Author Archives: Lord Jim

Dunhill-Edition

Men’s Cologne — Dunhill Edition by Dunhill

Dunhill Edition is another older but still excellent Aromatic Fougerie, that ultimate gentlemen’s genre of fragrance that seems to have gone largely out of fashion in recent years. Created in 1984, 50 years after the original Dunhill for Men debuted, Edition is completely different then its legendary forebear. Unlike that pre-War masterpiece, Edition doesn’t emphasize floral notes like iris and jasmine but rather warm spices, wood and the fougere staples oakmoss and vetiver. Dunhill Edition is also a quality fragrance that actually develops as you wear it, unlike so many that promise to do so with an elaborate note pyramids but remain essentially linear, smelling not that much different hours later from when you first sprayed it on. No, Dunhill Edition is a many-layered fragrance in the best traditions of English perfumery, opening with a strong soapy vibe redolent of bergamot, a dry lemon, lavender and oakmoss. The soapiness is definitely less green that that of Van Cleef’s classic Tsar but the two share a similar potent barbershop vibe that can come across as a little heavy on first application. But also like Tsar, Edition begins to soften after the first half hour with a very nice spicey clove note as well as some nutmeg coming to the fore and balanced by refined clary sage, which I always seem to enjoy in my colognes. But Antaeus this is not — the sage is noewhere near as sharp and there are no funky animalic notes in Edition’s composition. Instead, it remains polite and refined, as one might expect from this classy house famed for its fine cigars, with some subtle masculine flowers like carnation and geranium in the mix, as well as tonka bean to sweeten things as it begins to dry down (ironically you’ll find no tobacco in either Dunhill for Men or Edition). In the late stages the vetiver and oakmoss continue to radiate from the base, mingling with a very pleasant fir note that plays off the tonka beautifully.

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Although often rumored to be discontinued, Dunhill Edition seems readily available and at extremely reasonable prices considering the apparent quality of the ingredients. It can be had for around $30 for 3.4 ounces, a pretty good deal in my book. Along with the original Dunhill for Men, Edition makes a solid addition to any man’s cologne cabinet, particularly those who enjoy timeless classicism rather than chasing trends. Projection is moderate except for that opening blast and sillage is solid but pleasantly diffuse, creating the impression of a well-groomed man not trying too hard to be noticed but nonetheless smelling effortlessly good. You definitely wear this Eau de Toilette-strength juice, it doesn’t wear you. Longevity is a good 6-7 hours depending upon heaviness of application and personally I think the late dry down where you can really smell the woods mingling with the sage and cloves is the best part, which makes Edition a pleasure to wear from beginning to end. I’d say this is more of a daytime wearer, ideal for office or semi-formal social occasions where restraint is appreciated. But if you wore this for an evening out it would’t be the worst thing in the world by a long shot. I also feel like Edition is one of those uncommon true all-year colognes, where the lavender and citrus elements work well in warm weather and the clove and oakmoss shine in colder temps. So if you like the more old school styles of masculine perfumery where there’s not an aquatic, melon or fake ambergris note in sight but you’re not quite in the mood for the knockout 1980s leather power of de la Renta’s Pour Lui or Maxim’s Pour Homme I’d say Dunhill Edition is well worth sampling and perhaps including in your collection. Along with a Saville Row suit and a well-crafted pair of Loake shoes the understated and classy Edition fits right in with any well turned out gentleman’s wardrobe.

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Men’s Cologne — Vintage by John Varvatos

Vintage by Varvatos is forever linked in my mind with Burberry for Men because of when I purchased the two just as I began exploring new colognes again after years of only wearing Armani Eau Pour Homme. It’s not that they’re overly similar to each other although they are both solid masculines — there’s no mint in Vintage, which is the dominant note in Burberry for Men, and the lavender accord is also much more pronounced in the latter. The Burberry is a mid-90s creation while Vintage is from 2006. But they both represent an excellent “beginners” men’s cologne. If that sounds like I’m damning them with faint praise or being condescending I can see how it could. But it also reflects my personal evolution and how my tastes have evolved and deepened, to be honest, as I’ve tried dozens of scents since dipping a toe in the water with these two readily available offerings. That Varvatos Vintage, like Burberry Men, smells very good is without question. It’s just that I’ve come to reach for the more imposing and uncompromising men’s fragrances like Antaeus, Balenciaga Pour Homme and De La Renta’s Pour Lui for nighttime use and Dunhill, Gucci Nobile and Lauder for Men in the day. So for me that now leaves Burberry Men and Varvatos Vintage kind of the odd men out.

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But if Vintage is not quite up to the level of those aforementioned classics in my opinion (and obviously my old school sensibilities are showing), it is nonetheless more than a solid modern offering and versatile enough for day or evening wear. The flacon itself, a typical design from the house of Varvatos, looks like a rum smuggler’s personal flask with it’s dark brown glass, wide oblong form and textured leather wrap. Mine is a big one at 4.2 ounces (they also make it in 2.5 ozs) and although they’re certainly not giving it away, it still represents very good value for money when taking into account the obviously high quality of the juice itself. Much like the mint in Burberry Men gives that cologne it’s signature note, in Vintage it’s the opening note of quince that grabs your attention upon first spritz. There’s also sweet-spicey rhubarb and herbal basil in that opening and if the those all sound like a strange mix the effect is actually pleasantly boozy. Probably the hint of artemisia/wormwood contributes to that liqueur-like effect, as does the requisite juniper and initially low key cinnamon of this categorized woody chypre. Those unusual but very pleasant top notes are never loud or overpowering but instead swaddle the wearer in a very pleasant cloud of soft leathery sweetness, like new suede jacket.

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The brighter top notes tend to dissipate after about an hour, though generally the heart remains consistent with the opening despite promises of jasmine and lavender in the note pyramid that I don’t really detect. I do get those green leafy accords but as for claims of balsam fir and patchouli in the base I don’t really get any of those either. Polo Green or Givenchy Gentleman this ain’t. What this does evolve into in the dry down is a nice tobacco scent, not green and bitter like Quorum, but rich and refined like Cavendish pipe tobacco. For me, that heady, boozy open gently transforms into sweet unlit moist pipe tobacco just like opening a tin of the stuff, with more than a touch of that cinnamon coming back around to spice up the mix.

Sillage is moderate making this an OK choice for work if a bit on the sexy side for an office setting. Better yet is nighttime when this warm fragrance shines or in casual day situations where a leather jacket is more appropriate than a blazer like a weekend motorcycle ride or a cigar and some aged rum on the porch. Longevity, despite a lot of griping on the forums, is decent at around 6-7 hours, although very late in the dry down the whole fragrance seems to lose cohesion (much like the modern Burberry for Men actually). It’s then possible to detect some of the chemical alchemy that was used to construct such a traditionally manly fragrance in the age of IFRA restrictions on natural elements like real oakmoss. Nevertheless, this is an unmistakably manly cologne and never fails to get a positive response from my wife even if she can no longer keep up with what I’m wearing on any given day due to my now-extensive collection. She will invariably say “Ooh, what’s that one again? I really like it!” So for that kind of fairly rare compliment factor I’ll probably always keep Vintage in my rotation even as I’ve become ever more enamored of ballsy retro-powerhouses. And really some of those I wear only for my own pleasure, as they are so strong and strange that they go completely against the modern grain (I’m looking at you Lapidus, you beautiful beast). So yes, Varvatos Vintage is a safe pick but also very good and thankfully not boring. It’s effortlessly manly, a people pleaser and also very enjoyable for the wearer. If I now prefer true vintage formulas to this titular Vintage that’s more a reflection on my own idiosyncratic and evolving tastes rather than a judgement on the fragrance itself. Because Varvatos Vintage is more than a merely acceptable scent. It’s a solid modern offering with a distinct masculine persona and I highly recommend it for any man who wants to smell good but not generic, whether they’re a newcomer to men’s colognes or otherwise.

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The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming — Live And Let Die

Live And Let Die is the second of Ian Fleming’s legendary James Bond novels. It is also frankly the most problematic. Written in 1954 about a Caribbean crime boss wreaking havoc from his lair in Harlem and obviously penned by the most English of mid-century Englishman this side of Churchill, the writing often invokes cringe-worthy instances of political incorrectness for the modern reader. For example, while the dangerous and supremely intelligent super villain Mr. Big is erudite and possesses a genius level intellect, there are many bits of dialogue spoken by his African American underlings in rather unfortunate “Yassuh, Boss” dialect. This may reflect Fleming’s efforts at portraying colloquial English accurately but 60 years on it does not exactly hold up as the author’s best moment, not to mention Bond calling those henchmen “clumsy black apes” or the use of rude British seaman’s slang as the name for shallow coral reefs once the action shifts to Jamaica (hint: rhymes with “biggerhead”). At best the offending language is terribly dated and at worst it is extremely condescending and racially insulting.

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But if we can forgive Fleming for being a man of his time and for his very English mid-20th Century views on race relations and insensitive language (which is probably much easier to do if you’re not a person of color, to be fair) then what we get when putting aside those jarring racialisms is a massive improvement in Fleming’s writing style over Bond’s debut in Casino Royale, though the latter was published just a year prior. Bond’s character has much more depth, humor and élan than in the first book and the action and adventure is crisper and more sustained, not mention the book seems much better edited so that Fleming’s more repetitive ticks have been largely jettisoned. While Casino Royale was already a very good effort, especially as a debut, Live And Let Die proves that Bond has real staying power as an iconic super spy through his character’s increased toughness and ingenuity. And certainly one doesn’t go into a Bond novel — or most of the films, for that matter — looking for a treatise on racial or feminist enlightenment. As the more modern movies would come to acknowledge, Bond is a dinosaur, a man of thoroughly 1950s outlook on women and minorities. If you can’t get over that — and it’s fine if you can’t, of course — essentially none of the original Bond novels is going to work for you. They are a guilty pleasure best enjoyed as old action books and not viewed through a modern prism any more than you would, say, a Sam Spade, Mike Hammer or Philip Marlowe adventure.

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After recovering from injuries both physical and emotional sustained during the course of the brutal Casino Royale affair, Bond is summoned by M., head of MI6, to investigate the flooding of gold coins dating from the notorious privateer Henry Morgan’s era onto the black market. With the spymaster’s typical well-reasoned logic, M. theorizes that a Russian agent of Haitian descent, Buonapart Ignace Gallia, a voodoo practitioner who keeps a criminal empire running on fear and murder, aka “Mr. Big,” is pulling the strings on the elaborate plot to launder the old pirate’s treasure for nefarious ends. For Bond, who has sworn personal revenge on the Soviet assassin’s group SMERSH for their evil deeds in the Royale caper, the chance to take on Mr. Big, their key man in America, is too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Quickly, Bond finds himself in New York City, where Fleming’s love of all things American (except for the lousy coffee and fast food of the era) is ever apparent in his evocative descriptions of the fast-paced big city. Staying at the luxury St. Regis hotel in Midtown, Bond is quickly reunited with his pal from the CIA, Felix Leiter, who is to team with Bond on the Mr. Big case. (Never mind that the CIA is ostensibly prohibited from operating within US borders…) The two secret agents make the journey up to Harlem and unsurprisingly, as two extremely square, extremely white gentlemen they are quickly spotted by Mr. Big’s pervasive underground network. This leads to Bond and Leiter being captured while looking for clues at Mr. Big’s lurid exotic club, “The Boneyard.” The men are separated and Bond finds himself alone and face-to-face with the fearsome Mr. Big.

As with nearly all of Fleming’s villains, Mr. Big is something of a physical monstrosity: 6’6″ tall and 280 pounds with an enormous, oversized bald head, gray skin and bulging yellow eyes. Bond concocts a story of coming to America to aide the US Treasury in tracking the mysterious inflow of ancient gold coins but Mr. Big, as a key member of SMERSH, already has intelligence hinting at Bond’s broader plans and his Double-0 status. Mr. Big asks his kept woman, the beautiful Creole psychic Solitaire, to corroborate Bond’s cover story by reading the Tarot cards. To Bond’s surprise she does so, while also sending him unmistakable signals of alliance. As a parting warning, Mr. Big directs his henchman, the fearsomely gleeful Tee-Hee, to snap Bond’s pinky finger. Coming to after blacking out from that pain, Bond is warned by Mr. Big to go back to England and stay away from his affairs. The next time they meet, the theatrical and megalomaniacal SMERSH agent will have Bond killed in as artistically satisfying way as he, the great Mr. Big, can devise.

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So begins the first third of Live And Let Die and it only picks up steam from there, with a furtive train journey down the East Coast to Mr. Big’s secretive operations in St. Petersburg, Florida; a deepening relationship between Bond and the now-fugitive Solitaire; and mortal danger for Bond, Leiter and the beautiful Creole telepath at every turn. Culminating with a masterfully tense and brutal showdown at Mr. Big’s aka Baron Samedi’s secret island hideout in Jamaica, Live And Let Die ratchets up the considerable thrills of Casino Royale with an even more sensational plot, graphic violence and detailed attention to the intricacies and dangers of spycraft by Fleming. The characters are sharper, the villain bigger and better and the second novel also introduces the globe-trotting change of locales that would come to be a hallmark of the series, both literary and filmed. If the 1973 movie Live And Let Die, Roger Moore’s debut in the iconic role, cleverly incorporated elements of the pulpy and then-popular Blaxsplotation genre, as well as inaugurating the more high-concept, sometimes wacky action era of Bond in cinema (see that speedboat chase in the bayou as well as the redneck sheriff and army of crashing police cars), the original book is more focused on finely honed observations about the power and history of voodoo, how a huge criminal enterprise might successfully operate in the United States under cover of small time crime and the ingenious and ruthless methods deployed by the criminal mastermind involved. In short, it’s a ripping yarn full of dynamic changes of pace, hard-nosed detective work, camaraderie in the face of danger and memorable bursts of ultra-violence. Fleming’s gift for the sudden shock and the unexpected upping of stakes continues to evolve nicely, leaving one primed and ready for the apocalyptic possibilities of his third Bond adventure, Moonraker. Tune in next time to see how that one stacks up.

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Merry Christmas from MFL!

Merry Christmas to all our loyal regular readers and casual visitors. Wishing you and your families the very best this Holiday Season and a joyous, prosperous & healthy New Year!

Today we’re going (very) old school with this clip from 1954’s White Christmas. This Holiday classic featuring the inimitable Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin’s songs ably assisted by the very funny Danny Kaye, the charming songstress Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt) and the amazing dancer Vera-Ellen. Helmed by the great Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, White Christmas is a very funny musical and dance extravaganza with enough sentimentality to warm the heart of even the Grinchiest viewer. If you’re having trouble getting into the spirit of the season, this slice of 1950s post-War Americana will do the trick like the visual equivalent of turkey with all the trimmings and a cup of egg nog. Merry, merry!

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Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Krysten Ritter

Once in a while an actress finds a role so perfect that it lets her punch through to another level entirely. Such is the case with the fascinating and unconventionally beautiful Krysten Ritter and her wonderful work as the title character in Netflix’s original series,  Jessica Jones. Netflix and Marvel have cleverly reimagined some of the more obscure protagonists in the Marvel Universe for TV, with Luke Cage and Iron Fist also getting their own series, and the compelling Jessica Jones shows just how satisfying it can be when relatively unknown superheroes get modernized and fleshed out in a morally complex world that is anything but black & white.

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And it is Ritter who enables Jessica Jones to reach it’s very fine full potential. At turns fragile and combative, cynical and idealistic, Ritter lets Jones’ damage show beneath the surface of her gamine good looks and her tough private eye facade. With it’s claustrophobic urban setting and her ominously dangerous nemesis, Jessica Jones inhabits a truly adult superhero demimonde, portraying sexual and mental subjugation in ways the big ticket franchises could never be bold enough to tackle. Add to that barely remarked upon interracial sex scenes between Jones and Cage, Jones’ use of her wits over her own seldom-deployed super strength and surprising eruptions of deadly, sanguineous violence, and Jessica Jones is a sophisticated vehicle that Ms. Ritter is wringing the very most out of.

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The 34-year old actress was born in rural Pennsylvania and was spotted by a modeling scout as gangly teenager in a local mall. With her throwback Coco Chanel looks, Ritter found herself in New York City in no time flat, where she was signed by the big agencies for print and runway work. With her lively and outgoing personality she made an easy transition into acting for commercials and television. She also made a concerted effort to act in theater, honing her acting chops even further.

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She had her first sustained TV work with a nice multi-episode role on the WB’s very popular hit, Gilmore Girls. That propelled her to supporting roles in features in the romantic comedies What Happens in Vegas with Cameron Diaz and Aston Kutcher, 27 Dresses with Katherine Heigl and She’s Out of My League with Jay Baruchel (all 2008) and again as the lead’s gal pal in 2009’s Confessions of a Shopaholic alongside Isla Fisher.

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But Ms. Ritter’s real breakthrough came with her remarkable portrayal of Jane Margolis during the second season of AMC’s legendary Breaking Bad. Effortlessly conveying the trademark tough-vulnerable qualities that would serve her so well in Jessica Jones, Ritter’s sexy tattoo artist and heroin-addict is a wonderful femme fatal and irresistible to the love-starved Jesse. So perfect was the role and the casting that one wishes Ritter’s Jane and Aaron Paul’s Jesse could have escaped Walt’s clutches and made their getaway to New Zealand. Instead the character’s death served to propel several profound plot twists going forward, and Ritter’s short-lived Jane Margolis was very much a vital deus ex machina. More than that, though, her performance was pitch perfect and indelible.

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An actor never likes to see a project get canceled but it was almost certainly a blessing when Krysten’s ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- In Apt. 23 got the axe after two seasons. Yes the show was reasonably funny and Ms. Ritter was perfectly cast as the titular B—-. But the show’s demise created the opening for her to take her role of a lifetime in Jessica Jones. Now not only is her show one of Netflix’s top properties and a critical success but she will be featured in the multi-hero spinoff, The Defenders, slated to debut in 2017.  Alongside Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jessica Jones will be keeping good company as these heroes team up to fight crime and injustice. And Krysten Ritter is sure to keep doing attention-grabbing work as one of the more interesting actresses out there.

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Men’s Cologne — Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior

Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior is one of the grandaddies of men’s cologne, right up there with other classic masculines like Rochas’ Moustache, Chanel’s Pour Monsieur and Guerlain’s Habit Rouge. Created way back in 1966, Eau Sauvage has probably aged better than those others and smells as modern today as when it was created. Like any other perfectly classic architectural or fashion execution it’s timeless. It opens with a refreshing hit of citrus — a very limey bergamot and waves of sweet lemon to be exact — that some people characterize as “fruity.” It’s the ideal way to start the day after a shower and shave but even if you’re growing a beard it’ll still get you going on the right foot. Eau Sauvage is definitely one of the great eye-openers in cologne and an ideal everyday scent. It’s my second favorite daily wearer just behind the great Lauder for Men. But if I’m honest Eau Sauvage is just a little sweeter and user-friendly, a little more smoothly blended, as well, even if I personally prefer the slightly sharper, greener character of the Lauder by just a scosh.

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Jumping off from that wonderful fresh citrus opening, classic fougere notes emerge in the heart phase as the scent develops: a wonderfully well balanced melange of rosemary, basil and a subtle but pervasive jasmine in the background (Hedione?). In the current formulation I don’t really get the patchouli or caraway listed in the notes but I don’t miss them at all. If I want real patchouli I’ll reach for Givenchy’s Gentleman and if I feel for spicy caraway there’s always Azzaro. Eau Sauvage is what I reach for when I want to smell impeccably clean and fresh. There are still undertones of good quality sandalwood, coriander, amber and masculine flowers like rose and carnation in the dry down, all held together by gentle orris root. (Orris root is the root of the iris flower and key component in perfumery — it is used as fixative but also brings that distinctive violet-like “powdery” or even waxy “lipstick” accord that is so common in well-made fragrances.) I don’t get a ton of oakmoss in the modern version though I presume it was more pronounced back in the pre-IFRA reformulation days. Again, I don’t really miss that either.

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Smell Eau Sauvage once and you will remember it forever and you’ll also swear you’ve always known what it smells like. That’s how unique and plugged in to the olfactory synapses it is. Through its masterful blend of bright fresh citrus and warm herbal-floral notes it evokes an aura of unforced masculinity, pure class in a bottle and very European in the best, most restrained sort of way. It was created by the great Edmond Roudnitska, one of the legendary noses in the perfume business, and was one of the first fragrances to make use of the synthetic fragrance booster Hedione, which purportedly also has pheromone-like powers. Normally I don’t give glassware too much import but the beautifully faceted flaçon (bottle) with magnetic cap is also a minor work of art and will look great on any man’s shelf or medicine cabinet. It too was created by a perfume legend, the great designer Pierre Dinand, which only ads to the sense of holistic excellence surrounding this Eau de Toilette’s execution.

Eau Sauvage is one of the very best of the classic male scents and as good or better than anything made today 50+ years on. It’s certainly one that every man should own and use regularly. There are a lot of complaints that it lacks longevity but I get a good 6 hours out of it and certainly longer on clothing, although it is never going to be mistaken for a powerhouse. It sits close to the skin in a dignified and alluring way with always moderate sillage, inviting others in and never pushing them away with any sort of brashness or aggression. Not to be confused with its more recently released flanker, the gorgeous myrrh bomb that is Eau Sauvage Parfum, or the brand new Sauvage, Dior’s attempt to match the mass-market success of Chanel’s Bleu, I can’t think of an environment where the original Eau Sauvage wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s great for work, family functions and first dates when you just want to smell like a classy guy and not a horndog on the make, which you would if you wore something like Aramis. It’s especially good in warm weather and is so good and flawlessly appealing I’d say that if you’re getting married Eau Sauvage should be a serious contender for the big day. It won’t upstage you but always enhances your better qualities. Simply put, if you had to choose only one cologne, Eau Sauvage would be all you’d need. It might be a bit conservative for the true frag head but it never puts a foot wrong and it’s really all a man needs to smell good, confident and, well, manly. Eau Sauvage is essentially the perfect cologne and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even though I often enjoy stronger, ballsier scents, I’ll still never be without a bottle of this Dior masterpiece. And neither should you.

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Men’s Cologne — Antaeus Pour Homme by Chanel

It’s rather funny that the great house of Chanel feels the need to label Antaeus, one of their foremost masculine fragrances, “Pour Homme.” There is no female version of Antaeus and never has been as far as I can tell. One sniff tells you that you are dealing with some serious vintage man juice, not a modern unisex concoction.

Created by the great Jacques Polge way back in 1981, the dawn of the powerhouse era, Antaeus is one of the key colognes in that period of “more is more” in fragrance construction. Auspiciously named after a Greek demigod who fought Hercules, this powerful potion is so beautiful it could well be something an immortal deity might choose to wear. A classic woody chypre, Antaeus opens with an unmistakable blast of castoreum (aka beaver musk), pleasantly sharp and stimulating but never Anchorman-like. Coming forward to join that heady, animalic vibe are healthy doses of labdanum, slightly fermented citrus and a very deep rose, as well as some spicy notes of coriander and precious myrrh. The overall effect is intoxicating like the smell of a church in the Mediterranean when it s very hot, the flowers, orange and lemon groves are ripening and incense is burning on the dais. The dry down is just as lovely as the sharper notes recede but don’t disappear and warm oakmoss, deep green sage and basil and a subtle but insistent jasmine begin to play their parts. And throughout there is the most elegant and opulent patchouli note running through the whole thing, much lusher and less dry than the one that is the centerpiece of Givenchy Gentleman. One of the true masterpieces of masculine perfumery, the first time you try Antaeus you will know its transformative and devastating power. If you’ve got the stones to pull it off, you’ll be a changed man going forward.

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If that sounds a bit like a religious experience that’s because Anateus is just that sort of trip for the uninitiated. It is totally old school and unlike anything that has been created in the last 15 years or so. And yet it is still being produced, thankfully, which must mean there is a market for it above and beyond aging Gen Xers. As with many classics, I’ve heard a lot of complaining that it’s not as good as it used to be, that it’s been watered down and is thin. Especially a few years back there was a despairing chorus that under strict new regulations issued by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA, the controlling body for perfumery worldwide), which banned certain previously widely used organic and chemical ingredients due to conservation and allergy & health concerns, Antaeus had been completely neutered along with some of its other contemporaries like Kouros and Bel Ami. But I honestly feel that perfumers have now come to grips with these limitations and after an undoubted rough patch and are now recreating their classics as well or better than ever. Continue reading

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The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming — Casino Royale

We’ve all seen every James Bond movie multiple times and have our own firm opinion on who is the best Bond — Connery? Moore? Craig? Brosnan?? But how many have read the original Ian Fleming novels? Well, if you’re a true Bond aficionado you really should check them out. And if you’re looking for enjoyable, action-packed summer reading it’ll be a win-win. While the films jump off to an entirely more fantastical level and become their own distinctly grandiose vision of 007, the stripped-down genesis of the Bond phenomenon is in the books. There isn’t close to the gadgetry in Fleming’s original conception, although there are some impressively explosive high-concept climaxes, and the bon mots are a little more subtle. Bond himself tends to be more grim, fallible and vulnerable and less of an glibly unstoppable killing machine than in the films. He comes across as a diligent, well-trained espionage professional with above average self-defense skills and an expert with firearms, a top agent with a sharp, opportunistic mind and a cold reserve covering up signs of doubt and melancholia. It’s a definite key to Daniel Craig’s success that his Bond hews more closely to Fleiming’s original dour conception.

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Ian Fleming’s own early drawing of Bond (pic from Wikipedia)

The first novel in Fleming’s massively successful opus is the notorious Casino Royale. I say notorious primarily because the film rights were tangled up for so long that it was the only Bond novel not to make it to the big screen… in recognizable form — the very poor 1967 Woody Allen-David Niven parody shares only the name. It took more than half a century for it to be properly adapted for the cinema via 2006’s explosive blockbuster, Craig’s excellent debut and a film many Bond fans consider one of the best in the franchise. Coming as it did after the ever more elaborate and bloated Brosnan films (although one could see some darker foreshadowing in his last, Die Another Day, where Bond is subjected to harsh torture at the hands of the North Koreans), it was no accident that finally having secured the rights to Fleming’s elusive first work, Broccoli & Co.’s franchise reboot would also try to stay true to the elements that made the start of the Bond story so special. But Casino Royale was also notorious when it was published in 1953 for its violence and sexual content, as well as the very frank and graphic way Fleming approached both issues, with many critics lining up to deride it as pornographic garbage. More than 60 years on it’s Fleming who has the last laugh because his debut novel still holds up very well.

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In Casino Royale the novel we meet Bond for the first time, a WWII naval veteran (presumably an ex-commando) and now an agent in England’s Secret Service with a Double-0 classification, which, as we all know, is a license to kill on behalf of the British government. Continue reading

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Men’s Cologne — Gucci Nobile

Gucci Nobile is a prime example of a discontinued cologne becoming a cult object, right up there with the original M7 by YSL (one of Tom Ford’s most influential early efforts) and the beautiful Krizia Moods Uomo. There are others, of course, like Guerlain’s original formulation of Derby and the highly sought after Jean Patou Pour Homme that go for even bigger bucks on eBay and the secondary market. But in terms of relatively recent offerings that have gone extinct there are few if any that inspire the hushed reverential tones of awe that Gucci Nobile’s ultra-green juice does.

So then the question becomes, is everybody so taken with Nobile simply because it is no longer readily available or is it actually worth the $200+ bucks sellers are asking for a full sized 3.4oz EDT bottle? First off, Gucci Nobile is one of three men’s fragrances that were abruptly discontinued when Frida Gianni became creative director of the house in 2006, along with 2003’s ultra-woody Gucci Pour Homme and the equally beloved Envy for Men from 1998, both of which also command high prices on the secondary market. And one can see why a new creative chief might ditch these three classics in one fell swoop, especially a female one: all three are different facets of old school men’s fragrances, miles away from sweet, loud things like One Million and Versace’s Eros. In the case of 1988’s Nobile, it is quite simply an archetypal Aromatic Fougere with a scent as green as the juice in the bottle.

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It opens with a refreshing blast of herbal high notes, including rosemary, lavander, bergamot and a distinctive, unusual hit of tarragon. Interestingly, most reviewers do not mention much in the way of animalic qualities in these top notes but combined I get a strong civet-like slap (i.e. a bit like urine), one which took me a while to come to grips with. It’s not quite the nose-singeing effect of a Kouros but I definitely get a touch of that sharp, tangy sting. And so while almost all reviewers will call Nobile smooth and discreet, I have to put it a little more into the Drakkar Noir powerhouse category. Yes, it’s more subtle and brighter than that dark legend but still there is something… pleasantly unsettling and animalic there, especially when first applied.

This cologne is also so smoothly blended that while you’re getting those sharp top notes the middle of masculine flowers, a little piney fir and the basenotes of crisp vetiver, musky oakmoss and a rather rough-edged sandlewood are likely to bubble to the surface and join the party almost from the get go. Continue reading

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RIP Muhammad Ali, 1942 – 2016

The Greatest has left us. Muhammad Ali passed away late Friday evening, succumbing to a severe respiratory infection after years of struggling with boxing-induced Parkinson’s. The great fighter and one of the most iconic and polarizing figures of the 20th Century was 74. The New York Times obit is here.

It’s easy to forget that, as Ali gradually transformed in his years after the ring into a sweet natured shadow of his former fiery self, what a wonderfully brash and divisive figure he was in the prime of his remarkable boxing career. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali spent his formative years in that racially divided Southern city, becoming a champion amateur fighter and winning gold as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics. You’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable symbiosis between personality and decade, as Ali became one of the most compelling and archetypal figures of the tumultuous 1960s, joining luminaries like the Beatles, the Kennedys and the NASA astronauts among the towering figures of that time. After his gold medal triumph, Ali returned home to open racism in his hometown but also a consortium of white businessmen dedicated to promoting his career. He discovered a bastardized version of Islam, patented his trademark rhyming patter and eventually earned a title shot against the heavily-favored Sonny Liston. In what would go down as one of the great upsets in boxing history, the lightning fast Cassius Clay floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, driving the hulking Sonny Liston to quit in the 7th round, having punched himself out trying to keep up with the precocious youngster. As he roared to a bemused Howard Cossell, Ali truly had “shook up the world!”

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The iconic first-round knockout from the second Ali-Liston fight.

He would continue to shake it up. The very next day he announced his intention to rid himself of his “slave name” thanks to the advice of his new friend and mentor Malcom X and a few weeks later he was forevermore Muhammad Ali. Already alienated by his brashness, for much of white America this bewildering and unsettling transformation was a bridge too far and Ali would come to be loathed by many as a malcontent, an “uppity Negro” with a big mouth. Even more defining and defiant, in 1966 Ali was made eligible for the draft for the escalating war in Vietnam but was clear in his reluctance to fight, saying “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” When drafted in 1967, he refused to serve. He was subsequently denied conscientious-objector status and convicted of draft evasion, lost his boxing titles and was banned from the sport. Ali lost more than 3 prime years in the ring and probably millions of dollars for standing up for his principles and not to fight in what he saw as an unjust war against poor people in a poor far away country. Again, this made him a hero to many in the emerging counterculture and anti-war movement and a pariah to more conservative Americans who steadfastly believed in “my country right or wrong.” But whatever one thought of Ali’s stance on the war, one had to give it to the Champ that he had the courage not only to talk the talk but also walk the walk.

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After seeing his case go all the way to the Supreme Court in 1971 and having his conviction overturned there due to the draft board’s arbitrary refusal to consider his conscientious-objector status, Ali pivoted from that moral victory and returned to his violent and lucrative vocation. He resumed his career with a series of tune-up fights in anticipation of a title shot against the fearsome Philadelphian southpaw, George Frazier. The eventual trio of Ali-Frazier fights would become some of the most compelling in boxing history, a worldwide obsession and a racial psychodrama between the handsome, light-skinned and eloquent Ali and the darker, more rugged and plain spoken Frazier. Ironically, Ali became the hero to Black America even as he taunted Frazier for looking like a “gorilla,” while Frazier drew the support of working class whites who wanted the uppity, draft dodging Ali put in his proper place.

Ali lost an epic and punishing 15-rounder to Frazier in March of 1971, suffering a broken jaw but hanging on to the end in what was called simply “The Fight.” Despite the loss The Champ was clearly back. He fought brilliantly in more than a dozen more contests, including beating Frazier in a rematch in 1974. That set him up for the legendary “Rumble In The Jungle” in Zaire to try to regain his title against the imposing knockout specialist George Foreman, who had pummeled Frasier to grab the championship belt. We may think of Foreman as a smiling, grandfatherly presence now hawking his grill on TV but in 1974 he was as serious as a heart attack. Many feared that Ali would be injured against the overpowering Foreman. But as he had done against Liston all those years ago, only taking it to an even more highly polished level, Ali “rope-a-doped” his way through 7 rounds, staying just at the outside of Foreman’s punches by dancing and using the springy ropes to duck, dodge and evade the worst of the bigger man’s punishing blows, often absorbing them with his elbows and shoulders. By the 8th round Foreman was gassed and Ali used an ultra-fast combination to chop Foreman down like a mighty oak. Ali was once again The Champ and the way that he had seduced most of the African continent and turned them against the sullen Foreman with his charisma, coaxing them into giving him the psychological boost of their unbridled affection — “Ali bomaye!” — was arguably one of the most brilliant acts of gamesmanship ever seen in sports. Not only was Ali one of the most gifted athletes of his time but he was clearly also one of the wiliest.

But no boxer can last forever no matter how blessed or brilliant. Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in 1975, the oppressively hot “Thrilla in Manila,” with the fighters doling out punishment to each other. Ali won on a TKO in the 4th round when Frazier’s eye closed but it’s safe to say that both men would carry the effects of their legendary trilogy of no quarter asked hand-to-hand-combat for the rest of their lives. In ’78 he lost and then regained his title to Leon Spinks but then in 1980 his old sparring partner Larry Holmes battered the noticeably slowing Ali into submission to take his title away for the last time. Ali closed out his career, already with signs of slurred speech and some tremor, with an ignominious defeat to journeyman Trevor Berbick in 1981. For most of Ali’s millions of admirers and even many of his detractors, the end of Ali’s boxing career, belated as it was, came as a welcome relief. It was simply too painful to watch the once-great warrior fight any more.

Of course it was already too late and the damage to Ali’s brain had been done. But for the remainder of his life, Ali became one of the great retired athletes of his time, right up there in terms of activism and charity with Jackie Robinson. Remaining a devout but now-mainstream Muslim, Ali did Herculean work for charity and traveled the world working for good causes. As his physical capacities diminished, one still had the sense of that agile mind floating like a butterfly slyly behind the slow-blinking eyes and the trembling hands. His rough edges were smoothed off, the controversies largely forgotten and he became something like an American legend, a beneficent but remote presence, there always around us but somehow elusive and receding. In our mind’s eye we saw one of the most vibrant athletes ever to grace the ring with personality as magnetic as any movie or rock star, nicknamed “The Lip” for his upstart self-promotional pronouncements. But in his long, last chapter Ali was a slow-moving man of peace and few words making impactful but dwindling appearances like that of his touching torch lighting at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. It was as if his prodigious energies had been well and truly spent, leaving him running on dwindling reserve power inside his prison of a body until this last, final moment of release.

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But too often we obsess over a person’s sad last days and those tend to take on disproportionate significance compared to the entirety of their lives. In the two decades of his prime and the time of his greatest impact on sports, on the nation and on the world, Muhammad Ali was both pretty and a baaad man, a beautiful, graceful athlete and proud black man, a speaker of hard truths and always of his own mind, a genius inside the ring and out. He was one of the greatest boxers of all time in the latter part of a century where boxing was one of the marquee sports. At a time when we’re often unable to name the current world champion amongst all the different belts and mediocre pugilists, it’s hard to recall just how big a deal being Heavyweight Champion of the World was back then, every bit as big as being the College Football Champion, the Super Bowl winner or the victor in the World Series. People lived and breathed boxing and Ali was the successor to other legendary heavyweights like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. But he was so much more than just a boxer. Ali dovetailed so beautifully with the emerging zeitgeist of Black Power, Sports as Entertainment and Sports as Symbolism that if you wrote him as a character you’d never get away with it — he would’ve been too outrageous, too perfectly well-spoken, poised and self-assured, too victorious. But Muhammad Ali was just that perfect a fit for his tumultuous times even with his flaws taken into account. Love him or hate him, you could never ignore him. He was a titan of sport, pop culture and, in fact, social change. His message, implied or stated bluntly, was Yes We Can to African-Americans and religious minorities, to the poor, the Third World and the downtrodden. When James Brown wrote “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!” he might’ve written it with Ali in mind. Ali gave hope, light and heat to the world. As the Spanish say, he was simply muy hombre and to conceive of anyone being quite like him again in an age where athletes rarely go out on a limb for fear of alienating their sponsors seems impossible. His echo lives on in a million boasts and taunts on the court and in the field and in the ring. But everyone else is imitating him and their predictions and preening seems more like ritualized kabuki than those of true conviction and zest for the battle. Ali nearly always delivered on what he promised and by doing so he was able to make pronouncements about issues far beyond a simple sporting event. With his mouth and his mind, his brains and his guts, his speed and his strength and his unwavering sense of self, Muhammad Ali really did shake up the world. And the world’s been vibrating from the aftershocks of his impact ever since.