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20 January 2017

Courage Under Fire — Hacksaw Ridge Review

I seem to have spent a high proportion of my cinematic viewing time this year in the company of Andrew Garfield in Japan fighting for what he believes in — or, rather, not fighting for what he believes in. I've admired Garfield's acting talents since I saw him in Red Riding, the 2009 TV adaptation of David Peace's quadrilogy of the same name, which is the main reason I went to a preview of Hacksaw Ridge on Wednesday night. It certainly wasn't because I enjoy war films (I don't), but although I wouldn't say that Mel Gibson's latest film was enjoyable, I did think that it was a gripping, if brutal, story about courage and conviction.

Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a sweet and caring young man who lives in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He has a strained relationship with his father (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic scarred by his experiences fighting in the First World War, and is thinking about pursuing medical training, particularly after meeting a comely young nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). But World War Two is raging in Europe and in the Pacific and although Desmond could have deferred the draft, he enlists in the army, determined to work as a combat medic.

He excels during training but, as his company-mates, sergeant (Vince Vaughan) and captain (Sam Worthington) soon find out, he refuses even to touch a rifle and won't commit any act of violence. He is a Seventh-day Adventist and has joined up as a conscientious objector — a conscientious objector or, as he puts it, a conscientious cooperator. The second act of the film is split between Top Gun-esque mess room banter ("you son of a...n exhibitionist") and scenes that resemble A Few Good Men more closely as Doss fights with all of his might to be allowed to go to war with his fellow soldiers despite his unwillingness to carry a weapon.

It is not until halfway through the film that the titular Hacksaw Ridge — a sheer cliff face, the top of which represents a key Japanese stronghold, control of which proves critical to the Battle of Okinawa — makes its appearance and the violence begins. And boy is it violent, loud, bloody and brutal. I can't remember the last war film I watched on the big screen but the seemingly endless senseless death, destruction and gore in the central battle sequence was particularly hard to watch.

It was only during this section of the film that I really began to understand Garfield's award nominations for this film. Doss's company members think his refusal to carry a weapon is a sign of cowardice, but his heroism and humanity are clearly demonstrated throughout the battle scenes, as he dispenses morphine and compassion in equal doses, tending to the wounded and offering dignity to the dead. And there is plenty of grit and determination in Garfield's so-often doleful brown eyes (he often plays characters who are misunderstood or betrayed) as he carries out the acts for which the real-life Doss was decorated.

Hacksaw Ridge takes a long time to get going but Doss's back story is an essential part of understanding what happens on top of the eponymous cliff and frankly, I'm not sure I could have watched any more of the fighting. That being said, although the story is well-structured, it could have been shortened by about 20 minutes. There is a large — mainly male, of course — supporting cast, and, other than Garfield, who I did think put in a moving and convincing performance, Weaving and Worthington were the standouts for me. The script was snappy and the film was visually very arresting ('beautiful' would be the wrong word). Although Gibson's film is never going to be the kind of film that makes it into my all-time favourites, it impressed me considerably.

18 January 2017

Movie Review: Lion

A five-year-old Indian boy falls asleep on an out-of-service train, which doesn't stop until it reaches Kolkata, some 1,600 km to the east. He is desperate to find a way to return home to his beloved mother and brother Guddu but he can't speak the local language and is only able to offer minimal details about his home. After living on the streets, he is taken to an orphanage and eventually adopted by an Australian couple, and grows up to be happy and successful. But he is haunted by half-remembered dreams of his Indian family and, some 20 years after leaving India, begins the Sisyphean task of searching for his hometown using Google Earth.

The phrase 'based on an incredible true story' gets thrown around a lot by film promoters and yet the story of Saroo Brierley, the subject of Garth Davis's film Lion, is so remarkable — so unlikely — that it's hard to believe someone didn't make it up. Lion is sometimes painful, but also compelling, warm and very emotional — there was nary a dry eye in the screening I attended last night.

Dev Patel stars as the adult Saroo but we don't see him on screen until at least a third of the way through. Instead, Sunny Pawar takes centre stage as the young Saroo and he's in pretty much every scene during the film's first act. Pawar is terrific and he holds his own against much older actors. Patel convinces too as the older Saroo, conveying the character's emotional struggle between wanting to keep his Australian family happy and his deep, inner need to find his hometown and his Indian family. Nicole Kidman, as Saroo's adoptive mother, and Rooney Mara, as Lucy (a composite of several of the real Saroo's girlfriends), are solid in their supporting roles, although neither gets much screen time, despite their top billings. Kidman, in particular, puts in a sensitive and nuanced performance a Sue Brierley.

Couple these performances with Luke Davies's thoughtful screenplay (based on Brierley's memoir, A Long Way Home), Greig Fraser's stunning cinematography, and Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran's lilting, haunting score and you get a thoroughly enjoyable and moving film.

16 January 2017

Brunch at Where the Pancakes Are

Southeast London has no shortage of small restaurants and bars located inside old railway arches, but that doesn't mean I didn't welcome the arrival of Flat Iron Square last year. Located just off Southwark Bridge Road, sandwiched between Bankside and Borough, Flat Iron Square occupies several arches and a large-ish open square, which is home to a flea market on Sundays. I discovered the market while I was walking home from Covent Garden one day and was pleased to find a coffee cart run by The Gentlemen Baristas, whose lovely café is just across the road.

The food and drink venues have been arriving gradually, from various street food options that pop up in vans and in a marketplace-style space in one of the arches, to more permanent restaurants like Portuguese Bar Douro and Where the Pancakes Are, which makes no secret of its cuisine. I thought the latter would be a great venue for the monthly brunch club my friends and I organise and we booked a table for last Saturday. In case you are unsure of the geography of Flat Iron Square, there are helpful signs to guide you along.

Although it was a cold and sleety day, the restaurant was full throughout our time there, so it was lucky that we had booked (yes, they take bookings!). Where the Pancakes Are occupies a relatively small space, although there is also a mezzanine level with a few extra tables. The design is lovely too, with plenty of light wood, pastel accents and some really stunning lighting fixtures.

We ordered some coffees and juices while trying to decide what to order. I had a macchiato (£2), which was pretty good and pleasingly short. The menu is divided into sweet and savoury options, and you can also order "Dutch babies", which look like giant Yorkshire puddings stuffed with a filling. I was actually most tempted by "The Australian" (£11), which involved polenta corn fritters, crème fraîche, lemon and avocado, but felt that for my first visit to this restaurant, I ought to stick to one of the eponymous dishes.

Three of us came up with a good strategy: we would order savoury pancakes to start and then split a sweet order for 'pudding'. I should have realised that I wouldn't have room even for only a part of a second stack, but ordered a classic instead: "The American", with bacon, blueberries and maple syrup (£9.50). It was the best of both worlds, I suppose! There was a little false start when after pouring syrup over my pancakes and taking a bite, I realised that they had given me lime syrup (which goes with one of the sweet dishes) instead of maple syrup, and although the result didn't taste terrible, it wasn't quite right either. Luckily, the staff were able to make me up a fresh batch for me (which also had better, crispier bacon — probably because the chefs weren't trying to make eight dishes at once).

I usually prefer savoury brunch dishes to sweet, but I did have a bit of food envy while I was waiting for my replacement pancakes as two of my friends had ordered "The Hummingbird" (with cinnamon, poached pineapple, lime syrup, pomegranate and toasted coconut), which looked amazing. In the end, though, I was very happy with my first choice. The pancakes were fluffy and light, the bacon crispy and the Canadian maple syrup delicious. Naturally, none of us had room for any dessert!

Most of the dishes are around £10 and there are various extras available if you'd like to customise your dish. We paid about £18 each including food, a couple of coffees and/or juices each, and service. There was a lively, fun ambiance and the service was very good, even though it was busy and there were several big groups present. What's more, Where the Pancakes Are is open every day (either until 4 pm or 6 pm), which is of great use to anyone wishing to satisfy weekday brunch needs.

Where the Pancakes Are
make food & drink GIFs like this at MakeaGif

Where the Pancakes Are. Arch 35a, 85a Southwark Bridge Road, London, SE1 0NQ (Tube: Borough or London Bridge). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

13 January 2017

The Caffeine Chronicles: Red Lion Coffee Co.

Before Christmas, I went to the launch party for new New Cross coffee shop Red Lion Coffee Co. Located on a quiet side street just off New Cross Road and across from Fordham Park, Red Lion is the brainchild of Chris McKie, formerly of the Department of Coffee.

The café is set over two levels — tables and a bar on the ground floor, and the coffee bar and some raised bench seating on the mini-mezzanine. The space itself has high ceilings and big windows, letting in plenty of natural light. The décor is minimalist with sleek wooden furniture and coffee bars and exposed brick walls.

When I arrived, the party was in full swing and Red Lion was packed. Unfortunately, the espresso machine was playing up and so I couldn't try the coffee, but there were plenty of treats available — sweet ones from Cat Food and some yummy sausage rolls and scotch eggs. Red Lion is open until 9 pm in the evenings and they serve beer from two Bermondsey breweries and wine from Vinnaturo. The wine is from a box (technically a bag in a box) but although I'm not a huge fan of wine and didn't try any, it seemed to be going down very well with the other guests.

I didn't get the chance to return to try the coffee until the new year, but it was worth the wait. I visited late on a rainy Saturday afternoon and although it wasn't quite as packed as during the launch (fortunately!), there was a laid-back, buzzy ambiance — and a great soundtrack. I ordered a piccolo (£2.80) and a slice of banana bread (£3) and took a seat at one of the ground-floor tables.

The coffee is from Climpson and The Baron espresso blend was in the hopper that day. My piccolo was very well prepared and the coffee had a lovely rich, nutty taste. I liked it so much that the question, "would you like another coffee?", was not a difficult one to answer. Piccolo numero due was just as good and had I not spent most of the morning ingesting coffee at home and at Monmouth, I probably could have been tempted by a third.

The banana bread was very tasty too but if, like me, you tend to prefer savoury snacks to sweet ones, there are various sausage rolls, pasties (including a veggie one) and savoury muffins available too. For something more filling, they also had a slow pork goulash and a veggie dhal on the menu (both £8). Most of the food and drink comes from local producers.

All of these factors make Red Lion a great addition to the southeast London speciality coffee scene (and particularly to a part of southeast London where great coffee is harder to come by), but perhaps most importantly of all, the staff are all incredibly friendly and welcoming. It was a lovely place to spend some time planning some travel, and although I don't go to New Cross that often, it's nice to know that I have another reason to go.

Red Lion Coffee Co. Batavia Road, London, SE14 6AX (New Cross Gate or New Cross Overground). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

11 January 2017

"I'm a Negro Woman; I'm Not Going To Entertain the Impossible" — Hidden Figures Review

Contrary to the clues, which seemed to point towards Pablo Larraín's Jackie, Monday night's Odeon Screen Unseen screening was Hidden Figures, a film about three black women who worked as 'computers' at NASA during the Space Race. I read Margot Lee Shetterly's excellent book of the same name towards the end of last year and was looking forward to seeing such a fascinating and important story being brought to the big screen, but although entertaining and with good performances from the female leads, the Theodore Melfi's film was rather underwhelming.

The film opens in the early days of JFK's presidency. When the world learns that the Russians have put a man into space, the pressure is on Al Harrison (a composite of three NASA Langley directors, played by Kevin Costner) to follow suit and surpass Russia's achievements.

Katherine Goble Jackson (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician working in the computing room until she is invited to join Harrison's Space Task Group as a computer, as the team works on the Mercury programme to put John Glenn (Glenn Powell) into space. Katherine enjoys the work and is good at it, often impressing Harrison, but is stymied by the discrimination she faces from her white and (predominantly) male co-workers. She has to run a quarter-mile to reach a bathroom for African Americans and her colleagues won't even drink from the same coffee pot as her. Nor is she allowed to put her name to reports on which she has done most of the work.

Meanwhile, her friend and colleague Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) struggles to obtain a formal promotion to be the supervisor of the computing department — a role she is already doing. When faced with the arrival of an 'International Business Machine' in the department, knows that she and her team must become programming experts if they are to avoid becoming redundant following the automation of the computing role. Then there is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who shows talent in engineering but who cannot become an engineer until she has taken a course at a school that only accepts white students.

Despite being inspired by the lives of three brilliant women who made hugely important contribution at NASA to computing, mathematics, physics, engineering and programming, it is unfortunate, then, that Hidden Figures isn't more inspiring. The performances were good — Spencer was as compelling as usual and Henson, in a quieter role, was also very watchable — but the film didn't seem to know which story to tell so it told them all: women in science, race relations in the 1960s, the Russian space race, and so on. And, of course, there had to be a romance sub-plot. The script seemed hackneyed and just rather ordinary — Powell's John Glenn was particularly grating (maybe that was intentional), but the dialogue felt clunky at times, despite the best efforts of the actors.

At 2h07, the film also ran slightly too long, and the pacing was a little off: it took a while to get going and the majority of the dramatic tension was crammed into the final few scenes. That said, Hidden Figures is an easy-going and entertaining, if unmemorable, film and, if you don't think you'll get around to reading Shetterly's book, I would recommend the movie. However, if you want to know the real story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, check out the book as well (or instead).

9 January 2017

The Caffeine Chronicles: Catalyst Cafe

There is no shortage of excellent speciality coffee spots on Clerkenwell's Leather Lane, but one Grays Inn Road, one block west, which connects King's Cross with High Holborn, has been a little quieter on the coffee front. I was pleased, then, when I spotted Catalyst while running home from work one day. Located towards the southern end of Grays Inn Road, a couple of blocks north of Chancery Lane Tube, Catalyst is a new cafe and roastery that is open all day, from your early-morning coffee to your late-night negroni. I love all-day venues like this and it's especially nice to have one on my way home from work.

Catalyst is also beautifully designed, accented with light wood and plenty of flowers and foliage. The cafe isn't huge but it's a nice space and it feels spacious thanks to the large windows that let in plenty of daylight — even in December. Most of the seats are arranged around low benches next to the windows, but there are also a few stools at the brew bar and a larger communal table if you need more space.

I've visited Catalyst twice now — their full launch is today, but the coffee was so well prepared on both occasions that you wouldn't guess they were in soft launch. I stopped by for lunch on the last week of December and tried both a pourover and a piccolo; last week, I returned for another pourover and to admire the new ceramics. They will be roasting their own coffee in the basement — visible through the glass windows in the floor — later this month, but are still waiting for a part for the roaster, so they have been using coffee roasted by Sweden-based Koppi, a favourite roaster of mine.

There are currently four hand-brewed filter coffees on offer: the first I tried (usually £5, although only £3.50 during the soft launch) was made with a Costa Rican La Lia coffee, and had lovely notes of orange and marmalade. On my return visit, the barista recommended an Ethiopian Nano Challa (also from Koppi), which had some very delicate jasmine notes. Apparently, I was the first customer to try the gorgeous ceramic cups they had got from Jars. Both V60s were very well prepared but the second was particularly delicious and well worth the self-inflicted frogmarch down Grays Inn Road on my lunch break.

Although the menu suggested that the La Lia was also available as an espresso, they had run out during my first visit, and were using a Brazilian coffee from Notes. The piccolo was very good and probably would have paired well with the various cakes and sweet treats on offer — some more sinful than others (the menu includes various vegan and/or gluten-free options). For once, I decided to go for a healthy option and ordered one of the salads — black rice, sweet potato, kale, radish, peanuts and chilli — which was absolutely delicious and surprisingly filling (£5.50). There are plenty of tempting sounding dishes on the breakfast, lunch and all-day menus. The cocktail menu also looked fantastic, although I haven't had chance to sample it yet.

Even on a dull, cold Twixmas afternoon during its soft launch, Catalyst was pretty busy, and on Friday lunchtime, it was bustling. There's a wonderfully relaxed vibe and the staff are all friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable. Catalyst is a very welcome addition to the neighbourhood.

Catalyst Cafe. 48 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8LT (Tube: Chancery Lane). Website. Instagram.

5 January 2017

The Oxford Caffeine Chronicles: Colombia Coffee Roasters

Update (14/1/17): When I visited Colombia Coffee Roasters in December 2016, it was still known as Exotic Coffee Roasters but has since relaunched as Colombia Coffee Roasters. I have updated this post accordingly.

Not even half a year has passed since my last update on Oxford's burgeoning speciality coffee scene, but there have already been a few changes. Sadly, Quarter Horse's Cowley Road café has now closed, but in its place stands bike café Peloton Espresso, which hadn't quite opened in time for my Christmas stay in the city. I'd also hoped to visit Jericho Coffee Traders' new café on the High Street (no 105) but they were closed for the holidays so I'll have to save them for my next trip to my hometown.

However, I did get the chance to visit the new Colombia Coffee Roasters café inside Oxford's historic Covered Market. Owned by the lovely Milly Bar, Colombia Coffee Roasters has been roasting for a while under the name Exotic Coffee Roasters (coincidentally, in a location just one village over from my parents) and run a stall at the Summertown Farmers' Market on Sundays. When I was back in Oxford in November, though, I noticed the not-yet-open café in the Covered Market and made a mental note to return at Christmas.

The café itself is fairly small and rustic. It's just opposite the perennially popular Ben's Cookies but but if you're in the market for something sweet, I'd recommend coming into Colombia Coffee Roasters instead for a salted caramel brownie or, better, one of their special Colombian hot chocolates. I was in need of some coffee, though, and, following the recommendation of the cheerful barista, I ordered an El Salvador coffee brewed through the V60 (£4). I took a seat on one of the low wooden benches by the window and enjoyed a bit of people-watching.

The coffee itself was very good — well brewed and lovely and fruity. My non-coffee-drinking mum had also picked up a bag of the Red Honey beans for our festive-period brewing needs. Brewed mainly through a Kalita Wave dripper, the chocolatey notes came through very nicely and I thought it was a really great coffee, particularly for the cooler months when I tend to gravitate towards more chocolatey and nutty flavours.

It was also nice to see the café so busy — some people were picking up bags of beans, others stopped by for a quick cappuccino or flat white. The staff were all incredibly friendly and there was a bustling but relaxed ambiance. Overall, Colombia Coffee Roasters' café is a great addition to the Oxford coffee scene and I look forward to trying some of their other coffees — and the espresso — on future visits.

Colombia Coffee Roasters. Oxford Covered Market, Market Street, Oxford, OX1 3DZ. Website. Twitter. Instagram.