America is not the greatest country in the world

May 25th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

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A review of the new film “Everything Everywhere All At Once”

May 23rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I’ve been viewing films on a regular basis for some six decades and have clocked up almost 3,000 in that time. This particular one must be a strong candidate for the most weird and wonderful work that I’ve seen.

The title itself is marvellous, up there with “Doctor Strange In The Madness Of The Multiverse” and, like that Marvel movie, the storyline is based on the notion that our universe is simply one of a multitude. The dialogue is in English, Mandarin and Cantonese so expect a fair amount of subtitling.

The film begins with this universe which is inhabited by a Chinese-American laundrette owner Evelyn Wang (splendidly portrayed in an endless series of facets by the incomparable Michelle Yeoh from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Crazy Rich Asians”) who has problems with her father (James Hong), her husband (Ke Huy Quan whom we first saw in “The Goonies”), her gay daughter (Stephanie Hsu), and her tax auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis as you’ve never seen her).

But, in no time at all, we are “verse jumping” as we bounce from one universe to another. To suggest that the pacing is utterly frenetic is a serious understatement. And the journey introduces us to a kaleidoscope of bizarre imagery from a world where people have hotdogs for fingers to another where rocks talk to one another and, along the way, fights involving weapons as varied as dildos and butt plugs.

So who can we thank for this wild ride? The two writers and directors are Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as “Daniels”. They began their career as directors of music videos, which has clearly influenced what is only their second feature film. As well as half the writing and directing team being Chinese-American, so are four of the five leading actors and ultimately this is a very Asian story of a oriental family adjusting to a new western world – like “The Farewell” which I loved so much.

But what does the dizzying narrative actually mean? I’m really not sure, but I choose to see the message that, if there really are multitudes of universes out there, there’s a lot to be said for the one in which we find ourself (double meaning intended).

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A review of the 2008 movie “The Incredible Hulk”

May 21st, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was kicked off with “Ironman” in the summer of 2008 and the latest addition to the immensely-successful franchise is “Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness” in the summer of 2022. In the intervening 14 years, there have been no less than 28 MCU movies and I’ve seen everyone at the time of release – except one.

I missed “The Incredible Hulk” – the second MCU outing – in that summer of 2008. I hadn’t enjoyed the earlier representation of this character, Eric Bana in “Hulk” (2003), and the reviews of this version were poor, so I allowed a hole to appear in my MCU experience, but finally in summer 2022 I caught the work on television.

“The Incredible Hulk” shows the creation story is a series of quick scenes flashed during the opening credits and then we’re off to Dr Bruce Banner, played by Edward Norton, being chased by the military (roles filled by William Hurt as ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross and – improbably – diminutive English actor Tim Roth as the Hulk’s intended nemesis) with some intervention by scientist Betty Ross (Liv Tyler in an underwritten role).

The whole thing looks most unlike a superhero film and more like a monster movie and I thought that the realisations of the Hulk and his opponent were very poorly executed. But now I’ve seen it and filled a long-running gap in my cinematic experience. 

Note 1: Bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk in the original 1970s television series, has a very brief cameo in this movie.

Note 2: In all subsequent appearances in the MCU, the Hulk is played by Mark Ruffalo.

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A holiday in the Balkans: Kosovo, Albania & North Macedonia

May 19th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I’ve just returned from a most enjoyable week’s holiday in the Balkans visiting three small states in the region. You might have been reading my daily blog postings of the trip.

However, I’ve now drawn all the blog postings together into a single narrative for my web site which you can read here.

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Day seven in the Balkans

May 17th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The last day of our trip (day seven) was the least challenging since it was the shortest and all around or in Pristina.

Setting off at the (to us) late hour of 10 am, it was only a 20 minute drive to the site of the Battle of Kosovo which has been called “the cradle of the Serbian state”.

The battle  took place on 15 June 1389 between an army led by the Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and an invading army of the Ottoman Empire under the command of Sultan Murad Hüdavendigâr. The battle was fought on the Kosovo field in the territory ruled by Serbian nobleman Vuk Branković. The army under Prince Lazar consisted of his own troops, a contingent led by Branković, and a contingent sent from Bosnia by King Tvrtko I, commanded by Vlatko Vuković.

The bulk of both armies were wiped out and Serbian leader Lazar and Ottoman leader Murad were both killed. However, Serbian manpower was depleted and had no capacity to field large armies against future Ottoman campaigns which relied on new reserve forces from Anatolia. Consequently, the Serbian principalities that were not already Ottoman vassals, became so in the following years.

In short, the Serbs lost, but so venerate their role in the battle that, as Yugoslavia broke up, they were determined to hold on to Kosovo even though the majority of Kosovans are ethnically Albanian. 

The memorial at the site only dates from 1953, so it was built by the communist regime. It was here on 8 June 1989 that the Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic addressed a reported half a million Serbs in a call to Serb nationalism that is widely seen as the spark that set alight post-Tito Yugoslavia. Since the last of the three conflicts was in Kosovo, Kosovans say that this is where the war started and where the war ended.

Nearby is a different memorial with a different perspective on the Battle of Kosovo. It is the Tomb of Sultan Murad I. In 2005, Turkish money restored the building and added a small museum.

Back in Pristina in temperatures eventually reaching 28C, we visited the Cathedral of Mother Teresa, the National Library, the Fatih Mosque, and the Ethnological Museum. Along the way, we saw statues of national heroes Skanderbeg (1405-1468) and Ibrahim Rugova (1944-2006) and recognition of American presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush plus NATO forces for ensuring that Kosovo did not fall under the brutality of Serbian forces.  

At the unusually early time of 3.45 pm, we returned to the hotel for four hours of downtime – the first such period of the week’s holiday. 

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Day six in the Balkans

May 16th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Day six – the penultimate one – and how did it go? We left our hotel in Skopje at 9 am and arrived at our hotel in Pristina at 6.20 pm and, in the intervening nine or so hours, we visited four locations in two countries in excellent weather (26C).  

Starting the day with some more time in North Macedonia, we went to an artificial lake called Marka Canyon where we spent around an hour on a boat trip which offered stunning views of the turquoise water and karst mountains and included a fun time in a cave where stalactites and stalagmites are v-e-r-y slowly forming down and up respectively. 

Then we crossed the border from North Macedonia back to Kosovo, our third border crossing in five days. It was time to view another Serbian Orthodox Church and this one, although in Muslim Kosovo, is located in a Serbian village where they fly the Serbian flag and use the Serbian currency. The Gracanica Monastery was built in 1321 in Byzantine style and it is a splendid construction with five domes and 16th century frescoes. 

Nearby, in Pecina, we walked around the Gadime Cave before stopping for a light lunch. Our last visit was to more Roman ruins, this time the remains of Ulpiana. A good deal more could be revealed here but the land is owned by Serbians who would not want it excavated. 

This evening, there was no group meal but half of us were taken by Miku, who lives in Pristina, to one of his favourite restaurants called “Shpija e Vjeger” which translates as Old House. Food and conversation were both splendid. 

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Day five in the Balkans

May 15th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Day five was wholly in North Macedonia but involved a lot of travel on some really poor roads.

We left Ohrid in the south-east of the country and travelled north-west to the middle of the nation.  Here we visited the Stobi archaeological site which was a reminder of the long and rich history of this part of the world. Stobi was a key location at the time of the Roman occupation of Macedonia when Augustus was emperor. For centuries the area sank into oblivion before it was revealed by the French historian Leon Heuzey in 1861. It is still being excavated. 

It was very hot (28C) as we wandered round the site, so we were pleased that, soon after this visit, we stopped for lunch at the Popova Kula Winery at Demir Kapija. In an effort to sell the local wines, we were served with samples of white, rose and red during the meal. I for one fell asleep on the next stage of our road journey which was to the capital of North Macedonia which is Skopje. 

After no more than three-quarters of an hour, we were off again on a walking tour of the city led by our guide in North Macedonia Anela. The city centre is full of new buildings, mainly government departments and museums. There are two reasons for this transformation. 

First, in 1963, Skopje was devastated by a major earthquake which I remember at the time (I was 15). Second and more significantly, since independence in 1991, they have been creating all the institutions of a nation state together with lots of statues honouring a mythic past. 

So, for example, in the main Macedonia Square there is a grand equestrian statue of Alexander the Great. The area of the old Turkish bazaar retains some of the earlier atmosphere of the city. 

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Day four in the Balkans

May 14th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Day four and time to move on to the third country of our tour: North Macedonia. It was 8.45 am when we left our hotel in Tirana and headed east. After a refreshment stop, we crossed the border at Qafe Thane and proceeded into North Macedonia.

Now most people know Macedonia as the birthplace of Alexander the Great but today three countries lay claim to the name Macedonia: Greece, Bulgaria and what is now called North Macedonia.  Like other parts of former Yugoslavia, North Macedonia is ethnically diverse with most of its citizens being Orthodox Christians but almost a third being Muslim.  

At 1.20 pm, we rolled up to the Sky Corner hotel in the town of Ohrid in the south-east of the country. The town is known for once having 365 churches, one for each day of the year, and has been referred to as a “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. The town of Ohrid and Lake Ohrid are respectively UNESCO Cultural and Natural Sites and Ohrid is one of only 28 sites in the world that are Cultural as well as Natural UNESCO sites.

After barely half an hour to unpack or have a drink, we met our guide for North Macedonia Anela for our afternoon walking tour of the town. She told something interesting: in November/December 2018 – a full year before China announced an outbreak of Covid-19 – all her family (and many others in the town) suffered flu-like symptoms including loss of smell and taste. The town had many Chinese tourists, so could this have been an early case of Covid?

When we started on our walking tour, the temperature was 26C and all seemed fine. But, quite soon, we heard rumblings of thunder which became ever louder. By the time we reached the remains of Tsar Samuel’s Fortress, there were repeated strikes of fork lightning on the nearby horizon. 

As we approached the Church of Saints Clement & Panteleimon, it started to crash with rain. Like most of the group, I had left my jacket at the hotel and was just wearing a shirt so I was drenched. No problem: we took shelter in a cafe opposite the church only to find that the lightning had knocked out the electricity. 

It was all part of this adventurous holiday. 

We could not wait for the rain to stop. There were churches to see. So, after a look inside St Clement, we walked on to the most famous church in Ohrid, the Church of St John at Kaneo. This dates back to the 13th century and is so popular partly because of the beautiful design (lots of red roof tiles) and partly because of the dramatic location (the cliff over Kaneo Beach overlooking Lake Ohrid).

Finally we took a short boat trip from below this church across the lake back to the town where we checked out our third Orthodox church of the afternoon: the 10th century Church of St Sophia with 11th century frescoes. 

We had an hour and a half at the hotel before as usual we ate as a group at a local restaurant. Tonight’s speciality was delicious trout and again there was a tasty dessert. 

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Day three in the Balkans

May 13th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Day three was in Albania where we had a local guide called Kledi who explained some of the dramatic recent changes in his country. Under the dictatorial rule of Envo Hoxha from 1944-1985, Albania was the most closed and poorest countries In Europe. Following the collapse of communism in 1991, great efforts are being made to accord recognition to the four main religious groups in the country: two Muslim (Sunni and Sufi) and two Christian (Orthodox and Catholic). 

The main visit of the day involved a two-hour coach ride from Tirana to Berat in the south of the country.  The town is known for its historic architecture and scenery and is known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows“, due to the many large windows of the old decorated houses overlooking the town which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our first visit was to a location called the Cathedral of Dormition of St. Mary.  The Dormition of the Mother of God is a great feast in the Orthodox tradition. It celebrates the “falling asleep” (death) of Mary the Theotokos (“Mother of God”) and her being taken up into heaven (bodily assumption). The iconostasis of this church is simply magnificent. Inside the church is the National Iconographic Museum “Onufri”(named after two generations of famous painters). 

The second visit was to the National Ethnographic Museum. This opened in 1979 and contains a diversity of everyday objects from throughout the history of Berat. There are photographic reminders of the town’s famous bazaar of over 800 shops which was razed by the communist regime in 1945. 

The weather was glorious and the temperature had now risen to 27C. After a short break for a snack, we were off back to Tirana – another two hours on our small coach. Well, that was the plan.  

I had fallen asleep when I was woken up to find that our coach had broken down in a long tunnel and we were being assailed by hooting and screaming. We had to abandon our vehicle, dodge passing vehicles, and take refuge in a service porch. I had visions of us being there for some time, so I pulled out my bag of fruits & nuts and gave each of the group a carefully measured ration. In fact the problem was solved in half an hour, we reboarded our coach which had now been cordoned off by cones by an emergency team, and we resumed our return to Tirana. 

In fact, this unfortunate accident meant that, by the time we reached Tirana, the National Museum – next on our tour – was closed. Our local guide came up with an alternative plan: a visit to what was before the collapse of communism the nuclear war bunker for members of the Ministry of the Interior and is now a museum called Bunk’Art explaining the terrible repression of the Hoxha regime. Here we saw exhibits describing 36 forms of torture and listing 5,500 victims of the regime.

Back at the hotel, one of the group Toby Screech gave a talk on his visits to Albania in 1988 and 2002 which highlighted just how totally the country has changed. Finally, six of the group plus our guide Miku went out for dinner at a lively modern restaurant called “Tartuf Shop” before wandering round the main square which was hosting a very noisy rock concert. This was not the Tirana that any of us had expected: colourful and vibrant.

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Day two in the Balkans

May 12th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Starting at 9 am, the second day of our holiday was different from the first. To start with, we had all had a full night’s sleep. Then, except for a brief look at the Kosovan town of Gjakova, we spent the day over in Albania.

Immediately the terrain changed as we drove on rough roads on tightly-winding routes overlooking picturesque gorges featuring tumbling rivers in  turn overlooked by “the accursed mountains” (the title of a book by Robert Carver). At various points, we slowed down for wandering cows or sheep or goats to clear the way. 

The highlight of the day was a ferry ride along most of the artificial Lake Koman in northern Albania.  Although the location is called a lake, it is actually a reservoir based on the River Drin which was constructed between 1979 and 1988. The Lake Koman ferry operates daily on the lake from Fierza to Koman in a fabulous journey that takes about two and a half hours.

The weather was ideal: warm and sunny with a light breeze. The turquoise water and the vertical canyons of craggy rock presented endless breathtaking views that just cried out to be photographed. 

It was late afternoon when, back on dry land, we stopped for some refreshment in the town of Shkoder. Interestingly, I visited this town in 2019 on a day trip from Montenegro which is a short distance to the north. 

We then headed south for the Albanian capital Tirana and, after some challenges, finally rolled up to our accommodation, Hotel Austria, at 8.10 pm, over 11 hours since we left our previous hotel.

The pace did not slacken. In no time at all, the group walked round to the Oda restaurant for another set-course dinner. This time it was pashaqofte soup, fresh salad, fried cheese and peppers, lima beans, dolima, casserole kosi, and two syrup-based deserts.  

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