Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Dinner and a Movie

The Stars Above Sleepy Hollow

By Steve Herte

The furor brewing over the movie I chose made me wonder if I could handle the pressure of not only obtaining a coveted ticket, but of dealing with a large crowd of people. The last experience I had like that was when I attended the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. It's a nice thing to do once but not a second time. You literally cannot move until the show is over, the crowd is that thick. In this case, my concerns proved to be baseless and all went smoothly. I could have done without the latecomers at the theater, but for some reason I felt particularly tolerant that night. Enjoy!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Lucasfilm/Disney, 2015) – Director: J.J. Abrams. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, & Michael Arndt. George Lucas (characters). Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max Von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, & Joonas Suotamo. Color and in 3D, Rated PG-13, 135 minutes.

As Andy Rooney might have queried, “Why are people complaining that they can’t get a ticket to this movie?” A simple visit to and I had my ticket only two days in advance at a convenient theater. The only difference was the arrival time. With a long-awaited, popular film, crowds are understood and a half-hour early arrival is mandatory. I got a satisfactory seat in a packed theater and was settled in for an entertaining seventh episode.

Having seen episodes one through six in varying degrees of enjoyment – number five, The Empire Strikes Back, is still my favorite – I came with no expectations, just a few questions. Episode seven begins 30 years after the defeat of the Empire in the battle of Endor, remember, the forest planet full of little furry Ewoks? You might think there would be a lot of Jedi and peace throughout the galaxy far away.

But no, evil will not be denied its place and somewhere, somehow an intolerant organization dubbed the New Order arose to confront and oppose the Republic. Overseen by Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), who appears as an ugly, bald colossus, there is a new, more powerful threat to civilized planets. Remember the Death Star – a weapon the size of a small moon capable of blowing up an entire planet? The new weapon is the size of a planet and uses the nuclear reactions in stars to demolish several planets at once.

This movie pulls no punches about the comparison between the New Order and the Third Reich. A scene where General Hux (Gleeson), looking extremely Aryan, addresses (very much like a certain paper-hanger from Austria) acres of Stormtroopers and soldiers, backed by strangely familiar red and black banners, drives the point home.

So where are the Jedi? They may have “returned” in episode six, but there’s only one left now and that’s Luke Skywalker (Hamill). And he’s nowhere to be found. But there exists a star map with directions to the planet on which he’s established his hermitage. The New Order has most of the map but the remaining piece is on a device retained by Lor San Tekka (Von Sydow) on the desert planet of Jakku.

General Leia Organa (Fisher) – formerly Princess and Senator – sends her best resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) along with his trusty droid BB-8 to Jakku to retrieve it. But the new bad guy in black, the personification of the Dark Side of the Force, Kylo Ren (Driver) arrives with his Stormtroopers and captures Poe. Fortunately, Poe stows the device in the droid and tells him to run.

BB-8, looking like an orange soccer ball with an upturned cereal bowl for a head, rolls over the enormous dunes and eventually meets Rey (Ridley), a spunky scavenger, who sells parts of Imperial battleships just for food. Though at first she doesn’t want the droid’s company, when she’s offered 60 food portions for him, she realizes his worth and a friendship is established.

The massacre on Jakku focuses on a single Stormtrooper, FN-2187 (Boyega), who bends to help a fallen fellow soldier and receives three bloody finger streaks on his helmet. He wants no more of this, and a brief, wordless exchange between him and Kylo Ren implies that his master suspects as much. But he manages to free Poe, commandeer a Tie Fighter Ship and escape. While on the run, they exchange names and Poe finds FN-2187 too hard to remember, so he renames him Finn. The freedom is short lived and they are shot down on Jakku. Finn survives and cannot find Poe, assuming he died in the crash.

After a seemingly endless trudge through the desert, Finn happens on an oasis and competes with a large creature that could only be described as a rhinoceros with a pig’s head for the stagnant water in a trough. It’s then that he sees BB-8 and is attacked by Rey. An unstable threesome forms and their mission is to get to the home base of the Resistance. Once again, the Stormtroopers find them and blow up the escape ship Rey had planned to fly. Instead, they head for the junkyard and achieve light speed just in the nick of time in the Millennium Falcon.

Star Wars fans all know the quirky mechanics of the Corellian ship and it breaks down, stranding them on a forested planet (much to Rey’s amazement – she’s never seen so much green). While trying to make repairs they are boarded by the former owners, Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (played by both Mayhew and Suotamo). The repossession doesn’t last long when the ship is tractor-beamed onto another ship. Two gangs of thugs board the ship demanding what Solo owes them. In an attempt to isolate the gangs by closing hatches, Rey opens the pens holding Solo’s captive cargo: voracious beasts that are all teeth and tentacles, and they escape.

They fly to the planet Takodana to enlist the help of Maz Kanata (Nyong’o), a goggle-eyed orange version of Yoda who runs a wild, multi-species bar in her castle. If you look close you’ll see Warwick Davis (formerly an Ewok) as Wollivan in this scene. Here things get complex. Finn wants to flee on the next departing ship. Rey hears a strange sound and follows it, locating Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. But when she holds it, she experiences a frightening vision. Maz tries to explain it to her, but terrified she runs off into the forest and is captured by Kylo Ren.

Finn sees her abduction and changes his mind and he, Han and Chewbacca see the signs in the sky. The New Order’s mega-weapon powers up and destroys all the planets of the Republican Senate in the Hosnian system. With BB-8, our three heroes now travel to the resistance base on D’Qar, where we learn that Han and Leia had a son Ben who was under the tutelage of Luke, but who went over to the dark side. This precipitated Luke’s self-imposed exile and, R2-D2’s resulting shut-down mode.

A plan is made to disable the weapon and we get to see the remainder of the familiar characters, C-3PO (Daniels), Admiral Akbar (Tim Rose/Erik Bauersfeld) the squid-like leader of the Mon Calamari, Nien Nunb (Mike Quinn/Kipsang Rotich), the alien X-Wing fighter pilot, and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker was a consultant only in this case) himself. And the grand battle is enjoined.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is two hours and 15 minutes long and most of it is very familiar to fans. We’ve seen desert planets, forest planets, frozen planets and we see them all again here. The newest world is an ocean planet toward the end. We’ve seen the dog-fights between X-Wing and Tie fighters and there’s more of that as well. The comic relief formerly provided by C-3PO and R2-D2 was taken up mostly by the almost cowardly Finn. There are no spectacularly large monsters and several times, things happening in the background are more interesting than the focal point of the scene.

But the new character, Rey, adds relief to the almost humdrum familiar. She’s a Jedi who doesn’t know it and she’s forced to start developing her powers in this film. Daisy Ridley easily puts forth the best performance in the film. Harrison Ford is good, but it’s obviously a walk-through for him. Carrie Fisher, aging gracefully was marvelous, but a general? Nah! Mark Hamill’s talents were severely underused and I wanted more of Anthony Daniels.

Despite the body heat in the theater which negated any air-conditioning there may have been, I still enjoyed the film and wonder what the next episode will bring. And, if Lucas lasts that long, the one after that.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

201 Park Ave. South (17th Street), New York

Since March, the restaurant formerly known as Olives in the W Hotel has been transformed into Irvington. It was almost purely by happenstance that I chose this lovely place to be my 2,700th new dining experience. The website was malfunctioning and wouldn’t allow me to search for a table in the Union Square area. I switched to the Zagat website and found Irvington. The menu looked intriguing, as did the name and I made my reservation – which, by the way went through

The W Hotel in Union Square is undergoing renovations and the scaffolding prevented my seeing the full exterior view of the restaurant. But the sign suspended over the sidewalk was clear enough to indicate the entrance. Inside, all is beige and tan, framed in black, and bare-topped butcher-block tables flanked by simple wooden chairs. The lively crowd at the bar made it necessary to raise my voice to be heard by the young lady at the Captain’s Station. As she led me through the restaurant, she asked me what kind of table I would like. There were high-seated tables, bar stools, a special chef’s table at the back and regular tables. I chose a table for two near the chef’s table with a window to the kitchen. 

Above the window to the kitchen was a large cartoon artwork depicting the Headless Horseman returning to his wife’s bed chamber. She’s saying, “Of course I don’t think you’re inadequate! I love you!”

My question about the naming of this restaurant was answered immediately and I checked with my server, Edwin. He laughed when I suggested Washington Irving-ton, but confirmed my conclusion. He presented me with the single card menu (drinks on the reverse side) and took my water preference. When he returned and filled my water glass, he asked about a cocktail and I ordered my standard martini upon learning that the bar did stock Beefeaters gin. Edwin brought it promptly in an elegant stemmed glass, perfectly mixed. He read me the specials of the day and left me to choose my dishes.

The menu featured Starters, Flatbreads, Pastas, Rotisserie, Mains and Sides. My only question was on the size of the pasta dishes. Edwin advised me that only one of the three was dinner-sized and that the other two were smaller. I thanked him and made my order. 

Before he left to put in the order, I asked for the wine list. It was the most remarkable wine list I’ve ever seen. The wines, white on the left, red on the right were grouped according to price, and, except for the last group, all were quite affordable. The last group, though high priced, was still not prohibitive. I commented on this marvel to Edwin and ordered the 2012 Ca’ Marcanda “Promis,” a Tuscan varietal of Merlot and Shiraz. It was a delightful deep red, medium bodied and flavorful, but not overpowering for my dinner selections.

The first dish was one of the specials Edwin listed, a carrot soup – pureed carrots with parsley, mint and pignoli nuts. It was hot, not too carrot-y, not too sweet and the parsley and mint gave it a wonderful character. The pine nuts were a nice surprise. At this point, the young lady who led me to my table arrived to ask how I liked everything so far and how I pronounced my name. I told her and raved about the soup and wine list. She introduced herself as Zuly.

The next two dishes arrived together, but because of the portion sizes, it wasn’t a problem. The first was crispy baby artichokes – salsa verde and pecorino (I ordered it because the name of the dish sings so well to the tune of “Camptown Races”). They were an attractive rosy red and indeed crispy, but tender and flavorful, and topped with cress and shaved pecorino. A dish as pleasing to look at as to eat. The second was pappardelle with shaved zucchini, arugula walnut pesto and Marco Polo cheese. The pasta was obviously homemade, al dente and fresh and the unique pesto made without basil made it an adventure into new flavors, good ones.

Edwin and Zuly both checked up on me at this point and I gave them good reason to thank the chef. The next dish was the main course, short ribs with Brussels sprouts and celery root. I normally do not like the flavor of celery but in this case it accented the short ribs so that the resultant flavor was akin to the best beef Wellington and I told Edwin. The side dish sounds uninteresting but it was lovely. Wilted spinach was not as it suggests, deteriorated, but very tender and garlicky – delicious. With every dish finished it was dessert time.

The cheese platter consisted of “fresh curds” a mix of cheddar and gruyere aged 4 years, Hudson Valley Camembert (sheep and cow’s milk cheese), Grayson Meadow Creek washed rind five months aged raw cow cheese, and Blue Hills Bleu Wisconsin Roquefort-style sheep cheese. Served with crusty bread they were all marvelous and nicely ripe. All that was needed after this was a cup of hot dark coffee, which Edwin supplied.

From my table I could see a spiral staircase leading to a balcony overlooking the dining area and I asked Edwin if I could ascend it and take a picture. He said I could and I did. The view was charming. Irvington is a friendly, fun place with a great staff and delicious food and the perfect wine list. How could anybody go wrong here? When I asked for a business card upon leaving Zuly gave me one with her email address on it. Friendly, no?

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