Thursday, March 5, 2015

Still Alice

Dinner and a Movie
Alice Still Lives on A Spice Lane

By Steve Herte

Last Monday was Helene’s birthday, and at karaoke I tried to sing songs strictly from a list I made of songs she liked to sing. This included doing two songs I’ve never tried in public before: “Your Kiss Is On My List” by Hall and Oates, and “Invisible Touch” by Genesis. Thank goodness for YouTube. I got to hear them over an over and was confident of the two melodies by Tuesday evening. The week passed quickly and I was glad not to have to shovel snow (at least for a few days) and I’m still glad I don’t live in Boston, though I love the town.

Choosing a movie for Friday was more difficult than I thought. I was hoping that Grand Budapest Hotel would stick around one more week, but it didn’t. Having seen the incredibly stupid first Hot Tub Time Machine, I was not going to put myself through the second. Though I like Will Smith, I’ve been “Con-manned” to death. That shot that movie. The trailers for The Lazarus Effect were too creepy (there’s a time and a place for horror) and there was very little else.

Having seen Birdman (Best Picture) and The Theory of Everything (Best Actor), I finally decided it was time to see the movie of the Best Actress, knowing ahead of time that it would be a sad film. I figured that my 139th Indian restaurant would dispel the sadness of the movie. Enjoy!

Still Alice (Sony Pictures Classics, 2014) Directors: Richard Glatzner and Wash Westmoreland. Writers: Richard Glatzner and Wash Westmoreland (s/p), Lisa Genova (novel): Cast: Julianne Moore, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Alec Baldwin, Seth Gilliam, Kristen Stewart, Stephen Kunken, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maxine Prescott, & Orlagh Cassidy. Color, 101 minutes.

Alice Howland (Moore) is an eminent linguistics professor who is used to being in control and presenting her expertise in lectures and teaches at Columbia University. Her husband John (Baldwin) is a medical research doctor who is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, to work at the Mayo Clinic. Her children, Anna Howland-Jones (Bosworth) currently pregnant with twins, Tom (Parrish) and Lydia (Stewart), an actress who prefers not to go to college, are all devoted to her and John.

When things like her forgetting a significant word during a lecture and student evaluations coming back stating that her classes are a waste of time, Alice consults a neurologist, Dr. Benjamin (Kunken). After several cognition and medical tests he diagnoses her with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a rare illness for someone as young as she and, not only that, this is made rarer still by being genetic. Alice’s boss, Eric Wellman (Gerroll) is the first to learn of this when he notices lapses in her performance. But together they agree that she should keep working until she’s severely hampered by the disease.

The degenerative effects increase as Alice suddenly gets totally lost during a routine daily run and later forgets where the bathroom is in her own summer home. She tries various memory tests using the chalkboard in the kitchen and questions on her SmartPhone to keep her memory sharp but eventually realizes that it will only get worse. She makes a video of herself on her laptop orchestrating her own suicide by describing the location in her bedroom of a bottle of potent sleeping pills. “If you are seeing this, you’ve probably been unable to answer any of the questions…”

Before the disease gets too far she accepts one last lecture before the Alzheimer’s Association. She devises a clever scheme using a yellow highlighter to underline the words she’s just said to keep her from repeating them. At one point she drops the pages to the floor and the audience gasps quietly. “I wish I could forget that just happened,” she says as she gathers them up and continues. The speech is clearly the most poignant moment of the movie and she receives a standing ovation.

But the disease is relentless. She wakes up in the middle of the night and goes down to the kitchen frantically searching for her phone and John lovingly convinces her to come back to bed. In nearly the next scene, she and John and her daughters are in the kitchen and John finds the phone. “I was looking for that last night,” she says. “That was over a month ago,” says John almost in a whisper to her daughters.

Bring a box of tissues to this film. Julianne Moore justly deserves her Oscar for Best Actress. Alec Baldwin is eclipsed by her performance but plays the part of an anchor very well. He’s what holds the story together. Kristen Stewart also plays a moving part. The look on her face after performing beautifully in a Chekov play and her own mother doesn’t recognize her tells it all. I need not tell parents that their children will be bored by this movie, but you yourself cannot help but be moved. Even if Moore wasn’t as brilliant, the musical soundtrack gives clear indication when the disease is getting the upper hand. It’s a well-constructed, well-written and well-acted piece of theater. And how can you fault a movie whose last word is “Love?”

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

A Spice Lane
216 3rd Avenue (18th Street)New York

The garish, oversize bright blue sign over the front window virtually screams the name of this little Indian restaurant. There are two doors to keep out the cold adjacent to each other but they’re a little difficult maneuver past because of the angle and then you’re inside. It’s a cozy, sparsely decorated space with nine bare-topped tables and a liquor-less bar at the back (all the permissions are not in yet). The ceiling is painted like a blue sky with clouds and sports two small, unlit crystal chandeliers. The lighting is mainly from ceiling spots. The walls are a matte gold hung with tasteful, colorful Indian art.

The overall appearance is similar to a take-out place, and indeed, all traffic while I was there was take-out. I asked my server (one of two) if the dining crowd comes later. “9:00 usually.” This was at 7:00 pm. I could not help but think that curtains might make the place feel more comfortable and more like a restaurant.

My server presented me with the neat, folded and laminated menu along with a glass of water. Constantly aware that the two were waiting solely on me, I tried to absorb everything on the menu without taking an inordinate amount of time. The menu didn’t make it easy. I love Indian food and there were many dishes available that I have not tried. There were Vegetable Appetizers, Meat Appetizers, Soups, Salad and Kathi Roll (like an Indian burrito – very interesting), South India Specialties, Tandoori Specialties, Rice/Biryani, Seafood, Pure Vegetarian Curries, Meat Curries, Daily Specials, Tandoori Breads, Beverages and Homemade Desserts. The selection of vegetable appetizers alone was daunting. The other server brought the basket with crisp pappadum (a cracker-like bread) and three condiments: Tamarind chutney, mint chutney and onion chutney.

With the gracious help of my first server, I was able to order a three-course meal. My appetizer was one I’ve never ordered, aloo chat – broiled diced (actually quartered red-skin) potatoes and chickpeas seasoned with tangy masala (spice), fresh lime juice, mint, tamarind and fresh coriander chutney. It is a cold appetizer but with wonderful flavor and only mildly spicy. The only drawback was the difficulty spooning it from the serving platter onto the square plate in front of me. The potatoes were cooked thoroughly and the chickpeas were just right, on the crunchy side.

My first server asked if I wanted a drink besides water and I chose something else I’ve never tried before, salted lassi. It’s a yoghurt drink served in a tall glass ice-cold and it serves the purpose of putting out the fire caused by the spicier dishes. It’s also an acquired taste, first timers. It doesn’t taste a bit like salt as we know it.

My green soup arrived while I was still working through the appetizer, but it didn’t matter as the former was steaming-hot and the latter was cold. Since it was not described on the menu I was intrigued by the title. It was indeed a beautiful shade of asparagus green but the first taste was of broccoli. It was spicier than the appetizer but still, not too much and the lassi moderated the two effectively.

Still trying to take my time and enjoy the meal, I found that I was eating faster than normal under the watchful eyes of two men who had no one else to attend. Meanwhile, the bicycler take-out employees came back and forth, adding a chill from the front doors when they didn’t both close. I kept hoping for other patrons, but none showed. I didn’t even see people passing on the street.

I finished both the soup and the appetizer and it was time for the main course, Tamil fish curry – fish filets lightly fry-cooked in a medium-spicy, rich brown sauce with green chilies, lemon grass, curry leaf, coconut, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, and tamarind. Just the aroma of the dish was wonderful. The first bite was heavenly. I spooned it over the perfectly cooked Basmati rice and took a slice of the onion kulcha, a flat bread stuffed with onions, and enjoyed it. A small bowl of raita (a cucumber yoghurt sauce) came with the meal.

The quiet in the restaurant was only broken by the little, radio-like music coming from the non-bar and a strange, intermittent female voice repeating something incomprehensible. I felt a little awkward wearing a tie and dining like a Moghul in a place so small, Spartan and unpopulated; a very new experience for me.

I found out that A Spice Lane has been around for eight months now and has developed a regular clientele, as I was getting very sated. I finished the fish curry and had them pack up the remainder of the rice, bread and raita and ordered my favorite Indian dessert, gulab jamun – golden fried cheese balls (malted milk) in honey syrup. They were hot, sweet and tender, a perfect ending to one of the fastest meals ever. (I was out the door by just after 8:00 pm.)

Write us a nice review,” said my first server as he proffered the business card and take-out menu, and I promised I would. When the building department gives the green light on the construction of a bar – they assured me the liquor license was already approved – and when the weather warms up a little more, I may return for some of their more exotic dishes. I’ll have to bring friends for most tastings. Their prices are excellent; it won’t cost that much. But they really still need curtains.

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