Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

Man: Bird or Philosopher?

By Steve Herte

After a week of incidents and much activity, multitasking and smoothing ruffled feathers (unsuccessfully, I might add) and replacing outdated technology at home as well as preparing the house for winter, I was ready for my Dinner and a Movie. And surprisingly it proved to be just what I needed. Enjoy!

Birdman (Fox Searchlight, 2014) – Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Writers: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, & Armanso Bo. Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Kenny Chin, Jamahl Garrison-Lowe, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Riseborough, Katherine O’Sullivan, Damian Young, Keenan Shimizu, Akira Ito, Natalie Gold, Merritt Weaver, & Edward Norton. Color, 119 minutes.

The selection of movies opening this week was bleak indeed but the trailer for Birdman intrigued me. I was instantly interested in where this film was going with the story. As I watched it, I still wondered where it was going because every time I thought one thing was going to happen, another did. It was definitely anything but predictable.

It begins in Ray Chandler’s (Keaton) dressing room at the Saint James Theater in New York. He sits cross-legged wearing nothing but his briefs, with his back to the camera. But he’s not sitting on anything. In fact he’s levitated about four feet off the floor and we hear his thoughts about why he is where he is. He receives an intercom notification from the stage manager that he’s due onstage for rehearsal and he quickly gets dressed. The camera follows him through hallways and down stairs until he arrives onstage where three actors – two women and one man – sit at a table in a kitchen-like set discussing the production, and speaks his lines.

Ray (known by all as Riggan) is not happy with the other man at the table and the way he acts; when a klieg light falls on the man’s head he’s not too disturbed, merely returning to his dressing room followed closely by his best friend and lawyer, Jake (Galifanakis). They need to find a replacement for the character in order to make the scheduled previews of the show and hopefully will not be sued by him. No one is available. Suddenly, Sam the female lead in the show (Stone), pops her head in the door and announces that she can get Michael Shining (Norton) for the part. Riggan is overjoyed. Little does he suspect that Mike will not only arrive with all lines memorized (including his), but that he will also change the script and the delivery of lines, criticize the props and insist they be changed, and request a tanning bed for himself. This is all while Riggan is concerned about money outlay, since he has sunk every last penny of his into the production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s worked very hard at not only the production of the play, but the writing, directing and his role as star of the show, and the strain is starting to show. Even the one Broadway critic, who has the power to make or destroy his show, tells him beforehand that she will write the most damning review ever without even seeing the show because, “I don’t like you.”

In the back story we learn that Riggan has movie-star status from three films he starred in previously about the character “Birdman:” a dark super-hero in black with large black wings sprouting from his back that allow him to fly. He refused to do a fourth movie, preferring to try his hand at serious drama on Broadway. But the character refuses to be put aside, much like the alter ego in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and speaks to him in taunting tones (even appearing physically in a few scenes). As Birdman, Riggan has telekinetic ability and can fly – two powers he misses in his new role and amazingly demonstrates in a few scenes.

But back on stage, Riggan is first an actor, and second a father to Lesley (Watts) who is a handful, to say the least. She loves her father and tries to get him beyond his outdated way of marketing the show and into digital social media. Her advice is unintentionally taken when, during a preview, Riggan steps out the stage door for a smoke and the stage door slams closed on his robe. Clad only in his briefs once again, he jogs around the corner on Broadway, where many Birdman fans see him, and enters the theater through the main doors. He doesn’t miss his lines that evening, but his performance outside the theater goes viral on Twitter.

On opening night, the whole cast is excited, but Riggan is strangely calm. Mike has cajoled him into replacing the stage prop gun (“It looks fake. I can see the fake red blood in the muzzle.”) in favor of a real one. Having viewed the last scene of the play twice, the audience knows that it ends with his character committing suicide and the tensions rise.

I think the best way to explain this film is to quote the song “Fame” from the film of the same name: “I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly…I’m gonna make it to heaven, Baby remember my name.” In these few lyrics is the entire script of Birdman, back-story and all. It’s the extreme mental and physical exertions an actor goes through just to perform for the public and be acknowledged with their applause. To further emphasize what Riggan is experiencing the scenes go from reality to a kind of Marvel Comic world and back again so seamlessly that the audience is hard pressed to know what actually happened. Did he climb the stairs to the top of that building or did he levitate there? Is he going to commit suicide or fly with the birds? It’s beautifully done.

Parental warning: this is a totally adult film, chock full of vulgarity, partial nudity, and sexual innuendo that is not for impressionable minds. But for adults, it’s a thought provoking, emotional tale that never drags in its hour and 59 minute length. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton put on excellent performances. Emma Stone gets to be convincingly hysterical and Naomi Watts is enigmatic while being sensual. It’s well written (except for the language) and the cinematography is exceptional. It was a good choice for me when I thought my choices were limited.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Le Philosophe
55 Bond Street (between Lafayette and Bowery Sts.), New York

When I choose a restaurant there are usually two factors that must be there to entice me to dine: the décor, or “look” of the restaurant itself, and the menu. If the place is lit as brightly as a cafeteria or conversely, or as dark as a cave, it loses attraction. If the menu has different or unusual dishes, or if it’s totally pedestrian, it can make a difference. Le Philosophe caught my attention with the menu alone.

That is why, when I arrived at the restaurant, I was mildly surprised at the understated exterior. There was a brownish awning over a modest, two-table sidewalk café, dimly lit, and next to a closed establishment with garish graffiti splashed over its locked gates. The name of the restaurant was barely visible (and unlit) above the door in flourishing red script on a pale green background.

Once inside, I parted the heavy velvet drapes that formed a wind-guard and viewed a very different scene. The space is a fantasy in black and white: black wood tables and a wall of black and white portrait photos of famous Frenchmen (including Voltaire). The lighting was from single-bulb ribbed glass swags and there was an open kitchen at the back. An impressive wine rack backed the Captain’s Station, and in focal locations there were faux-blackboards listing various dishes. The young lady wearing a black tiara (with fake spider – for Halloween) gave me a choice of two tables. I chose the one closer to the front window. She gave me the menu, the wine list, and took my water preference.

The menu is mostly in English; however with enough French to be charming and alluring. The choices are divided into “Assiettes à Partager” (what my friend Tony would call ‘dishes for the table,’ to be shared by all), “Hors d’oeuvres” (appetizers), “Charcuterie” (cold appetizers), “Fromages” (cheeses), “Entrées” (main courses), and “Sides.” I found it clever that whenever a dish was listed in French, the description was in English and vice versa. Another server brought out the breadbasket filled with fresh slices of crusty baguette and homemade butter.

Geraldine, my server (in a black tiara) asked if I desired a cocktail. I told her I was trying to decide between my favorite writer and my favorite painter. She giggled because the cocktails are all named after French philosophers. My deliberate confusion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henri Julien Felix Rousseau was successful. I chose the “Rousseau:” an intriguing combination of Aperol (an Italian aperitif made from herbs and roots), Cynar (an Italian artichoke liqueur) and bitters, garnished with a slice of lemon zest. I was no longer in Noho.

I told Geraldine that for once, I chose the wine before the meal, and she approved. It was a 2011 Zinfandel from T-Vine Cellars in Napa Valley, a beautiful deep ruby wine with full flavor, but not too dry, fruity but not sweet. I don’t want to say I’ve never met a zinfandel I didn’t like, but so far, my record is perfect.

I heard the two gentlemen at the table to my left order the frogs legs appetizer and I decided to start with that as well. I’ve had a craving for the dish ever since my last French restaurant. Le Philosophe serves them off the bone with Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms, sunchoke (Jerusalem artichokes – in the sunflower family), watercress and garlic (of course) in a striking emerald-green sauce. Though they didn’t have the shock value of my first dish of “Cuisses de Grenouille,” they were delicate and tender enough to melt in your mouth. The rest of the ingredients merely added to the heavenliness of the dish, but to see the dish is not to recognize what it is.

My second course was chosen from the Hors d’oeuvres section: the Pork and Duck Terrine, served on a cutting board with pickled vegetables (carrots, radish), mustard, watercress, and toasted baguette slices. I was definitely not in New York anymore, for this is French Provençal dining at its finest. The thick slices of terrine, combining the sweet flavor of pork with the slightly gamy flavor of duck mixed with sliced asparagus and other gustatory wonders, made me think, “Eat your heart out, Michael Jordan’s restaurant! This is how a terrine should be!” My oohs and aahs were enough to express my delight to Geraldine.

For the main course choice, Geraldine’s advice was pivotal. There was a special pasta dish where the pasta was made with chestnut flour just begging me to try it, and then there was the Duck à L’Orange. The first was seasonal and lighter and the other was described as “excellent.” I chose the duck, even though the previous dish was part duck. 

What can I say? I just love a duck dinner! (A Bugs Bunny quote.) The accompaniments to this dish per the menu were turnips and pommes mousseline (the sexiest form of creamy mashed potatoes). The chef recommended the duck medium-rare, which was fine with me. The two good-sized slices were juicy, tender and reddish, with crispy skins. The presentation was like a desert island with a beach of potatoes, white turnips as seashells, a river of vivid orange sauce and two stranded voyagers lying on the beach, their mandarin orange treasures at their sides. I was truly happy. If that weren’t enough, I ordered a side dish of the grilled Brussels sprouts with lardons (think bacon on steroids). It was excellent, but it was the only dish I packed to go, otherwise I could not have had dessert.

As my second course linked with the main by one ingredient, duck, my dessert linked again with the main course having orange. I ordered the Orange Honey Blanc Manger, sensual custard flavored with both oranges and honey and topped with grated chocolate and miniature marshmallows – to die for!

Now you know me; I’m not above gilding the lily. After this epicurean feast there must be espresso, and there was. But to keep it company was an elegant glass of Blaufränkisch Ice Wine from Austria. Es war einfach wunderbar! (It was simply wonderful!)

Having assured Geraldine that I was indeed finished and had the most wonderful time, I paid the check, met the manager, and told him how much he looked like Robert DeNiro (he liked that). I also remembered to take a business card and was on my way home wondering how the chestnut pasta would have tasted. Well, there’s always a next time.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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