Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Dinner and a Movie

Hokey Sci-Fi and Haut Korean

By Steve Herte

When we moved into our neighborhood back in 1957, we met and knew everybody on three sides of our block and everybody on our street (which wasn’t difficult because our street is only two blocks long). 

One by one, however, our friends moved out and now, mine is the only family left of the originals. Yes, there are new friends, different friends, but more people keep to themselves. Every house has more than one car and, traffic is almost constant. No children play in the street now. It’s too dangerous.

I recently went to a wake. One of my former neighbors who moved to Nassau County had passed. Thanks to my sister, my Dad and I could get there and it was worth it. I haven’t seen some of these friends in over 30 years and there wasn’t enough time to catch up on all the history. It was draining, but it was good. I was ready for a positive experience after.

The next morning, I noticed a large, strange, white mushroom growing in several lawns on my block. I’d never seen it before, but I took a photo of it for later identification. Little did I know that these mushrooms were an omen of good things to come at dinner that night. As for the movie? No mushrooms. Enjoy!

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Wes Ball. Writers: T.S. Nowlio (s/p), James Dashner (novel). Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Aiden Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Kaya Scodelario, Jacob Lofland, Patricia Clarkson, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Terry Dale Parks, Lili Taylor, & Barry Pepper. Color, PG-13, 131 minutes.

In a post-apocalyptic world where the bad guys belong to an organization called WCKD (pronounced “wicked”) and most people over teen-age are afflicted with a global pandemic called “The Flair,” which turns them into snarling, black-mouthed zombies (called “Cranks”), you know you have the makings of a class-A “B” movie. For those who hate abbreviations like I do, WCKD stands for World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department. You can’t make this up.

Add in some familiar scenes from Planet of the ApesDune and Cloverfield, sprinkle in trite, predictable dialogue and make sure the cast delivers their lines in the corniest way possible, just for fun. Then do this for over two hours and you have the makings of a possible disaster. Lastly, make it perfectly obvious at the end of the movie that there’s going to be another one and you’ll have everyone under 15 in wild anticipation.

To say that this sequel of the original Maze Runner (2014) lived up to the negative stereotypes of typical sequels would be a gross understatement. It really is not as good as the first one. The really great mechanical creatures – called “grievers” – only appear once, in a drug-induced dream sequence and the only excitement happens in several chase scenes. For those who love the Die Hard series, you’d hate this one. Not enough things blowing up.

At least the creators give us a short background at the beginning of the film. The scene is murky and the air is filled with a snow-like ash as Tommy’s mother hands him over to the authorities of WCKD because he’s an “immune.” Then we relive his teen-age elevator ride up to the center of “The Glade” – the beautiful pastoral living area in the center of the colossal maze – and his subsequent escape from the maze with his five comrades.

Now, it seems they’ve been rescued from WCKD by Janson (Gillen) and are given decent sleeping quarters with real bunk-beds, and meals they don’t have to scrounge for in a cafeteria-like setting with dozens of other teens like themselves. Minho (Lee), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Darden), and Winston (Flores) are happy with their new surroundings and the promise of getting to the “safe area” – a paradisiacal place they’ve dreamed of going to – somewhere beyond the mountains. Thomas (O’Brien), however, is still suspicious, especially when he sees Teresa (Scodelario), the sixth member of their maze-surviving group, being led off to another location.

One day, in the cafeteria, Thomas’ friends point out the only kid who doesn’t associate with any others, whose name is Aris Jones (Lofland). Aris is a lot like Thomas. When he sees eight teens “chosen” daily to get out of the cafeteria and supposedly are taken to the safe area, he wants to know what’s on the other side of that formidable door. One night, Aris accesses Thomas’ dorm room through the ventilation shafts (how many movies have we seen that before?) and he leads Thomas to an overhead grid where they see the “nurse” wheeling something that looks like a cross between a coffin and a cryogenic chamber into another sealed area of the complex.

The next day, Thomas makes a fuss with the two guards at the door after the “chosen” eight are led out and he steals a swipe card. That night, he and Aris make their way to the sealed area and find rows and rows of teens in a semi-coma, hooked up to machines that are distilling the immune DNA from their blood (one of them is Teresa). They learn that Janson is working for WCKD and, in particular for Ava Paige (Clarkson), who put them in the maze to begin with. They haven’t been rescued; they’ve been played.

If there is a running gag in this movie – and if it were funny – it’s the repeated line, “What’s your plan?” – always asked of Thomas. Well, he comes up with a plan for the entire group (with a rescued Teresa) to escape Janson’s clutches and head towards the mountains hoping to find the resistance group called “The Right Hand.” The first chase scene ensues and they escape, climb an enormous sand dune and watch as the searchers look everywhere for them but in the straight-line direction they took. Hmmm.

The sandstorm covers their tracks and they come upon a deserted dwelling that appears to have been occupied recently. It has dishes, food, water, clothing and power. Thomas concludes that this must have been a way station for survivors going to the mountains. Of course there are some Cranks living there and one of them scrapes Winston’s abdomen. Second chase scene. They quickly gather up whatever supplies they can carry and run off through The Scorch, basically a desert, which takes them through a ruined version of New York City (complete with a sand-mounded George Washington Bridge) toward the distant mountains (which are far too craggier than the Appalachians). Winston’s injuries cause him to catch The Flair and begrudgingly, they leave him with a gun to commit suicide before he turns into a Crank. (Can you sing the song from Peter Pan, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up?”)

One night, Thomas wakes up and sees lights in the distance, as well as a fierce lightning storm edging up behind them. The third chase scene. They run as fast as they can toward the lights, but not fast enough. Minho is struck by lightning. The rest have to prop him up and drag him to safety where he recovers with a “What happened?”

They now find themselves in another complex with Cranks in chains to act as guard dogs, where they meet Brenda (Salazar) and Jorge (Esposito), the man in charge. As soon as he learns they escaped from WCKD, the dollar signs light up in his eyes. But when WCKD attacks his installation, he agrees to take the group to the mountains. Fourth chase scene. But escaping the complex is not easy and Thomas and Brenda get separated from the rest and wind up in the sewer system.

I ask you, if confronted with a clean tunnel with a light at the end of it branching off from a tunnel overhung with blood-red root-like growths, which way do you go? “What are those?” Brenda asks in curiosity. When a lame rat gets attacked by one of the growths and a Crank emerges from it and eats the rat, we kind of get the idea. Fifth chase scene. This time it’s all up the side of a skyscraper that has toppled onto one across the street from it – a la Cloverfield. They escape and rejoin the others, but Brenda’s been scraped by a Crank.

The group just barely makes it to the foothills (where they are sniped at in a mountain pass by two girls who, strangely, know Aris) and meet Carl (Parks) and his reduced army of resistance fighters. When Brenda collapses in front of them, he wants to shoot her before she changes, but Mary (Taylor), who knows Thomas from childhood, has a way of making an antigen using Thomas’ blood and distilling out the immune factor.

Brenda gets better, but Teresa is a fink and rats the group out to WCKD, who swoops down and decimates the small army and flies away with Teresa. (Last chase/action scene.) Thomas has another plan. Go back to WCKD and retrieve Teresa; (Seriously?) hence, another movie. As Frypan says while in the desert, “I miss the Glade.” So do I, Frypan. So do I.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Gaonnuri (Gah-ohn-noo-ree)
1250 Broadway – 39th floor (32nd Street)New York

The name means “Center of the World” and Manhattan-wise the location is virtually correct, bordering on Herald Square. The main attractions of this sleek, upscale Korean restaurant is its sweeping west and north views of the Hudson River and New York skyline, plus its incredible menu.

1250 Broadway is similar to many skyscrapers in Manhattan; lots of glass and steel rising straight up from the sidewalk, with the main lobby is on the 32nd Street side. Currently, the entire ground level is swathed in a gauzy construction curtain, which makes the entrance harder to see. To the left of the main reception desk of this Spartan white marble lobby is a small lectern with “Gaonnuri” printed on the wall behind it. A young lady at the lectern will check the reservation and use her swipe card to let you through the turnstile to the elevator bank. There, on the left, are the only two elevators that go to the 39th floor.

A minute later, the elevator doors open on a warm glow of golden light on dark wood paneling and I am in Gaonnuri. I turned to the right, saw the Captain’s Station (there were two couples already there), and announced my reservation. The young lady asked me to have a seat and I took a moment to admire the floor-to-ceiling wall of a wine-rack separating me from the main dining area.

I only had time to take my bag off my shoulder and doff my cap before she returned and led me to a table in the center of the raised platform forming the center of the restaurant. I had an excellent view of the cityscape outside as well as the diners sitting by the windows. I have to admit that I was impressed. The chair was comfortable but there was nowhere to put my legs. Why? A little history of Korean restaurants is helpful at this juncture: All of them feature a tabletop barbeque and the tables are equipped with a stove in the center support column. To protect the diners from the heat, the support column is built wide, thus depriving tall people of legroom. I adapted. The tabletop is bare wood polished nicely, with a plastic woven mat covering the heating element.

With the wine/cocktail list standing open on the table to my left and the food menu lying to my right, all was ready. As I was placing my napkin in my lap when my server, the tall, thin Jaesang, appeared and took my water preference (which he already held in a frosty pitcher). I had had time to peruse the drinks list when he asked if I wanted a cocktail. I chose the Fiery Julep – absinthe, Woodford Reserve bourbon, mint leaves, hand-squeezed lemon juice, and simple syrup. I’m not sure what made it “fiery” but it was delicious in spite of the mint leaves (which, fortunately, were not over-powering).

The dinner menu is an amazing selection, featuring Hot and Cold Appetizers, Table Barbeque, Side Orders and Entrees, as well as a Fall Tasting Menu. I saw so many dishes that I’ve never eaten (I’ve only been to seven or eight Korean restaurants in my whole history – each with a different negative experience – and I’ve been reticent ever since) that eventually, I called Jaesang over and told him I decided on the Tasting Menu because, as I said to him, I was unfamiliar with most (I said “all”) of the dishes. He asked if I had any food allergies and I said no. He noted my order and I studied the wine list while he went to put the order in.

I saw the 2012 William Fèvre Chablis from France and immediately knew what I wanted. It would go superbly with every dish on the Tasting Menu, and I haven’t had Chablis in a long time. It’s one of my favorite whites. When Jaesang brought the wine I was finishing up the amuse-bouche, a lovely little mushroom cream soup with a delicate, nutty flavor. The chablis was indeed bright and crisp in flavor and I thought, while it was chilling in the ice bucket, I would have a second julep.

Soon, the first course arrived – Gujeolpan, a platter of nine delicacies. In neat little piles were shredded short rib meat, shrimp, Pyogo mushrooms, cucumber, zucchini, egg, and radish, all arranged like clock points around delicate, flour paper wraps (delicate pancakes) with a deep orange sauce that tasted both fruity and a little spicy. Jaesang instructed me to make any combinations I liked with the sauce on the pancake, roll it up like a burrito, and eat it as finger-food. It was great. No matter what combination, it was a delightful sensation. There were only four pancakes and not enough room for all the fillings. No problem. I ate the remainder with my silver chopsticks (How’s that for posh? I’m glad I wore a jacket.)

The second course was octopus Moochim – tender octopus toasted in a garlic-soy sauce with cabbage and red leaf-lettuce served on an elegant avocado-green plate. As meticulously placed as the first dish was, this one was arty. I almost didn’t want to disturb it. But once I tasted it, it was hard not to go into a feeding frenzy. I’m always amazed when octopus is tender. And the greens were crisp with a light spicy vinegary dressing.

Course number three was almost erotic. The mushroom Bokkeum – stir-fried baby portobello, king oyster, enoki, pine and pyogo mushrooms with a pear-garlic soy sauce – was a woodsy fantasy! Each mushroom had its own character, sweet, nutty, earthy, savory and succulent. I commented on how much I liked this dish to Jaesang and he agreed. He even stated that it was his favorite. It was difficult to eat this dish slowly and savor every bite.

The fourth course, called crab gamejeong, was a crab shell (actually a slice of cucumber) mounded with crabmeat, chopped short rib, onions, green bell peppers, and carrots and floating in a small lake of bright red Korean pepper paste soup. I recognized the fiery soup from a previous dining experience where I had ordered a bowl of it and the spice was too much for me (I was not warned). Here, it was just an accent to the lovely crab/short rib combination. I was determined for this restaurant to be a new experience and I never let on that I knew the soup. I just enjoyed it.

In the fifth slot was smoked marinated Galbi – smoked prime beef short rib marinated in Gaonnuri’s signature sauce. Presentation was everything: The dish was covered with a cylindrical glass and I could see the smoke inside. Jaesang invited me to take a picture as he removed the cover and the smoke escaped. I did. It reminded me of a cocktail I had at Hakkasan – an upscale Cantonese place. The smoking did wonders for the tender, juicy beef. Whatever was in their signature sauce, it was wonderful, sweet and savory at the same time. I took my time.

The main course was mushroom Bibimbap and Doenjang Jjigae – a Kimchi fried-rice dish mixed with oyster, portobello, pyogo and king oyster mushrooms (I can’t get enough of mushrooms and this was the motherlode!) and sided with more mushrooms, radish, Kimchi (the Korean national dish, a spicy cabbage) and a lovely vegetable stew. I finished everything. What I couldn’t pick up with the chopsticks, I devoured with the silver spoon they provided.

Fortunately, dessert was included. Called “La Figue,” it was an olive oil cake with dulcey (sweet) cremeux (a fluffy pudding), black mission figs, candied walnuts and Mascarpone gelato. The whole presentation resembled a Chinese boat with two chocolate sails and raspberry sparkles on the waves. It was fabulous! A cup of Peachy Oolong tea finished off this feast perfectly.

Finally, after forty-two years of dining out, I’ve found a Korean restaurant where I had attentive, caring service, no one went ballistic over a faux pas I made, I was able to connect with the servers, and every detail I needed was filled in. A classy, wonderful dining adventure in a beautiful ambiance, with something on the menu to please everyone, the choice to barbeque or not, and an impressive wine list with both affordable and exotic selections, that’s Gaonnuri. I’m now cured of my Korea-phobia!

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment