Chez Jules

05/07/18

Northgate Street, Chester

The best Christmas presents often arrive late. This year, one of our gifts from Susan’s parents was a voucher entitling us to a visit to a restaurant, and we are finally, FINALLY in the right neck of the woods to take delivery, accompanied by said parents and ready to dine. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, so it’s hard to summon up that Christmas feeling but, after a leisurely stroll around Chester’s city walls, it’s certainly not difficult to enjoy the delights of Chez Jules, a spacious and airy French restaurant located on Northgate Street.

Susan opts to start with the heritage tomato salad, which comes with a delicious black olive tapenade, caper berries and watercress pesto. It’s zesty and refreshing, perfect for the unaccustomed heat wave. I go for a crab cake, liberally stuffed with delicious crustacean and served with sweet aioli and a cluster of green leaves. It’s nicely prepared and handsomely presented.

The hot weather persuades us to stick with the salads for the main course. Susan has the salade maison, a gorgeous combination of spicy sweet potato, giant cous cous, green beans, pecan nuts, pomegranate and watercress, all lightly sprinkled with a tangy citrus dressing. It’s a delight. I choose a perennial hot weather favourite, a Caesar salad, the crispy iceberg lettuce coated with just the right amount of dressing and sprinkled with croutons, parmesan cheese and (important this) plenty of good quality anchovies. For extra measure, I’ve had the version that incorporates a chopped chicken breast, the pieces of meat nicely judged, crispy on the outside but not too dry within. There are some people out there who insist that combining chicken and fish is a crime against humanity but, for my money, a salty anchovy agreeably nestled against a chunk of seared chicken is one of life’s little pleasures.

And so to the puddings and it’s interesting to note, that many of the items on the dessert menu are suitable for vegans, though you wouldn’t necessarily believe it if you weren’t given that information. Susan has a vegan chocolate and strawberry torte, which is wickedly (dare I use the word?) creamy,  and comes with strawberry gel, compressed strawberries and chocolate soil. My orange polenta cake is a bit of a revelation, not heavy and soggy like so many others I’ve sampled, but light as air, drizzled with miso caramel and served with a dollop of passion fruit marscapone. In a word, it’s scrumptious, and in moments, I’m virtually licking the plate clean.

Chez Jules, currently celebrating it’s 21st birthday, is a cut above many of its competitors. It proudly boasts that it doesn’t use any frozen foods, that all the ingredients are seasonal and freshly sourced each day – and, isn’t it lovely to find a place that allows vegetarians and vegans to indulge in some truly wicked puddings?

Nicely satisfied, we troop back out into the blazing sunshine, thinking that, as Christmas presents go, this has been one of the more memorable ones.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Mary’s Milk Bar

28/06/18

The Grassmarket, Edinburgh

When the temperature soars, a person’s fancy turns inevitably to thoughts of ice cream. Visitors to Edinburgh’s popular tourist magnet The Grassmarket cannot fail to have noticed the habitual queues arranged haphazardly in front of a tiny, unprepossessing cafe called Mary’s Milk Bar. The place is a bit of a legend around the city and, unusually in such cases, there really is a Mary, who hails from Yorkshire, and who trained in Bologna at the prestigious Carpigiani Gelato University. She takes her inspiration from the milk bars of the 1940s and makes all the ice creams fresh every morning, then serves them until they’re gone, which – given the current heatwave – doesn’t take very long.

The place offers a few other things, of course: coffee, milk shakes, chocolates – but, frankly,  it’s the ice cream that’s king here, ranged in a handsome display case and featuring a myriad brilliant colours and some pretty unusual flavours. Peanut butter and toffee, anyone? Liquorice and passionfruit?  Green tea? Or will you just go for plain old milk flavour? There’s something here for everyone.

But, you may say, those are pretty long queues. Is it really worth the wait? Well, I have to tell you that my first mouthful of their famous salted caramel confirms that this is a reputation founded not on fresh air, but on flavour. Indeed, this just might be the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted and it’s certainly amongst the finest to be found in Edinburgh, which really isn’t short of decent ice cream parlours. It’s good value too: a generous helping, served up in a crunchy sugar cone that – important this – offers ice-cream right down to the very last bite, costs only £2.50 (£3.50 for a double scoop).

As you lick happily away, you can’t help wondering how Mary’s business does during the colder months but, like Groucho Marx, I hate hot ice cream and, anyway, while the weather’s so clement, it’s imperative to get down to the Grassmarket, tag on the end of that queue, and wait patiently for your turn to choose your favourite flavour.

Trust me. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Happy Prince

 

25/06/18

Oscar Wilde has been portrayed on screen several times already, most notably by Peter Finch in 1960 and by Stephen Fry in 1997. Now it’s Rupert Everett’s turn to ‘step up if you think you’re Wilde enough.’ Here, he’s gone the full Orson Welles: writing, directing and starring in this rather doleful look at the author’s decline after his brutal imprisonment for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.

When we first meet Wilde in The Happy Prince, he’s a bloated, shambling vestige of his former self, living in squalid digs in Paris, dependent on handouts from near-strangers and a meagre monthly allowance from his long-suffering wife, Constance (Emily Watson). The story then cuts back in time to his release from prison, where he’s met in France by faithful friends, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), both of whom are keen to encourage him to rekindle his writing career. They urge him to stay away from Alfred Bosie Dougas (Colin Morgan), his former lover, but Oscar simply cannot help himself and, pretty soon, he and ‘Bosie’ are sharing a rat-infested apartment in Naples, living far beyond their means and squandering what little goodwill remains for them.

This is most emphatically a ‘warts and all’ story. Bosie comes across as insufferably unpleasant and, to be honest, Wilde isn’t particularly likeable either, demonstrating a callous tendency to exploit those who care about him. It would have been nice, perhaps,  to see a few more flashbacks to his heyday, in order to make us fully appreciate the charm he must once have possessed, a charm that in his latter years is wearing somewhat thin. As it stands, this is unremittingly sad stuff, as we are witness to his inexorable slide towards ignominious death. Still, there’s little doubting the power of Everett’s performance, which has the kind of grandstanding appeal that often attracts Oscars (think Gary Oldman as Churchill). The era is convincingly evoked and the use of Wilde’s popular fairy tale to frame the film is a nice conceit. There’s plenty to admire, but not really an awful lot to enjoy.

Harrowing and desperately bleak, The Happy Prince serves to remind us of one of history’s greatest injustices and the principal characters who played a part in it. It’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the cinema, but it’s nevertheless a story that needs telling.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Barry Lyndon

24/06/18

It’s one of the hottest days of the year and we’re in the Cameo cinema watching a film. (Yeah, I know. What else is new?)

Mind you, this is no ordinary film, but Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which I haven’t seen since its original release in 1975. In many ways, it’s both his masterpiece and his most under-appreciated movie. It’s being shown here as part of a Kubrick season, all three hours and five minutes of it – complete with an interval for those who need the opportunity to empty their bladders. It is a quite extraordinary accomplishment, epic in scale, with some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve ever seen – courtesy of the late John Alcott, for which he won a well-deserved Oscar. Individual frames look like oil paintings and the night-time interiors, lit only by diffused candlelight, really manage to capture the feel of the period.

In eighteenth century Ireland, young Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil) falls for his cousin, Nora (Gay Hamilton), and feels extremely slighted when she starts a flirtation with wealthy English cavalry Officer, Captain Quinn (Leonard Rossiter), a union that is widely encouraged by Nora’s impecunious family. When an impending marriage is announced, Redmond recklessly challenges Captain Quinn to a duel, the result of which forces him to leave home and head for Dublin, in order to lie low.

On the way there, however, he is robbed of everything he owns by a highwayman. This obliges him to enlist in the English army – which is just the start of a long and eventful journey for him, as his fortunes rise by the force of sheer good luck, and he travels the world courtesy of the Seven Years War. Eventually, he ends up as a professional gambler in England, where he sets his sights on Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a beautiful but melancholic married woman with an ailing husband. Pretty soon, the husband is dead and Redmond and Lady Honoria are married, but his presence is not appreciated by everyone, particularly by Lady Honoria’s young son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), who sees Barry Lyndon (as he now calls himself) as a usurper to his late father’s title…

Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray – whose witty narrative descriptions, read by Michael Hordern, regularly punctuate proceedings – this is old style movie-making of the kind we’ll probably never see again. No CGI here, folks: everything, from those lush landscapes to the expansive battle scenes, has been done for real. It’s interesting to watch Vitali (recently the star of documentary Filmworker) beginning what was to become a long and arduous relationship with Kubrick, going on to abandon acting in favour of becoming the director’s right hand man. Fascinating, also, to witness a wealth of notable actors in smaller roles – Hardy Kruger, Murray Melvin, Andre Morrell, Steven Berkoff… the list goes on.

As you’ll have gathered, I’m a huge fan of Kubrick’s work and what I particularly like about him is his eclecticism. It’s hard to believe this was directed by the same man who made The Shining… or A Clockwork Orange… or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The love and attention to detail lavished upon Barry Lyndon is quite frankly staggering and, no matter how appealing the weather, this is one opportunity that no true film fan can afford to pass up.

After all, the sun will be back another day. Sadly, Stanley Kubrick won’t.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

 

In the Fade

23/06/18

In the Fade is unquestionably Diane Kruger’s film. As Katja Sekerci, she is more than the centre of the story: she is the story. We see everything through her eyes – witnessing only what she does. The prologue shows her wedding to Nuri (Numan Acar), newly released from prison after serving a sentence for dealing drugs, and then we move on to the present day: we’re in Hamburg, Germany; Nuri is a reformed character, working as a travel agent and tax advisor for fellow Turkish immigrants. They have a son, Rocco (Rafael Santana); they clearly love him very much. Katja leaves Rocco with Nuri in his office and heads off to spend the afternoon in a spa with her friend, Birgit (Samia Muriel Chancrin). When she returns, it’s to utter devastation: Nuri and Rocco have been killed in a terrorist attack, the work of neo-Nazis. Katja’s world shrinks to an open wound. There’s nothing else for her to do but fight for justice for her family.

It’s a bravura performance from Kruger, who rightly won the best actress award at Cannes last year: she’s in every scene, treading the line between bold and nuanced with absolute élan. Her pain is palpable, and her desire for revenge is human-sized; I like that she doesn’t become a super-vigilante, that her plans are fallible and credible. The second act (the courtroom drama) is cleverly drawn, the niceties of the justice system shown to be as necessary as they are flawed. If there is reasonable doubt, then there shouldn’t be a conviction – this has to hold true. Equally, the desire for vengeance is a fact of life; of course Katja can’t accept a verdict that allows the guilty to go free.

This is a difficult film to watch, but well worth the effort; it’s painful, but it’s got real heart. I like the way that writer/director Fatih Akin neither lionises nor demonises the Turkish community; similarly the police, the courts, the family. Katja and Nuri are not angels, but they don’t have to be. They have a right to justice too.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Ocean’s Eight

19/06/18

I like Ocean’s Eight. I like its exuberance, its stellar cast, its slick plotting and its silliness. It looks great: as polished and meticulously groomed as the A-listers at the Met Gala, where the eponymous Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the franchise’s previous lead, masterminds an audacious jewellery robbery.

What’s not to like? Well, it’s just another heist movie, albeit a well-told one – a slice of polished nonsense, not particularly memorable. And it’s VERY American in its glorification of the maverick, a veritable celebration of outlaws and their crimes. Can you imagine a British film on a similar subject where everything runs so smoothly, where the thieves are as sympathetically presented, where no one bungles anything? Ocean and her team are almost super-human. All that talent – it’s a shame it’s wasted stealing sparkly stones. But still.

It’s great to see this fine group of actors given the chance to have some fun, playing roles that are strong, cool, funny and exciting. They don’t have to be seductive or damaged or any of the other limited options usually available to mainstream-movie women over thirty. (Of the eight, only Awkwafina is still – just in her twenties: Anne Hathaway, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling are all in their thirties; Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in their forties, and – almost unbelievably – Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham-Carter are over fifty now. How did that happen?) They all look like they’re having fun, especially Blanchett, razzing around on her motorbike, exuding charisma.

The plot’s a pretty simple one, even if the plan within is fiendishly complex. Debbie Ocean has been in prison for the past five years, and has spent her time conceiving every detail of this heist. She wants to pull off this crime, not just for the riches it will afford her, but for the kicks, and to live up to her family name. If she can exact revenge upon her ex at the same time, well, why wouldn’t she? So she looks up her old ally, Lou (Blanchett), currently engaged in watering down vodka at a nightclub she owns, and lays out her idea. They assemble a team and away they go.

It’s a shame there’s not much jeopardy: once the group has been established, the film is pretty much a series of daring steps, each one successful, building towards the climactic moment when the diamonds are snatched. The boldness is impressive, but there’s not much to feel other than admiration for their cunning; it’s pretty much a one-note film.

James Corden’s appearance in the final act is fun: he’s a much vilified man, but I’m never really sure why. He’s always been a good actor, and he’s very funny here, with some laugh-out-loud lines that help to puncture the smugness that’s in danger of creeping in.

All in all, this is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours; sadly though, that’s all it is.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Filmworker

18/06/18

Behind every great film director stands a whole horde of underpaid, overworked minions, whose very raison d’etre is to enable said director to get his or her vision up onto the big screen, exactly as it has been envisioned. As great directors go, few are as legendary as the late, great Stanley Kubrick. But Filmworker is not so much his story as that of one of those underpaid, overworked minions, in this case a man by the name of  Leon Vitali.

Vitali’s story is unusual to say the very least. In 1967, he went to the pictures to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and casually remarked to his companion, ‘One day, I’m going to work for that director.’ Vitali went on to be a pretty successful actor, appearing in all manner of films and TV shows – weirdly, I vividly remember his appearances in the comedy series, Please, Sir, when I was just a kid. And then, in 1975, he did indeed get to work with Kubrick, playing a major role in his lavish (and under-appreciated ) historical drama, Barry Lyndon. But Vitali was much more interested in the nuts and bolts of film making than developing a career in acting and, against all advice, he gave it up to become Kubrick’s right hand man, a role he fulfilled until the director’s death in 1999, shortly after completing filming on Eyes Wide Shut. In all the tributes and ceremonies that followed Kubrick’s death, Vitali was pretty much ignored – he didn’t even receive an invitation to an exhibition based around the director’s film legacy – and yet his loyalty and love for his former employer is all too evident in this compelling documentary, which provides an intriguing look into the four features they worked on together and makes me appreciate the nuts and bolts that underlie every movie.

It must be said that the picture of Kubrick that emerges from this story is not a particularly salutary one, even if Vitali won’t hear a bad word said about him. Kubrick seems to have relished piling tons of work onto his ‘gopher,’ relentlessly making him go over and over every tiny detail – but of course, it was this very attention to detail that made Kubrick the unique director that he was and Vitali seems to have been happy to take the punishment. It’s sobering though, to see the evident toll that such a brutal schedule has taken on Vitali’s health, leaving him a shadow of his former self. More importantly, though, it does make you admire his tenacity and loyalty in doing everything he can to ensure that Kubrick’s cinematic heritage remains as pristine as he himself would have wanted. Hardly surprising then, that the story ends with the news that Vitali is currently working on a new digital transfer of 2001.

While this certainly won’t be for everyone – a working knowledge of Kubrick’s films is, I believe, a definite advantage – I find this an intriguing and curiously affecting story. It also means that whenever I rewatch a Kubrick film, I’ll be thinking of the unsung hero standing at his shoulder, helping the creative wheels to run smoothly.

4 stars

Philip Caveney