Month: March 2017

Restaurant at the Bonham

09/0/17

Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh

Edinburgh has more than its fair share of fine-dining establishments and, at the moment, there are some insanely good deals to be found. AA Rosette-winning The Restaurant at the Bonham is offering three courses and wine for just £23.50 per head. How can we resist?

Situated in a quiet backwater of the West End, the restaurant proves to be a pleasant environment in which to eat, quite busy when we arrive at just after eight pm but pleasantly so. The staff are welcoming and attentive and the oddly titled ‘boozy snoozy’ menu offers a choice of four dishes in each section.

For starters, Susan samples the organic beetroot Soup with goat cheese crouton. This is splendid; the soup is a thick deep red and deliciously sweet, the croutons making a crunchy, savoury contrast. I have the poached Egg with roasted onion consommé, lemon thyme and smoked duck. The egg is perfectly cooked and, an important point, the yolk when broken, cascades over the crispy, savoury accompaniment, offering all the flavours of a traditional fried breakfast with none of the grease. An excellent start.

The main courses are, if anything, even more assured. Susan’s Hake fillet is as light as you could possibly hope for, virtually melting in the mouth. It is accompanied by fennel croquettes and dressed with a richly fishy shellfish sauce. My Beef is also spot on, two generously sized onglet steaks, served medium rare and mouthwateringly succulent, dressed with a sweet onion purée and with a layered Pomme Anna on the side. The meat is smothered in a tangy bourguignon sauce, with an intriguing tang of aniseed.

We add a couple of side dishes at £3.50 a pop: a rocket and parmesan salad and – mostly because we are intrigued – stir fry cauliflower rice with pancetta. This is a little revelation. We’re always being urged to substitute cauliflower for rice in order to save calories and, I have to confess, it’s never sounded particularly  appealing, but this works brilliantly and it’s something we’ll definitely be trying at home.

And so to puds. Susan has the white chocolate and cranberry bread and butter pudding, which is endearingly gooey – while I opt for an old favourite, sticky toffee pudding, this version much lighter than the norm, which is a blessing because, by now, even I am getting pretty full. Both sweets are served with scoops of intensely flavoured vanilla ice cream and make a satisfying conclusion to the meal.

The bottle of house white that accompanies the meal is perfectly acceptable and, all things considered, this would still be impressive at twice the price. If you’re around Edinburgh, you’d be crazy not to try this offer. Get in there now before somebody decides that they should probably be charging more.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Certain Women

08/03/17

Certain Women seems like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day. Our expectations are buoyed by the stellar cast (and yes, I’m including Kristen Stewart in that; we can’t hold Twilight against her forever), and we are not disappointed. This quiet little film is a lovely, lovely thing.

There are three (largely) unrelated stories here, all set in the same Montana town. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a stressed-out lawyer with an unhappy client. The hyper-realism of the film means that even the most dramatic moments are beautifully understated: there is no sensationalism, only humanity and warmth. There is nothing so simple as a baddy, just flawed people, doing the best they can – and carrying on when things go wrong. Dern excels as the overworked, harassed professional, berating herself for her failings, and always striving to do more. It’s compelling stuff.

The second tale is Gina’s. Michelle Williams plays the role with customary skill, imbuing the ambitious businesswoman with vulnerability as well as zeal. We know her solid-seeming relationship is flawed, because we’ve already seen her husband (James Le Gros) in the first story, leaving Laura’s bed, but again writer-director Kelly Reichardt eschews the cliched route, and nothing much is made of this. There’s no discovery, no showdown, no climactic denouement. Instead, we are shown the minutiae of their house-building project, the moral compromises they make to source some local stone. It sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s a real slice of life, a perfect example of a (sandstone) fourth wall being gently lifted so that we can peek inside.

The third story is the best of the bunch, utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity. Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a newly qualified lawyer, who works for the same firm as Laura. In need of extra money, she’s conned into taking an evening job teaching school law in a town that’s a four-hour drive away – an unsustainable arrangement that leaves her exhausted. A lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) chances on the class – “I just saw the people going in” – and begins to rely on her weekly trips to the diner with her teacher. Gladstone’s beatific smile when Beth rides with her on her horse is so touching it hurts. Her neediness is naked, and her disappointment inevitable. It’s all the more devastating because of the way the narrative confounds our expectations: we are movie literate; we know there’s supposed to be a last-minute knock-on-the-door or change of heart. But there isn’t, of course. Just sorrow for what might have been, and the resumption of routine.

This is a wonderful film, full of sympathy and heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Cuttin’ A Rug

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

07/03/17

It’s 1957, a Friday night and, in Paisley Town Hall, the annual staff dance of carpet manufacturers, AF Stobo & Co., is about to kick off in style. All the usual suspects have arrived for the do: the teddy boys and the ready girls, the starchy ex-army boss of the design room, the out-of-his-depth University student. There’s also an aging dowager still steadfastly looking for love, a bluntly spoken tea lady – and let’s not forget ‘weedy Hector’, newly promoted to the role of designer and proudly dressed in his Uncle Bertie’s dinner suit. It promises to be an eventful evening.

This is the second part of John Byrne’s ‘Slab Boys’ trilogy (originally known as Paisley Patterns), first performed at the Traverse Theatre in 1979 and revived here by Glasgow’s iconic Citizens Theatre. It’s unashamedly a period piece, performed in broad Glaswegian dialect and punctuated with lively shots of rock n’ roll. It pinpoints an era, a few years before the Beatles changed the world, when American music still dominated the airwaves. As the protagonists talk and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink, the events become increasingly frenetic, as old rivalries rise to the surface and the Town Hall’s electricity supply becomes ever more erratic.

In all honesty, this production is a little one-note; there’s no real change of pace or tone at any point in the proceedings. But this is made up for by the enthusiasm of the performances. I particularly like Anne Lacey’s turn as the tragic Miss Walkinshaw, dressed in outmoded clothes and drunkenly lamenting the various ways in which life and romance have unerringly passed her by. Ryan Fletcher is also assured as snappy dresser Phil, a role first played by one Robbie Coltrane. Whatever happened to him?

If you know the era and you can handle the salty dialogue, this ribald, saucy comedy might just be the play for you. It’s on at the King’s Theatre until the 11th of March.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Ex Machina

06/03/17

There’s always the one that got away, isn’t there? I somehow managed to miss Ex Machina’s all-too-brief appearance on the big screen and I’ve been trying to catch up with it ever since, largely because I’d heard such good things about it. Discovering that it’s now available on Netflix was therefore great news.

Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, is a deceptively simple affair, pretty much a four-hander, laid out with cool clear linearity. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he has won the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to the remote hi-tech hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the CEO of the world’s biggest internet company and to spend a week with him, getting a sneak preview of his latest creation. This turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander) an AI, and one so convincing that Nathan challenges Caleb to apply the Turing Test to her – designed to examine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Is she good enough to pass?

Caleb goes to work and soon establishes a powerful rapport with Ava – but, as he constantly asks himself, is she genuinely interested in him, or simply using him as a way of staying alive? Because, as Nathan makes all too clear, if she fails the test then she is destined to be replaced by a newer, better model. Nathan, meanwhile, is prone to drinking himself half to death and dancing around the apartment with his live-in housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). As the story develops it becomes apparent that nothing in this  state-of-the-art home is quite what it appears to be… and soon even Caleb is questioning his own existence.

The beauty of Ex Machina is the way in which it expertly unfolds its intriguing story, constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, until you don’t really know what to expect next. Vikander offers a fascinating performance in the central role, and Gleeson, Isaac and Mizono are all totally believable. If like me, you missed this film first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. It’s really rather good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Viceroy’s House

06/03/17

It’s 1947 and Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is given the dubious honour of being the last British Viceroy of India. With his magisterial wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson) at his side, he arrives in Delhi with the full knowledge that he has been handed a poisoned chalice. The India that he leaves behind will be subject to the innate animosity between its Hindu and Muslim inhabitants. There is already much talk about the founding of a new country, Pakistan. Meanwhile, Hindi Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), working as a servant in the Viceroy’s House, reunites his acquaintance with Aelia (Huma Qureshi) a young Muslim woman he met some years earlier and who has now been promised by her father, Ali (the late Om Puri) to another man, as part of an arranged marriage. But as Jeet and Aelia spend time together, they begin to realise they are falling in love…

The partition of India is a fascinating and shameful slice of recent history and frankly one that deserves a better film than this. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a well known adage in storytelling but sadly, nobody seems to have told the screenwriters of this tale, as repeatedly, characters tell us of far more interesting events happening offscreen. The occasional use of a bit of vintage newsreel isn’t enough to pep things up and inevitably, I found my attention wandering. It’s no good telling me about a massacre on a train. I need to see it!

The performances are, as you might expect, exemplary. Bonneville dashes off the kind of ‘decent fellow’ routine he could do in his sleep, while Anderson portrays a character that is so painfully posh, she can’t even seem to walk without affectation. The film chooses to skip over her real life affair with Nehru (played here by Tanveer Gani) and there’s a suggestion that the Mountbattens stayed on after partition in order to help ease the transition, which is at best fanciful and at worst, a downright lie. Mahatma Ghandi (Neeraj Kabi) totters on for a scene or two and Michael Gambon offers a decent turn as the oleaginous General Hastings, but there’s the distinct feeling that a much more compelling story is happening just a few streets away from the gilded corridors of the titular palace. Most damning of all, the love affair element feels somehow superfluous, grafted on to make this more palatable to a wider audience, but as it stands, this is like history seen through Downtown Abbey coloured glasses – lacking in grit, action and verité.

Not awful, you understand, just a bit so-so.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Logan

03/03/17

Like many other cinema-goers, I’m getting close to superhero overload. Much as I enjoyed the output of Marvel and DC in my comic-reading childhood, the plethora of recent movie adaptations is starting to feel oppressive. But the trailer for Logan suggests that writer/director James Mangold’s take on the X-Men saga has something fresh to offer, so I resolve to give it a chance. And it’s largely a good call.

Unlike most other superheroes, Logan – or Wolverine to use his stage name – has only ever been portrayed by one actor, Hugh Jackman. Here, the term ‘super’ hardly applies because we see him towards the end of his career, a battle-scarred, embittered survivor, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and barely holding down a job as a stretch limo chauffeur. (A scene where he is called upon to drive a rowdy hen party is particularly effective – has it really come to this?)

Oh sure, he can still sprout a set of quality steak knives from his knuckles when circumstances dictate it but even this causes him considerable pain. His old mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is also in a bad way, semi-senile and afflicted by violent fits that cause all manner of problems (and not just for him). The two former X-Men live in a secret desert hideaway, tended by their albino mutant servant, Caliban (Stephen Merchant making a credible stab at a sort-of straight role). Caliban’s super power is that he has a highly developed sense of smell, which let’s face it, as super powers go is somewhat underwhelming, but he’s also a dab hand with an electric iron, which means that Logan always has a clean, pressed shirt to wear for work.

Things get complicated when Logan is introduced to Laura (Dafne Keen) a child who has been transformed by evil scientist, Dr Rice (Richard E. Grant), using genetic surgery so that she’s now a chip off the old adamantium block, with all the same skills as Wolverine and a tendency to kick off at the least provocation. She is, in the weirdest possible way, Logan’s daughter. It turns out that there’s a whole bunch of genetically modified kids on the run and Dr Rice and an army of gun-wieldng henchmen are determined to recapture them. Bred originally as super-soldiers, they have proved to be failures (too ‘human’) and now need to be eliminated. Logan has little option but to lend them his support.

Much running, leaping and fighting ensues. Logan’s habit of shish-kebabbing the heads of his enemies is particularly grisly and the film occasionally hangs on to its 15 certificate by the skin of its teeth, but the various chases and skirmishes are skilfully devised and genuinely exciting, even if it feels as though the film would benefit from being twenty minutes shorter. Like most movies of the genre, it also features a plot hole the size of Sumatra. If Dr Rice is such a genius, why hasn’t he realised that sending in a hundred men armed with conventional weapons isn’t the best way to go when a single adamantium bullet would stop Logan in his tracks once and for all? But that, I suppose, would be a very short and very unsatisfying story.

As it stands, Logan is an effective metaphor for the process of ageing and, in a strange way, an elegy for the superhero concept itself. Mangold has taken some bravura risks with the X-Men format here and they largely pay off, making this one of the most watchable of Marvel’s recent endeavours. I’ve only one real complaint. The trailer uses Johnny Cash’s fabulous version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails to great effect. As the credits roll on Logan, we’re fobbed off with a different and far less appropriate Cash song and this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

But musical misgivings aside, this is well worth your time and money.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney