Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pacific Rim

Dinner and a Movie

Pacific Empire

By Steve Herte

Do you ever wish you had the knowledge and the income you have now at some previous time? I do. I can’t believe I went from penny candy to hating pasta to my first solo dining at the Chun King Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair to shaking hands with an Iron Chef and eating Fugu. If I had my current income in 1965 you just know I would have dined at all the international pavilions as well. I still remember wishing I could try beef in peanut sauce at the Malaysian pavilion. Now that I’ve had that dish (in a restaurant in downtown Flushing, Queens) I know it was worth the wait.

Now, I try to make every restaurant that will result in a round number (in my database) something special, but it gets harder to do with less posh dining establishments available for a first try. I keep my hopes up though. As for the AMC 25 movie theater, the venue itself was very impressive and large. I climbed to my usual perch halfway up where there was a nice, wide level walkway and room to stretch my legs. The screen was amply large but I discovered a flaw. The row of seats just below mine was high enough to obscure any subtitles in the movie. That and the excessive promotion of their Dolby stereo system (which was indeed a bit too loud) lessened the experience a little. Nevertheless I enjoyed the movie more than I might have thought I would. I hope this is reflected in my review.

Pacific Rim (WB, 2013) – Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Diego Klattenhorf, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorham, Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky, & Mana Ashida. Color and 3-D, 131 minutes.

Before actually seeing Pacific Rim I joked about it possibly being a Godzilla Meets the Transformers and to a certain extent it is – without the interesting transforming bit. It’s another movie set way, way in the future and starts with the alien invasion already in progress. Giant monsters dubbed Kaiju (from the Japanese for “Great Beast”) arise from the ocean and the decision to fight them with equally giant robots called Jaegers (from the German for “Hunter”) has been in place for a while. The opening scene shows a Kaiju with a head like an axe blade destroying the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with fighter jets zipping around and having less effect than a mosquito on a whale.

We meet Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Klattenhoff) who operate the robot “Gypsy Danger” (all of the Jaegers have strange titles) and who are racking up a sizable kill rate of Kaijus until one arises at “category four” (essentially bigger than a category three) which has a shark-shaped head and uses the point to gore holes in Gypsy Danger. The creature extracts and eats Yancy while Raleigh is still attached to the robot. (In order to effectively operate a Jaeger, the two operators must join brains in a linkage program so that they become one, thinking the same things and feeling the same sensations.) Raleigh thus feels his brothers’ pains and his loss causes Raleigh to go into construction of colossal harbor walls – a vain and futile attempt to keep monsters out of populated areas conceived as a cost savings by the ruling politicians (government has not changed over the decades) – after guiding Gypsy Danger to shore in a mighty collapse.

Gypsy Danger’s first failure precipitates the decision by the funding pols to scrap the Jaeger program. They make that fact known to Stacker Pentecost (Elba), the Program Leader, much to his extreme chagrin. Unknown to them, however, Stacker has a secret Jaeger factory in Hong Kong (this is a sci-fi story, mind you – but where are you going to hide a building that houses 30-story-high robots?) Among his team are the father/son Jaeger operators Herc and Chuck Hansen (Martini and Kazinsky) and two annoying geeky scientists who are constantly arguing, Gottlieb (Gorman) the mathematician and Doctor Newton Geisler (Day) the biologist. Gottlieb has calculated that the monsters are coming from the Pacific Rift through a wormhole to another dimension and that the attacks are increasing in frequency, as well as in size and number of monsters. Geisler determines that all of the monsters are clones sent by a higher intelligence and wants to get inside the heads of the Kaijus – and he succeeds somewhat with a preserved, living, Kaiju “secondary” brain (they’re so big they need two brains to operate.) The brain dies after the linkage and Geisler needs a new one. He goes to Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), a dealer in black market Kaiju parts.

Stacker needs Jaeger team and he brings Raleigh back into the program promising him the partner of his choice. Using martial arts, Raleigh downs one contestant after another until he asks to take on Mako Mori (Kikuchi), Stackers’ number one assistant. She proves herself his equal in combat but Stacker nixes the idea. We learn later on that as a child (Ashida) Mako had a major traumatic experience with a Kaiju and Stacker, operating a Jaeger solo (leaving him cursed with chronic bloody nose), saved her and raised her to adulthood with all the fatherly protective instincts. However, the team of Raleigh and Mako becomes a reality and is almost a disaster on their trial run of the repaired and re-mastered Gypsy Danger. The other teams (most notably by the Australians) ridicule them until they prove themselves in actual battle with Kaijus (they kill two when two teams failed).

With the escalation in the war, the only course of action is to destroy the wormhole bringing the monsters. The two wacky scientists literally put their heads together and link up with a newfound Kaiju brain to learn that it’s the Kaiju’s DNA that permits them passage through the wormhole. After a monumental battle undersea with a category five monster, Gypsy Danger uses the corpse to enter and destroy the wormhole with (what else?) a nuclear blast.

Granted, it sounds silly and “been there, done that,” but I was surprised that when the shark-headed Kaiju was goring Gypsy Danger. I actually cared about the outcome; the scene evoked an emotion. Even though there are several annoying characters in the film, it wouldn’t have worked without them. And they were not just comic relief; for instance, a baby Kaiju – one was pregnant when they killed it – slurps up poor Perlman. The computer graphics and computer-generated creatures were fabulous and varied in shape (one even sprouts wings), even though they’re all clones. Between the excellent models and the great camera angles we come to believe that these impossibly large Jaegers are real. The set designs add to the impression of vastness needed for these titanic machines.

The acting was what was needed for this film. Hunnam under-acted his part while Elba was over-the-top. I loved Kikuchi. She was just right. And even though the monsters were horrific and eventually spewing great quantities of luminous electric blue goo, the Hispanic toddler in the row behind me was unfazed. Nevertheless, I would not recommend this movie for children that age or under.Pacific Rim will see the name del Toro resting comfortably by the creators of Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra in movie history (and he did it without zippers). Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Empire Steak House
36 West 52nd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) New York

With 11 minutes (a slight miscalculation on my part) to get from 8th  Avenue and 42nd Street to 52nd Street and 5th  Avenue for my 7:30 reservation, I arrived at the unprepossessing, almost invisible, entrance to Empire Steak House fashionably late. Knowing that this eatery would be number 2,550 on my database I was hoping for a transporting experience, but remembering Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, I felt benevolent and forgiving, for the latter is a very difficult act to follow. A slim young woman in a neat grey dress entered just before me and struck up a conversation with the manager, the captain and two other gentlemen. Her liberal use of the word “we” led all of them to believe I was with her even though I tried to keep my distance.

Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, a leggy longhaired blonde in bright red high heels led me to a table mid-way through the dining area. To my left was a wall of mirrors following the gentle arch of the ceiling and adding dimension to the 20-table space. To my right was the bar; before me was the wine rack, which concealed the restrooms. The traditional décor of a steakhouse does not apply to the Empire: its walls are only half-paneled in dark wood, with the upper half a soft muted pumpkin color. There is also artwork on the walls surrounding a golden bull on a red background framed on the wall opposite my table.

The words “small operation” ran through my head with “beware” and “be gentle” following it. Artan, my waiter, spoke with what sounded like a gypsy accent and brought my water as well as the wine list. I asked for a cocktail and it took quite a few minutes to get “Beefeater Martini” through to him. He still asked if I wanted olives before he brought it to me (I had asked for a twist of lemon). Nevertheless, the drink was fine. To avoid any future language problems I asked him if I was speaking loudly and clearly enough because I had just been to a rather loud movie and my left ear was still ringing. He acknowledged that I was doing fine and we had no more miscommunications.

Since I already had the wine list I began looking through the impressive list of reds organized by Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, Merlots, Varietals et cetera, all separated by country of origin, and a great many were affordable. Artan tried to help by asking what I was having for dinner, but I had to respond with “I don’t know. I haven’t seen the menu yet.” He never left my side. I chose the only varietal on the list: a 2009 Z Cuvée – which is a blend of Grenache, Mourvédre, Syrah and Cinsault from Zaca Mesa Vineyards, Santa Ynez Valley, California. I had previously enjoyed good fortune with varietals, and this one proved to be no exception. It was an excellent table red, neither too heavy nor too light, with a decent body and excellent nose. After delivering the wine, Artan produced the food menu.

Searching for the unusual I decided to order the Hot Seafood Platter. It was smaller than I expected, featuring three stuffed baked clams, three quarter-sized stuffed mushroom caps, one lone shrimp scampi, and lump crab meat scattered around the plate. All of it tasted good, but none of it was transporting. The wine was still tops (and the fact that Artan decanted it for me in a lovely Captain’s decanter.) “Small Operation” loomed larger in my mind: “Don’t order the Filet Mignon!”

I ordered the Veal Chop because for some reason I was in the mood for veal, and it was the only entrée not in bold type. Artan asked how I would like it. I asked what the chef would recommend. “Medium rare.” “Agreed.” Since I knew I could take home any side dish I couldn’t finish, I ordered both the German potatoes and the creamed spinach. The veal chop was a hefty piece of meat that raised my eyebrows, nicely browned and on the bone with no trace of pink inside. It was tender, juicy and delicious. The creamed spinach was also well made, and even though standard, it was pleasing. The German potatoes looked and tasted exactly like what my father does to leftover boiled potatoes: fried golden brown with onions. The only difference is that Empire’s chef added bacon. I felt right at home with that side and the wine finally had some competition, although I could not figure out why Artan swirled it in the decanter before each pour. (A little showmanship, perhaps?)

I finished every bit of the veal and most of the two sides and had them both wrapped to go. The only dessert to catch my attention was the Hot Fudge Sundae “Holy Bull”! Like the appetizer, it was smaller than I might have expected but I was glad it was not huge. I have no idea why the appellation “Holy Bull” was added but it was very good. A double espresso later (didn’t really want to debate and translate an after-dinner drink) and I was ready for the check. All things being equal I should give Empire Steak House another try at some future time because the experience wasn’t all that bad. The veal and the wine actually excelled and the staff tried their best.

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