Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Giver

Dinner and a Movie

Memories of Things Past

By Steve Herte

On September 23rd of this year I celebrate 41 years in my present job and this past Friday I had the opportunity to go back to where it all began. I was reminded of the song "Ohio. My City Was Gone" by The Pretenders. But instead of tearing something down and putting up a shopping mall, the powers that be have renovated what was there and added a row of incredible eateries. I couldn't believe my eyes. A Benares Indian restaurant (I've been to the one in Mid-Town) has opened up right across the street from my former office. You'll see in my review what became of the office building. Instead of bringing back bad memories it had the effect of cleansing them.

This week, I'm anticipating introducing my karaoke dance partner, Betty, to her first Indian restaurant. She was totally taken with the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey and she now wants to experience it. After hiking, kayaking and unicycling, hey, why not? I admire Betty's gumption. And, with me there I can guide her toward the wonderful flavors of Indian cuisine without her accidentally self-immolating. Also, I plan to win over a person from the false Indian-Curry crowd to the enchanting Kormas, Masalas, and Mitahis that makes one want to listen to sitars and tablas.

Going back to my career roots brought back memories both good and bad and oddly enough the movie I saw deeply involved memories. Enjoy!

The Giver (The Weinstein Company, 2014) - Director: Phillip Noyce. Writers: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide (s/p), Lois Lowry (book). Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Renate Stuurman, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay, Aklexander Jilliangs, James Jillings, Jordan Nicholas Smal, & Saige Fernandes. Color,  97 minutes.

Predictions of “future-worlds” abound in science fiction. In The Time Machine (1960), by H. G. Wells, it seems blissful and innocent until the Morlocks are revealed. In The Matrix (1999), what you see is not really what you’re getting. In Elysium (2013) the rich live in luxury on a space station while the poor scrabble about on Earth. The Giver puts a different spin on the future.

The exact year is not provided, but the initial voice-over states that it is after “The Ruin,” which is never explained. Everything is black and white (including the film), and we see a vast area of land inhabited by several “communities” of people living in perfect peace, in identical houses, and wearing identical clothing. The camera pans back to reveal that the whole mini-world is atop a mesa surrounded by clouds for miles and miles around.

No one fights with anyone, no one gets sick (they each take their daily medication via a push-button injection system before leaving their dwellings) and no one has a harsh word to say to anyone. When a child is born there is a ceremony to welcome them into the community. When he or she reaches the age of nine, they receive their first two-wheel (white, of course) bicycle at a different ceremony. At the age of 18, each young man or woman is assigned their “job” or “position” within the community according to their aptitude (decided naturally, by The Elders) and thanked for their childhood by the Chief Elder (Streep). And when people have “fulfilled” their life of usefulness, they are “released” (we can guess what that word means) to “Elsewhere” – a term meaning anywhere outside the area of the mesa.

We meet Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan), three “friends forever,” as they attain their 18th birthdays together. At the ceremony, where over 100 teens are present, Jonas is number 52. Asher is assigned to be a Drone Pilot. Jonas is skipped and Fiona receives the title “Nurturer” (one in charge of babies at the nursery). When all the others have left the stage, Jonas is alone. “You may think I have made a mistake,” intones the Chief Elder. But she explains that due to Jonas’ unique qualifications and abilities (we see one earlier in the movie – he sees the true red color of Fiona’s hair briefly) he has been chosen to be a “Receiver.”

Jonas has never been to “the edge” before, and now he must go there regularly for his training. At a house sitting precisely at the edge of the high cliff marking the end of the mesa he meets The Giver (Bridges) in his vast library (Jonas has never seen a book – shades of The Time Machine). The Giver’s job is to pass on the memories of the past, including emotions, music, religion, pain, and war. He accomplishes this in stages through a form of mind-meld, where the two grasp each other’s lower arms. Jonas learns about cold and snow and why they were eliminated. He also learns that the daily injections wipe memories of color, strong emotions, and anything that would indicate differences (or conflict and competition) between peoples. Effectively, there are no reasons for war, hence peace.

Using a drop of his blood and an apple each day (I’m seriously resisting the obvious joke here), Jonas fools the electronic injector into thinking he’s taking his daily meds, and he falls in love with Fiona and the baby Gabriel (who was assigned to his parents by the Nurturing Center). He teaches Fiona the apple trick, finds a map showing the “boundary” of the territory and decides to take Gabriel across it and thus regain the memories his entire people have lost and which have been so wrongfully erased.

Bridges gives one of his finest performances since The Big Lebowski (1998) and the remake of True Grit (2010). Streep is fantastically condescending, eerily confident (think The Devil Wears Prada from 2006), and maliciously cold in varying stages. Thwaites is perfect for his role. His outrage at what the elders have imposed upon the people is genuine and his interaction with Gabriel is amazing. The Giver is an excellent movie for all ages (except toddlers and younger). In fact, I would say that it’s squeaky clean, with only flashbacks of violence. 

I was surprised to learn at the credits that Taylor Swift played a character named Rosemary (The Giver’s daughter, the Receiver before Jonas), and I didn’t recognize her. The way that color oozed into the film (rather than “popped” as in The Wizard of Oz) was a great cinematic effect. The choices of scenes from memory during the mind-melds were wonderful slideshows of my own memories. At an hour and 37 minutes, The Giver is just right.

Rating: Four out of five Martini glasses.

Washington Market Tavern
41 Murray Street (just off Church Street)New York

Nothing sparks memories like dining in a brand new restaurant across the street from the building where one began a 41-year working career. Until seven months ago, Washington Market Tavern was Eamon’s Irish Bar, and right next to it was The Blarney Star at 43 Murray: Two establishments that could be found in the dictionary under “dives” and “joints.” I remember being in the latter one only. Across the street is the sleek Equinox fitness salon and family condos that was once 120 Church Street, original home of the Internal Revenue Service in downtown New York, and also unfortunately home to large families of four and six-legged creatures.

But that’s all changed now. In fact, the entire block has changed. If it were not for the characteristic brownish red color of my former office, I would not have known where I was. Washington Market Tavern’s fashionable charcoal grey exterior open onto a spiffy, cream white interior trimmed in chocolate brown. The bar on the right is long and is backed by an impressive shelving unit displaying their extensive collection of spirits. The semi-circular banquettes forming booths on the right are the only remnants bespeaking a former bar occupied this space. Down the middle are these clever tables that can be lowered or raised to accommodate drinkers on stools or diners in chairs over-hung with twin shaded chandeliers. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to the last of the latter kind of table. The bar was populated from end to end the entire time I was there. A young man took my water preference and presented me with the menu, wine list and cocktail/beer menu.

It wasn’t long before I decided on a cocktail that my server, Eptihag (don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I got it from the tab) asked me if something interested me. I chose a drink called simply “1850” – Gin, Jalapeno-infused Triple-Sec, Cilantro, Lime and Agave garnished with a slice of cucumber. It was only mildly spicy, tart and citrus-y, refreshing and different. And . . . I love cucumbers.

The food menu was a single card arranged in four categories; Raw, Garden, Ocean and Farm with four entries each. Eptihag (I think I’ll call her my server from now on) indicated that they were arranged from left to right in order of size of portion and left me to my thoughts. I opened the wine list and discovered a multitude of affordable wines that would go with any meal. I didn’t read any more than halfway, because the remainder of the list was the over-priced wines.

My server reappeared and with her help I chose three courses (to her enthusiastic approval). I told her that there were two wines I was interested in – one white, one red – and she helped me choose the red, a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley entitled “Uppercut” (yes, the very name intrigued me). Then she went to put in my order and returned with the most elegant (and tall – 10 inches high) stemmed glass I have ever seen. She stated that this particular glass is made just for cabernet (the bowl was nearly half the height) and this was the first one she’s been able to serve to a customer. I felt honored. The wine was a deep ruby color and was not too strong or heavy but fruity and light on the tannins – perfect for what was to come.

There must be some kind of fashion involving serving food on a slab of slate (or is slate cheaper than china?) but my appetizer arrived on a bed of rock. The Sea Urchin and Wagyu Beef were artfully arranged – Carpaccio style, with urchin on top – with Squid Ink Tuille (thin, crisp wafers of cheese) and paper-thin slices of radish in a ginger glaze and accompanied by a roasted scallion. My server advised me to experience all the parts of the dish together for the full effect. I did and it was astonishing. The net flavor was a mild form of wasabi with delicate beef and seafood highlights.

My second course was served resting on a steak knife on slate (again with the slate?). I didn’t need the steak knife as one of the other servers provided one before the dish was served. This dish, dubbed “Wild Mushrooms on Toast,” was definitely an understatement. The creamy, buttery mound of crimini, shiitake, and chanterelle mushrooms on a long toasted slice of baguette had me wish Julia Child was there. She would have loved it as much as I did. As an added bonus, it was sided with slices of “mushroom sausage” with a dot of thyme juice. Oh!

I almost forgot about the bread (who would dare call this just bread?). It was a homemade English muffin with a homemade spread mixing garlic, chives, sour cream and scallions that arrived hot in an iron skillet. I had to have more than one.

My main course (I had to pace myself with the mushrooms, they were very filling), billed unobtrusively as Long Island Duck, was majestically displayed on a white plate (finally!) with four juicy medallions in one row, sliced Romanesco cauliflower (the green one) in the next row, and two stuffed savoy cabbage portions (filled with duck foie gras) in the last. And all in a duck jus. Heavenly! The medallions were tender with a delightful crisp crust, the cauliflowers were crunchy (not over-done), and the stuffed savoy was pure dining eroticism. You should have seen my server bubble when I told her.

Am I ready for dessert after all this? If you’ve been following my reviews, you know it’s rare when I demur at sweets and this was not one of those occasions. The Apple Tartlette reminded me what a wonderful fruit an apple can be when prepared correctly. It was like a glazed baked apple sliced into swirls with light, thin cake baked into the swirls. Add cinnamon and it is love at first bite.

Top it all with my usual double espresso and a glass of Black Dirt Apple Jack and you have a dining experience unheard of on this particular block of Manhattan in 40 years. I have to admit that if the establishments across the street were cooking up food and drink such as this when I was working there, I might not be the weight (or shape) I am today. And . . . the Beverage Coordinator’s name is (get this) Stephen King.

Gotta love it.

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