Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Victor Frankenstein

Dinner and a Movie

Victor and Ken

By Steve Herte

This past week I paused at Thanksgiving to think about what I was thankful for. Number one, my good health, number two, my loving family, number three, being able to sing, and number four, finally learning – with excellent coaching and encouragement – to write the reviews I've always wanted to write. Back in high school, my attempts were poor shadows of writers I admired and my teachers' comments were far from encouraging (e.g. "Sounds like a comic book.")

I stopped writing for a very long time, only interrupted by the occasional sonnet at Christmas or a limerick here and there. Then, in my barbershop singing days I did a few parodies that are still hailed as funny today. But it wasn't until I met Ed and became acquainted with Dave (long distance, I admit, though someday we may meet) that I became convinced that I might make a second career out of writing. Thanks guys!

Friday made me realize that, though I love the Frankenstein story, I had never actually read Mary Shelley's original and had even missed the last installment in 1994, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I really must include them in my background to see the differences in the various modern productions. Enjoy!

Victor Frankenstein (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Paul McGuigan. Writers: Max Landis. Based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Bronson Webb, James McAvoy, Daniel Mays, Spencer Wilding, Robin Pearce, Andrew Scott, Callum Turner, Di Botcher, Eve Ponsonby, Will Keen, Louise Brealey, Nicola Sloane, & Freddie Fox. Color, Rated PG-13, 109 minutes. 

You know this story. A mad scientist, his unholy creation…”

The voice-over at both the beginning and the end of the movie is by a much abused, hunchback circus clown who will be transformed into the character known as Igor Strausman (Radcliffe). Between being hit with various objects and kicked by his fellow clowns while the audience laughs in true schadenfreude, he sees the anatomy of creatures and performers around him, particularly that of the aerialist, Lorelei (Findlay), and studies it. Until one day, when Victor Frankenstein (McAvoy) attends a performance and Lorelei falls from her trapeze, he miraculously knows to snap her collarbone back into place so that she can breathe. Victor is amazed by his quick thinking and his knowledge and a famous friendship is born.

But Barnaby (Mays), the owner of the circus, will not let the hunchback leave without a fight and locks him in an animal’s cage. Using magnets, Victor frees the baffled prisoner and together they escape through an underground passage. Unfortunately, in the melee, the knife thrower kills fellow clown Rafferty (Webb) and the circus puts the blame on the hunchback. There is a police investigation including accusations of robbery and murder.

Inspector Turpin (Scott) sees through the lies told by Barnaby and deduces what actually happened. He knows that dead animal parts have gone missing from the zoo and he already suspects Frankenstein of being at the heart of it, but has no proof.

Back at Victor Frankenstein’s house, the hunchback is re-dubbed Igor Stausman and painfully cured of his ailment. The abscess which formed his hump is jabbed and drained by a process akin to siphoning gas from a car and his posture is forcefully corrected by ramming him against a post and strapping on a brace to support his back. All the while the sound of cracking bones and sinews drowns out the musical background.

Conversations with Igor bolster Victor’s ego and embolden him to continue his experiments in bringing life from death. Soon the two hastily stitch together a monster that would have been hideous to a normal chimpanzee. Inspector Turpin pays them a visit and confronts Victor with accusations of going against the will of God. But, since he does not have a warrant to search the place, he leaves with his compatriot Alistair (Turner) to hopefully return with one.

When a jolt of electricity gets the “Chimpenstein” breathing, Victor is elated and sets up a demonstration at the college where he teaches. In front of five bored attendees and Lorelei, they repeat the experiment and at first nothing comes from the creature but blowflies. Young Lord Finnegan (Fox) is gleeful at Victor’s failure. But when Igor turns up the voltage to full and the force sends Victor across the room, the monster awakens, stands up, breaks its bonds, and races around the room and out the door. Victor and Igor are forced to kill it before it escapes. Finnegan is dually impressed and vows his support on future experiments.

But Turpin will not be deterred. While Victor works and Igor goes dancing with Lorelei (they’re becoming lovers), Turpin returns to Victor’s front door with a force of policemen and they batter their way in. Igor returns just in time to save Victor from the fanatically raving Turpin (again, through an underground passage). Only by getting his hand caught in the huge gears of Frankenstein’s machinery does Turpin lose the chase.

With nowhere to go, Frankenstein turns to Finnegan, who offers his castle in Scotland as a workshop and his fortune to hire a staff and rebuild his apparatus there. From a previous exciting revelation realized in a conversation with Igor, Victor cobbles together his new Prometheus (Wilding) using two hearts and two sets of lungs. The new creation is much larger than the chimp and the two conclude that the only way they can get enough power to animate it is with lightening. Feeling that he’s the one being hunted by the police, though, Igor does not follow Victor to Scotland. That is, until he learns of Finnegan’s hidden agenda to take credit for Victor’s research and dispose of the “madman” when he no longer needs him.

It’s an interesting twist on the familiar tale by Mary Shelley. I admire Daniel Radcliffe’s performance both as a hunchback – a body-cramping stunt even if you’re a bodybuilder – and as a sensitive, but brilliant scientist. I still see the Harry Potter in him though in several scenes. James McAvoy is remarkable in that you never know where his character will go. One minute he’s the society gentleman, the next, he’s a raving lunatic spouting horrifically inappropriate terms at a society gathering. Andrew Scott is almost his match. Coolly citing law at one moment and then going fanatically religious the next, until he’s removed from the case by his incredulous police chief. Jessica Brown Findlay is lovely and caring, but her character pales next to the male leads.

The stage sets are fantastic, especially for pre-Victorian England, with outsized machinery and fabulous copper “balloons” to draw the lightening. There’s even a scene where we see Big Ben just being completed in the background. The story is imaginative and keeps elements of the original intact while bringing in what could have been. The soundtrack kept the excitement or joy or melancholy of the moment going without being intrusive. And…of course, the costumes were accurate and beautifully designed.

Aside from the gruesome monsters, dinner platters of body organs (we assume) and a modicum of gore, Victor Frankenstein is clean of vulgarity and unnecessary licentiousness. If your child will not get scary dreams from it, by all means, parents, they can safely see this film. I especially liked the sprinkling of humor throughout. When Igor enthuses over getting the chimp to breathe and asks Victor if he has any idea how great this is, all he gets in response is a wry smile and, “I have an inkling.” For those who hate sequels, this movie definitely hints at one in the end through a note from Frankenstein to Igor stating, “I may have occasion to call on you again.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Aretsky’s Patroon
160 East 46th St. (Lexington/3rd Avenue), New York

Somewhere over 10 or 12 years ago, I first dined at Patroon (no “Aretsky” in the title then) with Helene and I remember it fondly. When the opportunity came around to return and count it as a “new” restaurant this week, I took it gladly. I learned that the restaurant has been in continuous operation for 19 years and was formerly Christ Cella, which closed in 1995. Ken Aretsky came from working at the now famous 21 Club and decided to combine the clubby atmosphere of the past with updated recipes of the present and a fashionable rooftop lounge.

The white brick and block glass exterior make Aretsky’s unmissable on the street and the large black letters above the brown wind-guard entry abet the obviousness. A young lady at the Captain’s Station on the left greeted me and took my coat and hat before leading me to my table in the main dining area. The walls range in color from pumpkin to cream and the lighting is ample without being excessively bright. Photos hang on the walls taken by various noted photographers.

My server, Jim, arrived and, as he took my water preference, presented me with the food/drink menu and the wine list. The menu is easy to read and simply organized into Appetizers, Entrées, and Market (Sides) categories. When Jim returned, he asked if I desired a cocktail, and, getting an affirmative from him that they had Beefeaters, I ordered my favorite martini. Whoops, he came back quickly with, “We have another gin equally as good, Langley’s No. 8.” “English?” “Yes.” I agreed to it. It was a close match, milder than I’m used to, but satisfying and a good martini.

When I had almost decided on my meal, Jim asked if I had any questions. I told him that my first and second courses were chosen, but the entrée was a dilemma. The one dish I wanted had uninteresting sides while another dish had a side I wanted to try. Jim answered that they could recombine the first dish with the side from the second and I was delighted. “Do it.” And he left to input my order while I perused the wine list.

Finding a wine under $100 was almost a ludicrous search, but I found three possibilities to go with my meal. Jim deferred the decision to Jody, the sommelier. Jody came up with a fourth option I had missed. It was a 2012 cabernet franc, Irouleguy “Herri Mina” by Jean-Claude Berrouet, from the Basque region of France. What a delicious red! Ruby red in color, it had a medium body richness to it and yet was fruity enough to pair with all my dishes.

Jim had to help me remember whether I preferred east coast to west coast oysters (east coast, larger and brinier, west coast, smaller and sweeter) and soon a half dozen Kusshi oysters from Vancouver were served to me on ice accompanied by ramekins of tomato catsup, horseradish, and brine sauces. He mentioned something about getting an oyster fork, but was too busy to accomplish getting one. No matter. I ate them in the classic way, straight from the shell, and they were excellent.

A different server brought the bread and a small crock of sweet butter. Still warm, I could smell the wonderful “fresh baked” aroma across the table. Topped with flakes of sea salt, the flavor almost reminded me of fine pretzels. Jim called them “pretzel-brioche,” which was an accurate description. I soon finished the three I was served and six more came in their place later on.

My second course was one new to Aretsky’s. Called oxtail dumplings in consommé, it was three snow-white packets of delicate dough stuffed with rich beefy flavor and festooned with Hen of the Woods mushrooms. I tried to make this dish last as long as I could. At the same time, I eagerly anticipated the main course.

The venison was medium rare and sliced to show the moist redness inside. This was the dish I had adjusted to be served with what would have accompanied the duck dish, the cashew-apricot wild rice and grilled scallion. The intense flavor of wild rice was effectively moderated by the nutty, fruity tastes of the cashews and apricots. It was divine with the venison.

Have I told you I adore mushroom? The side dish was wild mushrooms on bleu cheese grits. There was such a mound of tender julienned mushrooms I didn’t see the grits beneath and I temporarily forgot it until I cleared the surface. Two tables of people could sense my pleasure when I tasted the mushrooms and the grits together. It was amazing, woodsy, earthy, and decadent. Aretsky’s had done it again.

The only things on my table I didn’t finish were three of the six rolls. Dessert time arrived and I saw grapefruit zabaglione on the list and stopped there. Served in a hollowed-out half of a grapefruit was ruby red grapefruit pieces, campari granite and dolce de leche. I almost finished it before taking a picture of it. All I needed after that was a double espresso.

Aretsky’s Patroon is still a class act but without being stuffy. I felt completely comfortable and at home with the congenial and helpful staff. We even exchanged jokes. The food is excellent and the wine superb. The prices are above normal for New York, but worth it. When I first scanned the menu, I noticed right away that there were no prices on it. This is old school for, “If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford it.” As for the wines, I read a story about Ken Aretsky having had a $10,000 wine on the list and one couple actually ordered it. But not wanting to lose it and thinking of it as more a conversation piece, he talked them out of it as being inappropriate for lunch. Someday, I’d like to meet him.

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