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Memento has all the ingredients of a modern masterpiece. An original idea, good performances and intelligent script. If only it didn’t try to be too clever at the end, it would have been perfect. Lenny is a former insurance investigator on a pursuit of an alleged killer of his wife. Totally obsessed with his goal, Lenny has the necessary experience, intelligence and the means to trace the murderer, as well as one small problem. Since the murder, Lenny is left only with short-term memory. This means that he can't remember the person he spoke to (or even beaten up) just a few minutes ago and he has to be constantly reminded of his ultimate goal. To stay tuned, Lenny covers his body with tattoos of all the facts important to his investigation (starting with "John G., raped and murdered my wife" across his chest), and takes Polaroid pictures of all the places and people he has to remember. The problems start when Lenny gets caught between the manipulations of Natalie, a mysterious woman who supposedly tries to help him track the killer and Terry who pledges to be his friend but on his Polaroid is written "don't trust his lies". With both Terry and Nathalie trying to use Lenny's condition to their advantage the situation spins out of control with tragic results. To simulate Lenny's condition the narrative is shot in small takes, just long enough for Lenny to remember. To complicate things the time line is totally scrambled, so the story is unfolded like pieces of an intricate jigsaw slowly falling into places, filling for the viewers the gaps in Lenny's memory. This technique makes for a fascinating viewing but also demands constant concentration to every detail, which turns pretty tiring by the end of the movie. There is also the twist at the end of the film which cleverly turns everything we assumed before on its head but also leaves a few annoying gaps in the story which kept popping up when we tried to reconstruc
t the story later in the evening. Despite its flows Memento is still probably the best, and surprisingly the funniest thriller in the cinemas at present, and although it demands some feats of concentration and puzzle-solving to make it a rewarding viewing its defiantly worth the effort.
In Holy Smoke Jane Campion gave cults and religion the same treatment Van Damme might give to nuclear physics. Coming from the director of “Piano” and “The portrait of a Lady” this is a truly astounding feat. Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet, good as always in a wasted role), goes to India with her best friend and finds enlightenment with one of the local ‘babas ‘ (shown graphically in an only impressive scene in the movie, as an opening of a third eye on her forehead). Her movie-style middle-class Australian family (complete with ugly 70’s furniture, lost anachronistic mama, philandering dead and half witted brothers), alarmed by the possibility of losing Ruth to the unknown, trick her back home by fake news of her father’s impending death and send her off to an isolated shack in a desert with the best ‘cult deprogrammer’ available - PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel, a personification of sleaze). Waters, an ageing American playboy has a tested 3-day intensive deprogramming session with an unprecedented success rate. It consists mainly of taking away the ‘patient’s’ ‘cult’ clothes and throwing abuses at his chosen cult leader. After a day of this, Ruth shows apparent signs of being ‘cured’, which manifest themselves mainly by walking around naked a lot and wanting to shag with everything in sight. However, when an instantly enamoured PJ tries to check his behaviour she turns the tables on him, trying to escape and eventualy dressing him in a red evening gown (obviously on hand in desert shack) and smearing him with some lipstick. By this point Ruth’s family very much wishes that they never had anything to do with Waters, however ultimately it proves to be a life changing experience to all sides, as Ruth goes back to India with her mom and Waters returns to his long suffering partner. In a film which so obviously favours Indian babas over the numbed subu
rban existence, its amazing what little information is on offer about Ruth’s newly found spirituality (apart from endless references to the baba being ‘pure love’). Waters attempts at deprogramming seem equally simplistic, especially considering he is as horny as hell and enjoys filatio with Ruth’s sister in-law and some steamy sex with her within the first hour of the movie, making his claims of professionalism more than dubious (although definitely showing an enjoyable way of earning 10 grand). Ruth’s destabilising of Water’s defences seem to come exclusively from her sexuality (especially the unsettling ‘peeing naked’ scene), which again doesn’t bring any scores to the Indian mysticism. And the gender bending finale which is totally disconnected from the rest of the movie, is needlessly cruel, with totally obsessed Waters stuttering after the escaping Ruth wearing lipstick, a mini-dress and one cowboy boot. All in all it’s sad to see a very competent director coming up with a movie filled with two dimensioned cartoons, turning a potentially interesting story into a sporadically funny farce which doesn’t shed any new light on any of the subjects it attempts to tackle.
Crypto is a mammoth of a book and it takes some hard work to go through its 900-odd pages. But as NS himself would say, the output makes the input worthwhile. A combination of sci-fi and historical narrative, Crypto shifts between WWII and a very near future, weaving together three separate story lines. Lawrence Waterhouse, a brilliant mathematician, with total lack of social skills, becomes by pure chance, one of the leading code breakers of WWII, his decryptions changing history of the European and Pacific fronts. Some 50 years later his grandson Randy, returns to the Pacific, to start up a communications company which is destined to revolutionise global banking and change the world on the way. The third and best story line, follows US marine Bobby Shaftoe through his hectic Second World War service, from the Philippines to America, the elusive 2702 Regiment and back to the Pacific. Mostly Shaftoe is just a pawn in the hands of unfathomable forces, but his unrelenting cool and wry wit in face of most atrocious calamities, make him the most likeable protagonist of the three. Crypto covers enough code breaking stuff to satisfy the most relentless nerd (obviously the target audience for the book). It also manages to cramp in more past, present and future I/T than some of the XXX for Dummies guides. Don’t be put off by it!! The technical pages can always be skipped if it’s not your cup of tea and the rest is brilliant. NS has a totally original view of the world, which will make you look differently at such mundane things as your girlfriend’s romantic novels or the family heirloom of old furniture. His combination of hilarious pieces with relentless horror reminds most of Louis De Bernieres (although his fans will be probably horrified at the comparison), and makes it an un-put-downable read. It takes some concentration to follow all the endless subplots and the constant jumping between the three main story-lines but it all comes together a
t the end. The ending itself is somewhat disappointing (as strangely often the case with really good novels), but apparently a sequel is in the making which hopefully will be just as good and will sort out the remaining mysteries (like Avi’s ultimate plan or Shaftoe’s lizard… you’ll have to read it). All said, Crypto is not a perfect book. Its most appalling feature is the nationalism and xenophobia cleverly interwoven between the pages. If you thought that the recent batch of Hollywood WWII movies tried to rewrite history, think again. According to NS, the British role in WWII was limited to being eccentric and letting the Americans to do the ‘real men’s’ job. The Russians are mentioned in two sentences and the Japanese (referred all through the book exclusively as Nipps) are dumb and relentless killing machines which only come to their senses thanks to the considerate American occupation (the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki being mysteriously absent from the narrative). NS puts in a few positive Germans, a couple of gays and one repentant Japanese for good measure, but it doesn’t change the uneasy feeling that in his view the world is just a big playground for the resplendent American chaps, which can be always relied upon to come and save the day. This doesn’t mean that Crypto is not worth reading and the ultimate idea of the book that the new information technology could eventually prevent future atrocities on both national and international kind offers some redemption. In all ways Crypto is a definitely a very mind refreshing exercise.
PL is the second part of the Arkady Renko quartet, which has started with the internationally acclaimed Gorky Park. PL starts app. five years after the events described in GP. Renko, discredited after his role in the defection to the West of his beloved Irina, is shut up in a psychiatric hospital for interrogation. In a last minute he is whisked away by his former archenemy Pribluda, a KGB colonel who is now his only friend. With a one-way ticket to Siberia, Renko spends the next few years on the run, always one step in front of the authorities, until he ends up on the Polar Star, a Russian fish factory ship working in collaboration with American trawlers. Toiling at the factory’s ‘slime line’, cleaning and freezing fish, Arkady tries to remain invisible, keeping his mind and feelings as frozen as the sea around him, that is until a body of a dead woman turns up in one of the nets. As the only investigator on board he is ordered to participate in the inquiry. Reluctant at first, his detective’s instincts slowly stir up until he is compelled to carry on even when most of his former collaborators try to block his way or even to get him killed. Polar Star is a compelling read, but it’s not in the same league with its predecessor. The freezing, claustrophobic atmosphere of the factory ship also penetrates the plot and the characters. Although the book is still filled with interesting, multi dimensional supporting cast, they are not half as interesting as Gorky’s Park Pribluda and Irina or detective Osario from the sequel, Havana Bay, ironically the dead girl, Zina, being the most interesting character of all. Renko himself, subdued by years of hard labour and numbing cold takes about half the novel to unwind to his usual razor-sharp, sarcastic self. Despite these drawbacks PS is still miles ahead of most thrillers. After the great sweep of GP Cruz Smith comes with a more sedate, less world changing narrative, with Renk
o still a compelling and all too human protagonist, which you just have to meet again.
I am a big Coen brothers ever since Blood Simple. This doesn't mean that all their movies were masterpieces and O Brother certainly isn't one. Despite uniformly ecstatic reviews hailing it as the best Coen's achievement yet, O Brother doesn't come near the brilliance of Fargo, Miller's Crossing or Raising Arizona. It has all the right ingredients: beautiful landscapes, immaculate performances and a soundtrack to kill for, but it lacks the most important part of all - a cohesive storyline. Loosely based on Homers Odyssey, it inherits the original's fragmented narrative. This can be forgivable in a 2,500 years old epic, but it doesn't work in a 2-hours-long modern-day movie. The main plot follows three hapless chain-gang escapees, trying to get to a 1.2 million treasure, allegedly buried by Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney giving his best performance to date), just before his arrest. On the way, they encounter a blind black prophet, a guitar player who sold his soul to the devil, a bible salesman from hell (a sinister cameo from Coen's regular John Goodman), seductive sirens and a bunch of KKK baddies. They also record a best selling hit, get involved in a bank robbery, in a local electoral campaign and in Ulysses's attempt to get back with his wife and 7 daughters. As you can see by now it's quite a lot of ground to cover in one movie. As a result, the three protagonists move frantically from one event to another without any story or character development on the way. Fortunately the Coens employed an almost faultless cast which manages to keep us engaged while the plot wanders aimlessly between the multiple scenes. The music pieces are also excellent and merge seamlessly with the narrative without giving it the artificial feeling of most musicals. If the movie was made by anyone but the Coens, I would probably say it was great, but knowing that they can create narratives as engaging as in Fargo and u
nforgettable characters like the Lebowski dude, I expect more than just a fun couple of hours.
I wish that I’d read this book as a teenager. It would have become my bedside bible. DB has all the ingredients of a cult classic: a grisly murder, plenty of drugs, hackers, poltergeists, graphic sex and New Orleans. And in the middle of it all a surprisingly touching love story. Drawing Blood starts with Bobby McGee, an underground cartoonist stranded in a small Bible Belt town of Missing Mile, with his wife and two sons. When money and talent dry out McGee turns mental and hangs himself after bludgeoning his wife and youngest son to death, living Trevor his other son as a sole survivor. Twenty years later, Trevor returns to Missing Mile and to the haunted house of his childhood to confront his inner demons and find out why he was left alive. His plans are interrupted by Zach, a cyberspace whiz kid who passes through MM, fleeing the Secret Service. The two hit it on like house on fire, but both have to deal with their past on the way to the coveted nirvana (or the Caribbean beach in this case). This book is tailor made for the angst ridden, misunderstood teens of the lots-of-eye-liner-wear-only-black variety. It’s all for drugs, sex, abortions and hacking and anti anything establishment smelling. And yet, despite the simplistic anti-morality and the two-dimensional characterisations (Zach is the only one who has more depth than a cartoon), you root for the two protagonists and their desperate attempts to cling to their mutilated lives through mutual attraction and ultimately love. The story grips you in the uneasy, pulp-fiction, way and sticks in you mind long after you’ve put it down. Definitely not recommended to hetero males (the all-too-graphic sex scenes are all of the gay variety), dutifully law abiding citizens and people who look for real depth in fiction. But if you’re a tough Gothically inclined teen-age girl, with lots of piercings and a secret yearning for “if I fall in love it will be for ev
er”, you will probably read it again, and again… and again.
Prodigal Spy is a solid thriller. It is populated with rounded characters placed against multidimensional, historically sound background. It’s well written and engaging. And yet it’s still that step away from being a real masterpiece. It lacks wit. The book starts with a ten-year-old Nick Kotlar being traumatised by his father’s defection to Russia in middle of a McCarthy’s era political trial. Twenty years later Nick, now a student at London School of Economics, researching the 1950’s trials, is approached by Molly, a free-lance journalist, with a message from his long-lost dad. After initial reluctance, Nick accompanies Molly to Prague to meet his now mortally ill father. Walter Kotlar wants to spend his last days back in USA and is willing to trade precious and potentially lethal information for his re-admittance “home”. Nick, at first resentful, finally agrees to help his father, but powerful people on both sides of the Iron Curtain are determined to keep this information hidden and it is ultimately up to Nick to put the puzzle together and redeem his father’s name. Kanon takes his time to develop the narrative over 550 pages. The exercise ultimately pays off. He vividly sketches the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950’s Washington witch-hunts and the pressure of the Russian fist on the late 1960’s Prague is almost tangible on the pages. The slow build-up of anxiety and menace is deftly contrasted by the development of Nick’s and Molly’s relationship. It all works very well and would make an almost perfect read, if not the seriousness of it all. For a book dealing primarily with the cynicism of global politics it is remarkably devoid of sarcasm. A little wryness of the Martin Cruz Smith or Robert Harris’s kind would have made it into a truly great thriller. It’s still worth your £ 6.99 if you willing to invest a bit of brainpower into the intricate development of
a solid plot bringing to life a few dark spots in our resent history.
Life defies categorising. All throughout the film I tried to figure out if it’s supposed to be a comedy, a buddy film, or a period drama with something profound to say. It seems that the director couldn’t make up his mind either: “I’ve got two great comic actors (Eddie Murphy as a small time crook Rayford Gibson and Martin Lawrence as an aspiring bank clerk Claude Banks), so I guess have to put in lots of crackling dialogues and a few visual gags. But I also want to make a profound social drama about the life of blacks in the 1930’s American south, so I’ll put in a few-Negro hating hillbillies, two black innocents in jail for a white man’s crime and long years in a southern blacks-only prison. The result is a film, which doesn’t go anywhere. Murphy and Lawrence indeed manage to go through a few moderately funny lines and try hard to look credible in a totally absurd story line. The first part of the film brings the New York based duo together under the shaky premise of debts, both of them own to their local gangster. As a payback they promise to bring a load of bootleg whisky to the prohibition stricken city. Everything goes according to plan until Murphy looses all his money and his daddy’s watch to a local crook in a fixed poker game and the latter gets himself killed by the local policeman (don’t ask). Gibson and Banks stumble inadvertently on the body and get framed for the crime, landing in a local prison with a life sentence. From here on Life tries hard to be a black version of the Shawshank Redemption. Only it’s not. I’m not a great fan of the latter film but at least their prison was a prison and you noticed the passage of time not only from the obligatory B&W images of Martin Luther King, Man on the Moon and hippies walking around with beads and afros in their hair. In Life the prison is a nice Summer Camp which doesn’t even have fences because allegedly y
ou get shot if you cross the imaginary fence line (only the only one to get shot is a prisoner who can’t face the life outside (!$”$%) and so prefers to die instead of leaving prison!!). The prisoners have to perform 15 hours a day of hard labour, but everybody seem to be in pristine health and apparently live well into their 80s (probably BECAUSE of all that fresh air and physical exercise). The prisoners are all lovable illiterate (they from the South get it?) rogues whose crimes are mentioned only as part of a gag and who seem to pass all their time playing baseball and having nice weekends with local whores. No wonder they don’t want to leave. Only they do. At least Gibson and Banks do, but they spend so much time bickering or not speaking with each over for years that when they eventually make it you are not accelerated as in Shawshank but delighted with the knowledge that the credits won’t be long behind. Life could have been a credible movie. It had the right actors and the good intentions. But someone out there just couldn’t make up his mind. Rent it only if you awaiting sentence and want be reassured that prison can be fun, or if somebody already rented Shawshank.
After last year’s Will Smith disaster you would think that producers would stay away from Westerns for a while. Fortunately, Jackie Chan apparently didn’t hear about that flop and came up with a little gem of an action comedy. Shanghai noon doesn’t try to be anything but good entertainment. The story line is hair-thin (A 19th cent. Chinese Royal Guard arrives in the American West to find and bring back an allegedly kidnapped Chinese princess and after a series of adventures and culture clashes realises that the West in better than the East). But the story doesn’t really matter. The film starts and falls with Chan and his chemistry with Owen Wilson (playing an hapless, new-agey train-robber, with an unwavering cool). Chan is funnier here than in any of his latest American outings, bonding well with his unlikely partner and some of their moments together, especially the hilarious drinking game, are comedy at its best. Of course there are the necessary dazzling action pieces, but Chan is obviously aware that with time, he will have to rely more and more on other types of comedy, especially slapstick, and he manages the transition well. Lucy Lui as princess Pei Pei has very little to do and is effectively overshadowed by Brandon Merrill as Chan’s Indian wife (you’ll have to see the movie to understand this part) who saves the arses of Chan and Wilson again and again all through the film. She says only one sentence at the end but you will remember her. And of course there are the obligatory plethora of bad sheriffs, good Indians, exploited Chinese, colourful whores and the rest of the Wild West scenery, spicing up the misadventures of the main characters. Fortunately for Jackie he opted for the Blazing Saddles style instead of the overblown WWW and scored big time. You will snigger about the American adventure of Chon Wang (get it?) all the way home.
X-men received incredibly positive reviews, especially for a summer blockbuster, and was directed by a Bryan Singer who made the “Usual Suspects”, so it was some shock to realise how crap it is. Obviously you don’t expect much from a movie based on a comic, but then there is Batman, Batman Returns and Man in Black - all comics’ spin-offs which managed to be profound or hilarious in equal measures. X-men isn’t either. The holes in the script are so big that even Godzilla could slip through them, most of the performances are appalling and on top of all that the special effects are pathetic (it’s unforgivable to make a rapidly healing human skin look like cheap latex at a time when even the BBC can create life-like dinosaurs). The story, not that it really matters, is based in the near future when humanity begins its second stage of evolution by producing a variety of mutants. Most of them have destructive powers, which naturally freak out the regular humans. The mutants are divided between the good guys, guided by Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his “School for gifted youngsters” and the baddies, who serve the evil Magneto (Ian McKellen). In the middle are two newcomers to the Xavier side: the troubled Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) with retractable claws and a metal framework, and Rogue (Anna Paquin) a teenager who can drain the life and abilities of anyone she touches. Apart form these four, the rest of cast could just as well be comprised of stunt men and extras (the number of models in the cast indeed proves that no acting skills there required). Not the faintest attempt is made to provide at least a hint of characterisation or plausible motives to any of the mutants on both sides. Magneto is the only one who has a background which explains his contempt for humanity, and since humans don’t show any sign of sympathy or understanding towards the mutants you can actually sympathise with him much more th
en with the self-righteous Xavier who thanklessly serves humanity, without any plausible reason. And then were is Wolverine. Hugh Jackman has more songs of praise from the critics then any resent new comer since Russell Crowe. Unlike with all the above lamentations I must bow my head and agree with them on this one. Of course Wolverine is the only character in X-men who gets at least half-decent lines and possesses a sense of humour. Jackman definitely does the best with it. Each moment he’s on the screen, it makes the movie bearable and since he’s on it for most of the time, I actually survived till the closing titles. HJ certainly deserves something better to show off his talents, and I for one, am eagerly waiting to see his next movie. But when of course the end of X-men screams sequel so loudly that I probably will have to see XmII just to watch him in action again!! What a terrible thought!!
Arkady Renko is definitely my favourite detective. It’s not because he’s unbelievably handsome or inhumanly clever, but mainly because he’s so painfully real. Unlike most fictional detectives, he is still working for the police (and a Russian one at that!), doesn’t stand out in a crowd (although by no means ugly) and most importantly doesn’t have gorgeous girls hoping in and out of his bed. He has a vague air of tragedy mixed with weary irony about him and apart from his shabby clothing and a somewhat different attitude to women, reminds mostly of Marlowe. Havana Bay, the fourth installation in the Renko saga (although you don’t have to read the previous three to understand what’s going on), takes him to Havana, the last stand of Communism, now abandoned by the Russians and crumbling to pieces. Arkady is summoned by an anonymous note to help find his old friend/ nemesis Prebluda, a former KGB spy, now stationed in Havana. He arrives just in time to identify Prebluda’s body floating, decomposing in the bay. Only Renko is not too sure it IS Prebluda and meanwhile most of the Cubans around him are trying to shorten his scheduled one-week stay by any means possible. At first indifferent and suicidal after the resent death of his beloved Irena (the only real connection to the previous books), he is slowly drawn into the investigation, trying to identify the body and understand why so many people want him dead or at least out of the way. His only ally in this seemingly hopeless quest is inspector Ofelia Osorio, who after initial suspicion and resentment towards ‘the Russian’, slowly comes to realise that beneath the shabby façade hides a razor sharp brain and an interesting man. Cruz Smith is excellent in building up atmosphere. He builds and almost tangible picure of the decaying Havana of brightly coloured buildings crumbling to dust, decades-old American cars still going strong, beautifu
l girls selling themselves to the flesh hungry tourists and above them all the almost mythical figure of Castro, never mentioned by name but whose presence is everywhere. The usual alienation of Renko from his surroundings is harsher here then ever, with the barriers of language, dress (he insists to wear a cashmere coat given to him by Irena despite the stifling heat), religion and colour. And yet he struggles on doggedly, up to the somewhat disappointing finale, making some friends and foes on the way and slowly coming to understand the baffling Cuban nature with its blend of music, magic and Communism. I’ve finished this 450-page novel in a week worth of tube rides and lunch brakes, which really says it all for its appeal. If you after an intelligent thriller which takes its time to build an atmosphere and is populated with multi-dimensioned, real characters, look no further.
Steven Soderbergh is the current IT boy who can do no wrong. His latest project Ocean’s Eleven, has Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and George Clooney on board, to name but a few and Erin Brockovich was that rare animal, a critically acclaimed blockbuster. So... it’s the right time to see there it’s all started. SL&V is Sodebergh’s first widely released movie after which came a decade of totally forgettable films - right up to Out of Sight. SL&V however, is a little masterpiece. Ann Bishop Melaney (Andie MacDowell), a frustrated housewife desperately trying to keep up appearances, is spending her time polishing all the taps and surfaces in her immaculate yuppie house and lamenting about the world’s disasters to her long-suffering shrink. Her sister Cynthia Bishop (Laura San Giacomo), a bar tender is, seemingly, an absolute opposite – free spirited artist with no regard for society’s conventions. Ann’s husband John (Peter Gallagher), a successful lawyer is trying to jungle between his career, his home and an increasingly more demanding affair with Cynthia. Into this complex triangle, comes Graham Dalton (James Spader), a former classmate of John’s and a notorious womaniser by his own right. Only Graham is a changed man after a traumatic experience, which not only stopped his Don Juan ways but also left him impotent in presence of woman. To compensate for his ‘deficiency’, he videotapes women telling him about their most intimate experiences. Ann and Cynthia are both drawn to the mild spoken stranger, and when he decides to settle down in the neighbourhood it unleashes a string of evens that will break to pieces the fragile relationships between them all. The performances of all four, when totally unknown, actors are so natural you sometimes fill like watching the Big Brother and have kick started their careers (which didn’t go far unfortunately). Sodebe
rgh builds up atmosphere with accurate little strokes and adds to it with a beautiful soundtrack. As the accumulated layers of hypocrisy and deception drop off one by one, all four characters slowly realise that they are not that they pretended or wanted to be and sometimes, the totally opposite. I won’t reveal further developments in the plot to keep the suspense. Rent it and get yourself drawn into the disintegrating worlds of Ann, Cynthia, John and Graham. It’s an experience which will stay with you for some time and probably will make you lament, like me, about Sodebergh’s decade in the wilderness
NN is chock-full of buccaneers raiding gold-laden Spanish galleons, courageous explorers discovering new continents and exotic ports filled with vice and spices. It brings back the half forgotten pleasures of the Treasure Island and Peter Pen and submerges you in a bygone world of danger and adventure. Therefore, it’s not surprising NN became a wholly unexpected bestseller in the past two years. NN is first and foremost the story of spices. Not the curry and all-spice of today, bringing some life into the bland European food. In Early Europe nutmeg and cinnamon were all-curing medicines, which could fight the Black Death, be used as an aphrodisiac or forestall deceases by fragrancing the foul air of Medieval towns. Pepper and cinnamon been around since before the Roman Empire, but started flowing in only with the formation of the Ottoman Empire, which monopolised the Asian Silk Road and supplied the eager European nobility through Venetian and Genoese middle men (which in their turn kick-started the Renaissance through their share). The rest of Europe, envious of the spectacular earnings of their Italian neighbours, started looking for a new naval route to the source of these wondrous substances. Thus began the spice race, which would eventually change the power balance in Europe and turn the rest of the world on its head. The Spanish and the Portuguese, who had the advantage of big fleets and experienced navigators got there first, discovering America on the way and getting sidetracked by the Incan gold. The Dutch and the English followed, desperately trying to find their way to the Spice Islands through doomed northern expeditions, treacherous Magellan traits and the longest voyages along the African coast. The hundred years of rivalry between the Dutch and the English East Indian Companies form the core of NN, with the pragmatic burgers of Amsterdam outwitting the English monarchy and its merchants on every step. Milton is grea
t with detail. He brings to life the plight of the early sailors who had less than 50% chance of coming back from voyages which sometimes lasted years, and had to endure scurvy, despotic captains and an occasional encounter with cannibalistic natives for a scant hope of bringing back a few smuggled ounces of nutmeg, which in turn, could settle him for life. He lingers on colourful lives of such characters as Francis Drake, a renowned buccaneer, knighted by Elizabeth I for plundering Spanish and Portuguese galleons and buying a few tons of spices along the way. Or the ruthless Dutch captain Jan Coen, the governor-general of the East Indian Company, who brought the Dutch supremacy of Spice Islands to its peak and finally defeated the determined stand of Nathaniel Courthope on Run. Courthope, the pretext for this book, is also its weakest side. The fact that only about 45 out of NN’s 373 pages are in anyway connected to him, neatly proves the point. Nathaniel’s claim to fame is his obstinate, five-year defence of Run, the smallest of the nutmeg islands of Banda. Until the early 1800’s Banda was the exclusive source of nutmeg, which up to the 18th cent. was the most coveted after spice of them all. Courthope foothold prevented Dutch monopoly of the spice and pissed of their merchants immensely. Milton tries to connect Nathaniel’s stand to the treaty signed by the Dutch and English more than forty years after his death, which gave the Banda Islands to the Dutch leaving the English with the insignificant colony of New Amsterdam, the Manhattan Island of today. The connection however is highly strung and the old fashioned patriotism of Courthope seems slightly pathetic today, sacrificing his and his men’s lives for the king and country that didn’t know or cared about their existence. This however doesn’t make NN a less enjoyable read. It’s a thoroughly researched and immensely enjoyable voyage through the d
own of the Colonialist age. And it’s an eye opener to discover that the pepper and cinnamon on your spice rack have paved the way to the modern world of American dominance and global trade.
The first time I saw this site, I was amazed how come nobody thought about it before. There are a quite few virtual museums and on-line art directories on the web, but none comes close to be as comprehensive as this. The reason for that is very simple. Instead of filling their own hard disk with Giga-bites of images, the creators of this site decided to check what already exists on the net… and discovered there’s plenty, only it’s all scattered on hundreds of different sites. So, why not bring all of them together under one roof? Artcyplopedia, is basically a big search engine, only instead of generally referring you to sites, it sends you straight to the pictures of the chosen artists. It’s that simple and it works a treat. Currently their searchable database contains links to virtual images of more than 7,000 artists. It’s possible to browse by name, nationality, subject and technique (unfortunately the last three categories are organised in chronological order, which makes it very difficult to find a specific artist, unless you know his exact birth date). However, when you do find you favourite artist, artcyclopedia will provide you with the most comprehensive inventory of his images on the net. Apart from images from museums and private sites covering at least three continents, it also provides links to information about the artist and even where you can buy reproductions of his images on the net. Random searches for some of the less popular of my favourite artists, like Delacroix and Daumier came with astonishing results of dozens of images and treasure trove of information. On top of the search engine, the site also provides regularly updated art news from around the world (new museums, exhibition openings etc.) and has a monthly future on a specific subject. During July it’s a comprehensive overview of the best museum sites on the web. The links page is also a very useful in case you want to f
ind a specific museum or artistic genre. Whenever you are an amateur or a serious art-buff, this will become your favourite art resource on the net.
Well that do you know, Hollywood finally realised that chicks and pimpled teenagers are not the only moviegoers and decided to come up with an authentic dude movie. High Fidelity is aimed squarely at guys who at the age of thirty-something still find it hard to come to terms with a fact that they are actually adults. Rob (John Cusack), an owner of an obscure record shop and an obsessive music buff, has just been dumped by his latest girlfriend and baffled by his inability to sustain a lasting relationship, decides to re-examine his life. Since Rob’s prime preoccupation is to put everyone and everything in a ‘top 5’ lists, he comes up with a ‘top five break-ups’ list, and decides to trace his past flames in hope that they will provide him with some answers to his constant failures with women. Unfortunately, this is definitely the weakest part of the whole affair. The flashbacks are too short to provide any real insight into Rob’s past and his present-day encounters with the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor just waste good actresses in tired scenes. Luckily for us, Rob has other interests in life. The co-workers in his shop are a hilarious double act. Barry (Jack Black, the most talented sidekick around) is an obstinate, opinionated fat ass who spends his time insulting potential customers and intimidating his painfully shy co-worker Dick (Todd Louiso). Their sharp bunter provides High Fidelity with its best moments. Rob’s frantic attempts to get back with Laura (Iben Hjejle, a poor substitute for Patricia Arquette, with a totally out-of-place heavy accent), were as far as I concerned, painful distractions from the more entertaining music-oriented side of the story, but surprisingly enough my partner thought the opposite. That’s how I realised that it’s actually the first genuine guys’ movie. A woman simply cannot relate to the schizophrenic male act of
wanting a lasting relationship while constantly grazing in other fields on the side, or fear of commitment constantly clashing with the wounded pride after being dumped by the cheated upon, exasperated spouse. These subjects, which form the core of High Fidelity, are obviously strike a sensitive spot with countless contemporary dudes who went through the same pains themselves. So if you are a thirty something male who still prefers to have a few pints with your mates instead of spending quality time with your chosen one in Ikea, this movie is made for you. Maybe it will set some priorities straight… Anyway it will provide a couple of hours of good fun and great music.