2 September 2014

"Whatever I've Done, I Have To Remember"

Rowan Joffe's new film Before I Go to Sleep is a faithful adaptation of the S.J. Watson novel of the same name — it's a tense, taut psychological thriller that employs one of my favourite narrative devices: the unreliable narrator. Usually, though, unreliable narrators are trying to deceive their audience but in this case, Christine (Nicole Kidman) has "atypical psychogenic amnesia" and as such, she wakes up every morning with no clue who she is and no idea about anything that has happened in the 15 years since the accident that caused her memory loss. As a result, Before I Go to Sleep is a sort of hybrid of Groundhog Day and Memento.

Christine's husband Ben (Colin Firth) seems at first to have the patience of a saint. Each morning, he explains to Christine who she is, who he is and when they got married. He shows her a wall of photos and tells her where she can find everything. A few weeks earlier, and unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has started seeing a neurologist, Dr Nash (Mark Strong), who is trying to help her recover some of her short-term memory. He gives her a video camera and tells her to record messages to herself each time she manages to claw back a glimpse into her past, and then he calls her each morning to remind her to check out the camera so that she doesn't have to start from square one.

Christine starts to discover that Ben is hiding things from her. Why doesn't he want to talk about her accident, for instance, or about her friend Claire (Anne-Marie Duff)? Of course, the trouble is that Christine doesn't know if he really is keeping secrets for malicious reasons or because he can't face the pain — both his own and Christine's — of telling the same traumatic stories from scratch time and time again. In many ways, the audience is in a similar position: a lot of the time, we have no idea whether or not Ben is telling the truth.

Before I Go to Sleep is tightly edited, clocking in at just over 90 minutes, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, thanks to an ever-present, unsettling tension. In fact, some of the more excitable members of the audience at the preview screening I attended last night had trouble staying on their seat during some of the more violent moments. And there are a fair few shocks and violent moments, and enough twists and turns to keep those who haven't read the book guessing.

These things all make Before I Go to Sleep a decent, watchable thriller, but the performances elevate it into something more interesting. I don't always like Kidman's characters, but I think she was a good casting choice on this occasion. Christine is a role she often plays — the highly strung, fragile femme who is forced to draw on an inner strength she never knew she had. Firth, meanwhile, is getting very good at playing creepy, and it's impressive how his Ben switches from devastated, devoted husband to something that, in Christine's eyes, is highly sinister. Strong doesn't get as much screen time, but he's a nice contrast to Firth's character as the good doctor — or is he?

1 September 2014

Livin' in the Future

I've wanted to go a Secret Cinema events for yonks: what's not to like about a surprise movie screening in a secret location, with a troop of actors playing characters from the film and an assortment of other experiences relating to the film? Well, the price, for one thing: this summer's event cost £53 — a little more than your average multiplex ticket, even in London. And although the surprise is part of the fun, you would be disappointed if it turned out to be a film you didn't like or — worse — didn't know.

Sometimes, though, the film is announced when tickets go on sale and when I heard that this summer's film would be Back to the Future, I knew it was time to find out the secret. It turned out to be one of the biggest and most ambitious Secret Cinema experiences yet, with a replica of the town of Hill Valley being constructed in a site near the Olympic Park in Stratford. So ambitious, in fact, that the first few performances had to be cancelled because the organisers hadn't received full local-authority approval, but they soon got back on track.

Part of the fun is the preparation. Once you have bought your ticket, you can register online to receive your new film identity and are given a list of items to bring. As Ruby, a Hill Valley High School student, I was asked to bring my homework, some red sunglasses, some 3D glasses, some family photos and a photo of my favourite star. One of my friends was assigned to work in Roy's Records, and she had to bring along her favourite record. Once you've factored in a suitable 1950s outfit, the costs can mount up quite quickly, but you can, of course, choose which props to bother with.

For this event, Secret Cinema also set up the Hill Valley Stores — a pop-up shop (Ruth's Frocks) and a pop-up café (Lou's Diner) just down the road in Shoreditch. After I finished work on Friday, I met my friends there and we had a shake in Lou's Diner and bought a few accessories from the shop: 3D specs, banners and Hill Valley rosettes.

Then it was time to catch the, er, streetcar (number 26 bus) to Hackney Wick, the meeting point for the event. We walked ten minutes to the entrance and were asked to hand in our phones and cameras (they hadn't be invented yet, of course), and went on in to the Hill Valley Fair. As the final screening was last night, I think it's now safe to write about the event now.

Hill Valley was huge inside. There was so much to do and to explore, and although we tried to see as much as possible, we could easily have spent all day there, rather than our few allocated hours. I bought a disposable camera, which served mainly to remind me how amazing digital cameras are. Some of the earlier outdoor shots were OK, but those taken indoors or when it started to get dark were pretty poor. It was nice to have some record of the evening, though, and also quite liberating not to feel the pressure to snap photos on my phone throughout the night.

We had a burger at Lou's Diner (Lou's friend Byron helped out); danced and had a dance lesson at the 1955 Enchantment under the Sea dance; drank Van Halen cocktails in the 1985 dive bar; talked to some of the actors; watched part of a movie in the town theatre; and had a tour of the town. You could also ride on the vintage ferris wheel, attend a poetry reading and even ride in one of the 1950s cars.

Just after the sun went down, we settled on our blankets on the grass in front of the big screen, and watched the film. Back to the Future is one of my favourites but I hadn't seen it in about 15 years. It wasn't just a standard outdoor film screening, of course. Actors dressed like the characters would appear in front of the town hall, mirroring their on-screen alter egos, and there were lightning storms, car chases and fights. It was hugely fun and the shenanigans didn't detract from the film at all — far from it, in fact: they were the perfect complement.

After the movie ended, there was about half an hour until closing time, so we went back to the '80s bar for some more retro cocktails and dancing. But as the last notes of Total Eclipse of My Heart faded out, it was time for us to go back to the future. We weren't ready to go home yet, though, so we finished the night with some more singing and dancing at Karaoke Box.

What a great night! If you're on the fence about Secret Cinema, I can't recommend it highly enough. It isn't cheap — from tickets and costumes, to food, drink and photos inside the event, the costs soon mount up — but it was awesome and well worth the money, and I'm sure it won't be the last Secret Cinema event I attend.

28 August 2014

"You Never See Bruce Willis Expressing His Feelings"

It's been a while since I've seen a good rom-com and Michael Dowse's new film What If certainly did the trick. In fact, if you believe the posters on the side of the bus, which proclaim What If to be the best rom-com since (500) Days of Summer, it's been five years. You can't ignore the similarities between the two movies, and while What If isn't exactly breaking any new ground, it is perfectly charming and fun, if a little too quirky at times.

Our protagonist is Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), an expat Brit and med-school dropout living in his sister's attic in Toronto. He is working a dead-end job and still hasn't got over his break-up with his girlfriend Megan over a year ago. Then, at a party hosted by his best friend Allan (Adam Driver), he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), who turns out to be Allan's cousin, and with whom he makes an instant connection. They compose some fridge-magnet poetry, exchange banter and then walk home together. Chantry gives Wallace her number — it's all going great — and then she explains how hard it is to make male friends when she's been with her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) for so long.

Disappointed, Wallace throws away Chantry's number but then fate throws them together again at a screening of The Princess Bride (of course), and they agree to be friends. Eventually, Chantry decides to invite Wallace over for dinner so that he and Ben can meet. Ben is a successful international copyright lawyer for the UN and he doesn't care much for Wallace, especially after an incident with some chilli results in Wallace accidentally knocking him out of a first-floor window. But when Ben's job takes him to Dublin for six months, will Wallace and Chantry's friendship blossom into something more?

What If is often predictable and sometimes clichéd. Chantry is, of course, an animator who wears retrro tortoiseshell glasses (probably with clear lenses), and Radcliffe's Wallace is a bumbling Brit in the archetype of Hugh Grant (and, increasingly, Domhnall Gleeson). That said, Kazan and Radcliffe do have some chemistry together, and that is part of the reason why this film works. For a few moments, I thought Spall was going to steal the show but then he veered into caricature, before being exiled to Dublin; his Canadian accent wasn't too great either. As for the comic relief, Driver's Allan was mainly irritating, and his girlfriend Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) wasn't much better.

However, a good soundtrack, some cute animations — mainly in the final credits — and beautiful shots of Toronto in the summer elevate this movie. In fact, it's nice to see Toronto playing itself in a movie for once, instead of doubling up for whichever American city was too expensive to film in. I watched Dowse's last film, hockey movie Goon, on Netflix last year and it was similarly charming. Neither is a truly great film, but I enjoyed them both greatly.

26 August 2014

Telling Porkies and Getting Lucky

Continuing the Deptford theme of this rainy bank holiday weekend, my brother, sister-in-law and I had hoped to go for lunch today at the Big Red Pizza Bus, which is, as you might expect, a pizzeria in a double-decker bus parked on Deptford Church Street. Sadly, they had to close unexpectedly today so we sought sustenance elsewhere.

I've been wanting to visit Porky's BBQ since they opened up in Camden, but as I never go to Camden, it took for Porky's to open a south-of-the-river branch, just next to the Globe, for me to try it out. My brother had booked a table for 3 pm, which, it turned out, was when the kitchen closed, which meant that before long, we were the only customers left. It's a shame they didn't mention this when he booked; the atmosphere would have been much buzzier if we'd arrived earlier.

Anyway, Porky's has all the right elements: cool branding, funky decor, and a great food and drink menu, with a particularly good list of cocktails and whiskeys. I ordered the Porky burger (£11.75), which came topped with both bacon and pulled pork, as well as cheese. How could I not? The burger was pretty epic. I forgot to ask for it to be cooked medium rare and it was definitely on the well side of medium, but the meat was juicy and the assorted piggy toppings were fab.

My brother enjoyed the chilliburger (£10.70), although my sister-in-law wasn't overly impressed with the ribs (£9.75), which could have been more tender. They were fine, but not must-come-back-right-away-for-an-encore amazing. The bro was also a little disappointed with the BBQ wings (£4.95) he had to start, which he said tasted like they had been microwaved. I would say that the very end of the lunch shift on a quiet, rainy bank-holiday Monday isn't the best time to try out a new restaurant, so I'd like to go back on a weekday evening to give the kitchen another go. And as I said, I was very happy with my burger, and Porky's is doing a lot of things right.

I'd also like to go back to try some of the cocktails — the PB&J Manhattan sounded amazing — but I really enjoyed my Virgin Tex Mex mocktail (£4.5), which involved pink grapefruit juice, mint, lime, chilli and salt, which was refreshing and had an impressive kick for a non-boozy drink.

Afterwards, we spent about 30 minutes wandering in the rain trying to find a pub with a free table, but didn't succeed, so instead we went to the new branch of the Breakfast Club on Southwark Street, just opposite Borough Market. I'd read in The Nudge that if you say, "I'm here to get lucky," you will be ushered downstairs to a secret speakeasy run by Mr Lucky, so we did. We were a little early, so we were Mr Lucky's first guests for the evening, and were taken down through the kitchen rather than the secret back stairs, but it was worth the effort — a little theatre is always fun.

Downstairs, it was pretty dark and there were a number of bar stools surrounding the three-sided bar. You could also grab one of the booths — even darker red-lit bunkers in the back — but we rather enjoyed the fairy-light-filled main bar area.

The cocktail menu is highly creative. I really wanted to order a Warner Brothers — which included popcorn-infused Monkey Shoulder, Licor 43, maple syrup, lemon and wheat beer — but the beer put me off. Instead, I went for the Rocket-Man: tequila, fresh rocket, mint, crème de cacao blanc, coconut water and lemon bitters. It arrived looking like a much healthier drink — kale juice perhaps — but was really tasty. The rocket added a nice kick, but the cacao and coconut notes still came through. It was a Monday so I didn't have a second but I tried some of my brother's Pea Diddy (nice name), which was made with rum, fresh peas & horseradish, lime and pineapple. Again, it tasted great. All of the cocktails are £8, so it's easy to see why the place is rammed on weekday nights; before long, it'll probably be tough to find a seat even on the coldest, rainiest bank holiday Monday.

Porky's BBQ. 18 New Globe Walk, London, SE1 9DR (Tube: London Bridge). Website. Twitter.

Call Me Mr Lucky @ The Breakfast Club. 11 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RQ (Tube: London Bridge). Website. Twitter.

25 August 2014

Street Food in Lewisham and Cocktails in a Job Centre

When my colleagues ask me on a Monday morning what I got up to at the weekend, it feels like I always give the following response: "I went to [insert street-food market] and then got some cocktails at [insert hipster/pop-up/ironic bar with unusual theme/location]." Saturday was one of those days. It started with a post-run bacon sarnie at St John on Maltby Street and a cocktail (mocktail in my case) at Little Bird, and ended, some hours later, in a less trendy part of London with more of the same. I am a creature of habit.

Lewisham Model Market is run by Street Feast — the same people who organised the Hawker House night market in Hackney earlier this year — and includes some of the same street-food vendors. It is based on Lewisham High Street in a former shopping arcade — the covered areas are useful for days when the weather isn't kind, but tonight the rain stopped just as I arrived.

We did a quick circuit of the market, eyeing up potential dinner prospects. While I pondered, I ordered a frozen tequila colada (£6) from one of the bars, which was just like an adult Slush Puppy. You could also order a sharing-sized serving of the cocktail, which came served in a coconut for £13, which would have been more enjoyable on a warmer evening.

Every time I see a Breddos Tacos stand or van, I am tempted to order some because they are awesome, but this time I wanted to try something new. Specifically, an amazing pulled pork bun (£7) from Smokestak. The meat was juicy and tender, with the flavour being set off perfectly by the honey mustard BBQ sauce. Finger-lickin' good.

Afterwards, I was stuffed, but my fellow street-fooders and I found room to share a portion of arancini (£5) from Cheeky Italian. They were good too, although would probably have worked better as a starter.

There was a really nice atmosphere in the market, and as many young families there as hipsters (and hipster young families). The earlier downpour also meant that the market was bustling but not too crowded, and the queues weren't too long. NB, you have to pay £3 to get in after 7 pm, so definitely try to go early if you can.

Too full to eat any more, we went in search of somewhere for a nightcap. We wanted to go to Little Nan's on Deptford Broadway, but when we got there, we found they had moved on to a new home. Instead, we walked up Deptford High Street and paid a visit to Job Centre. Yes, that's right: a bar in a former job centre. In fact, you might still be able to find a job there, as they have a jobs board on the wall near the door.

They also do a great selection of reasonably priced cocktails, beers and wines, in comfy, retro-chic surroundings. From the cocktail menu, I tried both the caipirinha (£7) with strawberries and basil, and the English Garden (£5) with gin, elderflower, mint and lime. The former was better—the basil was a nice touch—but the latter was good too and similarly refreshing.

If this bar was in Shoreditch, a) it would be rammed, b) you wouldn't be able to get a table and (excuse me for sounding old, but...) you wouldn't be able to hear yourself think, and c) the drinks would be double the price. In Deptford, however, there was a nice mix of people and the place had a buzzy atmosphere without feeling too busy. It's a great addition to a neighbourhood where there is a noticeable dearth of places to sip a good cocktail.

Lewisham Model Market. 196 Lewisham High Street, London, SE13 6LS (Lewisham DLR). Website. Twitter. It's open every weekend until 26/27 September.

Job Centre. 120–122 Deptford High Street, London, SE8 4NS (Deptford train station). Website. Twitter.

23 August 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Alchemy Café

I first tried a macchiato from Alchemy at SPIN X LCF's Christmas event last year, but although their café in the City is about halfway along my commute to work, I only got round to visiting a few weeks ago. They are only open until 4.30 pm and only on weekdays, which means that for me, a quick pre-work breakfast is the only option, but that's OK: breakfast is my favourite meal (after brunch).

The café is based on Ludgate Broadway, a quiet side street near St Paul's and the City. Inside, you are greeted with a big wooden counter etched with As (or zigzags, at least) [ETA: Alchemy say, "The 'As' on the bar are actually four separate symbols: the Alchemical notation for Earth, Air, Fire and Water."], and a big coffee menu that highlights the special espresso and filter varieties of the week and their tasting notes. Filter fans can order an Aeropress brew (£2.70), so I did, choosing the Kenyan coffee on offer.

The breakfast menu includes an assortment of pastries. I was in the mood for a croissant, but looking back at my photos, I notice that I didn't spot the bacon muffins on offer. Fail! The croissant was tasty though—perfectly buttery and flaky—and I took a seat in the window and waited for my coffee, watching the mainly suited-and-booted passersby.

Alchemy is on the petite side, and there are only a few seats along the window, but at 8 am, most people were taking their coffees to go, so it wasn't too crowded. As you might expect from a café named Alchemy, my coffee was served in an Erlenmeyer flask. The Kenyan coffee had that nice fruity acidity that cuts through the humidity of a hot London morning, and I felt refreshed as well as caffeinated.

Just as I was about to leave, though, I spotted the cold-brew coffee (£2.50) served in adorable vintage medicine bottles and adorned with 'drink me' style labels that reveal the coffee's origin (Costa Rica, in this case). Not quite as cool as the cold-brew bottles from Revolver, perhaps, but hipster enough to generate a number of questions from curious colleagues when I made it into the office. The cold brew was strong, rich and utterly delicious. Now, if only I could convince my office's coffee shop to serve it...

Alchemy Café. 8 Ludgate Broadway, London, EC4V 6DU (Tube: Blackfriars). Website. Twitter.

20 August 2014

The Oxford Caffeine Chronicles: The Keen Bean + Oxford Coffee Update

The last time I was in Oxford, I discovered that it was, at last, possible to get a great pourover in the City of Dreaming Spires, courtesy of North Parade-based BREW. I also learned that BREW had a sister café on the ever-funky Cowley Road and so this was my first port of call when I arrived back in Oxford for the weekend.

The Keen Bean is a petite café within an independent music shop called Truck Store. In fact, after the recent closure of HMV, it may be Oxford's only remaining music shop; it's certainly the only one with a great coffee shop inside! There are a couple of tables on the pavement, and a few more inside, which have a great view of all the vinyl.

As well as the standard espresso-based drinks on the menu and the aforementioned pourover (£3), The Keen Bean also does a cold brew coffee (£2.50), but sadly, it wasn't a hot enough day to divert me from my V60 mission. Their coffee is from the Oxfordshire-based roaster, UE, and I had a choice of three different varieties. I've tried (and liked) UE's Ethiopian Yirgacheffe before, and I wasn't in the mood for the nutty richness of the Colombian variety, so I ordered the Kenyan coffee on offer.

While I waited, I enjoyed a spot of people-watching. To my shame, it's been months — and maybe years — since I've been in a proper record shop.

My coffee arrived in a gorgeous, patterned blue cup with a proper (and mismatched) saucer, which suited its vintage surroundings. More importantly, it was a great brew: light and refreshing, with a fruity acidity that was just what I needed to kick me into Saturday mode.

The friendly barista, on learning of my coffee geekery, pointed me in the direction of Quarter Horse, another independent coffee shop on the Cowley Road, whose nondescript sign might have caused me to walk right past if I hadn't known better ('scuse the over-excited finger photobomb in the photo). I didn't have time for another coffee, but it's on the list for next time. The barista also let me know that The Missing Bean, an independent coffee shop in Turl Street in the city centre, is planning to open its own roastery soon, which is great news.

One final piece of Oxford coffee news: on the bus into town, I spotted a cool piece of typography on a storefront on St Clement's, which, a brief Googling told me, was a new coffee shop and cocktail bar called Joseph Perks & Co. In fact, it's so new that it only opened on Monday, so I didn't get the chance to visit, but I will definitely stop by next time I'm in Oxford. One thing's for sure: Oxford's coffee dearth is finally on the outs.

The Keen Bean. 101 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1HU. Facebook. Twitter.
Quarter Horse. 76 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JB. Website. Twitter.
The Missing Bean. 14 Turl Street, Oxford, OX1 3DQ. Website. Twitter.
Joseph Perks & Co. 76 St Clement's Street, Oxford, OX4 1AH. Website. Twitter.