Sunday, 26 February 2012

Silver Screen Gems: The Yakuza (1974)

There are always going to be films that are enjoyed far more by the viewer than the critic, and the Yakuza is one of them. Watched at 01:00 last night through a haze of scotch and smoke, I had forgotten what a gripping, interesting film it really is. 

The initial plot is very simple: A man is asked by his old army friend to investigate the kidnapping of his daughter by the infamous Yakuza gang. What seems like a routine trip to Japan is upset by the unveiling of his past life as a post-war GI in that country and the relationship he had with a Tokyo lady whilst he was there. 

Written as a classic film noir, there is no end of betrayal and double crosses, however the overriding themes in this brilliant film are honour and debt, made all the more concentrated by intertwining Japanese culture and the code of the Yakuza into the story. 

Anyone who has seen Chinatown and Bonnie and Clyde will be familiar with the legendary Robert Towne, as they will with the equally talented Paul Shrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Blue Collar) who wrote the subtle and understated screenplay. But all this would be incidental if the film was not supported by a fantastic cast lead with an earthy performance from the great Robert Mitchum. His character, Harry Kilmer (or 'Kilmer San' as he is referred to in most of the film) is the epitome of unfulfilled potential, disappointment, sadness and general pathos. Mitchum plays him with detachment and it is not until the end of the film that we see his character change through redemption and rehabilitation. 

Easily the most interesting aspect of this film, apart from the excellent and intense filming is the relationship between Mitchum's character and his Japanese rival Tanaka Ken (played by the renowned Japanese actor Ken Takakura). There is intense, unspoken interplay between the two character ranging from brooding hatred, begrudging respect, and genuine affection. 

Scored by the legendary David Grusin and directed by the prolific Sydney Pollack, this is a film that was aptly described in a user review on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) as 'melancholy' and for me this is an a pat description. But, please don't let this put you off as it has a strong life message about both friendships and the sacrifices that we have to make for the greater good rather than our own pursuit of happiness. Let me reiterate that anyone who likes films like Chinatown, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver will love this one - I am so surprised that it has a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes as I think in this case it is not deserved at all! 

Whilst I urge you to check this film out, I would also like to add - for my more foodie followers - that the next post will be on a culinary theme and if you are lucky I might throw in a recipe or two into the bargain! :-)

A portrait of Tracy: Jaco - Jaco Pastorius (1976)

Jaco Pastorius has to rank as one of the most exciting and perhaps one of the most tragic recordings in the history of jazz let along music over the last fifty years. Every once in a while the world is blessed with musical prodigies, of which Pastorius was certainly one. Mention Pastorius to any bass player and you might as well be referring to a messianic character. Accomplished solo act and prolific session musician, Jaco played on a number of important albums during the 1970s (including Joni Mitchell's essential Hijera)and well as providing the iconic baselines to the most successful incarnation of jazz fusion giants Weather Report.

Let me quickly highlight that this album will not be for everyone, as fusion jazz at the best of times is a pretty niche area of music. If on the other hand you are interested in discovering the pure delights of 'good' fusion (as most of it is rubbish) and also some of the finest virtuoso playing in the history of modern music, then this is the best place to start. Unlike most jazz fusion, this collection is easily accessible and not jam-packed with esoteric noodlings (like most of the lauded but unlistenable ventures by the Mahavishnu Orchestra).

To be honest - from my point of view - there is not a duff track on the album, a rare feat for a jazz record, especially one made in the mid 1970's when it could be almost guaranteed that one impenetrable track would sneak its way onto an album. Like the album reviewed last week, one of the main reasons that this work is set apart from so many others like it is down to the quality of the musicians who appear on the record from the great Herbie Hancock to a cheeky guest appearance from an exuberant Sam & Dave. The track they guest on 'Come on, Come over' is pure 70's funk with an infectious baseline, jerking clavinet riffs and whining sax.

Other tunes are far more atmospheric, if not melancholy, the now jazz standard 'Continuum' is a great example of this - laden with pastorius's instructured riffs and haunting melodies  from Hancock's fender rhodes. What may at first sound slightly disheveled hits some of the most inspired arrangement of the decade, creating an infectious album where there is always something new to try.

However, what this collection of music really exhibits is an unrivalled talent - just listen to 'Portrait of Tracy' - who was just about to reach the top of his game before embarking on a sad descent into a pit of drugs and alcohol abuse only to be found dead in a gutter outside a club just over ten years later, robbing the world of his excellent abilities.

As I wrote above, this album is not for everyone, and as such I am going to give it an 8/10. I will say though, if you do like jazz, then it is an indispensable record for your collection!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Mid-Week post: 1989 and all that…

'I hadn't intended this...' I thought as I staggered up to bed at five in the morning last Saturday!

It had all started with such promise, with the anticipation of friends for supper followed by a couple of classic films. We had enjoyed a few cans of beer and a very tasty round or two of chicken fajitas kindly cooked by one of my guests (a rare and real treat!). Recovering from a hangover from the night previous I was wary about embarking on anything too strenuous least of all a film marathon from quite possibly one of the worst years that post-war popular culture has ever experienced, But then came the challenge. 

'Henry,' one of my more mischievous friends said with a raised eyebrow, 'really want to watch a film or two this evening, but we want to watch something in your collection that you have never seen'. A film in my collection I had never seen! It was almost unthinkable, however, going down to scour the shelves I eventually found four flics that I had not as yet watched. 

The first one was a write-off, Tintin and the Blue Orange… I had never watched this French, live action version of one of my favourite childhood heroes chiefly for the reason that I was sure that it would disappoint me just as much as Spielberg's live-action travesty (not bad, but worse…mediocre). The other three were of a different calibre and, what was strange is that they all dated from 1989. The first was an often overlooked Steven Seagal film called 'Marked For Death' (after watching it you might see why). 

Marked for Death was Steven Seagal's 3rd film coming in the wake of Nico (Above the Law) and Hard to Kill. Like all of his films every villain is a crude stereotype. In this case it was a group of voodoo practicing yardies who dealt drugs to kids and metered brutal, torturous punishment to their foes. Something must have been wrong with the sound because I seriously could not understand either what the yardies talking about in native Jamaican dialect nor most of the other American supporting cast. The amount of plot introductions that never come to a conclusion in the film is bizarre. At the beginning he polishes a gimmicky looking antique zip-gun (for about five minutes - implying that it will be used in the final battle to save himself) which we never see again. His niece gets gunned down, she's on life support, we never find out if she lives or dies; a sexy FBI agent takes a shine to him (again she seems to have no relevance whatsoever to any of the plot!). No this film literally ends after he kills the bad guy, tells his partner 'It was worth it / one hell of a ride' and walks off down an alley carrying a dead comrade. Methinks that either the producers ran out of money, or the director, realising that this was a true turkey, gave up on it completely!

When one thinks of Al Pacino's great films, Sea of Love never seems to feature. Finding the grizzled actor at the crossroads of middle age, this seemed to be Pacino's attempt - like plenty of other seasoned actors - to 'cash in' by embarking on a polished, psychological thriller, so popular in the late 1980s. Whilst okay, Frantic (1988) or Fatal Attraction (1987) it is not! What would be a rather poor film is just saved by some great support from a rather youthful and ever dependable John Goodman who provides the wisecracks and, surprisingly acts as a great foil to an intense and maniacal performance by Pacino. About that, I wish I could say that Big Al  gives a bravura performance, but it is so hammed, there are moments when his eyes literally seem to pop out of his head (if there is one thing I don't associate with a Pacino performance it is true fear or terror) - there were moments when I slightly guffawed. The plot was also incredibly thin, I thought - although feel free to correct me - that the killer was blatantly obvious from the introduction of the character. Again whilst Ellen Barkin is mildly attractive as the femme fatale, their is no chemistry between her and Pacino, which makes the erotic moments look pretty cheap and seedy. I think my friends liked it a little more than I did, although I think they will agree that it has been overlooked in a catalogue of Pacino's best films for a reason. 

Finally came a film that should never been made, One Man Force. What can you say about a movie who's trailer opens with such dialogue:

'He was a dedicated cop, sworn to uphold the law. Until an act of violence pushed him over the edge...'

The warnings were all there in the above, as well as a stellar cast list, you can imagine the guy who narrate trailers say it: John Matuszak (from the Goonies), Ronnie Cox (from Robocop and Beverley Hills Cop), Sam J Jones (From Flash Gordon), Sharon Farrell (of Lone Wolf McQuade) and Charles Napier (from Rambo). This is a film made from the creme de la creme of supporting/bit-part role actors and the high quality of their performances proves it! The action is well served by some of the worst cinematography in the history of cinema, watch how the director and editor abuse the set piece fights by cutting angles before punches have connected. All this is set to a sizzling score which seems to have been culled and rehashed from a number of Harold Faltymeyer lesser known soundtracks. Then we come to the protagonist…anyone who has seen Matuszak in the Goonies will have no idea of his sheer inability to deliver convincing dialogue, it is laughable. Also he is far too large a character, he fills the whole scene, he's bigger than Arnie! (true he was a former defensive lineman for Oakland Raiders), to see him chasing hoodlums is enough to buy this film, it's like watching a pool table trying to jump over a hurdle!  However, despite this, I urge you to purchase this film for it's price of £0.01 on Amazon as it is a true masterclass of how not to make one! You notice how Ronny Cox (the only actor of some success of the group) never refers to this film in any interviews he has give as one of the finer moments in his career. Truly terrible...

What a slew of awful films! yet I was in good company, with some fine liquor, a passable cigar. To be fair I had a lot of fun, the one great thing about a bad film is just how amusing it can make a Saturday night spent at home! 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The hottest table in town?

The Delaunay
55 The Aldwych

Cordon Du Chap (out of a possible five) : ❁❁❁❁

Crashing through the doors in my usually brash manner I felt rather pompous, after all it is not everyone who gets taken to lunch at one of London's hottest new restaurants. I had heard that it had become the darling of many celebrities and critics alike. the legendary Faye Maschler at the Evening Standard had called it 'terrific' and Guy Diamond (in Time Out) had lavished grandiose praise on their cookery even venturing to describe their souffle as having 'voluptuous curves and quivering mounds as salacious as any fantasy from the psychoanalyst's couch' (barf!). 

With such high regard as this then the restaurant had better be good, I thought, as we were led to out table in the cavernous dining room embelished to look like a late 19th century restaurant in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It had been one of those perfect mornings, leading up to lunch, from a passable blog post (detailing the night before) to a few refreshing Campari and sodas at the chic 'One Aldwych' my appetite had been whetted for the Hapsburg variation of the Wolsey. 

The buzz was electric and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be a pensioner in this grand establishment otherwise my hearing aid would have been acting up a treat. Thank goodness that, whilst I have passably poor hearing it is not quite as bad as not to hear my companion. Goodness knows how my poor grandmother survived the place when she went a couple of weeks ago for lunch. 

Let me start with the positives of which there are quite a few. The food certainly lived up to all the hype that had been given it by the critics. I started with the Kedgeree with a hot and runny poached egg nestled daintily on the top. The taste was reminiscent of the similar and fabulous collation as served by the sadly departed 'Oriol' which used to nestle in the top corner of Sloane Square (before it was blackguardly shut down for apparently, amongst other reasons, the price of a meal). The fish was well well cooked and the accompanying sauce had a nice flavour with a slight kick that I think is all but essential in the preparation of this Colonial classic. 

I followed this with a Wiener Schnitzel one of the staple preparations of Viennese restaurants. Having eaten this dish at the Wolesey I was expecting an equally good show from this one, and I was not to be dissapointed. The meat was succulent and tender under crisp and golden breadcrumb. Dare I say it but veal cooked well is one of the finest meats in the world (I hope it was ethically sourced!), and the Delaunay get a double thumbs up for their very traditional interpretation. With a savoury, rich gravy underneath and accompanied by a mustardy potato salad and piquant pickled cucumbers, I had been transported back to the times of Metternich and the 1848 uprisings. 

The portions are very generous at the Delaunay, some might say a bit too generous. I, like a few other friend and members of my family feel that it is the curse of restaurants nowadays to put far too much on the plate. If truth be told I would have been happy with half the amount of meat on my plate. This is minor criticism but I was feeling incredibly full by the time I had finished main course. 

In light of the above paragraph, I was a little apprehensive about ordering a pudding lest I should burst! however, glancing at some of the pastries and cakes that were on offer I could not resist. I ordered a coffee eclair and had a cup of coffee and a whisky (over crushed ice) to go with it. Attention to detail is a big factor in contributing to what makes this restaurant worth a visit, and the incredibly naff cake fork that was produced alongside a first-rate eclair added to the experience. The coffee was a little weak for my liking but again this is a minor fault and easily remedied by asking for a strong cup. 

The atmosphere was friendly and jovial and the waiters were helpful, however like the Wolesey, it is very difficult to attract the attention of the large number of staff their. My companion also complained that the bottle of wine ordered (Gruner Veltliner) was kept chilled in an ice bucket miles away from the table and as such topped up too infrequently. Again, like the coffee this would be an easy thing for the restaurant to fix by leaving the bucket next to the table (or indeed a chilled bottle on the table) and let the guests help themselves (we were probably a bit timid to do so but, I'm sure they would have obliged had we asked). 

All in all it was a fine meal and to top the day off there was a healthy dose of celebrity spotting including the actor Bill Nighy who seemed to be very much enjoying the food at this impressive new establishment. Some may think that I have been a bit churlish to give the place four cordons, however this reflects on the issue that whilst the place is excellent there are still a few ragged edges (like the Wolesey) as specified above which could be ironed out with ease. 

I thoroughly recommend the Delauney to anyone who likes great food, however I would advice you to skip breakfast before you go!

Friday, 10 February 2012

An evening indoors with the Bloody Good Chap...

The scene had been set for one of those epic evenings at home. It was a Thursday night, I had booked a day off on Friday and there were no social engagements in the calendar. Bowling through the door I was thoroughly excited and I turned on  record player and blasted out Joe Walsh's satirical yet hedonistic epic 'Life's been good'. The scene had by now been set…

After a cold supper of prosciutto, burrata, crusty bread and mustard fruits I sat down and surveyed the gargantuan Bolivar Churchill that faced me and the bottle of Cointreau that i was sure to make a good dent in. The rigours of the working day seemed so far behind me as I methodically cut the tip from the stoggie and poured myself a first glass of viscous, orange flavoured liqueur into a Waterford crystal tumbler with a few ice cubes. Some of the greatest pleasures in life are short lived and I was certainly going to enjoy this one. My phone wasn't pinging with the usual jackpot-esque sound heralding an email from the office, asking me to action something on the next working day. I could sit back, safe in the knowledge that I could wake up the next morning after a leisurely lie in and indulge in a long weekend. 

I took a slow, deep draft of the ice cold beverage and felt a pleasurable shudder as the first drops of the alcohol cascaded down the back of my throat. I am sure many were out, sinking pints in a local or distant watering hole, filling themselves up with cheap  alcohol for the inevitable hang-over and the slow drudgery of a Friday stuck behind a desk. I thought of them for an instant, before taking the rich, dark cigar in my hand and bringing a lit match to the open end.

The first billow of smoke was assurance that I had made the right choice and the first few puffs indicated that I had embarked upon a sizeable challenge. The taste was rich, reassuring and at certain points challenging. This particular one had retained a good balance of moisture so I was confidant that it would be a slow burner, a perfect companion for the music and film rostrum that I had set myself for the evening. The first glass of Cointreau had gone down so smoothly that looking at the glass I saw it empty but for the few melting cubes of ice in the bottom. Quickly (but with a grace that a superior liquor like Cointreau requires) I poured a double measure. 

The drawing room was already starting to collect with wafting smoke and I had barely started the cigar! It was at this point I decided to test drive one of my most recent purchases from Amazon, Jazz by the legendary guitarist Ry Cooder. A fantastic collection for any Jazz novice, it is packed with a beautifully played selection of standards ranging from the late 19th Century to pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke. Let me reiterate that the playing is very accomplished and the orchestration is superb. Of course, it won't be to everyone's taste, but it served as a perfect accompaniment to the proceedings of the evening. Highlights include the uplifting and nostalgic track 'In a Mist' reminiscent of the fantastic Parisian Jazz made so famous by Stephane Grapelli, and the soulful 'Shine', which would not have been out of place in the famous Oak Room at New York's famous Algonquin Hotel! 

I knew this night was going to be precious and that it would soon be over (the cigar took around 3 hours), and I hope you forgive me for the indulgent nature of this post. Life is too short not to have these kind of moments, lost in a mist of smoke, fuelled by the sweet comforts of a passé yet thoroughly delicious liqueur.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mid Week Post: Great Moons of Spot!

No dear readers this is not a post about that popular children's television character and purveyor of novelty vitamin pills Super Ted, but rather the groundings of a sartorial tip that I hope many of you fine gentlemen (and indeed ladies) who read this blog will take away with them and contemplate for the next time you don a suit or indeed any fine sports jacket. 

Let me first begin by outlining my problem, indeed it is more an affliction, for I am a terrible tie snob. I see countless people walking up and down the streets, see professionals and pundits, politicians and personalities - people at the tops of their games but indeed, you wouldn't think it from the hideous, garish and appallingly loud ties that so many of them wear. There I said it! and I am sure I will be struck down for such terrible nose-upturnery. Yet such sartorial mistakes are so easily remedied through some simple purchases at your local gentleman outfitters or even tie-rack. 

The range of hideous ties is greater than ever and you can walk into a shop on Jermyn Street only to be dazzled and dizzied by the arrays of purples, oranges, bright green and even chocolate browns (ugh!) - The plain truth is that I've never been a 1970s cop nor a 21st Century newsreader (nor indeed do I have the desire to be either one). In people's quest to stand out more, be as they see it 'exciting' (perhaps to disguise the fact they might not be that exciting), They have forsaken some of the classic designs,  Of course I am referring to the sartorial elegance of a spotty tie. 

Sadly I feel that this particular design, for all its style, audacity and pazazz will be ever associated with yuppies wear white collars and cuffs! The look of a tastefully made, printed silk, red tie with navy blue spots, a blue and white stripped shirt and a well cut birdseye suit is a sight to behold. Indeed a blue tie with white spots looks very sophisticated against the sensibility of a light pink gingham shirt and a charcoal grey suit. The list goes on  and what makes it even better is that such spotty ties can be picked up from many companies for a very reasonable price. If I ever find myself lucky to go travelling I stock up on a few when passing the tie rack at the airport (which has always been (or felt) much cheaper than those in central london). 

Now before readers start declaring blue murder and accusing me of fashion fascism, let me add that I have made many fashion errors in my time, for goodness sake, I have a pair of cadbury's purple trousers… amusing but pretty vulgar! They caused me to be the butt of many a quip from my colleagues when I wore them into the office one day last year. So I am no authority on fashion or trends but I do know a good tie when I see one and I am afraid that most are pretty hideous, so let's bring back the understated but audacious spotty tie and return to an era where to wear a tie gave one a sleek executive feel (a compliment to a who outfit) rather than a domineering statement which overtakes the whole show! 

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Foolish pride and a tale of two wine bars

Dreamtime - A review of Daryl Hall's '3 Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine' (1986)

Fresh from a string of highly successful albums and tours with his musical partner John Oates, Daryl Hall decided to record his second solo album nine years after his debut. Burnt by the mismanagement of the excellent Sacred Songs (1977 (1980)) which he had recorded with Robert Fripp, 3 Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine is something of an introspective effort, in marked contrast to the pomp and bombast of the previous Hall & Oates album Big Bam Boom (1984). With David Stewart (of The Eurhythmics) at the production desk, this album uses every production technique in the book, which might not be to everyone's taste, to augment Hall's incredible vocals. 

There are a number of strong tracks on the album but for me the one that really stands out is the sublime 'Foolish Pride' which really should have made more of a dent on the charts than it did back in the mid-1980s, this classic ballad with a strong and catchy chorus is a real treat and a must for any fans of 1980s pop. Other tracks such as 'Dreamtime' and the quirky 'For You' show Hall pushing beyond the boundaries of his Hall & Oates material and exploring such diverse formats as psychedelia and dance music rather than the Rock 'n Soul that his previous works had been identified with. 

The result is a rather bizarre, synthesiser/drum machine drenched effort but an enjoyable one at that. For many there will be a bit too much going on, it is a heavily layered album but Hall's voice is on top form and the production (like most of Dave Stewarts efforts in this area) is first rate. I would personally give this album which to mind is the unsung hero of music in 1986 a whopping 9/10, whilst it is not Sacred Songs (which gets a rare 10/10) it is a storming effort from one of the most consummate and talented artists over the last 50 years. 

You can purchase on Amazon for only £7.49 and discover the magic of the music of Daryl Hall: 

A Tale of Two Wine bars

Villiers Street, which stretches from Embankment tube station all the way up to Charing Cross is a hotbed of mediocre eateries, the Mecca for any uninspired and hungry office worker in the immediate neighbourhood. There is also a smattering of bars and pubs which seem to attract a mixture of besuited business men and some rather seedy types. Then there is Gordon's Wine Bar, to my mind the most overrated, overpriced and overcrowded establishment in the capital. Proudly boasting some nonsensensical heritage as the oldest wine bar in London it is the haven of a number of self-involved students from the nearby Kings College and noisy tourists - and this is just outside. Inside is even worse, with people jostling for space at an overcrowded wine bar where you can enjoy glasses of cheap, battery acid like wine for premium prices or tumblers of dark sherry which have been sitting in the bottle for far too long. Then there is the food, which sits all day under a heat lamp sweating grease before it is lapped up by someone desperate to drown out the taste of the filthy wine. An acquaintance once told me that the place had a charm which made up for the poor quality of everything else…I politely disagreed. 

On the other side of the road, just down a brick tunnel know as Craven Passage sits an establishment with an altogether different story. Whilst lacking the heritage of its counterpart (It is part of the Davy's group) Champagne Charlie's makes up for with a strong and well priced selection of wines and reliable food which doesn't try to be anything more that it is. Unlike Gordon's if you want a beer you can have it and even a G&T should you so fancy. If you thought that wasn't enough you can even buy a cigar from a selection of Habanas at the bar or a pack or Marlborough lights from behind the bar (sadly non of which you can smoke in this underground bar where they much should be!). The Atmosphere is convivial and it never gets overcrowded - there is always space to place your drink be it at a table or a stretch of bar. My one criticism is that in a recent change to their menu, they decided to scrap the very popular plate of cocktail sausages they used to serve with mustard mayonnaise of which many plates could be devoured at pre-supper drinks! In short it is an unpretentious and convivial place which I have had the great pleasure to introduce many friends to. The jug of their own port is something great to share with your port swilling friends and is a nice inoffensive drop to quaff after a busy day in the Westminster bubble or the hustle and bustle of the financial markets. 

So if you do find yourself in the Embankment area and at a loose end or stuck for where to meet friends, then I urge you to look beyond the tired gimmicks of Gordon's and take a chance on Champagne Charlies. More details of which can be found on the following web address: