) – Director: Jose Padilha. Writers: Joshua Zetumer (s/p); Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner (1987 s/p). Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson, Aimee Garcia, Zach Grenier, Partick Garrow, Jay Baruchel, & John Paul Ruttan. Color, Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.

It’s 2028 in Detroit, the most crime-ridden city in America. In other parts of the world, especially those prone to terrorism, robotic police forces are being used to keep the peace. (We see a knife-wielding child gunned down by a metallic behemoth after his suicide bomber father explodes uselessly.) But here in America, human policemen are still dying on the job because of the Dreyfuss Act, which specifically forbids robotic policing.

The “Novak” show comes on television and its passionate host, Pat Novak (Jackson) vociferously touts the advantages of robotic peace-keepers while belittling Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Grenier) for deliberately putting the American police force and the people they serve in harm’s way. With the bravado of Al Sharpton, he whisks video after video on his multimedia background to prove his point. He asks the question: Is America afraid to be safe?

Back on the streets of Detroit, Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is a good cop trying to bust a major drug cartel headed by Antoine Vallon (Garrow) that has been moving major weapons out of the evidence lockers of his own police station. But what Murphy doesn’t know is that two dirty cops on the force are actively aiding Vallon. As in the song by the Talking Heads, he has a beautiful home and a beautiful wife Clara (Cornish) as well as a young son David (Ruttan). Alex’s methods are a bit rogue and his actions cause the death of his partner in a raid on Vallon’s operation – something he regrets deeply. Vallon has one of his cops rig a bomb to Alex’s car and sets the alarm off just after Alex has put his son to bed. It goes off when Alex tries the door after unsuccessfully using the remote and he’s burned over 90 percent of his body.

Meanwhile, Raymond Sellars (Keaton), owner and CEO of Omnicorp (where all the world goes to shop for robotic police), is conferring with noted doctor and scientist Dennett Norton (Oldman) on how he can obtain a hybrid human/machine to satisfy the American need for superior crime fighters. After having gone through several disabled athletes and veteran soldiers Alex’s name is brought up. After some thought, Sellars is sure he’s “the one.” They secure Clara’s permission after convincing her they can “save” Alex.

The location now changes to China (it’s illegal to build robotic cops in America, remember?) and we soon see Alex wearing the same silver robotic suit worn in the first version of Robocop and attached to an elaborate device/table complete with clear tubes through which vital fluids are pumped. Upon awakening he’s not exactly thrilled with his new body. As soon as he’s free of the table he exits the building and starts running through the rice paddies outside until Dr. Norton shuts him down. Sellars is a ruthless businessman who wants this new product before the American people sooner than possible. He allows Alex an awkward visit with his family and they accept him as being the Dad and husband they thought was lost forever. For better marketing, the silver suit is junked for a more formidable black one. 

When tested against a pure robot, Alex’s reactions are unacceptably slower. Dr. Norton operates on Alex’s brain to allow the computer greater access, and the result is a “machine that thinks it’s Alex” instead of a human controlling a robotic body. They download megabytes of crime records into his memory and when he’s presented to the public he picks out and subdues a criminal immediately, impressing everyone. However, he did not react to his wife and son when he passed them. He becomes an instant sensation and the savior of Detroit until Clara goes on television accusing Sellars of taking her husband away from her and his father from his son.

After a confrontation with Clara, Alex overrides his programming and solves his own murder, right up to the two dirty cops and the chief responsible for their actions. At this point, Sellars decides that Robocop has to go.

I admit that I did not see the original film in 1987 with Peter Weller all the way through. I do remember it being less than my expectations, especially a title character so silly as to be beyond belief. Kinnaman, however, brings out the All-American aspect of Robocop, which makes the character endearing. Keaton was great as the CEO who won’t accept “no” as an answer, and who will stop at nothing to get his way. This version surprised me in that I was absorbed into the story and was able to suspend my beliefs, even though they left in the thudding footfalls and the whirring sounds whenever Robocop twisted. Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay was much more acceptable than the Neumeier/Miner one, helped by special effects that were light-years better because of newer technology. The one that impressed me was when they remove the robotic suit and all that’s left is a head (with brain), a heart and two pulsing lungs in clear containers and one hand. Alex really needed all those tubes. There were several bodily functions he could not do anymore. It’s a cleaner film than the original and not as hokey, even though they did leave in the line “Thank you for your cooperation.” I also commend the writer on keeping the language from getting vulgar, even to the point of bleeping out Samuel L. Jackson’s last tirade. I left the theater glad I had seen it.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses. Not recommended for small children due to the level of violence

208 1st Avenue (between 12th and 13th Streets), New York City

Sometimes when I choose a restaurant billed as Mediterranean I see a menu with a fusion of cuisines circumnavigating the great sea. An “Eastern Mediterranean” billing limits such a restaurant even more. Balade is Lebanese, with a few innovative recipe twists. The dark wood, red and white outdoor awning announces “Balade” in big white lettering. Below, two potted evergreens flank the glass-doored entrance. Inside is a warm – almost overly warm – space with open-brick walls leading to arabesque tiles on the left and the bar on the right. A long orange-lit arc stretching from the beginning of the bar to the back of the restaurant gracefully compliments a wall of laterally sliced tree limbs (presumably cedar), and a painting of a belly dancer floating in mid-dance. Dim lantern swags light the bare-topped dark wood tables, with votive candles adding their romantic light.

Balade is not a French word (as it seemed to me) and is pronounced Bah-Lah-Déh. It is Lebanese for “fresh or local.” Chef/Owner Roland Semaan brings surprising ingredients into classic Lebanese recipes some Americans wouldn’t expect, such as jalapenos, sumac and pomegranate molasses.

The young lady at the Captain’s Station offered me a choice of tables: near the front window or in the back. As the heating system was baking my face in the front of the restaurant, I opted for the back. (I was glad to get my winter outerwear off.) Once comfortable, I received a glass of water and the menu from my waiter Alejandro. The menu is an interesting read because the first page is an explanation of all the Lebanese terms and ingredients used on subsequent pages, e.g., Manakeesh is a Lebanese pizza; Sumac is a tart and tangy, deep burgundy colored spice harvested from a wild berry bush. The only problem I had with was that the terms and titles of dishes were in an ornate compressed red font that made them difficult to read in the dim lighting.

There were Daily Specials, 2 Soups, 6 Salads, 24 Mezze (“Small dishes served before a large-scale meal”), 12 Platters, and 6 Sides; as well as 8 Manakeesh, 5 Pita Pitzas, 10 Sandweechet (Sandwiches) and 6 desserts. It took longer than I thought to choose from this amount of possible selections.

Noticing right away that there were no cocktails I looked over the beer listing. Good thing I did because among the choices from Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Ireland and Holland, there were six Lebanese beers. I chose 961 Porter (961 is indeed the brand name) and was rewarded with a rich flavorful reddish-brown beer that pleased my palate. The breadbasket that came shortly after had two puffy mini pitas and was accompanied by a dish of sesame seeded olive oil. Later they were replaced with whole- wheat flat bread.

From the food menu I decided to start with a soup, the “Hearly Lentil Soup” – a Lemony broth with lentils and Swiss chard, flavored with “essential Lebanese spices.” I have no idea what these spices were because the fresh lemon juice overpowered them. The soup was good, but it was definitely not spicy and cooled quickly. At this point I had finished my beer and Alejandro brought my wine, Lebanese of course. It was a lovely 2007 red varietal combining Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet from Domaine Wardy called “Chateau Les Cedres.” Now some may think all Middle-Eastern red wines are sweet – au contraire. The nose and flavor of this ruby red wine were fruity, the taste slightly tart and with a good finish that neither dominated nor disappeared behind the flavor of the food.

My second course came from the Mezze selection and was Flavored Falafel: Crisp brown hemispheres made of ground chick peas, fava beans, onions, cumin and parsley. It was served with Tahini sauce (sesame paste, lemon, garlic, water and salt) in four flavors: Fresh Mint, Jalapeno (my favorite), Celery, and Cilantro. The four falafels were arranged two on each side of the sauce on a long, narrow oblong plate with tomato, red cabbage, and pickled fennel as garnishes on either end. Everything was delicious even though the plate made it difficult to slice the falafels without anything spilling onto the table.

Next came the main course, a platter and a slight departure from Eastern Mediterranean style. The Mixed Grill lined up skewers of Lamb Kabob, Chicken Tawook (marinated in yogurt and lemon juice), and Beef Kafta (ground, mixed with spices and reformed into a sausage-shape) next to a mound of French Fries (a welcome departure from boiled potatoes) and char-grilled vegetables. A passing waitress commented on how wonderful the aroma was, saying that it was her favorite dish and that she envied me having it. The lamb was earthy and a bit chewy, the chicken perfectly done and the beef was miraculous – tender and spicy (but not too much). The French Fries needed no seasoning and were crisp, as though fried more than once. I was rapidly becoming sated.

But by now you know me. Dessert was calling. The Henafa – Baked cheese topped with breadcrumbs and crushed pistachios in a honey sauce – was heavenly, and surprisingly finishable. And what kind of gourmet would I be without a pot of Lebanese coffee, the thick sweet, dark brew in a lovely brass pot with a wood handle to pour into a delicate porcelain cup? That, with a glass of Marsala wine, completed the perfect Lebanese dining experience.

As far as I’ve read, Balade has been in business since 2012, when Michelin reviewed them. I hope they stay around long enough for a second visit. I still haven’t had the dishes with sumac in them.

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