Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

Tomorrow, a West Side Story

By Steve Herte

Where are the blockbusters this year? I’m waiting for a movie to knock my socks off and I’m being more impressed with non-blockbusters. This better be the one.

OK, rant over. Things are calming down both at work and at home and I’m actually able to think again. The Decades channel on TV was playing a countdown of Twilight Zone episodes and I’m currently working on a personal Top 10. I loved that series, and they still have the impact they had back in the early Sixties. They say in karaoke that everyone has an era. For the longest time, mine was the 60s. So many good, memorable songs were written then. As many times as I leave that miraculous musical decade and try a newer song I still come back.

The Sixties were when I had a World’s Fair right in my back yard. Just a short bus ride from Queens Village Station and I was in the future at Flushing Meadow Park. If I had the available cash I have now I would have eaten my way through the various international cuisines featured there. As it was, at 15 I could only afford the Chung King Pavilion. But I was sad to see the fair go, and repeatedly make the trip back for the Hall of Science, Terrace on the Park and the now Queens Zoo, which occupies the space where the Chrysler Pavilions once were.

I have many memorabilia from 1964/5 and I guess they formed a part of the impetus for going to see this movie. The restaurant just happened to be close by. See what you think. Enjoy!  

Tomorrowland (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) - Director: Brad Bird. Writers: Damon Lindleof, Brad Bird (s/p). Damon Lindleof, Brad Bird & Jeff Jensen (story). Stars: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Thomas Robinson, Raffey Cassidy, Shiloh Nelson, Tim McGraw, Pierce Gagnon, Keegan-Michael Key, & Kathryn Hahn. Color, 130 minutes, PG.

The trailers for this Disney film had me eager with anticipation until the movie started and I groaned, “Oh no, George Clooney is going to narrate the movie! Whose idea was that?” Fortunately, it was short lived, and his character of Frank Walker was repeatedly interrupted by Casey Newton (Robertson). The annoying stop-and-start at the beginning had me wondering what director Brad Bird had in mind.

Frank tells his tale first, about his childhood (played by Robinson) in 1964 when he submitted his invention (a jet pack made from two Electrolux vacuum cleaner tanks and various pieces of found materials) at a competition held at the New York World’s Fair. Upon learning that it doesn’t really work, it is rejected by the admissions man (Laurie) and Frank’s sent on his way while “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (the theme song from the General Electric Pavilion, animated by Disney Corporation) plays in the background.

While he was making his pitch, a sweet young girl named Athena (Cassidy) smiles at him and he’s smitten. He meets her outside, they talk, and he follows her to the Pepsi Cola Pavilion (the Small World exhibit, also animated by Disney Corporation) where he leaps boundaries to get into the boat after hers (always toting his invention in a duffle bag, mind you).

Suddenly, his boat hits a barrier, the floor beneath him opens up and he log-flumes down to an underground lake. The boat mysteriously stops at something that looks like an abbreviated old-time subway car. Before he can reach the hard-hats hanging just out of reach, it transports him to Tomorrowland where giant robots repair his jet pack and he goes soaring around the fantastic futuristic landscape, once again meeting Athena.

Another interruption and the scene comes to a stop while Casey tells her story (thankfully with only one interjection from Frank). As a young girl in school (Nelson) all she heard in school were ecological and social disasters: ice caps melting, sea level rising, climate change, etc., in every class. Though she raised her hand often, the teachers ignored her until once, when she asked, “Can we fix this?” She didn’t get an answer.

Casey has been sneaking out of her house at night to sabotage the dismantling of a rocket-launching platform not far from her house. Why? Because it’s her Dad's, Eddie (McGraw), last source of employment at NASA. Eventually she’s caught and jailed but makes bail (thanks to her rather outraged Dad) and retrieves her possessions from the property office. Among her things however, is a strange pin with a stylistic blue “T” emblazoned on it that enables her to see Tomorrowland when touched.

However, seeing it and getting there are two very different things. Her visions of it do not negate the physical properties of her actual location, and she slams into walls and falls down a flight of stairs before she realizes she needs to be outside her house before she can get close to the gleaming towers in the distance. When she uses her bicycle to arrive at the approximate location, she touches the pin and gawks her way through the amazing city. Robertson’s acting is a little over the top at this point. She’s more like a puppy in a wiener factory. But the pin runs out of power just as she’s about to board a space ship and Casey finds herself waist deep in a swamp.

Of course, she wants to go to this fabulous metropolis and learns online of a sci-fi hobby shop wanting to buy pins similar to the one she has. Taking her little brother Nate (Gagnon) into her confidence, she concocts a story for her Dad about camping while she travels to Houston, Texas, to meet the very strange Hugo (Key) and Ursula (Hahn). But they are more interested in where she got the pin and where the little girl is who gave it to Casey. The two of them turn out to be androids and it takes the miraculous appearance of Athena for them to fight their way out of the shop.

Casey is quite shaken by this but learns from Athena that they must find Frank Walker to get to Tomorrowland while being pursued by black-clad androids posing as CIA agents. It takes some doing, because Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland by Nix (Laurie) when he “built something he shouldn’t have,” a major transmitter intended to scare the people of Earth into fixing the harms they’ve done to the planet by projecting future resultant disasters. But instead, it inured people into accepting their fate, and the world as Casey knows it has only 58 days left to exist.

Tomorrowland is a great film for kids – clean, great special effects, several action sequences – but adults couldn’t possibly take it seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously. The clumsy beginning destroyed any “Wow” factor it might have had. Even though Clooney gets some good acting done in a few scenes, he could have been eliminated from the first ones. Laurie is spectacular as a semi-villain. He means well but becomes cynical and uncaring. I almost expected him to do that evil laugh he always wanted to do in the TV series House. It was great to see the New York World’s Fair again, even though it contained pavilions that didn’t exist. (I was there every weekend in the summer of 1965, so I know.) My advice is to cut the beginning and tell the story cleanly and without obstruction. Then you’ll have a great movie.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

West Side Steakhouse
597 10th Ave. (Near 43rd St.)New York

After 93 steakhouses in the course of my dining experiences I’ve been to the mountaintop and sunk to the lowest valley. This one is somewhere in between. I had heard that the West Side Steakhouse was “unpretentious” and that is exactly the case. The sere, black-trimmed exterior with white lettering is simply stated and definitely “no frills.” Inside, the simple décor is continued – white, half wood-paneled walls only ornamented with framed black and white photos interspersed with small racks of wine bottles suspended by their necks. The white tablecloths have butchers’ paper on top of the cloths to protect them. As I waited at the Captain’s Station, I was struck by how small the place was (for a steakhouse). The bar takes up most of the available area.

A young lady greeted me, took my reservation time, and led me to the second to last table in the back of the restaurant. The last table was occupied by a German couple holding hands across the table, speaking in such low tones I barely could determine that it was German and gazing into each other’s eyes – totally oblivious, until the waitress arrived. As I seated myself, I looked back at the girl who led me there and I couldn’t help but think that she got her dress from The Sound of Music. The pattern looked just like the one on the play-clothes Maria made from the curtains for the Von Trapp children. I stifled a giggle.

A young man brought a pint glass of ice water and handed me the menu and wine list. My server, Justyna, appeared and asked if I wanted a cocktail. Yes, they have Beefeaters, yes, I ordered my favorite martini, and strangely yes, it was perfect. That must have been the 10th or 11th time in my life that I didn’t have to teach the bartender the correct proportions.

The menu was again simple; Appetizers (10), Salads (5), Burgers (2), West Side Specials (8), Steaks and Chops (9), and Sides (12). Once I determined what the soup of the day was, (Justyna and I had to adjust our speaking volume over the conversation to my right – two sailors in dress whites and the couple next to them) I had a three-course meal planned.

Thinking that my martini precluded wine, Justyna motioned to take away the wine list but I told her I still needed it. There was a good selection of wines, with reds on the left page and whites on the right. Some of the prices were laughable, but I found one I liked: a 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel called “Jelly Jar” from the Nova Vineyard of Lake County, on the North Coast of California. It was delightful, fruity and full-bodied.

My first course was indeed the Soup of the Day, seafood bisque. It sounded and looked a lot better than it was. The bisque part was accurate and it was a smooth tasty soup, but it could have been much hotter and excluded the chewy bits of calamari and clams. It detracted rather than added to the experience of an otherwise innovative bisque.

The same young man as before brought the breadbasket – a few slices of baguette with two wrapped pats of butter – simple, as everything else.

The spinach and shiitake mushroom salad with bacon in vinaigrette dressing was next on my order. At first, it was an impressive mound of greens with an equally impressive amount of chunky bacon. But where were the mushrooms? Here and there were some, but not as a secondary ingredient. I had to mix the salad several times to be able to taste the nearly absent dressing and, I love bacon, but these were as chewy as the clams in the soup were; a bit overdone.

When I ordered my main course, I commented to Justyna that this would be the first time I’ve been to a steakhouse and didn’t order steak (actually, now that I think of it, it was the second time. The first was a pork chop disaster at the famous Palm Restaurant) and I was wondering if I had made a “mis-steak” (pun intended) this time too.

The Braised Pork Shank stood in the center of the plate like the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and was surrounded by a shiitake mushroom risotto in white truffle reduction. It more than made up for the two previous courses. It looked so good and was so tender and delicious I started eating before I remembered to take a picture of it. The risotto was awesome as well. The silly bit of watercress that the chef perched on top almost made me laugh, but it added a bit of green to the generally earth-toned dish. I sided this with sautéed onions, a dish virtually no one could prepare badly, and I loved it.

Whether it was the salad or not, I was unable to finish the main course and I had it bagged to go (or else dessert would not happen). Good thing I did, because the Pecan Pie was lovely and accompanied by a sculptured mound of whipped cream. I eschewed an after-dinner drink and just had a double espresso, which was enough.

I might return to the West Side Steakhouse to actually try their steaks if I happen to be in the neighborhood again (the prices are quite good) but I wouldn’t seek it out. Not while Uncle Jack’s is still in business.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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