Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tickets and Touts - Agra

No Sleep In Agra

At last the moment I'd been waiting for... Not seeing the Taj Mahal but riding the Indian Railways! We were prepared for chaos but somehow despite the crowds (most of whom never seemed to actually get on or even anywhere near the trains) it was all too easy. Up the stairs, our train was already on the board, then down to the platform, check the train plan and wait... Looking around and taking in the atmosphere is much more interesting than standing at Paddington or Euston. Cattle spotting, guessing what's inside the huge containers people are guarding and the sound of the trains blasting out their horns to clear people from the tracks as they come by. Not wanting to risk standing for several hours we had opted for AC2 Class seats which convert from seats to beds for those who want to sleep. A word to the wise, make sure to book the lower berth if you want to choose whether to sleep, sit, stretch etc. The non-side seats will happily hold three people and this is well worth bearing in mind when you choose your seats. If you have an upper berth then you are dependent on whether the person in the lower one wants to sit or sleep, so you may find things a little uncomfortable. Unfortunately on this train the windows were heavily tinted so it was hard to see much of the world go by. We were also accompanied by some armed guards in our carriage as it seemed we had a VIP on board, who it was we will never know.

Some hours later as dusk had turned to night we beeped our way in to Agra Cantt. After reading in our guide book to head straight for the prepaid taxi booth we did just that and had the pleasure of fighting the crowds and learning to watch out for being given old money by people. We ended up in the cab and enjoyed the drive towards the East Gate of the Taj Mahal (which included the sighting of an elephant!) where Hotel Sheela awaited us. As the area around the Taj Mahal is a traffic free zone we had to walk the last few minutes of our journey and had to laugh at people trying to offer us a rickshaw ride for what was barely a 5 minute walk!

Our first impressions of the hotel were good. A lovely outside area, people sitting having dinner etc. However, shortly after check-in the second impression totally undid all the work of the first one. The room we were shown to was possibly the worst place I have ever stayed in or seen in my life. We were expecting something basic and we were paying accordingly but basic does not, in my book, mean poorly maintained. The room resembled a prison cell with with plain walls, bullet-hard beds and a dirty bathroom. To top it off the fan in the room made such a noise it was impossible to sleep. Good job we were getting up at 5am to get a head start for the Taj Mahal. Apparently our booked room was given to someone else. Rooms there were allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, what you reserved was largely unimportant. Apparently we had a chance to move into a better room the following day. It wasn't like it could be any worse! We had dinner at the hotel, which was a cheap and cheerful affair (which would have been more cheerful and less cheap if we had been able to cash our travellers cheques the day before) and then tried (and mostly failed) to get anything resembling a good night's sleep.

Our sole full day in Agra started bright and reasonably early. We set out for the short walk to the Taj only to find out that to buy the tickets you had a 15 minute walk back up the road to the ticket office. Our prime location was looking less prime with every passing call of, "rickshaw." Everyone knew where you were going and all would follow you along the road to the ticket office and back again promising the best fare. The "head down, no eye contact" method worked pretty well and half an hour later we were through the security path down and about to see one of the wonders of the world. Walking around the entrance gardens was reasonably peaceful, and through the gate... Then you see this amazing monument in the early morning haze and out comes your camera, then you put it away, find your space and relax. He must have had a massive guilt complex. You walk though the gardens, past the Diana chair and up to the monument itself. Those beautiful red shoe covers come into play here. (When you visit the ticket office for the Taj you get a little goody bag with water and shoe covers and it helps the rickshaw drivers know whether to say Ticket Office, Taj or Red Fort). Anyway, with it being so early in the morning the area is quite peaceful and you can enjoy the magnificence of the monument itself or a lazy look out along the river. I had some magnificent photos but that's another story.

After taking in every last bit of the Taj and enjoying it immensely, fatigue and hunger kicked in. It was now time to change some travellers' cheques and grab some food. Back at the hotel we managed to move to a better room. It wasn't better by much but the fan worked without making a deafening racket and it looked a little less like a prison. Things were looking up, we had money we could actually spend again and I had a really nice breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with fried potato shreds, red onions and tomatoes washed down with a painfully sweet fruit juice and a big pot of coffee. The outside area of the hotel was just right, it was still not enough to forgive the rooms.

A short rest later it was time to head out for the rest of the day. We found a very friendly rickshaw driver named Fayed by the East Gate of the Taj and it was off to the Red Fort. After dodging the guides (one was particularly aggressive telling us it would be like strolling through a park without a guide, which was however just what I wanted after a sleepless night) and ticket sellers, we were there. There was something underwhelming about being here, somehow my memory is of watching the scores of chipmunks running around the gardens and a big queue which looked like there was something exciting at the end of it, which in the end was just the way out!

We then found our rickshaw driver and it was an exciting but controlled drive to the Moonlight Gardens which are on the river banks opposite the Taj Mahal. After all the touristic sites here was my happiest time in Agra. It was peaceful and calm. The sky was clear and there was an amazing view of the Taj Mahal completely unobstructed with hardly a tourist in sight. It must have been mid-afternoon and you could see and hear the crowds at the Taj. Suddenly that early morning pain, the lack of sleep, the cell we slept in were a little more worthwhile. The only downside were a group of children begging after being egged on by the adults with them as soon as they saw us, realising we weren't giving them a rupee they left us alone and it was time to go back to the hotel. On the way back we had the inevitable stop at a gift shop to look at scarves, overpriced they may have been but it was more relaxing than trawling the main road and at least some presents were found.

Back at the hotel it was time for dinner and to check our plans for the next destination Orchha. I knew it would be another bad night at the hotel but what I did not know was the beautiful time I would have at our next destination. We spent the morning relaxing at the hotel, I had the eggs again and watched the gardener hard at work whilst I caught up with Mere Anarchy and wondered how nice this place could have been if they had put the same effort into the rooms as they did on the gardening. It was then back to Agra Cantt and up on the Kerala Express to take us to Jhansi.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Doing it on our own - Delhi

Dude Where's My Car...?

After searching the long line of pick-up drivers we found our man and it was off to the Master Guesthouse without a hitch, or so we thought. There was however, a small problem; the driver had lost his car in the airport car park. Luckily for all of us we went down a floor and the car was soon found. We were out of the airport and into the real world. As we weaved calmly through the traffic it was nice to look out the window and watch this new world go by. Not too many animals on the road just yet, but quite a few auto-rickshaws and plenty of traffic. As we were driven into suburbia we were soon at our hotel/guesthouse where we'd stay for the next two nights. On arrival we had our bags taken from us and headed upstairs for our check-in and introduction to Delhi from the hotel owners, Ushi and Nishi who lived on the ground floor of the building. We had some tea, coffee and cookies, a local map and some tips for what to do as well as a briefing on Delhi's metro and on how much to pay the rickshaw drivers (easier said than done when you don't have much in the way of small notes!). We had a nice room at the top of the building that opened out on to the terrace, it was fairly quiet and incredibly relaxed. The room was nice and homely and we felt like we were off to a good start. We took a short rest and unpacked before heading out to acclimatise in our new surroundings to the famous heart of New Delhi, Connaught Place.

I enjoy almost all journeys of any kind, my first ride on the rickshaw from the hotel to the metro station was interesting and surreal, watching the driver navigate through the traffic and around the pot holes in the road. Even for fans of trains great and small Delhi Metro is certainly an acquired taste. For short term tourists it's pretty straight forward, you buy a chip and the further you go the more you pay with an approximate 2INR increase for each station. Despite being mid afternoon it felt like rush hour. The stations have big long platforms but the trains, new and shiny as they are, only seem to take up about half the platform length and as a result they are very busy as people push their way on and off as if their lives depended on it.

As soon as we had left the station the touts were after us, the government shopping complex must have been paying a good commission as every other person we bumped into were desperate to take us there. We walked into the park in the centre of Connaught Place which seemed newly refreshed (but poorly finished) and we got a little flashback from Amsterdam as it was full of men holding hands, which in India means just close friends unlike many other places in the world. The park was not particularly memorable apart from using the same style of signs as the London parks and an incredibly drab water feature... As dusk was upon us we made a quick visit to the tourist office to pick up a free city map and despite the kind man's offer to completely rebook our entire two week itinerary we were pushing our way onto the metro, fighting with the rickshaw drivers and back at the hotel for dinner before we knew it.

After a light dinner of Indian-style scrambled eggs it was off to bed for an early night in preparation for our first day of proper sightseeing. Before continuing with our time in Delhi it is time for a note on the lovely beds I experienced during the trip. In all but one of the hotels and guesthouses we stayed in, the beds were rock hard and I woke up with back ache at best after a night's sleep and at worst after a couple of hours. To this day I do not understand the fascination with such uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. Perhaps I am just getting old.

There's nothing like curry to start the day, so to build my energy for sightseeing I started as I meant to go on with an Indian style breakfast of potato curry, bread and pickles washed down with plenty of coffee. I really enjoyed the food I ate at Master Guesthouse as it was always fresh and reminded me of the Indian food I liked to cook myself. So after another encounter with the oh so friendly rickshaw drivers who were trying to charge us five times the correct fare we were back at Karol Bagh metro station for the push and shove match of the Delhi Metro and we were off towards Old Delhi with its markets, the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. Other than a few calls from the rickshaw drivers and the crazy traffic it was quite calm walking from the station towards Jama Masjid, there were many food stalls along our way just setting up for the day, good job I'd eaten well this morning. We arrived at the mosque only to find out we'd arrived during prayer so we pressed on through the market area and a grotty subway towards the Red Fort where we were greeted by the postcard and guidebook sellers who were swiftly avoided.

Once through the ticket gates and security you walk through a small shopping bazaar and then in to the fort. We picked up a guide who showed us round and told us what the different parts of the fort were and explained the Hindu, Muslim and Christian aspects of the architecture as well as what the British left behind. The main reason for mixing everything was to reassure those that came to visit as they would see something familiar and feel at ease and that they would receive fair treatment. The guide was good and it helped us appreciate Agra a lot more without needing a guide to show us round the tourist sites there.

After the Red Fort we headed back towards Jama Masjid and off to lunch at Delhi's famous restaurant/institution Karim's. The restaurant is actually more like a courtyard with kitchens and seating areas in the surrounding buildings. We soon got a table and sat down to eat. I'm glad we visited and the food was good value though underwhelming (kebab and spinach curry, rice, bread etc.). Maybe we chose the wrong things as many other people seemed to be enjoying themselves. After Karim's we briefly visited Jama Masjid before prayer started up again and then headed out for a meandering walk around Old Delhi's streets. This was one of my best memories from Delhi, walking around watching people caught up in the excitement of buying and selling, the smell of the street food and the complete absence of hassle. Unfortunately looking for the Metro you see the other side of Old Delhi, the poor sleeping and begging in the street, the smell of urine and animals grazing along the road whilst everyone else is swerving round them. After asking around we made it with a huge amount of pushing and shoving on to the metro and back to the hotel, exhausted and just about in one piece. London will always seem a walk in the park after this. Back at Master Guesthouse we had a lovely home cooked dinner and a good night's sleep.

Our final day in Delhi was a damp and frustrating one. Our train to Agra didn't depart till late afternoon so we decided to visit what looked like a local temple. In reality it was more than a half hour's walk away along a main road. Not the best time for a heavy rain shower. Arriving at the temple soaked through we stood there bedraggled and took the first auto rickshaw back, somehow price was not important at this point. Luckily we dried out and it was time to bid farewell to the nice people at Master Guesthouse and get the train from Hazrat Nizamuddin to Agra.

Passage To India

How we got there

For me my trip starts when I check in online and book my HEX tickets (with a hefty discount code of course).  My first taste of what to expect in India was the crazy world of Emirates' online check in.  For some reason the seat selection part of the process and I did not get on and every time I tried to move our three seats on the 777 the body of the plane seemed to increase in length from the middle and out...  Not a promising start and a few minutes of frustration turned into many more minutes of laughter as by this time the length of our aircraft had doubled and we now had infinite leg room (which in the end was far from the truth!).  Somehow as I went to bed that night I felt a little underwhelmed for what would have been the longest and most exotic trip I had taken in fifteen years.  A mix of good planning, sheer exhaustion and an early afternoon departure probably didn't help.

We were supposed to meet at Paddington at around 10am to allow for lateness etc.  This was a good idea as standing for 15mins in the cold waiting for a tube was not really the best start to the morning.  Anyway, safely on board the HEX with a nice set of seats together my excitement levels were up and keeping out the cold.  After 10 years the HEX is looking a little worn around the edges and for the money charged at full price or otherwise it could really do with a bit more TLC/refurbishment.  20mins after sitting down we arrived at Heathrow Central and made the short trip to T3.  The check in area was right in front of us, there was almost no queue, easy does it through security and off for breakfast.  We chose the middle of three equally average options as it was the only one still doing breakfast after 11am.  Strangely for the nice people serving us they managed to plate up an English breakfast in about five minutes and yet it took them half an hour to sort out a toasted cheese sandwich; impressive stuff indeed.  The book and magazine choice in WH Smith was significantly worse than the airport food, which was a pleasant difference to Gatwick's North Terminal.  Then it was off to the gate and a first glimpse of the beast of the skies, the A380.  Other than the scale of the aircraft my other highlight of boarding was getting a copy of The Economist, not really holiday reading but better than the dross in Smiths.

On planning the trip I wasn't too keen on doing an indirect flight and stopping over, the one benefit and selling point was the opportunity to try the A380, this was definitely a wise choice and one that got me at least a few brownie points as we were nearly booked on to something else.  The plan is large, comfortable and quiet and still feels brand new.  Up in the air and I was enjoying a few indifferent films on a decent size seat back TV,  Iron Man 2 and Polanski's The Ghost come to mind  There may have been something else but the lamb served as the main meal was more memorable.  By then seven or so hours had passed and we landed in DXB.  I was hoping to see some of the famous Dubai sites lit up by night such as the Palm but no such luck.

Once landed it was  back through security and then a walk through the terminal whilst we had four hours to kill awaiting our flight to Delhi.  Using the if in doubt try McDonalds option we settled down at a table for a while and waited for the boarding call.  By this time I had already lost all since of time and place, as it was around 4am local time when we headed off to the gate at the opposite end of the terminal for boarding.  The flight to Delhi must have special memories for someone at DXB, it felt like it was in the remotest of remote stands and a good 15mins by airport bus.  Aboard the 777 reality set in, gone were the wide aisles and spotless interior from the A380, these were replaced with narrow seats, yellowing overhead bins with a just edible Indian breakfast and The A Team to keep me awake.  At least there was Tetris which was sadly missing on the A380.  Anyway, we would be in India in a few hours and our trip would be starting for real.  Touching down a little late we were glad to be finally there.  On planning the trip we were expecting a bit of a nightmare on landing at DEL, in fact the new T3 was clean, comfortable and it was only a short time before we were through security, bags in hands and out to find our driver.  India was finally with us.

Voyage to India

14 Day Tour of North India Introduction
When: November 2010
This November I enjoyed a short 14 day trip around North India. The itinerary was Delhi, Agra, Orchha, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Delhi. The trip was self planned and allowed plenty of time for rest and contemplation as well as site seeing and the chance to stay in different kinds of places, foods and transportation. I will use the next few posts as my own online diary to try and keep the best and worst memories alive. It seemed so far away and impossible that I would end up doing this trip, then suddenly it is all over.
Passage To India - How we got there
Dude Where's My Car...? - Around Delhi
Tickets and Touts - No sleep in Agra
For Relaxing Times, Make it Orchha Time
Running the Gauntlet: Gurus, Gods, Goods and Italian Food
A Moment of Beauty in the Surrounds of Smog and Sarnath

Stuffed, Soaked, Sick and Home
An Amazing Time with a Little Regret

Friday, 8 October 2010

95 Minutes of Argh!

500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

When: Late September

Where:At Home on one of the Sky Movie Channels

There's something very off about this film, but I can decide what it is. Is it uncomfortably real, a play by play re-enactment of a bitter man or is it complete fantasy. Either way the 95 minutes of pain took me back about 10 years or so. Back then this was the film I wanted to make, perhaps even a little further back, but then back then I was only just starting my addiction. I suppose it's not so hard to empathise with a love struck but cowardly obsessive... anyway, moving on. The film starts like a good old fashioned comedy with a what seems amusing credit:

At the beginning of the film, before the title, a disclaimer states:
"AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Especially you Jenny Beckman.


However, the specific nature of detail in the film actually scared me a little. From the repeated use of the colour blue, the Zac Braff style fantasies, the music choices and references it felt like there was something going on. Should this have been a call for celebration, or was it just a perfect re-enactment of the our main man and his neurosis. My remaining memory of this film was that if I was 19 years old or younger this was the film I always wanted to make. After that I grew up and got on with it and stopped the whinging. Anyway, enough was enough and I was happy when this movie was over.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Let the Blood Times Roll

God of War III (SCEA, 2010)


Completed:September 2010

I loved every minute of button bashing fury in God of War III.  The game is simple, seek revenge on those who have hurt you and anything and anyone who gets in your path.  Yes, there's a little more story to it than that but the plot is simple and is not the main reason for playing.  There are two main fighting styles in God of War III.  The first is using your weapons to take down enemies and inflict damage, there are different moves and combos, or you can just press a number of buttons repeatedly switching from low power attacks to high powered ones and watch the carnage and combos build up.  The second type of combat is when you are about to finish off a larger foe, you are prompted on screen to press a button/buttons or move the left stick in  a particular fashion to complete the move.  This mode normally starts up when you see the circle button displayed above the head of your foe meaning you can grab them.  What makes God of War III particularly special is level of graphic violence, you do not just knock bad guys over or stun them, you pummel them to death, decapitate them, tear them apart limb by limb, beat every last pint of blood from their bodies.  Here you get to really test yourself.  How much anger is inside you waiting to spill out?

The look and feel of God of War III is breathtaking, from the dark underworld of Hades to the decaying magnificence of Olympus, it's all there.  There is plenty of detail, much of which you can interact with to revel hidden treasures to help with upgrades to help you complete your revenge on Zeus.  Not only that but things in the game that look like they are just window dressing take on new features and become important to your progress as the game progresses.  The chain of Olympus being one example of this.  Sometimes this ability to revisit old locations is a little confusing as you wonder if you should be going back where you have came from. New power brings new options and different areas open up and new things happen with the extra abilities you gain.  The soundtrack to God of War III is suitably menacing and sounds much like an army going to war (or a little like the south park anime spoof!) but I think it works well.

In short this is a beautiful rage filled game, it was the kind of game I had been missing for a while and I enjoyed every last fight right up to Zeus' final pummeling and the blood red screen that follows.  Apparently hope is the strength you need to kill a god, it is the secret weapon they cannot fight against.  For all the anger the game tries to end on a positive light.  If you like your blood baths and all out fighting action then I don't think you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

I think You Should Have Taken Woody's Advice and Seen a Shrink

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

When 8th August 2010

Where BFI Imax

This film worked a little bit for me, it depends what that third elusive layer is and if I can be bothered to find it or not. I think it would have worked less well if I had written this review right after seeing it when I thought that Cobb was referring to Ma, instead of Mal for most of the film (but it sure would have been fun, especially if he had killed Michael Caine to get to her). The manipulation was entertaining and the inception of the idea was a good one but rather than being filled with a sense of purpose I am left with an empty feeling of "Is that it? You had the chance to have so much more fun." To keep it quick Inception uses dreams as a metaphor for films. In the world of Inception you can create shared dream experiences as a way to gather information that people would prefer to keep secret. However the true masters can also input ideas into the recipients' brains without them knowing about it, making them think it was their idea all along.

I guess my problem with Inception was that it failed to give me the killer idea, it kept me entertained with pretty visuals, some funny jokes, a nice bit of action, great acting but that's all. To take the whole dream/film metaphor idea to its logical conclusion as presented in Inception just got dull. The following exchange sums this up nicely:

Cobb: You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious.
Ariadne: How could I ever acquire enough detail to make them think that it's reality?
Cobb: Our dreams, they feel real while we're in them right? It's only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange!

I'm sure it would only take a second viewing and pen and paper to find a few more interesting quotes that say the same thing. Anyway, Ariadne and Cobb make some shorts together, and Ariadne learns from Cobb not to make the world too strange as the audience can't take it. He also tells her that you should use elements from real places but not exact copies as people can't cope with that. I think Nolan needs to watch some better movies or have more faith in the audience, real locations are a lot of fun. Or as to summarise Chris Doyle, the best movies are made on your door step or as far away from home as you can possibly be.

Anyway, how do you know whose film you're in: you will need a little mark/motif or action that is known only to you. In the film these are represented as totems that behave in a specific way so their user knows if they are dreaming or not (we have a chess piece, a loaded dice and a spinning top that only runs out of energy when you are awake).

Arthur: ...when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt you're not in someone else's dream.

You also need a full crew, and since someone has taken the time to put this together already I don't feel the need to do so again:

One interpretation of the film proposed by critic Devin Faraci reads it as an allegory of the filmmaking process. Saito represents the studio head who orders the project, and who insists on overseeing the work in progress. Arthur, who is responsible for making sure the job is organized and runs smoothly on schedule, is the producer. Cobb, who is in charge of executing the mission, but who brings his own personal dreams, ideas, and agenda into the works, is the director. Adriadne, who is hired by Cobb to design the world of the dream, is the screenwriter. Eames, who impersonates Browning, is the actor. Yusuf, who supplies the team with what they needs to do their work, is the special effects technician. And Fischer is the audience for whom the whole show is put on for.

Anyway, I am getting bored of film studies 101 now. If David Lynch made action Sci Fi blockbusters this might have been great, more subtle and I would have enjoyed making my own meaning from the film even if it wasn't quite the right one. Inception never allowed me this benefit. The structure and metaphor of film=dream was too obvious, we saw the inception coming as we already knew what it was. However, maybe I am missing something as wasn't there supposed to be a dream within a dream within a dream or a film within a film within a film. I will update should I find the time to take a second look to make all three layers happen.

Monday, 19 July 2010

At last, someone who knows good service

Nuovi Sapori

Eating on: 17th July 2010

Eating with: Family

I was beginning to think it was just me but for the last couple of months the service I have received going out for meals has been truly indifferent. It was getting to the point where I was struggling to remember going out to eat and enjoying both the food and the restaurant I was eating in. Sometimes I was lucky to enjoy just the food. I can think of two notable exceptions this year, Whits in Kensington being one of them. However, that was before this weekend. Things were looking up last week at Masala Zone, really friendly service though not the best food in the world. But in the end the whole thing felt a little scripted and by the book, rather than from the heart. Plus the thali I had was not as good as Woodlands, the whole thing felt more ready meal than made to order. The restaurant was also a little empty which did not add to the atmosphere. Last weekend was the chance for a nice family meal, the last of which was at one of my exceptions to the rule for great food this year, a small Italian restaurant round the corner from me, which one from the chain of three I forget!!

We arrive at Nuovi Sapori around 7pm, the restaurant was completely open at the front, perfect for a nice summer's evening. Thanks to our early reservation we had a great table right in the middle of the room, perfect to soak up the atmosphere that would build during our meal. The restaurant manager greeted us and made us feel comfortable right away. Menus and ample time given, no concept to explain, the option of pre-meal drinks but politely declined so that we could balance our wine with our meal. So far so good. We placed our order and when the wine arrived (a nice fruity Pinot Grigio) we were also served some bread with a sundried tomato tapenade. Starters were ordered: mozzarella with parma ham, melon and parma ham, warm avocado with crab, and mussels filled with crispy bacon and avocado (the specific stuffing for the mussels escapes my mind). The food was nice and hot (except the melon!) and came quickly. By observation the timings seemed around the same for other guests, even as the place got busier. The meal was off to a good start, the portions were just about the right size and we were all looking forward to the main course.

Throughout our meal staff were on hand all the time and were continually watching (non-intrusively) to make sure our glasses were filled with water/wine and that we were enjoying ourselves. The atmosphere from the staff was that they were happy to be at work, and that they could see whether or not you were enjoying your meal rather than, as you suspect in many places, it's just in the handbook to go and ask, with the expectation that the customer says "fine, thanks". The whole thing was thanks to a fantastic restaurant manager that truly led from the front allowing the team to be themselves with customers, in all, very impressive on the service front.

A short, but needed wait for the mains followed. We ordered two different takes on veal, both served with rosemary potatoes (a touch underdone but not swimming in olive oil, thank goodness), a very good sized chicken dish served on mash potatoes and a seafood risotto. Again, all food was cooked well, served nicely and simply and just the right amount. There was plenty of banter with the restaurant manager to make sure we were happy, time for a pause and then dessert. We had tiramisu, pancakes and panna cotta, again, with appropriate break between the end of the main course before the dessert came. I think we needed the time to soak up that second bottle of wine. Before leaving the restaurant manager came over to offer us a grappa (on the house) and made sure we left with a smile on our faces, but also in need of the cup of coffee that was awaiting us at home!

Did Nuovi Sapori have the best food ever, the most original concept, the most fancy decor? Not at all. The food was just above average, the decor was plain, there was no fancy concept. So why does this place work so well? One really easy answer comes to mind, this restaurant seemed to have one simple philosophy, "what can we do to make our customers happy?" I know I would be happy to return again, even if I was paying the bill this time round!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Sex and Death: What Could Possibly go Wrong?

Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)

Watched: 22nd May

Where: TV

I first saw Y tu mamá también around seven or eight years ago, yet somehow my feelings towards it have remained unchanged. I still feel both sad and uplifted by the ending, the different journeys that life takes and how quickly they come to an end, the fragility of the relationships between the participants of life's journeys. There are a few journeys in Y tu mamá también, and many opposites sitting alongside. At the centre of the film you have rich vs poor, urban vs rural, young vs old and life vs death amongst others. The journeys that our characters take and the relationships they build help break down the barriers between the oppositions but also bring up new ones in their places.

The oppositions in the film begin with the opening sex scenes where young lovers make each other promise their fidelity as our young ladies are about to embark on a trip to Italy, leaving their men behind in Mexico. Like the many vows we see in the film this one proves to be empty. The boys Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) tell Luisa (Maribel Verdú) on their drive along the coast of their "brotherly vows not to be unfaithful and sleep with each other's women" but by the end of the film both admit (though somehow you feel like at least one of them is lying) to having slept with each other's girlfriends, and they both end up sleeping with Luisa too. Jano and Luisa are married, Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina) phones his wife whilst drunk admitting an affair, thus prompting her final journey with the boys and her sexual experiences with them.

The physical journey that our characters take from urban to rural (read also rich to poor) is also central to the relationships in the film, especially when contrasted with the social backgrounds of our characters. Tenoch is wealthy, was born wealthy and will probably die wealthy. Julio is very much middle class and not as wealthy as Tenoch continually reminds him (mostly in jest and also when they fight). Luisa had a tough upbringing in Spain looking after her sick grandmother while her husband is an author and academic who gets invited to a wedding where the president is a guest of honour. Although there are comments in the film about the class struggle it does not judge the characters themselves in terms of their class but we do see some of the consequences of the power the "haves" have over the "have nots". The change in politics the film mentions does not have disastrous consequences for Tenoch's wealthy father, but the building of a hotel whilst creating many jobs takes away the livelihood and family profession of Chuy who is no longer able to fish and take tourists on private boat tours. Progress comes at a price it seems, for some the price is easier to pay than others, but the innocence and simplicity of friendship and family are lost forever.

Another opposition that is set up is birth, this is in the form of a new set of sexual relationships, a new marriage, a trip to a secret beach, trying things for the first time, an escape from death, moving from school to University and the inevitable progression to adult life that follows. This is inevitably followed by death in the final scene of the film. Julio and Tenoch meet again and have coffee together. Both have now grown apart and have long since split up from their girlfriends following their road trip with Luisa. Tenoch tells Julio that Luisa died of cancer shortly after the end of their trip. Luisa wanted to spend the last moments of her life with no regrets, sharing her experiences and regaining a little of the youth she lost caring for her sick grandmother. For Luisa the trip was a chance to be reborn and feel freedom for one last time (or perhaps for the first time). For Tenoch and Julio it was the chance to be adults for the first time and children for the last time. The end of their friendship signified their coming of age. When we see them in the coffee shop they are dressed more smartly, more conservatively, they are not the same people we saw mocking the guests at the wedding party, their freedom and youth seem to have vanished. Their shared memories seem distant and blurry.

I love this film for the innocence of its characters, their fun adventure versus the sullen reality of the factual documentary style voice over narration. I like the childhood innocence and the fragility of young friendships. I understand how everything feels like it will last forever but tomorrow it is gone and the day after that but a distant memory. I feel that sometimes the big things don't matter but it's the little ones that count. Then I realise that these little things are big things after all; a passing remark, calling or not calling, participating or sitting out. Everything adds up, sex and death, the beginning and the end. What could possibly go wrong in between?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

I did it! Didn't I?

Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010)

Who is the origami killer?  That is the quest that Heavy Rain sends you on.  Young boys are being kidnapped and drowned with the same clues left with each body.  Your job is to solve the mystery and save the latest victim in this tragic tale, Sean Mars.  You take control of four characters involved in the story to save Sean.  Depending on the choices you make, different plot points may (or may not) come into play that dictate the final outcome of the game.  Heavy Rain starts out like a bad film noir and builds into something so much more, it is a game filled with emotion and addiction that haunts you for days.

We kick off with Ethan Mars, a bit of a sad sack and thanks to the voice acting he feels like he has a huge gaping void inside him.  Even in the opening segment of the game where he is playing with his sons feels somewhat hollow.  Ethan's life falls into ruin when his son Jason is killed in a car accident after Ethan loses track of him on a family trip to the shops.  Ethan ends up in a coma in his attempt to save Jason.  Months later Ethan is a washed up and desperate man living alone.  He suffers from blackouts and strange dreams which always end up with him holding an origami figure in his hand.  Being the great dad that he is, Ethan loses his other son, Sean during a blackout episode at the park and so begins his search to get his son back.  Ethan's strand of the narrative takes on a serious of trials that are laid out for him by the origami killer to reveal the whereabouts of his son.  For Ethan however, life is not so simple.  He harbours a large amount of guilt over what has happened with his sons, and with his blackouts he starts to believe that he may be the origami killer and the trials he must complete he has created as a way to uncover his split personality and remember where he hid Sean.  Somehow Ethan is just not very likeable, you tend to feel he's a bit of a depressing social outcast who is unable to interact with anyone.   Though depending on how you do with the trials and which outcomes you chose you do begin to warm to him as the story progresses.

Our second protagonist, Scott Shelby a fat, trench coat wearing, hard as nails private eye and former police officer who is investigating the origami killer case privately.  On completion of the game he is the character who you will want to replay the most.  Shelby seems bored with the investigation, he shuns help and seems to genuinely not care about the real killer being found out.  Instead he chases after part animal and bored rich boy Gordy Kramer who he believes is the origami killer.  A classic clichéd detective filled with personality flaws that come to light as the game goes on.  Depending on your path he may suck you into liking him but his strange behaviour is initially hard to explain until you slowly uncover his truth, at this point how you feel about him is the real beauty of the game.  My favourite bit is when he leaves his assistant Lauren to die in the sunken car after Kramer has tried to kill him.  But maybe that says more about me than about the game!

FBI profiler and drug addict Norman Jayden is our third protagonist.  With his magical C.S.I. glasses that he uses to review the crime scene mixed with a sceptical and hilariously violent partner, Blake who is happy to lock up the first person he finds and close the case.  Will Jayden find the origami killer, will he OD on drugs and can he get around Blake and do the job he was hired for?  You can have quite a bit of fun with Jayden, you can be spineless and weak, cold hearted, caring, in fact you have quite a lot of choice as to how you want to play him.  However, make sure you don't take too many drugs if you want to make it to the end alive!

Finally we have Madison Paige, journalist, kind heart, and insomniac.  Or is she just undercover and playing a role to get the inside scoop?  For some reason Madison feels a little shallow and underdeveloped in the two times I've made it through to the end of the game.  You just feel like making her walk around semi naked rather than solving anything in particular.  Perhaps it's because I have not fully explored her character, but it feels like there is something missing with her.  It would be interesting to know what triggered the nightmares and insomnia.  Does she also have a difficult past like Ethan and Shelby?

Heavy Rain is not a game for long summer nights.  It is a game for wet, dark, overcast days at home.  That relentless rain and those endless shades of grey make you want to end it all.  Still, you keep on playing to find that clue and unravel the mystery.  The way the game cross cuts from character to character makes it very hard to put your controller down.  Not to mention that most of the levels are short enough for you to say to yourself "just one more" when really you should have been in bed an hour before.  The game looks amazing, great location set pieces that you want to see over again with lots going on.  What I like most about Heavy Rain is the morality test.  Do you do what you think is right?  Do you do what you think you need to do to complete the game?  How do you react again to the same scenes once you know who the killer really is?  What would have happened if I did this differently?  However hard you try and play in a dispassionate fashion the game sucks you in time and again, testing your mental strength and at times dexterity to beat some of those challenges.  Heavy Rain is not perfect, sometimes the controls feel a little clunky and sometimes you feel forced to behave in a specific fashion when you want to try something else.  To end the review I think I'll retrace my steps and see if I can get away with the killing Sean this time, or perhaps not!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Three Takes on Jazz

Little Dragon, Jose James and Soil & Pimp Sessions (2010)

Heard:  Little Dragon, Jose James, Soil and Pimp Sessions

Where:  Relentless Garage, Jazz Cafe, Relentless garage

When:4th March, 18th March and 6th April

During the last month I've had the fortune to enjoy three great live shows each with their own take on Jazz.  

Let me start with the first and the most unexpectedly good, Sweden's "Little Dragon".  I ended up booking tickets to see them back in March this year and also for Soil & Pimp Sessions when I saw that Jose James was doing a live show in London and thought it would be fun and interesting to see how they worked as a live band.  The show was a lot of fun and the band have an interesting dynamic.  The energy of their little singer with her big voice and personality shine out on stage; running, dancing, jumping etc. she is a stark contrast to her trendy, beardy band mates hiding behind their instruments.  The music itself is well crafted pop but with the underlying jazz influence and lots of electronics that drifts me off in to a hypnotic trance.  Hmm... I really should go and buy their last album now, I want more than just the memories.

On to Jose James a few weeks later, this time at the Jazz Cafe.  The nice thing about the Jazz Cafe is that it's a nice small venue so you can get a great view and nice and close to the action.  So close that the support act was stood right in front of us!  Jose James has a classic sounding southern bluesy voice and has taken a really great band on the road with him.  There was lots of banter between the musicians and I left with a smile on my face.  The whole show was a bit of a ronseal effect though, it did exactly what it said on the tin, not a bad thing, it just it felt a little underwhelming, whereas with Little Dragon and Soil and Pimp shows they were more then just a sum of their parts.  Perhaps this was more down to the fact he seemed to have a very well drilled show in quite a different environment.  If I go to the Jazz Cafe again I might try the upstairs thing and get dinner as well.

Saving the best till last was Soil & Pimp Sessions out of Japan.  What a show!  Big entrance, mad clothes, bigger hair.  They may look like a bunch of wannabe "hip-hop" gangsters but these guys can play with some crazy energy.  The band are made up of trumpeter, double bass player, percussionist, keys, a sax player and a shouty big pimp-a-like!  Starting with their trade mark high energy death jazz and willing us into a frenzy it was tiring just to watch the guys in action, despite the image they are fantastic musicians who play great and upbeat jazz music.  The show was not all one paced hyperactive jazz either, they go a little disco and also a little more loungey when the sax and trumpeter are taking a break. I have been hammering the CD since and I hope very much they come back to London sometime soon for me to catch them again.

There we have it, Electronic Jazz Pop, good old fashioned Jazz and Blues and 21st Century Death Jazz.