31 July 2011

De Naturae Natura

I finally got round to seeing The Tree of Life today and, well, let's just say that I'm glad I only paid £7 for the screening and not £12.50. I didn't hate the film but for me, the most important role of a film is entertainment--I don't have to laugh or even smile, necessarily, but I like to be told a story and although The Tree of Life did tell a story, it could have told the same story in a fraction of its 2h20 runtime.

Terrence Malick has constructed a beautiful film and an unusual one but did I enjoy it? Not a great deal. The plot, such as it is, involves Brad Pitt playing a tough father and Jessica Chastain his gentle wife in 1950s Texas. They have, I think, three sons, although partly because of the achronological interspersal of the scenes, it's not entirely clear. Certainly, you never see them with more than three sons at once but sometimes only two of them are there and not always the same two.

Pitt's character (as with almost all of the characters, we never hear his name) is trying to teach his kids, especially Jack, the eldest, to be strong. He himself wanted to be a musician but gave it up in favour of getting a steady job at the plant; he also seems to be resentful of the fact that he holds dozens of patents for inventions he will never bring to life. He punishes the boys, shouts at them and generally makes them fear him. He is following "the way of Nature" that Chastain's character tells us about in a voiceover at the start; she, meanwhile, represents the way of Grace. She's beautiful, quiet and peaceful and likes to spin around in her '50s frocks on her lawn (there is a lot of spinning and other circle imagery in the film) and catch butterflies on her hand.

Scenes of the boys' childhood, including some tragedies, are intermixed with the occasional flash-forward to Sean Penn, who plays a much older Jack. Actually, Penn has so little screen time (less than ten minutes, almost all of it in the last few minutes of the film), his role was practically a cameo. He seems to be some sort of architect or possibly just a businessman who likes riding elevators in very tall, glass skyscrapers and he likes to reflect back on his childhood, his parents, his brothers and, like his mother, the nature of his position in the Universe.

Now, all of these scenes are punctuated with long, beautiful musings on the history of life, the Universe and everything: the birth and death of the Universe, dinosaurs, evolution, planets, and so on. The longest of these, often referred to as "the dinosaur bit" lasts a good 20 minutes and has almost no voiceover whatsoever. I almost expected Brian Cox to start saying how really, really wonderful evolution was; in fact, much as Cox irritates me, I almost wished he would start narrating because I found this section boring and rather patronising.

Thanks, Malick, but I know quite a bit about the history of the Earth and evolution and if I want to find out more, I'd go to the Natural History Museum or something. At least there, the explanatory films you can watch have an interesting narrative. Sure, there was nice, haunting music and pretty pictures but it was, IMHO, completely unnecessary: much of what can be gleaned from this section, can be picked up from the rest of the film. It felt like a pretentious video exhibit at a modern art gallery and an unnecessary appendage; Malick should have made a longer, separate documentary instead. The best bit about the dinosaur bit was definitely that you knew (or hoped, anyway) that none of the other ethereal interludes would be as long or dull as that one.

Anyway, even excluding this section, the film was still too long and because there was so little plot and so little pacing, towards the end, it really felt like it was dragging because there was no sense of dénouement and I had no idea whether it was going to go on for another ten minutes with very little happening or another 30. I was so annoyed by the pretentiousness of the dinosaur bit that it did taint my enjoyment of the rest of the film somewhat. I was interested in the family, their dealing with grief and the effects Jack's formative years had on his adult life, but there just wasn't enough of this. Maybe it was just too subtle for me but I came out of the film feeling like I hadn't really learned enough about the family.

And the best thing about the film was still getting to spot Brad and Angelina at the première in Cannes.

30 July 2011

Eastern Promises

I count the number of times I've ventured east of EC1 on one hand, and some of those don't really count because I was driving through. It's nothing personal; I'm just more of a west London girl, born and bred.

I'm always up for a craft market, though, and so when I saw an ad in this week's Time Out for the Designers/Makers Market in Hackney, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to acquaint myself with a new quartier. So, I took the 30 bus, which usually deposits me at King's Cross when I go to work, all the way through Islington, Highbury and Dalston to Hackney Central and wandered down towards the market. It felt like a bit of an Apprentice pilgrimage as I walked past the Hackney Empire (which featured in this episode) and the Hackney Town Hall (which featured in this episode).

Violet's mini-cupcakes
It was perhaps rather unusual that large numbers of trendy, affluent, 20- and 30-something females were wandering around the area where the market was supposed to be, looking slightly confused. When I went inside the studio that hosts the market to ask what was going on, the receptionist said it was cancelled for the next few weeks. They were looking for a new venue as not many people were showing up. Great timing there--calling off the market the week it gets featured in Time Out. That's one way of guaranteeing people won't bother trying to find it in future.

Climpson & Sons
Luckily, I'd already prepared a walking tour for myself and so I didn't feel too annoyed about the long bus journey. First, I went to Broadway Market, which I'd been meaning to visit for a while. I had a macchiato from Climpson & Sons' stall, which was great; I'd like to visit their shop, at the other end of the market, too. Also on offer were: lots of cakes (I opted for a mini salted caramel cupcake from Violet), flowers, breads, clothes and accessories and, of course, jellied eels. There was also a great independent book shop, The Broadway Bookshop, a branch of a Fitzrovia boutique I like called Black Truffle and a cool-looking bar called Off Broadway.

Regent's Canal at Broadway Market
I carried on down to the Regent's Canal (a new stretch, for me, of a very familiar canal), and walked just past the Kingsland Road bridge, where there was a really nice café called Towpath, which serves coffee, drinks, ice cream and light, simple, but tasty-looking food and you can sit at little tables right on the towpath. A very nice place to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. I then continued down the Kingsland Road, along Shoreditch High Street and on to the Old Truman Brewery, to take a peek at a couple of sample sales, although I didn't purchase anything. I also discovered the original branches of Rosa's and of Nude Espresso.

Canal-side sunflowers
I normally like walking through the City at the weekend because it's almost eerily quiet but today, probably because of the sunshine and school holidays, it was pretty busy. Eventually, I reached the Fleet River Bakery for more caffeine and a brownie, which I enjoyed while sitting in the gardens of Lincoln's Inn Fields. And then it was only a few more miles back to NoMaRo (via Anthro, where I did cave and buy a t-shirt, although I also resisted buying a skirt and lots of yummy-smelling candles). The whole route was 9.5 miles, which explains why my legs are now a little achey.

But I enjoyed my visit to Oriental London and some of the canal-side apartments were even funky enough for me to add parts of the area to my list of "areas in which I would consider buying a flat, if I can ever buy a flat" --any area where there is a good independent bookshop, good coffee, cool bars, hipster shops and a nice water feature (well, the canal) definitely wins my approval.

29 July 2011

Roving in the 'Rovia

 For once, I actually managed to get out of work early and although I'd hoped to make it to a cheapskate/earlybird movie, it turns out that the only film that's out at the moment that I'd like to see is The Tree of Life and that wasn't on anywhere early or close. Instead, I settled for checking out another new coffee bar--the new branch of Tapped and Packed on ToCoRo. I had somehow never made it to the original branch on Rathbone Place, in Fitzrovia proper, despite it being on my list for a while--probably because I tend to go to Lantana when I'm in that neck of the woods and in need of caffeinating.

Anyway, my macchiato was suitably tasty--rich, smooth and flavoursome--and I liked the cafe's woody, minimalist interiors, particularly the central tree stump, which holds sugars, napkins and other coffee-related paraphernalia, and the large, antique sinks that hold bottled soft drinks on ice. Reimagining Lyle's Black Treacle tins as sugar holders was a nice touch too, and there was just a nice, chilled out, early Friday evening vibe--so nice that it made me wish I could get out of work before five on a more regular basis.

Walking back home through the 'Rovia, I came across a smart-looking new gelateria, called Polka Gelato, serving, Italian-style, artisanal gelato and sorbets. For once, I didn't have much of a sweet tooth this afternoon so I didn't indulge, but I was sorely tempted by flavours like salted caramel and nocciola (and the mojito flavoured sorbet).

28 July 2011

Starting off on the Right Foot

To all those Americans who complain about or wonder at the obscure vocabulary found at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I would offer in return the word commencement. It took quite a few US college movies before I realised that commencement, somewhat counter-intuitively, is something in which you participate at the end of your degree rather than the beginning. Perhaps its etymology derives from the fact that those who have graduated are just about to commence the rest of their lives. The OED claims it was originally a Briticism anyway:
The action of taking the full degree of Master or Doctor; esp. at Cambridge, Dublin, and the American universities, the great ceremony when these (also, in some cases other degrees, esp. in U.S., that of Bachelor) are conferred, at the end of the academical year.
This is a rather long-winded way of introducing a book called Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan. I read about Sullivan's latest novel, Maine, which sounded like my kind of novel but as it hasn't been published in the UK yet, I sought its predecessor. I knew from the blurb that Sullivan's first novel would be even more of my kind of novel and sure enough, it was. OK, superficially, the description makes it sound as though it might be Sex and the City: The College Years:
Assigned to the same dorm their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April couldn't have less in common. Celia, a lapsed Catholic, arrives with her grandmother's rosary beads in hand and a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiance she left behind in Savannah; Sally, pristinely dressed in Lilly Pulitzer, is reeling from the loss of her mother; and April, a radical, redheaded feminist wearing a "Riot: Don't Diet" T-shirt, wants a room transfer immediately.
I never watched SATC but even I could see that Celia, the writer who loves to observe other people, is a Carrie-a-like and hard-working, career-focused Sally turns out to be a lot like Miranda. But Commencement is really much more like Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, though. At the start of the novel, four years after their commencement graduation, April, Bree and Celia are returning to their college for the wedding of their best friend Sally. They were all very close while at university but since then, life has intervened. The point of view in each of the sections alternates through each of the girls and we learn that they are a little nervous, as well as excited, about their reunion with their college--and with one another. They often jump back to reflect on their time time together at college and on some of the important events of their friendship.

Stuck in the worst four rooms in one of the nicest dorms in the all girls' Smith College, the four girls meet on their first day and despite their differences, they soon become the best of friends (now this sounds like Sweet Valley High, but that is an unfair comparison). Irish-Catholic Celia, who comes from a big Boston family, chose to go to Smith because it was the best school she got into. She feels like she's the most normal person at Smith and mourns the lack of men on campus. After college, she yearns to be a writer but is stuck working for a crappy publisher and has to make do with writing about her graduating class for the alumnae magazine. While dying to meet a nice bloke, she also wishes that she was still the most important woman in Bree's life.

Beautiful, sensitive Southern Belle Bree's mother attended Smith and wanted her daughter to do the same even though Bree's fiancé chose to go to school back in Georgia. The long-distance relationship doesn't work out but although her parents can forgive her calling off the wedding, they can't forgive her falling for someone completely unexpected, i.e. a woman, namely Lara, who is unlike anyone she has ever met. To Celia and Sally's wonder, Lara follows Bree to Stanford, where Bree completes her law degree. But she isn't sure whether she can give up the rest of her life--especially her disapproving family to whom she has always been close--for a life she still isn't convinced is really her.

Sally almost gave up her place at Smith after her beloved mother was discovered to have cancer and died very suddenly but does decide to go in the end. She aces all of her premed classes but is having trouble with her token poetry class until her much older poetry professor effectively promises her a good grade if she comes and tidies up his office while he reads Auden and Keats to her, quoting selectively from them to give her the impression his wife is dead rather than teaching on campus. Their affair continues for three years until she graduates and he breaks it off. She doesn't think she'll find anyone but then, after graduation, she meets Jake, randomly in a coffee shop and then, suddenly, they are engaged and then married, with more big decisions to come. Sally often acts as the mother of the group but she worries her friends will disapprove of Jake because he's too straightforward--historically, they've all opted for complicated, heart-wrenching and inappropriate relationships.

Tough, radical April wanted to go to a college that wasn't completely dominated by traditional patriarchal values. She's really asexual rather than homosexual and doesn't have a lot of time for men. She works two jobs to pay her way through university, getting no financial support from her mother (and she never knew her father). She finds her niche at Smith and becomes one of the most popular women, leading many feminist movements and organising countless rallies and events. But after graduation, her activism leads her to lose her way and she ends up living with and working for a woman who ends up putting April's life at risk as they campaign to raise awareness for women's rights and issues like the kidnapping of women into the sex trade.

April's sections are, objectively, the most interesting, but subjectively, I found myself rushing through to get back to the other girls' chapters, perhaps because I can relate to them more (I'm probably a cross between Sally and Celia, of course). I liked the back-and-forth, achronological structure, with the narrative sometimes jumping back to an event we've already seen but looking at it from the perspective of one of the other girls, and certain throwaway comments taking on a much greater significance later on when we understand them better. I can definitely sympathise with some of the problems the girls face at a single-sex college, having gone to an all-girls' secondary school. I would never have chosen to go to an all-girls' college (not even if I had to choose between Newnham, say, or a non-Oxbridge university), partly because after seven years of female company, I was fed up of having to make the effort to meet guys.

Commencement is a well-written, neatly structured and convincing account of the college experience and friendship of four very different women. All four characters have their flaws but, without wishing to sound too trite, in each other, they gained something potentially far more valuable than their degree during their time at Smith. Lucky them--but I still wouldn't switch my co-ed gaggle of university friends for a close, all-female cohort.

24 July 2011

A Match Made Far from Heaven

Lionel Shriver is very skilled at creating unsympathetic female characters. Sometimes, if I don't like the principal character, I find myself disliking the book too but somehow, I found We Need to Talk About Kevin and Double Fault compelling, as well as uncomfortable, reads. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the antagonist Eva writes letters to her estranged husband Franklin, telling him her side of the story of their relationship and of the birth and upbringing of their son Kevin, who, at almost 16, carries out a massacre at his high school. Eva is selfish and strong-willed but she's also very successful in her career as the managing editor of a series of travel books--far more successful than Franklin--and the competitiveness between husbands and wives is a theme that recurs in Double Fault, which I read this week.

Double Fault tells the tale of 23-year-old tennis player Willy Novinsky--ranked 386 and on her way up--and Eric Oberdorf, another would-be tennis star who, at the start of the book is ranked in the 900s. In the foreword, Shriver cautions that it isn't really about tennis so much as about a relationship--a marriage--and not a happy one. In fact, Double Fault made downright grim reading, for the most part. Willy has been good at tennis for her whole life but she has always had to support herself without help from her parents, partly because they couldn't afford to send her to training camps and tournaments and partly, Willy thinks, because they are both so bitter about their own failures and wasted opportunities that they are desperate to see her fail. Eric, meanwhile, is good at everything to which he turns his hand and has managed to claw his way into the top 1000, despite only having picked up a racket a year or two earlier. His well-off father is paying his way. He is also very good at many other things. He destroys Willy at Scrabble, he can skip longer, faster and harder than she can, he speaks several languages, and he has an Ivy League degree. Willy, by contrast, dropped out of the University of Connecticut in her third year, mainly because if she completed her degree, it would prove to her father that she felt she needed a back-up plan.

Willy and Eric marry and although their relationship seems to do wonders for Eric's tennis playing, it starts to cause problems for Willy. Soon after their marriage, he beats her for the first time and nothing will ever be the same again, as Eric's ranking begins its meteoric rise into the top 100 and Willy loses and loses and loses. And she can't accept her husband's success. She has dedicated herself to tennis for most of her life and she deserves to make it to the big time whereas for Eric, tennis is just something he enjoys and happens to be good at.

As Willy's jealousy, resentment and anger grow, cracks begin to form in her marriage. Giant fault lines in fact. Eric seems infinitely sympathetic and understanding but then it's easy to be the bigger person when you have all the success. Willy seems, at times, to want to push Eric to the point of leaving her but because he doesn't do anything by half measures--and because he has channeled all of his emotions of love, desire and companionship into the neat compartment that is Willy--he will never leave her. Their marriage will only come to an end if she leaves him. And just as she can't quite bring herself to give up tennis, even when, after an injury, her ranking continues to plummet through the floor, can she really leave the man she loves and hates with almost equal measures?

Willy isn't entirely unsympathetic. As a competitive person myself, I can understand how crushing it must be to be beaten at the one thing you're supposed to be the best at. How that could tear down any sense of self-worth you ever had and how that must make it so painful to be supportive of the other person's easy success. For much of the book, though, it is hard to believe that Willy really does love Eric at all. Various characters including Willy's coach (a former tennis star and older man who recruited Willy on a court in Las Vegas in part, it seems, because he was attracted to her) muse that a marriage between two tennis players could never work. Someone always has to be the less successful one and even if they both reach the top, the crazy schedules of training, tours and competitions means they aren't even going to be in the same country for a lot of the time. If the wife is better than the husband, she can't respect him but in this case, the husband ends up being better than the wife (or, manages to play better than her, anyway), and she hates him for it and hates herself for allowing him to be better than her.

The title of the novel suggests that both players in this marriage have to accept some responsibility for its failings but when Eric is so reasonable, rational and sympathetic, even after Willy's jealousy brings her to the point of violence, it's difficult to award him much of the blame. Double Fault isn't an easy book to read (if it is made into a movie, Disintegration by the Cure would make a suitable addition to the soundtrack). It's sad, raw, bleak and painfully absorbing.

Absolute Beginners

The eponymous beginners in Mike Mills' new film Beginners are Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Between them they are just starting out at many things--relationships, falling in love, being gay, dying--but mainly at being happy and true to themselves. It's a funny film, mainly in the odd sense of the word, although there are plenty of funny moments mixed in with the sadder, more poignant scenes. It is, primarily, a film populated with lonely, self-reliant people (what with Crash and, er, In a Lonely Place, one would think it isn't possible to live in LA and have a good network of friends).

The film's chronology jumps around quite a bit from 2003 (when, soon after his father has just died from cancer, Oliver meets and falls in love with Anna, a lonely French actress) to five years earlier (when Oliver's mother has just died and his father decides it's finally time for him to come out of the closet, go clubbing and get a boyfriend), to Oliver's childhood, where the emotions of his sad, lonely mother clearly made a lasting impact. Present-day Oliver is definitely very lonely. He works as an illustrator but has a habit of letting his clients down by bringing too much melancholy into his drawings--a band who just wanted their portraits for the album cover are presented with a 20 page fold-out booklet illustrating the history of sadness in the universe. He clears out his father's apartment, adopts Hal's lonely dog, Arthur, to whom he often talks (Arthur's "responses," which appear as text on the screen provide some of the film's funniest moments), and he doesn't have many friends. His few serious relationships failed because, as he later tells Anna, he never thought they would work out and so he made them fail.

But then he meets Anna at a party and finds a kindred spirit. Anna is a French actress stuck in LA and doomed to a life of travelling from hotel to hotel, never feeling like she is at home and always having to leave people behind (as Oliver puts it, "you don't have to keep leaving to leave people behind"). And slowly, they realise they can trust each other and that relying on someone else isn't a bad thing.

Back in 1998, Oliver can hardly believe it when his dad comes out. "But you and mom were married for 44 years. Didn't you love each other?" he asks. "Of course I loved her," he replies, "and I loved you and my job and our house and my life." But that wasn't the point. He had always known he was gay and when he married Georgia in 1955, she gave up the idea of marrying a Jewish man and he gave up a part of himself that he thought he could manage without. After Georgia's death, Hal starts dating Andy, a much younger man, who is about the same age as Oliver.

The characters are all on a hard and complex journey but at least they have one another along the way. They learn from one other too. Soon after they meet, Oliver and Anna go for a drive. "I'l drive, you point directions," he says. Later we see that Oliver's quirky mother used to do this with him when he was a kid. They borrow from one another to feel connected or maybe because it's the only way they know. With great acting from the three leads, Beginners is a warm, sensitive and quirky film, which adroitly handles several difficult topics. I highly recommend it.

23 July 2011

Point of Style

I just spent about 40 minutes creating a new page on this blog, which compiles all of the movie reviews I've written over the past four-ish years (all of the movie review posts that I tagged with the label "movie," anyway). There are 129 in total, although some of the reviews cover two or three films; there are a few other posts where my review of a movie is so brief that I decided it wasn't worth including. Interestingly, the number of reviews per year isn't correlated with the total number of posts, so last year, where I posted 160 times, had the same number of movie reviews (29) as 2008, where I wrote three times as many blog posts. This year looks set to be a bumper year for reviews on this blog, as I've already written 26 and there are still over five months to go. Movies is, of course, my most common tag with 201 posts, beating even the vacuous life tag.

But I digress. When I was compiling my list of reviewed movies, for foreign-language films, I included both the original title and the English title, which presented me a subediting dilemma. The Bexquisite house style is to put movie titles (as well as other titles) into title case: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for example. IMDb does the same. But the original title of this film is listed on IMDb as Le scaphandre et le papillon, which just uses an initial cap. Presumably because the first time I wrote a review of a French film, I took the French title from IMDb, I do the same. Although in my mind, initial-caps titles seems like a particularly French style, I try to do the same for other foreign-language titles when they come up, although I see a lot more French films than other languages.

No one cares about this apart from me, but I felt the need to explain the apparent grammatical inconsistency. That is all.

Tell No One for the Next Three Days

I'm sure it's not just me who finds it hard to feel sorry for beautiful, affluent Parisians who live in huge, gorgeous houses in the smartest suburbs. Still, if anyone can inspire sympathy, it's the ever charismatic Romain Duris (of L'arnacoeur fame), who stars in The Big Picture as Paul, partner in a top Parisian law firm, husband of the pretty but sad and frustrated Sarah (Marina Foïs), father of Hugo and the oft-screaming baby Baptiste, and would-be photographer.

Actually, he has an enviable photography lab in his enviable house, paid for with the spoils of his lawyering day job. He always dreamed of being a professional photographer, just like Sarah always wanted to be a writer, and Paul figured that even if he had to sell his soul at lawyering, at least his wife could achieve her dreams. The trouble is, she isn't any good and, stuck all day with two young kids, she becomes bored and frustrated. Sure enough, she starts the inevitable affair with their friend Grégoire (Eric Ruf), who is trying (and failing) to make a living as a photographer--luckily, he has a trust fund and, like everyone else, an amazing house.

When Paul finds out about Sarah's betrayal, he goes to confront Grég, they fight and Paul ends up accidentally killing his rival. Oops. Luckily, he has already seen Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One) and Pour Elle (remade as The Next Three Days) so he knows exactly how an ordinary guy can deal with such situations. Thus, he cleans up the blood, hides the body in the freezer, acquires a new passport in Grég's name with his own photo, learns on the 'net how to blow stuff up, plots his escape and generally works out how to get away with murder. This plan includes emailing Sarah from Grég's computer to tell her of Grég's plans to go Hungary on a project with National Geographic. Then he fakes his own death on a sailboat and escapes to Montenegro in the world's least subtle getaway car (a powder blue vintage Mercedes--I can only assume it was Grég's car but still...).

Safely ensconced in fallen-down cottage in a small town in Montenegro, Paul-as-Grég is free to follow his dream of becoming a photographer. Spotted by Bartholomé (Niels Arestrup), the editor of the local paper, he is commissioned to take a series of portraits of locals, which eventually leads to an exhibition. The trouble is that he can't let any photos of "Grégoire" appear in the press and so when the gallery owner makes a deal to transfer the exhibition to some big London gallery, it's time for Paul to do another runner. What a palaver.

Despite its flaws (it's lucky, for example, that there are no photos of the real Grég online. Also, given that Bartholomé tells Paul-as-Grég, "je t'ai Googlé," why does Paul then try the search on a fake website called "Searcher," which looks remarkably similar to Google? I think the Académie française should be told), The Big Picture had me right up until this point. Based on the English-language novel of the same name by Douglas Kennedy (rather like Tell No One is based on the English-language Harlan Coben thriller), Paul's story was compelling. Like Pour Elle, it tells the tale of an ordinary (if very handsome, wealthy and talented) guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

**Spoilers, including an indication of the ending, follow**

But The Big Picture lost me at the end. It was inevitable that Paul's new-found happiness and success would also be his downfall. I guess the writers (or maybe Kennedy; I haven't read the book) wanted a less clichéd ending. I found it highly unsatisfying.

Essentially, Paul escapes to Italy on a ship, having paid off the captain. While on board he spots--and photographs--the crew throwing a couple of stowaways overboard into the open sea. When he protests, they chuck him in too but he manages to drag himself and one of the others onto some kind of raft or large buoy (ah, redemption!). When they eventually reach land (Italy, it seems), he gives the film with the evidence of the crew's crimes to the other stowaway to sell to an Italian newspaper for tens of thousands of Euros. Paul smiles (maybe he's getting half the money; maybe he just feels he's fully redeemed himself; who knows? I didn't really care). Fin.

This felt like an unnecessary juxtaposition. It felt like the ending of an entirely different movie, which is a shame because otherwise The Big Picture is a good, absorbing thriller, due in part to Duris' performance (Catherine Deneuve also pops up as Paul's boss/mother figure who is, sadly, dying of some brutal, unnamed disease).

What's in Store (Street)?

In my ongoing attempt to pay less than the standard £12 central London cinema ticket price, I often find myself heading to a Curzon cinema at the weekend, where tickets are £7 before 2 pm, or £6 at the Renoir, located in the architectural wonder that is the Brunswick Centre. And so today, I went to the Renoir to catch the latest in the Gallic-thriller-based-on-an-Anglo-Saxon novel trend (of which more later). Serendipitous wandering, on my way back to NW1, brought me to Store Street in Bloomsbury, which I've been meaning to check out for some time now but Bloomsbury always feels one borough too far away for me, even though I can walk there in about 45 minutes, at most.

My first stop was Store Street Espresso at number 40, which, thanks to the Londonist's recommendation, has been on my caffeine to-do list for several months. I stopped by for an excellent macchiato (today featuring a guest espresso blend from Metropolis Coffee in Chicago, it seems), while I made a start on the Grauniad crossword and made a few notes on the movie I'd just seen in my Moleskine. As well as the coffee, Store Street Espresso offers some tasty-looking sarnies and an assortment of cakes and other sweetmeats, all served up with a very chilled out vibe and cool music. I'll have to go back when I have a bigger appetite.

Next came Potassium, a fashion/lifestyle boutique located at number 29. They have all sorts of lovely, colourful garments (pretty sundresses and funky leather handbags seemed to be a particular forte), as well as designer furniture (including some good bargains to be had on display models), candles and art. Unfortunately, the Store Street branch is a pop-up shop and only around until the end of August but fortunately, for me, at least, the main store is in Seymour Place, in SoMaRo.

Finally, just next door at number 28, is Caffè Paradiso, which is, unsurprisingly, an Italian cafe serving coffee, ciabatta sandwiches and genuine gelato. I still hadn't worked up enough of an appetite to indulge but this would be a lovely place to sit and pass a pleasant hour at one of the outdoor tables, one sunny lunchtime or afternoon.

This being Bloomsbury, Store Street also has a couple of quirky bookshops that might be worth a peruse: The Building Centre at number 26 for art, design and architecture books and Treadwell's at number 33 for all your magic, Wicca and paganism needs.

22 July 2011

Make That 12 Songs

The trouble with qualitative rankings is that it's really easy to forget a favourite. When making my top ten yesterday, I definitely forgot Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, which would probably knock the Stone Roses or maybe Sufjan Stevens out of my top ten. As I only discovered it four years again, via Radio Paradise, of course, it's still only #43 in my iTunes list of most played songs but it'll make the top ten one day.
How I wish, how I wish you were here
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
Musical bliss...

21 July 2011

11 Songs

I don't add new choons to my iTunes library very often, instead tending to listen to the same old favourites again and again. Sometimes, I go off one of those old favourites, though. And sometimes I listened to a song that never quite made it to "favourite" status but was a real earworm so many times that it shot much higher up my iTunes most played list than it deserved. It takes quite a long way for these songs to fall out of my top ten most played songs and so I never felt this list was very representative of my all-time favourite songs.

But when I looked at my most played songs today, I was surprised to find that a lot of the top ten might actually be selected as my Desert Island Discs (well, the songs I'd want to select, if not necessarily the songs I think I ought to select). The top three, which all have over 300 plays since 2005 (when my records began) would definitely make my qualitative top ten (the songs I'd pick as my favourites, as opposed to the ones iTunes tells me are my favourites): if not the top three: Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah, Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek and Sufjan Stevens's For the Widows in Paradise. #4 is another Imogen Heap song (The Walk) and although it reached the 200-300 plays section, I wouldn't want to include two songs by the same artist in my qualitative top ten.

#5 to #8 form the OC contingent of my top ten most played (technically, Hallelujah was featured in The OC too but I liked it before I saw it there). In order: Worn Me Down (EP version) by Rachel Yamagata, Life Is a Song by Patrick Park, Wonderwall by Ryan Adams and the Bettie Serveert cover of Lover I Don't Have to Love. Ironic that I was an Oasis fan for so many years and their only song in my top ten most played is a cover by another artist (the original made it to #35).

#9 and #10 are songs I associate with Nowheresville: Crazy English Summer by Faithless and Wishful Thinking by Rupa & the April Fishes. I don't think the former deserves to be so high, although I do still listen to it fairly often so obviously I don't know my own taste as well as I think I do. The latter is still on its way up and will probably reach the top five soon.

Oh, and then because the #11 song is only one play behind the #10 (173 plays and 174, respectively), I don't think it's cheating to include my 11th song, the acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road (and mainly the one on my computer, which is similar to this one); another song that's still climbing. Many of the rest of the songs in the top 30 were once in the top ten and have since fallen in my esteem. I still like them but they're not my favourites any more.

If I were to pick a qualitative top ten, it would probably go a little like this, although not necessarily in this order (and yes, I know you don't get ten songs on Desert Island Discs):

  1. Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
  2. Wonderwall - Ryan Adams
  3. Wishful Thinking - Rupa & the April Fishes
  4. Thunder Road (acoustic) - Bruce Springsteen
  5. Hide & Seek - Imogen Heap
  6. Disintegration - The Cure (or maybe Maybe Someday)
  7. For the Widows in Paradise - Sufjan Stevens
  8. With or Without You - U2
  9. I Wanna Be Adored - The Stone Roses
  10. Pale Blue Eyes - The Velvet Underground
But then I'd still be sad not to include How Soon Is Now?, Expresso Love, something by Oasis, something by Crowded House and... OK, maybe this list needs some more work...

17 July 2011

A Billet-Doux to the Countryside

I wouldn't want to live in the countryside. Hell, I did live in the countryside for 16 years and to deal with crappy bus services that only ran until 6 pm, lack of entertainments in my village, strange village people, and poor to non-existent mobile phone signal, among other things. Even Oxford, the nearest big town, isn't exactly a cosmopolitan mecca and only managed to acquire a multiplex a few years ago. Nowheresville, where I spent the next four years of university and the following two years of work life, certainly isn't a cosmopolitan mecca either. They had a French movie star/director there once though and they have a Wagamama now.

So, I don't exactly regret my decision to move to London--far from it, in fact--but sometimes I do feel a little nostalgia for the countryside. Like when I miss my cats, for example (city kitties are so much less cute than country cats), or when it's a sunny Saturday and perfect weather for a barbecue, or when it's a Sunday afternoon in which the weather is alternating between bright sunshine and torrential rain and I really want to go for a roast dinner in a cosy pub in the middle of nowhere. Not that London pubs aren't nice but on some Sundays, only a country pub will do. I was back in the Shire this weekend, anyway, and having pursued town pursuits for most of the weekend (dinner at Quod, running in Christchurch meadow during another deluge, surprisingly successful shopping at Bicester Village while the sun was out), it was time for some country activities.

We had surprisingly good weather for our BBQ on Saturday night and then drove off towards Henley at lunchtime today. For our pub lunch, we chose the Crooked Billet, a 17th century pub near Nettlebed. Dick Turpin apparently hid there once and it seemed to be quite well regarded on the Sunday lunch front (and the parents had been there before). I was quite intrigued by the guinea pig menu, which is neither a menu for guinea pigs or containing them but in fact offers some of the new dishes the chef is working on and would like to test out. We all opted for the roast beef plus trimmings, which was suitably epic. I just about managed to find room for a slice of white chocolate cheesecake with frozen berries, as well.

The mediocre espresso was the only thing that let the side down really. Well, and the lack of mobile phone signal, but that's hardly the pub's fault. The place was packed full, even at 2.45 when we left, so it was lucky we booked. Had the weather been more clement we would have been able to carry out another classic countryside activity--walking off lunch--but sadly, we had to head to the world's most depressing branch of Habitat, which resembled a pound store but with ridiculously high prices.

Maybe it's not so bad to be back in the Big Smoke...

10 July 2011

"Love Is the Most Awkward of Things"

Previously on The Valois... When Henri II of France died relatively young, in 1559, after a jousting accident, he left behind a number of young heirs under the guardianship of their mother, the ruthless Italian Catherine de Medici. Eldest son François II, first ill-fated husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeds to the throne at the age of 16 but, always a sickly child, dies just over a year later. Next comes Charles, who became Charles IX, and whose failures have recently been highlighted in the excellent novel, Charly 9. Charles was only ten when he became king and so the policies in his reign, most remembered for the Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Huguenots, were dominated by his mother. By 1567, a temporary truce has been reached and meanwhile, in Montpensier, the upcoming marriage of a beautiful young heiress is causing all sorts of trouble...

As I mentioned earlier, I had to revise my plan to see The Tree of Life this afternoon, thanks to an alarm clock SNAFU, and instead, I went to see La Princesse de Montpensier. This wasn't too big a sacrifice given that I'd been planning to watch the latter anyway. I studied a lot of 16th century French history at A-level and my A-level history coursework essay discussed whether Catherine de Medici was responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Huguenots in Paris on St Bartholomew's Day in 1572 (yes, she was, I found, and to a large extent). La Princesse de Montpensier, then, which opens in 1567, is bang in the middle of my period and I enjoyed it. It felt like a good old-fashioned historical romance/drama, that could easily have been made in the 1970s -- very refreshing after The Tudors with its dodgy accents, dodgier historical accuracy and sexed-up costumes.

The plot is a little complicated but can be boiled down to the fact that pretty much every male character is in love with Marie de Mézières, a wealthy heiress who becomes the eponymous Princess of Montpensier after her father forces her to marry the Prince, Philippe, a jealous, hurtful type, who bears a strong resemblance to Justin Timberlake. Marie had been hoping to marry Henri, Duke of Phwoar (not to be confused with Charles, Duke of Phwoar; this Duke is technically the Duke of Guise) -- her cousin and childhood playmate. The Guises, like the Howards and Staffords in Tudor England, were one of the most powerful families in France and were often thorns in the side of the Crown (on this occasion, Henri and his chums are helping the king, probably because his family are too busy trying to help Mary, Queen of Scots and cause problems for the English). Philippe/Justin is also a cousin of the DoP and of Marie. At least, they all seem to call each other cousin; wonder why these dynasties died out...

Anyway, other than being hot, the Duke of Phwoar is charming, passionate and a better fighter than Justin. The Duke of Anjou (who, at this point, is the man who would become Henri III and, at this point, is being wooed by Elizabeth I of England, who is about 20 years his senior), who is the main representative of the royal family in this film, is very happy with the DoP's fighting skillz. Justin, meanwhile, doesn't do a great deal to help but he does leave his new wife, who only grudgingly allows him to have his way with her on their well-attended wedding night, alone in his country chateau with only his buddy and former teacher, the Comte de Chabannes, for company. The Comte was quite literally a Renaissance man: a polymath who is fluent in poetry, languages, herbal medicine, astronomy, fencing and seduction. Unlike Catherine de Medici, who we see later in the film as a kind of Mystic Meg figure arguing that two of the characters totes won't end up together because they're both Leos, the Comte thinks astrology is a load of crap.

And naturally, when he and Marie are left practically alone together for such a long time (perhaps two years, although the time scale of the movie is a little sketchy), he falls for her. I thought he was going to turn out to be her father -- her mother, when trying to persuade her to do her duty and marry Justin, says, "love is the most awkward of things," and I had wondered whether she herself had had an affair at some point -- but apparently, this wasn't the case. It certainly seemed like more of a paternal love or a love of friendship than one of passion, as seen with the DoP. The Comte has been in trouble with both the Catholics and the Huguenots after fighting for the latter but then deserting after feeling so ashamed for killing a pregnant woman. "How can people of the same faith and the same blood kill each other in the name of the same god?" he asks. All too easily, it seems...

Justin doesn't like Marie spending any time in the DoP's presence but somehow, the DoP "accidentally" manages to lead Anjou and his party onto the Montpensier estate. "Guess who's coming to dinner, JT?" Anjou, who is rumoured to have been gay or perhaps bisexual, is most noted in this film for his Jack Sparrow-like use of eyeliner, sparkly earring and appalling chat-up lines ("oh, I'm sorry I tripped. Your beauty was just too overwhelming"). Anjou, like everyone else in this film, has the hots for Marie too. He's also cross with the DoP for trying it on with his sister Marguerite and then ditching her, and so he tries to intervene when Marie eventually decides she wants to do something about her feelings for the DoP (and lack of feelings for Justin).

The course of true love definitely didn't run smoothly in 16th century France, however, and by the end of the film, there isn't much in the way of happiness, although Marie and the DoP do finally manage to get it on. The film, which is based on Madame de La Fayette's novel of the same name, was well-paced and, despite its run-time of 2h20, didn't feel too long. There was plenty of action and intrigue, a bit of battle and a bit of bodice-ripping, so all in all, a very good historical drama. There were some tongue-in-cheek and amusing moments too, amid the emo; when the DoP and Marie were talking about his sister's upcoming marriage to her father-in-law and trying to work out what relation they would be to each other, it almost felt like an episode of The OC.

Running in Heels

Although they are pretty comfy, as heels go, my pink heels do have their limits. Wearing them all night long on the treacherous cobbles of St Jocks' turned out to be pretty painful, and so did standing and dancing on them for six hours straight last night. As I live in Marylebone and as I turn into a pumpkin soon after midnight, usually when I go out at night, I can either walk home or catch the tube. Last night, though, I went out in Kennington to celebrate Balham Babe's birthday, which resulted in a fairly epic journey back to NW1.

After some drinks at BB's house, we went to this pub, located in the very European-esque Cleaver Square (there were even people playing boules), before heading for Hawai'ian-style drinks and dancing. The cocktails were supposed to be particularly good although perhaps I've been spoiled by the secret speakeasies of the Lower East Side, as I didn't think they were that great (although they were only £6).

As I hadn't researched bus routes for getting home, I really wanted to get the last tube back to NoMaRo, and a quick bit of dancefloor iPhone searching suggested that if I got the last Northern Line tube at 0:24, I would get to Charing Cross in time for the last Bakerloo Line train to chez moi. Naturally, the Northern Line was late so despite sprinting across Charing Cross station in my aforementioned heels, I missed my connection. I had expected this so the sensible thing would have been to stay on the Northern Line to Warren Street and walk home from there or get one of the two buses. When I finally escaped from Charing Cross, I headed for Lower Regent Street, past Trafalgar Square and along the deserted Mall. By the time I reached the bus stop for my bus, my feet were killing and I couldn't face walking the remaining 30 minutes home. There was such a traffic jam on Regent Street though that my bus showed no signs of arrival and so I carried on walking up Regent Street.

I made it as far as Anthro when I saw the number 6 bus, which I'd also seen on Edgware Road before, so I knew would get me close to home. Because it was a night bus and we were in the West End, it was full and noisy, and because people wouldn't heed the "no standing on the upper deck or stairs" notice, the driver had to keep stopping the bus. By the time I got back home, I could hardly feel my feet any more (the pain came back this morning) and it was nearly 2:00 am.

My plan was to see The Tree of Life this afternoon but I wanted to go for the early-bird performance at the Curzon, which was a bargainous £7, and because I cunningly forgot to set my alarm, I woke up too late, so instead I'll be going to see The Princess of Montpensier, which will cost me a non-bargainous £12.50. Ah well. It was a fun night and, more importantly, BB had a good time. I guess now I know how people who don't live in Marylebone feel when they have to get back home most of the time...

A Matter of Trust

I've been looking forward to the UK release of the film Trust for quite some time now. Not because I was particularly excited about the film itself, although it definitely sounded like an interesting if hard-hitting movie, but because it's been almost two years since I last saw Clive in a film, at the London Film Festival premiere of The Boys Are Back. Indeed, his role in Trust, as Will, the father of a teenage daughter Annie, who is groomed by a guy she meets online who claims to be 16, combines some traits of Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back, and with those of an older version of Larry in Closer. Like Joe, Will is fiercely protective of his family, desperate to keep them from getting harmed by a world full of harm. Like Larry, he is angry, vengeance-seeking, and seems to have the same accent, tone and "working-class" coarseness of which Larry is so proud.

***Some spoilers follow***

And Trust is plenty hard-hitting. Sad too, and I certainly wouldn't have guessed it was directed by David Schwimmer had I not known this in advance. But it was also very well made, with great performances from Clive (of course), Catherine Keener (as Annie's mother Lynne), and Liana Liberato, who plays Annie.

The opening of the film is much more light-hearted. In fact, the opening scene could easily have been an advert for either Apple or Starbucks's Frappuccinos, as Annie waltzes around the kitchen making a smoothie and chatting to her online buddies on her phone. The messages pop up on the screen, the text a different colour for each person. Clearly, one of her best online friends is someone called ChRleeCA (Charlie from California; incidentally, some of the txtspk in the film did feel a little bit like it was written by an adult trying to sound like a 14-year-old, which, I guess it was). Annie is quite taken with this Charlie, who is, supposedly, 16 , very funny, smart and sweet. Like Annie, he plays volleyball, so he can give her lots of helpful advice for making her high school team and so on. On Annie's 14th birthday, her father presents her with a new MacBook Pro (see what I mean about the Apple ad?), which facilitates her relationship with Charlie and allows her to video chat, send photos of herself and otherwise pursue this ill-advised liaison.

But then Charlie admits he's actually 20 and a sophomore in college. He didn't want to scare her off, he says. Later, when they've reached the stage of phoning each other (how 20th century), he says he's really a 25-year-old grad student. She's freaked out at first but eventually forgives him and when her parents go away for the weekend to take her older brother off to his first semester at college, leaving Annie and her younger sister in the care of their aunt, she takes the opportunity to meet Charlie at a mall. And of course, he's probably much closer to 40 than 25. Again, Annie is seriously freaked out but he persuades her to go and have an ice cream with him (where they are spotted by Annie's best friend) and slowly, he convinces her that he's still the same Charlie she knows and loves. He just didn't tell her because he wasn't sure she was mature enough to handle the age difference (eek), which, of course, wins her over. He presents her with the gift he's bought her -- inappropriate red, lacy underwear -- and soon she is in his motel room modelling it for him. She doesn't really want to take things any further but with a combination of sweet-talking and physical force, Charlie makes it happen. Oh, and he films it.

When Annie won't talk to Brittany, her best friend, about what's happened, worried Brittany tells the head teacher about who Annie met at the weekend, and soon the police are called in, and Will and Lynne find themselves called to the police station or hospital where their daughter is being examined so evidence for the rape kit can be collected. They are devastated and furious that they aren't even allowed to see Annie until the examination is complete. Finally, they take her home and while the FBI make a start on the case to try to track down "Charlie," Annie and her family have to start dealing with it.

Perhaps the most difficult thing is that Annie doesn't believe anything wrong happened. She believes that she and Charlie were in love and that thanks to her "jealous" best friend, the police and her family have brought an end to the best relationship of her life. Her relationship with her father, in particular, disintegrates because he doesn't know what to say or how to act. He feels stricken with grief because he was supposed to protect his daughter from this kind of thing and he couldn't. He failed her. Will tries to help by taking the investigation into his own hands, flying to New Jersey to meet with a "pervert tracker" group for advice on how to try to find Charlie. At Annie's volleyball game, he sees a guy who looks a bit like someone in the neighbourhood who is a registered sex offender and who is taking photos of the girls. He beats the guy to the ground and won't stop hitting him until he finds out the guy's daughter is playing in the game. Amazingly, the guy is pretty understanding and no charges are pressed. Meanwhile, Will becomes increasingly uneasy about his job -- he works for an advertising agency, one of whose clients is a teen and tween clothing company and so whose ads tend to feature scantily clad teens.

Eventually, the FBI find out, thanks to DNA analysis, that "Charlie" has targetted three other girls in the past few years, one of whom was only 12. Slowly, it dawns on Annie that she wasn't special, as Charlie had said, after all, and that all of the other things he had told her, that she was "wise beyond her years," "an old soul" and that he loved her were probably just lines. The knowledge of this coupled with some of her classmates PhotoShopping her head onto a naked porn star's body, adding her phone number and various lewd comments, and posting it online causes Annie to try to take extreme measures. But finally, she starts to come to a sense of peace and to deal with what has happened. And Will too starts to forgive himself and to realise that no matter how hard he tries to keep his children from getting hurt, he won't always be able to do so.

By the end of the film, there has been no indication that the FBI are any closer to catching Charlie but then, as the credits roll, we see a home movie being shot of a young child at an amusement park. When the kid turns the camera on his parents, we see that his father is Charlie and that Charlie is a teacher, probably of high school students. Grim stuff...

Grim but gripping. The story is told very sensitively and while it could have taken the crime thriller route of focusing on the investigation, the hunt for Charlie and perhaps Will's efforts to obtain his pound of flesh, instead it mainly addressed the effects of what had happened on the family and on their relationships with one another. For example, Will and Lynne's relationship suffers some strain as the events unfold; Lynne thinks Will should concentrate on helping his daughter rather than his misguided attempts at misguided justice. Meanwhile, the subplot of Annie's brother heading off to college provides another angle in the theme that at some point you have to let your children go; bad things may happen to them and that they may make mistakes but ultimately, sometimes all you can do is to help them pick themselves up afterwards.

3 July 2011

Separation Anxiety

The eponymous separation in A Separation might only take up about 15 minutes of the movie's two-hour screen time but it acts as the catalyst for all of the subsequent events in the film. As the film opens, we see Nader and Simin, a middle-class Iranian couple, trying to obtain a divorce. Simin has obtained a visa that would allow the couple and their ten-year-old daughter, Termeh, to leave the country but Nader wants to remain in Iran to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's. Nader doesn't want Termeh to leave and she isn't keen to leave either but as her mother puts it, Termeh is too young to realise the loss of opportunities staying in Iran will entail.

Thwarted in her efforts to get the divorce, Simin moves out of the family home and moves in with her parents. This means that Nader must find someone to come into the flat to care for his father while Nader is at work. An acquaintance of Simin's recommends her sister-in-law, Razieh, a working-class 30-something, whom Nader interviews for the position. Razieh seems reluctant--she would have to leave her home at 5 am and take several buses to get to Nader's house and she doesn't think the pay is sufficient, but eventually, she says she'll take the job. The trouble starts when Nader's father's illness suddenly worsens, he stops talking and starts soiling himself. The presents a problem for Razieh, who is very devout and thinks it is a sin for her to wash and change Nader's father. The situation is complicated by the fact that Razieh's unemployed, depressed husband doesn't know she has taken the job and so she tries to get him to do it instead. This doesn't work out, however, and Razieh keeps on turning up each day.

But one day, Nader and Termeh arrive home earlier than usual to find their flat locked and no one answering the door. When they eventually get in, they find Nader's father unconscious on the floor, tied by his arm to the bed, and Razieh nowhere to be seen. While the two of them try to wake Nader's father and check whether he is OK, Razieh and her young daughter return. Inevitably, a fight develops--not only did Razieh leave Nader's father alone in the flat, tied to his bed, but she may also have stolen some money. Furious, Nader throws her out, metaphorically, but she comes back a) because she doesn't want him to think she's a thief and b) to get her pay for the day. This time, Nader throws her out literally. She slips on the wet staircase and falls.

The following day, a seething Simin comes to tell Nader that Razieh is in hospital having had a miscarriage and that it's all his fault. The remaining hour or so of the film is occupied with the ensuing courtroom drama. Razieh and her husband are accusing Nader of the murder of their unborn son; Nader responds by filing a complaint against Razieh for leaving his helpless father alone when she'd been employed to take care of him. There is a lot of anger on both sides. I found my sympathies lying unexpectedly with Nader, who I felt had every right to be angry after what happened to his father, even if he wasn't right to physically push Razieh out of his flat. As well as trying to stay out of jail, he has to try to persuade his estranged wife to return home and try not to lose the respect of his daughter, especially when it transpires that the latter only chose to stay with him to try to prevent her parents' separation becoming permanent.

Eventually, various revelations clear up the legal--if not the moral--issues between the two families, which brings the drama back to Nader and Simin's separation. At the end of the film, they decide to go ahead with the divorce, which just leaves Termeh to decide with whom she wants to live. She has made up her mind and asks her parents to wait outside while she tells the judge her decision and as the credits start to roll, we see Nader waiting in anticipation. My guess is that she chooses to live with her mother, despite the fact that she stood by her father throughout the film and even lied to protect him. She still loves him but I do think she loses some respect for him over the course of the film.

The acting was great--very low key and restrained--and the issues were dealt with sensitively and intelligently.  I got the impression that the director didn't want to take sides, in either of the legal cases; instead, each character makes both good and bad decisions and has a varying moral compass. Is it right to leave a man with Alzheimer's by himself for a few hours even if you have a very good reason for going? Is it right to seek to accuse someone of a crime when you have a reasonable degree of doubt that they might not really be responsible? Is it right to say in court that you didn't know something when you really did it know it but didn't recall it in the heat of the moment? Is it right to lie to protect someone, to stop them being punished for an act for which you don't believe they are responsible? The characters in A Separation dance a fine ethical dance, and it's also a very compelling, interesting dance.

2 July 2011

Hidden Purl

Marylebone is great for shops and cafes but the Lower East Side it ain't when it comes to secret speakeasies. It does, however, have Purl, tucked away in a Blandford Street basement, and hopefully, this will be a sign of things to come. I've been meaning to visit Purl since it opened (last year, I think) but on the couple of occasions I tried to go, I hadn't booked and so wasn't allowed past the bouncer. Last night, though, I took the opportunity of organising a girls' night out in my hood for once and booked a table.

Mr Hyde's No 2 (the potion bottle is inside the wine cooler, being infused with smoke)

It is very dark down in the basement, which is arranged into a series of nooks, crannies and private booths. I needed both of the tea lights to have any hope of reading the menu, which takes inspiration both from '30s New York and Victorian gin palaces. As I'd read that part of the fun is in the showmanship associated with certain drinks on the menu, I opted for Mr Hyde's No 2: rum, homemade cola and chocolate bitters, served in a "sealed potion bottle" and infused with smoke. You are encouraged to pour the mixture into your iced glass in two sections--before and after the smoke has had time to infuse--and I could taste the difference. It wasn't the type of cocktail I would normally go for but it was quite tasty and quite a fun experience. Next time, I might go for a non-molecular option--the White Lady one of my friends ordered was very nice.

We'd only planned to have the one cocktail before going somewhere else for dinner but a wandering cocktailista asked if we'd like to try one of his special cocktails, made at our table from his trolley. Keen to try a more standard drink, I went for the Corpse Reviver No 2, which contained Tanqueray, Curacao and lemon, among other things. Balham Babe's Hanky Panky, which involved Tanqueray and assorted citrusy ingredients, also tasted good.

Molecular mixology at our table

Overall, we were impressed. The drinks were good and creative, the ambiance was very intimate and it wasn't too loud down in the basement, which meant we could actually talk properly without having to shout. We were somewhat surprised to receive a bill for only £20 for five drinks but in the end, we decided to be honest and tell the waitress we'd had another round. I was hoping she might knock one drink off the bill but she just told us how nice we were instead. Ah well, at about £9 or £10 per cocktail, the prices are fairly standard for central London, but we knew that when we went...