Saturday, May 2, 2015

Ex Machina

Dinner and a Movie

Androidal Amazons and Amazonian Appetizers

By Steve Herte

I have my college degree in Mathematics with a minor in Physics. Like the main character in the TV show, Numbers, I see mathematics in everything, especially music. There’s tempo, rhythm, and meter, which all contribute to something we can dance to and enjoy. Likewise, there’s mathematics in music theory. I’ve often considered how many combinations of the 13 notes of the chromatic scale there could be and that the answer would give me the total number of possible melodies. Though this seems like a huge number would result, I took into consideration how many of these combinations would be pleasant (admittedly a relative term) and the number reduces significantly. Simply stated, all the pleasant combinations of possible notes have already been written and anything “new” would have to sound like something written before, or it would not be pleasing to the ear. Hence, “rap.”

Movie themes and stories are a similar case in point. It’s very difficult to come up with a novel story anymore just because of the sheer volume of tales already written. This is probably why we see so many movies today that remind us on previous stories. The one I saw Friday is an example. See what you think. Enjoy!

Ex Machina (A24, 2015) – Director: Alex Garland. Writer: Alex Garland. Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, & Claire Selby. Color, 108 minutes.

As we go through life we all encounter stories about or works written by people who impress us as someone we would like to have met. High on my list is Mary Shelley. Not only did she write the winning story in an informal contest with noted male writers, but that same story has become a benchmark for many others over the ages, repeated, remade, and retold. The tale of a mad scientist cobbling together a creation and bringing it to life with bolts of lightning is echoed in this contemporary sci-fi.

Caleb (Gleeson), a slightly nerdy computer programmer, wins the “staff lottery” at his workplace in Brookhaven, Long Island, and everybody is happy for him. He’s won a trip to Buena Vista, California, to meet his new boss, Nathan (Isaac) at his high-tech facility. The final leg of his cross-country journey is a helicopter ride through the mountains to a green, grassy meadow. “You’re leaving me here?” “I’m not allowed to land any closer than this to the building.” “What building?” (There’s none in sight.) “Just follow the river.” And he does.

At the river, the blocky, undistinguished entrance to Nathan’s underground complex is visible over a short bridge. An electronic female voice calls him to bring his face near the lit doorplate. It flashes a picture of him and spits out his key-card and he uses it to enter.

Inside is a neat sunlit greeting area with plush chairs and a fireplace but not a sign of Nathan. The sound of someone beating a punching bag leads Caleb to a glassed-in porch where he meets his new boss. The bearded, casual Nathan wants their relationship to be informal as well and presents Caleb with a written agreement forbidding him from revealing anything he sees or learns at the facility. At first he’s reluctant to sign. But when Nathan gives him a choice of sitting around drinking or experiencing the breakthrough of a lifetime, he signs.

After a series of questions, Nathan reveals the purpose of Caleb’s visit. He’s to evaluate Ava (Vikander), a perfectly functioning female android for proof of her Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). When Caleb is introduced to Ava, her human face, hands and feet amaze him. The rest of her is obviously machine, transparent arms, legs, skull and torso, reminding me of the “Visible Man” construction toy, only with wires and lights inside.

As Caleb interviews Ava in their daily “sessions,” he learns of her “feelings,” desires and interests. When asked where she would go if she left the complex, she answers to a crowded city intersection, to see people. Periodically, strange “power failures” occur in the building. Caleb later learns that Ava induces them. She tells him that during these failures, Nathan cannot hear or see what they say and do – he has the entire complex wired with closed-circuit television. She wants to escape.

Each day after a session Caleb rejoins Nathan to discuss what he learned from Ava. Nathan responds like an irresponsible hippie but questions him like a mad, but highly intelligent scientist. In one of their meetings, Caleb meets Kyoko (Mizuno), a beautiful Japanese girl who “doesn’t understand a word of English” and tends to Nathan’s every whim. Nathan doesn’t seem to care what Ava wants. He’s got his mind on the next improvement in the line of A.I. robots. He’s more interested in getting drunk and dancing with Kyoko (an extremely silly moment).

Caleb realizes he has feelings for Ava and believes she has the same for him. She even dresses up for him and puts a wig on her head to look more human. He decides on a plan to help her leave the complex with him when the helicopter returns on the last day.

But just who is manipulating whom? Is Nathan truly oblivious to Ava and Caleb’s “private” conversations? How many prototypes were there before Ava and what were the results? Spoiler Alert: By the end of the movie we learn it all when the mad scientist is murdered by his creations and Ava leaves alone, locking Caleb in the complex.

Do not go to this movie after a tiring workday. You will fall asleep in several instances. I nearly did. There are several restful scenes where nothing significant is going on and beautiful mountain scenery is displayed. The background music is normally unobtrusive. It occasionally builds as if something is going to jump out at you, but it never does. The big selling point is the special visual effects. The list of people who worked on this aspect is over 100 long. Every time Ava walked into a scene I wondered how they accomplished her character’s machine/human look. It was fascinating.

It also made me think. Suppose someone does create Artificial Intelligence? What will be the first thing it wants to have? Mobility? New experiences? Self-replication? The movie is great as a thought experiment. Do we blame Ava for wanting to be free? Do we vilify Nathan for restricting her? And what of poor gullible Caleb, who is merely the pawn of both?

Parental Warning: Scenes of full frontal nudity make this one I am not recommending to young people.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

132 4th Avenue (betwee. 12th and 13th Streets), New York

When I made my reservation at Botequim (Portuguese for “Tavern”), I had no idea that it was a hotel restaurant (not that I’ve heard of the One/Five Hotel either). But after searching the four corners of the intersection of 4th Avenue and 13th Street and not seeing it, I was intrigued. I crossed 4th Avenue and surveyed the opposite side. That’s when I saw the understated entrance. Basically, it’s a glass door with the restaurant name on it, over-shadowed by a dark blue awning repeating the uniquely calligraphed title, flanked by two boxy planters with (what else?) boxwoods.

Inside, the colorful, mural-splashed walls lead to a stairway to the underground restaurant. At the bottom, I was convinced I had gone the wrong way when it appeared I was heading to a dishwashing area. Thank goodness a server caught me and led me the rest of the way. I finally noticed the Captain’s Station and stated my reservation to the gentleman in charge. He led me through a small cocktail lounge lit by egg-shaped swags, where the bare-topped tables were decorated with green and turquoise ostrich plume centerpieces. We entered the main dining area and I sat at a table in a corner banquette. The wall opposite mine had a wrap-around mural in shades of black, white and grey streaks, as did the one behind me. The open kitchen formed the only other long side of the room.

The single-page food menu was already on the table and my server, Silvio, appeared to present me the drinks menu (a small ring-bound book) and take my water preference. I had chosen the Passion Fruit Caipirinha – Cachaça, Alizé, fresh passion fruit, and a sugar cane stirrer – by the time he returned with the water. I had no idea there were more than one recipe for Caipirinha, and they had six – plus infused Cachaças, sipping Cachaças and unique beers.

I had ample time to read the menu before my cocktail arrived and noted its five designations: – Cozinha De Botequim (small bites), Aperitivos (appetizers), Prato Principal(Entrees), Cortes Nobres (Steaks), and Sides. In fact I had begun to wonder if they forgot me when Silvio arrived with the drink and several apologies for its lateness. Needless to say, it was sweet and went down real easy.

Even though the Pastelzinhos De Carne – ground beef, tomato and olive filled pastries – was tempting I chose the much more fun to say Calabezza Acebolada – grilled Brazilian sausage with onions. It was a single, long sausage, almost like a narrow kielbasa sliced in fifths on a bed of caramelized onions. It was tender and juicy, slightly salty, but savory. Another server must have heard my pronunciation of the Portuguese words and, thinking me a native, placed a bottle of homemade hot sauce on the table. I used it carefully and it added a significant fire to the dish.

My server knew that, when my cocktail was finished, I would be ready for the wine and, lo and behold, I was. The 2009 Salton “Talento” Cabernet/Merlot/Tannat blend from Serra Gaúcha, Brazil – the mountainous region of southern Brazil below the equator – was a beautiful ruby color, had a nice dark fruity nose and a full tannic flavor that stood up to the intense flavors of my meal.

When my second course was served I regretted my use of the hot sauce, because the Sopa De Palmito – cream-less puree of Hearts of Palm Soup with red, green and yellow peppers and cilantro – was a delicate flavor and was almost eclipsed by the hot pepper sauce. It was a lovely soup and eventually I was able to detect its subtle coconut-y taste.

The main course was a traditional Brazilian dish that I haven’t had the pleasure of eating in a long time. It’s called Feijoada – from feijoão meaning “beans.” It’s braised black beans and cured meats, with cashew rice, farofa (ground, toasted casava), collard greens and orange/star anise (carambola) salad. The bowl of meat and beans was served separate from what I would call “the toppings” and, what I did was sprinkle some rice, farofa, and collards over the beans and eat it layer by layer. It was excellent. I call it “Brazilian Soul Food,” and the memories it brought back had me teary-eyed. I remarked on this happy moment to the manager when he visited my table because he thought it was the hot sauce that made me cry. I was having a great time and Silvio commented that he admired someone who could take the proper time over a meal with a good wine to enjoy it and not, in his words, “knock it all back without tasting it.” I thanked him for that.

I also noted to him that it was a mystery to me how (and I heard this around me) people could come to an excellent Brazilian restaurant and order spaghetti or hamburgers. He agreed. I was now finished with the main course and ready for dessert. The most interesting one was called Cachaça-flavored and chocolate truffles. Cachaça, if you didn’t know already is a liquor distilled from sugar cane, much like rum is, but it isn’t as sweet as rum. The six soft confections were served on a wooden board and were coated with shaved nut meats and chocolate sprinkles respectively. Wonderful!

I asked Silvio if they served Brazilian Coffee and he surprised me with a negative. I couldn’t help thinking about the old song, “They’ve got a lot of coffee in Brazil…” He claimed that what they had was American coffee, but what he served was a full cup of something that was better than the best espresso I’ve ever had. I told him to bottle the recipe and sell it as espresso. New Yorkers wouldn’t know the difference. I loved it.

What would go with a hefty cup of good coffee in a great Brazilian restaurant? A nice glass of amontillado, of course. I was ready to do the Bossa Nova. “We have regular Bossa Nova night on Saturday,” said Silvio.

I learned from the manager that Botequim is seven months old and I wished them many more as I left with strains of “The Girl from Ipanema” playing in my head. Definitely worth a return visit.

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