Sunday, April 17, 2016

Midnight Special

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Midnight Special (WB, 2016) – Director: Jeff Nichols. Writer: Jeff Nichols (story and s/p). Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, & Sean Bridgers. Color, Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

I’ve been duped. The trailers for this movie promised more than it delivered. I saw glowing streams of light coming from a child’s eyes and fiery bolides falling from the sky and I was hooked. None of it prepared me for what I saw.

We have Roy Tomlin (Shannon) kidnapping (or escaping) with his eight-year-old son Alton Meyer (Lieberher) from a Waco-esque religious cult ranch in the dark of night. They are aided by Roy’s childhood best friend and ex-state patrolman Lucas (Edgerton) as they whisk away the boy while the minions of the fanatic minister Doak (Camp) give chase.

The question “Why?” besets this movie throughout and is rarely answered. Why does the child have goggles on; why is his last name different from that of his parents, and why does everything have to be done at night?

Roy and Lucas are on a mission to get the boy to a certain location by a certain date and time before his weakening “condition” causes his death. They are in a car accident and have to seek shelter with another former cult member, Elden (Jensen). But Elden cannot resist staring into Alton’s eyes for another jolt of those intense beams that appear to be hurting the boy. Why? He says he needs to see it once again.

We learn that Alton has special powers and can channel radio broadcasts and signals from orbiting satellites. The ludicrous “prayer sessions” held by the cult quote “readings” from the various “revelations” and numbers Alton has spouted while in their keeping. They would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that some people will believe anything. Even Pastor Doak believes Alton is speaking in tongues. And he does do a Spanish broadcast at one point.

Why is the FBI after Alton? It seems that some of the numbers he’s been speaking into scripture are top secret military locations and they consider him to be some kind of weapon. How did they even know he was speaking coordinates? That question is one of the unanswered. But when Alton brings down one of our spy satellites (the fiery bolides I mentioned before), they go all out to capture him.

Roy and Lucas swipe Elden’s van after they hear on the police radio that their car has been spotted and described by a motel manager. They make it to Roy’s wife, Sarah Tomlin (Dunst), and though she’s delighted to see Alton again, she knows they have more traveling to do.

The FBI have reluctantly recruited Paul Sevier (Driver), a psychological specialist who looks and acts like a young Jeff Goldblum. When the FBI raid one of the motels Roy, Lucas and Alton are staying at with Sarah, they capture Alton. But Alton will only speak to Paul and he convinces him to bring him back to his parents.

So now we have these parents and best friend and this strange child who gets weaker every time his eyes light up running to a destination at which they know not what will happen. And then Alton tells his “Dad” that he must go out into the sunlight. It’s one of only two scenes that are vaguely interesting in this film – this one and the second to last one – and surprise! It recharges his battery. He all well again, he knows who he is (that’s good because the audience sure doesn’t) and what he has to do. Can you say, “ET phone home?” Except, he’s not exactly an alien.

By the end of Midnight Special many, but not all, of the questions are answered. Two that are not answered are why this movie was made and how you got fooled into seeing it? Jaeden Lieberher is a beautiful, but serious little actor, Michael Shannon verges on non-believability as a character and Kirsten Dunst does what she does best: act shocked or concerned. Joel Edgerton is a strong, silent type, which is good. He does have not too many lines to remember and he mumbles those he does have. Adam Driver may grow up to be Goldblum if he studies hard. Jeff Nichols’ script probably fits on a single page for all the dialogue there is. Most of the interaction is facial expression changes and subtle nods.

Parents, if you have nothing better to do, this is a movie without vile language and a minimum of gore with flashy special effects, just none that you haven’t seen before. Its most redeeming quality is the spectacular computer-generated stage sets. But be aware. It’s an hour and 42 minutes you’ll never get back.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Tamba Indian Grill and Bar
103 Lexington Ave., New York

I was hoping this restaurant would be a landmark Indian for me because it was so good. I knew I was approaching a count of 150, but it was only my 144th. Tamba’s exciting and varied menu on their website is what drew me to make a reservation. Its location in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan is now more famous for Indian restaurants than East 6th Street in East Greenwich Village. 

Everything about Tamba is humble, right down to the exterior – a simple aluminum-silver framed front window with the name in lower case, soft-white neon lights. Inside, the simple string curtains lit by a single string of white twinkle lights flank the small bar. The most ornate decoration is here, a statue of an Indian goddess dancing. Otherwise the décor is low key, shades of brown and soft gold. Even the artwork on the walls is minimalist. There are at most 20 tables in the entire restaurant meticulously covered in white tablecloths and topped with glass water goblets in which are artfully folded cloth napkins.

There is no Captain’s Station and, with only two tables occupied upon my arrival, I had no problem being seated. The gentleman who seated me eventually became my server and was one of only three employees I saw during the entire meal. He went simply by the initials “B.G.” and I made no reference to the musical group of similar name. He brought me a glass of water, the cocktail card and the beer and wine list, and menu (neatly bound in leather).

The drink that attracted my attention first (and beat out a drink called the Kama Sutra) was the “Volcano Cocktail,” a sweet, bewitching combination of Demera rum, Kahlua, almond syrup and brandy. Why it has the name “volcano” I have no idea. It was cool, not hot or even spicy. I liked it, but decided not to have a second.

The food menu is extensive even for an Indian restaurant and it incorporates cuisines of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. I was tempted by the Dosa, south Indian specialties rarely seen on Indian menus but are slowly coming into fashion. The nearest thing I can compare them to are crèpes in texture and shape, but the size of the largest chimichangas you’ve ever had. One Dosa is indeed a meal, stuffed with meat, vegetables and spices. I know, I had one long ago at the Bengal Tiger in White Plains. No way are they a side dish or an appetizer.

I looked for dishes I’ve never tried and I found them easily, though I took my time. B.G. wrote them down and after checking the serving order with me, he was off to the kitchen.

While he was thus occupied, I considered the wine list and decided on the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. But B.G. said he’d check and did I have a second choice? Malbec was my second choice and soon he returned with a bottle of 2014 Frontera Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. For an extremely young red it was assertive, a rich, dark red and had a respectably strong nose and big fruity flavor. It would be perfect.

The man I took to be the manager had been roaming from table to table and now I saw the third of the three employees, a tall thin man all in black, who served me the chicken pakoras, my appetizer – shredded chicken and onion fritters with mild spices – and the mulligatawny soup – traditional Indian soup with chicken, lentils mild spices and green peas. The reddish-brown, crispy fritters were served encircling shredded cabbage and had a delightful mixture of flavors. The soup was served in a square bowl and its delicious aroma filled my nose. It was all I could do to wait until I took pictures of both dishes before eating. 

Both were amazing.

By now you must know that I’m an eavesdropper. Not an intentional one, but I hear all the conversations around me. The round table in front of me was seated with six seniors from Texas and one asked where mulligatawny soup got its name. One woman looked it up, as did I. I guessed correctly that it is an English (or rather Anglicized) name cobbled together from the original Tamil (South India) words mulluga and thanni. The recipe is Indian but when the English got a hold of it, it intensified in spice content. B.G. asked me how I wanted my main course: mild, medium or hot. I told him to make it the way it’s supposed to be made. The way Indians would eat it. He agreed, medium – or as he said, regular.

Originally, my preference for main course went to one of the Tamba specialties, a ground lamb kebab involving cashew nuts and exotic preparation, but B.G. didn’t think that it could be made that evening. He didn’t say they were out of it, he said it couldn’t be made. I didn’t question it. 

The pepper mutton fry – dry mutton curry with hot spices in Chennai style – was my other choice and was exactly what I wanted. Chennai or Madras is sometimes called the “Gateway to Southern India” and for me, this dish was a portal to Wonderland. Though it had two good-sized, foreboding black chili peppers in the mixture, it was not by any means hotly spiced. Yes, there were three bones, but one expects that with mutton and goat. But the mouth-filling flavor was grand, savory, and just a little tart. The net effect was almost sweet.

My side dish was one I’ve never seen, sambar rice. Normally Indian restaurants serve basmati rice plain or with green peas and that would be enough. This dish truly gilds the lily by mixing it with sambar, a lentil-based vegetable stew (not unlike a chowder), using broth and tamarind. It is intrinsic to Tamil Nadu in southern India. The sambar turned an aromatic rice side dish into a flavorful party. And then there’s the bread: ghobi paratha (another bread new to me) was a flat bread, cooked in the tandoor oven and stuffed with (of all things) cauliflower! It was light and heavy at the same time. The ghee (buffalo butter) made it heavy, but its extreme thinness made it light.

B.G. and the manager came to visit several times, both commenting on how much I seemed to be enjoying my meal, and I was. The manager wanted to know where I came from. When I answered Queens, he lit up. “Where in Queens?” I gave him my location and he had a relative who lives five blocks away from me. B.G. and I shared a joke about the lovely couple who dined at the next table and who had just left. I told him that she should have known if she were bringing an Argentinean to an Indian restaurant that he would order chicken tikka masala. He laughed. To explain, chicken tikka masala is such a mild dish, I call it “Indian food for those who don’t like Indian food.” I had the remainder of my rice boxed to go so that my Dad could taste it.

I noted that there was a dessert on the list (again) that I’ve never seen, chocolate kulfi and I asked B.G. about it. He put on that face that I’ve learned and said, “I don’t know if we have it tonight,” but he said he’d get me pistachio kulfi if that were true. And it was. The bright green Indian ice cream (which isn’t really ice cream at all, made with condensed milk, white bread and cardamom with flavoring) was cold and definitely pistachio. Combined with a nice, hot cup of masala (spiced) tea, it was a comforting end to a perfect Indian feast.

Tamba is five years old and I’m sure it will last long enough for me to return and try the many new (to me) dishes on the menu, as well as the familiar ones. And I shouldn’t forget the Dosa.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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