Sunday, July 24, 2011

Restaurant review – Benihana, W1.

Just off Picadilly Circus Tube station is Benihana, a trendy Japanese restaurant. Currently undergoing renovations in certain parts of the venue, the drinks/waiting area was mainly cordoned off and in the interim, the waiting area consisted of two little round tables (of which I shared with another lady who was waiting). But the actual restaurant itself was a unusual delight. The way it was arranged was that everyone was sat with strangers around a metal grill, and the meal was cooked directly in front of you, but it wasn’t just basic turning the food over; there was a real visual firework to go with the preparation of the food – the chef sprayed some pepper over the vegetables and with a flourish, casually tossed the pepper shaker upwards and caught it in his big chef’s hat. Elsewhere, other chefs threw their vinegar or salt shakers into the air, span on the spot and caught it. For veterans of Japanese restaurants, food was thrown into their mouths for them eat. Fun was very much on the menu here.


I had the set menu, which was £23 and had 8 courses – all quite small, so that you got a taste of everything. Some of the courses were misses (a pot of rice with what seemed like half a bottle of soya sauce tipped on was far too salty to fully consume), but the meat (a choice of two from chicken, salmon, seabass, steak) was cooked to your preference, the sushi was fantastic, and the dessert, a tiny square of chocolate, was exactly what was needed to sweeten up the overall quite a savoury meal. Drinks were overpriced, even by London’s standards - £8.50 for a strawberry daiquiri that tasted suspiciously devoid of any alcohol whatsoever, but artfully designed in a way that the presentations of the cocktail was so lovely that you almost didn’t realise you were being conned. However, kudos has to go to the chefs for making mojitos, a drink I’m not usually too fond of – quite delicious with the aid of some lychees.

Overall, as far as overpriced restaurants in the city centre go, Benihana definitely sits up there, with more than enough charm to carry off its inflated menu prices. The amusing “show” put on by the waiters make it a good venue to pick when out with friends, or children, who will surely love it.

Grade: B+/A-

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Good Die Young.

From Janis Joplin to James Morrison to Kurt Cobain and James Morrison, 27 seems to not be a good age for musicians. Today, Amy Winehouse, found dead in her Camden, joins the list of musicians who left us far, far too early. Unlike with some of the previously mentioned though, Winehouse’s death, however tragic, will not surprise many. Addicted to alcohol and drugs, Amy Winehouse was never the most conventional of artists. Expelled from Drama School at 14 for not working hard enough and getting her nose pierced, her career as a singer was constantly spent as a myriad of being in and out of rehab, overdosing on pills and booze, tumultuous love affairs with men who weren’t good for her, and occasionally singing at a concert now and then. With her signature bigger-than-life hair, powerful voice and song lyrics that hit emotional peaks, when she was good, she was magnificent. Unfortunately for her, the quantity of her lows exceeded her highs and on 4pm July 23rd July, the world lost a truly talented performer.

These are the five Amy Winehouse songs that I like the most:

05. Valerie
Originally by The Zutons, Mark Ronson (who’s job title I’m still a little baffled about) and Amy Winehouse collaborated on their version of it, elevating an already enjoyable song into a wonderfully lively, feel-good number, with a cute music video to match. It’s Amy Winehouse out of her comfort zone, in cheerful mode (although she did as such on Tears Dry on their own, another success of her’s), but sound-wise, it has an unmistakable 50s and 60s vibe to it, an era that Winehouse is no stranger to musically – since a child, she loved to belt out Sinatra classics. And, indeed, her spin on Valerie is something that even Sinatra himself would have bopped along to.

04. Love is a Losing Game
At just three verses, this is one of Amy’s most lyrically sparse songs, but what it lacks in verbal content, it more than makes up for in impact. Her melancholy voices drifts between quiet and loud and she opines over the cold, hollow, heartbreak of love. “One I wished I never played, oh what a mess we made” , this song hits the sensitive peaks that the majority of pop songs these days couldn’t even dream of reaching.

03. Fuck Me Pumps
Amy Winehouse puts her satirical hat out in a biting look at the lives of girls who hit the club in the hope of bagging a rich/famous husband, only to find themselves being used and abused, “You’re more than a fan just looking for man, but you end up with one night stands.” Her contempt for this kind of lifestyle could not be clearer, and there’s real fun to be had in her scathing wit, “You can’t sit down right/Cuz you jeans are too tight/ And you’re lucky its ladies night.” The title itself – an allusion to the slutty heels that some girls wear in a desperate attempt to get noticed – is a work of art itself. A caustic treat, from top to bottom.

02. You Know I’m No Good
Possibly better known to some as “the song they play over the credits of Secret Life of a Call Girl”, this is my pick for the sexiest Amy Winehouse song. Although it’s about infidelity, two-timing and all the guilt that comes with it, her voice is so sultry an silky that it gives her seedy lyrics an inexplicably alluring quality, epitomized in the line “Thinking of you in my final throws – this is when my buzzer goes”. The jazz trumpet and bass guitar complement her singing perfectly, and it is impossible not to view this song (as with many of her songs) as a microcosm of the Winehouse; she has a loving boyfriend, but chooses to cheat on him, thus depriving herself of all that is good and pure. Quite.

01. Back to Black
What with her on/off relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy Winehouse is no stranger to destructive relationships, and she uses these experiences to pen a beautiful and chilling depiction of such. “I died a hundred times” and “I love you so much/it’s not enough” are among many of the lines which she delivers perfectly. The emotion in her voice is unmistakable, and with the simple-but-effective piano chords and sparsely employed strings in the background, this is such a classy number that it has often been employed in TV and film sequences of funerals or other dark events. A song as unforgettable as it is disturbing and heartbreaking. Breathtaking.

Memories, my, my, my. For all her faults, Amy Winehouse was a majestic performer and singer/songwriter.The death of this North London girl gone bad will be sorely felt by the music industry. RIP, fallen star.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (David Yates, 2011)

A wise English proverb once dictated that all good things must come to an end. Ten years on from the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the eighth and final Harry Potter film is released. The producers at Warner Brothers made the money-savvy choice of splitting Deathly Hallows into two films, which led to a sort of Kill Bill effect – one film was all highs, the other all lows. However, they did it the right way round, with the first instalment of Deathly Hallows boring people to near-death. What that meant, of course, was that all the rollercoaster of visual pyrotechnics, character relationships and the final countdown between Harry and Voldemort was saved for the second film. And what a finale it is.

It would be optimistic to say that the three leads have particularly bettered over the ten years. Daniel Radcliffe still strikes me as awful impassive, spending much of the film looking baffled or bemused. When he is required to give a performance of emotional gravitas, he borders on overacting. However, if he is on the cusp of ham, Emma Watson is a fully-fledged bacon, once again letting her eyebrows do the acting, acting. Of the three, Rupert Grint has always been the one who charmed me the most, and as with previous films, he has some real zingers, which he delivers with relish. I met him, in case you forgot.

But looking past the lead three, the performances are an unequivocal joy. Michael Gambon is perhaps a little more taciturn than I had pictured Dumbledore to be, but what he lacks in words he exudes mystery and wisdom. Helena Bonham Carter, though underused, goes to town with her performance, making the demented psycho bitch Bellatrix Lestrange totally her role. Tom Felton, although not given as much of a chance to shine as he was in Half-Blood Prince, pulls off the unenviable task of humanizing Draco – a character we are expected to despise. Bonnie Wright is so impassive that she must have been taking acting lessons from the tree from which her on-screen wand was made from, but Evanna Lynch is delightfully kooky and Matt Lewis – who, it must be said – has aged quite nicely, really comes into his own as Neville Longbottom gets his moment of glory. Maggie Smith is wonderful, shedding all her airs and graces of Downturn Abbey to exhibit the true grit of Minerva McGonagall, and Julie Walters’ delivery of “NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU BITCH” has pipped Bridesmaids’ “you’re a little cunt” as my favourite line-containing-a-misogynistic-expletitive-of-2011.

But the finest performance of the film, and possibly the best performance in the entire Harry Potter franchise, belongs to Alan Rickman. Professor Snape has always been a hard character to sympathise with and many felt Dumbledore’s trust in him was idiotically misplaced, not least at the end of Half-Blood Prince. But as JK Rowling’s novel exhibited, years of hidden love, disappointment and jealousy boil together to give one of the emotionally cathartic performances I’ve seen. Behind that impassive face hid so many emotions, and Rickman lets these all come to the fore in an acting tour-de-force that exhibits more layers than an onion. The scene where Snape discovers Lily Potter’s dead body, such was the force of Rickman’s performance, that I was literally bawling. Beautiful work, and if there was any justice in the world, he ought to be a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor come Academy Awards 2011.

The showdown in the form of the Battle of Hogwarts is a long affair, but sandwich in between it are pithy one-liners, some excellent CGI, and wonderfully rewarding kisses. Although I’m anything but a fan of Emma Watson, the Hermione/Ron kiss completely melted my heart, as well as the Neville Longbottom & Luna Lovegood romance, how adorable! Alexandre Desplat’s silky score is some of the most grand work he’s done and aptly captures the magnitude of the moment; “Lily’s Theme” is one of his most stunning tracks. Eduardo Serra captures the contrasts between bleakness and redemption gorgeously, and there are some beautiful symbols that have emerged from the film - Hagrid carrying Harry whilst crying for him was one that particularly lingered in my mind.

The epilogue in the film, as expected giving how much I groaned when I read it first time round, is a cringe-worthy affair, but giving Ron a pot belly was comedy gold. There are parts in the film that feel somewhat forced and heavy-handed, but other parts turned out just as I had expected, if not better, having read them in the film – Harry reading through Snape’s memories was a terrific montage of love, loss and regret.

It feels like a huge slice of my childhood has ebbed away with the Harry Potter franchise ending. Along the way, we have had comedy, drama, awful acting, wonderful acting, Hedwig’s Theme – one of the most recognisable tunes in film music, and magic aplenty. It has been a rollercoaster ride, but on the whole, I would say Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 is a worthy bow out to a truly innovative and exciting series of books. Mischief managed!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Favourite Ron & Hermione moments.

By the way, this is my hand touching Grint's from the premiere last Thursday in Leicester Square:

10. Can You Keep a Secret?
Hermione’s super-human knowledge and diligence is well-documented throughout the seven books and indeed, her intelligence has come to Harry’s aid on countless occasions. But she possesses so much more than simply book smarts; she is sensitive and a very good reader of people – Ginny’s schoolgirl crush on Harry is apparent to all in Chamber of Secrets, but she being the 11-year-old, impressionable lil’ sis of his best friend, he sensibly pretends not to notice, leaving the crush to evaporate. In Half-Blood Prince, however, it is he who develops feelings for her, and the fact that she has them, quite literally, lined up, and isn’t afraid to face her brother Ron about it when he scolds her – only exacerbates his feelings for her. At the end of the book, after he has gotten her, he has to let go, and it is revealed that it was Hermione to advise Ginny to go with some other boys, not particularly with the aim of forgetting about Harry entirely or to make him jealous, but because she deserved to experience teenage love in her own right. Deep down though, Hermione knew that Ginny only had eyes for Harry and the her flings – however troubling to Harry (and Ron) – would do her no harm. Whilst this is not explicitly a Hermione/Ron moment, simply the fact that Hermione knew how much her crush & best friend’s younger sister fancied her other famous best friend but diplomatically chose not to tell either shows that whilst she is smart like the best of them, Hermione’s best quality is not her brain, but her heart.

09. Well Jell
In Half-Blood Prince, Harry and Hermione both turn the head of Potions Master Professor Slughorn, who invites them to come to his exclusive Slug Club, of which the other members are either well-connected students with distinguished bloodlines (Blaise Zabini’s mum was a heartbreaker of a witch who frequently married and divorced), or students who Professor Slughorn sees a light in, like Ginny and Hermione. Ron, who reacts with a red-hot temper that would do his hair proud at seeing his sister and two best friends invited but not him, and much of his anger is directed at Hermione, who by now he is growing increasingly confused by his feelings towards. Hermione rarely dabbles in underhand tactics, but Ron becomes so snarky towards her simply for being noticed for her excellence that she allows the horny-but-hot Cormac McLuggen to bring her as his date for the Christmas Slug Club party, knowing full well how much it will make Ron jealous. The little on-running feud between Ron and Hermione is as amusing as it is entertaining and acts as an accurate portrayal of teenagers and the petty things we do to get the attention of the ones we like.

08. For you, there’ll be no more crying.
In Philosopher’s Stone, the first few times we are introduced to Hermione Granger, it is difficult to warm to her. Bossy, a know-it-all and almost unbearably stuffy, Harry is a little bemused by her. Ron, however, never one to mince his words, voices his displeasure towards Hermione. Naturally, Hermione would overhear, and despite the brave face she has sustained so far, her butter-wouldn’t-melt demeanour comes crumbling down and her hurt locker shows. She runs into a toilet to cry, unaware that a gigantic troll is also there. Harry and Ron come to her rescue and in a brilliant display of teamwork, the three defeat it. With that, the quintessential OT3 of friendship is borne. If I really wanted to overanalyse, we could say that Hermione’s obnoxious behaviour to Harry and Ron had just been her defensive mechanism for speaking to “famous Harry Potter” and his cute ginger friend who she quite liked the look of. But that would probably be overanalysing it; they were only in year seven.

07. “I love you, Hermione”.
Harry and Ron have – as they have a knack of doing – got themselves in trouble, and now have homework assignments on top of that to worry about. Hermione senses their plight and offers to help with their work. Ron, so grateful, utters weakly “I love you, Hermione,” and it is said that Hermione “turns pink”. Ron’s comment was a throwaway one, but Hermione’s embarrassed reaction tells me that it was she who fell for Ron first, but he was too bull-headed and dull to realise.

06. Lust and delirious
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is, in a way, a tennis match of sexual politics between Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. He should be so lucky as to get her – beautiful, smart, loyal girl that she is, but his own insecurity is so crippling that it leads him to mistreat her. His path in getting with sentimental and fairly annoying but well-intentioned Lavender Brown arose from a fight with his younger sister. Unhappy at being berated by Ron for making out with his friends, Ginny cries, in defence, that Ron is simply being a prude because Harry has had experience of snogging (Cho), and “even Hermione kissed Viktor.” This proves to be the catalyst for Ron and Lavender getting together, Lavender herself unaware to the fact that she’s being used as a pawn in the two’s warfare. After Ron suffers a near-death accident, however, and he is recovering, he’s so doped up that he’s unable to get his agenda right and says the name of the girl who he’s really thinking about: Hermione.

05. Oh, Krums.
Harry and Ron leave it a bit late in finding dates for the Yule Ball, meaning that the girls they go with – attractive twins Parvati and Padma Patel are perfectly fine, but not the ones they wished to have gone with. Harry’s choice had been asked sooner – Cho Chang, and Ron’s preferred date is more obscure. When it became hard to find someone he thought Hermione would be available as a last-ditch resort, but on seeing her – by far the most beautiful she’s been – at the Yule Ball, in the arms of Viktor Krum, a famous Quidditch player who up until this point he’d been in awe of, brings up all kinds of envy in him. As a result, he pays Padma no attention, loses all the idolatry he’d had thus far for his Quidditch hero, and seeks Hermione out to have a go. She isn’t having any of it, crying, “Next time there's a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!". Ron splutters his indignations, but judging from Hermione’s tears and Harry’s tactical reticence, he’s only kidding himself.

04. Knight with cruddy armour
Draco Malfoy comes from an affluent family. This is unceremoniously shoved in the Gryffindors’ faces when his father kits the entire Slytherin Quidditch team out with Nimbus 2001. Taking the opportunity to sneer at Harry and Ron, Hermione replies sharply – but accurately that at least Harry earnt his place on the team, rather than buying it like Draco. Malfoy doesn’t like being told by a Muggle, and calls her a terrible word – Mudblood. This infuriates many of the passers by, but only Ron does something about it, pulling out his wand to defend his friend. Unfortunately for him, his wand is crooked and his own hex backfires, but that he would defend his mate’s honour with such fierce loyalty shows the beautiful, unadulterated spirit behind Ron and Hermione relationship.

03. Paying the penalty
Always in the shadow of ~Famous Harry Potter~ and his astounding Quidditch skills, Ron has a chance to shine in the sixth book when Harry, as captain of the Quidditch team, is holding tryouts. Cormac McLuggen probably has more natural talent, and in a Quidditch penalty shoot out, he is flying, saving four of four penalties. As the fifth is taken however, he does a bizarre dance-in-the-sky that results in him letting one in, and Ron getting the role of goalkeeper. As it transpires, it was Hermione who performed the jinx on Cormac to make him under-perform, as retribution for some throwaway comments he’d made about Ron and Ginny. A little action of a good friend, perhaps, but for by-the-book Hermione to play so dirty shows that she truly cared about the person she was doing it for. If only Ron knew.

02. Come together, over me
Albus Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was one of the most arresting, surprising and depressing deaths in literature for me, not least because it seemed to signal an uprising of Voldemort’s clan. At the end of the book, the entire school (bar a few evil-minded Slytherins) is in mourning. Ron and Hermione have set aside all the drama they have incurred in the book (in a fit of rage, Hermione had sent a bunch of canaries after Ron after seeing the two all over each other), and it is fair to say that Ron has entered that tentative transition between lad and full-fledged young man. Many of the inhabitants of Hogwarts cry, including Hermione, who, we are told, weeps into her ginger friend’s shoulder. It is a rare moment of beauty amidst a sea of heartbreak.

01. Kiss Me
There was a clatter as the basilisk fangs cascaded out of Hermione’s arms. Running at Ron, she flung them around his neck and kissed him full on the mouth. Ron threw away the fangs and broomstick he was holding and responded with such enthusiasm that he lifted Hermione off her feet.
Corny, yes. Out of place (it’s in the Battle of Hogwarts), yes. But oh my lord, it was so bloody overdue. Seven years of adventure, of being there of each other, laughter and tears, mindgames and game playing, all culminating in these few, such rewarding lines. As you may have noticed, I'm quite into my films where there's all this strife and tribulation, and it ends with a grandstanding act of redemption, and Ron and Hermione's kiss is redemption for a lot of the casualties incurred in the series.  I don’t care for Emma Watson a jot but I love Rupert Grint and Harry Potter, and thinking over all these precious Ron/Hermione moments has thoroughly piqued my thirst for the final film coming out this Friday!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Film review: BRIDESMAIDS (Paul Feig, 2011)

If you were to ask thirty-something Annie (Kristen Wiig) whether she was happy with how things are going in her life, she probably wouldn’t be totally honest if she answered “yes”. Working in a job she clearly despises as a retail assistant in a jewellery store – a job, we are told, she only got as a favour from the manager to her mum, less-than-satisfied with her relationship – or lack thereof with the hunky but arrogant Ted (Mad Men’s John Hamm) and living with a weird and annoying brother-sister duo, it’s fair to say she’s not exactly firing from all cylinders in her life. 

The only aspect she has always been able to count on is her best friend Lillian. The two meet up in the mornings to cheekily scab off free training from a local fitness instructor by hiding behind a tree and exercising to his words. They listen to each others’ relationship woes and offer opinion and advice, but never judgement. And, unlike with so many faux friendships that are rife with ulterior motive, when the two tell each other that they love each other, you know they mean it.

So when Annie learns of Lillian’s upcoming engagement to long-term boyfriend Kevin, her initial feelings of delight for her friend very rapidly turn to fear, isolation and upset when the prospect of losing her childhood friend to a world of upmarket dos, nappies and, even more terrifyingly the annoyingly perfect Helen, Lillain’s fiancĂ©e’s boss' wife, who seems intent to usurp Annie’s title as Lillian’s best friend. 

In one hilarious scene at the engagement party, Annie gives a brief but heartfelt speech congratulating Lillian. Helen then takes the mic and oh-so-subtly slips in a few words and inside jokes in her speech. Annie, refusing to be outdone, takes the mic back and shares a few friendship histories of her own. Thus triggering off a vicious cycle, culminating in both women singing a terrible song together – but the audience with tears in their eyes.

And that’s the genius of Bridesmaids, in my opinion – it manages to hit so close to the truth. Who hasn’t felt the jealous pang of seeing a friend that you value so dearly slowly, but inextricably falling away from you and closer into the net of the one you perceive as your nemesis? Kristen Wiig, who is no stranger to comedy, being a regular on Saturday Night Live, gives one of the performances of the year. It doesn’t hurt that she co-wrote the script, so is completely comfortable with the material, but her deliveries and deadpan facial expressions make for one of the best comedic performances I’ve seen for a while. 

Underneath all the high jinx, however, are the tears of a clown; Annie isn’t happy, and, whether she likes it or not, there are plenty of problems of her’s that can’t purely be pinned down to the fact that her best mate is getting married. Her taste in men speaks for itself; it is clear from the off that good cop Officer Rhodes (our very own Chris O’Dowd off The IT Crowd) has eyes for her, yet she chooses to go back into the welcoming-for-all-of-ten-minutes arms of the chauvinistic Ted. It’s frustrating to watch her make such mistakes, but any and every woman watching Bridesmaids over the age of 15 (as right they should be, it’s a 15 certificate over here after all) knows exactly what it’s like to shun the attentions of a nice guy in favour of one who treats her like shit.

The supporting cast all more than pull their weight in Bridesmaids. Melissa McCarthy is the token chubby-but-good-humoured sister of the groom, who provides much of the visual humour of the film, and Wendi McLendon-Covey, as Lillian’s cousin Becca, gets some of the best lines – involving being married to a horny husband, the nonchalant delivery of “I just want to watch the Daily Show once without being entered.” 

The friendship love triangle, of Annie-Lillian-Helen is written perfectly, full of social airs and graces between the former and latter. Rose Byrne as Helen, who I have plenty of fond memories of watching in Damages, is supposed to be the ~bad guy~ here, and some of her actions are deplorable (not least the little prank she pulls on Annie on the airplane), but we don’t end the film completely despising her, as, she is, after all, just another lonely woman. 

Chris O’Dowd is completely adorable as Officer Nathan Rhodes, and when he and Annie finally do spend the night together, he not only welcomes her to spend the night (a stark contrast to the friends-with-benefits Ted’s caddish behaviour when he says “I want you to leave but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick”), but he even goes out and buys her some cooking ingredients (Annie used to own a bakery before the recession hit in and ate all her profits – forcing our into redundancy). Annie is so taken aback by this show of kindness that she leaves straight away. It’s a very well directed, surprisingly poignant scene, once again highlighting sometimes often in life, it’s almost as if people go out of their way to stay unhappy. 

The balancing act between comedy and drama is a difficult one, and although Bridesmaids is very firmly one of the former (certain scenes – the bridal dress fitting, Annie’s altercation with an uppity young customer, and her drunken daze on the airplane are just some of the many that had me in stitches, and the sex jokes are a bawdy treat), it’s the sensitive, intelligent way that the latter is inflected into the comedy that makes Bridesmaids such a winner. After all, if I wanted to laugh my face off, there’s plenty of dumb YouTube videos I could watch, or, say Borat or something. 

But Bridesmaids wasn’t just funny, it was emotionally rewarding. We come to care for Annie and her plight; this film isn’t just about her failings as a bridesmaid-in-chief; they are purely a microcosm of her problems in life as a whole. Yet as the film progresses and she lives and learns a little more, she realises that it is never too late to stop feeling sorry for oneself and turn things around. 

Beautifully written, not least the romantic subplot between Annie and Officer Rhodes, you will leave this film with a feeling inside sweeter than any slice of wedding cake.