Bertie’s Proper Fish & Chips

19/12/18

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Fish and chips.

Those three short words come laden with so many expectations, don’t they? We all have treasured memories of childhood seaside trips, where those scalding fried potatoes, drenched in salt and vinegar were exactly what we wanted after a day of splashing about in the surf. But of course, in these troubled times, whenever the mood for a traditional fish supper looms into view (as it inevitably will from time to time), it’s an ambition that often comes fraught with disappointment.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Greasy chips, soggy batter, and a lump of fish so stale you don’t know whether to eat it or sing happy birthday to it.

As you might infer from the name, Bertie’s is dedicated to this most British of institutions. Opened just a week ago and occupying a spacious couple of floors in a converted building on one of Edinburgh’s most picturesque streets, Bertie’s is all decked out in handsome, seaside-themed livery, weathered wood, glossy tiles and cheeky postcards. There’s plenty of room in here, a lively ambience and the staff are friendly and helpful. So far, so good.

There are some enticing starters on offer but we’re here for the main event, so I order the most traditional thing I can find on the menu, a portion of battered haddock served with twice-fried chips and tartare sauce – and, since I’m in that kind of mood, I opt to go large because hey, that’s just the way I roll. Susan, who’s never been that keen on batter, chooses a regular portion of baked cod with lemon and herb butter and the same accompaniments. For side dishes, we ask for a bowl of the old Manchester caviar (mushy peas) and some white bread and butter, because -let’s face it – if you can’t work a chip butty into the proceedings, it’s a pretty poor show, right?

As we wait, I peruse the condiments tray and notice a bottle of something called ‘chippy sauce,’ which is a new one on me, but a quick enquiry on social media has my Scottish pals assuring me that this is a famous Edinburgh delicacy, a kind of cross between brown sauce and vinegar – and how can I have lived here for over two years and never experienced it before? Good question. I feel thoroughly rebuked.

The main courses arrive and it’s clear from the first mouthful that the people behind that stainless steel counter know exactly what they’re doing. The fish portion has the approximate dimensions of a small dolphin, the batter is crunchy even when sprinkled with malt vinegar, and the tender white flesh yields beautifully beneath a knife. The chips are perfectly cooked with crispy exteriors and soft buttery inners. The tartare sauce is also a hit, even with Susan, who was convinced she didn’t like the stuff. Her baked cod is also impeccably done, melt-in-the-mouth tender. I try some of the aforementioned chippy sauce and have to agree, it goes down rather well.

Bertie’s have clearly succeeded in their chief aim: to remind diners how good fish and chips can taste when they’re ‘proper.’

We’re pretty full but can’t quite resist sampling the sharing dessert platter, a pudding that’s unabashedly aiming for nostalgia on a plate. It’s essentially a trip back to childhood (right down to the plastic bucket and spade) and comprises two miniature 99 ice cream cones with raspberry sauce, chunks of chalky Edinburgh rock, two miniature candy flosses, some warm donuts with a saucer of dipping chocolate and, most wicked of all, a fried and battered fun-sized chocolate bar (yes, I can picture the health freaks out there, shaking their heads in despair but, luckily, this isn’t something we intend to eat too often!). It’s a light-hearted frivolity, and in that sense works well, but it must be said that this pudding is a bit unbalanced: it needs more ice-cream and less rock, and fewer of those slightly heavy donuts. Still, we polish it all off with smiles on our faces.

It’s interesting to note that Bertie’s menu also takes in more sophisticated seafood dishes – there are fresh mussels, chowder, even a Malaysian fish curry, but our simple fish’n’chips are an impressive introduction to what they do and, certainly, the next time a desire for a chippy tea hits home, we’ll know exactly where to come.

Perhaps we’ll see you there?

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Stan & Ollie

18/12/18

I’m no Laurel and Hardy aficionado, but of course I know who they were and the nature of their work; I haven’t spent my life under a stone! And I’m a fan of clowning, generally, and a sucker for a biopic. So, off I go to the local multiplex, to catch a preview screening of this much-talked-about movie.

It’s a gentle film, lovingly created, with two stellar performances at its heart. John C Reilly (Hardy) and Steve Coogan (Laurel) are note-perfect in their roles, embodying their real-life counterparts with obvious relish.

This is a bittersweet chronicle, detailing the latter years of the duo’s partnership. Their glory days behind them, they leave Hollywood to embark on a tour of Britain, hopeful that this will entice an eminent producer to get behind their latest movie idea: a comic retelling of Robin Hood. But audience figures are low, even in small, regional theatres, and the pair are left to face the fact that their careers are largely history.

It’s beautifully played, and the pathos is at times unbearable, but I can’t help feeling it’s all a little… subdued. I’d like everything dialled up a notch, and more focus on the emotional consequences of what happens to the pair. The script (by Jeff Pope) is terribly restrained; I’d prefer it if the leash were loosened just a tad.

Still, this is eminently watchable, with some cracking moments to relish. The interplay between the comics’ wives is particularly enjoyable: Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) were evidently as chalk and cheese as their husbands, and their reluctant friendship is a highlight of the film.

A good movie, then, but not a brilliant one, despite those fine impersonations of two comedy legends.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Roma

18/12/18

At first, our aims are simple enough. We want to view Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on a big screen, rather than on the iMac that is the closest thing we have to a TV – but finding a cinema in Edinburgh that is actually showing this Netflix Original is problematic. Then we discover that The Filmhouse has managed to obtain it for a few days, so we book seats. Our first attempt to view it is effectively snookered by a badly-timed power cut in our area and it takes some pretty frantic rejigging to get ourselves booked in for the following day, but we manage it; and I’m happy to report that the effort is worthwhile, not least because of the film’s stunning deep focus black and white cinematography (Cuaron acting as his own DP in the absence of regular collaborator, Emanuel Lubezki), but also because the film’s catharsis is so powerful when it finally hits, that I sit in the darkened cinema quietly sobbing away.

This autobiographical story is set in the early seventies in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. It concerns a middle class family and their young, live-in maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who goes placidly through her daily grind of washing clothes, preparing food, and wiping up the seemingly endless mounds of dog poo deposited by the resident mutt, whilst giving as much time and attention as she can, to the family’s four children. For the first twenty minutes or so, this is pretty much all we see and beautifully filmed though it is, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Why all the Oscar buzz? But then, more important issues begin to rear their heads and pretty soon, the film is stretching its muscles and I am totally hooked.

The first incident of note is when the father of the family, university lecturer Pepe (Marco Graf) goes off to a conference in Quebec and decides not to return to his wife and children. In the ensuing uncertainty, his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) struggles to make ends meet and hides the truth from her kids, telling them that Pepe’s work in Canada is taking longer than expected, even though he is occasionally glimpsed running around the city with his latest conquest. Cleo, meanwhile, becomes emotionally entangled with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), an aggressive young man who is obsessed with martial arts. It’s clear that the relationship is going precisely nowhere but before that realisation sinks in, Cleo is confronted with an unforeseen problem of her own.

As the film steadily unfolds, so events become ever more dramatic – there’s a New Year’s Eve forest fire, that must be coped with by a collection of (mostly drunk) party guests – a violent student protest that is bloodily overpowered by the local military – and a heart-stopping sequence in a hospital where the mounting drama of a situation spills over into absolute tragedy. Through the escalating chaos, Cleo moves with incredible calm and dignity and Roma is quite clearly a love letter to her, (or rather, to ‘Libo,’ the real life woman who cared for the young Cuaron and his siblings), showing that despite her perilous position as an employee, she is an important member of the family unit, indeed, the very hub around which it operates. Aparicio’s performance is extraordinary. A schoolteacher, who has never acted before, she is quite simply enchanting in the central role and it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Roma is undoubtedly a slow-burner, but it’s lovingly and lavishly mounted, the era evoked in a whole series of scenes that capture the essence of what it must have been been like to live in 1970s Mexico. It’s interesting to note that one sequence depicts a family visit to the cinema where the film on the screen is Marooned, a low budget space adventure that was clearly a huge influence on Cuaron’s blockbuster, Gravity. There’s every reason to suspect that Roma could very well be rewarded with a gong at next year’s Oscars, an occurrence that would  undoubtedly raise interesting questions about the future of movie-making itself.

Meanwhile, if no cinema near you is showing it, then do watch it on the biggest TV you have access to. It’s a fabulous piece of work and proof, if it were needed, that Cuaron is one of our most interesting and gifted filmmakers.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mortal Engines

14/12/18

A thousand years after a nuclear holocaust, the earth has been reduced to a vast wasteland in which gigantic ‘traction cities’ roam the earth in search of smaller moving towns to be devoured and converted into much-needed fuel. Most powerful amongst the travelling behemoths is ‘London,’ currently controlled by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who, we soon discover, is a thoroughly bad egg, hellbent on appropriating what’s left of the world’s meagre resources, no matter what it takes.

When London absorbs its latest conquest, (a Bavarian hamlet, since you ask) it takes on board a masked young woman with a grudge. She is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who seeks revenge on Valentine for something that happened back in her childhood. But her assassination attempt is foiled by young Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an employee at the London museum… yes, there still is a museum, plus a rough assemblage of some of the city’s salvaged tourist attractions, all arranged higgledy-piggledy across its skyline. (It’s at moments like this when I can’t help pondering how anybody could have managed to convert a city into a Mad Max-style vehicle of such enormous scale – I mean, where did they start?  But perhaps I’m missing the point.)

When Tom and Hester find themselves expelled into the wasteland, a relationship develops – but then they become involved with the Anti Traction League, based in what’s now simply known as ‘the East’ on the far side of what just might be the Great Wall of China. The league travel in fantastic airships and are masterminded by Anna Fang (Jihae). Meanwhile Hester is being hunted by an undead creature called Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), who is pledged to destroy her and…

If this is starting to sound somewhat complicated, let me assure you, that it is – and that’s rather a pity because – as you’d expect from something that’s been produced by Peter Jackson – the world-building here is frankly astonishing and I can only speculate about the millions of New Zealand dollars that must have been lovingly poured into this enterprise. But, as is so often the case in films of such immense scale, the human characters are somewhat dwarfed by the process, only periodically managing to poke their heads up from the general grandeur to try and capture attention. Christian Rivers handles the directorial reins but this has Jackson’s fingerprints all over it and, not for the first time, I find myself yearning for those early low budget horrors he used to make, back in the days when he was skint.

Mortal Engines is based on a quartet of books by British fantasy author Philip Reeve. The first volume was published in 2001 and this project has been stuck in development hell for a very long time. I’d love to be able to report that it’s a great success, but something seems to have been lost in translation from book to film. While a story this complicated can work brilliantly on the printed page, it doesn’t always come through on the screen. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t worth a viewing. There’s stuff in here that will have fantasy fans enthralled. There are exciting chases, wonderful touches of invention throughout and, as I said before, it all looks good enough to eat – but sadly, that’s not enough to make this project fly as convincingly as it should.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Sorry to bother you

13/12/18

Boots Riley is a new name to me but, on the merits of this, his first feature, it’s one I expect to hear a lot more of in the near future. Sorry To Bother You is a quirky slice of satire and, in many ways, a polemic – a powerful critique of the current state of American society. Riley, who in a recent interview proudly announced that he is ‘a communist,’ clearly has a healthy distrust of big corporations and their ethos of rampant greed. He’s also more than happy to state his dissatisfaction with the situation.

The action occurs in a near-future Oakland, where a corporation called WorryFree offers workers food and board in exchange for a lifetime of unpaid servitude – and where the most popular show on TV is one where the participants are ritually humiliated and beaten to a pulp. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his Uncle’s garage, where he shares the bills with his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Constantly strapped for cash, but understandably reluctant to take the WorryFree route, Cassius seeks a post at telemarketing company, RegalView, where he is told to ‘stick to the script’ and where he will be paid a commission on every sale he makes.

At first he struggles to stop his clients from hanging up on him, but then veteran employee, Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a bit of free advice. ‘Use your white voice, bro,’ Langston urges him, ‘and things will improve.’ Cassius prevaricates for a while, but soon finds he has a real flair for impersonating a white man’s voice. It’s not long before he’s closing many profitable deals and is being groomed to take the gold elevator up to the top floor, where the ‘Power Dealers’ rule.

But when co workers, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun) decide to form a pressure group with the intention of securing a fairer deal for RegalView’s workforce, Cassius finds himself with a difficult choice to make…

What starts as an irreverent and amusing farce takes a much darker turn when Cassius opts to ride that elevator to the top floor. Up there, he is the guest at a lavish party thrown by RegalView’s enigmatic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who pressures him into performing a rap routine (something he has no talent for), and who then offers him a vast amount of money to head up a brand new initiative…

As I said earlier, this is a debut film and since Riley’s previous experience has been as a musician, STBY occasionally looks a little rough around the edges. There are some poorly lit nighttime sequences and occasional bits of character interplay that don’t really develop into anything – but there’s no doubting the power and passion fuelling this story. A scene where Cassius spills the beans about RegalViews secret plans only to see the companies shares go through the roof is, in the era of Donald Trump, all too believable. Stanfield and Thompson are beguiling in the lead roles and, as you might expect, there’s a powerful soundtrack to push along the action.

Slightly deranged and very, VERY original, this is the opening salvo in what could prove to be a powerful new voice in contemporary cinema. It’s well worth checking out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

12/12/18

That unwieldy title notwithstanding, this is a genuine treat. For those who are wary of watching yet another retread of a tired and over-familiar concept, let me assure you that this doesn’t so much as reinvent the franchise as grab it by the neck, tear it to pieces and start all over again. The result is one of the most exciting slices of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

Troubled teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is struggling to fit in to the straight laced Brooklyn high school where he has recently enrolled. His father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a New York cop, a disciplinarian and a vociferous Spider-Man critic. Miles finds himself gravitating towards his mysterious Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is an adventurous sort, prone to bending the rules. One night, when Miles and Aaron are indulging in a graffiti-art session in a deserted stretch of subway, Miles is bitten by a robotic spider and, shortly afterwards, begins to experience major changes to his mind and body.

Understandably confused, he returns to the subway, just in time to witness regular Spider-Man villain, Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), opening up a portal to a whole series of alternate realities and, for good measure, enacting a murder that will have all staunch web-heads shrieking ‘Noooo!’  at the screen. Kingpin’s meddling with reality is an attempt to reconnect with characters from his past, but his machinations have unwittingly invited five different personifications of Spider-Man to leave their own dimensions and head for present-day New York. I won’t list the alternate Spideys in detail but suffice to say: two of them are female and one is a cartoon pig called Peter Porker. The thing is, does Miles, still coming to terms with his new abilities, have the necessary stuff to join up with them?

Phil Lord’s plot may be bat-shit crazy, but it doesn’t matter one jot because Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse careers along at such a breakneck pace there’s never any time to question the absurdity of it all. What’s more, the eye-popping animation is so extraordinary that it virtually dazzles the viewer into submission with levels of ingenuity and chutzpah rarely witnessed in this genre. There’s a whole riot of styles thrown into the mix, with individual frames freezing momentarily to do homage to veteran artists like Steve Ditko and John Romita, and more experimental sequences that break new ground entirely. It’s fabulous stuff. Oh, and  just wait till you see what they’ve done with Doctor Octopus!

Purists may not approve of some of the liberties that have been taken with the source material, but the fact is that the Spider-Man franchise has already been pretty thoroughly milked (yet another live action movie is due to land early next year), so if you’re going to slip into that distinctive red and blue outfit, you’d better have something different to offer. And believe me, this film has that in abundance.

Oh yes, and this features one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever (voiced by the man himself, of course), which, given his recent demise, makes it all the more poignant. Here he plays the owner of a cheap novelty shop, selling knock-off Spider-Man outfits and pointing to a sign that says ‘No refunds.’ Priceless.

There is only one other viewer at the afternoon screening I attend, and that’s a shame, because here’s one superhero movie that actually deserves closer investigation. Don’t let it swing over the horizon without giving it a spin.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Parx

10/12/18

Rubislaw Terrace, Aberdeen

We’re in Aberdeen for the day, and we have an hour for lunch. Parx is recommended as a friendly place, where we can eat quickly and healthily. So we walk across the road from the school in which we’re working to this little basement cafe, and grab the last remaining table. It’s clearly very popular.

It’s easy to see why. Catering to the working lunch crowd, Parx does takeout food as well, and there are many in the queue who are choosing this option. But we have the luxury of time.

Unusually, we’re not really very hungry because we’ve already had a fairly indulgent hotel breakfast, so we decide to share a meal. We opt for a slice of roasted cauliflower quiche, served with two sides for £5.95. We choose a ‘superfood salad’ (parsnip, beetroot, kale, pomegranate and feta) and a pasta salad (comprising endamame beans and other tasty greenish stuff). It’s lovely, and the quiche is generous, although the salad portions are a little on the small side.

Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either a blessing or a curse that I’m the one who goes to the counter to place the order; suffice to say, if it were Philip, we wouldn’t have a big piece of lemon cake sitting in front of us. We can’t regret my weakness though: this is excellent cake, the sponge light and fluffy, the frosting citrus sharp and not too sweet.

All in all, we’re more than satisfied. A smashing little place. If you’re in Aberdeen and you’re feeling peckish, this just might be for you.

4 stars

Susan Singfield