Sunday, October 31, 2010

Spider Forest / Geomi Sup (2004)

Whoa, there's enough temporal twitchiness and incoherent coherence in this movie to fit into a full six seasons of Lost, and more mysterious otherworldly women than Haruki Murakami probably ever dreamed of cramming into one of his novels.

At one point it did occur to me that in this instance Song Il-gon might have been trying to adapt a complex story from a piece of long fiction without allowing for the fact that cinematic narrative generally doesn't have quite the same space to explore disparate threads. But no, it's very much the director's own work.

Thinking back through the action it's actually hard to reach an adequate conclusion as to which parts were essential and which were complete red herrings. Aren't those spiders just as big a distraction as time travel was in Lost? (They are also responsible for the big fat exposition sequence which takes place on a stalled chair-lift, which is possibly the one really gormless part of the whole movie, which is otherwise fascinating, if confusing.)

I suppose they do furnish us with the metaphor of a wispy cobweb of interconnected ideas...which in this movie is rather like the system of explanatory links underlying the standard model of modern particle physics. They all support each other, but is there anything actually holding the whole thing up itself?

The plot as such revolves around a TV producer called Kang Min who wakes up suddenly in the eponymous forest. He's carrying at least three obtusely-linked strands of back story with him into this set-up, a dead wife, an unfaithful lover and a whole sequence of events from his childhood which he can't even recollect. The very location itself then disgorges a sticky telaraña of Asian mythology over proceedings.

Kang Min encounters a terrible crime scene and is shortly afterwards tossed high in the air by a car in an eerily-lit road tunnel. We are given to understand that much of what we see afterwards may reflect the distortions of a consciousness that has recently experienced a head-on collision with the front end of a Land Rover. This dented mind might be awake, asleep or even dead.

Meanwhile, there's a sort of police procedural going on as well, because Kang Min's cop friend Choi doesn't buy the simple explanation for the double murder: that the jealous producer used a sickle to work off his feelings towards his boss and his girlfriend, who just happened to have picked his childhood home in the forest for their dirty weekend.

I've seen enough Korean films now to appreciate the debt many of that nation's film-makers owe to Hitchcock. However, the thriller master usually liked to keep his charades nice and simple, as well as jolting his audiences with the revelation that things had been a whole lot simpler than they'd been imagining. I'll tell you now that this is NOT what Song Il-gon had in mind here.

Grade: B+

The Social Network (2010)

Apparently Mark Zuckerberg took his staff out en masse to see David Fincher's film about the founding of Facebook, one of whom subsequently reported back to screenwriter Aoron Sorkin that his CEO had immensely enjoyed the parts of the movie that he agreed with.

One wonders which elements of this portrayal of his early partnerships he really warmed to. The chicken joke perhaps. Did he not also, as we did, find much of this long but highy engaging movie rather depressing?

I suppose Sorkin gave Zuckerberg one significant get out of jail card in that his conceit that the whole $65bn enterprise emerged from an episode of wounded vanity (from which the implacable geek never fully recovered) can easily be dismissed as an instance of dramatic license.

And could any self-regarding scholar who didn't quite fit in at Harvard turn out as anything other than a sociopath? As a two-headed manifestation of the university's presumption Sorkin gives us the Winklevi to chuckle at, but there's no getting around the oppressive pomposity of Harvard as The Social Network presents it to us.

At Cambridge (the original, older one, I might add pompously) we had elitsim galore including exclusive dining societies and the Pickerel pub where all the secretarial college 'talent' congregated in order to snag a date with a Magdalene College toff-pot...but somehow all that didn't really dominate the culture of the institution unless you let it, and the individuals who on reflexion possibly got the most out of it, were those quiet non-partying foreign students who stayed in their rooms studying hard and maintained a generally less grasping attitude to learning, friendship and sex.

Anyway, the film is really excellent and no Facebook account should be required for enjoying it. (Sorkin apparently lacked one before taking on the project.) Jesse Eisenberg, one of Hollywood's dweeb specialists, is a revelation here for the way he handles Zuckerberg's unscripted inner demons as well as his abrasive public persona.

Everyone involved in the lawsuit showdown, especially the Winklevi and Saverin are portrayed as naive, but Zuckerberg clearly has the edge because he appears to have no higher ideals to measure himself against. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) is the real Iago-figure here and from the moment he invites the two founders out for a high swank meal you kind of know that Eduardo Saverin (played by Red Riding's Andrew Garfiled) will end up with his head beneath a metaphorical pillow.

My own experience of friendship mixed with business partnership in the heady early boom days of the mid-nineties included a cynical, late-arriving and destabilising figure along the lines of Parker, but I'm sure anyone who has ever started a company with their mates will squirm a bit at the recollection of the tensions generated by resentments over comparative contributions, external investments, shareholding dilutions etc.

The Winklevoss twins may have been slow-starters but they appear to want more than the $65m already conceded to them by Zuckerberg. With the movie bringing their horrible plight to wider public attention, they are doing the rounds of the money shows. Maybe they can sue the studio for a cut of the box-office?

I will say however that although The Social Network makes it pretty clear that Mark Zuckerberg had his own idea founded on his own inner needs and inadequacies and, as he points out in the lawyers' office, if the Winklevi had really intended to invent Facebook they would have invented Facebook, there's no denying that a first-to-market Harvard Connection might just have expanded beyond its conceptual boundaries in much the same way that Twitter later did.

That said, were Erica Albight a real-life character (?) she'd deserve at least as much of the Facebook haul as the twins. One can become an 'accidental billionaire' by creating a platform that turns out to be wildly more useful than one ever imagined, but the Winklevi had in mind something that was essentially limited to a privileged elite. They didn't want to get rich, they wanted to get laid. Zuckerberg wished to appear cool, a more open-ended ambition perhaps.

Looking forward to seeing Rooney Mara as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - 1

Something strange occured as I read this book; I developed a fairly clearcut love-hate relationship with it, which is more or less what happened when I read David Mitchell's last novel.

My Cloud Atlas review remains buried as a long abandoned draft several pages below the surface in the 'Edit Posts' tab.

It was begining to look like a similar fate would await my impressions of Mitchell's latest novel, for I'd never be able to make up my mind whether to pen a long positive review with an extended set of caveats covering its failings or an essentially negative one where my frustrations with the work came to the forefront and the undeniable pleasure of reading it was handled almost as an afterthought.

So, I've decided to do something a little different: a review in sections, if not exactly in different voices and genre styles, which might of course be the befitting manner postmodern way of critiqueing an author like Mitchell.

And that's it for part one...

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Other Guys (2010)

If you're one of the many who chortled at Anchorman, then you are likely to experience the same sort of spasms here.

Dr K, not exactly a great aficionado of modern American comedy, limits his praise to the 'presence' of Mark Wahlberg, regardless of whether this particular occupation of space involves any actual laughs.

I suppose Will Ferrell is used to being mentioned in the same breath as Adam Sandler, as one of those comedians from across the pond that we Brits just don't get. But I'm actually quite fond of the absurdist, almost surrealist contributions he's made to a number of movies, this one included.

What you might have to query is whether the serious, actually quite Michael Moorish graphics* which overlay the end credits have in fact been pre-undermined by the sheer loopiness of the dialogue and other action sequences, in this tale of two under-regarded NYPD cops from the back-office chasing the tail of some serious financial shenanigans.

Mark Wahlberg is very good though. His presence was a bonus in Date Night too.

Grade: B+

* Including one on the dastardliness of ponzi schemes which may interest regular readers here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Up until 1066 England had effectively been part of Scandinavia, and may well have remained detached from continental affairs had not the Normans — Frenchified vikings with a seemingly irresistible urge to seek out sunnier climes — made one last detour to the north. (Thanks to the Gulf Stream southern England does enjoy generally milder winters than Normandy.)

Almost three centuries after the conquest, Geoffrey Chaucer, taking over as clerk of the King's works, was handed an inventory of stuff left lying around at the Tower of London, from which the following extract is now quoted:

"I ramme cum toto apparatu excepta i drawying corda que frangitur et devastatur, i fryingpanne, i lathe pro officio carpentarii."

(...a battering-ram with a winding-cord too damaged to be usable, a frying-pan, a lathe for a Latinised carpenter.)

This document was compiled by a fourteenth century white-collar worker who (like Chaucer) juggled three languages in his head on a daily basis. First there was Old English, the speech of the masses, by then grammatically-condensed and well on the way to becoming modern English. Then there was the elite dialect, Anglo-Norman French, and lastly Latin, the preferred communications system of the Church, public administration and cultural transmission in general.

Textual intercourse between the English and their new rulers had kicked off almost as soon as the old order had been crushed on the field of Hastings, such that many basic English words quickly picked up romance accretions. (Water...aquatic, aqueous etc.)

But the text above should not be read as an example of some smart-arse peppering his script with French or Latin insertions — as certain modern hacks might do, just in order to show off what a pretentious tosser on est enclin à être. There was a deeper, more reflexive linguistic interpenetration at work here; a process known in the field of poetics as macaronics.

Educated scribblers of Chaucer's day would tend to pick whichever word, phrase or even grammatical construction seemed more familiar or apposite without fear of fostering incomprehensibility, because most of their readers would be similarly blasé about the boundaries between their vocabularies.

Modern scholars debate the extent to which this fusion was reflected in the spoken language of the time; another example of one of those issues around which academic contention loves to coalesce, because there's ultimately no sure way for anyone to know if their strongly-held opinions are right or wrong.

Fast forward another three centuries and we encounter another fascinating example of commingling tongues in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Like many modern bloggers, for whom he was the great precursor, Sam was never quite sure if he was addressing an audience of one, or whether his words might indeed become of interest to a wider group of readers, possibly including posterity. Yet regardless of the tone employed, Pepys encoded all his daily musings in shorthand...just in case his wife Elizabeth should locate the diary and proceed to peruse its franker admissions. In modern geek parlance, the shorthand was his entry-level firewall. Access-levels further down were assigned via linguistics.

As an OP Pepys would have acquired his Latin and Ancient Greek at school and would surely have picked up a smattering of French through contact with Elizabeth's family, refugee Huguenots. Yet surprisingly, when slipping into his most intimate mode of discourse, and when conscious of having done something really naughty, Pepys writes in Spanish.

Guate Logic?

Just when we thought the zombie-blog had finally keeled over, a semi-literate imposter appears to have inhabited the corpse, offering up a fresh example of Chapin irrationality.

Well, while we're at it, I have a couple of my own. I noticed yesterday that shoppers at the Despensa face an interesting conundrum in the booze section: one can either purchase a 1.5L bottle of Venado Especial for Q41.50, or the very same bottle of grog plus a free 2L bottle of Pepsi for Q40. I watched in amazement as one guy, a real Pepsi-hater for sure, went for the lighter but more expensive of the two options.

Meanwhile, just next door at Pollo Frito Pinulito, V was scratching her head as one sappy local punter requested two pieces of chicken and two orders of fries...separately, for Q24. If only he'd signaled an interest in the 'combo' advertised above his head, he'd not only have paid less, he'd have got some salad thrown in as well.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Tis the season for...seasonal recipes.

I suspect the reason that traditional Guatemalan dishes like fiambre and curtido are comparatively expensive to purchase is not entirely because the ingredients are pricey (though there are a lot of them), but instead because they take such a long time to prepare properly.

This curtido took us much of an evening to put together. Very much worth it nonetheless.

It's a multi-stage process, commencing with the boiling of the beetroot. This is then removed from the pot and peeled and then potatoes, carrots, French beans and cabbage are each then given their time in the simmering magenta liquid, to which mint and laurel has since been added.

Separately we prepared a dressing with oil, various vinegars, capers and mandarin juice and a rice dish with some of the leftover 'ink'. Before the finished dish is placed in the fridge to curtirse overnight, a boiled egg and some sliced onions are added on top.

The rice comes out looking oddly like raw mince! The colours remind me of another salad I was fond of preparing back in the UK, with cous cous, red cabbage and goat's cheese. Cous cous would be a great alternative, because it too lends itself to the dyeing process and fluffs up rather nicely.

Some of the basic ingredients from our curtido can also be put to good use in the preparation of enchiladas, such as these widely-famed examples from Mamalita's.

Natural causes

We still try to get all our tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers direct from the finca in San Barcholo, a practice followed, we understand, by the powerful buyers of both Paiz and Pollo Campero.

The other evening we had the misfortune to show up just as the little van from the Casa Santo Domingo was taking off with all the available ripe tomatoes. But at Q1 per pound, compared to Q7 the regatonas were asking for in the market last Thursday, it mattered little if the ones we managed to pick up were a little verdes.

You might have noticed how a bunch of bananas will all go mottled together at roughly the same pace, but if you separate them the process is slowed. Well, a corollary of this process forms the basis of a handy chef's secret: loose bananas are a great way to fast-track the maturing process of almost all fruit, avocados included.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Más Caro

— I tried staying up late last night to watch the inaugural Korean Grand Prix, but the weather over there was so foul that the early stages involved a parade led by the safety car. So I got a little shut-eye before picking things up again at 3am, just after Vettel's Red Bull had been forced to retire. (Yay!)

The commentary on Fox Sports is so awful (invariably hosted by three smug, opinionated Argies in a garishly-decorated studio) that I've been tempted to download the BBC coverage via iPlayer and watch that, albeit not live. One of the smug Argies surpassed himself last night with a grossly machista remark as the top three drivers passed a group of beautiful Korean models clapping away as the jubilant men made their way to the podium: "They smile, they applaud, but they have no idea what's going on."

There's no denying the chauvinistic ambience in Formula One, but really, even my dog knows what's going on: It's not cricket or American Football, it's a bunch of little cars going round in circles. Viewers were anyway left uncertain whether the ladies in question were clueless primarily because of their gender or because they were Koreans, and therefore not innately knowledgeable about all sport like the citizens of Argentina!

— There was a great debate on BBC Dateline yesterday hosted by Gavin Esler in which leading journalists from the UK, Germany, France and the USA debated the effectiveness of austerity cuts. The LA Times's Henry Chu looked a bit sidelined, even in the parts where Wayne Rooney's massive pay rise wasn't driving the indignation. The best comment came from La Vie's Agnes Poirier, who remarked that : "You 'ave a kind of masochism in this country. You seem to like suffering 'ardship. You did it in 1940...and thank you very much."

— Die-hard followers of GuateLiving have been treated to an experience akin to an extended remake of Night Of the Living Dead this past week. But the zombie-blog may well have shambled its last now because the word is there are no more Cassmans left in Guatemala for us to worry ourselves about. You can certainly see what Don Marco meant about hatemail now: the censors should have stepped in a long while back to curtail the flow of vitriol which has greeted each new automated post. Anyway, I only bring this up because one little incident this week reminded me of Don Marco's persistent animus against the racial profiling that apparently went on in his local tienda. V was telling Doña C how a number of the regatonas in the market have a known tendency to charge me "precios más caros". To Doña C there was nothing heinous about this at all; no, the logic was altogether clear: "Si, porque él es más caro."

Happy in the knowledge that I am reassuringly expensive, I will now get on with my Sunday.

Tricky Dicky

Mother / Madeo (2009)

We're back in the Korean boondocks with Bong Joon-ho, where the cops are corrupt and ineffectual — and when faced with the brutal murder of a young girl, can think of nothing better to do than bring in the village idiot and get him to sign a confession under duress. (Though this involves an apple and rather less brutality than we saw in his similarly located Memories of Murder.)

The idiot in question is the loveably inept Yoon Doo-joon, and he has one of the most single-minded mothers in the country, a widowed flower-shop owner who maintains a constant vigil over her son less something terrible should happen to him. Which of course it does.

After an opening sequence in which he is run over by some rich university executives and gets involved in an abortive revenge mission at a golf club with his slightly nefarious best mate, yet more trouble pursues Yoon when he drunkenly follows a schoolgirl on his route home after falling asleep at a bar. The girl ends up dead, but we've not seen how, and when the police come for her boy, Mother snaps into action, determined to find the real killer.

What follows is part thriller, part procedural (though it's Mother not the cops doing most of the investigating), part Hitchcockian mystery and part dark exposé of teen subculture in Korea. It's also a very gripping tale of obsession.

Director Bong Joon-ho also gave us the cult movie The Host back in 2006, but this is something altogether more substantial, and it's gone straight into our top five movies of the year.

Grade: A(-)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Calavera no llora

This week on October 20 Guatemala once again marked the anniversary of its half-arsed*1944 'Revolution', which heralded in the kind of social reforms more akin to what happened in the UK one year later when Churchill got his marching orders and the Labour government of Clement Atlee came to power in a landslide, than a proper blood and guts displacement of the Ancien Régime.

Demonstrators passed down the newly-uptarted Paseo de la Sexta (which I photographed last month) and, apparently not seeing all those placards advocating responsible citizenship, proceeded tp cover the walls, pavements and those rather random street sculptures in graffiti and other painted symbols manifesting anti-capitalism and anti-americanism at their most moronic.

As you can imagine, this did not go down at all well with Ex-Prez. In fact he and Mrs Ex-Prez were bleating about the damage quite loudly on Facebook the next day.

Back in the UK however, this whole incident would have been regarded as a failure of the local authorities and the police in particular. And guess who's in charge of those in Guate?

The freedom to hold public demonstrations and march around the capital has long been held by my compatriots, but the cops agree the routes in advance and follow alongside the demonstration to prevent this kind of vandalism from occuring. Only occasionally, as we saw in the 1990 Poll Tax riots, do things get out of control, and when they do, the Police Commissioner usually has some explaining to do.

It's also worth adding that before he starts going all David 'we're all in this together' Cameron on us and pontificating about the sense of social responsibility in Guatemala, Ex-Prez would do well to fix those three broken drain covers right outside his house, which on a moonless night are nothing less than cruel mantraps.

* England had a half-arsed revolution too in 1688, which we somewhat mysteriously refer to as the 'Glorious Revolution'; the real revolution having occurred some thirty years previously when we chopped off our king's head. This is more usually described as the 'civil war'.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Chaser / Chugyeogja (2008)

A pacey, interestingly-structured and disturbing thriller from South Korea; yet more proof that Asian cinema is experimenting successfully with genre formulae in a way that Hollywood seems unable to mimick, except through duplication.

The protagonist doing the chasing is a former bent cop turned pimp, frustrated by the disappearance of several of his girls. Convinced that they have been 'sold' he is at first unable to confront the truth already revealed to the audience, that these women are being sadistically murdered in horror-movie style by one of his regular customers, the sneering yet vaguely polite-looking Jee Young-min.

If the Hollywood remake is to be as effective, it will require a nocturnal location as characterful as Seoul's hilltop district of Mangwon, and it will also need to pull up short of offering the corrupt and unrepentedly violent Eom Joong-ho a full Christian remission of sin.

Grade: A-

Thursday, October 21, 2010

8 Grados, Terremoto en Guatemala

Did anyone else feel a slight temblor in the night..

(Thanks to Scott for this.)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Watched this one last night. Managed to stay awake, though I could have done with the occasional adrenalin jab to the neck.

Can't really be bovved to review it, especially as I have no real opinion about the originals. (V has a strong preference for Englund's Kreuger though).

So I think we'll leave this one to the flappy-handed Dr K, the UK's acknowledged expert on the culture of gore:

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Granada Photo Essay

Granada looks a bit like Antigua would if the Consejo didn't exist, or was that much more pelaverguista in its manner of protecting the place.*

Often referred to as Nicaragua's 'colonial gem', much of the significant architecture dates from the immediately post-colonial period when Granada was vying with Leon for supremacy in this land. (Managua, midway between the two, ended up as the compromise option.)

In spite of the volcano looming ominously over one flank of the city, there's a Neo-Classical order to the Parque Central and its environs which will remind some visitors of Xela as much as Antigua.

Meanwhile, the early twentieth-century cathedral had me thinking of Brazil and its neighbour in size and status, the mold-spattered La Merced, has an Italianate feel to it.

Beyond the core things get a little crumblier, many houses topped by tejas that haven't been changed in many a season. Overall the weather is more tropical than we are used to here, and I suspect the more steeply angled rooves and the use of cane in the patio terracing reflects the feverishness of the climate.

It was in La Merced that the American filibuster William Walker had himself inaugurated as President of Nicaragua in July 1856. After a year of 'Americanisation' (via fiscal 'reform', the reintroduction of slavery, and the imposition of English as the official language) Walker was driven from the city by a combined Guatemalan and Salvadoranean force, but not before burning the place to the ground. He was thus the human equivalent of Antigua's great quake, freezing the city's development at a certain moment in time.

Sometimes referred to as 'The Great Sultan', this particular Granada — set just back from the northwestern shore of Lake Nicaragua — was named after the Andalucian hometown of its founder, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, (Not the failed Conquistador of the Yucatán.) I spotted several attempts around town to echo the mesmirising architecture of the Alhambra and its gardens, specifically the wooden arches within the Hotel Darío (named after Nicaragua's most venerated poet) and the long fountain trough in a gallery opposite.

*Hence the garishly-painted shop fronts and the carefree juxtaposition of native Spanish and later Neo-Classical motifs.

My Blueberry Nights (2007)

Wong Kar-wai's first excursion into Hollywood featured a triumvirate of highly talented women. Two beautiful Jewish actresses and one lovely, talented jazz singer of mixed American and Indian descent, who isn't such a bad actress herself...and Jude Law.

In spite of the fact that the critics* almost unanimously deemed this a largely miscarried crossover attempt, and in spite of Jude Law and his wayward Mancunian accent, I couldn't help but enjoy this noir-for-girls tale of misplaced loves and keys, in which the Shanghai-born director lays it on super thick with the foreigner's-eye view of Americana, much as Nabokov did in Lolita. (Which might also be described as sporting a 'conventional' road movie plot in some respects.)

What a thrill to hear Yumeji's Theme again, rearranged this time for a dinner jazz slot.

This is the second movie in a row (after Sherlock Holmes) that Jude Law has somehow failed to completely ruin for me. Yes I was a little bored in places as a series of individuals upchucked their life stories to the itinerant observer Elizabeth, but there's a mood about Wong's movies which is all his own, and I for one don't mind wallowing in it.

Grade: B+

* Phillip French was in a particularly drole mood: "Blueberry pie is a metaphor for what's left when the day is done, but what the film really invites is a raspberry."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Black choppers over Antigua

Little more than a week has passed since 'Don Marco' was taken from us and already the conspiracy theories are starting to take shape.

The first of these was formulated by 'Norm' in a comment on this blog. Mark, it is said, always sat suspiciously in the very same seat at the RumBar, pushing out conversations that seemed "tailored for a wire". 'Norm' "figured him for a skip" from the start, and these figurations soon extended to the goose-bump inducing conclusion that Jeffrey Lyn Cassman had been captured and flipped by the Feds before being sent down here to pen provocative blog posts and generally stir up Antigua's non-indigenous population of losers, drop-outs and fugitive felons.

Then, for want of a better term, there's the 'Jewish' conspiracy theory, outlined by 'George' on GuateLiving. Cassman it seems, sounds a bit like Finkleman, so might we not speculate that far from being the Opus Dei nutjob that he purported to be, 'Don Marco' was in fact a Christ-killing fifth columnist who, knowing that Hebraic tendencies are such an obvious marker for financial irregularities, decided to don the cassock of Catholic acceptability by swotting up on the Universal Church with the aid of such scholarly tomes as Catholicism for Dummies and The Devil's Final Battle and repeated viewings of The Passion of the Christ?

And lastly, and possibly related, comes the theory articulated by Elgordo (amongst others) that 'Don Marco' used his piety as a form of mind control, with particular emphasis on maintaining order, discipline and all-round submission at home, thus freeing him up to concentrate on the outdoor front where he went about his business like a lone wolf.

Have I missed any?

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

If there's been a better, twistier low-budget British thriller made in the past decade, I've yet to see it.

J. Blakeson's debut feature involves a deceptively simple set-up, but one which requires an uncommon amount of balance in the actual handling of it.

There are only three cast members. Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston are Vic and Danny, a pair of kidnappers who met 'inside' where they plotted to snatch a daughter of privilege and hold her to a £2m ransom.

Gemma Arterton plays Alice, the chosen victim, in a role very different from her recent star turns in Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time...if only because there weren't any stunt men around for her to fall in love with!

Part of the pleasure of the movie is the extent to which we are shown and not told some of the crucial details. (Take for instance the moment when Vic wraps a SIMM card in toilet paper before attempting to flush it down the toilet, a professional technique we are thus given to understand that was beyond Danny when he needed to dispose of the shell casing.)

There's little more one can describe without spoiling it, so I won't. What I can say is that Blakeson has contrived a finale in which he is able to make the audience aware of the two or three valid alternative endings that his screenplay has been juggling, before serving up one last subtle twist, made clear by the reappearance of the film's title before the end credits.

Grade: A(-)

The Mexican (2001)

This glinting if not golden oldie came up in conversation over lunch the other day with Rudy. He happened to mention that it was largely shot on location in Real de Catorce, a stunning little hilltop town in the Mexican heartlands near San Luis Potosí. Brad Pitt so enjoyed the ambience of its stone houses that he bought one, and Rudy reckons that my explorations of Mexico will not be complete until I've made a trip up there.

Just to be sure I equipped myself with a Blu-Ray version of the movie and watched it last night with V. It was a strange, overlong experience in which the whole was definitely less than the sum of the parts, but some of the parts (especially those where James Gandolfini is present) are very good. Indeed the subplot involving Julia Roberts's relationship with Winston the homosexual hit man might almost have worked as a stand-alone concept, a feeling reinforced by the sense one gets that these scenes were actually overseen by a different director.

But as soon as Pitt and Roberts are together it becomes a very different film, a slightly goofy and hysterical action-comedy of the kind Mel Gibson was once inclined to appear in. Even then, one can look behind the star vehicle shenanigans and appreciate the contributions of a number of supporting thesps who seem to think they're in a better movie, and gawp at the authenticity of the Mexican setting...if not of the Mexicans themselves, whom Gore Verbinski portrays in much the same way as he would later portray pirates.

Other detachable delights involve on-going gags about a cemáforo and a chucho elécrico, plus a series of sepia-toned, Rashômon lite-styled flashbacks to the legend of the beautful pistol made for the nobleman's son.

Grade: B(+)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Red (2010)

During the opening credits we see former black ops specialist Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) adjusting to a rather lonely existence in a sparsely-furnished suburban home, tearing up his pension cheques, just so he can extend his low-key phone flirtation with the equally unfulfilled Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) at the bureau.

Then a freelance team of South African assassins turns up and attempts to take the ED out of RED: "retired and extremely dangerous." Moses's response is lethal, which turns out to be a bit of a decoy from the director, because most of the people chasing him (and Sarah, who comes along for the ride almost reluctantly) thereafter, are assumed to be 'innocent' government employees, and so no matter how much shooting he does, none of them falls over dead.

Adapted from a graphic novel, the movie is yet another example of Hollywood's adjustment to a post-Bourne world. There are echoes of both Salt and even The Expendables from earlier in the year, but Robert Schwentke finds an alternative and mostly successful balance between real thriller and comedy spoof. (And certainly more successful than The A-Team, Killers and Knight and Day.)

The plot revolves around belated fallout from a 1981 massacre in Guatemala. Everyone involved in the clean-up (and a New York Times journalist who'd been about to scoop the story) has been taken out in a series of CIA hits...all except Richard Dreyfuss's Cheyne-esque Alexander Dunning.

Moses decides to take the fight back to source, and has soon teamed up with two members of his old squad, Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), plus Ivan from the Russian Embassy (Brian Cox) and MI6 assassin Victoria (Dame Helen Mirren).

With a cast like that you don't really need the Tom Cruise/Angelina Jolie stunts. Willis is interestingly understated, but the real revelation is John Malkovich, who for once couldn't really be accused of being John Malkovich. His portrayal of the paranoid, gone to ground operative was spot on and seemed oddly familiar — and then I remembered that I live next door to someone just like that!


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cahuita Photo Essay

Cahuita wasn't my first choice destination for an Autumn getaway, but almost all the others I'd investigated to the north of Antigua appeared to be far too waterlogged in late September. (I'm particularly glad I stayed away from Veracruz for example.)

By the time I made it down to Costa Rica there was a tropical cyclone sliding down the Pacific Coast. They have fewer corrupt politicians and senseless killings down there, so the evening news bulletin treated the weather situation to the in-depth treatment.

The Caribbean side has a number of advantages over the more visited Pacific littoral, light-coloured sand and fewer surfers and sex tourists among them. The bus from San José was packed with mochileros and I envisaged having to dash from the stop in Cahuita to secure the cabina I was after, but in the end only me and one other passenger got down in Cahuita — so the others must have been Panama-bound. (The border is only another 30 minutes further down the road.)

The population of Cahuita features a dominant Jamaican heritage and an English-based patois is spoken there as well as Spanish. The first setllers were turtle hunters from Nicaragua and Bocas del Toro who appeared seasonally and lived in provisional camps. The Smith family then created a more permanent fishing camp in 1828 at 'Punta Cahuita' and the site of the present township (which I'd estimate at around half the size of the one on Caye Caulker) was granted in perpetuity to the locals after they assisted President Alfredo González Flores when his ship was wrecked en-route to Sixaola. The town's main street is named after the grateful leader who served Costa Rica from 1913-17.

There are two restaurants in this tiny seaside spot which I would recommend to any visitor to Central America....which I guess is one more than I can think of in Antigua. The first of these is a place called Cha Cha Cha run by a talented Haitian-Canadian chef resident in Cahuita for fifteen years. The other is a more traditional Caribbean eatery run by one of those well-entrenched and well-respected viejitas: Miss Edith's. She specialises in Jamaican dishes, such as jerk chicken and fish.

The other significant reason for bothering to come is the Parque Nacional lying just to the south of the town and incorporating a beautiful beach lined by almendrales. There are pathways through the forest behind the sands , but these end rather abruptly thanks to overspill from the Rio Perezoso during the wet season. As you can see from the pics, the White-Faced Capuchins are far from shy. Entry is free, though donations are encouraged.

The distance isn't actually all that daunting for anyone based in Guatemala. You can catch the early afternoon Ticabus from the terminal on the Calzada Aguilar Batres and be in San Salvabore some five hours later. There's a cheap and comfortable hotel attached to the Ticabus stop in the smart suburb of San Benito in that city, but you could be brave and stay awake, because the journey continues at 4am the next morning arriving around 8pm in San José.

The following day you can catch a ride to Cahuita from the Gran Terminal del Caribe, which will take around three and a half hours and involves a bathroom break in
Puerto Limón.

Overall the isthmus south of Guatemala conforms to my expecations of being fundamentally less fascinating than the lands to the north which were more deeply penetrated by ancient Mesoamerican culture. That said, Costa Rica is interestingly different to Guatemala. For example, the vegetation on the hills outside the capital more resembles a botanical garden turned cancerous than the pine-clad hills separating Guatemala City and Antigua.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cult of the Warrior

I caught the wave of adultation for Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn when it was published earlier this year and inserted it into the mid-section of my reading list. It was, according to many critics, the definitive novel of the Vietnam war and a "final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American History" (Sebastian Junger)

So I fascinated to come across Jackson Lears's more lukewarm response in the LRB. Like Marlantes, Lears is a veteran of the conflict in question, but unlike the much decorated author, also went on to serve in the peace movement.

He begins by noting that "since 9-11, a cult of the warrior has settled over America like the morning fog over the Mekong Delta." He takes particular issue against the now familiar (and worryingly empty) ethos of the combat soldier in contemporary film and fiction where war, however absurd on the political level, is somehow redeemed as the portal to a supremely deep and authentic male bonding experience.

"War as authentic experience: this is the nihilist edge of modern militarism, unalloyed by moral pretension. Marlantes sidesteps the nihilism by coupling it with communal redemption."

Marlantes might take pains to depict the unwinnability of this war, but this doesn't deter his lead protagonist Lieutenant Mellas from the conviction that he and his comrades are somehow "better people" as a result of participating in it; specifically better than all those insulated folk back home in civie-land, of whom women are represented as perhaps the most clueless.

Lears also objects to the notion suggested by one of Mellas's NCOs that boot camp "doesn't make us killers it's just a fucking finishing school". No, he concludes:

"Boot camp is less a finishing school than a remaking of the self. And the kinds of killing military men learn to do cannot be sublimated into a universal ‘destructive element’, a phrase Conrad intended to refer to human experience in all its tragic dimensions. War is not simply an expression of the beast within. Nor is it merely an opportunity for intense male experiences unavailable in civilian life – physical testing, the creation of community. It is also a product of policy decisions that can be challenged, changed or reversed. "

The end result of considering this article is that Matterhorn has slipped a little further down my reading list. It has also reminded me of one of the best and ultimately truest books I ever read about the grunt's-eye view of war: Joanna Bourke's An Intimate History of Killing, which goes some way to support Lears's position that not all men are natural born killers.

The Wig (2005)

Creepy long hair, possessed objects and jump scares are possibly the essential tropes of the Asian scary movie, and Shin-yeon Won was possibly attempting to take them all to the next level with his directorial debut.

Terminal cancer patient Su-yeon is given the eponymous hairpiece by her sister Min-seo, who lost the power of speech along with the commitment of her boyfriend Ji-seok after a freaky car accident. Whenever the wig is on Su-yeon appears to be heading into near miraculous remission, but without it she experiences painful relapses...whilst her new hair seems to have an agenda of its own.

Meanwhile, Min-seo gradually becomes convinced that the wig is cursed and belatedly discovers its somewhat coincidental relationship to a dark secret in Ji-seok's past.

As with a lot of Korean movies, this one is visually very interesting, but the pacing is often a little off (especially in the last act) and I frequently found my attention being drawn away from plot developments and towards the very beguiling interior decoration and some of those smart little outfits worn by the lovely So-yeon Kim.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Green Zone (2010)

Roger Ebert had something to say in his review of Paul Greengrass's thriller which made me sit and ponder a while:

"By limiting the characters and using typecasting, he makes a web of deceit easy to understand."

It's an analysis that caught my attention at a time when I have been giving extra thought to the use of archetypes in fiction and to this intriguing paradox as well: that some of the most strikingly original characters one comes across in 'real life' appear at first glance to have stepped straight out of central casting.

The trouble is that although there's a degree of truth in Ebert's observation, what Greengrass has done here is to make the plot easier to follow, not the "web of deceit" easier to understand. The use of stereotypes actually makes it harder for the general audience to engage at a deeper level with the background story.

And this, the credits inform us, has been lifted from the excellent Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (which I reviewed back in March 2008), a darkly comic exposé of the folly of American policy in the immediate aftermath of 'victory'. Crucially Chandrasekaran's primary focus is on the immediate consequences of the invasion rather than the facts behind its conception, and this, I would contend, is because these are ultimately more important for us to take on board in the long term.

Arguing over whether the grounds for intervention were kosher or not is ultimately a little pointless: I could tell you the war was ilegal and you could disagree with me and we'd not really make much progress after that. People will continue to contend at dinner parties that "It was all about the oil..." or "we invaded Iraq simply because..." but I can guarantee you that serious academic historians working in a half century from now will be pursuing more multi-layered explanations of the origins of this inherently controversial venture.

So when at the end we see Matt Damon diligently emailing hacks around the world with the big news that the Neocons made up all the stories about Saddam's WMDs, we probably have enough of a sense of how things have since moved on to think, so what? And so Greengrass has missed a chance to get to grips with the deeper absurdities perpetrated by Cheyne, Rumsfeld and their underqualified henchmen. But then he does thrillers not satires.

Jason Isaacs's Frankie-say War tache is also extremely distracting.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Ex-pat Extraordinaire"

The blogger I once rather crudely referred to as the thermometer up the backside of ex-pat life in Antigua has been apprehended and deported in the last few days, and the town suddenly feels a bit like a room which no longer has an elephant in it.

A Guatemalan friend of mine once had the misfortune to act as a real estate agent for 'Don Marco' at a time when he was looking for a new crib. These were occasions when he tended to use his blog to complain bitterly about Chapin landlords, which smokescreened the fact that his tribe were moving on with unpaid rent and uncompensated damages to the property left behind in their wake.

Anyway, amidst the smalltalk, my friend happened to confide that she only has one child, a teenage daughter, and 'Mark' responded by telling her that she must be a real codo, because he has ten kids and there's nothing that any of them could want for. This has to be one of the smaller ironies left behind in the ruins of this proud southern man's reputation.

As a final few comments dribbled into GuateLiving, I was amazed to see that someone still thought it an appropriate forum to recommence the debate about their dishonest, soap-stealing Guatemalan lackeys. Others have been moping around swapping email addresses and promising to stay in touch, like employees handed their pink slips at Enron.

Amdist sentiments ranging from Who Moved My Cheese? to outright luto, a minority of commenters have been daring the delete key of GuateLiving's new underage administrator by tendering tales from the darker side of its erstwhile author's local notoreity — some of them sneaky enough to link to information offsite — including nights on the office couch after booze-fuelled poker games in which Cassman juggled his "three bitches" on his iPhone, and from which he was eventually ejected. Hearsay has it that one of these "bitches" was a young compatriot of mine with a penchant for drive-by dissings of the indigenous population. Meanwhile the refrigerator at the defunct hotel on the road to Alotenango which was to be the Cassmans' final hideout, was reportedly getting emptier by the day.

But really, gambling, infidelity, alcoholic excess and bad parenting are all very reprehensible, but also quite ordinary misdemeanours. As I writer I find human beings that much more interesting when they are sitting on the edge of the abyss looking down; before the start of the long tumble into infamy.

And so posts like this one — where 'Don Marco' took his waiting spider persona out into the real world, ominously 'channelling his inner liberal' with the help of a puro (Honduran, not Cuban of course) and a snifter of Zacapa Centenario — were a particular creepy pleasure. How he revelled in hiding in plain sight as the black-clad agentes of the PNC hovered ineffectively.

I'd be lying if I said GuateLiving hasn't been just a little fascinating. At times it was hard to tear one's eyes away from (in a car-crashy kind of way, as my mate Scott once observed), and in some ways still is, as, like the proverbial headless chicken, it continues to run around offering free nachos con lomito at El Muro several days after that establishment's most recent champion has been carted off by the FBI. Could we not have one last nostalgic indirect reference to the size of his tackle?

Anyway, readers will recall that for the first six months or so in Guatemala 'Mark' consistently played the victim, the conman forever conned by the locals, the racist forever paying the white man's price* How he entertained us with all those receipts of his. (Doña Chica must be missing him...)

But then a noticeable change occurred. Suddenly he was on the front foot, a man with a plan (at least a man with a business address) with all sorts of local knowledge and contacts up his sleeve. He even boasted of his ability to secure forged documents and extended his arms cybernetically to would-be retirees thinking of relocating to Guatemala, hinting at the ease of becoming an ex-pat entrepreneur for those who'd risk putting their IRA on the table; his table.

This sudden ascendency was fed by a soaring confidence: 'Don Marco' seemed to think he had the whole town eating out of his hand, but as is often the case with those who would openly bend our conscious minds to their will, he left open the barn door to his own raggedy subconscious, and as a creatively-inclined reader of the last few months' worth of the 'Mark Francis' perspective, there's really nothing more tantalising than a maturing hypocrisy.

I do feel sympathy for Cassman's stranded dependents, though not knowing 'the wife' in person, it's hard for me to think of her as anything other than either a sometime willing accomplice or a bit of a mula. Or indeed both of these things.

If they were Brits I'm sure the consulate would have already taken care of them, but then Mark was never a great believer in the helping hand of the state or the "culture of dependence" that it apparently fosters.

* If Cassman really had ever worked in a major bank or anywhere else in the service industry, he would know how it's common practice to charge different clients different fees based on criteria such as propensity to pay.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

BBC World Challenge

Amongst the ten finalists in this year's World Challenge is the Guatemala-based NGO Long Way Home founded by former Peace Corpsman Mateo Paneitz. This clip shows how the non-profit has been working with the local community in Comalapa, specifically introducing recycled materials such as car tyres and plastic bottles into local construction practices.

There are many worthy entries and you can visit the site to vote for your personal favourite. Right now ours is the jompy stove invented by Scottish plumber David Osborne, largely because it would so clearly have widespread application across the developing world. Whereas, in the case of tyre-based domestic architecture, we can more readily anticipate several practical and cultural limitations. But check out Long Way Home's site too, because they are involved in a range of interesting projects, including reforestation and wood stoves.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Centurion (2010)

Historians — the killjoys — are now almost unanimous in the view that the Ninth Legion probably didn't simply vanish in its entirety one day after marching north into the Caldeonian fog.

This year however, two film-makers have decided to stick to the myth, and Neil Marshall — he of underground gribblies fame — is first out of the blocks with this highly entertaining tale of imperial overextension.

It features two of my favourite actors of the movement Michael Fassbender, as the eponymous Centurion Quintus Dias and Dominic West as General Titus Flavius Virilius, the leader of the Ninth tasked by Agricola with dealing with those perennially awkward people in the northern part of Britain.

There's a key moment where you are wondering just how the Picts are going to break down a well-held Roman line, and their (and Marshall's) solution to this challenge comes as a wry surprise.

With the legion destroyed a handful of Roman survivors has to escape from behind enemy lines hotly pursued by the mute Pictish terminator by the name of Etain, played by Olga Kurylenko. It's one long chase sequence, it has a half-hearted subtext about Nato and the Taleban, and it's both brutal and exciting.

Grade: B+(+)

Perrier's Bounty (2009)

The critics had led me to believe that the only really below par thing about this movie was its name.

In fact the whole thing is truly awful. The failure to suspend disbelief was so complete at times, that seeing a sound boom and a few crew members standing around eating bacon sandwiches could not have convinced me more that all I was watching was a bunch of thesps on some sort of tedious field trip, in which firearms were occasionally involved.

And some of them are (normally) such good thesps. What were they thinking?

Grade: C-

Friday, October 08, 2010

El Buró por delante

My first week back from Costa Rica has been one of positive change, not least in the weather here in Antigua.

Firstly we have acquired a new housekeeper in the person of Doña C. She is in fact the resident wachiwoman at one of the bigger properties in the neighbourhood and we've had dealings with in recent months, such as buying herbs, fruit and other stuff direct from her doorway. (Including the impressively large lime in the pic above.)

A couple of weeks ago she came to V and asked if we needed any help at home because she needed to raise a bit of extra cash. We were happy to agree to an occasional arrangement as we'd already had plenty of evidence that Doña C was intelligent, well-trained and of good character (V quickly disposed of all my empty latas when the chatarra van passed in case the fervently evangelical Doña C were to draw the wrong conclusions), and it has actually been fun to have her cheery presence around the place this week.

I'm fortunate not to have any commercial interests in Antigua which frees me up from the need to 'network' with ex-pats and transients. My wife and I are very private people in fact. We don't get out all that much and we don't much care for prolonged invasions of our space. The half dozen or so houses around us are all owned by members of her family and this provides about as much opportunity for sociability in any given week that we can normally take.

Which is one reason we find it a bit tiresome when we need to have an albañil on site and why we haven't generally employed people to help us with the housework. On the one hand, we argue to ourselves, how much mess can the pair of us make? On the other, there are still entire rooms filled with unopened boxes from our original move and every time we cook, we seem to have to juggle food preparation with clearing up from the last time.

Home life has felt like a bit of a rearguard action this invierno, with leaks springing up in unlikely places and a background level of disorder that I now realise has been disordering our ability to be completely positive and organised on other levels. Anyway, Doña C's intermittent presence this week has been a great help and indeed a pleasure, and she in turn has no doubt been pleased to discover that anyone who assisting V with the chore of those boxes tends to go home with at least some of the contents.

The second important development is that a descendent of famed conquistador Bernal Diaz and a member of a clan sometimes (somewhat erroneously) referred to as one of the 'five families', has offered to lend me her private mechanic. This can be chalked up as a lifestyle improvement because the nearest Chrysler dealer is on the outskirts of Guate. And the individual in question is nothing less than an uncannily adept tracker of car parts. Hand him any chunk of rusty metal from under the bonnet and he'll give it a sniff, vanish off to the hueseras, and promptly return with exactly the replacement required.

Lastly, I suppose I feel obliged to mention that this has also been the week when Antigua lost a notorious blogger to the long arm of the FBI, and the local chattering classes were forced to wake up to the fact that people who commit fraud are quite often fascinatingly fraudulent themselves, with regards to friends, acquaintances and even the principles they profess to live by.

I knew several things about 'Don Marco' almost from the moment he started to take occasional pot shots at my blog*.

These were a) that he had ten children b) that he went out of his way to attend Mass in Latin and c) that his real name was not Mark Francis.

I reached my own conclusions about the purpose of his stay in Guatemala, but didn't pursue my curiosity any further online, which might have been revealing of course.

'Mark' added me to his Shelfari contacts list and after perusing his bookshelf I further concluded that he wasn't really from Phoenix AZ, but more probably hailed from one of the original slave states of the south, such was the apparent depth of his interest in reactionary themes in both politics and religion.

Now that he has been arrested and deported it intrigues me how the Chapin grapevine chose to feed me very specific gobbets of information about him....indeed, very specifically the kind which featured prominently on his wanted poster back in TN. It would be ironic indeed if there were well-placed people in Guatemala who knew the truth about Jeffrey Lyn Cassman at least a year ago.

'Don Marco' always seemed a little rattled by our determination not to throw ourselves at the web he'd been spinning around town. One of the few close physical encounters we had — which turned out to be the last — was when he treated us to a rather childish (and pique-ish) demonstration of his machismo by overtaking us in his grey Merc laboriously, noisily and truly unnecessarily one evening **

I have been oddly saddened by Cassman's denouement. In spite of all of his gripes I felt he'd come to appreciate if not respect this country, and knowing how much we two love our life here, the notion that it could be taken away from us at a moment's notice by agents of a distant state is actually disturbing. Jeffrey and I are very different kinds of libertarian; my anti-authoritarian streak is perhaps less pronounced and ultimately more even, largely because I don't have the monkey of absolute truth on my back.

* It was always clear to both Rudy and me that these digs were a form of search engine marketing on the part of GuateLiving. Links to Rudy's site are especially valuable in terms of sucking up to Google's indexation algorithm! Here goes...

** V was not impressed. She long ago decided that this particular gringo was operating close to an edge of one sort or another, and was most likely properly dangerous.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

San José, Costa Rica

The unusally — for CA at least — distended belly of Costa Rica's almost comfortable middle class is very apparent in this pleasant capital city. At its upper end, San José is sophisticated without being especially cosmopolitan, which is in a sense, the opposite of the situation here in Antigua.

'Chepe' is in fact roughly Oaxaca-sized and can easily be explored on foot, unlike Guatemala City, where more pressing dangers than blisters take shape the moment one strays a KM or so in any given direction. And the main commercial artery — the Avenida Central — and the two blocks running parallel to it, seemed to bustle until several hours after dark, unlike Arzú's hailmary regeneration of the area around the Paseo de la Sexta in Guate, which tellingly features large plackards admonishing those who would seek to preemptively re-scummify the zone, and which still empties out rapidly every evening as citizens scuttle off at sundown, as if there were a snoozing vampire in every sótano.

The largest, most serious bookshop on the Avenida Central was stocked a full set of Bolaño novels, which predominated over lesser collections from the literary nobelity (e.g. Saramago, Gabo and Vargas Llosa), but alas not Paolo bloody-Coehlo.

This street is as good a place as any to indulge in some Tica-spotting. It struck me that there are three basic types on display:

1) The professionals: from basic presentable to seriously elegant — an appropriately dominant female type in a nation now led by one of their number
2) The lookers, from eye-catchingly fair to jaw-droppingly gorgeous
3) The eaters, from low centre of gravity to roly poly - possibly the largest group in terms of membership as well as urban footprint.

All seem to favour the kind of overtight denim legware that was even more fashionable up here in Guatemala in the 80s. All, but especially the type 2s, are likely to be seen wandering around town carrying a baby like a sack of potatoes. (I've never been a big fan of strollers in shopping centres, but this struck me as odd.)

San José does appear to have an unfortunate appeal for the Clete Purcell-type of tourist, and one couldn't help but notice the bars around town where the walls are covered with photos of bearded men in loud shirts holding large fish. Many are probably after the big catch up here on the high plain too, but should any of the Tica-types categorised above appear unusually available in that sense, they are a) most likely not Costa Rican and b) even more likely not female.

I once heard some young American tourists reviewing Antigua's market as they exited it as "a maze full of Walmart shit". Well, San José's version is an appropriately more urbane environment, with comparatively spacious walkways leading to a central core of cleanish-looking eateries known locally as sodas, with an interesting emphasis on medicinal herbs in some of the outer lanes. Tipico-wise, there's nothing much worth acquiring here.

And the truth is, once you've taken in the Teatro Nacional and a couple of the museums, what's left isn't really that much more interesting than Tapachula, and its central civic life around the Parque Central is considerably seedier. Cross several of the even-numbered avenidas to the south of it, and the pavements start to crumble and the clapboard properties which abound here look a lot more Belize City than Guatemala City.

It's just as pricey as Guate. It's not ridiculously expensive but you often sense that you're not quite getting your money's worth, and that with this kind of underlying backwater ambience, things really ought to be considerably cheaper. (This problem is not as pronounced as it is in say Scotland however.)

As for the grub, more on that later...

New Nobel

He might have punched Gabriel García Márquez on the nose, he might have written a load of misguided claptrap about Guatemala in his El Pais column, but I can't help feeling glad this morning that Mario Vargas Llosa will no longer have to be known as the next Spanish-speaking winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

That the prize has eluded him until now can probably be out down to the fact that his take on the things that matter most (sex, politics etc) have been more subtle and shifting than those of his peers in the boom movement, and that he has produced a string of near-masterpieces, but perhaps not that one stand-out novel in the public consciousness like Gabo or Saramago.

Still, he's surely Latin America's greatest all round man of letters, persistently active, and now that even Fidel has announced a break with his own principles, it seems that the Swedes have forgiven this Peruvian his privileged upbringing, his occasional moral opportunism and his Thatcherite deviancy.

I suppose I might have to go and read The Green House now. Maybe there's an edition out there where you don't need a magnifying glass to make out the text? I did manage to wade through Conversation in the Cathedral, but by the time I got to the end the first third of the book had become a bit foggy to say the least. For newcomers I'd recommend his cleverly structured Lituma crime series, his early comedies and the raunchy aunty and stepmother novels. And I really warmed to his Niña Mala back in 2007.

Update: I'd forgotten that I'd joined the 'Give the Nobel Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa' Facebook group some time ago until I received their thanks and goodbye email this afternoon:

"And the Nobel came. It is with great joy that I announce the end of our little but passionate group effort. The sole purpose of this FB’s group was to raise awareness about a simple yet relevant fact: Mario Vargas Llosa had never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, until today. Thus, when this Friday December 10th Mario Vargas Llosa finally receives his much deserved prize this FB group will cease to exist. Until then, the group will be open to continue celebrating the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. I wish to thank you all of you for being part of this group."

Piranha 3D (2010)

There's usually not much of a point to 3D in the modern cinema. Here there did seem to be one, but it's not a particularly deep one. Looming boobies aside, this is a knowing modern remake of a 70s homage to Jaws, and an all-round indirectly amusing pastiche of the genre that movie came to represent.

And it features one no holds barred fish-on-spring breaker action scene that makes the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan look like an episode of the Tellytubbies, but any slightly misanthropic oldies like myself, who have ever found themselves tuned into E Uncovered's coverage of these vernal festivities will no doubt be properly mentally prepared for this.

As with the previously-blogged feature, an implicit reference to 70s aesthetics has permitted the director to deliver a fully unreconstructed cinematic experience!

Grade: B (+-)