Thursday, August 28, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

Seeing Lucy through the Alders

By Steve Herte

They say the first week back to work after a vacation is the worst. They're right. I was so relaxed I was making mistakes everywhere the first day. That was compounded by this ridiculous "hoteling" thing they have going on with moving the population from 110 West 44th Street into vacant cubicles in my building. I'll leave it at that. It took me a while to calm down from the excitement of my Turner Classic Movie Tour. It was great. That brings me to Friday. Well, you'll see. Enjoy!

Lucy (Universal, 2014) Director: Luc Besson. Writer: Luc Besson. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicholas Phongpheth, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Loic Brabant, Pierre Grammont, Pierre Poirot, Bertrand Quoniam, & Pascal Loison. Color, 89 minutes.

Does anyone remember the Outer Limits episode entitled “Sixth Finger?” It aired on October 14, 1963, and starred David McCallum as a scientist experimenting with speeding up evolution. He becomes super-intelligent and eventually evolves into pure intelligent energy.

Here’s Lucy. It’s 51 years later and it’s not about evolution per se but the net effect of gradually increasing the use of the human brain to its full capacity – essentially the same story. Gwyllim Griffiths (McCallum) grows a sixth finger and can play pieces Beethoven wrote but couldn’t play. Lucy (Johansson) attains 20% of her brain usage and learns Chinese overnight. The main difference (aside from the male/female lead) is that Gwillim willingly evolved and Lucy’s transformation was an accident.

Lucy’s introduction is as follows: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. This is what we’ve done with it.”

The film begins in China as Lucy meets her former boyfriend Richard (Asbaek) outside an office building and he tricks her into being handcuffed to a metal briefcase that must be delivered to Mr. Jang (Choi). Inside the briefcase are four bags full of blue crystals (reminded me of toilet freshener) intended to be smuggled out of China by three men and Lucy to Berlin, Paris, Rome, and wherever Lucy was going to be sent (that wasn’t clear), surgically implanted in their abdomens. The crystals comprise a new mind-altering drug called CPH4, which will sell for millions of dollars on the street. However, no one could predict that Lucy would refuse her captor’s sexual advances precipitating his knocking her to the ground and repeatedly kicking her belly and breaking the bag inside.

The drug has a different effect on women than on men and Lucy goes through a transformation which includes bringing back the revolving room effect we saw long ago in the Fred Astaire movie Royal Wedding (1951), and much later in Inception (2010). But Lucy doesn’t become a gruesome monster; instead she becomes more intelligent and revives Lara Croft (a role Scarlett was made for). She fights off her attackers and escapes.

Meanwhile, Professor Norman (Freeman) is giving a lecture on mankind and the percentage of brain usage increase from the primitive “Lucy” (Australopithecus – 7%) to today’s stage of evolution (10%), and posits what would happen if higher percentages were used. His lecture is accompanied by visual aids, and parallels the advances that current Lucy is making throughout the movie.

Lucy grows in power and returns to Mr. Jang, and after impaling his hands to his chair, she uses a Vulcan mind-meld to get the locations of the other three bags of CPH4. Then she notifies Paris Police Chief Pierre Del Rio (where did they get that name?), simultaneously sending photos of the three mules to his cell phone. He in turn notifies the airport security in Paris, Rome and Berlin. The three men are caught and brought to Paris. Ah, but Mr. Jang is not through. He learns where the three men are being kept and arrives there first. Two of the three bags are violently extracted before Lucy and Pierre arrive and Lucy extracts the third with her bare hands.

When she first calls Professor Norman she has to prove her abilities by not just being on the phone, but also on his television, computer screen and his radio. He gathers a group of his colleagues when she calls him a second time. As soon as he asks her where she is, she walks in the door. She again has to prove her strange powers – revealing the life secrets of one man by simply placing a hand on his shoulder. They liquefy the remaining bags of CPH4 and hook her up to them intravenously. It’s here that the special effects department pulls out all the stops. Lucy grows black tendrils that connect into all the computers in the room and goes time-traveling back to the Big Bang in stages. The bloodied and shocked Mr. Jang tries to sneak up on her with a gun to the shocked silence of the scientists and, just as he shoots, Lucy disappears.

Except for being extremely violent and gory, does it sound like “Sixth Finger”? Lucy is one hour and 29 minutes of special effects glory but not much else. Freeman does more acting in 30 seconds of silence than the rest of the cast does throughout. The soundtrack is negligible to non-existent, and the story; it was what it was. From the start you don’t really care about any one of the characters, which eliminates suspense, and many of the scenes are predictable. The dialogue (with the exception of anything Freeman says) is pedestrian, and well, who cares? It’s not what we’re here for. There is some real science in it and some good theory but generally, it’s an imaginative visual roller coaster.

Parents, be cautious. Those whose children are not familiar with violence or who are affected by the sight of blood should avoid this film. With the exception of special effects, Lucy will not be nominated for any awards in my opinion.

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

157 2nd Avenue (10th Street)New York

When I was choosing a restaurant I went to Alder’s website and the dull greyness of the photo depicting the exterior attracted my attention for its sheer drabness. The menu seemed to have a preponderance of sausage dishes. Could I have stumbled on a German restaurant? No, it’s billed as “American.” I knew it would be an adventure.

On arriving at the corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue I could not see the name Alder anywhere. I actually walked by it once before checking the address. Finally, I saw it in red lettering above the door of a still nameless (at least from my point of view) bistro with a sidewalk café (not grey at all) graced by bright yellow umbrellas and a cool green wall enclosure. I walked to the unpainted wood door, which was recessed from the front wall and noticed to my left, written vertically, the name Alder. I entered and met the two young women at the Captain’s Station and they confirmed my reservation. I was led to a table near the back of this cozy (only 56 seats), dark, room with cream-colored walls and dim aluminum swags and faux open beam ceiling.

Soon Aaron, my waiter, appeared and greeted me. He took my water preference and presented the food menu and the drinks/wine list. The drink menu was printed on a simple folded piece of paper with the wines on the reverse side. Due to the darkness I could not read what was in any of the drinks and had to call Aaron over to read them for me. I chose Alder’s version of the Suffering Bastard (a drink I remember from long ago at the Hawaii Kai restaurant), which they call “Suffering Fools” – a very tasty and slightly spicy mixture of Bourbon, Juniper, Ginger and Honey. It was intriguing and delicious and was garnished with a thin length-wise slice of cucumber.

The food menu was a single page rubber-banded to a plank of wood. The entries were in a small brown type on a parchment background with their descriptions below them in tiny type (completely unreadable). Thanks to Aaron, I learned that they were organized simply from small-sized portion to large and didn’t have any standard categories and he again assisted me in putting together a three-course meal.

The wine list was slightly easier to read, being on white paper but the font was still thin. I asked Aaron why they were categorized "White Wines Made by Women” and “Red Wines Made by Women.” He told me that Chef Wylie Dufresne likes to have a theme to his wine list. OK, I think I like him for that. We went through the red wine list and I settled on the 2009 Maysara “Jamsheed” Pinot Noir from McMinnville, Oregon. Aaron left to put in my order.

When I finished my cocktail a smashing blonde asked me if I wanted another (she reminded me of the character Wendy Winters in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour). Getting quick control of myself, I told her that I had ordered wine and mentioned how beautiful her long curly hair was. She thanked me and left.

Another server brought my first course, Pigs in a Blanket – six pieces of Chinese sausage wrapped tightly in a crunchy coating and sitting at various angles in jalapeno mustard on a slab of slate with a sweet chili sauce – definitely not my mother’s recipe. They were smoky, spicy and sweet at the same time and the coating was more like a pretzel crust than Poppin' Fresh dough. I enjoyed them and noticed several other tables ordering them.

The Pinot Noir had just enough body to compliment the first course and was a pleasing garnet color and had only a light nose. It did not overpower my second course, squash blossoms – stuffed with succotash and molé cream cheese and coated with a firm, but light crunchy shell in a chili relish. Again, this dish was not like any other serving of squash blossoms I’ve had before. Though the hardness of the coating was a surprise, it was wonderful and kept the contents hot and flavorful. A slab of slate was once again the serving dish for this course.

I had to complement the restaurant staff. I didn’t say I was a slow eater and yet there was plenty of time between courses to savor both the dish and the wine. The main course, rabbit sausage, was sliced in a beautiful white bowl on gribiche (a mayonnaise/egg sauce), baby asparagus and egg yolk with delicate bonito flakes (dried shavings of fish sliced from aged pieces of bonito, a kind of tuna) sprinkled on top and waving gently (as if alive) in the slightest breeze. The artistic appeal of the dish was entrancing and the smoky aroma emanating from the bowl was bewitching. And the taste was amazing: smoky, gamy and only slightly spicy. It didn’t look like that large a dish to me, and I contemplated adding a course, but as I finished it I realized that I needed room for dessert.

Aaron came to my rescue once more to help with reading and I chose the most unusual root beer pudding served in a stemmed glass with light cream on top. Aaron said it was a signature dish for Alder and I had to admit I had never had its like before. It was delightful. I didn’t order coffee as I was already in a great mood. The next thing I know Aaron brought me a glass of what I can only describe as Sparkling Rosé. It was a deep pink color and the perfect topper for a lovely meal.

Alder has been in business for a year and a half and describes itself as a Gastro-pub. That explains everything, the innovative recipes, the novel cocktail and the dressed-down décor. Even though there were no tablecloths or cushions on the chairs, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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