Monday, June 27, 2005

[Movie review] Batman Begins

The Batman movies have all been generally bad. The worst being the awful "Batman and Robin" with Arnold playing the character of Mr. Freeze. So, I did not really expect Batman Begins to be anywhere near good, in spite of being directed by Christopher Nolan, of Memento and Insomnia fame. The trailers did look promising but the title didn't. Batman Begins? What kind of a title is that? Very unimaginative, in my opinion. So, though the trailers were quite attractive, all I expected was a two hour action movie that in some way would chronicle the rise of Batman.
Batman's early beginnings are bit of a mystery but his parent's deaths are pretty well-known for the emotional impact it had on young Bruce and the reason for his becoming Batman, the terror of Gotham's criminals. It is also a well-known fact that Bruce feels guilt for the single most devastating event of his life and how it has really shaped his thinking.
Batman fan would also know that Batman is always on the edge of darkness; on the threshold of being a good guy and becoming a beast, a fact that Joker uses quite regularly to taunt him into doing something quite beastly. He is unlike other superheroes, not only in that that he doesnt have any super-powers but also that is he is not completely goody-goody, incorruptible hero but is one who is human being susceptible to anger, violence, etc like any other human being and that is something that the comic fans like the most.
None of the earlier Batman movies were able to bring out the complexities of the Batman character or that of Bruce Wayne. They have all been focused on giving the audience a thrill ride with uber-cool stunts and gadgets, and are thus, generally despised by Batman fans.
The new Batman movie does have some good action but the focus is not on the action but on the evolution of Batman. It starts with the introdcution of Bruce's fear of the bats and his guilt for the death of his parents and then, goes on to show us his complete disenchantment with life and his curiosity about the criminal mind.
Enter Liam Neeson, as Ducard, who takes up the training and shaping of Bruce's induction into the League of Shadows but Bruce refuses to do what he thinks is wrong.
Bruce returns to Gotham and resumes his high-profile life, along with the birth of Batman. The film then traces Batman's first, clumsy attempts at being the "Dark Knight" and the sophistication of his equipment, methodologies, and symbols. The batmobile is quite unlike the ones we have seen before, which have invariable been sleek, sexy machines. This one is really is a tank and "comes in black"! It is not sleek but is definitely an effective transport for Batman's entries and exits (and not just through the waterfall).
The music is racy, and weel attuned to the pace of the movie which races past the several milestones in the creation of the Caped Crusader. The acting is good in general and the casting has been great, well, except for maybe Katie Holmes. Didn't really liek her in this movie. She sounded crass and her relationship with Bruce is not well-sketched. The casting is great because of the fact that Caine makes a great Alfred and Neeson makes a great villain and Ken Watanabe makes a ninja warriors' leader! Of course, Christian Bale does a decent job as the Batman but I couldnt help wondering why they could not find a better and more imposing actor...
Since it is a Nolan movie, I really do not need to eloborate on the technical aspects of the movie, which were without blemish. The best scene was that of Batman standing on the top of a Gotham skycraper, watching down on the streets, recreating the gothic look and feel of the comics.
Also, the comic relief nevre forced and is just at the appropriate timings and never exceeds more that is necessary. Liked the "Didnt you get the memo?" and "Actually sir, I was thinking about myself."
I have read reviewers that have generally trashed this film but interestingly praise the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt starrer Mr and Mrs Smith! They really piss me off...
Anyway, the movie is worth more than a look as it is a great flick, much better than the Spidey adventures 1 and 2, and certainly better than the previous Batman movies.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

[Book review] Q and A

I had heard a lot about this book and the lot I had heard were, in general, in praise of the book. But having been deceived by the rave reviews of another book by an Indian author, I was on guard and did not buy the book. I tried to get this book through but it was booked for quite a long time and a week ago, I finally got hold of this book.
Ok, the idea is interesting - it is about a pennyless waiter going on to win "Who wants to win a billion?", a fictional quiz show on the lines of KBC.
So how was the book? It was marginally better than Five point someone. Where 5.someone is a book written by a 9.someone about 5.someone, this book is written by a high-powered officer in the IAS about a poor, powerless waiter! An indication of the extreme social, economic, and status difference can be noted by the author's description of the sleeper compartment as containing 6 berths in all but in reality it has 8 berths. Only the First/Second AC compartments, which are the used by the rich and powerful, have 6 berths in each compartment.
The book is poorly wirtten and extremely-bollywoodish, though it was marginally better writing that 5.someone. The plot is so bad that it becomes hardly bearable. I managed to read it completely only in the hope that it would end better but that was not to be. I hated this particular book and I think cynicism regarding the rave reviews it got was well justified.

The book paints a very bad picture of India. Not that I say that India is the best place in the world or even that it is not that bad but it just seems to be quite over the top.

I could say more but I think I will just say this - this book is not worth the time.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

[Movie Review] Hung-Fu Hustle

Once upon a time, there were movies created by east Asian filmmakers that were characterised by bad acting, bad direction, basically bad everything but for one small reason, they were extremely popular - it had reasonably "exciting" action (compared to the dishum-dishum style of fight scenes of the films of those days, these were much more well choreographed). This was the beginning off a genre of films that commonly came under the banner "kung-fu flicks".
Then came Bruce Lee and in just four movies, took the genre to the dizzy heights that it came to occupy in the minds of millions of movie-goers around the world. Still his movies are maudlin, badly acted and poorly directed (except for Enter the dragon).
A genre always tries to transform over time as nobody likes to see the same thing over and over again (Bollywood guys, are you listening?) and Jackie Chan, with his Polics Stories and Armour of Gods, created a new niche for himself by mixing comedy with action and reinvented the genre and renewed the popularity of kung-fu movies. Of course, Chan hasn't made any more innovation over the years and still continues to make the same type of films even today.
Wire-fu was the next innovation, introduced by another famous action star, Jet Li. Wire-Fu is the technique that you see being used in such films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Matrix, etc, etc.

I have never been very fond of Kung fu movies, in general but have always loved watching Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and some good movies like CTHD. Kung fu movies have become more polished over the years and are better acted and directed these days but they still need to be reinvented to keep the popularity level that high. Matrix is a case in point. It combines fantastic action with a superlative script and needless to say, it did well.
I saw Kung-Fu Hustle over the weekend and I have come to the conclusion that Stephen Chow is the next best thing in this genre. His kung-fu is of the world of fantasies and quite unrealistic but realism is definitely not what he is after. His earlier movie, Shaolin Soccer, was on similar lines where a team of Shaolin Kung-fu afficionados make a soccer team and the story is about the exploits of this team. It was brilliant because it was so unrealistic and comic. I liked it a lot and that is the reason I went to see Kung-Fu hustle just to have a good time but came out with an intention to write this review.
The film was dubbed into english and it was the worst dubbing I have ever come across. It looks like a amateurish dubbing job and I would have preferred a subtitled version. Yet, I loved the film and I think it is a vastly improved from SS. This film has more finesse and is a carefully made one too. The acting is not AStreecarNamedDesire-great but is quite good for a movie whose intentions is comedy.
It is quite obviously influenced by Asterix comix. I will not tell how but the Axe Gang is metaphorically the Roman soldiers, the leader of the Axe gang could be seen as the one of the Roman general leading one of the camps around the village and the Assasins are Caeser's men who try to conquer the village and the village itself is called Pig-Sty colony whose residents are as dysfunctional as the Gaulian village.
The movie itself looks like a tribute to the older thriller movies. Whether it is the music, or the dancing, or the maudlin performances, I cant say but each do contribute to the effect that you are watching one of those old hindi (and english?) gangster movies.
The best thing about the movie is the portrayal of the transformation of the hero from a bumbling street scum to The One (and the references to Matrix do not just end there). It is beautifully done and I loved it. It happens quite late in the film by which time, I had become extremely curious as to what heroic deed the hero does in the film.
It is a fun movie from start to finish and I liked the way it ended. Now, go watch!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

TV blues

Someone reminded me of TV serials we used to watch when we were kids and I was reminded of things I had not forgotten but things that are so on the past that they rarely surface to the councious layer of the mind. I have such vivid memories of certain things and practically no memory of others that would have happenned quite recently. I can recall the time I got a bloody lip and had to get it sutured when I was about 2 years old! Some memories stick, I guess. And one of such memories is that of our antennae.

We lived in a pseudo-village that was slightly outside a small town called Chengalpattu (aka Chengalpet) in Tamil Nadu surrounded by tiny hills. The free-to-air DD signal was weak and to get a decent picture you had to have this tall, huge antennae pointed in just the right direction. Naturally, the antennae planted on the top of our building, which was one floor high (unlike the multi-storey buildings that seem to be in fashion these days), held to the parapet by three (or two, I forget) steel clamps and held in place by three steel wires that were tied to the middle of the vertical shaft leaving it in three different directions.
Being some 60 kms from Mahabalipuram and hence, at most 60 kms from the sea, we would get pretty gusty winds during the monsoons and any student of geography will tell you that Tamil Nadu is the beneficiary of two monsoon seasons. That explains the steel wires, doesnt it? They were there to make sure that the antennae pointed in the right direction after a night of gusty winds. The clamps were not sufficient as the big antennae twisted easily in the wind without the steel wires to hold it in place.
Yet there were times when the antennae would get twisted in a night uncontrolled gale winds, which would be quite often, would make the antennae twist around in its clamps. After that, there would not be a clear signal and sometimes it would frustratingly happen right in the middle of a movie or just before a serial we watched. There was nothing we could do but to turn off the TV and wait for the weather to settle down to its non-truculent self. That would usually mean that the rest of the day (or night) would be spent in the company of school books (my mother was very strict about "story books").
When the sky cleared and the atmosphere had gotten off its roller-coaster ride, we would go up and try to re-align the antennae to the signal. As we did not have any other way of knowing whether it was at the just angle, we would shout to and fro from the balcony to the house about the status of the clarity of the picture and sound. After twisting and turning the antennae into the right position, we would return happily to watch Door Darshan.
Every year, it was the same story and it got worse when we got a colour TV! The antennae for the CTV had more ribs and was taller than the BW one and so, it would get more easily turned in the wind.

When I remember this, I never remember the anguish we felt when the weather would rob us of a tv show but I remember how much fun it was trying to fix the antennae direction and how ridiculous it would look in these modern times of cable TV. We had two channels to watch and we never had any complaints about the contents of those channels. Nowadays, we have some 100 channels and all we get to see is trash. I surf the channels in the hope of finding something that would attract my interest but end up turning the TV off frustrated by the futility of the whole exercise after a couple of cycles. Is it that hard to produce a meaningful serial? Or is it that the "intelligent" minds of the Indian people has rotted away? Frankly, I cannot answer these questions. Once, there were some useful programmes on TV and we enjoyed watching them but now, I am worried about the future of the children fed on the trash that masquerades as programs in this age.
Oh well! the future of this country is already in the trash can. We feed on trash, imbibe trash in ourselves and live a trashy life.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Musical weekend.

I went to Manipal to attend the last day of the SPIC MACAY national convention. Why the last day? Because it is the day when you get to hear great music all night long. Jeen haan! An entire night from 8 pm to 6 am of classical music!
Manipal is about 400 kms from Bangalore and it takes around 10 haours to get there by bus. An overnight journey which is very comfortable in a nice luxury bus and on a highway, it posed no problems to me. It is near the sea and Magalore, which is quite nearby is a harbour city.
Manipal itself is entirely centred around the famous Manipal hospital and medical college. It is a town which gets its identity from the completely commercial enterprise of providing higher education. Though I was aware of Mainipla hospital and MIT (dont be confused, it is just the Manipal Institute of Technology), I was not aware of MIC (communication), MIM (management), etc, etc. There is also a polytechnic institute and other such things. They gave me a prospectus along with the conference bag but it is something I have misplaced.
The place is hot and humid, and I spent most of the day sweating like a pig. There was this occasional cool spell when clouds gathered but it did not rain much while I was there. Monsoon is around the corner and is the season of pre-monsoon showers. So, it is natural to expect the place to be humid but the humidity was alarmingly high and it was extremely uncomfortable in the day. Fortuntely, the all-night concert was being held in an air-conditioned auditorium.
I got introduced to SPIC MACAY chapter members of Bangalore and I have been invited to one of their weekly meetings during lunch and I sat their concluding session.

The evening started with carnatic classical music - violin by T N Krishnan, vocal by TN Seshagopalan, and flute by N Ramani. After this we had Hindustani - Ashwini Bede(Vocal), Asad Ali Khan (Rudra Veena), F Mansur (Vocal).
All of them great excellent performances and it was a delight to hear them. Ustad Asad Ali Khan was at his best as usual and Ashwini Bede's voice echoed off the farthest walls with the same (high) intensity. for all those morons who watched Indian Idol (I believe, it is some 15 crores), I would suggest them to hear Ashwini Bede or TNS or F. Mansur, but then their brains probably do not have the capability to appreciate a truly great voice.
I was particularly impressed by Ustad Mansur. He began with raag Bahnkar (or Bhakar) and I was mesmerised by it. His performance was the first time I heard a vocal recital from start to end with the same (high) enthusiasm. Of course, I love Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, etc but I have never heard them live and if you have ever been to a live concert, you will know the difference between that experience and listening to a recording.
I would love to get hold of Mansur's recordings (is there somebody willing to share ;). Need to start hunting places in Bangalore where I can get quality classical cds...
I do not have words to describe the experience of an all night concert. It is something that I do not have words to describe.

Though, I did go as far as Mangalore (in fact, further than that), I did not visit any of the visitable places and there are not many pictures. I was too absorbed in the music after a while...

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