Saturday, November 19, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Arrival (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Denis Villeneuve. Writer: Eric Heisserer (s/p). Ted Chiang (short story, “Story of Your Life”). Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlberg, Forest Whitaker, Sangita Patel, Mark O’Brien, Abigail Pniowsky, Tzi Ma, Nathaly Thibault, Ruth Chiang, Jadyn Malone, Julia Scarlett Dan, Russell Yuen, Anana Rydvald & Leisa Reid. Color, Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.

Once again, extraterrestrials have taken the outrageously impractical step to travel the incredibly vast intergalactic distance to visit a planet filled with lunatics. I saw this movie with one question. “What are the creators going to do that’s different?”

Twelve enormous spacecraft suddenly and soundlessly arrive at 12 unlikely locations around the Earth and just hover above the ground. The one in the United States picked Montana to “dock.” Edge-on they look like rotten bananas, and full face, like concave cats-eye lenses with macular degeneration. They just hang there, silently, sending off no radiation, no signals, not shooting anything with ray guns and not even harming a blade of grass.

Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist who teaches college students, and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) are recruited to hopefully communicate with whomever is controlling these titanic “shells.” U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) is, of course, impatient to find out why the ships are here and plays back a short audio clip of the alien rumblings and hoots (as if Dr. Banks can make anything out of it). She convinces him that she must see them face to face to hopefully start a dialogue and, even then, must develop a set of definitions comprehensible by the creatures to convey our questions.

A large door opens at the bottom of the craft in Montana and the team is elevated past the opening to discover that an artificial gravity exists inside whereby they can walk “up” the wall like flies to a bright window-like divider between them and the visitors. Two creatures approach the window and I had a flashback to Finding Dory. They appear to be octopus-like but, like Hank, only have seven tentacles – heptapods. Not only that, but each tentacle can open up at the end to display seven “finger” extensions. Ian decides to name them Abbott and Costello. When Dr. Banks attempts written communication by displaying the word “human” on a light pad and speaking the word, the aliens respond with a jet of ink from the center of a tentacle that coalesces into a circular “inkblot” on the window.

It’s baffling until the team gets enough pictographs to discern patterns and learn that the aliens communicate in whole sentences at one time. Up to this point, the governments of the 11 other countries where spacecraft now hover have been in contact with the U.S. team and with each other. China’s General Shang (Ma) is ready to blast their ship out of the sky, Russia follows suit and, one by one, the other countries discontinue mutual communication.

Throughout the movie, Dr. Banks is having these visions which I took to be flashbacks of her happy life with her daughter Hannah (Jadyn Malone at 4 years of age, Abigail Pniowsky at 8, and Julia Scarlett Dan at 12). At one point. she apparently loses her daughter to cancer. Sad, but so-so. These are confusing until the last scenes in the film when they are explained.

Dr. Banks has the titanic burden of discovering what the aliens are telling her, figuring out her visions and getting the world back into communication before some nation tries something globally fatal.

Arrival teaches us more about human nature than it relates a tale of alien visitors. Though the creatures have done nothing aggressive, shown no evidence of destructive power, the people of Earth are literally freaking out by just their presence during the slow communication learning process. It would be laughable if it weren’t so true to life. What we don’t understand, we generally make up, and it’s always worse than the truth. That’s one of three good things this movie has in its favor. The second is its proposal that universal communication is essential to world unity. Lastly, the subtle way the spaceships leave is a great special effect.

On the not-so-good side, there were several points at which I thought the movie could have ended and didn’t. It started my favorite way (not!) with a dully spoken narrative which leaves you saying, “Who cares?” It ends the same way. You find yourself rooting for the aliens and hoping they do destroy something, because the Earth people are acting so incredibly ignorant. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner did what they could with a script that could cure insomnia and I give them a lot of credit for that. And if the script doesn’t send you into dreamland, the dull grays, misty blues and general cinematography of the movie will. Forest Whitaker was given a part he could do in his sleep and he was great.

There’s no gore, no vulgarity, no violence and unfortunately, nothing to wake you up if you should fall asleep. Given the premise of the film and the twist revealed at the end, I think the writers, and director Denis Villeneuve could have done much more with Arrival. Another good part, there’s no hint of a sequel.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Bombay Grill House
764 9th Ave., New York

Always on the look-out for new Indian restaurants (my favorite cuisine), I was delighted to find this three-week-old gem on OpenTable.

Inside, it’s cozy, warm, open brick walls with tasteful sconces and little electric votive lights between the photographs of Indian temples. Overhead are antique chandeliers, but they are not lit, just for atmosphere.

I had an early reservation and it was no trouble getting a table in the middle of the restaurant. My server, Basudeb, presented me with the main menu and drink list, which also served as a wine list. She asked if I wanted to order a drink. I saw one beer that I have not tried and ordered the 1947 Premium Lager. It was a rich, full-flavored beer without being heavy, brewed by Indian-Americans in Long Island City, Queens, with intent purpose of being a better match for Indian food.

I started with Mulligatawny soup made with chicken. It was thinner than most comparable soups and less spicy than many, but it was hot and the chicken tender – a nice mild, red lentil soup.

The appetizer was something I’ve never seen on and Indian menu. Called Ragaraa, it’s deep fried, spiced potato patties with chick peas, a tamarind and a green chutney and a drizzle of yogurt. It was sweet and tart, spicy and piquant. The patties were hot but the sauce and chick peas were cold. The potatoes were the consistency of a good knish. A surprising contrast.

For my wine, Basudeb brought out a bottle of 2015 Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. I have had Chilean red wines before and they are remarkable. This one was excellent, despite the screw-top – a rich, fruity red with enough body to stand up to Indian flavors.  

My main course was the Masala Walla (spice merchant) lamb. It was very similar to the Rogan Josh I have ordered at several Indian restaurants before but with a richer, denser tomato-based sauce. Again, the spice level was lower than I might have expected (or desired), but the lamb was tender and the portion was large enough to impress me.

The choices of bread were pretty standard and I chose my favorite, onion kulcha, which was nicely browned and stuffed with perfectly cooked onions. Many times I’ve dined in Indian restaurants I found I had to take some portion of it home. Not this time. I finished everything.

Since I did not choose Besudeb’s main course, I let her choose my dessert. It happened to be my favorite as well: Gulab Jamun, normally spongy milk balls soaked in rose-scented syrup were slightly on the cheesy side. It added a new dimension of flavor to this usually very sweet dessert. I liked it. Then, after a mug of hot Masala Chai (spiced tea), my virtual trip to Bombay was complete. I thanked Besudeb for her smiling service and told her I would be back.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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