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I should say at the outset that I did not choose Airth Castle for a weekend break. We were attending a wedding reception and it made sense to spend the night rather than drive thirty miles or so back to the Big Smoke. I should also declare myself as often being accused of being being too critical, a cynic, unable to see a glass half full. I must accept that, on occasion, that is true. But I would say in my defence that you can't blame someone for being unhappy when they don't get what they are promised. The website for Airth Castle Hotel and Spa is unrestrained in promise, a veritable Scheherazade of self-praise. I feel the need to quote. THE LOCALE "This Resort sits Majestically overlooking the River Forth, and the glorious countryside of picturesque Forth Valley and Central Scotland with much of Scotlands national Heritage and many Treasures sitting on its doorstep." Not entirely far from the truth. Set on a small wooded hilltop amidst fields and a scattering of houses which compose the villages of Letham and Airth in Stirlingshire, the location IS picturesque...if you discount the march of electricity pylons across the vista and the housing development coming up right opposite the entrance to the hotel. In fairness, not something the hotel could help. GETTING THERE Not easy to access by public transport (best bet is train to Larbert station and taxi therefrom) so drive. From Glasgow it took all of 35 minutes on a Saturday morning. The hotel is easy enough to find and the directions on the website are accurate and adequate. FIRST IMPRESSIONS Slightly confusing is the fact that the imposing Castle bit, the first building you come to at the top of the drive, does not actually house the reception. For this you have to drive further on to a newer construction tacked on to what I believe were the old stables. "From the moment you arrive at Airth Castle Hotel & Spa Resort a true Scottish Welcome awaits....a team of people so passionate to provide excellence." Having lived in Scotland for several years, I'm not sure what this means but in Airth it means large dollops of indifference and a pinch or two of impatience. The young lady behind the counter attending to us could not be faulted: she was efficient and provided the statutory degree of 'welcoming smile' but I couldn't help overhearing another elderly (overseas) guest struggling to fill in her guest registration form (she couldn't remember the address of the people she was visiting in Scotland) only to be rather rudely corrected: "No, we don't need someone else's address! We need your address! Where are you from? Right, well that's the address we need!". I leave it to you to inject as much annoyance into it as you like - you are unlikely to overdo it. Entirely unwarranted and hardly 'passionate' unless you count being surly as passionate. Which I suppose it is. Regretfully, this is not at all unusual, especially in large hotels staffed by young people doing day jobs with no particular incentive or concept of how to provide 'a true Scottish welcome'. There was no offer to have our luggage taken up to the room, despite the fact that we were slightly overloaded with suit carriers and the like. Again, sadly, not that unusual the Scots are used to hoofing it. THE ROOM We were staying in the Spa section, the newer bit of the hotel, in a twin on the second floor. Décor is largely faux tired Travelodge and more tired than Travelodge. "Our generous guest rooms and suites are blessed with individuality and style, and we have created 125 in this historic setting, each one capturing the romantic mood of the surrounding countryside." Nope, no romance here. Just your conventional twin beds with tired TV, wounded writing desk and battered wardrobe. The bathroom was compact but again wearing the marks of time(leaky faucets, squeaky shower) though clean enough. There was no sign of breathtaking views overlooking the picturesque Forth Valley & River Forth (the view overlooked another wing of rooms), colour flat screen TV (colour but not flat), DVD facilities (nope, definitely not), high speed internet connection, a selection of fine local soaps and bath minerals, fluffy white towels (white but not fluffy), bathrobes & slippers. We must have been extremely unlucky considering that the website claims most rooms offer the latest in room amenities. Talking to other guests who chose to spend the night in the more expensive Castle bit yielded adjectives such as draughty, worn and disappointing. I wont say more since I didnt stay there myself but there you have it. REPAIRS Our windows would not close. They were open when we entered the room and refused to close, thanks largely to the fact that someone else had bent the metal catches and not helped by the handles hanging on by two fewer screws than intended. Reception was informed and service was prompt enough: a young lad with bow tie, officious air and walky-talky. He had a look and then told us the problem was that the catches were bent because you tried to close the windows. I resisted the temptation to reply. He did manage to fix it though, through innovative use of brute force and a screwdriver. His advice as he left (not to open the windows) fell on deaf ears, largely because it was July and sweltering. THE EVENT The evenings festivities kicked off with a drinks reception on the lawn. In itself, competently organized: enough champagne, plentiful gloved waitstaff circulating, a three piece jazz band playing in the background, perfect weather and a suitably officious photographer. A nice way to start off. Adjourn thereafter to the Dunmore ballroom, described as very majestic and visually attractive. Not quite. Perfectly well laid out and equipped with dance floor, DJ and bar, true, but my overwhelming memory will be that it was absolutely stifling due to a lack of air-conditioning and windows that would not open. The three course dinner was pallid in comparison to its lavish description: entirely forgettable, to the extent that I struggle to remember exactly what it was. Probably just as well. Service was competent. BREAKFAST All the essentials laid out buffet-style, though only two buffet tables and slightly counter-intuitive arrangement so that you ended up knocking elbows with the coach party that arrived the evening before. Plenty of staff but of the largely disinterested variety, meaning you linger for ages, dodging diners, while trying to figure out whether someone is supposed to seat you or whether you should just rush for a vacant seat. Fatty pallid bacon, industrial sausages, amorphous scrambled eggs and do-it-yourself toast conveyor belt machine with toast trays on the side for you to take back to your table to stack your toast in. Conventional tinned fruit tipped out into a bowl and conventional bottled fruit juice tipped out into pitchers. You eat because youre starving and because youve paid a lot of money for this stuff. Again, completely forgettable. THE SPA Being hairy and rather malleable in parts, I didnt venture into the Cloud Nine Spa but the ladies had a massage or two and described it as adequate. Says a lot in itself. SO WOULD I GO BACK? What..cant you guess? Absolutely not. We paid £120 + VAT for a twin room and breakfast which may be pretty typical for places such as this but we certainly didnt feel this was an experience wed care to relive. Beware websites waxing loquacious.
It's a big ask, I grant you. To be expected to come up with a film that captures Bob Kane's vision of the beginnings of Batman, a character and concept that has been one of the most enduring of the last century; one of only three comic book characters to remain in continuous publication in new stories every month. And why indeed does Batman inspire such following? Perhaps it's the fact that he is an 'ordinary' superhero: he has no 'superstrength' or 'X-ray vision', no ability to turn water into ice or become invisible at a whim. He is eminently an ordinary man who has become what he has through sheer effort and ingenuity. He is what we are all capable of becoming. PLOT: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is the son of a millionaire philanthropist, orphaned at an early age when his parents are shot by a thug in a street mugging. Years later, when the man who killed his parents is released from prison in return for turning informer, Bruce decides to take matters into his own hands but is beaten to it by the mob leader Falcone. Lost in self-obsessive guilt, Bruce Wayne then forsakes his fortune and travels the world incognito, working with petty criminals and smugglers in order to learn their ways. Thus he finds himself in prison in an unnamed Oriental country, wherefrom he is recruited by the secretive League of Shadows, an organization apparently dedicated to the eradication of evil everywhere. He completes his training in the martial and physical but shirks from the final task of executing a criminal with a sword. In the process of saving the man, he is forced to destroy the organisations headquarters but manages to save his recruiter (Liam Neeson) with whom he has formed a deep friendship. Returning to Gotham, the city of his birth, he discovers much has changed: corruption has become endemic, he has been declared dead and his fathers company has become a massive public corporation with interests in arms sales. He dedicates himself to fighting crime and in the process recruits Alfred, the family butler (played by Michael Caine), and Vincent Fox (Morgan Freeman) as technical mastermind. The story culminates in an attempt by the forces of evil to destroy the City of Gotham through inoculation of a hallucinogen into the population designed to lead to chaos. WHATS GOOD: Christopher Nolan has attempted to incorporate major elements of the original story into the film and to a large extent this has been successful. The technology from microwave emitters to memory cloth that retains shape when current is passed through it is convincing, explaining how Batman flies, how he manages to slip through space undetected and emerge unscathed from a hail of bullets. The Batmobile (though never referred to as such) is aptly described by a bewildered policeman as a black ..tank and this fits well with how its used in the story. Gotham as a locale is dark and stylish in the main, a contradiction in terms as many major cities are, gleaming spires towering over squalid slums. A further flash of brilliance is the concept of Dr. Jonathon Crane (played by Cillian Murphy), the criminally minded psychiatrist in charge of Markham Manor, whose favourite weapon is a briefcase of psychosis-inducing hallucinogen which he sprays onto his victims before proceeding to terrify them with a mask. A true comic book villain if there ever was one. Some of the cutscenes as well are impressive: most noteworthy is Batmans descent through the stairwell of Markham Manor in a swirl of bats. WHATS BAD: And thats about all there is worth watching about the film. There is a great deal to say that is not complimentary. I should declare, at the start, that I am an avid Batman fan. That and the fact that other comic book characters with a less substantial pedigree have had convincing enjoyable films made about them (Blade, Spawn) means that Batman Begins has a high standard to achieve. Overall, Batman Begins fails to begin. Perhaps most damaging to the film is the irrepressible thread of silliness that runs through it, largely due to an attempt to make it a philosophical epic with moral overtones. This is overdone and ends up looking plainly ridiculous. Consider the silly dialogue: to manipulate the fears of others you must first master your own (yawn!), justice is about harmony (double yawn!!), what chance do we have when the good people do nothing? (kill me quickly!). In the right context, these could work but when practically every character is a repository of wisdom, it becomes very difficult to take seriously. In parts it is frankly farcical. Further the mandatory ninja-training-in-adverse-circumstances (aka the Karate Kid) that Bruce Wayne has to undergo during his recruitment into the League of Shadows is unconvincing and done for the sake of having rather than for any useful purpose. Yes, yes, clambering through snowclad mountains, swordfights on ice, two thousand pushups on bamboo poles are all very impressive but it's been done before, and better. Similarly the cutscenes and flashbacks: while informing the viewer, they do little more and are, in instances, positively ludicrous. The characters are shallow and largely unimpressive. Christian Bale is no more than adequate as Bruce Wayne, marginally better as Batman, and one tends to think the greater part of this is the stilted overmystical dialogue. I suspect he would have done better with a better script. Certainly he is capable of. Michael Caine is no more than convincing as Alfred though he could have done without the cockney accent that keeps cropping up. I suspect this was at the director's bequest, so that slightly thick viewers would get the fact that he was English. Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman are competent. Again, I suspect these heavyweights would have delivered more if there were more to deliver. Katie Holmes as Bruces childhood sweetheart and crusading assistant DA Rachel Dawes is all limpid eyes and somber cuteness and almost unbearably, painfully atrocious. The film would have lost nothing by her omission and probably been a deal better for it. Where the film fails most is perhaps because it fails to strike the balance between being an action movie and being a study into crime and the pathology of fear. There is a wealth of material here and a more skilled proponent would no doubt have made a masterwork of it but director Christopher Nolan has failed miserably. Don't waste your time. Watch something else.
The Waverley Tea Room is G1 Groups latest tentacle in its octopus-like (octopine???) takeover of Glasgow's drinking establishments. Situated in the heart of Shawlands, it's a good place to lounge and catch up with people. We happened to be passing and, on a rare Glasgow sunny day, the sight of people sitting out in the light was irresistible. When the weather's right, the outside seating is a high point - a regular suntrap though there's very little people watching to be done; the locale is pretty residential. We chose to go inside (too chilly despite the sun - there's Glasgow for you) and were immediately impressed by the long room, with it's tall ceilings, stylish leather furniture and the entire length of one wall given to wine racks - an excellent use of space and done in such a way as to make it a feature. Lighting suitably mod and the music of the moment was soul/funk. Widescreen TVs on the wall were showing football, as you might expect. The clientele was quite mixed, all ages including families with young children, and most people looked like they'd been there awhile and enjoying it. A reasonably extensive wine list, perfectly reasonable G&T and a surprisingly good glass of the house red were features. Service was attentive at the bar, though a little impaired by a lack of awareness about how to operate the till (we assumed the young lady was new). Generally a positive experience except for a lack of attention to detail: the wineglass still wet from the dishwasher with drops of water clinging to it, the nachos served with the grated cheese still cold (forgotten to stick it under the grill) and the slightly scatterbrained approach of the barstaff, all young ladies of a certain age and all slightly too interested in having a laugh than seeing things done as they should be. I think a little more senior supervision is required. In all other respects, a perfectly reasonable place to spend your money.
You shouldn't submit to your own prejudices. I'd ordered this from the online DVD store simply because I was determined to watch something different and this had featured pretty consistenly as one of those 'must watch' films. I resisted chucking it back in the mail when I took the disc out of the envelope and read the words 'love story' on it. Now don't get me wrong, I'm about as romantic as the next guy but if there are two words guaranteed to make a man want to spend the next three hours taking washing the car, it's 'love story'. Jim Carrey is in love to Kate Winslett. OK, it's not entirely trouble-free (he's an introvert who stays home while she likes to go out and party) but it is love - until an argument leads to Kate Winslett walking out. To add insult to injury, she then has her memory of him erased using a new scientific procedure and now has a new boyfriend. Outraged, he decides to have his memory of her erased in retaliation. Put into a drug-induced sleep while it is done, he revisits his relationship with her in his mind as it is being removed. Too late, he decides he wants to keep his memories of her but being comatose, is powerless to communicate this to the scientists. Then follows scene after scene where the pair (in his mind) try and evade the marauding memory erasers as the world around them is removed block by block. Does it all end happily? It depends on your perspective. What it did do was remind me of the diverse forms love can take and how it has the power to overcome (though it doesn't always!) Not a conventional love story, only soppy in entirely forgiveable (and actually quite appropriate) brief bits, edged with a liberal sense of the absurd, well crafted with lots of excellent camerawork, great performances from all concerned and leaves you thinking at the end. It is not often a film does this. Great. Watch it with someone you love. And don't tell them it's a love story.
Admittedly it was lunch on a weekday that we went for, perhaps not the best time, but an establishment that considers itself to be any good should be able to produce the goods at any time. Had read the reviews in the List and thought this might be a good place to take a friend of ours (a visitor of Glasgow, just in for a day) for a spot of lunch. Inital impressions were promising. Very central, an easy walk from George Square, 78 St. Vincent Street is an airy room on two levels with leather banquettes, ceiling-length windows, tiles on the wall and sufficient dark wood to make it appear impressively Olde Worlde. We opted for a-la-carte though they do have 2- and 3-course set lunches, probably better value for money. Starter of haggis+neeps+tatties came in the expected trio tower surrounded by a sea of mustard-tinged sauce. Considering that this was Glasgow, the product was disappointing: little flavour or texture in the veg mash and the haggis was little better. Overmuch sauce and lacking any single memorable taste. Steak with bearnaise sauce: great piece of meat well cooked but ruined by the sauce. Great thick-cut chips and a passable salad that didn't look like it had too much effort spent on it. My dining partners opted for ravioli and chicken Caesar salad which, though by no means awful, were equally by no means exceptional. Dessert of pear and almond tart truly awful: obviously reheated from last night - stodgy and completely uninspiring. Ice creams were average. Overall bill of £70 for three including a pint of lager, a slimline tonic and a bottle of still mineral water. Service was perfectly adequate though a little too informal and lacking in any real warmth.