Monday, February 28, 2011

The King's Speech

AOG, London

I just saw the Oscar ceremony, and I have to say I'm slightly disappointed by the election of The King's Speech as the winning movie. As the best movie of the year. 

I had a hard time picturing this film as a contender for the crown in the first place, and given the competition, it is surprising that it won.

I saw it a few weeks ago and I remember leaving the movie theater feeling a bit... well, a bit like nothing had really happened. 

No great climax, no interesting insights, no great idea. 

The story is simple enough, the next in line to the  British throne, the future George VI,  has a speech impediment and an Australian speech therapist (played by  the great Geoffrey Rush) helps him to speak well. 

There you go, that is the whole movie right there. 

You'd think that being a British film (and this is the reason why it won, because in the US, anything British and Royal at the same time is a surefire winner) they could have done a bit more work on the plot. 

But no, in fact, poor Mr. Firth, who is a very good actor, and now one with an Oscar under his belt (yes, though we all know the Oscar is really for his performance last year in A Single Man) pretty much carries the weight of the whole movie on his shoulders.

Helena Bonham-Carter, as the future Queen Mother, is good at, well, at being Helena Bonham-Carter playing a royal person, not at actually playing the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother herself. I saw a similar performance of hers in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland a few months ago. Less manic, but just as "royal".

All this time, when people have asked me about the movie, all I have been able to muster has been that it is a "nothing film". And that is all it is. 

A pretty (though it could have been more spectacular), simple (though it could have been slightly more complicated), very well acted movie based on a few stories concerning King George VI, himself a very interesting character (the last Emperor of India, the last King of Ireland  &c.). 

And it is odd that no more was made of his life, that all that mattered was that one speech problem and that all else was superseded to it. And believe me, there was more. Of the relationship between  George VI and his brother, King Edward VIII. 

Of the strained relationship with Wallis Simpson and what she meant for the future of the monarchy -sadly played by Eve Best, a British actress playing the infamous American divorcée -credited for coining the famous boutade "You can never be too rich or to thin". 

To say nothing of the awful performance delivered by Claire Bloom as Queen Mary. Yes, a miscast. Or perhaps not well directed. 

I remember that whenever she popped into the screen I would try really hard to make myself believe that she was Queen Mary, and not just an actress in period costume. She was too young to play her perhaps. Too...unroyal, if there be such a word.

But I don't want to kill the movie completely. It does have some very interesting performances. Derek Jacobi, for one, is amazing in his part as Archbishop Cosmo Lang. Evil, and nervy, he is a very memorable character. 

As is the  wonderful aforementioned  Geoffrey  Rush as Lionel Logue. 

The movie has a few moments of hilarity here and there, but they, in my humble opinion, were not fully exploited. So, I'm glad it won, it is not a bad movie, but, as I said, it is just a 'nothing film'. 

I would have given True Grit the Oscar. But then, I am slightly biased... 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Childhood lemonades

AOG, Madrid

I think the first drink I ever learned how to make was lemonade. I can't say that anyone in particular taught me, I just 'knew' how to make it.

 Lemons, sugar, water and ice. What else could I need? 

But before you answer, I have to tell you that the author of this post once discovered that food coloring existed at his mother's kitchen and proceeded to create (is that the word?) a culinary invention known as 'Blue Rice' which my loving family ate and even praised me on.  

Yes, obviously, families lie out of love. 

My sister, she of the sharp no-nonsense tongue, didn't make much of a fuss that day. And to this day, the Blue Rice comes up now and again. Madame Mère often says how it was very tasty. I can't say I agree, but I love that she thinks so. 

I could have made Green Frog Vomit Rice and she probably would have loved it too.

But back to Lemonade. Around the time that lemonade skills came into my life I was living in Mexico, a land known for its "aguas" (which only means 'waters'). 

My sister and I were not allowed to ever, under any circumstance, drink any of these "aguas" on the street.

A lack of hygiene and a fear of worms and intestinal whatnots drove my mother to ensure we didn't even come close to the "aguas" vendors. 

Except that, now and again, especially on a Sunday outing to Chapultepec Park, or to Xochimilco and its meandering canals, when surrounded by screaming children, tired parents, and a general good feeling, Madame Mère (who loved nature like all Russians do) would cave in and, yes, we'd be allowed an "agua" of something. 

If you've ever been to Mexico, you know the country is blessed with nature's bounty (I think this is the most Southern sounding sentence I've written in a long time!). 

Papaya, tamarind, mango, guava, watermelons, grapefruits the size of a small child's head, and just about any other tropical fruit you can think of. 

And "Aguas" sellers know how to rope you in. Their stands are simple. 

 On top of a plank of wood, or a cart, they ply their wares from massive, transparent tanks of water, glistening in the sun, and ever-swirling with the aid of the sellers' gigantic soup ladle. 

I can't recall the calorific intake but it must have been diabetic-coma high. 

Yes, in poor countries, the more sugar something has, the more of it you'll sell. Mexico is no exception. 

My favorite was always pineapple "agua", or "agua de piña", part of my ever-evolving love/hate relationship with that particular fruit. 

My sister, she of the "I love bitter vinegar!" school of thought, would often go for the "agua de tamarindo", something which would make me have the smallest of sips before I started convulsing. I loved it, but I hated it too. 

So bittersweet ! And I hate bittersweet stuff (I confess to having an issue with some Chinese dishes, like sweet & sour anything...eek!). But yes, here and there, we would partake of that innocent Mexican custom of drinking street water laced with who knows what plus sugar and fruit juice.

With that in mind, that I should attempt to make lemonade is surprising. But, soon enough, I became the official lemonade maker in the family. I can't say there was much trial and error, though now and again I remember adding things to it to spice it up a bit.  Like oranges, or prickly pear juice (my favorite fruit in the universe). Sometimes even a small splash of chili. Ice, however, was never a big part of the equation. Not until Texas that is.

When we moved from Mexico back to the US, my lemonade repertoire was slightly diminished,  so I had to improvise a bit with the local foodstuff. 

I remember adding mint, cinnamon, (I discarded chilies long before that), honey instead of sugar, and even molasses. 

In fact, the one day I made lemonade with molasses is the day I produced the first batch of BLACK lemonade on earth! 

And no, it could not be drunk by humans. 

The dogs loved it though! 

There was one surprise which I could never actually reproduce: Pink Lemonade

Too bitter for me, it soon became a family favorite. 

Madame Mère and my sister loved the stuff. I however, declined to drink much of it. 

It was around the time I discovered I could make Ice Tea by making normal tea, and sticking it in the fridge for a few hours. 

Who said I was bright?

But that is a story for another day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

True Grit

AOG, Madrid

I don't like cowboy movies. I don't like Westerns. I don't like Country & Western music. 

I never have. I doubt I ever will.

I don't much care for cowboys beyond the aesthetics and the images of masculinity they portray. 

I liked Brokeback Mountain because of the story, but I hated that they were cowboys. 

I sort of like Hee-Haw for about 23 seconds back when I was a kid.

I don't know why this is. 

I grew up in Texas and Texas is a very cowboy-friendly state. And I don't have anything against cowboys or cowgirls. Just not on film.

So with this is mind, it is surprising that I've just come back from watching 'True Grit', the Coen brothers film.

It was a combination of things which made me go see it. 

The original catalyst was a friend from French class calling me up. Would I join them around 8:20 PM. 

I asked what they were going to see. When he told me, my first reaction was, no. Not in this lifetime. 

But then, and this all happened very quickly, my mind plucked a long forgotten memory from the past, and I changed my mind very quickly. 

You see, when I was a kid, my sister read 'True Grit', the novel by Charles Portis. 

I remember that she loved it. 

I never read it because, well, because it was a cowboy novel and I didn't like that type of thing. 

And so tonight, a couple of decades and a continent later, I thought, just to see what it was that she liked so much, I agreed. I would go and see the cowboy film.

No, I was not captivated from the start. In fact, I thought the start was a bit slow. But then, it did. It began to take a life of its own. The characters, the storyline, the, well, the everything about it. I have to say that I really liked this movie. But I also discovered something else. I discovered why it would appeal to my sister. 

She too had, has, true grit. She is a fighter. She always has been.  

I have always been the conciliator in my family, the diplomat. 

I signed the treaties, made the peace; and she fought the wars with guns a'blazin'. Yes, that is she. A real firecracker. Just like Madame Mère.

And I could see how a preteen girl growing up in Texas would find comfort in that book. She must have seen herself reflected, if only a little bit, in the movie.

You see, our childhood, was a very trying time for us. Moving all the time, changing countries, friends, schools, subjects, different cultures etc etc.

We somehow survived it.

As we all do. I envy those people who say they had an idyllic childhood.

Ours was not idyllic. It was adventurous and challenging. It was also interesting, exotic, cultured, and wild. Curious, moving, sad, happy, well, I think it was a lot of things, but for better or worse, it is now over. 

I never gave how we got through it much thought. But today, I got a small clue as to how my sister made it through.

I think this book must have given her strength somehow. It probably gave her a role model, a behavior pattern when faced with adversity.

It is so important to have a role model in life, even if it is only in fiction. 

I remember years ago when I was going through a rough patch, like we all do, I was telling her about it. And to this day I remember her words:"Stick to your guns!"

And at the time, I did. And I think, ever since then, whenever things go topsy turvy, I remember her words. 

I suppose she must have gotten it from Madame Mère, this fighting spirit. The two are so alike. And before you say it, no, I'm not adopted. I look just like my mother. 

And I have no clue where the diplomatic streak comes from since I don't think anyone in my family is particularly diplomatic. But there you go, authorship unknown, but still a fact. 

So I'm really glad I went to see this movie, and I will recommend it to friends to go and see it. It has everything a good movie should have: a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Believable characters, and a plot. 

Weak point? I'm nitpicking here, but the hoopskirts the actresses wear are not believable. From watching hundreds of photographs from the era, I can attest to the fact that crinoline skirts  had a different shape  and the fabric hung  and draped over them differently. 

I know, it is only a movie, but, like I said, it is the only thing that made me go "humm".

Will I go back to see another cowboy flick in the future? No, I don't think so. I may do, but listen, I hated back to the Future part III because of all the XIX century cowboy crap. Like I said, I don't like cowboy movies. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A life without Coca Cola

AOG, Madrid

There are things in my life which just exist, and I never give them a second thought. Streets, bricks, newspapers, bicycles, dogs, television, things which have helped to separate our world from our past worlds. 

We in the West, live immersed in objects which tend to mark our era and they keep coming and we keep buying and we never much think about them and about our lives with them.

For example, when I was a kid, my parents kept us traveling all over the place, and mostly by plane. I can't really remember what it was that I did on those long flights -many of them transatlantic-, but these days, any flight, no matter how short, means I need entertainment material with me. I tend to travel with a book or two, which I hardly ever finish whilst on vacation, and music. 

I remember the last Walkman I had. It was 1988 and we had just moved to Europe, and my mother bought me a solar powered blue Walkman. 

I thought I was the happiest person on Earth that Christmas. I no longer needed batteries and could listen to what few tapes had made it across the ocean with me. 

I still have a couple of them: Beethoven's Pastoral, and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. 

But the one I liked best in Christmas 1988, and for the next two years or so, was an album titled "Direct" by Vangelis, whom I had discovered back in 1986 through the Ernest & Julio Gallo commercials. 

I lost it somewhere along the road, but his music is still with me. I also lost, probably in one of our many moves in Europe, my solar battery powered Walkman. 

A few years later, in London, I acquired a portable CD player. 

For years it would come with me on any long journey, even if it was only on London's underground. 

But this only after I had first spent a couple of years buying CDs but not a CD player. They were expensive things and I just never had enough to get one, but I knew I'd be getting one soon enough. 

Which, eventually, I did. And music was also the main reason why I eventually realized I needed a computer: I could burn my own CDs with the music I wanted to hear and omit the tracks I did not care for. 

I confess that I've always been a bit of a music snob and even as a teenager I would buy mostly singles and hardly ever entire albums. 

This, of course, has changed. I now buy mostly albums because the type of music I enjoy tends to come that way- though I've not stopped buy CD singles whenever I can get my hands on them.

But I digress.

Somewhere around 2001-2003 I got an iPod. It was a gift from my family and my then partner. I have to say, it did change my music listening habits... once I got used to it. 

I must admit that, to this day, the way you upload music to your iPod seems to me to be complete idiocy. 

That it must live on your computer or else I find a complete imposition, and all it does is make me buy external memories for my music. No I don't care that I have more "Tunes" on my collection than I will ever listen to. 

That is another issue altogether. The point is, Apple, that part of your strategy, sucks. Big time. As does the "and we don't support iTunes on PCs either, better splash out on a Mac" addendum. Maybe they do now, but they didn't back in 2002.

I was so upset with this system that a year went by before I actually mustered enough interest to plug the thing in and start using it. 

And, of course, I really like how iPods operate, and we all know that, eventually, Apple (in conjunction with Starbucks) will take over the Earth. Blah. So I think I've established that somethings are part of your life, but they change. And some things change, and they are never part of your life. 

And then there is your life changing, which it does all the time. 

A few years ago I decided to stop drinking Coca Cola. I somehow tricked myself into thinking that what attracted me to it was the carbonated aspect of the drink and so, as in my childhood, started to drink sparkling/fizzy water. Perrier, if you like. 

There was a time around when I was 7 or 8 when we lived in Mexico City and became interested in carbonated water. Madame Mère loved Perrier, and I began to love it too. 

But then I grew up some more, and couldn't stand it any longer (you know how you are with food. Some stuff you love, and then you hate it and hardly ever go back... like beef jerky), so it left my life.

But then, it came back around circa 1997. I didn't stop drinking Coke, I just drank a whole lot less. It was around that time I realized what an addictive drink it was. 

But the whole point of this post is based on the idea: What would life be like if there was no Coke? If it just disappeared? 

I see the Coca Cola Company (and others, not just them), whose sole purpose in life is to sell you something which is neither water, nor a healthy drink like fruit juice. It is some sort of chemical drink (like many others, of course: beer, wine, alcohol), which the company's marketing department need you to consume. So that they can make more money. 

Fine, they are a company after all, and they like to make money. But in the greater scheme of things, the please you can derive from Coke is so momentary, so finite, that if it were to leave our culture altogether, somehow we would manage to go on and not disappear. 

With Coke as with most anything else which we may want to acquire. 

So, our modern life is peppered with objects, which define our times, and, for some people, help to define their lives. 

Should it be so? Should our lives be defined not by our accomplishments and failures but rather by that which we consume? 

Europeans tend not to go down this road. The reasons why Mr. average American drives a BMW might be completely different as to why Mr. average European does. 

Europeans have a different concept of status symbols. But BMW sells not just cars, they sell a concept. As does Coca Cola. 

But, again I ask, should our lives be limited to buying this or that product, or should they be something else. 

Should we drink Coke for life, or could we actually stop drinking it altogether? Will there be a day when the Coca Cola Company stops being? I see BMW disappearing before Coke does. 

Why do you think this is? Is it because it is a food product? 

Thousands of years ago we started eating chicken and we stopped (at least most of us did) eating insects.

We are still eating chickens. Perhaps Coke will survive because they have convinced us that they are a foodstuff. A necessary foodstuff. 

Are they?

Thursday, February 03, 2011


AOG, Madrid

It looks like the winds of change have begun to blow in the Arab world. 

The events which unfolded in Tunisia two weeks ago ousted a Government, and, like wildfire, the same spirit for change and democratic reform seems to be sweeping across other Arab countries. 

Particularly Egypt, where its presidential dictator, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power since 1981.

Given the state of affairs, he has said he will not stand for reelection in the Fall. Isn't it amazing how the powerful will do anything to stay in power no matter what? His country, it would appear, will have to put up with him until then. 

However, it seems like the people of Egypt are not having it. They want him out. Or at least the majority do.
 Will this affect the rest of the region? It would seem so. Jordan, one of the most stable states in the Middle East for decades, has had a change of Government. There have been protests in Yemen. 

Even Iran -not an Arab country but yes an Islamic nation-, seems preoccupied with these events.

Closer to home, the West, that is Europe and the US, have been more lukewarm in their appraisal of the situation. As an example, these kind words from the former British Primer Minister, Tony Blair, who assures us that Mubarak has been "immensely courageous, and a force for good."

In the case of President Obama, also disappointing, as this article from the Huffington Post points out.

The word in the street is that no one thought in Europe that Mubarak was a dictator.

I guess that kind of thinking belongs in the 'No one thinks Hitler is Austrian' school of thought. 

Let us not kid ourselves, the West, for all its pro-democracy demagogy, is quite happy to let sleeping dogs lie. Such is the case with notorious human rights violators such as Cuba, and China. 

Of course, the West only takes issue with such regimes when they begin to rock the boat, as is the case with North Korea.  But even then, all that we ask for is that you remain quiet and move along quickly. 

As usual, trade and vested interests are more powerful than any democratic ideology we in the West might want to peddle. And, of course, these regimes know it. 

I've read in the press that the only country which has shown some concern about the whole situation is Israel. According to some press reports, they rather have a dependable dictator to deal with, than... well, nobody knows for sure what will come next. 

So the lesser of two evils, is still pretty evil. 

Time to find a new motto?