Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

Interstellar Butter

By Steve Herte

Interstellar (Paramount, 2014) Director: Christopher Nolan. Writers: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Ellen Burstyn, Mackensie Foy, John Lithgow, Timothee Chalamet, David Ouelowo, Collette Wolfe, Francis X. McCarthy, Bill Irwin, Andrew Borba, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Michael Caine, & David Gyasi. Color, 169 minutes.

Seeing a movie a week after it opens can expose you to the criticisms and praises of friends who saw it before you. I usually do not let this affect my opinion of a film, but when all I hear from people is high accolades, it’s difficult to reduce my expectations. And when a film is two hours and 49 minutes long, it’s just as difficult to raise them.

Fortunately, Interstellar is a stunningly beautiful movie from the technical point of view, breathtaking in set design, and cinematography, convincing in the special effects department, and a musical soundtrack that is dynamic and powerful. My time passed without seat-shifting. The story is compelling and strangely reminiscent of space voyages in past films, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey and the TV series Earth Two.

The population of Earth has become so enormous that technology, science, and especially space exploration, are akin to serious crime. The need for food and farmers is much greater than the need for knowledge. NASA has gone underground in order to stay functional and continue operations.

Meanwhile, on a Midwestern farm, amid acres and acres of cornfields, we meet ex-pilot Cooper (McConaughy), his dad, Donald (Lithgow), his son Tom, (Chalamet), and his daughter Murph (Foy). They’re a close-knit family whose intelligence is being wasted on feeding the world. Even when Cooper tries to get Tom into an engineering program at school he’s denied by the counselors, who deem farming as more relevant.

And it isn’t easy for farmers (never was) because the soil has become so depleted that crops are failing one by one, farmers are forced to burn their useless fields, and dust storms the scope of Saharan sand storms are becoming commonplace. One day, Murph, who believes she has a benevolent ghost directing her life, discovers a pattern created by the dust in her library, which translates into a set of global coordinates.

Cooper takes the family truck to find what lies at these (nearby, relatively) coordinates and instructs Murph to stay home with Donald and Tom. She doesn’t. At dark they come upon this locked, gated area (strangely like Cheyenne Mountain in Stargate SG1) and are arrested when they try cutting their way in.

Once inside, they learn that, under Professor Brand (Caine), this is where NASA has been hiding. He’s not only hiding but also conducting space launches to discover a new planet where people on Earth can move. This is where, as my friend Indy advised me, one has to suspend one’s knowledge of current technology, physics and astronomy and enter the realm of science fiction. Not only have they sent three missions to Saturn (three-year journeys each) but, in an accelerating expanding universe, have located a stable wormhole leading to a new galaxy and sent them through it. Cooper is needed to pilot a fourth mission to rescue the survivors (if any) and hopefully bring back news of a habitable world for Earth’s population.

Cooper agrees to go and leaves his family in Donald’s care and against the major protestations of his daughter, promises to return. Together with Smith (Borba), Doyle (Bentley), Romilly (Gyasi), a blocky robot named TARS (voiced by Irwin), and Professor Brand’s own daughter (Hathaway) he leaves for Saturn and the wormhole.

Messages to and from the spaceship go from two-way to one-way the farther they get from Earth. Tom grows up, marries, and has a child. Murph becomes a young woman (Burstyn). Once through the wormhole the intrepid crew have to conserve fuel as well as time and space. The first world they land on is a water planet where the oceans are six inches deep but the waves are miles high. And that’s not the strange part. One hour on this planet equals seven years on Earth. They are swept up by the mother of all tsunamis and spend over three hours there before returning to the mother ship and a 23-year older Romilly.

The fuel expended escaping the first world leaves them too little for both the second and third worlds. They debate which and choose an icy, but beautiful, frozen planet, landing on one of the clouds (yes, even the clouds here are frozen – another quandary for physicists). Here they find Williams (Devane) alive, but seriously mentally deteriorated after being alone for so long.

But wait, it gets even weirder. After the confrontation with Williams, what’s left of the crew have to save the damaged mothership (thanks to Williams) from being swallowed by a black hole. Cooper and TARS find a way into the black hole while Brand sails on to the third world and they discover a tesseract supposedly created by an alien race that represents their five-dimensional universe in three dimensions (so that humans can comprehend it).

All this is fascinating cinema, for sure. I loved the adventure of it all. Why didn’t it get a perfect rating? I blame that on the director, Christopher Nolan. I’m hoping he was sitting in his director’s chair constantly yelling “What did you say?” at McConaughy, but, if he did, it was not enough. I found it very difficult to understand Cooper’s lines; it happened so often I started to become disinterested. Even Burstyn tended toward incomprehensibility at the end of the film. The acting in general was spectacular and the movie excellent. I just wish the script was in tune with it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

70 West 45th Street (between 5th and 6th Aves)New York

I’m often asked how I choose a restaurant. It’s a process that depends on a few factors. The movie is chosen first. Then, depending on how long the movie is (adding 15 minutes for trailers) I add another 15 minutes for walking distance to the restaurant. Opentable.com has New York divided up into local districts, which greatly eases locating a restaurant near a theater. From that point it’s a series of considerations: 1. A place I haven’t been to before, 2. A cuisine I didn’t sample a week ago, 3. The décor on the website, 4. A few interesting dishes on the menu. A contrary answer to any of these can quickly disqualify a restaurant.

Butter had an interesting name, interesting dishes, a good look to it (even though it’s a hotel restaurant) and was only six blocks from the movie theater. OpenTable.com incorrectly placed it between 6th and 7th Avenues and I breezed past it twice before I found it. It looks like a typical storefront on 45th Street, with the name emblazoned in bronze block letters across the glass facing the street. 

Through a green canvas storm door and down two small flights of bare wood stairs is the Captain’s Station. After checking my coat, I followed a young lady to my table in the well-lit area under the high-arched (and sky-lit) ceiling near the bar and rear wall. A backlit large format photo of a forest scene carpeted with blue flowers dominates this wall. The chairs are mostly comfortable Captain’s chairs, except for those at the high tables, which are leather-backed stools. The décor is rustic in woodsy browns and tans and the bare-topped tables continue the color scheme.

A young man soon took my water preference and my server, Vlora, brought me the tri-folded menu and the wine list. After the young man filled my glass with tap water he brought the bread – a fluffy roll accented with sea salt and two crusty slices – in a square wooden bowl, and the butter – two different blends (herbal and regular) resting on a polished rustic tree slice. By the time Vlora returned I had chosen my cocktail. Called a “Straight Up”, it was essentially a martini consisting of Absolut Elyx vodka, Atsby, N.Y., vermouth, and garnished with bleu cheese and thyme stuffed olives. It was smooth, light and classy.

When next I saw Vlora (the place was doing a brisk business, no table was empty for long) she helped me create a three-course dinner. I chose the wine from a list of varied prices (many reasonable) and it was a 2012 Domaine Coillot Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region of France. The deep ruby color and the slight acid tang made this medium-bodied wine perfect for my dinner choices.

I haven’t had a decent salad in a long time and the Belgian Endive and Seckel Pear salad begged to be tried. Served in a long dish, the red-edged, white endive leaves were attractive with the sliced white radish, the pear slices with the golden skin still on, and the toasted hazelnuts, all in a shallot vinaigrette dressing. Every once in a while it’s nice to have a salad that’s not green. I loved it. I guessed that every one of the staff knows how to spell ‘vinaigrette’ since it’s on the menu at least five times.

The next course, chosen from the “hot appetizers” column on the menu was Cavatappi pasta. The curly-queue, ribbed tubes of al dente pasta, colored golden by the yellow tomato sauce, was made even more wonderful by chunks of spicy lamb sausage and topped with slices of cherry tomatoes and grated cheese. I was in heaven. It’s also nice to see a pasta dish that isn’t red.

When I finished mopping up all that delicious sauce with my bread Vlora asked if I was ready for the main course. “Is it better than this dish?” “Oh yes, my favorite!” “I’m ready.”

I admit I didn’t have a clue what to expect when I order this dish. I’ve had Berkshire pork before and loved it, but the sheer presentation of my main dish stopped me in my tracks. The Berkshire Pork Loin “Milanese” was pounded flatter than a pizza on the plate and topped with a forest of golden frill greens in a mustard vinaigrette sauce (see what I mean? There it is again.) It looked like a centerpiece for a Christmas celebration but had the most unbelievable flavor. The pork and the mustard mixed with the salad-like greens to form an experience of being back on the farm having down-home cooking. I was amazed. I had forgotten to order a side dish, but I was glad I didn’t. I had room for dessert. But if I had chosen one, it would have been the Geechie Boys South Carolina Grits. It would have teamed up with this dish like a sidekick in a western movie.

The Chocolate-Marshmallow “Mallomar” dessert was similar to a Tartuffo in a white sauce with nuts and fruit bits. The hard chocolate coating was too firm to just cut into without the whole thing rolling off the plate and onto the floor. Instead, like a good starfish attacking a sea urchin I upended it and dug my spoon into the lovely soft, home-made marshmallow ice cream and let the shell shatter around it. Excellent ice cream, rich dark chocolate. Sipping at my double espresso I checked the time – nearing 10 o’clock. I knew it would be a late night because of the long movie. I paid the check and thanked Vlora for all her help and service and retrieved my coat from the coat check.

Butter has been in existence since 2002 when they opened their first restaurant on Lafayette Street. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, a Food Network star, has been titillating the palates of diners since then. Mine too. Definitely worth a return visit. Maybe I’ll meet her.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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