Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker's Album: The Duke goes to Bunga

It’s Not Unusual...

I think it was Jackie Chan who once asked that great life question ‘Who am I?’, as a kung fu proficient amnesiac searching for his identify, I don’t think anyone can really know who they are until they have take a trip to Italian-themed night club-come-den-of-iniquity, Bunga Bunga. Waking up the morning on a mate’s sofa, indeed I asked myself that very life searching question, as I cradled my head in my hands and limbered up for a relatively long journey home. My cranium smarted as each drop of rain crashed upon it on my walk to the station. By Fulham Broadway I had just about reconciled my brain with my body and started to piece together the pattern of the previous day of drinking and debauchery. 

First the memories of the previous night came in a trickle and then flooding back in torrents as I tried to negotiate the wet and windy streets of Fulham, back to the station and on to the comfort of my own home. I passed plenty of artifacts left by scores of drunken revelers, now probably entombed in a darkened room or wrapped around some loved one (or a casual acquaintance): Chunky vomit up the side of a wall, a used prophylactic, a coke bottle filled with urine on a wall outside a Methodist church... this was the city at its Sunday morning best, the seedy frame through which I was able to remember some of my activities. 

It all began with a few drinks at The Lighthouse on Battersea Park Road a very agreeable pub serving a range of craft ales along with the usual suspects. I was making the long trek to the establishment from Queenstown Road when the heavens opened and unleashed a deluge upon my person. A veritable gale howled and I barely made it through the door and to that first pint intact, I looked more drowned water rat than man about town. Leaving a trail of rainwater behind me I made my way to the bar and to a very welcome, crisp lager that had been purchased by the friend I was meeting for a few cheeky snifters before a night on the tiles and the celebration of a good friend’s birthday. 

Time marched on and I had suitably dried off before I thought that I would brave the elements, and head down to the foot of Battersea Bridge to Drafthouse where we were all meeting. Just in case you thought that I was at all shirking in my duty to provide a cigar based anecdote, I smoked a couple of the ever reliable Villiger’s Grosseformat Exports (pressed) on my way down there. In this case the smoke was more incidental to the evening that the main topic of focus. 

Tobacco cravings satisfied I stepped into Drafthouse, a fun, lively venue packed to the gunnels with the greater good of South London, wall-to-wall with lads and glamour-pusses. I felt rather out of place, but did my best to fit in with cooler surroundings than I was used to, I held my own and soon I was supping a pint of some Belgian lager with the best of them. I was a little early, so indulged in a little people watching before my friends arrived and we moved onto Bunga Bunga. 

Already packed when we strode over the threshold, we made our way to the table, which my mate had thankfully reserved as it was it his birthday and we sat down to an evening of jolly banter, great pizza, gutsy red wine and rather astringent white. Then the real excitement of the evening, it started with dancing of which my moves where usual silky mixture of drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding and drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding-who-thinks-he’s-in-Saturday-Night-Fever. Bopping away to the tunes I noticed my very own Pandora’s Box... karaoke. Having once been something of a competitive singer I just couldn’t resist a chance to drunkenly get up on stage and serenade the club audience with a belting rendition of Tom Jones’s ‘It’s Not Unusual’. 

Even if you had shut your eyes I am sure you would have notice the difference between me and Wales’ finest son, but at the time I was holding court and the attention was deliciously satisfying... I can see why the great man does Vegas, but he needs to try the clubs of Clapham.  I thought I had been greeted with the sound of clapping, but i’m sure that it was more the sounds of breaking bottles and calls to ‘get him off’ as the infamous shepherd’s crook lurked on-hand to drag me from the stage and cast me back with the mere mortals on the dancefloor!

As I sat on the sofa that Sunday afternoon remembering my turn on the mike, I chuckled. A cracking evening, with great people and of course, that cruel mistress... karaoke! 


At Duke’s Place...

We all make mistakes in life and I made a very minor one the other day, in the grand scheme of things, nothing scandalous, nothing major, just the wrong thing sent at the wrong time. 

There was regret, recriminations, a chance to put things right - which I did, thankfully - but even when you do manage to rake the leaves which disperse over the proverbial garden it is very easy to feel down, as indeed I did that evening, and, in need of a little alone time and some relaxation to take my mind off it, I found myself in the bar of Dukes Hotel, looking for some peace after being dragged over the coals by a couple of rather irate people. 

There's nothing like a little retail therapy for the mind and i eyed up the humidor longingly knowing that a great cigar would be a perfect antidote for my frazzled and weary mind. There was a fantastic selection to choose from: Hoyo del Rey, Cohiba and of course, my standby, the decadently delicious Montecristo No.2! 

Sitting outside under the glare of the fan heaters and a waterproof tent, in a very cosy armchair I reflected on the day while the rain pita-pattered all around me, and was able to put things into some context. 

I was finally starting to relax after the tense day and, although it can sometime be nice to be surrounded by the chatter of various fellow smokers, sometimes a bit of alone time with an expertly made Negroni (with my favourite, Plymouth gin) can be an absolute joy. The cigar was an old favourite, medium-bodied, it started light and got deeper and richer as it smoked through. There was a good length of ash, burning at a steady speed, indicating the cigar had been kept in a well maintained humidor (not as common as one would think). 

Let me point out thought that all this finery comes at a premium. Dukes is not cheap, with cocktails costing between £15 - £20 and expensive brandies, some which cost thousands of pounds a bottle, it is not your Sam Smith’s pub to be sure! Cigars are set at standard London prices (£15 - £30), so this is not somewhere to go every evening, more an occasional treat. 

However, the real thing that makes Dukes special - apart from that it is by far the best place to get a Martini in London (after all it was where Ian Fleming apocryphally created the renowned ‘Vespa’) - is the incredibly high standard of service, no request is too much for the highly courteous and charming bar staff and waiters. It is a great example of a level of hospitality that people should expect when paying such high prices, but is sadly lacking from so many high-end establishments. 

If you happen to be in the St. James area any time soon, I would thoroughly recommend ducking into Dukes for a perfectly-mixed cocktail and a most delicious smoke. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

LA cops are told to play by the rules… Shotgun (1989)

I had put it off for too long, I thought, as I supped a pint of bitter and enjoyed a fine Bolivar No.1 at the Rose & Crown. One of my loyal readers had long badgered me for a particular film review and I had continually demurred. Now, in a more philosophical mind, sheltering as I was beneath an outdoor heater as the cold wind whipped around me, I thought it high time that I shared this film with the general public. For one reader, at least, it will come as a welcome surprise, others will bay for my blood at having introducing them to this truly eccentric motion picture... So let me set the scene.

1989 was a year of many seminal events: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the start of the Gulf Conflict, the birth of my younger brother, Hugo Rubinstein, the resignation from the UK Cabinet of Geoffrey Howe, the seventh season of popular Jersey-based crime drama Bergerac, Tyson vs Bruno, Arsenal winning the league... I could go on. 

It was not, however, a seminal year for cinema with some highly disappointing films rising to the surface, remember this was the year that Driving Miss Daisy won the best picture award at the Oscars! Only a few diamonds lurked amongst the general coal stock of celluloid rubbish: Black Rain; The Last Crusade; Uncle Buck; Kickboxer and Lethal Weapon 2 couldn't make up for a number of turkeys: 

  • Ghostbusters II (dire - especially Peter McNicoll's role - a poor man's Rick Moranis)
  • Licence to Kill (one of Bond's most disappointing outings)
  • The Abyss (more like the Abyss-mal)
  • Troll 2 (famously regarded as the worst film ever made) 
  • Born on the 4th July (sanctimonious rubbish masquerading as high drama) 
  • Dead Poets Society (a banquet of mawkishness)

Then there are films that you just cannot put your finger on, these special features that defy good or bad but just fall into a category of unadulterated brilliance. No, I am not talking about John Matuzak's 'One Man Force' or Don Johnson's 'Dead Bang', I am talking about the seminal  Stuart Chapin and Riff Hutton buddy-cop vehicle 'Shotgun' <click to see trailer>.

Released against the backdrop of the collapse of communism and the cultural vacuum left by the ending of Miami Vice, shotgun was made to tackle some of the major issues affecting people in the USA: narcotics, prostitution, police welfare, gun crime, shifting consumer values and border control.

Set in a fictious, but all too real LA, two cops, the hard-done-by and world-weary Ian Jones (Chapin) and Max Billings (Hutton) are on the trail of a grim English lawyer, Rivington, who likes murdering call girls in his spare times using S&M sex as his weapon of choice (a biting piece of satire from the writers of the screenplay, indicting the exponential growth of the hardcore porn scene during the 1980s). It’s tough, gritty realism told masterfully through some edgy shots, punchy material and hard-boiled dialogue

Our duo cut a fine pair, with Jone depicted in very much the style of the day: ginger ponytail, cowboy hat, Arran sweater, jeans and trademark naval overcoat - if ever there was a cop look this was it! Billing, a more senior figure, pressed and pressured by the rigours of the job is the ‘yuppie’ of the two, a family man with his eyes on the top job. He has a wife and kid, he needs the steady income of a desk job whereas Jones, the maverick, merely needs the succor of his badge and the bottom of a whisky bottle. However, sometimes Billings lets his hair down, much to the viewer's relief (as we become so involved with the lives of these two over the course of the flick) and dons a leather jacket and trucker cap to go ‘undercover’ in some of South Central’s seediest districts. 

For much of the plot they pursue the evil Rivington and his cocky sidekick, known only as ‘Rocker’ through fleshpots, dirty video stores and old skool hip hop night clubs . As much as there is the great thrill of the chase, this film could also be seen as a picture of a city in urban decay. The director using a very jerky rough-cutting editing method and low quality filming equipment merely emphasises the plight of those trapped in a downward spiral to destruction. 

As the two cops pick up leads across town, delving more and more into Rivington’s sleazy empire things start to become personal. When the boys start getting too close the corrupt lawyer decides to send a warning shot, gunning down the protagonist’s ‘only blood relative’, his sister. 

Sitting in the dimly lit bar following the ordeal, Chapin, an actors’ actor if ever there was one, delivers one of the finest, most poignant monologues in film history which exhibits how important family loyalty is to this film. Yes, it may be a booze drenched passage, but it smack of Bukowski, delivered from the heart and convincing the viewer that Jones and his sister had a unique bond now cruelly severed by a hideous villain. Hutton is also no slouch, offering an understated, quiet majesty to his intense performance as a close friend, the shoulder to cry on... you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. 

Chapin is a master of versatility, at one moment a mild mannered, almost zen-like in his approach, the next a copper-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown. His eyes blazing with intensity, he quits the force in a flurry of confusion involving oranges been chucked at senior officers and some diarrhea-based analogies. He impulsively becomes a bounty hunter, giving an insight on the bleak prospects that await an ex-cop trying to make ends meet in the late 80s. Tragedy strikes again as his former, newly promoted ex-partner, Billings is gunned down by the bad guys because, like a horny dog, Ian Jones had been caught sniffing tail at close range one too many times. 

Like the special amp in ‘This is Spinal Tap’ , Jones cranks it up to notch 11. This time it’s personal, it’s one thing to kill his sister, but to critically injure his partner is another matter all together and so, in the same vein as other great buddy cop films, I’m thinking ‘Tango & Cash’, ‘48 Hours’, ‘Beverley Hill Cop’, ‘Stakeout’ and ‘Running Scared’ this one ends with a spectacular gun fight. Without giving too much away it involves a custom-made tank, a gun-toting English toff wearing a panama hat, a cravate and smoking a cheroot, a over-fortified Mexican hacienda, massive explosions and of course the film’s signature shotgun. It’s a rollercoaster and you need to get yourself on board to enjoy this non-stop ride. 

At the end of the day a film is only as good as its sum parts, where the script sometimes might falter Chapin and Hutton knock the ball right out of the park with bravura performances, defying the populist Academy and Screen Actors’ Guild to deliver a film that both shows the vulnerability of South California detectives but also opens up the seedy underbelly of a consumer society obsessed by cheap thrills. Is this a must see? I think yes!