Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Last Two Weeks (Part 1)

I have no idea where the last fortnight or so has gone. Okay, that’s an over-exaggeration – I know exactly where it went, but such quick passing of time still freaks me out, as it draws ever closer to the end of term. Here’s a summary of relatively interesting and vaguely relevant things that have happened recently:

My dad came to stay!

Almost two weeks ago, my dad had to go to a National Trust conference event in Swindon, and as our home in East Yorkshire is pretty far and my student flat in Bristol is rather near, it seemed sensible that he should stay with me for a couple of days (especially as you can’t really travel from the north to the south west and back in a day). It felt bizarrely grown-up having one of my parents to stay, as my home life and uni life rarely cross-over. I definitely enjoyed it though – we watched about three hours of 30 Rock and Dad cooked me a steak, plus we finally fulfilled a long-held joint ambition to visit Thali Cafe.

Something of a Bristol institution, there are four cafes dotted around the city, all serving authentic Indian food. We went to the Clifton branch, and were definitely not disappointed. Rather than having a massive serving of curry and a huge plate of rice, for around £8 you get a small bowl of delicious, subtly spiced curry (I had lamb, my dad had fish) surrounded by other dishes of basmati rice, tarka dahl, vegetable subji, Keralan salad and homemade chutney. It was just as filling as the giant portions you normally tend to get at Indian restaurants, but far more exciting to eat, as there was such an interesting range of textures and flavours. They do a killer mango lassi (almost as good as the Mumtaz in Bradford), plus the staff were all really friendly and the decor was very cool (even if there was a mannequin that scared the bejesus out of me). It’s definitely worth a visit!

I went to a comedy night!

In first year, I joined improv comedy society, mainly because my now-best friend Emily wanted to. Two years later, she's the president of ImprovSoc and has performed with them in Edinburgh, so it was a good call for her (I stopped going after first year. I didn't get on with it so much, and workshops always seemed to clash with me going to comedy gigs, especially last year). Anyway, to support Emily, I do still go to a few improv shows and ImprovSoc are pretty good (look at their YouTube channel!). 

They've also recently taken over the running of a comedy night at The Hill pub in the Cotham area of Bristol, punningly called Hill-arity (the pub does really good pizzas too). I went to review it for Inter:Mission, in my capacity as comedy editor, and really enjoyed it. Thankfully, Emily wasn't performing, so there wasn't a massive conflict of interests, but I did know some of the people who were in the show, and found it quite difficult to balance not hurting their feelings and giving an honest critique of the gig. I didn't lie, but I think I did tend to err on the side of being nicer (partly because I was afraid some kind of comment storm like this would happen). Anyway, the review of Hillarity is here

I wrote an essay!

It was 3000 words on Moll Flanders and the dominance of women in the eighteenth century novel (I like writing about women). I did pretty well on it. That is all.

I saw a film!

As a post-essay treat, I went to Bristol city centre with some of my lovely course friends. We hung around the German Christmas market (which made me miss my friend Louise, who’s on her year abroad in Regensburg) and I ate freshly made donuts, whilst three of my friends awkwardly ate huge bratwursts near some vegan protesters. Slightly chilly, but full of delicious food, we then went to see My Week With Marilyn – a really sweet movie about the filming of The Prince and The Showgirl. It was quite a light film (which was just what we needed after the gruelling mental exertion of an essay hand-in) but the central performances were all amazing, especially Michelle William’s Marilyn. I wrote a much more articulate review for Inter:Mission (you can read it here). Then we had mulled Somerset cider and talked about murder mysteries. It was a lovely day.

ate more Indian food!

We tried out the Indian takeaway near our flat – Bristol Raj. It was nice, and the prices were pretty reasonable, but it just couldn’t compare to Thali Cafe. I had quite a big portion of chicken shashlik, which had a good ratio of chicken to vegetables, but wasn’t quite as spicy or flavourful as I would have liked. The garlic rice was tasty though, and the naans were soft and doughy. Plus, the guys at the restaurant also gave us a couple of free poppadoms. However, unless it was just for convenience, I’m not sure if I’d go again, as I know there are better Indian food outlets near us (and not just Thali Cafe).

This concludes week one. I’ll post my accounts of last week’s fun shortly– it includes me eating even more food and seeing another film. Oh the excitement!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Failure With A Capital F

I shouldn't make vague statements of intent (see previous post). They usually fail. Though admittedly, this time I have a good reason: life just got in the way. I had to go home unexpectedly for some quite sad reasons in the middle of October, then spent the next couple of weeks trying to catch up. Plus I had my first essay deadline of the year, friends staying, parties to host and a section of a website to run.

Yes, at the end of last academic year I found out I'd got the Comedy Editor position on a new Bristol-centric cultural magazine site called Inter:Mission, which has been set up by some of my coursemates. (Genuinely, it is a really good website, and it's especially useful if you live in Bristol). I've been sorting out mailing lists, finding writers, organising press tickets and editing other people's work, as well as writing some articles of my own. Ironically though, I've only actually been to one comedy gig so far this year (Dave Gorman), so a lot of my reviews are for the film section, which my flatmate Pete edits. I've posted a lot of links in the 'Portfolio' section at the top of the site, but here are all of my articles for Inter:Mission so far (most recent first). I'm pretty pleased with them, but I definitely want to write more on here too:

Right, now I have to start an essay on the dominance of women in 18th and 19th century novels. And tidy my room before my dad comes to stay this weekend. We're finally going to go to the Thali Cafe in Clifton - I'm pretty excited.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Re-Commitment to Blogging

One of my major flaws is not always persevering with things – not important things mind, but things that no-one is actually relying on me to do, where no-one will really care if I don’t do it. Blog writing is definitely one of those things. But this year, I am very determined to buck that trend, as this is my final year as an undergraduate English student at Bristol University (aahhhh!)

I survived first year; enjoyed second year, and am determined to make the most of third year, and I think blogging about it (and other things) would be a great way to ensure I do. Partly I’ll have a record of the year (with pictures, that’s important, as I never take enough pictures, and I’m also strongly considering joining PhotoSoc with one of my flatmates) and also to make me do things – you can’t blog about doing nothing.

So there we go – my blog commitment is announced. I kind of doubt anyone will actually read this, but never mind – I know it’s there.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Review: Red Riding Hood

Twilight has a lot to answer for. Besides the fact that the books are awful and the films aren’t much better, the success of Stephanie Meyer’s vampiric tetralogy almost undoubtedly led to the production of Red Riding Hood. The film is based loosely on the Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the classic fairy tale, though it feels unfair to associate such great writers with such a poor film.

Little Red has been transformed into Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman who lives in the hilariously Olde Worlde named village of Daggerhorn. The village has a terrible problem with werewolves, so they summon legendary wolf-busting priest Solomon (Gary Oldman) to help dispatch the pesky lycanthrope. However, the major problem in tracking down the wolf is that literally anyone in the village could be the beast in human form. Director Catherine Hardwicke is so keen that every villager should be seen as a suspect that you half expect a number of scenes to have subtitles like ‘possible suspect...?’ or  ‘ooh, suspicious!’. Instead Hardwicke has to settle with very pointed camera shots and incredibly laboured dialogue. 

The emotional heart of the film is supposed to be Valerie’s difficult choice between doing what her family wants, by agreeing to her arranged marriage to rich, but dependable blacksmith Jacob Black Henry (Max Irons), or doing what she wants and eloping with moody woodcutter and childhood sweetheart Edward Cullen Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). It does form a heart of sorts, but a heart made of boring wood (probably balsa). Seyfried does her best, and it’s a credit to her abilities that Valerie comes across as wide-eyed and sparky, rather than a bland Bella Swann reboot, but she is a lone glimmer in an otherwise lifeless puddle of disappointing, wooden acting. Even Oscar winner Julie Christie seems to be acting through a layer of heavy sanding and wood polish.

Much of the film really does feel like you’re watching a slightly altered version of Twilight, and so many of Hardwicke’s directorial choices seem only to emphasise these similarities. Even some of the cast are the same: Billy Burke, who plays Bella’s dad, also plays Valerie’s father, and Taylor Lautner was initially touted to play Peter. The soundtrack has a distinctly rock-ish feel, and, though it’s free of contemporary artists such as Muse or Paramore, you could easily imagine it underscoring a tense conversation between Bella and Edward or a vampire vs werewolf scuffle. The cinematography has the familiar Twilight-ish mix of sweeping wide angle shots and jerky close-ups, which is one of the film’s few strengths, as it shows of both the stunning natural surroundings of Daggerhorn, and the pleasing design of the village itself.

Red Riding Hood offered Hardwicke a chance to build on the success of Twilight, but she’s fallen far from the mark, producing a visually pleasing film with no spark, no heart and no humour. 

Monday, 11 April 2011

Turkey and Halloumi Skewers

Much as I love wholesome, wintry food like Toad-in-the-Hole and stew, it's getting to the time of year when those kinds of dishes feel just a bit too heavy. Turkey is fairly cheap and very good for you, and halloumi is one of the few cheeses I actually like, so I combined the two to create some vaguely Mediterranean skewers:

Quantities are fairly variable, and much like a soup or stew, you can use up any slightly past-their-best veg. To make 2 skewers I used:

For the skewers:
2 handfuls turkey breast, diced
125g halloumi cheese, cut into chunks
4 small button mushrooms
1/2 courgette
1/2 yellow pepper
1/2 red onion
4 cherry tomatoes

For the marinade:
8 tbsps olive oil
3tbps lemon juice
3 tbsps fresh mint, roughly chopped
2 tbsps fresh coriander roughly chopped
1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
Pinch of cayenne pepper

  • Mix all of the marinade ingredients together in a bowl. Add the turkey and halloumi to the marinade, making sure all the pieces are well covered.
  • Leave for at least 30 minutes to marinate (or if you're rushed for time, leave for as long as it takes the to prepare the vegetables).
  • Chop all of the vegetables (apart from the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes) into chunks.
  • Thread the chunks of vegetables, turkey and halloumi onto skewers (if using wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least 20 - 30 minutes before use).
  • Place the skewers under a hot grill until the turkey is cooked al the way through and the halloumi is beginning to brown (approximately 10-15 minutes), turning occassionally.
  • Serve with cous cous or rice and natural yoghurt.
 [N.B. I imagine this would work well on a barbecue, or even with a griddle pan, though I have't tried it myself]

Students! If you're worried about budgetting for this, leave out the halloumi and buy reduced or on offer veg and poultry. Cous cous is a bit more expensive than rice, but it fluffs up so much that a normal sized packet will last a good few months. Plus you can make it in a mug! (Fill the mug 1/3 of the way up with cous cous, then pour over enough boling water to cover, put a clean teatowel over the mug, then leave for 5 minutes. Done.)

Also, I can definitely recommend Sainsbury's Basics natural yoghurt (or equivalent own brand yoghurt). It tastes no different to the more expensive Sainsbury's yoghurts and I'm fairly sure it's actually the same yoghurt with different packaging (I have stood in the aisles and done the slightly nerdy packet comparisons)

Monday, 21 March 2011

A Horrible Realisation

There are times when you take a long hard look at your life and realise you've become someone you don't want to be...

(...LOL jk...) (as the youth would say)

This is not one of those times.

However, I do now have to make a slightly embarrassing confession. I now have two, yes two, Justin Bieber songs on my iPod. I know, it's terrible. Truly awful. I worry about me too.

But seriously, this has all happened since seeing Never Say Never. It's definitely one of the most effective pieces of film propaganda in  recent years. I still wouldn't claim to actually like Justin Bieber, but I no longer hate him with the kind of visceral hatred I tend to reserve for reality TV stars and annoying facebook groups. And it's not that I have bad taste in music; whilst writing this blog post I've listened to Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor and Elastica. So I can only surmise that seeing Never Say Never has begun some kind of indoctrination process that could end in me sending poorly punctuated marriage proposals to The Biebersaurus (thanks James Gill for that nickname), though it probably won't.

There. I've made my confession. Please don't hate me for it Internet. I'm not going to go all Belieber on you, but maybe give Biebs a chance. He's not a lyrical genius, but Baby is damn catchy (though maybe not as catchy as this):

NB: Our flat has become a little bit obsessed with Ark Music Factory (the "production company" responsible for releasing Rebecca Black on the world) and their competitors this weekend. Consequently I can recommend  'Butterflies', for being much less annoying (and therefore better) than 'Friday'. Also it features the same in-house rapper. However, 'My Jeans' is infinitely worse, and is in many ways a damning example of the way that capitalism is crippling the morals and ideals of Western youth. Also it's an awful song.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Mission Burrito

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to go to the recently opened Mission Burrito on Park Street to review it for Itchy Bristol. I've been wanting to go there since I read on Bristol Culture about the free burritos they gave out on the first day, which I was sad to miss, still being at home in Yorkshire at the time.

My official review for Itchy is here. As you'll read, I certainly wasn't disappointed. The food was delicious, if a little bit unevenly temperatured, but I think that's only to be expected when there was such a varied mix of hot and cold food. For instance, my burrito was filled with pork, rice and black beans (all hot) and sour cream, guacamole, salsa and cheese (all cold). As tasty and filling as that combination was, it did mean you were never sure if the next mouthful would be warm or cool. But really, as far as criticisms go, it was hardly a major problem (although my lovely dining companion Emily did suggest that they might consider popping the finished burritos in an oven (a la Subway) for a little bit, to get a more even temperature and so the cheese would melt a little bit). 

Otherwise, I really did love Mission Burrito. It's a little on the expensive side for someone on a student budget, so a trip to MB would be definitely be a treat, but the food is such good quality and the staff were so friendly that I think it's worth it.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Bieber Fever (aka Cinematic Stockholm Syndrome)

A few weeks ago, I had the bizarre experience of paying to see Never Say Never 3D (aka The Justin Bieber Film). My entire family mocked me as a consequence, but I was doing it for Epigram, which justified it somewhat (I still felt kind of, well, dirty asking for a ticket for it. I was worried I'd see someone I knew in there, but then I remembered no-one I know in Bristol is under the age of 12). It was not as bad as I assumed it would be. There was at least some form of narrative, and the 3D was well-used (apart from some really creepy shots of the Bieb's arm reaching out of the screen, like some well coiffured Mr Tickle). Having a younger sister, I am fairly well-versed in 3D "concert experience" films, with The Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus being the masters of this particular genre (Miley evens makes a cameo appearance in Never Say Never, talking with a worrying amount of world weariness for someone who's only 18). Never Say Never definitely reaches those upper eschelons of tween moveidom. Clearly I didn't love it, but I feel more culturally aware for having seen it. Also, if you ever need to force yourself to like Justin Bieber, this is definitely the way to do it, the first thing I did when I got back from the film was listen to 'Baby' on Spotify. And that is something I never thought I'd do: 
Justin Bieber’s a nice Christian boy with good hair and some musical talent, who makes his single mum and grandparents proud. Admittedly, Bieber’s film Never Say Never is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s one of the better examples of the concert experience/pseudo-documentary films that have become the money-spinning vogue amongst American tween superstars. The film makes good use of 3D and zips along quickly enough to hold the attention of even the most sugar-crazed Belieber (though it’s doubtful many of those read The Epigram).

However, Never Say Never is also one of the most unsettling children’s films to ever appear in cinemas. Treated somewhere between a prince and a god, Bieber just doesn’t seem real. He rides around on a segway, reducing tweenage girls (and worryingly, their mums) to hysterical tears of joy with a single glance, whilst constantly shaking his trademark fringe out of his eyes.  His fans are so obsessed with his sainted follicles that there’s a montage in the film dedicated entirely to talking about Bieber’s hair, and locks of it are currently being auctioned for charity for thousands of dollars.

Despite Bieber’s eerie precociousness, it’s his fans who are the most terrifying part of the film. They’re generally split between the aforementioned criers and assertive obsessives, who stare into the camera to tell the world that they will marry Justin Bieber and no-one else will ever have him. And thanks to Bieber’s humble YouTube origins, and his constant use of Twitter, his fans all think they discovered him and therefore own him. In many ways, Never Say Never felt like the follow-up companion piece to The Social Network, as the power and danger of social networking is one of the subtler themes you could read into the film.

Though Never Say Never ostensibly follows Bieber’s “journey” to perform at Madison Square Gardens, bar a minor throat infection, there’s never a sense that he won’t make it. The film’s real sense of danger comes from the future. At various points, Bieber is compared to Macaulay Culkin and Michael Jackson – both of whom were admittedly very successful, very young, but couldn’t be said to have had the happiest or most well-adjusted lives. When, at the end of the film, his team speculate on what the next few years could hold for Bieber, with comparisons to the likes of Culkin and Jackson, let’s just hope he makes it through puberty in one piece
- Holly Close (Originally printed in The Epigram, No. 236, Mar 7th 2011)

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Pancake Day!

Happy Pancake Day/International Women's Day!

As much as I like pancakes (one of my childhood obsessions was the now sadly closed Dutch Pancake House in Manchester), I am not very good at making them. It's not the mixing or the frying of the pancakes that I can't deal with, it's the flipping. I've just not got the confidence to do an assured flip (I'd be a letdown Blue Peter presenter on the Shrove Tuesday episode). This poses no problem when I'm at home, as my mum is a champion pancake maker, but as with last year I'm stuck here is Bristol. My fear of dropping the pancake is compounded this year by the fact that the hob in our flat is a gas one, and a combination of pancake and flames is not one I really want to experience. And I refuse point blank to buy pre-made ones.

However, I am a dab hand at making American pancakes, which, as well as appealing to my Americophile tendencies, are flipped with a spatula, meaning I much less likely to set myself on fire. Therefore, sacrilege as it probably is, my pancake of choice today will most likely be American. Oddly though, the best American pancake recipe I've found is from one of the most decidedly English cookbooks that I own: The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. It's an old-fashioned, but adorable, book that was first published in the 1960s and features recipes for dishes such as Party Gammon and Jugged Kippers, but also really reliable recipes for more classic dishes. My family's copy is so well used that it's falling apart at the seams, so my mum and I hunted down an elusive extra copy for me to take to Bristol (we eventually found one in a garden centre). 

So here, based on that recipe, are the pancakes I'll be making today:

225g plain flour
4 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
350ml milk
25g melted butter (plus extra for frying) 
  • Whisk eggs, melted butter and milk together in a jug.
  • Add flour, baking powder, sugar and salt to the milk mixture (you could sift them in, but I've found it makes very little difference). Whisk vigorously til well combined - the batter should be a similar consistency to natural yoghurt. Add more milk if too thick or flour if too thin, though it's better to err on the side of it being too thick.
  • Heat a little butter on a medium heat in a non-stick frying pan and when hot, pour out rounds of about 12cm/5ins. If the batter is thick enough, it should spread naturally into a smooth-edged circle.
  • Cook until the surface of the pancakes looks bubbly, then flip with a spatula and cook until golden.
  • Repeat making 10-14 pancakes.

I like to eat mine with a little bit of extra butter spread on the top, or sometimes with bacon, though they're probably nice with maple syrup and cream (these pancakes do not lend themselves to eating healthily).  Enjoy pancake day - whatever nationality of pancake you choose to have!

Monday, 7 March 2011

Late Oscars Response II

I've been reliably informed by Empire (my film magazine of choice since I was 15) that there are 27 sequels out this year, so it seemed only fitting that I do a sequel to my Oscars post from a few days ago. I originally wrote this article for Epigram, but because Film & TV only has a tiny section there wasn't enough room to print it. I'm still quite proud of it though, and I did practice what I'm preaching and sat through the whole Oscars ceremony when it was broadcast live. So here are my thoughts on televised award show (written pre-Oscars): 
The red carpets are being rolled up; the couture frocks have been sent back to the designers and the unused acceptance speeches are lying forlornly in the recycling. Awards season is over for another year. Millions of dollars and months of planning go into producing the various award shows that sprawl across January and February, but is there really any point in watching them? Putting aside the inherent arguments about the ridiculous amount of money spent on rewarding people in the film industry who generally earn millions anyway, why spend 3 hours being drip fed information by a live telecast, when you can read an article the next morning telling you all of the winners in less than 60 seconds?

At their worst, live telecasts can be a dreary trudge through the year’s films, especially if the same films (which you didn’t like) win all the awards and every winner gives the same identikit acceptance speech, thanking The Academy, their parents and a variety of people you’ve never heard of, in a never-ending list that makes you wish they hadn’t won in the first place.

Admittedly, award show producers do try to help alleviate possible tedium by adding in diversionary segments of fun and glamour. The Hugh Jackman song-and-dance number at the 2009 Oscars was certainly spectacular, but it set a precedent that other award shows have since tried and failed to copy. The most cringeworthy moment of this year’s BAFTAs came before any awards had even been handed out, as the show opened with a group of streetdancers, apparently acting out the top films of the year: a misguided choice by someone who clearly thought that anything urban was an automatic passport to Coolsville (in this case it certainly wasn’t).

Britain can’t really compete with America for razzle-dazzle, but we don’t need to. The BAFTAs are at their best when they’re witty, refined and slightly bumbling, like a mid-nineties Hugh Grant, which is why BAFTA live telecasts are so good. If they weren’t aired live, we’d probably never have gotten to see Helena Bonham Carter tell the great and good of Western filmmaking that her underskirt had gotten hitched up; or watch Jonathan Ross rush, terrified, onto the stage to stop practically perfect Rosamund Pike from announcing the winner of Best Original Screenplay before the nominees had been announced.

Even when all goes to plan, there’s still something exciting about watching the results being announced live. You get all the build-up and drama of the competition, the tension, the triumph, and the chance to see who’s practised their dignified loser face. They’re also an opportunity to put the spotlight on great film-making, rather than commercial success, so you may hear about an amazing film that passed you by when it was released, because it didn’t have the advertising budget of the big blockbusters. Plus, the Oscars are broadcast live in 200 countries worldwide, making them one of the few non-sporting events that can claim to be a global event. And, if you watch with friends, award ceremonies are a great chance to have a proper debate about films, bizarre outfit choices and how creepy it is that The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper looks almost exactly like a young James Cameron. In the end - whether it’s a box-office busting crowd-pleaser or an arty indie flick - films are made to be watched by audience, so it makes sense for anything celebrating the achievements of cinema to be readily available to that same audience. If such events can be both informative and entertaining, all the better.
Next year I am definitely going to force more friends to stay up for it, as I think I only managed to make it through the whole telecast because of a mixture of Twitter and talking to one of my flatmates and his friend from home about what was going on via Facebook. Who knows I may even throw a party... (I probably won't).