24 November 2015

Everything Comes Full Circle — Carol Movie Review

In the toy department of a busy New York department store just before Christmas 1952, two women meet. Therese (Rooney Mara) is young and wide-eyed, a shopgirl who would like to become a photographer. Carol (Cate Blanchett), looking for a Christmas present for her young daughter, is older, wealthy and, seemingly, more confident. During their brief encounter, the women click but although the simple transaction should spell the end of their relationship, fate intervenes. Todd Haynes' new film Carol, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name (originally published as The Price of Salt) tells their story.

Carol is polished, experienced and word-perfect but underneath her well-rehearsed exterior lies a woman who is afraid. Primarily, she fears that her soon-to-be-ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), will gain full custody of their daughter Rindy and prevent her from visiting. At a deeper level, however, she fears that the world will never understand whom she is nor allow her to be whom she wants to be. "What use am I to [Rindy] if I'm living against my own grain?" she asks.

Therese doesn't really know who she is or what she wants. She likes taking photographs but lacks direction. "I have a friend who told me I should be more interested in humans," she tells Carol. She has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), who wants to go away with her to Europe, but she has little interest in that. Instead, as Christmas arrives and passes, Carol and Therese go on an adventure of their own — a road trip that will have consequences for their relationship and the rest of the lives — sleeping in shabby motels in small towns in the Midwest, including — presciently, perhaps — Waterloo, Iowa.

Haynes' film is deliberate and lingering. Given that not very much happens, the two-hour running time might seem excessive in less careful hands, but with a powerful script, in which words left unsaid become more even more powerful than the dialogue, and with standout performances from both Blanchett and Mara, Carol is a cinematic treat to be savoured. These two very different actresses bring their unique talents to their portrayals of the conflict and struggle their characters face: Blanchett as the sophisticated femme fatale, Mara as the ingenue.

The detail is, of course, immaculate, especially the costumes and music. It is hard not to notice Carol's flawless red nail varnish throughout most of the film, until finally, we see her real nails; they are far less perfect. As you would expect from a film where image — self-image, appearance and the way others perceive us — is so key, we often see the characters' faces through misted windows, reflected in mirrors and captured in photographs. Carol is suspenseful, sad and really rather beautiful. Is it too early in the season to call the Oscar(s)?

23 November 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: Monocle Café

Back when I used to live in Marylebone, I always thought that Chiltern Street was one of the loveliest streets in the area. In fact, we almost bought a flat there six years ago, which, given the arrival of a certain restaurant, would have been an incredibly prudent investment. Since moving south of the river, I don't go to Marylebone quite so frequently but with a rare, plan-free day off work on Friday, I decided to do a little shopping and brunching in my old neighbourhood.

My destination was The Monocle Café, a gorgeous little eatery and design haven located on a particularly pretty red-brick mansion block on Chiltern Street. Monocle's Tokyo café was on my list for my trip to Japan but I didn't quite have time to visit. The London café looks quite similar to its Tokyo sister, with its light wood interiors and black accent pieces, but is rather more petite. There are a few perching seats upstairs, a basement seating area (I didn't go down to look as there were no free tables) and a sort of cosy living-room space at the back, which was where I sat.

Monocle serves cold brew in summer but no hand-brewed filter coffee so I ordered a cortado (£3) and scoured the interesting lunch menu. I thought about ordering the taco rice and the avo and halloumi sandwich, but in the end, I went for the chicken and quinoa salad (£7). There are a few Japanese-inspired choices on the menu too, such as the chicken udon soup and the shrimp katsu sandwich. If you are looking for a lighter bite, there is a selection of cakes, pastries and other sweet treats.

Back in the 'living room', I enjoyed perusing a couple of recent copies of Monocle magazine while I waited for my coffee and food. I hadn't read the magazine for ages, but I think I have been tempted to subscribe: it has the perfect combination of design, travel, culture and global affairs.

My cortado was very good indeed. Monocle uses Workshop coffee and the latte art remained even after a little accident on its way to the table. Naturally, I also loved the little wooden tray it arrived on, and the monogrammed Monocle chocolate. The salad was also excellent: the tartness of the red cabbage contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the pumpkin and, with the quinoa and the chicken, it felt like a healthier meal than your average brunch.

Even after the Friday lunchtime rush, the café was bustling and busy. Perhaps later in the day, it's a better destination for working or writing. Later still, and there are beers, wines and cocktails on offer. In other words, Monocle is a true all-day venue. On my way out, I had to try really hard not to buy anything from the small but well-curated shop area, which sells magazines, books and travel accessories; the Monocle travel guides look particularly excellent.

Monocle Café. 18 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 7QA (Tube: Baker Street). Website. Twitter.

18 November 2015

Six Travellers in Search of an Author — A Guide to Berlin Review

If you are looking for a practical guidebook to help you navigate the city of Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov's 1925 short story A Guide to Berlin, despite its name, probably isn't the best place to start. It does, however, capture the very essence of the city during a particular details, focusing on the minute details many would consider mundane. Likewise, Gail Jones's new novel of the same name explores certain aspects of the city—especially its literary and cultural heritage—through the eyes of six foreigners.

Cass, an Australian, has just arrived in Berlin and has ambitions of being a writer — "a universal affliction," she confesses. While visiting the Nestorstrasse house in which Nabokov lived during the 1930s, Cass meets Marco, a literature student turned estate agent and fellow Nabokov fan. Convinced that she will fit in perfectly with his group of close friends — all admirers of Nabokov — Marco persuades Cass to join them at their next gathering. The others are, for the most part, writers or would-be writers: Gino from Rome, Victor from the US, and Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo.

They meet once or twice a week to talk and drink, rotating nomadically through different apartments. Each time, they share stories with one another. These aren't long and comprehensive autobiographies, but single 'speak-memories', structured very much like the best short stories, focusing in on the most intricate details of significant events in their lives and of their own connections to Nabokov. Structured, in some ways, like Nabokov's own A Guide to Berlin. These stories are always beautiful and often sad and they make Cass, and thus the reader, feel an intimate connection to the storyteller even though she knows very little about her new friends.

The friends become close, seeking comfort in one another as the bitter coldness of the Berlin winter begins to set in. In the third act, however, something happens that completely alters the tone and mood of the novel, bringing into question the robustness of these new friendships and testing the loyalty of the friends.

Like the speak-memories it includes, Jones's novel is beautifully constructed, intriguing and with meticulous attention to detail. Even before the darker pages of the final section, a sense of loneliness and dolefulness echoes through the words; the inescapable loneliness of travellers — expats and exiles — who aren't home and can't go home, perhaps. The cold greyness of city contrasts starkly with the bright pops of colour — the tulips and neon signs — which don't seem to offer much comfort. Interestingly, the Australian cover of the novel depicts the greyness and the snow, while the UK edition bursts with colour in its design inspired by a U-bahn map.

Disclaimer: A Guide to Berlin will be published in the UK in January 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

16 November 2015

Mussels in Brussels

Saturday was my birthday, but both my parents also have big birthdays this month and so my brother and I had planned a surprise day trip to Paris for them. We spent a lot of time in Paris as a family when I was younger and we all have many fond memories of the city. As such, I was utterly shocked and saddened by the news of the brutal attacks in the city on Friday night. Needless to say, I didn't sleep very much that night, watching the news unfold and reflecting on the awfulness of it all.

We decided to meet as planned at St Pancras station on Saturday morning to make a new plan. We wanted to show our solidarity with Paris, but it didn't feel right to go there on a trip that was supposed to be a joyful, celebratory occasion. The Eurostar staff, to their credit, were excellent. They allowed us to change our tickets to go to Brussels instead, and we were even able to upgrade to Standard Premier and to go to the club lounge before boarding. We had our second breakfast of the day in the lounge (the third came on the train) and I played with the iPad-operated coffee machine. The filter coffee was only OK, but the machine was pretty cool.

We arrived in Brussels at noon and the weather was not the greatest (it was cold and pretty rainy), but we walked from the Gare du Midi into the city centre via Rue Blaes, which is a great shopping street. There are dozens of lifestyle boutiques (such as Superstraat), design and furniture shops, and vintage emporia. We had a lunch date and so didn't have time to browse, but if you are looking for good shopping in the city, this is a great place to head for.

For lunch, we went to a rather traditional restaurant called Aux Armes de Bruxelles, located on rue des Bouchers in the heart of the old city. The restaurant itself is a little old-fashioned, but the food was good. We shared some oysters to start and then variously enjoyed steaks, mussels (not pictured!) and other classic Belgian fare. For pudding, of course I had to try the Belgian waffles, which were pretty good. The staff were very friendly and accommodating too.

Having done very little research, we didn't have very grand plans for the afternoon — the persistent drizzle didn't help — but we did some window-shopping in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a series of grand, glass-roofed 19th century shopping arcades. I picked up some delicious chocolates from Pierre Marcolini.

Another of Brussels' most famous tourist spots is the Manneken Pis, a statue of a small peeing boy. The boy is often kitted out in a costume provided by a local group or organisation. Saturday's monochrome attire was courtesy of the Cercle des Sciences. We also spotted another famous Belgian: Tintin! The street art in Brussels is great and I always used to enjoy the Tintin books (there is a shop on Rue de la Colline, if you are a fan).

Grand Place is the main square in the historic city centre and has lots of rather grand buildings. As it began to get dark, the buildings lit up and it was very pretty and cosy-feeling. Eventually, the Maison du Roi, which houses the city museum, was illuminated with Tricolor colours in solidarity with the people of Paris.

We did a little more window shopping before the rain drove us into La Taverne de la Brouette, a cosy little restau-bar on the Grand Place. The beer drinkers enjoyed some Belgian craft beers, but having consumed a large amount of coffee and Champagne over the course of the day, I stuck to a soft drink. Then, it was time to head back to the station for our train home. We didn't have time to ride on the Grande Roue de Paris, but it did look very pretty, all lit up by night.

Our time in Brussels was all too short and unplanned and I would like to come back to explore the shops and the foodie scene and to try some of the speciality coffee shops that I identified but didn't have time to visit. OR Espresso Bar in the city centre and Bocca Moka and Le Café du Sablon a little further out all looked like good bets.

The birthday festivities continued yesterday, when we went to Hixter Bankside for my birthday lunch. The roast chicken was marvellous, as were the puddings (the white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake is divine) and cocktails. It was a strange and often sad weekend to be celebrating birthdays, but I felt grateful to be able to spend it with family — and to know that my Paris-based friends are all safe. We will be making a return visit to Paris — and soon, I hope.

13 November 2015

Et tu, Woz — Steve Jobs Movie Review

Vulture had a great post this week that reviews the opening lines of 17 new books. I'm a speed-reader and I rarely remeber the first lines of a novel but at the cinema, I find that the opening scene is crucial for establishing the tone and structure of the whole film. I was particularly annoyed, then, to miss the first few minutes of Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs biopic because the Curzon didn't show any adverts and the only visible employee, who was busy making soy lattes, assured me I had ten minutes before the film started. It's the first time I've been back to the Curzon since they ditched their weekend earlybird screenings, losing my custom and my goodwill, but I was tempted by a £5 screening on my day off today. They haven't won me back.

Steve Jobs focuses on the eponymous visionary and controversial Apple co-founder (played here by Michael Fassbender) at three crucial moments in his career. Three product launches, in fact: the Mac in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. We don't see the launches themselves; just Jobs's last-minute preparations with his head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), and last-minute confrontations with the same three ghosts of Jobs past.

Although the structure is, necessarily, artificial, it works rather well, allowing you to dive back into Jobs's life and see his latest creation and whether he has changed (of course not!). Even if you didn't know that Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, this would be immediately evident. The dialogue is extensive, fast-paced and sharp. As with The Social Network, which was also penned by Sorkin, there is a lot of tech speak and geekery, and a central character who has neither the time nor the inclination to explain himself to those who cannot keep up.

At each launch, Jobs talks with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), who, each time, asks him to acknowledge the Apple II crew. Each time, Jobs refuses, frustrating his friend with his arrogance and single-mindedness. He is the ghost of Jobs present. Then there is John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the ghost of Jobs past: his one-time boss and mentor, with whom he discusses his adoption and parentage. Later, of course, the two fall out.

The most interesting relationship is between Jobs and his daughter Lisa, the ghost of Jobs future. Her mother, Jobs's ex Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), brings Lisa to each launch. Each time she asks for more money. At the Mac event, he refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter but, backed into a corner with only a few minutes before he has to go on stage and swayed by her drawing on Mac Paint, he agrees to Chrisann's request. His relationship with Chrisann remains volatile throughout the film although he does begin to accept Lisa into his life and it is at these moments when the film is at its most emotional. Jobs doesn't become more likeable, but you get the sense that perhaps there is more to the man than the revered technology genius.

I enjoyed the film: Sorkin's script is very funny in places, although it's a distancing, not a warm, humour as we laugh at Jobs's tireless arrogance. He variously compares himself to a god-like figure, a Beatle, Einstein, Caesar and Alan Turing. "I don't want people to dislike me," he says. "I'm just indifferent to whether people dislike me." He describes the Mac launch as the second most significant event of the 20th century, after World War Two. His disdain for others — colleagues, family, customers — is always apparent.

This is not the stuff of sympathetic characters, but Fassbender's performance is very impressive. His Jobs is not pleasant but he is charismatic, passionate and compelling. The human touches are left to other characters, particularly Winslet's long-suffering Joanna, who stands by Jobs, encouraging him to do the right thing. "I'm the one who has to explain you to people," she complains. Sadder are his arguments with Woz, who tries to be a friend despite what has happened in business. "You can be decent and gifted at the same time," Woz argues. Jobs is unconvinced.

Ultimately, although Boyle's film is compelling and entertaining, I left the cinema feeling unsatisfied. For me, it just didn't have enough heart. That may be down to the subject, but Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed in The Social Network, was no more sympathetic and yet that film is still moving and has an emotional core, perhaps because it allows you to get to know the central characters intimately enough to really care what happens to them. Jobs's, and thus Boyle's, single-minded focus on the products over the people creates a heavy air of detachment. Even the score often emulates the iconic Mac start-up sound.

9 November 2015

Theo's Pizzeria: Pizza Paradise by Way of Camberwell Green

Regular readers will know that November is birthday season in my family: my parents and I all have birthdays during the first half of the month. This year is a big birthday for both of my parents, and my brother have planned some surprise celebrations for them this Saturday, which is my birthday. Instead, I gathered a few friends for a casual lunch in Camberwell on Saturday. 'Laid-back', 'pizzeria' and 'cocktails' were all high on my wishlist and so Theo's Pizzeria came up trumps.

Theo's opened last month on Grove Lane, just off the bustling Camberwell Church Street. The restaurant occupies two rooms, with a series of tables and booths. It isn't the most spacious of venues, although the minimalist, white interiors make it feel larger, and the large front windows mean that it is bright and airy inside, even on a dull, rainy November day. As there were seven of us, I booked a table. There were a few smaller tables available over the lunch period, but it's worth booking if you are a larger group.

We took our seats at a table near the windows and pondered our drinks options. There are a handful of wines, a reasonably priced Prosecco, a few beers (including table beer from The Kernel) and several cocktails. Most of the cocktails are around £6, including the Basilico Fizz (gin, Prosecco, lemon and basil), which I ordered and which was refreshingly sharp.

Unsurprisingly, the main courses on offer at Theo's are all pizzas, but there a few antipasti choices available to start. We ordered one of each: olives (£3), garlic foccaccia (£3; basically, a delicious mini pizza), aubergine parmigiana (£5) and bombetta (£6). The latter was the clear stand-out: a super-delicious, posh version of pigs-in-blankets, with pork shoulder and provola cheese wrapped in pancetta. Next time, I would definitely order a whole portion just to myself! Naturally, they all disappeared before I thought about photographing them.

Then came the main event. The Neapolitan pizzas range in price from £5.50 for a marinara to £10 for the sausage or the calzone. When I visit a pizza joint for the first time, I usually order the margherita because if the tomato, cheese and base are good enough, no further toppings are needed. This time, though, I was drawn to the Camberwell scotch bonnet 'nduja (£9). 'Nduja think I enjoyed it? Hell yes! The pizzas are cooked in the wood-fired oven and the crust was deliciously puffy and chewy. 'Nduja, if you haven't had it, is a sort of spreadable spicy sausage, which contrasted very well with the creamy deliciousness of the mozzarella. I would have liked a little more 'nduja on the pizza, but there were also slices of soppressata salami on top.

The pizzas were pretty big, but so tasty that I didn't have any problems finishing mine. If you are bested by your pizza, the staff will box it up for you to take home (they do take-out too). Despite the busyness, the staff were friendly and efficient, and we had a lovely, relaxed meal. Until Pizza Pilgrims open up a south-east London location (and possibly even beyond), Theo's Pizzeria will definitely be my local pizza joint of choice.

Theo's Pizzeria. 2 Grove Lane, Camberwell, London, SE5 8SY (Denmark Hill Overground). Website. Twitter.

5 November 2015

Autumnal Brunch at Brick House

The clock had barely struck midnight on 1 November when autumn finally arrived. October in London was mild this year, so it was a surprise to wake up to cool weather and thick fog on Sunday morning. I left home early, heading for East Dulwich via Peckham Rye, which looked beautiful in the ethereal mist.

I met some friends for brunch at Brick House, a bakery and café based just off Lordship Lane on Zenoria Street. Brick House is famous for its sourdough breads, especially the Peckham Rye (geddit?), but you can also enjoy a coffee, breakfast or brunch in the light, airy café. It's a lovely, high-ceilinged space with minimalist décor and just about enough tables for the weekend brunch crowd.

There are no hand-brewed filter coffees on the menu so I ordered a flat white (I hadn't yet reached the limit of my weekly lactose quota and was in the mood for a longer drink). They serve Square Mile coffee and the flat white was very good indeed with an excellent latte art heart; one worthy of a Twitter heart!

Then it was time to make some brunch decisions. Unsurprisingly, most of the dishes involved sourdough bread or toast, which suits me fine. In the end, I ordered the fried eggs, avocado and greens on toast (£8; you can switch the avo for bacon if you prefer). The food was very tasty although not quite served as I was expecting. Avocado on toast usually involves the avocado being smashed onto the toast rather than an intact avocado half, but I just did some of my own smashing. I would also have preferred the eggs poached instead of fried, but the world probably already has more than enough poached-egg-heavy brunch menus, I suppose. They also serve avocado on toast (£3), which was in fact smashed and served with chilli. Next time I might try that and the boiled egg and soldiers (£3.50).

The good news was that I still had room for a sweet treat. There were several different cakes, pastries and cookies on offer, but my friend and I decided to split one of the cinnamon buns (£4). It was still warm from the oven, drenched in sticky cinnamon sauce and liberally sprinkled with pecans. £4 is a little pricey but these bad boys are worth every bite.

The fog had dissipated slightly by the time we left and the sun even came out as we strolled over the Rye on the way home. If you're looking for a casual, bread-focused weekend brunch spot (or weekday breakfast or lunch spot, for that matter), Brick House is well worth a visit. I just wish I had bought a loaf to take home with me; it would have made my breakfasts this week a lot less sad!

Brick House. 1 Zenoria Street, East Dulwich, London SE22 8HP (East Dulwich rail). WebsiteTwitter.