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28 June 2009

Chick Flicks and Films for Fellas

The two films I saw at the cinema this weekend had very different audiences: Sunshine Cleaning at the Screen on Baker Street yesterday evening was mostly filled with women (as well as a few guys who had clearly been dragged along because it was date night and because at the Screen on Baker Street, there was a choice between Sunshine Cleaning and My Sister's Keeper and the former seemed like the better of the two), while the showing of Rudo y Cursi at the Cineworld near Piccadilly Circus was, conversely, mostly populated with guys (as well as a few girlfriends along for the ride).

The two films actually had a number of similarities and I wouldn't really describe Sunshine Cleaning as a chick flick or Rudo y Cursi as a lads' film. Perhaps this is partly due to the marketing. "Hey, come see this quirky, new indie film from the makers of another awesome indie film with sunshine in the title" (coincidentally, the little girl from Little Miss Sunshine is now a teenager and appearing alongside Cameron Diaz in My Sister's Keeper)," cry the posters for Sunshine Cleaning.

Rudo y Cursi isn't exactly another Y Tu Mama Tambien (of which I've still only seen the first half--this was long enough for me to determine that Alfonso Cuaron's new film is pretty different) but it definitely isn't targetting the, "wah-hey! Footie! C'mon, lads, it'll be great!" market either; indeed, the poster shows no trace of football, fast cars, fast women or gambling but rather just two guys--brothers--on an arty-looking beach with the tagline, "life is a coin toss." The Sunshine Cleaning poster has a different take on life in its tagline -- "life's a messy business" -- and shows two girls--sisters--carrying the film's title across some "crime scene; do not cross" tape.

And each film is really about the relationship between the two siblings it depicts and how different the siblings are. The two leads in each film do a good job. Amy Adams plays a former cheerleading captain/prom queen whose football captain boyfriend married someone else (although they are still having an affair). She is envious of her former school chums who are all married and living in McMansions with great jobs while she works as a maid, cleaning their houses, while raising her young son and trying to get herself through real estate school. After a hint from her toxic boyfriend (who could do with some industrial-strength cleaning himself), who is a cop, she and her slacker younger sister (Emily Blunt) start up their own company where they clean up after crime scenes ("removal of biohazard waste," as Adams's character puts it later). Their mother is absent and this obviously affected the sisters and their relationship with each other a great deal, with Adams's character often mothering her younger sister (and no, the film does not use the line, "you're not my mom").

Diego Luna and Gael Gorgeous Bernal, meanwhile, play the eponymous Rudo (rude/rough) and Cursi (sentimental/twee), two brothers working on a banana plantation in the Mexican countryside with their extended family until they get scouted by some dodgy talent scout from Mexico City and recruited into two big (fictional) Mexican football teams, hard-working, reliable Rudo as the goalie and attention-seeking, vain Cursi (as he is nicknamed by the press once fame sets in) as the striker. But even living in the big city, they still have their problems--Rudo quickly amasses huge gambling debts and misses his wife and children (still living back in the country), while Cursi dates a gold-digging tart and doesn't really care about his footballing success because he only wants to be a fame (the only song he sings in the film is a Spanish cover of Cheap Trick's I Want You to Want Me, which is so bad that he really oughtn't give up his day job).

Both films have their funny and their poignant moments (more poignant moments in Sunshine Cleaning--maybe this is partly because the leads are both female and are expected to be more cursa than the guys in Rudo y Cursi; maybe because it's hard for a movie to get too mushy when there is a Woody Allen-like voiceover from the dodgy talent scout on and off throughout Rudo y Cursi). Both were enjoyable, entertaining fayre, though.

I did not enjoy the fact that Cineworld cinemas leave one of the big lights on during the film for "safety reasons in case anyone falls over on the stairs." As my seat was closest to the light (I chose it in advance for optimal viewing) and as I've been to many cinemas in the past that don't have a huge light over the steps, I wasn't impressed. "People should sit in their seats watching the film while it's showing, shouldn't they?" I asked, before telling the staff I would try to avoid their cinemas in the future (good, they were probably thinking). To be fair it wouldn't have been so bad if I weren't watching a film with subtitles where the white text and light, sunny, Mexican backgrounds did not combine to provide great visibility.

The New MHS?

It was nice to wake up to the glorious sunshine this morning and I'm glad I decided to take advantage of it by going for a walk early on, as thick cloud seems to have descended over London Town, although it's still very hot and humid. After I had been to Marylebone to get my new Young Persons' Railcard (in case anyone at National Rail cares), I headed back towards Regent's Park. I'd been planning to walk to the top of Primrose Hill and then back down the side and then back home via the Broad Walk, but on impulse, I decided to pay a visit to the oh-so-chichi shops of Regent's Park Road.

The shape of the park around Primrose Hill has always been confusing for me and it always takes me longer than it ought to find the part of Regent's Park Road that has the nice little shops and cafes. I could look at a map, but I always assume (wrongly) that I can work it out. I say, "always" but actually, I've only been to that street twice, the other time being about six months ago when it was about 25 degrees colder than today. Aujourd'hui, it was a very nice place to have an amble (although I didn't spot any of the celebrity local residents), with many of the bakeries, patisseries and fromageries exhibiting their wares on tables in the street, under their canopies. I was extremely tempted by some huge and gorgeous-looking brownies but even though I hadn't yet breakfasted, I restrained and had a custom-blended fruit juice at a posh, New York-style deli/juice bar (watermelon, lime and fresh mint was definitely a refreshing combination for such a hot morning and it satisfied my sweet tooth, temporarily), which has a tiny, leafy courtyard garden at the back for consuming one's healthy beverage.

Meanwhile, yummy mummies towed husbands and designer-clad kids in and out of the posh boutiques before rewarding them all at a little toyshop-cum-cafe. I didn't buy one of their delicious-looking macaroons either and wasn't quite tempted to buy anything at the lovely, independent bookshop, Primrose Hill Books.

I will definitely be remembering the place as an alternative to Marylebone High Street when the sun is out because there are about the same number of cafes and patisseries but more of them have outdoor seating and also, the street is a bit quieter than MHS, which has an almost-constant flow of car traffic. Apart from the odd patisserie, RPR feels a little less French than MHS too--despite the cafe society of RPR--which is, I guess, somehow reassuring.

18 June 2009

Yet Another Italian in Marylebone: Il Baretto Review

An another Italian restaurant, of course, not another resident--there is no room for any foreigners apart from the French. However, most of the Italian offerings around Baker Street tend to be of the chain variety and while I do very much like Pizza Express's (now not so) new "Romana" style pizzas, which are bigger because they are thinner and crispier than the standard version, and while it is great to be able to get a two-for-one deal at most of them on almost any night of the week, sometimes it's nice to go to a proper restaurant.

Il Baretto is a proper restaurant. It has a posh website, an interesting menu in which pizza features but isn't the only--or even the starring--attraction. In fact, they go down the traditional Italian route of pasta for your first course and meat for your second, a concept which got me into trouble on the first night at the parents of my Sardinian exchange partner when they served me some delicious pasta/pesto dish, which I ate, soon filling myself up, only for the main course--some beef dish--to be brought out. Luckily, I was vegetarian at the time and once I had managed to explain what exactly a vegetarian was (no, no chicken, not even if it's Italian or organic) and why people might choose to be one, I was let off the second course.

When I went to Il Baretto on Monday, it was already nine because I was meeting my post-wine tasting parents (they had gone to Berry Brothers as the present I gave them for their 30th wedding anniversary last year) and as it was late I did end up having pizza. However, the pizza bufala I had was very good--very thin and just crispy enough, very fresh-tasting buffalo mozzarella and yummy cherry tomatoes. Being me, though, it was all about the puddings and I'd already picked mine from the online menu--"soft chocolate cake with caramel sauce." Alas! This wasn't on the menu so instead I had a panna cotta with strawberry jus and an assortment of berries. This was a good call. The panna cotta was of an incredibly wobbly consistency and its vanilla flavour went well with the jus and the berries. Thumbs up from Bexquisite.

The restaurant has only just reopened after a long refurb and the staff were all very eager to please. A little too much so, it seems, because the hapless couple next to us kept having things brought to them in the wrong order: they ordered some bruschetta to start, were then shown the fish the woman was having (whole, at this stage) but didn't get the starters for an age, even though the place wasn't very busy. They complained and were then shown the fish again (still dead!) before after another interim, they got their main courses (no bruschetta). Then the staff messed up their puddings and the couple probably just wanted to get out of there.

I liked the place though and on a weekend evening when it's a little busier, I can imagine there will be a nice atmosphere in the cosy basement with its exposed-brick walls, arty paintings of Italian flags and wood-fired oven. Upstairs is a small and intimate bar, with black leather seats and room to perch--a nice little place for a quiet drink during the week (and perhaps a less quiet drink at the weekend). The prices of the pizzas weren't too much higher than Pizza Express's either (although no two-for-one vouchers and the wine, the puddings and the meat were more expensive; luckily, the wine-tasting had meant that for possibly the first time ever, Maman didn't want a glass of wine with dinner) so overall, a good spot for a bit of Italian.

Il Baretto. 43 Blandford Street, London, W1U 7HF (Tube: Baker Street). Website.

14 June 2009

All the Fun of the Fayre

Today was Marylebone's annual summer fayre. Being Marylebone, of course, it was pretty extravagant--so big that it has to be divided into seven different "zones" and with all of the High Street and many of the side streets closed to traffic so that the local shops, restaurants, bars, gyms and even estate agents could set up stalls in the road to tempt in the punters (and it was all in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust). One of the estate agents with whom I have dealt with extensively over the past year proved more amiable when offering free glasses of Pimm's in exchange for a donation to the charity; this was certainly a better bargain than the "pint of Pimm's for £6" being offered by one of the pubs--given that I didn't want a whole pint.

Many of the shops and food places were giving away free samples, offering discounts on their wares and encouraging the fayre-goers to enter their competitions (fingers crossed, then, that I win a night at the newly tarted up Langham Hotel or the £150 voucher for Apartment C; having entered the latter today for the first time, I was pleased to be intimidated by neither the staff nor the prices and was amused by the selection of erotic fiction on offer to peruse while "sipping a gin cocktail from a giant teacup").

Of course, with such a variety of food on offer, just like at the May Balls, it made sense to do a reccy first and then return to one's preferred stalls to avoid peaking too soon. I sampled an oyster from Maldon Oysters, which was delicious, and then avoided Le Pain Quotidien's poncey BBQ in favour of the Natural Kitchen's barbecued burger in a poncey bun, which was also tasty. Having pinched posh chocolate samples from Rococo and indulged in a few mini macaroons from the people outside the Conran Shop, I didn't quite have room for churros but as they cost £4 for a cupful and seem to be available at every outdoor London festival, I don't feel I missed out too much.

The atmosphere at the fayre was really good, although there were a few too many Small Irritating People with wayward balloons (and too many people with buggies and dogs (this being le quartier) pushing through the busy crowd) for my irritation radar not to go off a little bit. However, the vibe was a lot more chilled in the Paddington Street Gardens, where a range of acoustic acts were playing--some of them were pretty good although I don't remember any names. There are certainly worse ways to spend a hot, sunny afternoon in the quartier, anyway (I did have to top it all off with a visit A la recherche d'Eric at the Screen on Baker Street; quand on est au quartier...).

13 June 2009

Predictive Puzzling

In today's Grauniad, Chris Maslanka's pyrgic puzzle numero uno is:

1. They say it pays to advertise. Supercaff chain of coffee shops have an advert running which says: "9 out of 10 coffee-lovers prefer Supercaff." What's wrong with that?

Of course, I already answered a very similar question at great length several months ago in response to the latest ad campaign from my favourite mediocre chain of coffee shops. Given that it's rare for me to solve any of these puzzles, though (not least because if I can't work out the answer within about 30 seconds, I usually get bored and give up), I'm pretty impressed with my prophetic puzzle-solving.

I probably shouldn't rest on my laurels for too long, though, as I still haven't really worked out what--if anything--pyrgic means. It isn't in the OED; but the closest entry is pyrgocephalic, from the noun pyrgocephaly, which means, "The condition of having a skull that is abnormally high (and often pointed); oxycephaly." Further digging into the etymology (oh, how I love to have access to the OED again, via my library membership card) suggests pyrgic might come from the ancient Greek word for tower, πυgος (the Greek characters may not render correctly but the Greek word that is spelled approximately in this way). In other words, these are towering or lofty puzzles. I have to say that uncovering the etymology of the word pyrgic was more interesting for me personally than most of the puzzles--and I might have done even that wrong.

Dicks Spotted

I was somewhat light-headed anyway as I hurried from Selfridges to Jermyn Street in search of the coveted dress. If I had bought it in Selfridges, it would have counted as an impulse buy but the very fact that I was walking--well, skipping--down through Mayfair in the sunshine meant I had plenty of time to change my mind and to do the right thing. But no, this crime was definitely premeditated. As such, my heart was skipping pretty fast.

Just south of Grosvenor Square, though, the south-bound traffic in the leafy Mayfair Streets had come to a standstill while a whole load of cyclists made their way west. There were hundreds of them and it was only when I came closer that I realised that most people were topless...and bottomless. It turned out, of course, that it was the World Naked Bike Ride, an event that has had over 1000 participants for the past couple of years. Indeed, it was a good five minutes before the group had thinned enough for me to cross the road and proceed towards my crime against my bank account. I can safely say that I've never seen so many penises and breasts in one place, although I suppose this wouldn't be a hard feat to beat.

The riders were all pretty loud and enthusiastic and would wave to the gathering crowd and say, "hello," as though it was perfectly normal for them to be cycling through Mayfair completely naked (or, in some cases, just covered in face paint, or wearing a thong or a helmet (geddit?). Some of the crowd, however, were a little coy. An older couple standing next to me waiting to cross the road were looking decidedly unimpressed but most people were amused and everyone was taking photos. A rather large naked couple cycled past on their tandem and two people were showing off by unicycling along (but they were the organisers). They were all chaperoned by a policeman who was--rather unsportingly--fully clothed.

Ah, London; you just never know what quirky happening you will come across next...

12 June 2009

It Was All Yellow

Selfridges turned 100 this year and as such, there have been a range of events and celebrations taking place, from yellow-and-black clad dancers and gymnasts doing what looked like some variation of Cirque du Soleil to the appearance of Posh and Becks (or the non -quisite variety) yesterday lunchtime (sadly my cameraphone was absent so I couldn't add them to my celebstalking photo album).

One of the ongoing celebrations involves the repackaging of a range of well-known products in Selfridges' trademark yellow and black (I think I'll give the yellow and black nail varnishes a miss). Interestingly, they have chosen products for which the colour is an important part (if not the most important part) of the brand: Coke (the red bottle top being the only remnant of its usual red-and-white design--the same design once rumoured to have given Father Christmas his colours), Absolut (with its usual clean, colourless bottle with the blue font) and Diptique (with their simple, elegant candles in the little clear jars with monochrome labels).

Then there are the products that are famous for their use of colour if not for the specific colours themselves: Pantone (which probably already had a specific colour for "Selfridges yellow" AKA Pantone 109), Converse and Moleskine (known for its black covers (until the coloured versions, that is) but which come with a brightly coloured label wrapped around the notebook to indicate which variety it is), for example.

When Papa saw the yellow glass bottle of Coke in my fridge, he immediately said, "ugh"--he obviously wasn't quite ready for the rebranding of Coke! I quite like it, though. When I bought it, I was thinking about using it as a vase once I'd drunk the beverage--inserting a single red rose or gerbera maybe but maybe that's just too kitschy a variation of the very Gallic looking candles in wine bottles you sometimes see in restaurants in France.

More importantly, though, I managed to resist buying the Moleskine Yellow Label (I was very tempted because I have a thing for squared paper at the moment and want a new squared notebook for the office but you can get pads of squared paper for £1.99 in Ryman...) and one of the yellow Diptyque Mimosa candles (even though my current Feuilles de Lavande variety is almost used up). Who says I have no self-restraint?

The original Mr Selfridge would probably be impressed although still disappointed that he was never allowed to build a tunnel connecting the store with the Bond Street Tube station (and renaming it Selfridges), just like Bloomingdales in Manhattan. Not bad for a store that started life as a bargain basement-style shop, albeit one in which the owner hoped his customers would spend all day.