28 January 2015

Lip-Smackin' Lobster Rolls: Smack Deli Review

It's official: lobster rolls are the new burgers in London. Since Burger & Lobster opened its doors with an enticing menu—burger, lobster or lobster roll—and even more enticing prices, cheap but chic crustacea have been in vogue in the city. The next move from the Burger & Lobster folks is Smack Deli, which opened up late last year in Binney Street, just across the road from Selfridges. The location is perfect for pre- or post-shopping sustenance. It isn't the only lobster roll joint in London either (see also Fraq's and Lobster Kitchen), but it's the first I've visited and I was very impressed.

Smack Deli is just around the corner from Bond Street Tube and just off a particularly busy stretch of Oxford street, but the deli was pretty calm when I visited for an early Sunday lunch. Given the infamous queues at Burger & Lobster, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to find a table at Smack, but it seems that the secret isn't quite out yet.

Inside, a huge, monochrome menu lays out the options. The key choice is: which lobster roll do you want? There are a variety of toppings from the spicy Mexican, to the 'healthy' California, with lettuce, cherry tomato, cucumber, avo, mayo and lime. All of the lobster rolls are £7.50 to take away or £9 to eat in, which is a pretty incredible deal. If you're cutting back on carbs (why?!), you can have a whole 1lb lobster instead, for a princely sum of £10 (£12 to eat in). On the side, you can order lobster chowder (£4/£4.80) or courgette fries (£3/3.60). I don't like courgettes and—fortunately, perhaps—there weren't any regular fries—so I just ordered the California roll and a soda (£2.50).

Once I had paid, I was given a buzzer, which would do its little thing once my food was ready, but by the time I had filled my own glass of 'natural' cola and nabbed a seat in the window, it was already buzzing. For a £9 sandwich, my lobster roll was seriously impressive. There was a lot of lobster meat and it was really juicy and flavoursome. The tomato and avocado worked really well with the flavours of the lobster and I would definitely order the California again. Also, the bread is epic: a delicious toasted brioche bun, that made the perfect foil for the lobster. Next time, I must try the chowder.

There are about 20 perching seats on the ground floor—you can choose between a view of some mid-century Scandi design or the funky graffitied windows looking out onto the well-heeled streets of Mayfair. In warmer climes, you can also sit on one of the pavement tables, and I'm sure by the time the weather warms up, the cat will be out of the bag about the Smack and it will be much harder to get a table.

Smack Deli. 26 Binney Street, London, W1K 5BN (Tube: Bond Street). Website. Twitter.

26 January 2015

"That's Not the History of Man — That's the History of Gods"

Last week was a week of movie connections. On Monday, I saw Selma with David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivola, who were also in A Most Violent Year, which also starred Oscar Isaac, who was in Alex Garland's new film Ex Machina, which I watched on Saturday. Ex Machina is also a film with many connections, although other than Isaac, it stars only a handful of characters. It is a fun and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller about one man's ambitious and megalomaniacal effort to build the ultimate artificial intelligence and secure his name in the history books.

At the start of the film, wide-eyed young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to spend one week with Nathan (Isaac), the brilliant, mysterious and reclusive CEO of his company, BlueBook, which is named for Wittgenstein's notebook and runs the world's biggest search engine. Caleb is dropped off by helicopter in the middle of nowhere, which is in fact where Nathan makes his home and runs his research lab. "I'm hot on high-level abstraction", Caleb tells his boss, quick to impress and seriously in awe of Nathan and the luxurious, high-tech lifestyle his boss leads, but Nathan just tells him to relax and they can be buddies.

Nathan soon reveals that the reason for Caleb's visit is that he wants the coder to run the Turing test on his newest AI creation, which he has named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Don't worry if you don't know what the Turing test is, because Caleb expositions it very well! Ava has Alicia Vikander's face and human arms but an undeniably robotic body, made of metal and glass, and as she moves, her joints whir slightly in a not unpleasant way. On a side note, every time Caleb says, "Ava", I kind of expect her to reply, "WALL-E", but alas, she does not.

As her 'father' owns the world's biggest search engine, Ava has the benefit of vast, vast amounts of data input from people's searches, and micro-expression data from image and video uploads. Caleb is impressed by Ava's ability to look, act and converse like a human and he also wonders whether it is possible for him to be attracted to an AI — she certainly seems to have taken a shine to him. But as the week progresses, Caleb is learning more about his boss, as well as about Ava, and not all of it is good. Nathan appears quite unstable at times, often getting wildly drunk and being rude and handsy with the help, and just generally giving the impression that he wants to build the best AI because he wants to be the best and to prove it to the world. For the second time in as many movies, could Oscar Isaac's ego be his biggest downfall?

Ex Machina is Garland's directorial debut and I was seriously impressed. Yes, it's a bit silly in places, but he has created a taut, intense thriller that will leave you guessing as to the outcome. Isaac and Vikander, in particular, put in brilliant performances; Gleeson is mainly playing the same character he usually plays, but he makes a likeable foil to his boss and his boss's AI. There is a lot of really interesting AI research going on in the real world at the moment, which is one of the reasons why Ex Machina is so compelling and so powerful. Garland makes us wonder how long it will be before Ava-like AIs are created—if they haven't been created already—and what might happen to humanity when it happens.

It's also nice to see another film about computer science, after the early stages of the field being depicted in The Imitation Game. And was it just me, or did I see a painting of Ada Lovelace on one of Nathan's cool, stark walls? If so, good on Garland and the film-makers.

24 January 2015

"I Spent My Whole Life Trying Not To Be a Gangster — and Now They're Gonna Own Me"

J.C. Chandor is a master of films that put good (or apparently good) people in impossible situations. Take the slick Margin Call, for example, or, in all likelihood, Chandor's next film, Deepwater Horizon. Both Margin Call and his latest movie, A Most Violent Year, are cautionary tales about the perils of doing business in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and about the power and allure of the American Dream and the fallout when it turns into a nightmare.

A Most Violent Year portrays an almost unrecognisable New York City in 1981—the titular violent year—a full decade before the city's fabled drop in crime rates. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is our American Dreamer and Good Person: an immigrant and self-made businessman who owns his own heating oil company. As the film opens, he is about to close a deal to buy a huge storage facility, which would give him control of the market, guaranteeing financial security and allowing him to fulfil his ambitious expectations. He puts down a huge deposit, which he risks losing if he cannot produce the necessary funds to purchase the facility within 30 days.

I wondered if the film was going to become a Merchant of Venice retelling, with Abel as Antonio, but instead, we start to see the fragility of Abel's position. His competitors and others are attacking his drivers and stealing his oil, and his drivers beg him to be allowed to carry guns with which to defend themselves, but Abel violently disagrees. Inevitably, it isn't long before one such attack gets out of hand and the consequent PR crisis is so nightmarish that it causes an ambitious DA (David Oyelowo) to investigate Abel's books more closely and a sure-thing bank loan to dissipate, leaving Abel high and dry.

He is also pretty high and mighty. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of an infamous Brooklyn gangster and it is implied that some of their wealth may have come from him or, at least, because of his behind-the-scenes influence. Abel, understandably, wants to make his own way and to be the architect of his own success, and he wants to do business in a way that he can be proud of and that will make his daughters proud. As the DA circles closer and the violent threats to his business become more serious, you can only wonder whether Abel's single-minded ambition will also be his downfall. "I've always been a bit more afraid of failure than of anything else," he says—and we believe him.

Isaac is great as the ambiguous protagonist whom you can't help but want to succeed. He isn't perfect, as Isaac's performance reflects, but he tries to do the right thing while also trying to triumph—he reminded me a bit of Tom Hardy's portrayal of the lead character in Locke. Chastain also puts in a strong performance playing against type: gangster's daughter, nouveau riche Anna is a far cry from the sweet, ethereal characters she usually plays. Underneath the bad dye job, the red lipstick and the tough veneer, though, Chastain gives Anna a certain vulnerability that seeps out from time to time — when she isn't busy shooting dead a wounded stag that her husband couldn't work up the courage to kill, that is.

Chandor's film is an interesting mix of killer instincts and instinctive killers. A Most Violent Year is a compelling tale of corruption, competition and complacency. It clocks in at just over two hours, but it will keep you on the edge of your seat as it weaves its way through a dirty, bloody, dangerous New York City.

23 January 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: Iris & June Review

I had heard great things at Victoria-based coffee shop and café Iris & June, but I'm so rarely in the Victoria area — it's a bit of a faff to get there from Bermondsey. On Saturday, though, all he stars aligned: I went to a lunchtime screening of American Sniper at the Curzon Victoria, which is just around the corner, and Iris & June was the perfect brunch spot.

Iris & June is on a quiet street, near the back entrance of House of Fraser. Inside, the décor is gorgeous: all clean white lines, and pops of mint, blue and grey. There are plenty of tables for drinking-in, and although it was a little dimly it, I did visit on a fairly brutal grey winter's day.

After nabbing a table, I went to order my coffee and food. Refreshingly, Iris & June serves hand-brewed coffee made with an Aeropress or a V60, but I opted for an Aeropress brew (£4) with the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe variety from Ozone that they were serving. Sandows Cold Brew was also on offer — maybe in another season or two! I love Acme's colourful cups at best of times, but I particularly liked the mint and grey combos resting on top of the La Marzocco.

The coffee was great — I always like a good Yirgacheffe — fruity, full-bodied and just what I needed to perk me up before a two-hour war film. It didn't hurt that it looked so great in the Acme cup and saucer. I may have found my new Instagram profile picture!

There are probably lots of nice breakfast and lunch items on sale at Iris & June, but if I'm honest, I didn't look any further than the fancy breakfast sandwich (£5.90) that immediately caught my eye: fried egg, sausages, homemade tomato relish and rocket on a crusty brown roll. It was massive but so tasty that I had to eat it all. It would have been rude not to.

If you're in the vicinity of Victoria or St James's Park, do stop by Iris & June: it's a lovely café.

Iris & June. 1 Howick Place, London, SW1P 1WG (Tube: Victoria or St James's Park). Website. Twitter.

21 January 2015

"Negotiate, Demonstrate, Resist"

I only found out about Odeon's Screen Unseen programme this month, but I was intrigued and bought a ticket for this month's screening on Monday night. Essentially, you pay £5 for an advance screening of a surprise film ("not your typical Hollywood fare. These are films that are edgy, intriguing, controversial and thought-provoking"), which is unveiled on the night. Odeon gives away a few clues on Twitter and I was pretty confident that I had worked out that we were going to see Ava DuVernay's Selma — the fact that the screening was on Martin Luther King Day only sealed the deal — and I was right.

Selma is the last film of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees that I've watched and it wasn't my favourite, but it is an important and well-told film with stand-out performances from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King. The film opens in 1964. King is about to receive his Nobel Peace Prize while his wife frets over his outfit. He wonders, wryly, what the brothers back home would think of his fancy attire. Meanwhile, a few months earlier in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, four young girls are full of admiration for Coretta but—within moments—the building is violently blown to pieces.

The film takes place in the few months between the Nobel ceremony in late 1964 and the protest marches in spring 1965 between the titular Selma, Alabama, and the state capital Montgomery, some 50 miles east. King is campaigning hard with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the lack of enforcement of the recent law permitting African Americans to vote in some states, especially Alabama where Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) prefers the status quo.

King and some of his fellow activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference visit a few Alabama towns to try to find a good test case. King is beaten up within moments of trying to check in to a hotel in Selma, and they realise that "this place is perfect". Town sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) helps them to create national headlines by ordering his troops to attack and scare off the peacefully protesting activists who have gathered outside the town hall to register to vote.

Several tragic deaths at the hands of the Selma law enforcement and a few more front-page headlines draw more focus on King and on Selma, but King knows that he has to do something really big to persuade Johnson, who—as he reminds King—is a politician not an activist and has more than one issue to consider, to take immediate action on voting rights. "Let's not start a second battle when we haven't won the first," Johnson urges.

Although we get some detail on King as a person and, in particular, as a husband, Selma is also a one-issue movie. And given the importance of this story in American—and world—history, it is hard to argue with that. Certainly, I knew embarrassingly little about the protest marches and the town of Selma—or that marches were so key in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—until the film was released. The film-makers didn't have the rights to King's real words, but writer Paul Webb did admirably, slipping only occasionally into grandiosity.

Oyelowo is also really, really good as King, conveying a sense of calm leadership combined with highly compelling charisma. The whole ensemble cast is good, in fact; I particularly liked seeing Dylan Baker (AKA creepy wife-killer from The Good Wife) playing a super-creepy J. Edgar Hoover. Overall, Selma is a powerful and uplifting story and although it is clearly never going to be as fun as Birdman or Grand Budapest Hotel, it is essential viewing nonetheless.

19 January 2015

Aim for the Sky Garden

Years ago in San Francisco, I took a free city tour that showed me some of the 'secret' rooftop gardens and other public spaces in some of the city's tallest buildings were a requirement of their planning permission. The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street (AKA the Walkie Talkie and the Jaguar melter) is a similar project, but on a much higher and much less secret scale. You can book a free ticket online and then ride the lift to the 35th floor where you can enjoy 360-degree views of London, including close-ups of its neighbours: the Shard, the Gherkin and the Cheese-Grater. Not everyone is a fan of London's new skyline, but I love its pleasing geometry.

The free tickets are all booked up until the end of March, but keep an eye on the Sky Garden's website and Twitter feed to find out when the next batch is released. My brother was super-organised and booked a group of us tickets for yesterday afternoon. We were allocated the 4.45 time-slot — sadly just after sunset — and then, having gone through an airport-style security scan (pro-tip: don't bring your selfie stick), the lift whisked us up to the top.

The Sky Garden looks like a particularly leafy, particularly high-altitude airport terminal, but that isn't really a bad thing. As soon as we stepped out of the lift, we were wowed by the amazing view of the Shard and South London. The sun had just set, but London was still bathed in a gorgeous pinky-orange light as we made our first circuit of the garden. There are steps along the west and east sides of the Sky Garden, which elevates the south-facing windows (with views of the Gherkin and the City) a few dozen feet above the northern end.

It must be said that there is a lot more emphasis on the sky than on the garden. There is a bar along the south-facing window, where cocktails ranged from £11–15. You can also book a table at a couple of restaurants, which give you slightly better views than you can get in the main gallery. The Sky Garden is quite dimly lit, but the spotlights on the garden and metal bars approximately at eye level make taking decent night-time photography quite challenging — by the time we made our second circuit, it was much darker and I found that my bright pink coat ended up getting reflected in a lot of my photos.

There is an open-air terrace but it wasn't open last night. Although it wasn't my best photo, one of my favourite spots was the Alaska Building in Bermondsey, which is close to where I live, although I couldn't quite pick out my house.

If you have a head for heights and would rather spend the Shard's admission price on two cocktails, I would definitely recommend trying to book tickets to the Sky Garden. There isn't a lot to do at the top, but the views are stunning, especially if you get lucky with a great sunset. Just remember to print out your tickets and try not to bring any liquids or anything else you wouldn't take through airport security!

The Sky Garden. 20 Fenchurch Street, London, EC3M 4BA (Tube: Aldgate). Website. Twitter.

18 January 2015

"I'm Better When It's Breathing"

When I saw the trailer for American Sniper, I didn't think I needed to see another film about a brilliant but troubled US soldier in the Iraq War — hey, I sat through all 2h10 of The Hurt Locker. But I do have a soft spot for Clint Eastwood's films, even though I haven't loved any of them since Gran Torino, and so I found myself spending yesterday afternoon watching another two-hour-ten-minuter and it turned out that my initial instincts were right. American Sniper is perfectly fine and features a good performance from Bradley Cooper as the eponymous sniper, but it just didn't feel very unique.

The film opens with a scene from the trailer: a US sniper on an Iraqi rooftop has to decide whether to shoot and kill a young boy carrying a grenade. He deliberates for a while and then, just as his finger tightens on the trigger, we flash back to the sniper's own youth, where his father teaches him how to shoot a deer and warns him that of the three types of people — sheep, wolves and sheepdogs — the latter is the only acceptable category.

Then we jump forward 20 years and Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is working as a ranch hand and rodeo star in his native Texas with his brother Jeff (Keir O'Donnell). When Chris sees the news about the 1998 US embassy bombings on TV, he decides that it is time to do his bit for his country and enlists as a Navy Seal. During training, he keeps messing up during target practice; "I'm better when it's breathing," he explains. Later, he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) and woos her with such lines as, "I'm not a redneck, I'm from Texas". They scarcely have time to get hitched before the Iraq War breaks out and Chris heads off to fight. They do have time to get pregnant, however, and Taya must go through her pregnancy physically alone and also, for the most part, emotionally alone.

Chris achieves great success on his tours, and soon becomes known as The Legend — the deadliest sniper in US history. He will do anything he can to protect the marines by guarding them from the rooftops and feels immense guilt over the ones he can't save. He feels less guilty about the Iraqis he has killed (save a couple of young boys who made the mistake of picking up weapons) because he truly believes his purpose in life is to save as many American soldiers as he can by any means possible.

With his fellow troops, Chris is funny, inspiring and brave; they all love and admire him. Back on home soil, though, he finds it hard to switch off. His eyes and ears are constantly primed to expect danger and treachery, and he finds it impossible to talk to Taya about his experiences. "Even when you're here, you're not here," she protests, asking Chris when it will be their time. "They can't wait and we can," he replies to her frustration.

There is an awful lot of sniping in the film's middle hour and this second act in particular felt baggy and in need of a tighter edit. That isn't to say that it was boring — Eastwood maintains a constant level of tension throughout — but the same story could have been told more efficiently, and for me, the final 20-ish minutes were the strongest part of the film, as the nature of PTSD and the other consequences of war and fighting for one's country are teased out more subtly. Miller is, as in Foxcatcher, somewhat underused but gives a fine performance as the loving wife who can no nothing but watch and wait as she lives with the aftermath of her husband's decisions. Cooper, meanwhile, does a great job playing a complex and evolving character.

Kyle was, in fact, a real American sniper and the film is based on his memoir of the same name. It is a deeply personal story, but it sometimes feels as though Eastwood is counting on its true-life pedigree to yield more gravitas than it might otherwise have achieved. American Sniper is a good movie, but not a truly great one, and certainly not Eastwood's best work.