Sunday, October 19, 2014

Retrospective OOTD: clubbing in Bristol

(the 'day' in question being a few Saturdays ago)

Heart-shaped hoop earrings: River Island
Boob tube: Dorothy Perkins
Black skirt: hand-me-down from a friend
heels: Topshop

Restaurant Review: Ping Pong (Southbank)

Being Chinese, I’ve frequented my fair share of dim sum joints. As with all Chinese restaurants, the real telltale sign of the quality of a place is the proportion of the clientele there who are actually from the motherland. On a quick look over the people in Ping Pong, more than 70% were non-Asian, which should have struck alarm bells immediately. However, the place had been booked for a friend’s birthday, so it would have been ridiculously rude to object, so I thought I’d give Ping Pong the benefit of the doubt and try to make the best of a dodgy situation.

And situations don’t get much more dodgy than this. Check out the food below

Spring rolls: pedestrian, stick-in-the oven job.
chicken and mushroom rice pot: barely any chicken at all. Rice was borderline stale.
seafood dumpling: too much carrot, not enough seafood
crispy prawn ball: impossible to consume without the 'ball' falling apart, and as with other meat dishes, hardly any prawn in it.

And these were the best of the lot. Suffice to say, not only was my appetite not satisfied with the crap on display here, but it nearly put me off Chinese food.

On the upside, the cocktails were nice, but the length it took for them to make them, plus the price and lack of Happy Hour were a huge deterrent.

Got any enemies? Send them down Ping Pong's way. Otherwise, save your money and your tastebuds. Avoid this shithole like the plague.

Grade: F

Friday, October 17, 2014

Thoughts on two films I watched at the cinema today

MAPS TO THE STARS (David Cronenberg, 2014)

Hollywood, as painted by the twisted paintbrush of David Cronenberg, with two fantastic turns from Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska. Moore really gives it her all as fading actress Havana Segrand who’s increasingly losing her grip on reality as she fights tooth and nail to play the role her dead mother (who sexually abused her as a child) had in a reprise of the film. It’s an unglamorous role, but she’s extremely courageous to tackle it with the dedication that she does. Wasikowska plays an equally disturbed girl with prominent burn marks on face, exiled to Florida after a childhood incident where she burned down her family’s house, she’s back in LA and lands herself a job as Segrand’s ‘chore whore’. The rest of cast are all apt, playing their dislikeable characters with suitable panache. Whilst the acting is excellent, however, the depiction of Hollywood was a bit too convoluted to be fully believable. There were black, bleak laughs in almost every scene, and overall, the experience hypnotises you (and I'm definitely not complaining about R-Prattz eyecandy), but, just a bit too weird for me to fully appreciate.
Grade: B-

’71 (Yann Demange, 2014)

I’m not really big on history or army movies, so this one took me by complete surprise. Gary Hook (Skins’ Jack O’Connell), a young Derbyshire soldier, gets accidentally left on the mean streets of Belfast when his unit flee a street. He’s left to fend for himself, amongst hostility towards soldiers from the residents of the city as well double-crossing and duplicity amongst people supposedly working for the same side. The two MVPs of this film are the cinematography (hand-held cameras that contribute every bit to the urgency and tension of Hook’s increasingly precarious situation) and Jack O’Connell, who, despite on paper his role seemingly quite paint-by-numbers, actually manages to imbue his soldier with empathy and emotion, so that we feel every inch of dread that he does. The direction and score suit the film well as well. With a running time under 100 minutes, it’s refreshing to watch an action movie which commands your attention for the full running time and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Apprentice series 10, episode 1: Ten Years of Selling

Back for its tenth year, the British Apprentice kicks off with some real chumps. One brags ‘People think I’m a nice guy… really I’m just scheming behind their back’, which is exactly the kind of image you want to convey on national television. Another whines that his absolute worst nightmare is a £50,000 salary and a Toyota. Make no mistake, we’ve got a bunch of egotistical morons on our hands, and as it’s an anniversary year, Alan Sugar enlists not 16 but 20 contestants to start with.

In the boardroom, one bloke describes himself as ‘a cross between Ghandi and the Wolf of Wall Street’, an oxymoron if there ever was one, whilst Felipe, a Columbian lawyer, gets into Lord Sugar’s bad books straight away by hailing Arsenal FC as ‘a great football club’. There’s also a 6’7’’ maverick who dresses outside the box not to mention several attention-hungry women to add to this motley crew.

As per previous years, the first episode kicks off with teams divided by gender, and needing to pick a team name before they do the signature first episode task: selling stuff. Daniel on the boys team immediately offers up Summit, whereas the girls go for the extremely dubious Decadence, clearly having no idea about its negative connotations. Laughs aplenty, especially when one of the contestants, clearly gagging for air time, gets to say his bit: ‘There’s no I in team. But there are five Is in Individual Brilliance’. Wow.

Felipe, the lawyer, volunteers himself as the PM of the boys group, choosing Chiles to manage the sub-group, whilst Sarah puts herself forward as Project Manager for the girls’ team. She’s off to a shaky start, wanting to cut the lemons before selling them, a decision that is roundly vetoed by the rest of the girls.

The men are much more decisive in their decision-making, with Robert, the snappily dressed one, suggesting that they dress the sausages up and sell them as hotdogs, as this could reap a greater mark-up, which the boys agree with. On Team Decadence, the early signs are there that the girls are not impressed with their leader, particularly with Bianca mouthing off offstage about her already.

One of the items that needs to be sold is T-shirts, and the girls decide to go for ones with the slogan #LONDON across. Sarah announces, for the first time but not the last during the show, ‘I’m project managing this whole task’, although clearly not well enough to give Roisin the seed money they need to pay for the T-shirts. The other half of the team have to run across London to pick it up, which Nick Hewer regards as a loss of valuable selling time.

The boys, on the other hand, don’t even have their T-shirt, and tensions are high when Steven suggests they sell potatoes to a place nearby which will take them, but his suggestion falls on Chiles’ deaf ears. The girls find their selling skills aren’t as great as they talked them up to be when they try to flog food for £15 a bag, and have to settle for £7, with the man in the store being so stubborn he wouldn’t even take them for £7.10 a bag. Pamela walks away dejected, admitting it wasn’t a great sale.

Meanwhile, Robert’s fancy idea of coating the sausages in guacamole for a trendy east London vibe absolutely repulses Karen Brady, whilst the other half of the boys team enjoy some horrendously cringey power play when sales manager Mark tries to sell balloons to a kids’ party company, and gets extremely irate when James keeps cutting in to try to speed the sale along. The kids’ party company buy the product, but their bemusement is clear to see.

Karen, observing the boys team, notices that strategist Robert – the man who offered the Ghandi/WoWS soundbite – hasn’t pulled his weight. Chiles and Steven continue to have a bitch-off in the other half of boys’ team, and no doubt this is a squabble that will rear its head in the boardroom.

Sarah (that’s the Project Manager of Decadence, in case you didn’t know), carries out one of the worst pitches in the shows’ history trying to sell washing up equipment to a zoo. The man asks if stuff is environmentally friendly, to which she says lamely ‘well, it’s plastic, so I wouldn’t want it near the penguins’. Cringe. In the other half of the team, the girls sell the T-shirts back to the guy who printed them. They offer them to him at £240, but have to settle for £60.

The selling task culimates in the boys doing a good sale on the potatos, but at the cost of shifting any T-shirts whatsoever. The girls, meanwhile, lament the horrific leadership of Sarah, saying ‘we forgot we even had a PM’.

In the boardroom, the girls’ smugness at learning the boys sold no T-shirts soon evaporates when they are shot down to earth over the true definition of decadence. Nick Hewer’s face when he informs them is pure gold. Asked on how Sarah did as PM, the girls don’t hold back. ‘No strategy. No strategical thinking’. On trying to defend herself in explaining how she divided the team, Sarah momentarily forgets the name of some of her fellow team members, wrapping up what has been an episode horribilis for her.

Ultimately, though, the girls team beat the boys team by a little under £60. Their decision to sell the T-shirts back to the guy who printed them seemed crazy at the time, but looking back, it’s what saved their, and Sarah’s hides.

The boys are gutted. Most of them try to shift the blame on Steven’s negative influence, but he isn’t having any of that, protesting, rightly so, that at the start he suggested somewhere to sell potatoes, and had they listened to him then, they could have gotten the T-shirts flogged too. Felipe brings Chiles and Robert with him into the boardroom. Alan Sugar was not impressed with Robert’s decision to turn sausages into hotdogs, despite Robert’s protestations that they were ‘very Shoreditch’, a notion that, unsurprisingly, is lost on Lord Sugar. He isn’t won over by Felipe’s leadership either, though he ultimately decides that it was Chiles’ poor management of the sub-group that lost them to task. Chiles becomes the first casualty of the boardroom, and Lord Sugar teases us with the prospect of more firings… but decides to give the remaining two the benefit of the doubt, letting them go back to the house with their tails between their legs.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Do You Come Here Often? (Alexandra Potter)

I read Alexandra Potter's chicklit novel when I was on holiday in Paris this weekend. It was a diverting read that killed some time when the weather outside was rainy; just the right level of froth for a girls' holiday, but didn't contribute anything substantial to the genre.

Grace Fairley and Jimi Malik, two Mancunian teenagers, were at school together, and hated each others' guts. Naturally, a chance encounter on A-level results day leading Grace to defend Jim's honour from racists at a bus stop mean they fall into each other's arms. However, Jimi's womanising bravado gets the better of him and he never calls Grace after taking her virginity, leaving her brokenhearted.

13 years on, both are living in London and have gotten over it. Grace is engaged to Spencer, one of London's top divorce lawyers and Jimi is a week away from marrying Kylie, a skinny cokehead he's fallen in lust with and seen fit to ditch his lothario ways for. Another chance encounter (this book has more than I could forgive, even with my "suspend the element of disbelief" hat on), this time on Grace's 31st birthday in an Elephant & Castle restaurant, throws both of their future plans, not to mention everything they thought they knew about themselves, into disarray.

Alexandra Potter's writing style is jaunty and amusing, if not particularly gripping, and at times her attempts to play it earthy just reek of desperation to be funny. The Grace/Jimi story is the focal plotline, around which a few other subplots dance around, including accounts of Rhian, Grace's single mother best friend's misguided attempts to find love. In one of the subplots, Maggie, Grace's older colleague discovers she has breast cancer, and Potter writes poignantly when conveying Maggie suffering a life-threatening setback, yet trying to sugarcoat it with her natural bubbliness. The descriptions of and social commentary on parts of London are also on point, and raised a chuckle in the Londoner in me.

However, the rest of the novel is so saccharine and predictable, not to mention the dialogue being so paint-by-numbers regarding gender roles (Grace spends the whole novel whining about Spencer not setting a date, and a conversation between Grace and Jimi about sex is woefully gender stereotypical), that I simply couldn't take it seriously. Potter is a writer with good intentions and some potential, but truth be told, I saw how this novel was going to end the second I read the blurb. And as much as I love my chicklit fiction, I don't quite love it THAT blatant.

Grade: D.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel on which the film is based and for which she wrote for screen herself, was ubiquitous on the Tube throughout 2012 and to a lesser extent, last year. It opens with a quote from playwright Tony Kushner that reads: “Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood.” Fincher’s big-screen adaptation of the book captures the essence of this quote perfectly, slowly biding its time to illustrate the thin love between love and hate, and how, when it’s crossed, marriage can become a deadly bouquet of barbed wire.

 photo gone_girl_17.jpeg

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a writer who lost his job in the recession in NYC, returned to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri with his beautiful and decorated wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), a Manhattanite who suffered a similar plight. On the afternoon of their fifth wedding anniversary, he returns home to find she’s missing. A table has been upended and glass shatters are all over his dining room floor. He calls the local cops to investigate, but events transpire and soon he becomes their prime suspect.

Meanwhile, the film gives us Amy’s side of the story in the form of diary entries. The early entries are just as saccharine as described in the novel, from the flirtatious banter the couple first exchange at a party, to the way Nick poses as a journalist at a press event for ‘Amazing Amy’, the book series of Amy’s parents which is based on her childhood, to propose for her. This latter detail was actually missing from the novel, but played out on the big screen, has an appropriate Hollywoodesque touch which shows just how photogenic the couple are, not to mention the potential in their relationship.

However, as Amy notes herself, the test of a marriage comes when the recession hits, they are both laid off their writing jobs (Nick, for a men’s magazine, Amy, putting her Ivy League Masters-level education to good use constructing personality quizzes). Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and they move back to Missouri, a decision she resents not being consulted about. Further diary entries reveal Amy wanted a baby but Nick didn’t, and when pestered about it, he turned violent. The diary ends with Amy wanting to buy a gun, fearing her husband may murder her.

These entries, however, jar with Nick’s side of the story. He protests that he’s the one who wanted and a baby and she was opposed, and the spending habits of his described by her, non-existent. But it doesn’t look good for Nick. Evidence is mounting up against him: credit card bills for expensive golf clubs, a neighbour who claims to be best friends with Amy even though he never even saw them speak, and most damningly, a pert 20-something mistress.

With a running time of 2 and a half hours, Fincher takes his time telling the story, but even then, a whole lot of detail was cut from the novel, so it would be churlish to complain. Practically every scene is a necessity. His leads are both very good, perhaps surprisingly so. That Ben Affleck has two Oscars to his name is a tidbit that surprises many, given the quantity of clunkers on his CV, but in the hapless, unreliable role of Nick, he’s spot-on. As the main detective examining the case Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, doing the character justice with her brand of non-nonsense girl power) notes, we can’t tell if Nick is saying the wrong things because he’s actually that dumb. Affleck imbues Nick with just the right amount of moral ambiguity for us to hope that he didn’t do it.

 photo 75.jpg

As the eponymous lead, Rosamund Pike absolutely blows it out of the park. It might initially jar to see an actress so used to being typecast as the pretty airhead ala Jane Bennett (in one of Nick and Amy’s happier days, they romp in a library, and Pride and Prejudice is mentioned, a quasi-meta touch) in such a villainous role, but it is my belief that this is the part Pike has waited for, and she seizes it with aplomb. Whether she’s Amy the glamorous Upper East Side princess with the unwanted mild celebrity status, or Amy the poor shunned housewife fearing for her life, she’s never less than fully convincing, which makes the starkness of (what we perceive to be) Nick’s lies ever the more brazen. Her line-reading on Amy’s ‘Cool Girl’ monologue is fantastic, and one of the parts of the book that definitely benefitted from a big-screen translation; that whole sequence was a thrill to watch. The venom in Pike’s voice there was so real it was almost contagious. It was rumoured that Fincher cast Pike on hearing she was an only child, just like Amy, and perhaps it was that little touch that gave Pike the extra mileage to really bare her teeth. Channelling Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, she's overbaked, but deliciously so.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ eerie score suits the creepy vibe of the film perfectly, although I did feel they tried a bit too hard with the sound effects to unsettle the audience. The supporting case are uniformly excellent bar Emily Ratajkowski (aka the hot brunette from the Blurred Lines video), who plays the mistress as a complete caricature. Admittedly we are never supposed to warm to Andie in the novel, but I did get the sense that she was whiny, misguided girl acting in her best interests there. In the film, Ratajkowski does nothing but rank up the horny college student stereotype.

It’s a bum performance note that is fortunately drowned out by excellence elsewhere, especially Carrie Coon as Margot, Nick’s twin sister (balancing sisterly love with a gritty determination to avoid a self-pity parade) and Tyler Perry as the legal eagle who specialises in defending shady husbands Tanner Bolt (slick, confident and exactly the kind of man you need if you were in Nick’s dire straits). I was extremely excited to see How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson on the cast list when the film was in production, but sadly Neil Patrick Harris is somewhat underused.

The film covers a lot of base, examining marriage, revenge, the media, to name but a few. In lesser hands, Gone Girl could have been a hot mess, but David Fincher knows how to tell a story better than anyone, being the man who even made the tale of Facebook an engrossing one. There’s plenty of dark laughs to be had in Nick and Amy’s journey, and at the end you may recognise women to be quite the formidable force. Flynn’s handling of her own material is excellent, and she has trimmed the fat, added tweaks here and there, but retained the caustic tone of the book, in an end product that I would say improves on the novel to make for a disturbing, entertaining and hugely enjoyable cinematic experience.

Grade: A-