Friday, January 29, 2010

Food cravings

I had quite a few of these this time in advance of my trip. I blame it in part on the multi-episode sessions of The Big Bang Theory that we treated ourselves to before Christmas. They're always eating some sort of delicious take-away grub, and they always just sit there prodding it with their chopsticks! It was becoming unbearable...

And so it was that I arrived in the UK with a mental check-list of cuisines autocthonous and non-autocthonous for checking out during my stay here.

On Wednesday night we went to The Swan, Pangbourne's historic weir-side inn, where the action of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat winds up and where, this being modern Britain, the bar staff are all Polish and the signature dish on the menu is Fajitas. (Not bad at all, but they're a bit stingey with the guacamole.)

So while everyone around me was filling little flour tortillas, I tucked into my plato tipico: cod with chips. Good, but not quite as good as the haddock served by the Laughing Halibut fish and chip shop in the middle of the village. (And eating cod these days feels like chewing on tortuga in Belize. Yummy, but with an unpleasant ethical aftertaste.) The fajitas can wait until I'm back in Mexico.

The Swan is situated in an old warehouse beside the Thames dating back to 1642. At one stage in its history it was located on the border between Berkshire and Oxfordshire, counties which at one time maintained different licensing laws, and so at a certain hour each night customers would shift around to the other end of the bar so that they could continue drinking.

My Indian food craving had certain particulars: it would have to be assuaged in one of those old-style joints with Raj-kitsch decor and furnishings, music which sounds like a zancudo struggling to escape from your inner ear and smiling, straight-off-the-plane waiters. A little bit off the main drag in Westbourne Grove the other night, Philip and I found just the place: The Star of Bombay.

He had the tandoori mixed grill (which looked great) and I picked the chicken dopiaza — an old favourite — but we weren't long into this meal before I realised that the essence of my craving had been for a plate of papadums and assorted pickles washed down with a bottle of Cobra or Bangla beer. Which is one reason we passed on the Halal-only Khan's just up the road.

When I met up with some former colleagues on Monday we lunched for old time's sake at Busaba Eathai in Wardour Street, owned by Amin Ali and Alan Yau (who incidentally also own around a third of the polo ponies that winter down here on the farm). The lure for me here has always been their 'Thai Calamari', fried squid in batter served with chewy black peppercorns. As you'd expect from the founder of Wagamama there's a range of generic noodle dishes, but also some of the richest Thai curry sauces in the West End. Craving or no craving I'd forgotten that the latter can disagree with me a little at lunchtime! I think it's the garlic.

In order to be able to continue to enjoy The Big Bang Theory without those disconcerting pangs of food envy, I took myself shopping at the New Loon Moon supermarket in Chinatown yesterday and then went on to the new Japan Centre food hall in Lower Regent Street. V likes to throw me a few curve balls during the last few days of my UK visits, especially when it comes to odd requests for items she wants me to pack in my suitcase — and on this occasion the one for sushi rice and sheets of toasted seaweed has come at a time when I'm starting to seriously fret about my baggage allowance.

I still hadn't dealt with my Japanese delicacy craving in situ, and so with that in mind went with Surfer last night to the restaurant floor of the Wholefoods Market in Kensington High Street, where we treated ourselves to this excellent platter of sashimi, served to us by the somewhat world-weary sushi chef in the picture.

It was the first time I'd been into one of these. It struck me as the sort of Fortnum & Mason's that Jane Fonda might shop in, but Surfer reports that prices have come down considerably over the past year as this, and many other purveyors of ethical nosh, have struggled to extract their premium during these straightened times.

So I've knocked most of these cravings on the head by now. And of course I am already suffering from withdrawl symptoms brought on my thoughts of all the Guatemalan goodies I've been missing out on for the past few weeks.

I did however come across a packet of Natura's frijoles in the kitchen cupboard the other day, so I'm planning to cook up a desayuno chapin for my father this weekend. He really enjoyed the turkey with mole verde that I prepared last Saturday with a base sauce acquired in the Yucatán.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Avatar 3D (2009)

On the day James Cameron's newest movie surpassed his last as the biggest grossing film of all time (and the UK finally emerged from recession) I took myself down to the Vue in Reading to see it. Not the iMax, as I had been counselled was essential, but I suppose I can do that when I get back to Guate.

Avatar lives up to its reputation as a game-changer, one of those cinematic events that, whether it is ultimately to your aesthetic and political taste or not, becomes required viewing for anyone with an interest in the art and science of movie making.

It's a striking hybrid between work of great genius and work of shuddersome mediocrity, in which one sees things never seen before along with things seen oh so many times. And the 3D is both completely immersive at times and at others rather like looking into one of those View-Master things I had as a kid, where two dimensional images protrude disconcertingly into the foreground.

Avatar also represents a meeting of east and west, wild west in particular: one is equally reminded of the green-spirited anime classics of Miyazagi as of countless frontier epics where the forces of heedless exploitation meet their mythological match.

I first discovered Gaia via the superb BBC series Edge of Darkness back in the 80s, now (worryingly) a Mel Gibson movie of imminent release. Cameron has pushed on with the notion in a startling way: humankind is not just the species its own planet wants to spit out, but seems destined to get stuck in the gullet of distant worlds as well. But these worlds have sentinent beings whose 'primitive' worldview is somehow more complete and connected than our own science could ever hope to be.

The nature as network, "everything is connnected" idea could be the basis of an extremely indefinite philosophy, especially within a culture such as ours, where religious traditions have ossified. Like Tolkein, he's found it necessary to create an entirely new world to get the message across in a particularly powerful way. Who knows how many of the millions who have seen it in the past month will internalise it?

Grade: if I must, A-

PS: I'm watching The Longest Day right now, back at home with my father. Another three hour stint... The Ouistreham sequence is extraordinary. More like an Eisenstein run around than real war I suspect.

In The Loop (2009)

It must have occurred to many people that the only explanation for the recent behaviour of our governments is that they are now populated exclusively by the incompetent, the self-serving, the mediocre and the randomly aggressive.

But Armando Ianucci's film goes a bit too far. There are some wonderful lines for sure, and great performances from Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini and Peter Capaldi in particular, but I can't help feeling that the contempt of (the real) Alastair Campbell has been earned here by resorting in this way to overt caricature. And the mocumentary-style of shooting does little to counteract the sense of debased realism.

However, if one steps back from the individuals and their motivations we have a take on the lead-up to war that represents the coming together of UK and US interests as something of a mutual misunderstanding. There could be a truth in this which belies the standard media caricature of the Bush-Blair love-in.

It did feel appropriate to watch the film in the week that Tony Blair will appear 'in the dock' at the Chilcot Inquiry over the question of the legality of the 2003 invasion. One of the first live sessions I caught the day after I arrived was a British general gamely expressing the hope that history would judge both the effectiveness and ultimately the effect of our forces in Iraq as "not bad".

Grade: B+


The Palace of Bling


"Have you got a few minutes?" cousin Philip asked me. "There's something in Selfridges I'd like you to see."

Much of the century+1 year-old store on Oxford Street has come to resemble one of the brand-saturated departure lounges at Heathrow, and the fish counter in the Food Hall has been "decimated" according to Philip; But there's one high-ceilinged hall on the ground floor which has become what he described to me as "the palace of bling" and "a playground for the offspring of the oligarchs."

In recession-ravaged Britain who but little Russians and Middle-Easterners can afford the objects displayed in little glass boxes organised around the central pair of escalators, sold by shop assistants with the look of trophy girlfriends, and protected by security guards with the look of the Chechen Mafia*?

We paused to gawp at the audaciously oversized U-Boat watches, each with a diameter to make many a man self-conscious about the size of his wrist, and few with a price tag below £3000. But the real jaw-dropper was £69,000 ($111,000) diamond-encrusted Vertu Signature mobile phone. That's a lot of dosh for a piece of kit with a tendency towards technological obsolesence.

The West End is in a state of flux. Most of the grungy Victorian buildings that the Nazis left behind at the intersection of Charing Cross Road with Oxford Street have been demolished in the last six months and my old office on Soho Square now has a clear view of Centrepoint ...though not of that infamous fountain in front of it, which made the area awkward for pedestrians; this is hidden behind a London Underground-branded wooden enclosure.

The plan seems to be to spruce up this last rather grotty crossroads in the area, with the biggest improvement of all below street level: a shiny new tube station for Tottenham Court Road. I couldn't decide whether the feelings of promise or those of loss were uppermost as I surveyed this remodelling of such a familiar patch of my old home town.

* The Chechen Mafia is one of the few global organised crime networks which functions like a franchise business. You don't actually have to BE Chechen to be part of the Chechen mafia, you just have to run your local branch as if you were. Any failure to follow up on your threats will lead to brand damage and a possible visit from head office!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Real Van Gogh...


...the artist and his letters.

I've been looking forward to this ever since the hype started to trickle over to me a few months ago.

A new, complete, illustrated and annotated edition of the artist's letters was released in 2009 and one of the translators cropped up on an interview on R3 during the autumn.

His message was clear. This art is not the product of a disordered and troubled mind...for during the periods he worked, the man who produced it was generally lucid and the letters he wrote (predominantly to his brother Theo) show him discerningly addressing the issues surrounding his chosen profession and the multifarious difficulties of his situation. They also demonstrate that he had a flair for expressing himself with the pen as well as the brush.

This exhibition of 65 paintings, 30 drawings and a sampling of the letters was first opened to the public in Amsterdam last year. Now it has arrived in London and I attended the final day of previews with Surfer on Friday. Waldemar Januszczak calls it the "most complete Van Gogh exhibition to be held in Britain for half a century."

My own adult relationship with the works of this particular Dutch artist got off to something of a poor start when I was taken (...dragged) around the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam at the age of 17 — it being the third such well stocked gallery I'd been to that same day — and so I guess I was a little less receptive than usual that afternoon to the genius on display there.

Whatever the preconceptions one takes along to this exhibition, I can report that it has the potential to re-organise one's views not only about one suffering Dutch artist, but about the power of painting in general.

There are seven rooms, organised in a partially chronological and partially thematic fashion. My personal favourite was Room 6: 'Cycles of Nature' which covered the period when this former missionary repeatedly turned to the image of a reaper in southern French fields, emblematic of the pantheistic apprehensions which had filled the void left by formal religious dogma.

The RA did me for a catalogue as I left (one can't complain really when one has seen the show free of charge), and as I flicked through it looking for the works which had most impressed me 'in the flesh', it was immediately clear why there can be no substitute for the personal encounter. It's not just that the textural effects are so important; several of the landscapes appear to shimmer with incipient animation. You really have to stand right in front of them to appreciate this.

It's not always so easy though...thanks to the slow moving clusters of (often quite aggressive) little old ladies that appear to be indigenous to exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Then there are the individuals Surfer refers to as "robots", the slow-moving, rather clumsy lumps of flesh whose passage around the exhbits is determined by the voice in their headsets. Fortunately we got in early before the real scrum started, and made the decision to run on ahead of the robots, thereby dispensing with the formal sequence intended by the curators.

The letters, whilst not as central to the experience as I had anticipated, often contain little sketches or "croquis", which in some cases at least as wonderful as the larger works they underpin. (Such as the reed pen version of The Zouave, kept at the New York Guggenheim.)

It's hard to pick one stand-out work from the exhibition. "There isn't a painting here I don't like," Surfer commented, and I had to agree. Maybe Wheat Field With White Cloud, but I couldn't find a decent jpeg of it on Google, so here are The Olive Trees, painted in 1889 at Saint-Rémy, outside the walls of the asylum. It's mesmerising, and you have to see it if you can. (It's usually found at the MOMA in NYC.)




Friday, January 22, 2010

Testing out an exotic product


I met Frode yesterday at his 'office', the swanky new Starbucks in Conduit Street. Inside there were banks of leather bound books (bought by the yard?) and plush, high-concept items of furniture. "It's experimental....unique in the world," he explained.

The big table down below where the laptop addicts are supposed to congregate was fashioned from an enormous slab of rusty iron: 'Belgian Industrial' apparently! I'm not sure how this was supposed to reflect the history of a Regency side street famous in times gone by for its bespoke tailors (my grandfather used to have his suits done at Lord & Stewart at #41), but anyway, the idea behind this explorative decor was explained quite adequately in the Guardian:

"With blond wood, distressed cabinets and second-hand mid-century modern furniture, it is a marked difference, even though the corporate hand behind the shabby chic is still evident. The idea is to individually design each store to fit in with its local area so that no two Starbucks will look exactly alike, a remarkable rethink for a company that has been so closely linked with the idea of the corporate giant leaving its homogenous mark on every high street. Actor Rupert Everett, petitioning against a new Starbucks close to his home, described it as a "cancer" spreading through Britain."

London now boast over fifty ethnic minorities with more than ten thousand members, which certainly makes it the most diverse metropolis in the world and perhaps makes it the ideal place to test out branding reboots prior to expensive global roll-outs. McDonald's did it with their Holborn branch a few years ago, and last year the funky Big Brother-style seats which first appeared there made their way to New York for a second-stage trial.

When I arrived yesterday it seems I'd just missed the CEO of Starbucks Charles Schultz (pictured above), who'd been at the centre of a media gathering in there to crow about the company's Q1 results (a 4% gain in same-store sales and profits of $353m, up 200% ), the first time he's done this outside the USA. He'd obviously formed a similar opinion to my own about the Dyson 'Air Blade' driers, because on exiting the Gents' he was tellingly reluctant to shake anyone's hand, it was reported.

I was quite pleased to discover that all of the UK's Starbuckeses now offer free wi-fi, as long as you get one of their cards and use it to pay for your beverages.

Here's a video presentation of the new cafe and a Flickr set....plus a snap of Frode in situ:




Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tcha Limberger at the Crooked Billet (2)



Here's the first of my clips, from early on in the set before he switched to guitar. Check out the bloke with the handlebar moustache in front of the band. He looked like he'd stepped out of one of the old photographs hanging on the wall.


Tcha Limberger at the Crooked Billet (1)

Tcha Limberger is something of a one man Hot Club of Paris, having an extraordinary talent with both the violin and guitar, which are a fair approximation of those of gypsy jazz legends Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt respectively.

My father had signed me up for this musical meal some time before I actually showed up in the UK. The proprietor at the ever-wonderful Crooked Billet had enthused on his latest bulletin that the Limberger Family was quite the most mesmerising act ever to have appeared at his venue.

We had a bit of a wait for the music as my father had allowed himself to be persuaded to turn up at seven to permit the meal to be served before the band appeared, but as he suffers from the 'sickness' of allowing too much spare time for any appointment*, we'd been sitting for some time before Tcha took his opening bow. (By which time I'd almost ruined everyone's evening by tipping over a glass of water which landed very close to the double bass lying on the floor beside my father.)

Blind from birth, this obviously gentle-natured young man explained that the absence of his famed father Vivi through a variety of unpleasant ailments, had precipitated a late change in lead guitarist and some minor alterations in the repertoire as well. I suspect that this involved a shift away from the up tempo numbers we had been expecting towards some rather poignant pieces of Russian and Hungarian folk music, to which Tcha added his own soulful vocals on several occasions. The experience was moving as well as thrilling. I have some HD clips which I will upload to YouTube in due course.

I also had the excellent fortune of picking one of the best fish dishes I have ever eaten as my main; a baked slab of succulent cod topped with a tempura prawm and doused in an oriental broth with pak choi and Chinese mushrooms floating at the side:



* My father's former partner Bob Monkhouse used to drive him nuts by turning up bang on time for trains, planes and automobiles. He never missed one, but he never gave himself a cushion either. As I'd taken the car into Reading on Monday afternoon and we were due to set off at 18:10 for the Crooked Billet, I found my father waiting for me by the doorway rather fretfully when I returned at 17:50. After a few years of hora chapina I'm finding it hard to adjust!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A very English Sunday

I'm glad I caught the end of Europe's recent mini ice-age.

This pic was taken from my bedroom window on Friday afternoon. The next day temperatures 'soared' back up to 8 degrees centrigrade and the snow cover rapidly vanished.

Many of the local animals, specifically the rabbits and the muntjac deer probably hadn't seen grass in about three weeks and so were out in force on Saturday, scoffing.

I'm alone in the house because Maggie, even though much more of a country mouse than I will ever be, finds such a condition quite scary and so tends to spend the winter in the loft room above my father in his little annexe.

Anyway, the solitude is mitigated by the fact that the dog usually sleeps in her basket down by the Aga. She's a bit too old and lazy to come up the stairs to visit me now though. Other than my bedroom that spot in the kitchen is probably the only warm space in the big old property, because it would be prohibitively expensive for Maggie to heat all the rooms and corridors. There aren't too many weird creeky noises, but ice falling off the roof provides the occasional surprise.

Such were the almost spring-like temperatures yesterday that we didn't even have to throw a log on the fire, which was a touch disappointing. Otherwise, we had a rather typical English country Sunday yesterday involving a pint of ale at the Queen's Head in Bradfield, roast beef and Yorkshire puddings for lunch back at home and the ritual viewing of the Antiques Roadshow in the early evening. The rest of the day was interspersed with sessions of snooker from the Masters at Wembley, a sport which is fascinating and yet which, regardless of the time of day and however jet-lagged I may be, still manages to send me off to sleep.

Atlanta, downtown at least, has to be one of the world's most missable destinations. By 6pm all the shops and offices appear to have closed and their occupants have fled to the suburbs. The only lights at ground level belonged to big hotels and the steakhouses which turn up every block or so. All the Starbuckses enforce lights out from around 5. From then on the majority of my fellow pedestrians were those disconcerting shamblers one comes across in so many American cities, some of whom shouted at me, while others shouted at noone in particular.

The subway line, seemingly hewed out of solid rock, gets you there in around twenty minutes from the airport. In some ways the latter was depressingly familiar in its greyness and its generic offering of news stands and t-shirt shops, but in terms of layout, it's as if the architects decided to throw out all the rules and start from scratch, so that in effect you have 5 parallel concourses linked by driverless trains with baggage reclaim finally showing up at the last stop. It is also described in the Delta magazine as the 'world's busiest' which left me wondering if this was world as in 'World Series' or whether through some technicality Atlanta's airport really is busier than the likes of JFK, Heathrow and O'Hare.

The folk on the flight from Cancun had been encouraging, clean-cut and smart, unlike the sort of howdeedoodies you tend to get on the Houston run. But once I was out of the terminal and on my way into town, I was struck by the drabness of the local 'executive' look. Indeed the early evening passengers on the MARTA ('itsmarta') all seemed to got up in the smart, utterly flairless manner of American newsreaders (and Republican commentators on Fox.)

Unless you've been living in a dark, dank hole for the past few weeks you really ought to have come to expect a slightly longer line at security. But around me in the queue as I waited to re-enter the line of concourses were several businessmen appeared to be on the verge of spontaneous combustion.

The one in front of me kept nervously checking his iPhone, shaking his head and trying to make knowing eye contact with fellow sufferers. He was also jiggling up and down on the spot as if he's forgotten to relieve himself. Others, buoyed by a pack mentality decided to force their way through to the front of the line fibbing that some lady had told them it was OK because their flight was about to leave. They soon had a ticking off from some heavy from the TSA who explained that it was their duty to arrive two hours before take-off. Some of them were sent back, but the advance party had already got their shoes off and were sneaking through the metal detector.

I'm glad this wasn't one of those full body scanners. I've worked out that this coming May I'll have to make ten international flights in the space of about four weeks and if those heavy duty zappers are universally in place by then, I'd expect my teeth and hair to start dropping out.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mark-ups, Part 2


I've had more than my customary level of feedback on my recent musings about the cost of certain products in both Antigua and the nearer parts of Mexico, so I think a bit of a follow-up is required.

Some of the alternative explanations for higher price-tags — which could be categorised as a) regional risk/cost of money b) exotic product/deliberate social exclusion and c) size of market — I had considered and, I suppose, dismissed before my original post....but this of course means nothing as I had also dismissed out of hand the idea that Rosenberg plotted his own death. (Ockham's Razor might have suggested to me that a massive right-wing conspiracy was in fact less probable than a one man right-wing conspiracy!)

There's no doubt that doing business in Guatemala involves certain level of additional risk. Government bonds from all over this region pay out interest with a 'risk premium' reflecting the dangers of default. Before it became part of Citi, Banco Uno used to pay us around 7% on our Dollar savings account which was quite extraordinary given the rates that then prevailed in the US, a reflection of both the riskiness of holding money in Guatemala and the fact that the bank was probably holding if offshore in Panama anyway.

One commenter suggested that new businesses here will tend to find it harder to get seed capital at a rate they can repay and I would think this is probably true, but in the case of Domino's we're not really talking about a start-up. (And I doubt whether the pizzas have indulged in a round-trip to the US and back before arriving in their boxes.)

I suspect that multinational firms will be looking to operate at higher margins in Guatemala as a consequence of this risk....and simply because they are able to. Coffee may be very expensive in London or New York, but such are the competitive conditions that there's a constant squeeze on profits. (I'd be surprised if the margins aren't better at El Portal.)

This is why Starbucks (and any restaurant with a decently scaled wine list) charges us comparatively more for things that involve very little incremental increase in base cost to them — for in the battle for extra margin, victory goes to he who provides a mechanism for those people who don't really care how much they spend to self-select.

So Lorrie Moore was missing something when she suggests in A Gate at the Stairs that "Tall" meaning in fact "Small" at Starbucks is as Orwellian a piece of marketing as you are likely to come across. And the thing she's missing is that you can walk into any Starbucks and order a "Short" latte: they have simply decided not to advertise this option on the menus behind the barristas, so budget-conscious coffee drinkers have to a) know this and b) be un-self-conscious about their penny-pinching.

Anyway, back to Tapachula.

Mexico has the same per capita GDP as Argentina, which surely allows for a certain degree of sophistication. (Indeed, a couple of years ago Mexican tourists were listed as one of the biggest spending sub-groups of foreign visitors to London.) Unfortunately, the world tends to see Mexico through the condescending lens of its northern neighbour, and so finds it hard to imagine that its inhabitants are not all subsisting on a diet of beans and tortillas. As that famous track from Molotov goes: "No me llamas frijolero pinche gringo puñetero!"

Coffee is surely not such an exotic product in Chiapas. The park with the band-stand offers free wi-fi and the coffee shop in question was full of local teens with laptops. In my three visits to Tapachula over the past twelve months I have yet to run into another non-Hispanic wanderer, so I doubt very much whether this rennovated urban space is an elaborate ploy to trap passing yuppies from abroad. The local market still might be quite small, but the pricing structure is essentially the same in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which has a substantial smartly dressed white collar community (and outlets of The Italian Coffee Co. all over the place.)

What of exclusivity? Well yes, it was an ICED coffee, but normal boiling ones were no cheaper. It is true though that fast food brands in certain parts of Latin America are perceived as aspirational. Certainly McDonald's in Sao Paolo is a cooler place to be than its equivalent in Idaho. But an aspirational positioning doesn't necessarily imply a deliberate effort to keep the mucos away.

I'm not sure that this would work anyway in Antigua. Such is the class system there that people tend to naturally gravitate to places where 'their sort' hang out, even if the place where the more affluent demographic tends to go is actually cheaper. (I could cite several examples.)

And conversely perhaps, last Easter I saw (and blogged about) the spectacle of out-of-town campesinos quaffing capuccinos in the park, clearly oblivious to the fact that they were supposed to feel excluded by such an exotic product.

One thing I did neglect to consider in the original post was the scarcity of good locations. In London this is directly reflected in the rents (and in the opportunity cost of having to wait for a bank at a prime location to close in order that it may be turned into a coffee shop or wine bar.). Rents may be lower in Antigua, but good locations are still comparatively scarce, especially when it comes to regular footfall.

Friday, January 15, 2010

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

The Architecture of Happiness gets an outrageous plug here, but it was my recollection of Essays in Love that led me to conclude that this movie just might be the bastard (unrequited-)love child of Alain de Botton.

The're very much alike old Alain and Zooey. Their annoyingness starts with their names and just kind of moves on from there, but there's definitely a certain something about them too, a flash of inveigling fascination which ultimately makes you forget the vastly more numerable moments that you wanted to set about them with a baseball bat.

And that, in a sense, is what this movie is both about and what it feels like to watch it (...and to listen to the sountrack).

Just the offset sequences showing the misalignment of Tom's expectations with reality was enough to make me suffer from a sort of short term amnesia which dispelled the short term nausea I'd been feeling for much of the rest of the movie. Like Tom, I guess I found myself remembering just the good bits.

And of course, this being Hollywood, (500) Days of Summer couldn't end with a fittingly de Bottonesque finale, with our disillusioned hero having a lonely tommy tank as he turns to Nietzsche for consolation; instead romantic destiny sets Tom up with a second chance in the form of an undoubtedly fitter and presumably less kooky alternative to Summer...who introduces herself as Autumn.

Grade: B+

Read the first para of Roger Ebert's review and you'd almost think he was after a piece of De Botton's action!



Thursday, January 14, 2010

Calentandome los huesos



When I didn't even have to put on a jumper for New Year's Eve, it did cross my mind that we might be about to get lucky and have a mild January this year in Antigua. Normal service was quickly restored however.

Before setting off on this jaunt to the north I'd been mentally warming myself up by repeatedly viewing this video I shot at an unspoiled stretch beach on what V calls the Yuca-tanga; a location I was determined to revisit.

But this little clip was taken back in October when I was wandering around with a towel around my neck several hours after sundown in order to prevent all the mositure inside of me from leaking away. I'd been drinking litre bottles of water every hour. This time I seem to have built up a little collection of the things.

The beach was of course still there and still blindingly white, although there were a few more Septics wandering up and down it now that they have decided to be afraid of exploding transatlantic aeroplanes instead of lung-swamping flu bugs.

Yet when the sun dipped behind a cloud, it was all a bit brrrrrrr. Indeed, a cab driver informed me on my arrival that things had recently been even chillier, when the worst cold snap in 124 years passed over the peninsula.

Back home in Antigua V has declared herself officially emponchada. Guatemala is one of those countries (very much like my own) that seems unable to cope with any kind of extreme weather, be it a somewhat atypical wet season rainfall or a sudden surprising dip in the temperature.

Yesterday, after further snowfall in the UK, "the economy ground to a halt" according to the newspapers. Still the forecast predicts a slight thawing today and tomorrow and so I should be able to get around next week without one of those enormous quad snow bikes that the gringo on our street bizarrely brought down to Guatemala with him from Florida last year. Does he know something we don't?


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mark-ups


Fishermen who manage to find one of the few remaining beluga sturgeon in the river Ural are paid $3 for the caviar from a single fish. By the time this reaches Paris, New York or Dubai the price has gone up to $6000-7000 per kilo, a mark-up of well over 100,000%.

Now I'm not one of those economically-naive types who habitually scratches his head every time someone comments on the difference between the cost of a Venti latte at Starbucks and the price paid to the grower. I know that the cost of the materials, whether coffee beans or cow's milk, is really the least of it.

And in the case of caviar I understand that the near extinction of the sturgeon coupled with the fact that the trade in beluga around the Caspian is a mob-controlled business, does much to explain the size of the rake-off between the river and the restaurant. As Misha Glenny put it in McMafia: "From the fisherman right up to the Parisian restaurant buyer: everyone is on the take except the wretched sturgeon."

But a couple of days ago I went to buy a medium-sized cup of iced coffee in the shop within this nicely rennovated bandstand in Tapachula, and was asked to pay 27 pesos for it ($2). It would have cost roughly the same in London, capital of soi disant 'Rip-off Britain'. But this was Chiapas, which in many other respects still seems to offer the most sensible prices in Central America.

Still, I've kind of grown used to rip-off prices in Guatemala, even if I don't quite understand them. A cup of capuccino or a pizza from Domino's costs approximately 20% less than it would in London, but I can't think of any overheads affecting the restauranteur which could mount up to anything like 80% of their UK equivalents.

The killer in London is the cost of renting a retail unit suitable for a coffee shop. Any building in the centre which doesn't cut it as a locus for shopping can relatively easily be switched to alternative, more rentable uses such as office space or car parking. The owner of the building will generally go for the most profitable usage. Wages are also considerably higher in the UK, with the national minimum set at roughly $9 an hour.

So why is a lot of restaurant food (especially the faster sort) so expensive in Antigua? Can't be the ingredients (mostly local), the property rent or the labour costs. Maybe red tape is a major overhead here, but then Guatemalan businesses aren't paying anything like the same sort of corporation tax.

And bear in mind that the average middle class consumer is also earning a lot less (though arguably also paying less to the banks and the government), and so if the pizza seems pricey to me...

Maybe it's because there's scarcity, but on the demand side: the number of people able to pay X for a Domino's pizza in Antigua is as small as the number of affluent tourists in Tapachula and so the price of X has to go up to cover reduced volume. Hmmm, maybe I am economically naive after all.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Taking of Pelham 123

Not a great deal to report here, especially as I haven't seen the original. Denzel Washington's performance is nuanced and rather appealing, while Travolta's is nuanced and rather annoying.

If with Law Abiding Citizen we found that the slightly jimmy scenario hardly smothered the film's entertainment value, here there were moments where the tension suddenly reached a credibility barrier and pulled up short...particularly once the action has moved away from the trapped subway trains.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Tons of Mac plugs in this movie, but the underlying brand fit is arguably more Microsoft than Apple.

Gerard Butler was originally slated to play Jamie Foxx's character, Nick Rice. Presumably they just couldn't figure out an excuse for the Deputy DA to gratuitously take all his clothes off, and so switched him over to Clyde Shelton, a man at war with 'the system'.

Part of the problem with the plot here is that audiences can be forgiven for being unsure which of the two main protagonists they are supposed to be rooting for. In the end the balance just about favours Rice, but perhaps only because Shelton turns out not to be a 'law abiding citizen' after all, but some sort of shady government assassin. One therefore has to speculate why he didn't just deal with his problem by terminating the murderers of his wife and child before the suits at the DA's office had had a chance to cut a deal with one of them.

This is a medium-high concept thriller about a man in jail for killing the scummers that killed his family, who somehow manages to extend his revenge to all the Justice Department officials complicit with the original plea-bargain (...though bizarrely stops short of whacking the guy who actually set up the deal).

Of course it's all very silly, but mostly the entertaining kind of silly, and I don't really mind it when the constraints on believability are part of the essence of the movie's proposition and neither detract from the tension nor insult one's intelligence too much.

Grade: B(+)


Torito

Here's a great little clip of a torito doing its thing last Thursday night. It was taken by my friend S just before we met up with him and his wife in the parque.



As mentioned before the frames no longer seem to be set up to fire rockets horizontally out the side, which is a good thing given the lack of rapid evacuation space in the Calle del Arco these days. Still, the ones I saw lit up after midnight on New Year's Eve were firing off some very high-powered and colourfully-explosive rockets vertically, so it's still a rather dangerous profession for the chap inside.

Walking across the parque at around 11:30 I spotted a family enjoying a New Year's feast around a long covered table topped with silver candelabra. (It was set up on the outer pathway more or less opposite the bank next to Chimino's.) I regret not having my camera ready at the time to get a snap of this scene.

Okuribito / Departures (2008)

Daigo has finally achieved his dream of membership of a Tokyo-based symphony orchestra, but after a poorly-attended concert (even for Beethoven's 9th) the owner comes backstage and rather sheepishly informs the musicians that they are to be disbanded. So Daigo sells his cello and returns with his thus far understanding wife Mika to Yamagata, the town of his birth in Japan's chilly north.

Following up on a job ad asking for someone to help out at a firm that "assists with journeys", Daigo begins an apprenticeship in the well-paid but not much respected trade of 'encoffinment'. He decides to keep the exact nature of his new career from Mika, correctly assessing that she will deem him 'unclean' the moment she hears of it, but although dealing with decomposing old ladies is definitely part of the job description, the Japanese ceremony of preparing the recently-deceased for departure is undoubtedly beautiful and cathartic for both Daigo and his new master's clients.

This is of course the basis for one of those knowingly poignant cinematic narratives, and here the elegaic mood is ramped up to the max by periodic scenes of Daigo playing his old junior-sized cello out in the countryside (see poster). Still, the flow of sentiment never really congeals into outright schmalz.

One could argue however that there are one too many moments of final emotional discovery here in an end-section which sheds much of the quirky good humour of the first hour or so. Yet we never felt emotionally-manipulated, and there are in fact lessons to be learned here about the range of different emotions provoked by the passing of a loved one.

Grade: B++

(Won the Oscar last year for Best Foreign Language Film)


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Fish Tank (2009)


Andrea Arnold's follow up to Red Road (2006) won her the Jury Prize at Cannes for the second time this year (shared with Thirst). Gritty and grotty in equal measure, the movie is set within the eastern expansion of London as yet unreached by regeneration. It's a landscape of sink estates, urban wasteland, riverside marshes, banal suburban strips and young people whose only way of interacting is via verbal abuse (when not displaying outright aggression).

Mia is a troubled, fifteen-year old latchkey kid whose young, single and debauched mother has just acquired a new bloke. This is the charming and well-toned Irish security guard Connor, a man trying hard to come over as a free spirit. Prior to his arrival Mia had been getting her kicks from headbutting her ex-best friend and breaking into an empty flat on the estate to practice her hip hop moves. Through her fascination with Connor we start to see Mia's softer side as well as her strikingly purposeful nature.

Indeed, perhaps Arnold is most deserving of praise here for finding ways of making such dire people and circumstances sympathetic and the playing out of this drama so gripping. The on-screen appeal of Michael Fassbender has helped a lot. The minor subplot involving Mia's efforts on behalf of a sick and ageing horse is also a contributing factor, though I found this element of the story a bit contrived.

This is Katie Jarvis's first film. She was reportedly spotted by the director having a row with her boyfriend at a bus shelter in Tilbury. I can just imagine the scene. In fact there was much about the film to take us back to our adventures in the more unreconstructed parts of the docklands. (Plevna Street and Silvertown spring most readily to mind.)

Grade: A -

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lives to fight another day...

Dr K has survived the Bride Wars challenge. Only seven movies turned out to be worse in 2009. "Marley and Me...a film that's less fun than having a real dog put down." haha

Spread (2009)

Nunca falta un roto para un descosido....or maybe not.

With Spread — known to much of the international movie marketplace as Toy Boy — Scottish director David MacKenzie's might have been trying to do for the Kutcher-Moore marriage what Kubrick did for the Cruises.

It's at once a celebration of superficial sexiness of its star and the indecent manner of its deployment in this cynical lothario scenario, and a dark satire on the fate of LA's imported heartbreakers.

We watched it without preconceived expectations and I do indeed suspect that prior knowledge of the plot via preview could only spoil what for us was the real pleasure of the film — the largely unpredictable resolution of the tension between its Nip/Tuck aesthetics (and ethics) and its redemptive streak of romcom optimism.

Grade: B++

Tallest

Yesterday's grand opening of the hastily re-christened (re-mohammeded?) Burj Khalifa in Dubai involved a truly spectactular display of luces:







Monday, January 04, 2010

TV Viewing Diary: Christmas


While the best programmes on American TV seem to take a break for the 'holidays', Christmas is celebrated in the UK with a host of big ticket productions.

Foremost amongst these perhaps was the Beeb's showing of a digitally-animated adaptation of The Gruffalo on Christmas Day. Featuring the voice talents of John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson and Helena Bonham-Carter, this 30-minute film was utterly charming and helped dispel the notion I once had that the story was a kind of poor man's Where The Wild Things Are. (It also helps to know that Julia Donaldson penned the text some time before Axel Scheffler came up with his design for the eponymous beastie.)

David Tennant appeared in the RSC's production of Hamlet as the titular Danish procrastinator, and in his more familiar role as maverick Time Lord in Russell T. Davies's final production of Doctor Who. This special was split in two and broadcast on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, and encapsulated many of the reasons we've been sad to see Tennant go, but perhaps a little less tristes to see the back of the series's erstwhile re-inventor. Having twice the time to deliver one of his at once over-sentimental and histrionic finales, Davies appeared unable to consistently maintain plot momentum and coherence, and part one of The End of Time was filled with plenty of the pointless running around waste-land environments which so characterised the original series.

He then had viewers craving for an definitive end in a stuttering epilogue sequence reminiscent of The Return of the King. Still, it was enjoyable in places, especially for the way John Simms's The Master morphed himself onto the entire human race with a twsited juvenile grin and for Timothy Dalton's turn as the very un-Obama-like President of Gallifrey.

Jumping back on the twin zeitgeist bandwagons of poular sci-fi and global apocalypse the BBC also gave a festive showing to a stinky new adaptation of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. Back in the 60s the plot had holes big enough to drive a Mini through. You might have thought an updated re-telling would involve a form of modernisation geared to bolstering believability, but no, writer Patrick Harbinson has gone the other way, expanding the plot holes to the point that you could drive a whole herd of cattle through them...let alone an (?) of triffids. (He seems especially keen to dodge the question of how these killer plants move around concrete urban spaces.)

To wit, Eddie Izzard's character Torrance enters the story as the only passenger on a jumbo to have kept his sight by sleeping through the cosmic light show and then survives the plane's coming down in the middle of W1 by locking himself in the loo protected only by a few inflated life-vests. (Is the first action of blind airline crew to turn off the autopilot?)

Do Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Joely Richardson now always come as a two-for-one deal? Anyway, not since her strops in Nip/Tuck has the latter given such excrutiatingly dire renditions of sharp emotion. And, as if to emphasise the problem of her acting ability Harbinson has given her some of the drama's most idiotic lines.

Considerably more bearable was the Sandy Welch adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw starring Michelle Dockery aired last Wednesday. Re-located to good effect in 1921 as Britain recovered from the 'death' of the Edwardian era in the trenches of the Great War, it showed considerable promise until the rather too lifelike figure of Peter Quint started popping out from behind trees. James's ambiguity is for me almost impossible to render accurately on screen, but that's never stopped people from trying over and over again. This version clearly wanted to have its postmodern cake and eat it: yes the ghosts are there and yes the governess is sex-starved and bonkers.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Day

LF still had his derrota face on this morning.

"Ay Dios tia, nadie me gana a mi"
he'd informed V before their chess rematch yesterday. Perhaps he'd have contained his bravado had he known how long she had been preparing her cold dish of revenge.

In fact ever since he'd won their first contest back in June she has been frequenting numerous online chess arenas in order to develop a more advanced grasp of the game. On December 30 after wearing down what I had considered to be a most promising attack, she declared herself ready.

LF made the mistake of thinking the endgame would be a formaility once he'd captured her queen. Instead several of his most valuable pieces got themselves snarled behind a column of his own peones while one of V's broke through to earn her a replacement.

Her sobrinos are used to her quick mastery of almost any game, and are thus unsurprised when she 'makes them torta' in almost all video-juegos (except first person shooters, which she's never really taken to.) But LF felt safe in the sacred grotto of his chess accomplishments.

At midday today, there was the culminating peal of explosive claps, this one distinguished by the commingling of the acrid odour of faja quemada with the more pleasing aromas of incense. Soon afterwards toc toc toc tottoc was heard for the last time this festive season, as a small procession of children collected change on behalf of 'el Niño Dios'.

This is the only time of year that we tend to buy stuff in the market without really knowing what we're going to do with it. Which is probably why our kitchen is full of green habas right now. At V's request I went online earlier to seek out some recipes.

Prices have tumbled since festivities started a week ago. A mano of mandarins cost just Q1.50 yesterday: a 50% markdown from la noche buena.

We'd gone into town on New Year's Eve to collect the pollos rellenos we'd reserved at Epicure, and then unsure exactly what we'd intended to do with them, treated ourselves to an impromptu picnic in the Plazuela, making good use of the supersized pirujos that are traditionally sold here on the eve of public holidays.

J showed up unexpectedly after dusk with the exciting news that next year she was going to have to get used to flying around in a helicopter A LOT — her way of informing us that her new bloke is more pistudo than our wildest imaginings. She suggested that we meet up later on in the Parque, an arrangment which resulted in the usual frustrations.

Last night's big draw in town was the tenth annual Festival of the Calle del Arco, which began back in 1999 with the Millennium bash of fond memory. The numbers of out-of-towners this attracts has grown each year, such that these days the celebration has in effect bifurcated into two events topped off by separate firework extravaganzas — one funded by the Alcalde and the other by the shops and residents of la quinta.

Fluid movement up and down this latter artery is no longer possible any time after around 7:30pm, so the traditional toritos no longer fire rockets sideways into the throng...presumably because running away isn't an option any more.

In spite of the crush and our delayed arrival, we manged to meet up with my friends S and B a little before 11 and shortly after the familiar uncoordinated sequence of unilateral midnights, Chiqui and 'la beba' appeared beside us — just in time to get drenched in evil-smelling cidra by a coldhearted tourist who had shaken the bottle enthusiastically with just this kind of collateral damage in mind. I took a direct hit in the back, but had luckily just put my waterproof jacket back on. Chiqui was estrendando an expensive and modish new coat and didn't stop giving the culprit dagger looks for some time.

It had taken us a while to pick a parking spot earlier in the evening. It was far from central, but V was pleased that there seemed to be no evidence of little strips of tattered red tissue paper around the tyres when we eventually got back to the car.

Having reached home and said our final feliz años around the block, we had a stroll with the dogs at 3am. Judging from the number of burned out cohetes inside our patio and on the steps up to the studio, they'd had a torrid time of it. Jin barked at a tiresome local hoody who picked up some stones and waved his arms around threateningly, but, decided to hold onto them so that he could punish us for Jin's behaviour by chucking them at our front gate instead. Moron.

Today I went out with the kids to buy some more bombas and cohetes. We passed an American man and his two boys and he smiled in greeting. As soon as he had disappeared into his house on Comendador, LF whsispered to me that he'd noticed that this man had been carrying a small can of MACE in his right hand. The neighbourly smile is clearly a decoy. He's really just another paranoid nut from central casting.