Monday, April 11, 2016

Eye In The Sky

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Eye in the Sky (Bleecker Street Media, 2016) – Director: Gavin Hood. Writer: Guy Hibbert (s/p). Stars: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Jessica Jones, Aisha Takow, Bob Chappell, Lex King, Dek Hassan, Abdi Mohamed Osman, Ebby Weyime, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, & Richard McCabe. Color, Rated R, 102 minutes.

Never tell a soldier about the casualties of war!” The last line from Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Rickman) to Kate Barnes (Jones) echoes the agony experienced by the entire cast as the scenes played out in this modern warfare thriller.

When you have three of the top five terrorists on your watch list constructing suicide vests in a house located in a friendly country, and you have a drone poised to fire a missile to destroy them, and innocent little Kenyan girl Alla Mo’Allim (Takow) sits directly outside selling bread, what do you do?

This is the dilemma facing Col. Katherine Powell (Mirren). On the one hand, she’s ecstatic at finally tracking down the radicalized Susan Danford, now Ayesha AL-Hady (King) after months of searching, and, not only that but she has the husband Abdullah AL-Hady (Hassan) and number two, Amadu Mukhtar (Osman) in the same building. On the other, her top secret operation in cooperation with the United States military is subject to legal rules of conduct and moral judgments that threaten to delay or even prevent her capture of the targets. How does she know this? Operatives on the ground, Damisi (Weyime) and Jama Farah (Abdi), who control surveillance cameras in the shapes of a hummingbird and a beetle, have “seen” inside the safe house.

Lt. Gen. Benson meanwhile is in contact with Col. Powell through his laptop in London with representatives of the United Kingdom government who are there to witness the “capture.” When the situation evolves to a drone strike, the ramifications are heightened and the issue is “referred up” to Foreign Secretary James Willett (Glen), who is unfortunately suffering a bout of food poisoning.

When all is cleared for firing the missile and the collateral damage has been calculated, drone pilot Steve Watts (Paul) and US Air Force colleague Carrie Gershon (Fox) can see the little girl setting up her table just outside the compound in their cross-hairs. Steve’s reluctance to fire until the collateral damage or “CD” is recalculated sends the decision to the Attorney General, George Matherson (McCabe), for reassessment.

The suspense and tension throughout this film is palpable. If you do not find your heart rate increase by the end, you’re probably dead. Every actor in the cast is obviously aware of the horrific results of the decision to fire (or not) and it shows in the faces. Helen Mirren’s frustration each time her victory is put off is graphic. Alan Rickman is still the great stone face he was as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, but you can read the deep concern in his expressions.

It’s a frighteningly believable tale of high technology warfare done superbly without vulgarity (not one) and with minimal gore while having maximum moral teaching. It asks the difficult question of how to deal with terrorists from Somalia (an unfriendly country) imposing sharia law in neighboring Kenya (a friendly country) and making it their base of operations. From a technical standpoint, this movie deserves the term “Wow” even without the top rate actors and performances. The effects of the mechanical bird and beetle were amazing. I went to see it just because I love Mirren, but I got so much more.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

China Grill
60 W. 53rd St., New York

I can’t tell you exactly when I last dined at the China Grill, but it was over 12 years ago and it was my third or fourth time. It’s one of those restaurants you can’t get enough of, and so you’re compelled to return. This time it was to celebrate my dining companion’s birthday. My karaoke host suggested the restaurant and I realized that I’ve never reviewed it. Perfect.

I arrived first at the sleek black stone and glass tower that was once the CBS Building on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street and entered through the revolving door. I marvel at the use of this cavernous space every time I’m there. The Captain’s Station is immediately to the left; beyond it are black wood bare-topped tables of the bar crowd. There are more tables to the right on a wedge-shaped platform. In all, I didn’t see one empty space. The 20-plus-foot-high ceilings are graced with pancake-like lighting fixtures in shades of flax and blushing pink as they march through a narrowing hall toward the rear dining area.

The young lady asked me to wait for my companion because they do not seat anyone until the entire party has arrived. The bar down the hall was fully occupied and the only seat was a small curved bench behind the revolving door, now occupied by a young man awaiting his take-out. I sat next to him admiring that décor. Even the floor is not just tile. There are words. I read “The Wild Animals” right beneath my feet. The walls are painted muted shades of red with fanciful dragons sketched on them.

One half hour after our reservation time, my dining companion arrived (she got off at the wrong subway station). The lady at the Captain’s Station graciously led us past the bar to the rear dining area, where she split apart two tables to make a single for us. The space has at least twice as many tables as the front area, and though they were a little more than half occupied, it was alive with conversation. I had forgotten how noisy the place was when combined with the piped-in music. We had to lean in toward each other to hear ourselves.

Our server, Jessica arrived and greeted us. When the water was poured, she asked if we wanted a drink. My lovely guest ordered a glass of the Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany and I ordered the specialty cocktail, “Shiso Crazy” – green tea infused Russian Standard vodka, cucumber, shiso (a Japanese herb sometimes called “Japanese basil”), and lime. I think she got the better of that deal. My drink was tasty, but when Jessica returned I dubbed it too namby-pamby and ordered a decent Beefeater Martini, which was almost perfect. The second one was perfect.

The four page, all-inclusive, bound menu featured cocktails, wine and beer on the first page, Dim Sum, Salads and Starters on the second, Mains, “Grand Plates” and Accompaniments on the third, and Desserts and Soufflés on the fourth. Knowing from previous experience that nearly everything on the menu was good, I found myself explaining the difference between sashimi and sushi, spicy dishes and mild dishes and the difference between authentic Chinese cuisine and China Grill’s interpretation.

When she finished the Riesling, I recommended the Sancere – “Patient Cottat” from the Loire region, France, which she found equally as good. We ordered two starters and two main courses and decided to share everything.

The blue crab, tuna and edamame guacamole tartare was an artistic little tower in shades of light green, beige and brown surrounded by pepper and herb oils with a ramekin of savory prawn crackers. It was delicious, but the tuna flavor dominated (by that I mean the “Chicken of the Sea” flavor, not the sushi flavor). I liked the crackers much more. The lobster pancakes, stir fried with wild mushrooms, red chili, scallions and coconut milk was a much better starter. Looking like a large burrito covered in shredded carrots, it was easily sliced with a spoon and served.

When there was nothing left of the appetizers but a few drops of sauce, Jessica cleared the table and another server brought our two main courses. The duck two ways was tender, pan-seared, sliced duck breast with chocolate-orange sauce and “moo-shu” style confit of duck leg with a spicy hoisin sauce. The hoisin sauce was sweet, as hoisin sauce should always be. The duck was amazing in both preparations. The pale green and white pancakes for wrapping the moo shu duck were too soft and moist to put into service as wrappers – much less hold, so we ate them as a side dish. 

The grilled Szechuan beef (marinated in sake, soy, spicy shallots and cilantro) shared its plate with a mound of crispy Chinese noodles. It made quite an impression. The blackness of the meat implied a crisp crust, which I love. The beef was tender and juicy but, as I warned my dining companion beforehand, nowhere near as spicy as a true Szechuan dish would be. In fact, it was not spicy at all. Delicious, yes. The noodles were great fun to eat and the dark brown sauce added just the touch of flavor they needed.

When I could get Jessica aside, I mentioned that we were celebrating a birthday and she nodded comprehension. Our two desserts arrived simultaneously. The bananas in a box, caramelized bananas upright in an edible cookie “box” were topped with caramel cream, a caramel drizzle, two spoons made from caramelized sugar and a lit candle. On the plate was written “Happy Birthday” in chocolate sauce.

My hazelnut tort paled in comparison. Both were wonderful and again, a lot of fun to eat. That, and a double espresso for me and a cappuccino for her ended what I call The Orientation (she’s never been to the China Grill before). We both had a great time and I still love China Grill.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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