Thursday, February 24, 2011

The American (2010) / The Mechanic (2011)

These two deserve to be treated as a pair. Both are (perhaps unnecessary) retreads of the lone operative genre, Statham's new vehicle specifically a remake of a Michael Winner movie from 1972 starring Charles Bronson, while Clooney's feels like a remake of Le Samourai, but apparently Anton Corbijn vehemently denies ever seeing it. Both men have to kill someone they care about, both are 'good with machinery'.

In a sense The American is an oddly-named movie, because where it differs most starkly from The Mechanic is in its European arthouse heritage.

Clooney plays Jack/Edward, a warrior-gunmaker in service to a grizzled, but otherwise low-key Rome-based master called Pavel. Forced to flee the frozen north when — we can surmise — his cover is broken, Clooney comes to Italy in search of new instructions.

Strangely reluctant to use mobile phones, he will only contact Pavel from phone-booths once in the same country as his master. Pavel tells Jack/Edward not to make contact with anyone, but soon he is breaking up his solitude by sharing mealtimes with the local priest and trysts with a hooker called Clara.

Crucially Pavel also told Jack to make himself scarce in the town of Castelvecchio, but on arriving there the locals seem to give him the heebie geebies, so he drives over to the (presumably) nearby town of Castel del Monte, also situated atop a substantial hill.

Now, unless I got the wrong end of the stick, this decision, which I somehow expected to have more plot significance, results in Jack/Edward doing quite a lot of driving between the two towns throughout the movie — making for some footage which is all very beautiful and scenic, but leaving less time for Corbijn to show us how his relationship with Clara flowers into love and less time for dialogue with the priest; which is a pity, I thought. (Much of the tension hangs on the trust-ability of the hooker, but I was rather hoping that the priest would also come under suspicion. At one point he reminds Jack/Edward that he had told him that he was bad with machinery and I distinctly recalled that it was Pavel not the priest to whom that remark had been directed.)

Clooney delivers a measured performance, sometimes a little too placid, but most often highly suggestive of the character's inner control in his workshop which, outside of it at least, is being steadily eroded by a need for human contact and some justifiable anxiety about the various shadows tailing him. Just the thought of what would have happened if Corbijn had instead cast Jason Statham in this role was enough to convince me of the centrality of Clooney to this movie's power to engage.

The mayhem here is on a much smaller scale than in The Mechanic, but pushes credibility even further. How can such a small town support such a large bordello, and a body count of more than one? Where are all the old ladies wandering around the streets at night, or at least twitching their curtains? That said, the car chase at the end of The Mechanic is one of the most pointless ever put on celluloid.

If Clooney probably downsized his pay-cheque to go European, Statham was in turn was no doubt pleased to have finally upgraded himself from the European B-movie scene into a more substantially-funded Hollywood flick. The problem here is that, even though many of us find Statham bizarrely charismatic on screen, the producers here have not trusted him to carry a more expensive movie on his own, and have thus saddled him with Ben Foster as a particularly unloveable sidekick for the duration of The Mechanic. (viz Jacky Chan's earliest crossover films.)

When the lone operative is betrayed by his bosses, he can either track them down one by one and kill them all, as Statham does — leaving room for the sequel he has traditionally squeezed out of his roles — or he can follow the standard Japanese model and die in the process, or, as I seem to recall in Boiling Point (or was it Sonatine?) blow his own brains out having run out of betrayers to kill. It wasn't hard to guess which way Jack/Edward's path lay.

By the way, I think all forms of religious/folkloric/St Patrick's Day processions should be banned from the last act of thriller plots.

The Mechanic, Grade: B

The American, Grade: B(+)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Evil

In her keynote speech at TOC on February 11, Margaret Atwood observed that every tool has three sides, sharp, blunt and dumb.

The first two are available for good and evil uses respectively, while the dumb side delivers the almost equally prevalent effects we associate with the stupid and the banal. So, she added, a hammer might be used to build homes for refugees, to murder your neighbour's baby, or to accidentally blacken your fingernail.

Now, if I were a 'Christer', this is one of the explanations I would tend to deploy to account for the existence of evil in a created world, for a world with hammers that could only be used to build homes for the needy, would be a very different world to the one we actually inhabit, and a much less ethically-engaging one for sure. The potential for evil is, if you like, an inevitable part of the payload of good; in this world at least.

Norwegian thinker Lars Svendsen recently tackled this most elusive of concepts in his book The Philosophy of Evil. Rather like Niall Ferguson and his 'killer apps' for successful civilisation-building, Svendsen locates four different kinds of evil action:

Demonically evil acts - where one does evil for its own sake (whatever that may be).

Instrumentally evil acts - where the evil is done for a greater goal, not necessarily a good one either, and where the act is recognised as evil by its perpetrator.

Idealistically evil acts - where something bad has been mistaken for something good, and...

Brainlessly evil acts - rather self-explanatory this one, but controversially Svendsen thinks this kind of evil is best exemplified by Adolf Eichman.

This handy taxonomy externalises the issue somewhat, identifying evil acts independently of the mental (and moral) states behind them.

In Meno Plato argued that evil always resulted from ignorance, for who would actually want to pursue something they themselves did not perceive to be subjectively good?

That evil is a mistake — the kind made when one ignorantly confuses building a house for the needy with brutal murder with a household tool — strikes me as a flawed position.

Just last night I was reflecting on two individuals I know here in Guatemala, cousins in fact, who both seem to have a persistent tendency to behave in a nasty way to their fellow travellers on this planet, often in a manner that ends up harming their own cause.

While this last observation might support Plato's position, the key difference I can detect between these two people, is that the 'evil' in one — interestingly, the one more universally recognised as a bad egg — strikes me as predominantly the result of a particularly ropey upbringing, whilst the 'evil' in the other, appears to stem from something deeper, and therefore somehow more evil, in the bloodline.

Of course, this takes us back to the old nature-nurture antimony. I have no more ability than the next person to pry these two biases apart (more on this in a forthcoming post), but the idea of an evil state of mind that is somehow instinctual, certainly bothers me more than one that has been learned, or indeed simply manifests itself occasionally as a result of a disturbing lived experience.


News coverage of this week's events in Christchurch, NZ has been fairly traumatising for us, especially for V, who lived through Guatemala's great quake of 1976; a 7.5 at a depth of 5km, which resulted in 23,000 deaths.

Earthquakes of 6.3 magnitude or thereabouts are quite a regular occurrence here; in some recent years we have experienced several in the same year. Much depends of course on the particular movement pattern of the tremor and from the footage we've seen from New Zealand, the Christchurch quake was doing some pretty scary things with liquid.

Still, one expects there to be some fall-out in the near future over building regulations there, because the two big office blocks to come down (and the hotel which is now listing) appear to have been too flimsy for a region with seismic tendencies.

Our house is comparatively tall and this scenario remains a nagging fear for us, even though we did what we could to strengthen walls and foundations during the construction phase.* We have agreed that we really ought to have our emergency maletas packed and ready near the easiest exit at all times. The first thing V suggested putting into hers was her iPod, and I had to point out that that would mean she couldn't use it all the other times that we weren't buried under a pile of cinder blocks.

* The foundations (cimientos and zapatas) go down to 1.5m and there are other anti-seismic features in the main walls, which have special foam joins designed to absorb and deflect some of the forces which could otherwise cause the whole structure to wobble as a whole. The rather worn copy of the blueprints above was the one used by the maestro de obras on site. Here's hoping that the house holds together a bit better than its plans!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

I was sixteen and had finally acquired what you might call a social life — in other words regular weekend activities involving members of the opposite sex — when it was suggested by the gatekeepers of said activities (the girls) that we should all go to see Richard Gere in the 1984 film version of The Honorary Consul at the Kensington Odeon.

While it might in some ways have been a girl's film — thanks in no small part to the now familiarly naked torso of Mr Gere — but Greene's novel is essentially a man's book, a book about men making their way within a culture of machismo, men belaboured with the memories of dead fathers (and in some cases dead great grandfathers), men that frequent the local brothel in search of so much more than 'relief', and men willing to suffer poverty and pain in the pursuit of a vocation, be it politics, literature or the right measure of whisky.

It's not hard to see why Greene was so pleased with this late work. It's less tortured and tortuous than The Power and the Glory — Catholic guilt-lite if you like — and yet possesses a depth which it wears rather lightly as he cloaks it in the shiny outer-garment of a first rate thriller plot.

At least until the last 40 pages or so where it morphs into a rather dismal cassock and the Catholic trauma comes to the fore in this final, less worldly section, most particularly in the person of 'Father' Rivas, sadly little more than a cipher for Greene's own battle with the notions of hope, sacrifice and sin and a God who ought to be pitied as well as worshiped.

It's all a bit over-egged, but I did like the exposition of a God in need of redemption: "I believe God is suffering the same evolution that we are, but perhaps with more pain," León suggests to Eduardo at one stage when the game is almost up. (Take note too of Aquino the Marxist's position: "Of course God is evil. God is capitalism. Lay up treasures in heaven - they will bring you a hundred per cent interest for eternity.")

Anyway, as I recall the movie was of course a lot more interested in this plot than it was in character. I hadn't seen a Richard Gere movie before this one, so had little in the way of expectation except that I'd been told to expect some cooing from our female companions. I couldn't say he was at all mis-cast as 'cold fish' Eduardo Plarr, but from what I remember now, Michael Caine didn't quite achieve the nuanced performance of Fortnum that Greene's text calls for.

I've had this first edition hardback copy for many years, since the day I found it on my father's bookshelf. He denies ownership and we have concluded from the name signed on the page inside the cover, that it must have belonged to a long passed friend of my mother's who rather foolishly opted to lend it to her.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Finishing the job Reagan started...

David Cameron today became the first western leader to head out to Egypt in the hope of discovering who's actually in charge.

My father was based in Cairo back in 1946 and was following the coverage of the recent uprising somewhat avidly. He told me how he dated an A.T.S. girl stationed at a large British army barracks beside the Nile, which appears to have since been demolished to make way for the Nile Hilton.

The British were deeply unpopular in Egypt at the time and the atmosphere was, he reports, "always unpleasant" except when you were in a shop trying to buy something. Just about all the soldiers and soldier-ettes posted out there had heard one possibly apocryphal story relating to that particular barracks: one night two squadies were attempting to return to base quite late in a taxi and had the misfortune to show up outside the gates just as a fairly ugly political demonstration was passing. The Egyptians turned on the British soldiers and began to assault their vehicle in an attempt to extract them. The sentries behind the gates stood and watched, because they had no authority on the other side and no instructions to intervene in such circumstances. Suddenly a young A.T.S. girl emerged from the barracks, picked up a sten gun and fired indiscriminately into the crowd. The two soldiers were saved, several Egyptians died...and there is no word in this tale on the fate of the taxi driver.

Meanwhile, it looks like Gaddafi is bombing his own capital, Pinochet-style. Let's hope this doesn't work out for him. (Some of his pilots are rumoured to be defecting to Malta...)

I remember once having to refuse to work on a brief from an organisation operating within the Libyan government aparatus. I called up the colleague who had emailed it me and explained my reasons — partially rehabilitated or not, Gaddafi is an odious turd and I missed the Lockerbie bombing by 24 hours. In fact the plane I was on had the other half of the ill-fated group of students from Syracuse, who were flying home a day earlier.

Had I read the brief, she asked, because this development body was not in fact part of the regime. I had read it, I replied, and had understood that the general gyst of it was to convince people around the world that said organisation had nothing to do with Gaddafi — a notion which had clearly already taken hold spontaneously in the mind of my colleague without much in the way of budget being spent on it.

*That said, I remain convinced that it was more probably the Iranians and Syrians who brought down the Pan-Am 747 and that the blame was shifted to Megrahi for rather cynical 'diplomatic' reasons. I also believe that Amanda Knox is innocent (of knifing her friend at least), but do not generally subscribe to conspiracy theories!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Toughest Place To Be A....

Last night we watched the first episode of a new BBC three-parter in which various UK professionals are sent out to foreign locations designated as the toughest places to pursue their chosen careers.

Angie Dymott, the Welsh paramedic from Cardiff, handled herself very well during her posting at the Estación de Bomberos Voluntarios in Zona 11, especially as she had never seen a bullet wound before.

Aside from the usual cheap shots about corrupt cops and politicians and the now standard rather throw-away exposition of the relationship between Guatemala's recent past and present, this was a well-made programme. We particularly liked the way Angie got to stay with both the affluent volunteer in his walled 'compound' and the more humilde salaried bombero who resided in a small house with his large family in the pubelo of San Cristóbal.

Overlooking this location, which Dymott thought more typical of a quiet Guatemalan 'village' (in spite of the fact that it was patrolled at night by armed vigilantes) is Ciudad Peronia, where two rival maras, Los Metales and Los Caballos have supposedly reconciled. Even the bomberos seemed reluctant to accompany the Welsh paramedic on her fact-finding mission up the hill where she briefly spoke to an ex-gang leader who has now found God and drives a bus: perhaps not the best career choice for someone looking to get out of 'the life'. The interview was cut short when the gang's current intake passed in several vehicles revving their engines.

Archie, her first mentor, took his charge to the extraordinary Fraternidad Cristiana auditorium, which she clearly found moving. He's a full-time marketing executive who gives up some of his weekend to work with the Bomberos Voluntarios, and although his first dead body apparently gave him a sleepless night, his present attitude is clearly more desensitised. I quote my cousin Philip on this, as he was the one who flagged up to us the imminent broadcast of this documentary:

"She was totally shocked on the first shout when her mentor told her to forget it. He was handling it, breaking into smiles and grins, almost reveling in the power of life and death. No, there is nothing here to save, he's been shot five times, he's dead. She had to accept it and give up her conditioned response; we have to try something."

Next week it's the turn of bus driver Josh, who must be thanking his lucky stars that they sent the paramedic to Guatemala, while he got to go to tough it out on the streets of Manila.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To A Mountain In Tibet

My impression is that most westerners who dabble in Buddhism are essentially secular in outlook and not really seeking the big hit of revelation — though you might say that many of them do so in the context of a certain nostalgia for the numinous.

Colin Thubron's new book, To A Mountain In Tibet sounds like a fascinating read. I was intrigued to hear him state on a R3 pod this morning that historically Tibet has been one of the world's most violent societies, long sporting a standing army in excess of 200,000 soldiers and that many of the previous incumbents of the position of Dalai Lama were either murdered or themselves implicated in murder.

Thubron indicates that the era of the First World War represented the high water mark of western cultural mystification of Tibet, coinciding with the moment when Europe was bleeding its old certainties most profusely.

I recently heard the authors of All Things Shining define secular outlook as one which, while not rejecting religiosity, is not only tolerant of competing viewpoints, actively encourages individuals to adopt as many of them as they might feel comfortable with.

As well as a set of disciplines for the suppression of the self in everyday capitalist existence, Buddhism offers a deeper spiritual heritage for the post-modern notion that the best case scenario for the hereafter — full preservation of the individual persona in the hereafter* — is also the least satisfying from a rational viewpoint.

* Though I grant this might not be such a satisfactory end result for the damned.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A lost art?

I'm reading my first edition hardback copy of The Honorary Consul today and came across an instance of what appears to be an editorial slip: Greene wrote affected when he clearly meant effected. I wonder if this made it through to the current paperback edition?

Anyway, fellow pedants will be fascinated to read Alex Clark's piece in last Friday's Guardian on The Lost Art of Editing. I too have found e-books to be comparatively poorly edited for basic copy errors, which bodes badly for the future.

Have we eaten all the low-hanging fruit?

"My grandfather grew up in the 1900s in a world of horse-drawn carts and candle-lit houses. In the following 50 years he would live through a series of astonishing transformations – electricity, the motor car, television and radio, the telephone, the refrigerator, the vacuum-cleaner, penicillin and the aeroplane, just to name a few. It was not just these things that made the 20th century what it was. Their production was industrialised. They created huge employment and wealth. I grew up in the 1960s and have experienced no such parallel transformations."

Thus griped Will Hutton in last Sunday's Observer as he reviewed Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation, How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, a book which posits that scientists and technologists have recently not been able to come up with inventions that can be industrialised at the same pace as they once did.

The notion that the pace of change has become less rampant is one that has occurred to me too. After all I belong to a generation that grew up expecting to be colonising the moon and having philosophical chats with their household robots by now.

I note however that my father, who had no trouble getting his head around television, jet aeroplanes etc. struggles a bit with Facebook and the social media in general. This suggests that change is coming packaged with new complexities. Ask yourself which device brings the greatest social transformation, the telephone or its apparently less innovative spin-off, the mobile telephone?

Thinking about this I recalled a passage in Frode's new book Liquid Information, which suggests that young-ish westerners of our sort have by now traveled a greater distance than all of our ancestors combined. (Human ancestors, one presumes.)

That this kind of change, however great, might also be complex and non-linear occurred to me when I started to consider it in greater depth. I was thirteen before I made my first transatlantic journey, though I had by then boarded perhaps 50 or so flights around my home continent. In my teens I also went InterRailing around Europe four times.

Nowadays, I get the impression that young westerners are more likely to have been to Thailand (or indeed Guatemala) in the early part of their travel-histories than to have explored territories more closer to home, though the combined evil that is Ryanair and the city break may be partially offsetting this trend.

However this may also be one of the last generations for whom such low-cost long-haul air travel is available. (And let us not forget that only 37% of Americans have passports, even if they do have a large continent-spanning nation within which to collect their miles.)

Vehicular hacking

There's been much talk recently of new rules of engagement for state-sanctioned cyberwarfare, and in particular of a new definition of the nation state for the digital age.

One of the topics discussed at the conference was the possibility that hackers could soon turn to messing with the on-board computing systems incorporated into a new generation of motor vehicles. Such attacks could cause minor inconveniences such as re-routing you by modifying your GPS coordinates, or more serious setbacks such as turning off the engine when the car is moving at high speed. Some informed commentators have even suggested that fires or even explosions could be effected via cyberwarfare techniques. It may never happen, but attention all screenwriters, eh?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Borderland (2007)

There was a moment early on in this movie when we thought we were watching a shameless simulcrum of 2005's Hostel, tailored for those Americans for whom Central Europe is, well, just a bit too far away.

The cunning double hit nature of this format is that while one gets undoubted pleasure from watching a certain archetypal young Yank traveler getting destazado, one also knows that many of them will be watching the movie and being terrified out of their horizon-expanding pre-college foreign trips. (Though the effect might have been diminished here by the casting of thirty-year-olds in the Gap year roles.)

Anyway, having stoked up just about every unpleasant stereotype surrounding the devilish dystopia down there, the mid section of this film seemed to break free of its influences and started to show some promise in terms of tension and comparatively unpredictable turns of plot.

But then up pops Beto Cuevas as the self-consciously Luciferian kingpin Santillán, looking appropriately enough, as if he's just stepped out of one of those corny 1990s Telehit videos.

This heralds the start of a disordered third act worthy of a James Lee Burke novel, and although here none of the bad guys mysteriously yet helpfully top each other, two of the principal villains are offed rather cheaply some time before the credits finally roll. But then this was all supposedly 'based on true events', do you really want that passport?

Grade: B (-)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Never Let Me Go (2010)

This film gave me nightmares. One of its implications is that if Roy Batty had gone to an English country boarding school, he might have been a little more accepting of his condition as a replicant.

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel has been adapted for the screen by Alex Garland, and it must be said that even the latter's erstwhile directorial collaborator Danny Boyle would have struggled to find the feel-good vibe in this material. So it's not hard to see why the movie bombed stateside, and why it will tend to torment any audience in need of neatly-gathered explanations. (And yet it remains a travesty that for this reason in the main it has been locked out of the awards season. How, for example, has Andrew Garfield been BAFTA nominated for The Social Network and not for his role here as Tommy?)

I too struggled with the plausibility of it all for the first hour or so. This is an alternative post-war Britain, familiarly grim yet with a precocious capability for deploying gene-based therapies in the fight against cancer and ageing in general. This might sound a bit like science fiction, but Ishiguro isn't the least interested in the science of it, or indeed how this society made the moral leap (or tumble) towards using clones as part of a living repository of spare-parts. So once you start interrogating the narrative as a naturalistic piece — like, how does someone survive one, let alone three vital organ transplants? — you are entering a world of potential frustration.

It's possible that this effect of dissonance was reduced in the novel, which was written in the first person — for Kathy has been kept largely in the dark, and her ignorance on these technical matters has a narrative purpose that is hard to recreate on screen. Garland has lifted parts of her monologue, setting them as voiceover interludes, and the last of these reinforced the sense I already had that this story should be taken as a disturbing parable about human mortality, loss and about how we all, to a greater or lesser extent, find ways to suppress our rage at the 'dying of the light'.

I'd still perhaps have liked a bit more on the specific educational mechanisms that permitted the clones to not really know what they know, but in the end I came to see the very implausibility of this tale as one of its virtues. And right now when I am myself toying with a futuristic fictional conceit, and wondering how to handle all of its implications across an imagined world, such a realisation is genuinely tantalising.

Ishiguro's blend of English and Japanese sensibilities and his obvious fascination with repressed emotion continue to fascinate me. Last year I read The Remains of the Day and, nightmares or not, I have been encouraged to seek out this book too some time in the near future.

Grade: A-

Friday, February 11, 2011

El Infierno (2010)

Telehit's resident cineasta Kristoff agreed with his visiting compadres that Luis Estrada's El Infierno was the best Mexican movie of 2010, even though they reckoned it was all over the place in terms of structure.

I tend to disagree. I've heard several films censured recently (Tamara Drewe among them) for being uncertain of whether they want to be one thing or another. And sure enough, one might say of El Infierno that it wants to be a Mexican version of The Godfather, Scarface and Mickey Blue Eyes all at once, splattered with references to Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi series. Well, so what, because in this instance the blend of comedy of tragedy works.

Estrada takes a lot on board, because the story of Benny — the returning wetback who becomes a comparatively big fish in one of Mexico's many small narco-ponds — points to the all-inclusive nature of this curse, which even the protagonist's cathartic act of violence at the end cannot dispel.

Grade: A -

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Resident (2010)

This enjoyable Hammer thriller, which features Hilary Swank as an ER medic who picks the wrong Brooklyn apartment to move into, shed its theatrical release thanks to some rather obvious failings in plot and character — as opposed to performance and direction.

I suppose they might have been the sort of things which only really stand out once the screenplay has been shot, but someone should have been able to pinpoint the way the movie blatantly telegraphs its intentions, thereby compromising any real welling of suspense: Look, I own a nailgun, mobile reception is bad here, meet Christopher Lee, my creepy red herring of a grandfather etc.

Grade: B

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Mexico Lindo y Querido?

"And this government? It has learned the lesson that Thatcher never grasped. If you want to turn this country into another Mexico, where the ruling elite wallows in unimaginable, state-facilitated wealth while the rest can go to hell, you don't declare war on society, you don't lambast single mothers or refuse to apologise for Bloody Sunday. You assuage, reassure, conciliate, emote. Then you shaft us."

This comparison, which concluded an article in today's Guardian by George Monbiot would have been more (though not completely) true of Guatemala, but this was the week when figures from across UK's media and entertainment sphere decided to offload years of pent-up, ill-informed impressions of our northern neighbour.

When Clarkson and co kicked things off on the 30th of January, Richard Hammond had a particularly hairy border crossing from the territory of acceptable British national stereotyping into the bandit country of xenophobic unpleasantness.

Cherished British comic and would-be Hollywood export Steve Coogan was as unimpressed by the BBC's subsequent qualified apology as most Mexicans, finding the smug Top Gear trio guilty of a form of international bullying: "With Top Gear, it is three middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. rabe, groundbreaking stuff, eh?"

Hold on Steve. Hammond called them lazy, feckless and flatulent. Poor is surely one of your own.

Now, as George Monbiot sagely notes, national lucre isn't always divided up in a uniformly equable manner (viz. the USA), but if one uses the CIA's data for GDP per capita in 2010, one finds that overall Mexicans are better off than the citizens of several EU member nations including Bulgaria and Romania and one would-be EU-member, Turkey. More topically, Mexico's per capita GDP of $13,800 comes in at more than double that of 'poor' Egypt, $6,200.

In spite of the global downturn, so called 'Mexican flu' and all those decapitated bodies in Acapulco, Mexico's economy still grew at a rate of 5% last year, compared to zero or even negative growth in parts of 'new Europe'.

Mexican tourists are reportedly amongst the biggest spenders in London.
And let us not forget that the world's biggest pistudo, Carlos Slim, is a Mexican. Flatulent he might be, but lazy, feckless and most definitely poor, he is not. Could Señor Slim be one of these state-facilitated fat-cats to which Monbiot refers?

Mexico's political and economic arrangements should actually be quite hard to stereotype, given that they are at least partly the result of the first and most unusual of the twentieth century's great revolutions. But perhaps Monbiot was referring to the pre-revolutionary Mexico, as run by the authoritarian and elitist Porfirista regime?

Long before Hugo Chávez began refashioning autocracy for a democratic age, Mexico's upheaval was finally settled by the creation of a corporatist state, governed by a hegemonic political party — the PRI — which, needing to at least resemble something liberal and accountable — limited its leaders, who otherwise had the powers of absolute monarchs, to six year terms. "There isn't a unique model for democracy," as one of the last of the PRI presidentes, Carlos Salinas was to observe.

There was a long period of somewhat illusory consensus, brought to an abrupt end by the student massacres of 1968 and 1971. President Luis Echevarría ('70-'76) borrowed like crazy and would have ruined the country sooner than the eventual debt default of '82, had not a chingo of oil been discovered off the coast of Campeche. Then came the '85 quake and Zedillo's disastrous currency flotation of '94 after which the PRI's political monopoly finally crumbled. The advent of Vicente Fox appeared to signal an end to authoritarianism, but in fact presidential power devolved back, not to the people, but to local governors and alcaldes, more diffuse for sure, but still within the aegis of the state.

Nevertheless, Michael Reid at the Economist notes that "Mexico has changed radically. It is a much more democratic, pluralist and open society than it was under Salinas."

Yet in spite of this and in spite of the sustained economic growth of recent years, half a million Mexicans attempt to migrate into the US each year. Part of the problem is that manufacturing growth at the centre has come at the cost of rural impoverishment in the peripheries, and both have been accelerated by Mexico's membership of NAFTA. (Though without NAFTA, total exports would have been 50% lower and foreign direct investment 40% less, according to one study. Reid thinks the real problem has been a lack of EU-style regional development funds and proper sponsorship from el Norte.)

Today Mexico is no Scandinavian political paradise, but then if the late Stieg Larsson is to be believed, nor is Sweden. It's really no fairer to refer to it as an oligarchic kleptocracy than it would be to say the same of the USA.

It remains a 'low intensity' democracy, plagued by the impact of hot money and stop-start reform. Recently we've had a chuckle or two every time the Federal government's latest announcement touting its unprecedented motorway-building programme appears on ForoTV. "Now my avocados can travel further and further," says the farmer in the ad, leading us to such naughty thoughts as "not just avocados..."

The point is that anyone who has actually visited Mexico cannot help but be impressed by the infrastructure and will inevitably come away with the impression that this is far from being a monolithic two-tier society.

After the revolution Mexico, like many Latin American nations adopted expensive European-style social security systems without really endowing the state with the means to pay for them. They also tend to cover the middle classes and organised working classes better than they do the masses of rural poor.

Yet crucially, the rich of Mexico do seem to have a better understanding than their counterparts north of the border that they actually need their nation's poor people — and that they need them to be less poor, because poverty has been acting as a brake on Mexico's economic growth. Poverty-reduction remains one of the fundamental cross-party aims of the modern state, with education one of the key pillars of this policy.

Mexico currently trains more engineers each year than the USA, China or India.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

True Grit (2010)

The Coens claim to have gone back to the literary original here, rather than the 1969 movie with John Wayne. The casting of (the then) thirteen-year-old Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross was inspired and the first third of the movie, where her character (and grit) are established in several face-to-face exchanges with male characters in Fort Smith is the most enjoyable.

Thereafter, once she and Jeff Bridges's Marshal Rooster Cogburn (and less consistently Matt Damon's Texas Ranger LaBoeuf) have ridden off into a bleak Roger Deakins-shot landscape and proceed to have disjointed encounters worthy of any mythological quest, the quality comes and goes — as does the intelligibility of Cogburn's contributions to the dialogue. But overall a fine piece of film-making and yet another genre firmly under the Coen's belt.

Grade: A-

Due Date (2010)

Well, there wasn't a masturbating dog in Planes, Trains and Autombiles, was there?

Grade: B

Winter's Bone (2010)

Another first rate experience. I've now seen all the Academy-nominated 'best films' and one could make a strong case for almost all of them winning that gong (I think I might have to make an exception with The King's Speech however.)

There are two or three really stand-out scenes in Debra Granik's movie. One involves a character who V correctly identified as a real army recruitment officer and another a roadside stand-off, which she took as an indication of how one should ideally treat the cops who like to pull one over between Mixco and San Lucas.

In the end however, I struggled to believe that this folorn bunch of inbred Ozark hillbillies were operating the most immanently menacing drugs cartel in America's flyover territories. If they had been Romanian gypsies or even Belizean Mennonites, I would of course have had no problem at all in believing in their creepy criminal tendencies, so feel free to question the rationality of my scepticism on this point.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The King's Speech (2010)

A certain Tristram wrote into Kermayo this week to recount how the end of this film was greeted with a few moments of silence, after which a well spoken gentlemen was heard to exclaim "Oh very good".

There indeed much here to justify such a spontaneous exclamation: some oh very good performances from Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter, some oh very good mise-en-scène and accompanying cinematography, and some oh very good conversion of history into entertaining, Oscar-baiting drama, complete with one or two oh very good lines of dialogue.

Yes, all so oh very good for what it is, but I was left with reservations stemming from a nagging sense of what it hadn't been. Suppose Shakespeare had decided to tell the tale of Richard III from the perspective of his relationship with the physio treating him for the hump...a notion at least indirectly suggested in this script. It might have been a more moving tale, but shunting all that history, that really quite important history, into the background undoubtedly affords an opportunity for more subtle subterfuge than the Bard himself was prone to when handling recent political personages. (Yes, I know Richard III probably didn't have a hump...)

Screenwriter David Seidler reports that the Queen Mum refused him permission to dramatise the story of her husband's stammer in her lifetime. We've had no end of TV treatments of the abdication scandal, but this more personal perspective was long deemed inapposite by the remaining Windsors.

If one would also like to appreciate how distracting it might be from disturbing historical truths, Christopher Hitchens made the case for falsification in yesterday's Guardian.

Grade: B+