Sunday, March 20, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Two Addresses, No Names

After last week’s movie I decided to take the lesson it taught to heart. Make no decisions based on past performances. Things and people can change. I’m glad I did. The movie was better than I expected and the restaurant was like discovering a rare gem. Coincidentally, it was on Pearl Street. Enjoy!

10 Cloverfield Lane (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Dan Trachtenberg. Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken & Damien Chazelle (s/p). Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken (story). Stars: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead,, John Gallagher, Jr., Suzanne Cryer, Bradley Cooper, & Sumalee Montano. In Color, Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.

I had my doubts about this movie after having seen the original Cloverfield in 2008. The hand-held camera photography was indistinct at best and dizzying at worst. If the purpose was to make me want to see more of the Godzilla-sized alien destroying New York City, then it achieved its purpose. But I wanted no more to do with hand-held. The previews of this film looked considerably steadier and promised a landmark performance by John Goodman. It delivered on both counts.

Definitely not a sequel to the original, 10 Cloverfield Lane begins in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Michelle (Winstead) is packing her things looking wistfully out the window of her apartment. She leaves her engagement ring and keys on a table and speeds off into the countryside toward Lake Charles. Her fiancée, Ben (voice of Cooper) calls her and begs her to come back apologizing for whatever argument they had, but Michelle doesn’t speak or answer. Suddenly, she’s in a violent car accident, spinning and rolling off the road into a gully. It isn’t until this moment we start to see the opening credits and the title of the film. It reminded me of something Hitchcock might do. They flash on between clashes of metal and breaking glass. Very effective. Also, the soundtrack plays a major role in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Michelle wakes up to find she’s in a windowless room, hooked up to an intravenous feeder and wearing a jury-rigged knee-brace that’s handcuffed to the wall. After trying unsuccessfully to disengage herself, she disassembles the IV pole and uses it to hook her cell phone and bags across the room. Of course, there’s no service on her phone. The scene is very reminiscent of a Stephen King story. She hears horrendous heavy footsteps on metal stairs and the door unlatches with a terrifying screech, and we see (we assume) a man enter. She holds up both hands begging him not to hurt her (she’s assumed that she’s been abducted). The camera pans up to show Howard (Goodman), who tells her he’s not going to hurt her, he’s trying to keep her alive. He sets down a segmented plate of food, rights the IV pole and leaves, sealing her in.

Already this film is not like the previous one with similar title. As it progresses, we meet Emmett (Gallagher Jr.) who helped Howard build this elaborate bunker/fallout shelter in anticipation of a nuclear war, a chemical holocaust or (we hope) an alien invasion. He’s young, attractive and sports a full beard and his left arm is in a sling. Why? Apparently, he saw a huge explosion like none he’s ever seen before and, in the process of trying to get into the bunker, Howard injured his arm trying to stop him.

Howard, unshaven and rumpled, comes off as an extreme conspiracy fanatic who’s convinced the end has come, the air outside is not only unbreathable, but irradiated, and he’s resolved to staying underground for years. Even though he takes Michelle up to the exit door and shows her the bloody mess that was everything that remained of his two prize pigs, she’s not convinced. She flirts with Emmett at dinner to make Howard mad and distract him so that she can steal his keys and escape. But just as she gets to the exit, she sees a woman (Cryer) with red sores all over her face begging to come in. Between Howard’s shouts not to and the increasing lunacy of the woman outside, Michelle decides it’s safer inside.

Howard tells Michelle of his daughter Megan and refers to her often through the movie, even showing her a photo. When the air compressor malfunctions, it’s Michelle who has to crawl through the air ducts to reset it, and when she does, she discovers another hatchway to the outside. The window has the word “Help” scratched onto it and there is blood. She finds the earring used to etch the word into the plastic.

When she returns from the compressor, Howard orders her to shower and gives her Megan’s clothes to wear as a change from her “possibly contaminated” clothing. Later, she and Emmett find a photo album. He tells her the photo Howard showed her was not Megan and a photo drops out showing the real Megan with Howard and she’s wearing the T-shirt Michelle is now wearing, as well as the earrings she found. They conclude that Howard is a psychopath and they must escape.

Magazines in the bunker give Michelle (an amateur fashion designer) the idea to create a protective suit and a gas mask to facilitate escape and get help. After her shower, Howard had disposed of the shower curtain in the trash receptacle but Michelle retrieves it with the IV pole hook. She makes the outfit, hiding it under her mattress whenever Howard appears in her room. But you know he’s going to find it, and he does.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THE MOVIE REVIEW: Howard orders them to move a very heavy barrel to the bathroom to help with disposal of waste. Opening it, he shows them the perchloric acid inside and threatens them with being plunged into it if they do no tell him what they’ve been planning. Emmett takes the full blame and makes up a story and Howard pulls his gun and shoots him. The noise not only deafens the characters but the audience as well and the sound slowly comes back.

Michelle is in shock (again). Howard tells her he’ll clean up “the mess” and, when he does, he returns shaven and neatly dressed. Michelle knows what that means. She runs from her room closing the door, thinking it will lock him in and heads for the kitchen and an aerosol can which Howard used to chill a cup of vodka. When Howard appears (hey, he built this place), she trips him and kicks over the barrel of acid on him while he’s lying on the floor. Now she’s an accomplished gymnast as she vaults over him – avoiding the pool of acid – retrieves her protective suit, ties it to her ankle and worms her way through the air ducts while he stabs at her with a knife.

The acid has eaten through a lamp wire and a fire starts. We see various signs saying “flammable.” Michelle uses the aerosol spray to freeze and break the lock on the hatch and escapes. She’s stunned at the blue skies and the sunset and the healthy foliage and a flock of ducks flying overhead. The air is breathable. A truck is there. She hears something and climbs on top to see. What initially looks like a helicopter turns out to be an alien vessel and there’s a scaly monster on the ground galloping toward her. While Howard’s bunker explodes around her. she on the run again.

I had great expectations for 10 Cloverfield Lane and, though it lagged in places, I was surprised to find that I never knew which way the plot would turn. The whole forward motion and suspense of the film was generated by the brilliant soundtrack. Even horrors that were not revealed were foreboding because of it. John Goodman did indeed perform a masterly role as crackpot fanatic. But unlike a Stephen King story, there’s hope at the end and the hint of a sequel. Maybe we’ll get to see more of the aliens in the next one. And they can be defeated. The voice (Montano) on the car radio said that there are survivors in Houston and that they’ve “secured the southern seaboard.”

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

La Dama
66 Pearl St., New York

I seem to be finding Mexican restaurants in the least likely places. This one is in a building built in 1831, on the same block as Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington made his farewell address to his troops. There has been a restaurant at 66 Pearl St. for 11 years, but this incarnation is only 10 months old. It’s a good thing I’ve seen a photo of La Dama because neither the address nor the name are visible anywhere on the outside.

I knew where Pearl Street was as I power-walked from west to east in downtown Manhattan. The south bridge from the World Financial Center was closed and Ihad to find a traffic light to cross the West Side Highway. But good fortune was with me and the area where the Twin Towers once stood (I hate the term “Ground Zero”) was not walled off and I could cut some time by walking through and admire the fountains sparkling in the night. Finally, on Pearl Street I walked south when I saw the address 160 and knowing the addresses increase from south to north. I recognized the restaurant from the photo and checked the address on the next door and it was 66.

The white exterior was made even brighter by the lights of a film crew shooting on location. As I entered the black airlock door, I was momentarily stunned by how small the space was. The bar occupied a third of the room and if there were 15 tables, it was a lot. But the place was buzzing with conversation, piped music and three flat-screen televisions going at the same time. I asked the young lady who would eventually become my server if I was indeed at La Dama. She said yes and acknowledged my reservation (there was no Captain’s Station to speak of). Toni led me to a corner table by the window and I chose the beige banquette facing the front. She brought me a glass of water and presented the menu (both food and drink) in a nicely bound two-page book.

As the website states, the cuisine of “The Lady” is Mexican/Latin. The menu features many interesting choices in the understated categories of Appetizers, Salads, Tacos, Sandwiches, Entrées, Sides, and Sweets. The variety of seafood and vegetable dishes was splendid. Toni asked me if I wanted a drink and I chose the Dulce Vida Margarita – Dulce Vida tequila, triple sec, lemon juice and garnished with a slice of lime. Served in an old-fashioned screw-top jar, it was golden yellow with pink accents and had a remarkably sweet taste. I loved it and told Toni. She agreed. It’s her favorite too. I needed more time to choose my dinner and Toni said she’d be back in 10 minutes.

At our next rendezvous, I gave Toni my selections and she commented that they were all excellent. I didn’t even mention my slow eating habits and limitless time, but it didn’t matter. No dish was served too early.

My first course was one I’ve loved since the first time and the chef at La Dama made it perfectly. The tortilla soup was a light tomato broth with both cheddar and Monterrey jack cheese, cubes of avocado and strips of blue corn tortillas. The combination of flavors was amazing. I told Toni that it was so good that it made me forget my wonderful margarita. And no, it was not spicy, just savory.

All of the salads on the menu were enticing and I asked Toni to help me. She chose two. It was between the pomegranate and goat cheese salad with toasted pecans, and the kale and pear salad with goat cheese and crumbled bleu cheese vinaigrette with toasted pumpkin seeds. I chose the kale. 

The respectable mound of crisp, fresh green kale was delicious, with strips of pear on top and the cheeses crumbled throughout. My first taste of kale was rather jarring as it had a much stronger flavor than lettuce or even spinach. But this salad was a milder flavor than that and I enjoyed every bite.

There was still a little salad left when my main course and side arrived but it was easy to slide the dish to the side and nibble at it at intervals. The pan-seared branzino (a Mediterranean Sea bass) was butterflied with head and tail attached and a beautiful appetizing color, sprinkled with Mexican spices and wearing a collar of cilantro. A grilled lemon shared the plate with the fish. The side was roasted Brussels sprouts, a brilliant shade of green.

Aside from the spinal bone (there were virtually no other bones), the meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender. Even the skin was delicious. I left nothing but the head, tail and spine. The sprouts tasted like maple syrup, a part of their sauce, and were only slightly crisp, perfect. Once again I forgot my margarita. The salad was still a delight as I finished it last.

There were only three desserts on the menu and one was a favorite of mine. The “Tres Leches" cake – sponge cake in a sweet milk sauce and topped by a sweet cheese icing garnished with a strawberry crown and surrounded by blueberries – was another wonder in a dinner of wonders. 

The latte accompanying it was a great, rich contrast in flavor and needed no sweetener added. Since the margarita was so good I asked Toni if I could have the Dulce Vida tequila as an after-dinner drink. She thought it was a great idea and soon I had a small tumbler in front of me. Forget what you know about the flavor (or lack of one) in tequila. This one deserves the title “dulce” (sweet). It’s comparable to a good cognac.

La Dama is ultimately worth several return visits for not only the seafood and vegetable dishes but for the meat dishes as well. How are these for instance: butternut squash soup with spiced croutons, grilled octopus or mahi mahi tacos, a pork chop in tamarind-chili ancho sauce or garlic parmesan fries? Sounds good to me.

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