Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Finest Hours

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Finest Hours (Disney, 2016) – Director: Craig Gillespie. Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (s/p). Casey Sherman & Michael J. Touglas (book). Stars: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Baba, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond James, Beau Knapp, Josh Stewart, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, & Rachel Brosnahan.  Color, Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.

The Finest Hours, like Storm of the Century (2000), is based on a book (The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman.) It’s a far better movie, though, than Storm of the Century, a riveting, exciting film that celebrates the dedication and determination of those who serve to keep our shores safe.

The movie begins calmly in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1951, where we meet Bernie Webber (Pine), a Coast Guardsman at Chatham Station who drives with his best friend to a small coffee shop to meet two girls. One of them is Miriam Pentinen (Grainger) and it’s quite obviously love at first sight. Though Bernie is a bit standoffish and shy, eventually Miriam takes command and asks him to marry her at a dance as the film jumps ahead to February 1952. He says “No.” She leaves. He follows. They talk it out and decide to marry in April.

Later that night, a nor’easter is wreaking havoc off the coast of Cape Cod. Chatham Station is partially disabled by a faulty radar system and is desperately awaiting a repairman. Bernie’s commander, Daniel Cluff (Bana), is not a native of New England (in fact, he’s from the South) and is unaware of the stormy conditions in the North Atlantic in winter. Still, when he gets notice of an oil tanker breaking up in the storm, he sends a crew out in their larger boat to rescue survivors. He doesn’t choose Bernie for this mission because, we learn later, he had a mishap on a previous mission.

Meanwhile, out at sea, a second oil tanker, the Pendleton, is traveling too fast for the high seas around it and the captain only begrudgingly heeds the “slow-down” messages from his Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck), who is already worried about a weak spot in the hull. Down in the galley of the pitching ship, the cook, George “Tiny” Myers (Benrubi), is trying to keep his assistant’s spirits up by singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls. However, a view outside shows the bow of the tanker spearing way out of the crest of gargantuan wave and the scene cuts to the engine room where we hear a loud thud and a groan of metal. The weak spot in the hull becomes an 18-foot gash and water starts pouring in. Ray sends a crewman to alert the captain because he’s not answering the radio. The crewman, running along the catwalk heading toward the bow, stops suddenly when he realizes there’s no more catwalk. In fact, there’s no more bow. The tanker has split neatly in two and he’s just in time to see the entire front end sink in the wave trough below.

Meanwhile, the Pendleton has been spotted and reported to the Coast Guard station. Commander Cluff orders Bernie to round up a crew and take CG 36500 (the smaller of their two boats) on a possible suicide mission to retrieve the survivors. Bernie takes Richard Livesey (Foster), Andrew Fitzgerald (Gallner), and Ervin Maske (Magaro). As he leaves, he ignores the pay phone ringing in the hall, knowing it is Miriam calling. Miriam, distraught, heads to the Coast Guard station and confronts Cluff repeatedly, asking him to call Bernie’s boat back.

On what’s left of the Pendleton, one man is rallying the crew to let down the lifeboats and abandon ship. It is here that Sybert becomes a leader. After cutting one of the empty lifeboats free, he proves what would have happened if it were filled with men, as it smashes to pieces against the hull. He coordinates the men in constructing a manual rudder by which they can steer the remaining half to a shoal and run it aground, giving rescuers more time to find them.

It was said about The Finest Hours that it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and though I was sitting in a lounge chair, it accomplished this. Bernie and his crew face a failing engine, ridiculously high waves at “the bar” (a dangerous shoal they must cross before entering the open sea), and a lost ship’s compass that went missing during one of the many swampings their vessel endured. Still, using his innate knowledge of the shores and the sea, he guides the tiny craft to the wreck, just as the Pendleton loses power from water entering the exhaust pipes of its engines.

Thirty-two survivors crowd onto Bernie’s boat – 10 more than its capacity – and head for shore, when Chatham loses power due to the storm. Miriam, the strongest female lead I’ve seen since Meryl Streep did Margaret Thatcher, doesn’t give up. She leads a string of cars to the harbor. They follow her example and point their headlights out to sea. Exhausted, Bernie (and the audience, for that matter) brings the boat to dock safely amid cheers from the townspeople.

Given the running time of an hour and 57 minutes, the movie never lagged. Several times I wondered, “How in the world did they film that?” Later on, I checked out the Visual Effects crew listing and it was incredibly long. I have to admit I’m impressed. I found nothing wrong with the portrayals, the acting, the dialogue, or the cinematography. All were superb and I heard myself saying, “Wow!” That’s what I look for in a movie. And Disney Productions did all this without vulgarity or gore. Amazing!

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Malai Marke
318 E. 6th St., New York

East Sixth Street in Manhattan is fondly known as “Curry Row” or “Little India” for its profusion of mutually surviving Indian restaurants. In its heyday, I counted about 30 in the two block space between 2nd Avenue and Avenue A. I’ve dined at half of those.

Today, the number of restaurants has declined remarkably. Some moved uptown or just around the corner, some just went out of business, and some changed cuisines. I was sorry to see the flash and excitement leave the neighborhood. But Malai Marke (Hindi for extra cream) has been a survivor and, as near as I can estimate has been open at least three years. They feature a two-page, three-column menu that not only includes the most familiar Indian dishes, but also some original recipes and something intriguing labeled “Calcutta-Chinese” cuisine.

The large entrance on 6th Street has two doors. One is marked “use other door” and is overhung by a sleek black semi-awning with the restaurant name in big red letters. Obeying the sign, I used the other door and found the Captain’s Station right away. Generally, Indian restaurants do not have a bar, and this one is no exception. Tables for four lined the left wall and tables for two were on the right. The left wall was open brick decorated with traditional brass serving pots and lids, and the right wall featured a mural depiction of the spices one might see in a typical Indian spice market.

A young man noted my reservation and led me to a table half-way down the main hall. My server, Kalidas, poured my tap water into a mason jar and asked if I wanted a drink. From the beer and wine list, I chose Flying Horse Indian Lager and asked him to leave the list for future reference.

I always forget that Indian beers sometimes come in large bottles; this one contained a pint. It was a good, filling lager and I made it last while I considered my choices on the menu, telling Kalidas that I needed time with all the selections.

As for the Calcutta-Chinese dishes, I didn’t choose any, but I’m sure I’ll be back to try the corn soup with garlic and scallions, or the lollipop chicken – spicy, pulled back chicken wings, vegetable hakka noodles, or the hot garlic shrimp.

Another server brought a basket of papadum (flaky crisp chips) with mint, tamarind and onion chutneys for dipping and, as the beer wound down, I was ready, and Kalidas came to take my order. I listed my choices and, when he asked whether one dish should arrive first or another, I suggested that whatever comes out of the kitchen first should be served first. He agreed.

The mulligatawny soup arrived shortly thereafter. Each time I have this soup it’s different, depending on the chef. In this recipe the yellow lentils were mixed with coarsely ground chickpeas, lemon, fresh coriander and curry leaves. I loved its hearty thickness and mild spice. The color was a warm pinkish yellow, almost orange, perfect for a cold night.

Next came the appetizer, Kurkuri Bhindi: shredded okra tossed with onions, lime and chaat masala (savory spice coating) and deep-fried. The flavors of this dish ranged from mildly spicy to salty, to savory, and this is without the bright green mint chutney served alongside.

My beer now finished, I asked Kalidas which of the very reasonably priced red wines would go best with my main course. He raved about and enthusiastically recommended the 2013 Duckhorn “Decoy” Cabernet Sauvignon – described on the menu as being big and rich with expansive black currants and spice. I ordered it and found the “spice” in the wine worked wonderfully with the meal.

For my main course, I chose the allepy red curry: tilapia cooked with kokum (a plant indigenous to the Western Ghats of India whose fruit – called a squash – yields a bright red color), tomatoes and whole garlic. It was a beautiful shade of red with big, tender pieces of fish, onions, curry leaves and one long dried red chili pepper. A good-sized bowl of basmati rice accompanied it (one must order the rice as it’s not automatic here), along with a bowl of cool cucumber yoghurt dip (raita).

The onion nan flatbread arrived at the same time and I prepared my dish, spooning rice first, then some of the fish, a slice of the bread and a couple of spoons of raita. The flavor was like nothing I’ve had before, only mildly spicy, rich, tomato-y, and with the wonderful earthy flavor of the rice. Interestingly I learned later that the Michelin guide recommended the seafood dishes from the Indian southwest coast.

Even though there was much to choose from on the menu, there were only three desserts. I ordered the gulab jamun, (my usual) – malted milk balls in honey/rose water syrup and a masala (spiced) tea.

Malai Marke was buzzing from the moment I entered until after I left, and I’m not surprised. I felt welcome by the efficient staff, the food is great as well as interesting, and the ambiance is charming. Friendly service encourages friendly customers. A girl saw me taking a picture of the mural on my wall and offered to take a picture of me with it as a backdrop. How friendly is that?

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