Maxies

12/09/19

Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh

Maxies is a bit of an Edinburgh institution, but we’ve sort of dismissed it as ‘a tourist place’ and not bothered to check it out. This attitude makes some sense now that we’re actually living here, but – let’s face it – we were regular tourists to this fabulous city for a good seven years before we made the move, so I’m not quite sure what made us turn our noses up, especially as it boasts an impressive outside terrace with views over picturesque Victoria Street. But now it’s time to rectify the situation: a too-good-to-ignore Groupon offer has come to our attention, and we decide to take the opportunity to see what we have missed.

We’re getting two courses and a glass of Prosecco each for £32, so we’re not expecting high end ingredients or fancy flourishes. We’re hoping for tasty food and a lovely atmosphere, and – to be fair – we do get some of that.

The restaurant is surprisingly small, a series of stone-walled rooms and corridors, a fascinating warren of an old building. It’s cosy: an old-fashioned bar nestles next to the main seating area, where benches are covered in embroidered cushions and throws. I like the look of the place, although it could be a bit cleaner (the surfaces are all okay, and we see the tables being thoroughly wiped, but it doesn’t look like the woodwork has had a good scrub down in quite some time, and the loos leave quite a lot to be desired).

The food isn’t bad for the price; it’s the details that let it down. Philip’s starter of warm duck and mango salad is really tasty, the duck cooked very well. My deep-fried crispy brie with cranberry jelly is also nice, if uninspiring, but the accompanying salad has no dressing at all. The bread we order is fresh, but the butter is straight from the fridge, hard as rock and completely unspreadable. That’s a rookie error, isn’t it?

My main (vegetarian enchilada with hot chilli sauce) is delicious: spicy and generously portioned. It’s a simple dish, but they do it well. Philip opts for a special: lamb chops with haggis, neeps and tatties. The chops are a crispy, fatty, lip-smacking indulgence, and the haggis a savoury delight with real depth of flavour. The spuds are a bit lack-lustre though, and he can barely tell the neeps are there.

It’s a school night, so we don’t drink much: just a bottle of Peroni and a small Pinot Grigio between us besides the glass of fizz. It’s a good job, because there are no draft beers, and the wine is expensive compared to the food; the two price lists don’t seem to match.

We’re impressed with the service, which is friendly and unfussy, the staff clearly well-motivated and good at their jobs. But it seems a shame that so many tourists will have this meh experience as their lasting impression of Scottish cuisine, when there is so much better to be had in Edinburgh.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

08/09/19

As the long summer nights begin to stretch into autumn, the time seems perfect for a film like this. Based on Alvin Schwartz’s retellings of classic ‘campfire’ tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a playful compendium of sinister settings and nicely-timed jump scares, aimed very directly at a teenage audience. Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, the film unashamedly pushes its fifteen certificate to the limits and has a kind of galumphing charm that’s hard to resist.

It’s 1969 and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a shy, story-obsessed teenager, living with her father, Roy (an underused Dean Norris), after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. With her geeky friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), Stella heads out on Halloween night, intent on trick-or-treating the local bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), who has made their life a misery all year.

Ensuing events have them hooking up with mysterious young drifter, Ramón (Michael Garza), and the four teens visit a reputedly haunted house, where they discover a mysterious book of handwritten stories. Unfortunately, they soon find that a ghostly hand keeps adding to the collection and that they and their friends are all destined to feature as  protagonists. Unsurprisingly, none of the stories has a happy ending.

If the concept seems a little familiar, the film is nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The content doesn’t seem a million miles away from the kind of fiction that a certain Danny Weston writes (which is a good thing, right?), and – even when the budget can’t quite stretch to some more convincing CGI – the overarching story sews the various narrative threads together with skill. Arachnaphobes be warned, there’s one sequence here that’s sure to give you the heebie-jeebies.

There’s a suggestion at the film’s conclusion that there may be a sequel in the offing. Would it seem churlish to hope that this remains a one-off? SSTTITD certainly makes for enjoyable autumnal viewing, but I suspect the trick will soon wear thin, if the filmmakers return to the concept one too many times.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Farewell

06/09/19

The Farewell is mainly about the different ways in which societies around the world face up to the concept of impending death. If this sounds forbidding, don’t be misled. Lulu Wang’s charming and wryly amusing film examines its central theme with good humour and just a dash of poignancy.

Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City, where she’s trying to make headway as an author and has just been rejected for a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin), emigrated to America years ago and have made their lives there. But, when they suddenly announce they are heading back home to Changchun to attend the wedding of Billi’s young cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), and suggest that Billi should stay in America to pursue her studies,  she smells a rat.

Soon enough, the awful truth comes out. Billi’s beloved Grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zao), has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and the wedding is simply a ruse to get the whole family together one last time. But everyone thinks that Billi, with her forthright Western ways, will be unable to keep this a secret – and, for the Chinese side of the family, it is unthinkable to reveal the truth in this situation. Billi goes to Changchun anyway, and finds herself wandering disconsolately through the elaborate wedding preparations, torn between keeping schtum and blurting out the truth.

This is an autobiographical tale and Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, depicts the wedding in all its convoluted complexity. I cringe even as I laugh at the ludicrous antics and the ridiculous lengths people are prepared to go to to ensure that Nai Nai never catches on. I also find myself salivating at the absolute blitzkreig of colourful food that’s on display. In one scene, the diners are surrounded by a carousel of sumptuous dishes that trundle serenely around them, each one looking more delectable than the last.

Awkwafina (who was surely the best thing about the otherwise rather awful Crazy Rich Asians) is a compelling presence here and, making her American flm debut, Shuzen Zao is a delight as the seemingly indominatable Nai Nai.

There’s a snippet of ‘real life’ information at the film’s conclusion that sends me out of the cinema with a smile on my face.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Play of Light upon the Earth: A Reading

05/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Play of Light upon the Earth by Sally Hobson is an unusual piece of writing: a play structured into twenty-seven chapters, representing the psychological fragmentation that follows trauma. For the protagonist, Innocence (Jessica Hardwick), Bloody Friday is the trigger. The shock of this childhood experience, long-repressed, explodes into her adult life, forcing her to confront its impact.

It feels like a genuine privilege to be here at this stage of the creative process: the play is still being developed, still seeking its perfect form. In this rehearsed reading, directed by Muriel Romanes, we get a sense of what it could become. Because there is little movement (the actors are seated behind a trestle table), the focus is inevitably on the language, which is dense and lyrical, packed with literary references, Joycean in its verbal inventiveness.

Maureen Beattie’s reading (as narrator and Mother) is particularly engaging, delivered with intensity and vigour. Benny Young (narrator and Father) is good too: very funny, despite the gravity of what’s being said. There is, in fact, a lot of humour in this play: the light that shows the shade for what it really is.

This is a thought-provoking, intellectually-demanding piece, and I’m fascinated to see how it turns out. Post-show discussion about staging throws up various options, from a grand, large-scale production with a cast of hundreds, to a more minimalist notion, with a few key characters inhabiting a huge stage. I’m struck by the idea of a multi-media approach, which I think might suit this spoken-word/performance-art/play hybrid.

Whatever. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see where this goes.

Susan Singfield

Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut

04/09/19

Some film directors have an unfortunate habit of revisiting their earlier successes and producing new versions of them. But is it always the wisest move?

Apocalypse Now is a good case in point. It’s rightfully acclaimed as one of the greatest war (and anti-war) movies ever made, but Francis Ford Coppola will keep returning to the well and tinkering with his masterpiece. Now here we are on the 40th anniversary of its release and he’s gone and done it again, assembling a version that weighs in at a hefty three hours and two minutes.

I first saw the original in 1979, when it was a mere at two hours and twenty-seven minutes. It had been a weird kind of day. Cycling through Manchester, I was kicked off my bike by a football supporter through the open window of a passing car. Understandably shaken, I found a young policeman, helpfully hiding in a shop doorway, who told me that a visiting football team was running riot in the city centre. He advised me to ‘lie low’ for a while.

A bit further along Deansgate, the ABC Cinema was showing Apocalypse Now, and a war movie felt somehow appropriate. So in I duly trooped and was promptly blown away by what I saw. Coppola’s transposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the jungles of war-torn Vietnam felt masterful. Indeed, I watched it again only a few weeks later at the infamous Aaben cinema, where it was given added mystique by the fact that pretty much everybody at the screening was smoking dope. Er… far out.

But then in 2001 along came Redux and, with it, an extra forty-nine minutes of footage that had been excised from the theatrical release, including the French Plantation Sequence – three words that still strike horror into my heart. This seemingly interminable section where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) eats a meal and is given a long lecture on Vietnam’s troubled history by the plantation owner has the unfortunate effect of stopping the film dead in its tracks. Was I the only movie fan who, on seeing the words ‘The Final Cut,’ fervently hoped that Coppola had actually shortened the running time by taking a large pair of scissors to this bit?

No such luck. There’s even more of it now. And it fatally wounds the film.

The problem is, it’s followed by the (already glacially slow) final set piece and any goodwill that the previous two thirds has earned itself evaporates all too quickly, as we watch Marlon Brando sitting in the darkness and mumbling incoherently.  Also, it must be said, that the ending – based on Conrad’s colonial-era novel with its white saviour storyline – looks a little dodgy when examined in the cold light of the present day.

A pity then, because – as ever – the film looks absolutely gorgeous, especially on the huge Imax screen. Many of the scenes have passed into movie legend, together with quotes from John Milius’s script (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ – ‘Charlie don’t surf!’ – ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ to name but three). The helicopter battle scenes are unparalleled and the film expertly portrays the complete insanity of war, depicting Willard’s upriver journey as a dark descent into his own battle-damaged psyche. Oh, and there’s also fun to be had watching out for early performances by Harrison Ford and Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles.

The original Apocalypse Now is undoubtedly a brilliant and unforgettable piece of cinema. This version (and it almost hurts me to say it) squanders its own strengths by giving its director free reign to put back things that were, for very sound reasons, removed in the first place. Those with weak bladders take note: time your toilet break to coincide with Willard’s arrival at the French plantation.

And take your time. Trust me, you won’t miss anything.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mustang

02/09/19

The Mustang premiered at Sundance in January and was immediately picked up for wider distribution. It’s easy to see why. This is a moving account of a long-term convict, jailed for an unspeakably violent crime, who finds redemption through his attempts to tame a wild horse. It is a powerful, smouldering tale, with a strong central message – that those who break the law need to be given every opportunity to attone for their crimes.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as the improbably named Roman Coleman, currently serving his twelfth year for a savage assault on his former wife, and adamant that he does not want to be reintegrated into the outside world.  Whilst working on a maintenance programme, he meets up with Myles (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous old rancher who runs a rehibilitation programme, encouraging convicts to work alongside wild mustangs in an attempt to raise funds and save at least some of them from being culled.

At first Roman struggles to make headway with the stallion he has named Marquis, but -as he slowly begins to progress – so he is able to take stock of his life and think about repairing the divide between himself and his pregnant daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon).

Schoenaerts delivers a compelling performance in the lead role, a man who has turned himself into a simmering pressure cooker of anger and self-disgust. Writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is sure-footed enough to guide this story through the potential pitfalls. Yes, the symbolism is pretty obvious: both man and horse are creatures that are possessed by their own inner rage; both need to be ‘broken’ if they are to exist in the world. And yet The Mustang has none of the obvious ‘feelgood’ tropes that such stories often depend upon – indeed, I find myself pleasantly surprised by its steadfast refusal to entertain easy answers. Add to this Ruben Imens’ magnificent location photography and Jed Kurzel’s atmospheric score, and you have a film that lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

The fact that the story is based on a genuine prison rehabilitation programme only serves to strengthen its appeal.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Tasty Buns

Bread Street, Edinburgh

It turns out Scotland’s Bakery of the Year is less than 200m from our flat. How can we have overlooked it in the three years we’ve been here? I love cake (and Philip tolerates it happily); what wonders have escaped our gluttony?

We’ve walked past Tasty Buns countless times, but the unprepossessing exterior offers little clue as to what’s within. True, there’s often an intriguing sandwich board outside advertising the day’s offerings, but as we can’t actually see them, we’ve ignored what’s before our eyes.

We’ve not, however, found the recent press coverage so easy to ignore: since winning The Food Awards Scotland 2019’s coveted prize, this little bakery has been firmly in our sights. Their speciality, we learn online, is ‘boozy bakes’ – and this dismays us a little, as – although we’re definitely fans of booze – we don’t tend to like it in our puds. Still, it seems silly not to take a look at a the temptation on our doorstep, so we decide to head on in and take a look.

Tasty Buns is much bigger than it looks from the outside, the narrow interior stretching back, with space for twenty-something cake-lovers. It’s attractive, all whitewashed brick and fancy mirrors – and the display cabinet at the front reveals the wonders we have missed. There are about eight bakes on offer – not all boozy – and all of them look quite divine. We order coffee (an Americano and a latte, single shot by request and very good indeed), and two cakes to share.

The Tunnock’s caramel wafer brownie is the best brownie I’ve ever had – and I’ve had many. It’s rich and moist and decadent: a paragon; exquisite. A generous slice of spiced apple and salted caramel cake offers a light sponge with a robust flavour, the richness of the butter cream complemented by the tart apple filling. It’s exactly what cake ought to be: at once fresh and indulgent, a genuine treat.

The service is brisk and friendly; the atmosphere relaxed. It might have taken us a while to find, but we’ll be back again before too long.

If you’re after cake and a cuppa, I really can’t think of anywhere better you could go than Louise Campbell’s marvellous bakery. It’s easy to see how Tasty Buns has earned its accolades.

5 stars

Susan Singfield