The Square, The Coburg Bar, deVigne Bar, HUNter 486, X-Men: First Class

June 13, 2011

The Square

My shoes are falling apart.  Both soles are cracked in two, behind the right ankle there’s a bit of rubber peeling off, and they look like crap.  None of this would have been a problem though, had it not been raining heavily as brother and I walked the distance from Green Park to The Square, a two-star restaurant on Bruton Street in Mayfair.

I had anticipated the weather and held aloft my umbrella, so our clothes were mostly dry by the time we arrived, but I noticed moisture had seeped through the cracks in my shoes to dampen my socks.  We were naturally a tad miserable, but were warmly welcomed, our coats taken, and escorted to our table.

The Square presented a large and extremely spacious dining room; not cozy in the slightest.  It has a distinctly modern feel, with clean lines, a polished wooden floor, tiny spot lights on the ceiling and vibrant abstract paintings.  Impressive without being overwhelming.

The set lunch menu here is updated often.  We could tell from the website (worth visiting just to see the amazing photos by the way) it had changed at least twice during the week, with courses altered and swapped out in favour of seasonal ingredients.

Our three courses were, I thought, well priced at £35.00.  From the extensive wine list we each had a single glass (£14.50) of Chateau Gloria.  I made this choice entirely at random and we were both pleased with the result: a full bodied red with a pungent whiff of chocolate on the nose.

A selection of bread was presented to us almost immediately.  I don’t normally care much for bread with my meal, but here it was freshly baked, piping hot and canape-sized.  It was a great start to the meal.  Salted and unsalted butters were flavoursome but unfortunately rather cold and therefore hard to spread.

An amuse bouche followed: a perfectly spherical trout fish cake in a light sauce.  It was very attractive and perfectly cooked, but failed to deliver any excitement.

We both chose the same starter and were both taken aback by it.  This was a green bean salad with a twist: what might appear to the casual observer to be grated cheese drizzled over the dish was in fact “shavings” of foie gras.  I sat back for a moment to contemplate the possibility of shaving foie gras, concluding that it must have been chilled to a sufficient hardness beforehand.

Regardless of the no-doubt highly sophisticated method of preparation, the result is quite tantalizing.  The shavings do not melt as such, but instead cling to the beans and nuts underneath, so that the whole dish is elevated to another level of richness and remains consistently on that level.  I found myself scraping the last of the foie gras off the bowl once I had devoured the salad.  This was the best dish of the day and absolutely worthy of the two-star rating.

The main course of ravioli of wagyu beef, grilled asparagus, mushrooms and mimolette was very pretty before I decimated it.  Sadly I only remembered to take the above photo in the aftermath, the delicate ravioli having been torn open to reveal the tender, almost ham-like beef.  I don’t remember picking up on the flavour of the mimolette, which Wikipedia tells me was the cheese grated over the top, but all other ingredients were well cooked, especially the vegetables.  This dish did not live up to the brilliance of the bean salad, but was far from disappointing.

I did not capture my dessert—an elderflower creme brulee—at its best either.  When it was served, the single scoop of ice cream was perched on top of the creme brulee beautifully, but this time, through no fault of my own, it toppled from its kingly dais into the sweet sauce below.  I must apologise, dear reader, for failing to take my photo in time.

Nonetheless it was a truly delicious pudding.  The wafer-thin surface of the mound crackled under the slightest pressure applied to my spoon, and beneath it the creme teetered on the paradisical border between softness and gelatinousness (there’s a word you don’t get to use all that often); not quite the texture of a panacotta, but more reminiscent of a wondrous creme caramel I gobbled at The Square’s sister restaurant, The Ledbury, in January.

The seasonality of the menu was no more evident than in the name of brother’s dessert: poached “new season’s” cherries with cherry donuts and yoghurt ice cream.  As you can see it was equally pretty, but brother summarised it as “lacklustre”, the cherries contributing little or no impact.  A shame.

At this point I was stuffed to the brim, and so we brought proceedings to a close with coffee.  My capuccino was above average. I could only stomach one of the petit-fours, which were yummy, chewy blocks of popcorn encased in some sugary mixture.

The rain had at least temporarily stopped and the sun was very much out.  This was our chance to transport ourselves to the next venue without me getting my socks wet again, so I asked for the bill.  The service throughout was top notch, although a touch too impersonal.  Our desserts took a lot longer to arrive than our other courses, but not so long that I would call it a hiccup, and the restaurant was at full capacity by then anyway, so the delay was understandable.  I left knowing I would come back sooner rather than later, perhaps for the inviting nine-course tasting menu.

The Coburg Bar

A five minute walk in the sunshine brought us to the Connaught Hotel.  I had been here before, twice, and had sampled the plush Coburg Bar on both occasions.  This time we had intended to try the alternative Connaught Bar instead, but staff informed us it was closed until 16:00.  Life is a cruel bitch, but Coburg was there to save the day, with its atmosphere of undiluted class.  Waves of relaxation washed over me and I felt at ease, sheltered from the downpour which soon resumed outside.  The seats here are officially the most comfortable in the world and the drinks made with obvious skill.

From The Coburg’s splendidly detailed “Bacchanology” menu I first picked a long island iced tea.  Perhaps I am flying in the face of decades of refinement in mixology when I say that I would’ve preferred the cola to have been infused through the drink as a whole, rather than condensed at the bottom of the glass as it was.  In spite of this negative point, it proved a refreshing drink which improved measurably as it went on, the cola fading into the more interesting blend of vodka, cointreau, gin, rum and tequila.

Brother habitually ordered a daquiri and was not let down, noting in fact something intangibly unique about the Coburg version, which I too could not pin-point from the brief taste I had.  A classic made to a standard above the norm.

We followed with a second round: a negroni for me and a hurricane for brother.  I struggled with the bitter aftertaste left by the Campari contained in my negroni, but this is not a criticism of the Coburg’s expertise so much as it is another revelation about my tastes.  Brother ordered his hurricane upon my recommendation, since I had enjoyed it a great deal on my previous visit: a smooth rum-based cocktail with a strong hit of passion fruit nectar.

deVigne Bar

At 16:00 we pondered our options: either relocate to a bar brother had chosen the night before, Apres, or exert ourselves much less by moving down the hall to the Connaught Bar, as previously planned.  In the end I took charge and we left for Apres, thinking it the more adventurous path to tread.

This proved to be the wrong decision because Apres was closed when we got there (it opens only briefly during the day from 11:00 to 14:00, before locking down and beginning its transformation into a club for the evening).  Rather than hang myself in despair there and then, I took a moment on my phone to find a substitute.  The usually trustworthy World’s Best Bars app led me to the Mandeville Hotel and the deVigne Bar, touting it as “like a perfectly tailored suit rendered hip by the odd post-modern flourish”.

That is, I think, the least accurate description one could give of this place.  Far from being a perfectly tailored suit, it more closely resembles a cheap and tacky shirt.  The bottles behind the bar are the only good-looking thing about this small, uninviting room.  There is no atmosphere to speak of.  The walls are lined with freaky portraits, the tables are covered with some sort of waterproof lining, and the chairs are basic to say the least.

The drinks are no better.  My Karlsson’s Blood—a vodka and tomato mix—was well decorated with a strawberry and spiral of lime zest, but its only distinguishing feature was a peppery heat coming from unknown spices.  The tomato flavour, if it can be classified as a flavour, was little more than an earthy, vegetal undertone.  Very disappointing.  I wanted to leave as soon as possible.  Brother cannot recall now what his drink (stylishly out of focus in the background of the photo above) was called.  He describes it as “refreshing”.

HUNter 486

Back to the World’s Best Bars app (and I am now slightly concerned that this review is turning into a not so subtle advert for said app) which finds for me the trendily named HUNter 486 at the Arch Hotel, again only a few minutes walk away.

We are both instantly filled with joy.  The long room oozes style in its design.  Lights in the shape of volleyballs hang from the ceiling by their wires in clusters above our heads.  Behind a tall divider, we spy cool alcoves and overhear a conversation about art or somesuch.  All the staff are impeccably dressed.  We can see the kitchen from our table and a roaring fire, perhaps for cooking pizzas or loaves of bread?  I have forgotten the collosal let-down at the Mandeville.

Cocktails come, as they do when you order them, in a timely manner and in glasses.  Brother gets two glasses: one shot-size and filled with prosecco, one containing his “hoochie” martini, which he grants me a taste of.  “You made the better choice” I say.  It is superb and bursting with the familiar passion fruit, as well as being one of the most bright, practically luminous, drinks I have ever seen.  My ginger and passion fruit martini (foreground) is excellent too.

I highly recommend HUNter 486.

X-Men: First Class

To end the day, we hopped on the Circle Line to Vue Westfield and to the cinema contained therein.  This time we have tickets to an “Xtreme” showing, which is the finest approximation of IMAX quality I’ve yet seen, although to give IMAX credit where credit is due, the two theatres are miles apart in image size, visual and audio quality.  I will say it is worth paying the extra for the bigger screen.  It also helped that this picture was in 2D, without the horrific colour wash-out that seems to be the hallmark of the 3D movement.

As for X-Men: First Class, it’s a mixed bag.  I can’t say that it starts well and ends poorly, or vice versa.  It’s not that clear-cut.  There are plenty of fantastic scenes—action-packed, epic, contemplative, character-driven, emotional—that hold it together, and I was thoroughly entertained for the duration.  And as in Thor, some clever humour is frequent and well placed to break up the seriousness of the story.  This is, after all, a tale of the origins of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr; Professor X and Magneto.  Both pillars of comic book history, both archetypes, one an idealist and the other driven by passion and political realism.  The fiction deserves to be treated properly, and as a fan I emerged from the cinema satisfied that it had been.

But there are some very weakly played (or poorly written – I can never really tell which it is) parts.  Some characters, I felt, were entirely redundant—simply there to fill out fight scenes.  And an unsettling amount of cheese—excessive even by superhero film standards—cannot be overlooked.  The placement of Michael Ironside (of Total Recall fame) as a United States navy commander in the final action sequence in particular, was beyond ridiculous, and I found the symmetry of several climactic scenes a little too perfect.  At times this old world of the X-Men felt unreal; a weird hybrid of thoughtful exploration of personal themes and truly wacky montages.

I will say as an aside that if, like me, you loved Ian McKellan’s Magneto in Bryan Singer’s films, you will no doubt appreciate Michael Fassbender’s carrying of the torch.  I also delighted in MacAvoy’s young Xavier, chatting up Oxford undergraduates in bars with practiced lines about genetics.  I can imagine a parallel universe’s version of First Class consisting entirely of these two playing chess, fencing, sipping whisky and debating the future of mutant-kind.  The possibility that such a universe exists is perhaps the most compelling reason for physicists to unlock the secrets of inter-dimensional travel.


The Gilbert Scott, Montgomery Place, Thor at Vue Westfield

May 14, 2011

The Gilbert Scott

Google Maps has no idea where The Pancras Renaissance Hotel is.  It finds the right city, London, and the right road, Euston, but beyond that it doesn’t care much about being precise.  As far as it’s concerned, anywhere along that road will do.

The clue, of course, is in the name ‘Pancras’ – something that hadn’t quite clicked in my head until we arrived.  And so, after enduring a thoroughly unpleasant hike and tube journey from Regent’s Park (where Google thought it was located) to St Pancras, which almost made me leap in front of traffic out of frustration, I vowed never to rely solely on Google to direct me to a restaurant again.

The restaurant in question was the newly opened The Gilbert Scott, backed by Marcus Wareing and managed by someone called Chantelle Nicholson.  Chantelle actually appeared several times during our meal (I recognised her from a photograph online), striding affirmatively back and forth, presumably seeing to various management tasks, such as telling people what to do and counting money.

Regardless, the restaurant was indeed located in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and the building in which the hotel and station are located is indeed bloody impressive.  I had read beforehand that Sir John Betjeman, supposedly a poet of some renown, had campaigned vigorously against calls for the building’s demolition.  I can appreciate why.  This is a building with spires and grand arches, large windows and so on – something to stand and stare at for a full minute at least before you have lunch.

Since we were already twenty minutes late for our reservation however, lunch could not wait, so standing and staring were postponed.  We proceeded through the main entrance to the hotel, spotted a sign directing us to The Gilbert Scott, and followed it, as you do.  Sadly this was where the management had made its first mistake, by hiring a moronic oaf to guard the hotel.  Rudely, and with an almost incomprehensible foreign accent, he instructed us to about turn and find a separate entrance.

Though we protested (in a state of sheer disbelief at this point), he remained, bouncer-like, insisting that we move along.  I was on the verge of whipping out my rapier and challenging the man to a duel when brother, seeing the mad rage in my eyes, swiftly wheeled the party (mother had also joined us for the day, making it a party rather than a duo) out the door.

Round we went to another corner of the building, and found the staff on this side infinitely more welcoming.  A charming lady escorted us through to the dining hall, an obviously grandiose place, with high ceilings, enormous paintings and gold leaf decoration.

Continuing the string of annoyances, we were seated in perhaps the worst position in the hall – scarcely two metres distant from the counter on which the waiters and waitresses carried out all their clumsy tasks: shuffling through cutlery, cracking open bottles of wine, processing payments on their register machine with touch interface, the usual.  None of these are things I want to see during my lunch hour.  A simple screen erected between our table and their workstation would’ve been a straightforward solution.

From start to finish the service was pretty poor.  Our menus and still water took an unusually long time to arrive, despite the fact that we were among the first diners to be seated and there were young waiters and waitresses standing to attention, seemingly with nothing to do, at the counter.

A peculiar blunder took place with our wine, when after having requested it, we waited a full five minutes only to have two glasses (one absent) with wine already poured into them (strange) hurriedly placed on our table.  This task had clearly been entrusted to a simpleton, who returned a few seconds thereafter and apologised.

Eventually I was presented with the bottle in the manner I’m accustomed to.  It was a Chardonnay from Tuscany called Al Poggio.  The wine was poor value for money at £60 – satisfying and suitable for our fish courses, but in no way remarkable.

We all chose a la carte options, and all picked the same starter: a crab salad containing pear slices and hazelnuts.  This was a decent course—the nuts and crab a fine match—but I was reminded of the similarly styled, and unquestionably superior, asparagus salad I had at Pied a Terre.  The quality of food continued in much the same vein: pleasing, but not extraordinary.

Next was an excellently poached piece of Scottish halibut with mussels (these lacked somewhat in flavour) drowned in a tasty Camel Valley Brut sauce.  I liked the texture of the fish, which was soft and chunky.

I scavenged from mother and brother’s vegetable side-dishes of asparagus (lovely – I’m a real fan of asparagus) and spinach.  The spinach was perfect for the halibut.  Again, everything in this dish was cooked with above average competence, but none of it surprised me or made me hum with pleasure.

Brother had Cornish sea bass, with something called Cullenskink, and seemed mostly happy.  Mother’s ‘Soles in coffins’ came not in coffins, but in a bowl, and were also judged as “ok” overall, although the so called crispy potatoes, in fact very creamy, were remembered fondly.

From the extensive dessert menu I picked the ‘Orange marmalade Jaffa cake’, which was impressive looking (very orange) and accompanied by a scoop of earl grey ice cream.  At least it was meant to be earl grey ice cream – I could not detect even a hint of tea in it.  The cake itself was rather dry, but this was counter-acted sufficiently by a glob of chocolate sauce hidden within.  ‘You can’t go wrong with chocolate’ as they say.  At least, I think that’s a saying.  People say it.  I say it.

Mother’s strawberries, served in a glass with clotted cream, meringue and some weird cider called Polgoon, were not appreciated at all.  The strawberries were reported as overly sharp in flavour, and the other ingredients lacklustre.

Brother partook of a baked apple sponge—something I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole if you paid me—crowned with yet more meringue and accompanied by a nice bit of clotted cream.  Apart from the presentation, which he considered crude, he liked it a lot.

We ended with coffees.  My cappuccino was very well done, and we speculated that there must be someone with an interest in coffee exerting their influence behind the scenes, picking some quality beans and such.

I certainly don’t regret dining at The Gilbert Scott.  It’s just being let down at the moment by poorly trained staff and a lack of flair in the presentation.  I won’t say I’ll never eat there again, but if I do it will only be to check in and see if they’ve improved things.  It’s not a place I desperately want to revisit.

Montgomery Place

With seats booked to see Thor later in the afternoon, we decided to sample just one watering hole.  Montgomery Place was en route, in the Notting Hill area, and well spoken of on the web.  Kensington Park Road was alive with activity, with tables lining the pavement and people sipping their cocktails and digging into chocolate tart.  It’s possible the locals were celebrating something.

There’s a squirrel climbing along the trellis in my garden right now.  Totally irrelevant.

The bar itself was not at all busy.  We, a couple of chaps and a vaguely oriental bunch were the only bodies there, but that wasn’t off-putting.  The place felt very casual, almost pub-like, but unlike a pub, clean.  You have to come here just for the toilets – they have music playing in there and the sinks are filled to the brim with pebbles.  This was a welcome change from the Gilbert Scott, where the toilets were stupidly designed, and also crap.

As for drinks, I was on the brink of breaking a sweat and picked ‘Thrilla in Vanilla’, a special take on the mojito with vanilla infused rum and cherries.  It hit the spot, exhibiting the refreshing mintiness I expect from a mojito, but its flavour vanished as I reached the bottom of the glass.  This was only slightly better than a variant I make at home.

Brother’s ‘Thai Flower Cooler’, a vodka, elderflower and bitters mix served in a tall glass, and mother’s ‘Dark and Stormy’, a blend of rum, lime juice and ginger beer, were both well received.

I voted to relocate to a second bar at this point, but was overruled.  Instead we picked second cocktails.  Mother had, like a bird of prey, spied two ladies outside with iced coffees, so she had one of those.  An iced coffee, I mean, not one of the ladies.  The waitress mumbled something under her breath about the bartender not liking this choice, which I thought was a tad out of order.

I resigned myself to a ‘Missionary’s Downfall’ which was a great deal more impressive than the mojito thingy, not least because it was served in a thick glass goblet with a design on one side that seemed to be a fat man’s grinning face.  The drink was made of rum, honey, peach liqueur, pineapple and mint, and was delicious.

Brother had a classic daiquiri, which—and again I flatter myself—was about is good a daiquiri as I can make.  This isn’t to say it was badly made, you understand, just not spectacular.

Thor at Vue Westfield

With little time to spare, we hastened to the Westfield Shopping Centre, which mother was very excited about.  I was only excited about seeing the film, and found the shopping centre an abysmal minefield of cretinous children and other assorted ingrates.  There was even a tarot card and palm reading session going on.  Sadly we lingered for far too long around the shops after the feature, against my express wishes I might add, which once more submerged me into a suicidal malaise.

The Vue cinema is a big one, adjacent to a slimy tapas restaurant and some other hell hole specialising in serving beef.  I should say I had promised myself a long time ago, soon after seeing The Dark Knight in fact, that I would never go to a cinema that didn’t have an IMAX screen again, so the decision to come here was not taken lightly.  As expected the foyer was crowded with fat people, more children, and general pestilence, so I grabbed our tickets and bottled water as quickly as I could.

Once we passed the ticket checkpoint though, the ambient temperature dropped and a soothing quiet descended upon us.  This was much better.  The screen itself was slightly below average in size, and the sound setup was underwhelming, but we had nice VIP seats in a perfect central position, and no one else was sat anywhere near us.

Thor was better than I had expected it to be.  But I had expected it to be a major screw-up for the Marvel superhero film franchise, with Iron Man and its sequel being as superb as they are.  What you get with Thor is solid entertainment, an enormous whack of special effects on a galactic scale, and something unforeseen and totally indispensable: comic relief.

The first twenty minutes consist of an extremely dry mix of high fantasy, deadly serious dialogue between the gods and demigods of Asgard, and thumping battle sequences.  This is worth watching, and provides needed context for the rest of the story to proceed, but would, if prolonged, ultimately bore any audience.

After that twenty minute mark you’re brought crashing (literally) back down to Earth, and repeatedly treated to joyous and highly poignant moments of contrast, between Thor’s world of good versus evil in the heavens, and the messy, smelly, frequently amusing world of modern day America.

Kat Dennings is cleverly cast in the role of a dopey, impulsive research assistant, working under Natalie Portman’s higher ranking physicist.  Portman’s character is of course the romantic interest, which might have been acceptable were it not that she suffers from being totally besotted with Thor (played adequately by Chris Hensworth) from the moment she meets him, which was a bit hard to believe.

Without its humorous core, Thor would’ve been a huge train-wreck.  As it is, I’d recommend it to any fan of what one can I believe now call the superhero ‘genre’.  Also it’s a must see for anyone who wants to follow the entire story leading up to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.  Now I wait for Captain America to reach the bar set by Thor, or better yet, exceed it.


I Am Legend

August 10, 2008

*SPOILER WARNING*

Against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic New York City a lone scientist-soldier searches for a cure to the virus that killed off humanity.

My heart sank almost at the very first frame of this film.  The opening sequence appears to be little more than an extended advertisement for the Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, and features Will Smith racing around the deserted streets of New York hunting deer from the driver’s seat.  There are perhaps more practical – and certainly less noisy – methods of stalking game, but one hardly has time to reflect on the alternatives before we are thrust into a stand off between the protagonist and a pair of wild lions hunting the same prey as Smith.  This brings me to the second reason to be disheartened early on in the film: the CG.  Both the deer and the lions are indistinct, colourless and unconvincing, which is both disappointing and unacceptable in a film with such a large budget.  It might not have been quite as much of an issue if the graphics weren’t so central to the film, but sadly these vague and pallid forms go on to let down almost every action sequence and would-be suspenseful moment in the rest of the movie.

We soon move on to safe ground with a tour of Smith’s post-outbreak life, witnessing him gathering food, eating breakfast, securing his base of operations and driving golf balls from the wing of an SR-71 Blackbird.  All fun stuff, no doubt, if for no other reason than it’s easy to project yourself into the same survivalist scenario.  But there’s little that’s new here, and it’s all been done better – and for less money – in films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Of course, the tranquility of Smith’s urban existence is soon shattered by the appearance of what remains of the human species; now unfortunately mutated into aggressive and under-fed zombie monsters by a virus that was designed to cure cancer.  And this is where the visual effects department rears its ugly, insipid, malformed, and conspicuous head once again.  It’s quite simple really; if I can’t believe that the villains I’m seeing are anything more than an assemblage of pixels then I’m going to have a hard time having any kind of strong emotional response to them.  And it’s not just that the monsters look obviously fake; the way they move and interact with other objects is all wrong too.  We are told that they are mal-nourished – and their lanky, sinewy, pale appearance certainly supports this – and yet they are still able to throw a heavily muscled Will Smith bodily across a room, and overturn gear-laden SUVs simply by running headfirst – velociraptor style – into them.

But that’s not the worst thing about the film.  Not by a long shot.  No, the worst thing about this film is the insidiously anti-scientific, messianic, and pseudo-religious undertone that permeates the entire movie.  Very early on we are shown a television interview with the scientist – superbly played by Emma Thompson – who developed the cure for cancer.  Already – before there is even a hint that things are going to go awry – her manner seems uncomfortable and almost guilty or regretful; as if she somehow knows that meddling with nature will inevitably bring disaster upon humanity.  “Take something designed by nature and reprogram it,” she says, while looking like she has been caught experimenting on her own children.  Later in the film Smith argues that “God didn’t do this … we did,” again reinforcing the message that we ought not to be interfering with the natural order.  To finish it all off, Smith’s companion Anna starts getting instructions from God that ultimately lead her to the promised land (which turns out to be in Vermont) where she can begin to reverse the damage done by the plague.

Yes, Will Smith is excellent, and to carry an entire film almost single-handed is impressive.  But that doesn’t make up for the movie’s very fundamental shortcomings.


The Princess Bride

August 10, 2008

A tale of true love in which a simple farm boy must do battle against a dastardly prince for the hand of a beautiful princess.

A charming fairy tale that successfully combines elements of fantasy, comedy, and romance?  Inconceivable!  But that’s exactly what Rob Reiner has achieved with The Princess Bride.  I watched this film, as I always try to, with as little information as possible.  I had the vague idea that it was a fantasy, so I was surprised and delighted when I realised that it was something quite different; something I had never seen before.

This film plays up all the classic fairy tale stereotypes to create laugh-out-loud high adventure.  Our heroes travel to the Cliffs of Insanity, the Pit of Despair, and the Fire Swamp.  They do battle with giants, master swordsmen, criminal masterminds, evil princes, and Rodents of Unusual Size.    And although this film relies on the conventions of the genre to produce comedy, the thing that makes the picture great is that it is not by any means a spoof of fairy tales; it is a celebration of them.

The film drives the point home by framing the main story within the meta-narrative of a grandfather reading The Princess Bride to his grandson.  He comments that “When I was your age television was called books”, and the boy is seen playing video games with a glassy expression before becoming absorbed by a more old-fashioned form of entertainment.

The characters here are all vivid, colourful, and hilariously funny.  The dialogue that has been written for these actors is some of the funniest I have ever seen in a film, especially a fantasy fairy tale.  Why this film wasn’t at least nominated for best screenplay I will never know.  The writing absolutely sparkles, and somehow the whole film seems to be imbued with a sort of magical fairy dust that lifts the movie from being great to being transcendent.   The only slightly boring character here is the Princess herself, who serves as little more than the MacGuffin around which the rest of the film revolves.

It’s not just the brilliance of the writing that creates the genius here; the perfection of every inflection in the delivery is what elevates the lines from witty to magical.  I have a feeling that some of the lines could have fallen flat if they had not been delivered perfectly, so it’s a tribute to the talent on show here that every line comes off flawlessly.  Of particular note are Cary Elwes as Westley, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya (“My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”) and Wallace Shawn as Vizzini.  There are also great cameos from Christopher Guest, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, and Billy Crystal.

Naturally I watched this film twice and, of course, the first time around I was simply caught up in the story and my own private war of trying to stop crying from laughter.  But the second time around I was looking to be a bit more critical, and it’s fair to say that this film does show its age in its editing, shooting style, and storytelling structure.  It’s all a little slower and slightly more clumsy that we have become used to recently.  But it really doesn’t matter, and, if anything, the unrefined filmmaking even adds a bit to the movie’s fairy tale-like charm.

Coming to this film a little late – well, actually more than two decades late – it is obvious to see the influence it has had, and I was particularly struck by similarities between certain events and characters in this film and those in Greg Keyes’ excellent The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone saga.  The Princess Bride is the first film I have reviewed on this blog that I can honestly say I will be coming back to again and again, and because of that I have decided to introduce a new feature to properly show my appreciation.

The Princess Bride will be the first recipient of the Lack of Faith Classic Award.  I will be awarding this to films that are not only great in every department, but which also have that extra magic that makes them tirelessly re-watchable.  These will be the films that enter into my personal culture, and will influence every other cultural experience that comes after them.  They will be the films that I quote from endlessly, and measure all other films against.


The Simpsons Movie

August 10, 2008

The Simpsons has been running for 19 years and 409 episodes, so the surprise here is that the show didn’t make the transition to the big screen earlier. With all those years of experience it’s certainly not going to come as a shock to anybody that Groening et al have created a film that is both funny and clever. The real test was always going to be whether they could successfully make a movie, rather than just an extended, feature length episode.

Well, I’m happy to report that this absolutely is a movie. In fact, it’s very self-consciously a movie, and the writers have inserted plenty of film references and an array of self-referential movie gags. There are also a lot of big screen action ‘movie moments’, my favourite of which is a Matrix-esque slow-time bullet shot. These moments go a long way to making the film feel bigger and more epic than a TV episode. The film starts out in the normal Simpsons aspect ratio but then, with the opening credit sequence, it switches to wide screen. This sudden transition, perhaps more than any other part of the film, sent an ‘I’m watching The Simpsons and it’s a movie! Wow!’ thrill of revelation up my spine.

The score, too, has really stepped up to the cinematic plate here, and Hans Zimmer has done a wonderful job of taking the familiar Simpsons themes and upscaling them to movie dimensions.

The most important thing, though, is that the story itself is big enough to feel at home on the big screen. The central characters are set on suitably important journeys of self discovery, and the themes that are explored go to the heart of what The Simpsons is all about; family, fatherhood, and community.  These themes come complete with genuinely emotional high- (and low-) points that provide essential breaks from the gags.

The other notable thing about this film is its restraint. Almost two decades of writing 22 minute television shows has obviously taught the Simpsons writers a lot of storytelling discipline. This film runs at a trim 87 minutes and every single line of every single scene is either a joke, a set-up, plot progression, or character development. There’s no waste. It’s very tight, and even though the movie is short, it doesn’t feel like we’re being short changed.

This is unarguably a success, and all the potential pitfalls that this film might have fallen victim to have been deftly sidestepped. Can there be any doubt that The Simpsons Movie II is just around the corner?


Die Hard 4.0

August 10, 2008

New York cop John McClane teams up with elite hacker Matt Farrell to save the United States from an all-out electronic attack masterminded by a crazed computer genius.

Like everybody else on the planet I’m a huge fan of this franchise, so I was naturally excited to hear that a new Die Hard film was coming out.  I was looking forward to joining John McClane in another Christmas-themed adventure.  I was looking forward to hearing his irreverent witticisms and watching him confound the plans of an evil enemy.

So I was disappointed when I realised that Die Hard 4.0 isn’t a Die Hard movie at all.  I can find almost no commonalities between the two films beyond the name of the protagonist.  The McClane of this film bears little resemblance to that of the original.  There are no witty one-liners, and none of the John McClane attitude we have come to know.  The only ‘attitude’ McClane exhibits in this film comes in the form of banal threats of the ‘I’m gonna come and beat the crap out of you’ sort.  What’s more, Bruce Willis seems to be half asleep throughout, which does nothing to help the situation.

Furthermore, this film is not set at Christmas, does not start with McClane in his usual guise as civilian (he gets involved during the course of his police duties), and features none of his down-to-earth resourcefulness that has been a theme of earlier movies.  On a few occasions the film touches on Die Hard-like moments, but then seems to recoil in horror as soon as it realises what it is doing.  For example, at one point an unarmed McClane picks up a wrench to use as a weapon, but this never goes anywhere and seems to be promptly forgotten.  Later, we see McClane talking to the bad guy over hand held radios – very Die Hard – but the banter between the two is so boring that the scene only serves to highlight the gulf between the two movies.

But never mind, maybe we should get past this film’s failed Die Hard pretensions and simply try to appreciate it as a generic action movie.  Does it fare any better when considered on these terms?

Die Hard 4.0 is broadly a mix of two types of scenes.  First there are the long, and frequent, travel sequences in which McClane and Farrell sit next to each other in vehicles (usually cars) in order to move from one location to the next.  Apparently the purpose of these scenes was to slow the film right down, and bore everybody half to death.  Second, there are the frankly ridiculous action sequences in which characters make unbelievably stupid decisions, and are then involved in some of the most absurd stunts I have ever seen.  The worst of these is the scene in which McClane is under attack by an F-35.  This scene contains so many absurdities that it would pain me to detail them all, but suffice it to say it was not an accurate portrayal of this type of engagement.

These days, though, even if an action film fails to tell an interesting story, or to create convincing characters, or even to show us some cool action sequences, you can usually still count on the technical production values to be quite high.  But, incredibly, Die Hard 4.0 manages to fail on even this score.  Some of the visual effects in this film are appalling, and the CG here is conspicuous on several occasions. At one point in particular – unsurprisingly a car scene – the green screen imagery is just unbelievably bad.  Furthermore, there are a few action sequences where the inserts are so obvious that they really jar the audience out of the fluidity of the moment.  Maybe you could get away with stuff like this 10 years ago, but not today.

There’s just so much that is absurd, nonsensical, or just plain bad in this film that it’s hard to find any positives, but if I looked hard enough I would probably come back with Justin Long’s refreshing performance as McClane’s hacker sidekick.  But ultimately there’s nothing that can save the picture.  This movie actually made me a little sad.  It almost seems like John McClane has grown into an old, embittered, washed up, and boring shell of the wisecracking hero we remember.  Funnily enough, that’s a pretty good metaphor for where the Die Hard franchise itself has ended up.


Transformers

August 10, 2008

The Autobots battle the Decepticons on Earth for control of ‘The Cube’.

What is it with Michael Bay and the US military? Is this guy getting sponsorship money or something? After The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and now Transformers, I’m starting to wonder if he knows any other way to approach a movie. I can’t help but feel that this might have been a more interesting film if Bay had come at it from a War of the Worlds-style, bottom-up perspective rather than his traditional Independence Day-style top-down perspective.

As a fledgling movie critic the prudent thing would be to trash this picture, thus establishing my sophisticated and refined cinematic taste. Let’s face it; the characters are mostly two-dimensional, there’s really no meaningful story to speak of, and the film requires very little in the way of brain power to follow. But none of that matters in Transformers. This film is about one thing only; bringing the cool.

Say what you like about Michael Bay – and I could say plenty – but the guy knows how to do action. And in this picture, action mostly means visual effects. I would hate to think what the VFX budget was on this film. Not only is there huge amount of CG, but the models used to create it are the most complicated I have ever seen.

Bay’s films have always pushed the envelope in this area, and Transformers is no exception. The robots here look simply spectacular, and they are used to great effect in some stunning action sequences. This was never going to be a great character film, a monumental storytelling epic, or have any sort of deep meaning or message, but as a straightforward action blockbuster it succeeds, at least to a point.

Transformers also has some entertaining dialogue moments. The Autobots tell us that they learned Earth languages from the web, which results in some hilarious pop-culture references. My favourite of these comes from Optimus Prime as he accidentally crushes a garden ornament underfoot, apologising with a Joss Whedon-esque “Sorry, my bad”. The script is rather patchy though, and for every bon mot that succeeds there’s another that falls flat.

Even when evaluated as a simple action film there are still a few problems with this movie. First, the story is paper thin. Now, I understand that the story is merely a device to lead into all the great action that follows – and that’s fine – but it also has to be solid enough to make us care about what happens. The ‘Cube’ thingy around which everything revolves is so vaguely explained that it is difficult to know what our heroes are fighting for, and without spoiling anything there are several other plot points that are even more unclear.

Second, and less importantly, there are too many robots in this film. There is just not enough time in a 144-minute movie to properly develop and make use of ten Transformers. We get to know Optimus Prime, Megatron and Bumblebee well, and several other robots are used extensively but there must be two or three that are hardly used at all. The film would have felt tighter and more focussed if we had been limited to fewer robots and had been allowed to know them better.

Finally, I have to talk about the casting which, along with the effects, is the best thing in this film. First, Shia LaBeouf absolutely steals the show, and I have to give massive props to Steven Spielberg for finding this guy. As I mentioned in my last post I’m really looking forward to what he does next. The robot voices are also bang-on, with Peter Cullen making a welcome return as Optimus Prime, and Hugo Weaving the perfect choice for Megatron. The rest of the cast is mostly solid.

Transformers absolutely succeeds as a Summer Blockbuster, and I enjoyed watching it immensely. But it could have been much more, and the plot flaws are so annoying that they really distract from the good things here. It’s a shame, because Transformers could have been this generation’s Terminator. As it is, it will be remembered merely as another solid piece of Michael Bay entertainment.