Friday, June 28, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019)

The adaptation suggested by this poster is the one I'd perhaps have rather seen. 

Something between zombie pet apocalypse and Wicker Man

Unfortunately, like a lot of Stephen King tales, this one has a bit too much back and side story going on and the potential for cat and dog-based creepiness ultimately gets a bit lost. 

Not a bad movie, just not really doing what it says on the tin.

Disrespecting the details...

'You can be in Timbuctoo or New York City, I don't care where you are. There's no worse trade for inefficiency than a builder's'  > Harry Pendel, The Tailor of Panama
In any complex project in any part of the world there is a danger that what at the planning stage at least looks like the final 5% can end up taking upwards of 50% of the total time. But here in Guatemala the danger seems especially acute. 

My former business partner used to have a handy analogy for this - the bowl of bananas. When it is first put out people rush in and grab the nice yellow ones, but the darker, spottier ones take longer to shift. 

Most of the Guatemalan contractors I’ve come across tend to assess any project in terms of the part they like best and do at the fastest pace - for example, the builders love lifting block walls, a task which comes with the pleasing routine of a production line. The details that follow barely register until the painful completion phase is upon them. 

Fake Foodie News

Another day, another slightly irritating, cliché-ridden piece in the US media about this place. 

If you saw the home of El Pulpo's Wilson Popenhoe in Antigua you’d realise that the origins of the Haas avocado were far from ‘humble’. Ah, but it’s grotty old Guatemala so they must be, right? 

And where did Lucy Sherriff acquire that canard about the birthplace of chocolate? San Juan del Effing Obispo? 

I suppose it’s rather like the whole ‘birthplace of tango’ thing, all very ‘don’t go there’. 

But the facts as currently known involve the detection of the chemical signature of this liquid on Mesoamerican vessels belonging to the pre-Olmec period in Tabasco, Veracruz and maybe even Chiapas. So, not Guatemala. Especially not Mixco. 

And there are a few fruits and vegetables I can imagine not growing here. I've been particular unsuccessful with olive trees for example. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Dumbo (2019)

Tim Burton's Dumbo is a big stinking pile of elephant caca.

This notion that the classics of the past need to be 'updated' to show off modern CGI and smooth away all the non-pc stuff, so that developing snowflakes are not exposed to anything that might 'trigger' them surely REEKS.

It's a given it seems that they will grow up immune to the agonies of mediocrity.

Soon we'll have a rebooted version of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? where there's really no lifestyle choice one's offspring can make that might be the least bit bothersome.

The Hummingbird Project (2018)

At last a role for Salma Hayek where being a forever-glamorous, middle-aged Mexican woman who’s lived for years in the US, but never really learned how to speak English properly is not the absolute essence of it. Here she sports some specs and grey-painted hair and clearly has a lot of fun. 

The film owes a massive (unacknowledged) debt to The Flash Boys by Michael Lewis and I am sure I enjoyed it the more for having read that - as many of the plot devices that would have otherwise smacked of desperation on the part of the writer-director are in fact loosely based on fact.

The Beach Bum (2019)

‘Fun is the fucking gun’, proclaims the titular character in Harmony Korine’s new movie. This stoner non-comedy closely replicates the experience of enforced proximity to an individual who pitches him or herself as the living epitome of the good time. 

The trouble is that while it’s one thing to lead a studiously unconventional lifestyle, it’s another to rub it in everyone else’s faces, whether one is St Francis of Assisi or Moondog here. This is a phenomenon I am all too familiar with. I even knew someone called Moondog back in Belize in the 80s. 

Individuals determined to demonstrate that they have a free pass to live outside everyone else’s mores tend to act with eye-watering entitlement. There are even a few of their sort dotted around Antigua and I tend to feel the same way about them as I did about Matthew McConaughey’s on screen consummation of the type: a form of discomfort that is inevitably boosted by a developing world perspective. 

There’s another quite simple conceit going on here, rather like that of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus — the jarring notion that great art can emerge from intense dickishness. Yet Korine appears to lack the screenwriting skills to place enough utterances of sufficient profundity into the mouth of his protagonist to carry this off. In fact there is one prize-winning poem set in Havana recited twice in the film by McConaughey, that suggests rather half-heartedly that satire was instead the aim here. 

At the outset one is led to believe that the audience will be placed within the framework of that familiar narrative featuring an essentially bad person forced to go on a journey of personal growth through which, in an altogether unlikely manner, they are transformed into a better sort of human being. (Think Central Station). 

Yet round the mid-point — when Zac Efron shows up in a brave attempt to drag his career below the low it touched in Dirty Grandpa — you realise that Moondog is never going to pull out of this dive, and that anyone he meets on the way down are simply there to emphasise the pull of gravity. 

More’s the pity as I really enjoyed Korine’s previous feature  — Spring Breakers — which was grounded in another OTT performance from a somewhat Marmite male performer (James Franco). 

Saturday, June 22, 2019


What does someone have to do to deserve the name ‘pirate’? What does a dish have to look like to deserve the name ‘ceviche’? Two of the questions I was mulling here at El Ranchito on Naos Island. 

It always used to irk me a bit how the locals around these parts referred to Drake as a pirate. Gabo was a repeat offender. Surely, I thought, the men who packed those galleons with gold were just as deserving of the title? 
St Augustine reported the opinion of a corsair captain that when it comes to maritime plunder, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply one of scale. Drake, like many, was awash in the flexible middle. 

The man who sacked and destroyed the original settlement at Panama City, Welsh privateer Henry Morgan, did so after the Treaty of Madrid between England and Spain in 1671. As a result he was taken back to London to answer for his ‘crime’, but successfully argued that news of the peace hadn’t reached the Caribbean and therefore it could not be enforced from the moment it was agreed. Instead of being hanged as a pirate, he was made Governor of Jamaica. 
Like many of his kind, it turned out he was just one step away from respectability. The same could not be said of that ceviche.

Friday, June 21, 2019

'Menos Pior'. But for us, not you..

The issue I have with the selection process that will place Boris in No10 is this: he said on the Beeb the other night that it's not as reprehensible of the way Gordon Brown was installed because there's a national crisis afoot. In fact that makes it WORSE. 
The manner of these Tory hustings and TV interrogations, where a very narrow range of views on the national predicament have come to the fore, combined with Labour's absurd absence of a position, give the false impression that this Tory discourse, in which Rory Stewart's fairly common sense objections are tagged as 'maverick' or 'insurgent', is the NATIONAL discourse. 
Both traditional parties are now in effect addressing Farage rather than the country as a whole.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

I Am Mother (2019)


This medium-budget Aussie sci-fi (which was picked up by Netflix after Sundance) is plainly derivative, yet has a claim to be more than the sum of other movies’ parts based on the way its premise contains an important thrust of novelty. 

This being the (clearly dubious) notion, familiar to totalitarian systems in the last century and before, that all that is bad in human nature can be nurtured out of us. 

So this time an over-reaching super-AI, having decided that humanity represents if not a threat to it, at least a bloody nuisance, presses the re-set button and starts again with a single (kind of) first woman with the plan of carefully educating this ‘daughter’ within a bunker-like Eden in such a manner that humanity 2.0 is primed to value the claims of the many over the few. 

Why would a supposedly well-informed machine intelligence come to believe that this plan, attempted unsuccessfully (and brutally) in an albeit less pure form by various human societies, work better under its tutelage? Surely it would have swatted up and found out that we ourselves have figured out that the perfectability of man plan has been discredited?

Only the ability to keep trying over and over again until it gets it right seems to justify the programme  that and the fact that compromised humanity appears to have contributed to its own demise. Yet the essential problem remains: how to stop fundamental human nature re-asserting itself. 

The movie has other problems, such as a third female character that ultimately makes only partial sense. Meanwhile, although young Irish-Danish actress Clara Rugaard is at the heart of much that is good about the movie  as are the voice acting skills of Rose Byrne as the personality of her robot ‘Mother’ — we both couldn’t help feeling that a lone human child brought up in this way would be noticeably stranger than the script ultimately allows ‘Daughter’ to be. 

I suppose the director felt he needed to give his film a relate-able YA vibe, but this has the effect of dampening the deeper and darker stuff that might have made it a better. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

Higginbotham makes it clear that the RBMK-1000s (Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy) had rather obvious design - and manufacture - flaws from the outset. One of these was the sheer size of the reactors, a product of a Soviet penchant for the colossal.

“The RBMK was so large that reactivity in one area of the core often had only a loose relationship to that in another. The operators had to control it as if it were not a single unit but several separate reactors in one. One specialist compared it to a huge apartment building, where a family in one flat might be celebrating a raucous wedding, while next door another was observing a funeral wake. Isolated hot spots of reactivity might build deep inside the core, where they could prove hard to detect.”

This inherent instability made life in the reactor control room exhausting and stressful as engineers were constantly pushing buttons on the panels in the hope of evening out reactivity. When one former nuclear submarine officer first took his seat at the desk in Chernobyl’s Unit One, he was horrified by the colossal size of the reactor and how antiquated the instrumentation was. “How can you possibly control this hulking piece of shit?” he asked. “And what is it doing in civilian use?"

This preference for quantity over quality in the USSR is something I pinpointed in an essay in 1985 following my second visit. The point was illustrated with an anecdote about our guide to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, who joyfully rattled off statistics relating to the number of works of art in each of the massive rooms we passed through. That the space might include two of three great masterpieces which were being crowded out by odds and ends of lesser significance was a suggestion that brought a puzzled frown to his face.

Shoddy workmanship was another endemic problem in the USSR. One of my travelling companions in 1984 quickly acquired a reputation for being able to accidentally break almost anything of Soviet manufacture that he came into contact with.

Higginbotham writes: ‘The valves and flow meters in other RBMKs, used to regulate the crucial supply of water to each of the more than 1,600 uranium-filled channels, proved so unreliable that the operators in the control room often had no idea to what extent the reactors were being cooled, or if they were being cooled at all. Accidents were inevitable...the serpentine plumbing of the reactor was riddled with faults: the water-steam coolant pipes were corroded, the zirconium-steel joints on the fuel channels had come loose, and the designers had failed to build any safety system to protect the reactor against a failure of its feed-water supply—eventually, the Chernobyl engineers had to design and fabricate their own.’ (Chapuz, chapuz, chapuz...)

Meanwhile, Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature film set in the above-mentioned museum - Russian Ark (2002) - is indeed a masterpiece that I would recommend to all.


If a number of the candidates in the UK's over-subscribed race to No10 entered primarily in order to raise their profile and earn a post in the eventual winner's cabinet, certain candidates in Guatemala's own somewhat crowded and chaotic general election appear to have entered in order to be able to have a better shot at it in four or perhaps even eight years time.

One might suggest that Donald Trump was placed in the White House by people who valued his richness, his whiteness and his masculinity over any other qualities he might have. Aristotle's most significant contribution to western ethics was the observation that virtues are not the opposite of vices - rather a fudge somewhere between two of them - so, electing poor, female, non-white people is not necessarily the answer to the aforementioned voting 'vice' - given that membership of a particular demographic is never on its own going to make an individual best qualified to be head of state.

Thelma Cabrera does indeed seem somewhat under-qualified to be Guatemalan president, but given the nature of the incumbent, these things are relative.
She has benefitted this time round from the slightly rudderless nature of the anti-corruption movement, following the exclusion of Thelma Aldana, but along the way has massively enhanced her profile and improved the possibilities for indigenous candidates, while simultaneously (and amusingly) diminishing those of characters like Roberto Arzú.

If Sandra Torres now goes on to win, in four years time she will depart the political scene and UNE's rural power base may well be up for grabs.

Meanwhile the other Thelma may yet get her chance and at some point Neto Bran is bound to become a (national) problem.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

High Life (2018)

A first English language feature from Claire Denis, and yet oh so very French. 

As French as chugging along a motorway at 60mph in a 2CV sitting next to someone chain-smoking Gauloises with the windows shut. And for maybe the first 30 minutes or so, about as pleasant.

We both agreed that this was a strong candidate for most annoying film of the year. And gave up.

It was failing to do the basic job of any movie set in space: convince viewers that it is actually set in space. It’s as if Denis went out of her way to show that this was the least of her concerns.

And yet, I kept it on my iPad and during a recent trip to San José, forced myself to see it through. That Portillo Malbec helped.

It isn’t completely redeemed by its second half, but those lingering genital close-ups of a baby girl (such a ferk you to the mainstream sci-fi audience) are supplanted by a growing then diminishing cast of characters capped off with the de-rigueur ambiguous conclusion.

It contains this handy piece of advice...

“Never drink your own urine, never eat your own shit — even if they’ve been recycled.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Hollow Crowns

Pay attention to any of our contemporary political commentators for long enough and they will eventually start ruing the divided state of the nation before expressing a desire for some sort of curative coming together, which they will probably add, is the more natural state of affairs. (Even some of the Tory leadership candidates are not entirely averse to this.) And it is, to a large extent, nonsense. Any serious look at our history reveals that division is the more natural and probably more productive state. There are nearly always at least two available camps to sit in. In the fifteenth century for example, the English were split along dynastic lines, York and Lancaster. The following century saw this conflict morph rather suddenly into an argument over faith, which in turn, one hundred years later, segued into a dispute between King and Parliament. Thesis, antithesis, Synthesis. Hegel called this dialectic. Yet what we see is that the terms shift, so that synthesis remains perpetually elusive - an interminable teleology in which those who speak of achieving a final end to the prevailing controversy and its unpleasant consequences should of necessity be treated with scorn. (The young Henry VIII rather amusingly imagined that his accession marked a sort of ‘end of history’ moment.) So, Brexit appears to be firmly in this tradition, and yet it reveals an interesting truth about the pattern. Not all theses and antitheses are of equal weight. It’s not hard to see for example that from an intellectual perspective the argument between Monarch and Parliament was more meaningful than the fracas between the red and white roses. And so now, we can examine the current reconfiguration of our political animus and conclude that the great confrontation of the last century, between Left and Right, between liberal and totalitarian systems, which some imagined would resolve rather conveniently into a worldwide Scandinavian-style social democratic group hug, has instead kicked off anew into a national schism over the EU. And it is SO empty. One only has to listen for the briefest of moments to the extreme ideologues of Leave or Remain to comprehend the void at the heart of this altercation, how lacking in genuine intellectual content it therefore tends to be. Most of them end up trying to spice things up by shamelessly borrowing the terminology from last century’s polarities:‘Nazi!’ In the first part of the twentieth century I do believe it really mattered to which side one was adopted. In the Spanish Civil War for example, we didn’t see an absolute confrontation between right and wrong, but the choices made were meaningful and had real ethical underpinnings. So it was in the Reformation and then in the English Revolution. Brexit, in comparison, invites its protagonists to adopt positions that are obviously hollow from the outset and from almost any perspective.

No, not for me...

It occurred to me today that there are certain establishments in this part of the world that I have in effect chosen to avoid after seeing their Instagram feeds. I won't name them. One was the sort of place I might otherwise have been expected to try out, but one look at their pictorial posts and it's like 'no, not for me'.

This might seem a bit churlish of me, but I have been exposed to the Ogilvy school of brand communication in which advertising and marketing are not primarily about the generation of sales but rather the generation of meanings - meanings that end up as an integral part of the product that is consumed. 

And bad meanings leave an aftertaste, or actually in this case an ante-taste: the sort you can almost detect before the victual itself.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Us (2019)

Every bit as funny and sucker-punch disturbing as Jordan Peele's first feature Get Out, with the added bonus of an absolutely stunning performance from Mexican-born Lupita Nyong'o.

There are some rather obvious flaws (literally) in its subterranean subtextual underpinnings. An uncompromising (twisted) European arthouse director of the Haneke or von Trier sort, might have done something more with that, but Peele has the pop cultural creds for a more mainstream hit.

And for a film which, unlike the previous one, has no direct references to the matter of race (other than the fact that leaving a key hidden beneath a rock beside the front door is 'white shit'), there is hardly anything in this movie that is NOT about race. That's something masterful.

And at the risk of releasing a tiny spoiler, the ending struck me as an invitation to reflect on the of complications of mestizaje.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Picking a favourite beach...

Which is the best beach in Central America? 

This used to be a no-brainer. The twenty or so kilometres of wind-swept, white sand south of the ruins at Tulum had no parallel in the region. 

When I first went there there was no town to speak of, no hotels either, just a handful of cabañas and under-palm hammocks. Yet this was arguably not the very best moment to visit the location, which I think occurred later in the late nineties and early noughties: the period when the ‘Mayan Riviera’ briefly deserved its sobriquet. 

There was one very special spot on this stretch called Las Ranitas, that was for me an unparalleled and irreplaceable vision of paradise, now lost, for the property was sold and comprehensively ruined by its crass new owners. Meanwhile, the whole beach has been diminished by concrete constructions, sargassum in-flows and an all-too-prevalent faux-Asian, chichi, yoga-retreat vibe. 

These days I’d rather spend my time at Mahahual, at least when the cruise ship dock is empty. It has the advantage of forming a handy double-bill with Bacalar, which features beaches of sorts, plus crystalline waters the likes of which have vanished from the rest of the Yucatán. 

One can also partake of a somewhat poor facsimile of the 'primordial' peninsula by heading across to the Gulf side. The seafood at least, is truly wonderful. 

Further south there’s Belize’s Placencia, a place I also knew in the 80s, but which today serves up less of a distracting sense of personal loss than Tulum. The beach itself is not in the same league, but provides access to some scrumptious coral atols, such as Lauging Bird Caye. 

Then there's Hopkins. A rather narrow stretch of beach, upon which sandflies swarm - a disappointing state of affairs defrayed to some extent by the local Garifuna cuisine. 

Certainly deserving of a mention are the Caribbean beaches of Costa Rica’s Limón province. Like so many other sandy spots, Cahuita is not what it was a decade or so ago, but the ruination of the bay itself has been tempered by being wholly contained within a national park, with gorgeous tropical almond trees (occasionally packed with screaming capuchins) marking the boundary between sand and forest.  

Further south Puerto Viejo’s beaches probably hold greater appeal for surfers, but around twenty minutes drive south of the town, one comes across the delightful Punta Uva, which might now provide the answer to the original question above. 

The Pacific side of the Isthmus? Let's not go there...