Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I haven't yet seen the movie adaption of Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffmann (and Amy Adams! and Viola Davis!) and while the trailer was (I thought) a disaster, the movie has generated decent reviews.

Although as someone who saw the play (not however with Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Brynne who had moved on by then; Eileen Atkins had taken on the mantle of Sister Aloysius) what bothers me is the casting of Philip Seymour Hoffmann. Granted, Hoffmann is a great actor -- perhaps our very best -- but doesn't the whole play turn on the premise that Father Flynn looks good, is universally liked and loved (except perhaps by Sister Aloysius) but could be, in fact, a monster? Forgive me, but Hoffmann looks freaky with his wasted puffed-up cheeks and bloodshot eyes -- a textbook child molester, almost. Who wouldn't think the worst of him? Can Doubt survive Hoffmann's looks?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Messy medical metaphor of the day

From the back-cover of a manga comic book I found in a bookshop the day after Thanksgiving:
Can the dentist drill deep enough into the heart of the young school boy to find
the painful memories hidden within?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Line of the day

David Edelstein reviews Milk:
Milk is a hagiography, but there’s nothing wrong with that if you believe, as director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black obviously do, in the gospel of Harvey Milk. And queer hagiography is bracingly different from that other kind, in that it’s often, so to speak, ass-backward, the road to rebirth leading through the flesh instead of around it. There aren’t many life stories of saints in which the hero’s salvation begins with picking up a studly young Midwesterner in a New York City subway station on the eve of said hero’s 40th birthday.
I guess that's why he's my favorite movie critic working today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And for your blood, Spock, we have that wondrous stuff from India: pudina chutney! *

The blogosphere has been buzzing with the release of the trailer of the new J. J. Abrams-directed Star Trek movie. The movie is a reboot, taking us back to the origins. And while I've never been a Star Trek fan -- hell, I've ever even seen a single TV episode or movie and the only thing I know is that Spock's blood is green (hence the title*) -- I was pleasantly surprised to see Zachary Quinto, who plays the creepy Sylar in Heroes (currently on its way to self-destruction, every Monday on NBC) is playing the young Spock.

Quinto is the only guy in Heroes who plays his -- now stretched beyond recognition -- role with something like a wink to the audience, while still managing to be pretty menacing (all the actors, in general, do well except for Milo Ventimiglia who flaps and mugs his way through every scene). Should be fun to see what he does with Spock.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire redux

I wondered aloud on Wednesday about the new movie "Slumdog Millionaire" -- whether I would like it or not.

Well. I saw the film yesterday. It's quite brilliant -- and enormously entertaining, the credit going to Boyle's hyperkinetic syntax and A. R. Rehman's equally pulsing score. (And Anil Kapoor gives a sly stylized turn as the vain host of the millionaire show -- my favorite performance in the movie.)

But -- you knew there was a but coming, didn't you? -- I suspect that the people who enjoy this film the most will be non-desis. The movie has some jarring cognitive dissonances (for me): Jamal Malik, it's hero is played here by three actors as he ages. Jamal No 1 speaks in shuddh Hindi while Jamal Nos 2 and 3 speak perfect English. Jamal No 3 (Patel) even speaks with an English accent!

Somini Sengupta's NYT piece has the goods on how this happened:
The decision to go with Hindi stemmed from a need to find child actors who could be true to the characters in the script. Ms. Tandan, who is Indian, said it was impossible to find English-speaking Indian children who could play hard-knuckles slum kids. Mr. Boyle immediately understood that, she said, and agreed to rewrite the script into Hindi. Ms. Tandan ended up hiring real kids, some of them from the Mumbai slums, to play the three lead child characters. [...]

For Mr. Boyle one of the toughest challenges was casting the lead role: the 18-year-old protagonist, Jamal Malik. He auditioned one young Indian actor after another. Many of them were capable, but they all looked buffed out, Mr. Boyle recalled, because they were all grooming for roles in Indian cinema.

In the end Mr. Boyle went with an actor his teenager daughter recommended: Dev Patel, from the British television series “Skins.” That choice could be called the most dissonant part of “Slumdog Millionaire.” Though he is a fine actor, Mr. Patel’s accent gives away who he is: a Briton of Indian origin. Not a kid from a Mumbai slum.
It isn't just Dev Patel though. And it isn't just that the three Mumbai slumdogs (Jamal, his brother Salim and the love of his life, Latika, all of whom are played by different actors at ages 7, 11 and 18) speak English -- it is that they speak English in the way the children of the elite upper middle-class families of Mumbai do -- and that the children who come from less urban areas in India don't*. And when a slumdog starts speaking like that, it feels ... to put it mildly, awkward.

Don't let that deter you though -- the movie is fantastic, especially its final third -- which had me chewing on my nails even though I knew what the outcome would be. If it could do that to me, despite all my quibbles, imagine what it could do for you if these sort of things don't bother you at all! (Or better, if you don't even notice any of them).

* Contrast the the way the three youngsters -- Jamal, Salim and Latika -- speak with the way their older costars -- Irfan Khan who plays the Inspector and Anil Kapoor who plays the vain TV show host -- talk. Both Kapoor and Khan are still elite urban Indians but they're both considerably older which means that their English is still not influenced by MTV. (Snooty urban Indian children would call this kind of English as "vernacular".)

UPDATE: I was sad the other day that David Edelstein hadn't reviewed Slumdog. But while the review doesn't appear in New York, he's put up a review on his blog.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Far off planets that revolve ... anti-clockwise?

Perhaps the answer is that I am startlingly ignorant but I was struck by this sentence when I was reading in the NYT about the discovery of far-off planets (or rather the first photographic evidence) beyond the solar system:
The three planets orbiting HR 8799 are roughly 10, 9 and 6 times the mass of Jupiter, and orbit their star in periods of 450, 180 and 100 years respectively, all counterclockwise.
I am sorry but how exactly does one determine whether a planet revolves clockwise or counterclockwise? How does one look? From the top? The bottom? How are directions determined when we are dealing with things on the planetary scale? Is this just a typo from the reporter?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

I get queasy when I hear of movies about poverty in India being made by foreigners. It isn't that these movies are bad per se but I find the Indian characters to be terribly contrived. The Indian setting in "After the Wedding' was peripheral to the movie's plot but I still found it unbelievable. In my mind, street kids don't talk like that (ditto for the Pakistani subplot in Syriana). I always cringe and avert my eyes when the halting Hindi is spoken -- in my mind, the subtitles sound better (and they probably are, the subtitles are probably directly from the script, while the spoken vernacular is a clumsy translation).

I bring all this up because the much-lauded Danny Boyle's much-lauded movie Slumdog Millionaire releases today in the city. Predictably, Manohla Dargis, an astute reviewer but susceptible to the auteur theory (i.e. a good director = a good movie), not to mention a Danny Boyle fan, has given it a favorable review (although she tempers it a bit at the end).

I'm much more hopeful that one of my favorite critics, The New Republic's Chris Orr has given it a rave too -- and an unqualified rave at that.

And of course I am disappointed that my favoritest critic David Edelstein chose not to review it altogether...

So I'm thinking I'll go and see it this weekend ...

UPDATE: I should mention that the movie is based on a novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup Some reviews here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Do you want to move to Canada?

I guess this is at least two weeks too late but what the hell - it's still funny!

From the annals of incomprehensible academic writing

ScienceDirect - Journal of Personality and Social Psychology :

Cooperation in Social Dilemmas: Free Riding May Be Thwarted by Second-Order Reward Rather Than by Punishment:
Cooperation among nonrelatives can be puzzling because cooperation often involves incurring costs to confer benefits on unrelated others. Punishment of noncooperators can sustain otherwise fragile cooperation, but the provision of punishment suffers from a “second-order” free-riding problem because nonpunishers can free ride on the benefits from costly punishment provided by others. One suggested solution to this problem is second-order punishment of nonpunishers; more generally, the threat or promise of higher order sanctions might maintain the lower order sanctions that enforce cooperation in collective action problems. Here the authors report on 3 experiments testing people's willingness to provide second-order sanctions by having participants play a cooperative game with opportunities to punish and reward each other. The authors found that people supported those who rewarded cooperators either by rewarding them or by punishing nonrewarders, but people did not support those who punished noncooperators––they did not reward punishers or punish nonpunishers. Furthermore, people did not approve of punishers more than they did nonpunishers, even when nonpunishers were clearly unwilling to use sanctions to support cooperation. The results suggest that people will much more readily support positive sanctions than they will support negative sanctions.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Dont .. watch this movie

Manohla Dargis, who once wrote a full movie review in verse, writes another inventive one today -- reviewing "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ".

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Newsweek's post-campaign Sarah Palin tidbit

Newsweek gives a heads-up on what it's traditional "How he did it" post-election issue contains. Among them, this priceless tidbit:
At the GOP convention in St. Paul, Palin was completely unfazed by the boys' club fraternity she had just joined. One night, Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter went to her hotel room to brief her. After a minute, Palin sailed into the room wearing nothing but a towel, with another on her wet hair. She told them to chat with her laconic husband, Todd. 'I'll be just a minute,' she said.
I must say that I have no clue about why this is included as if it is a revelation (I mean -- Sarah Palin comes out of the bathroom wearing a towel -- so what?) but I did burst out laughing when I read it, simply because it's so vividly painted.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton is dead

Lots of big things happened yesterday so I was shocked to read today that Michael Crichton -- yes, he of Jurassic Park -- died yesterday also.

Here's an appraisal from the New York Times.

Everyone seems to agree that Jurassic Park is his best novel. I never read it but the Spielberg movie was one of the first English movies I've seen and I think, it's one of the best in its genre. My grandmother recommended Sphere to me long ago (I did see the movie which was pretty bad.) The only novel I've read is Airframe, which wasn't bad at all.

I guess his death is not an occasion to bring up this blog post I once wrote about him. Let's just say that he was a little, uh, unconventional, in the way he used his own real-life spats with real people in his fiction. Right now though I guess the only thing to say is RIP.

UPDATE: An obit by James Fallows here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

PCs that boot fast

This is ridiculous!

You know what PC makers need to do? They need to stop putting in stupid applications when they ship the PC -- and they especially need to disable applications that start up on boot and slow the computer down. But trying to make an extra buck out of "fast starting" PCs? Someone needs to start a consumer uprising or something!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The spotless mind

Via Slashdot, looks like the world of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might be here sooner than we expected (ok I'm half kidding, but still ... and the movie is a gem).
It sounds like science fiction, but scientists say it might one day be possible to erase undesirable memories from the brain, selectively and safely. After exposing mice to emotionally powerful stimuli, such as a mild shock to their paws, the scientists then observed how well or poorly the animals subsequently recalled the particular trauma as their brain's expression of CaMKII was manipulated up and down. When the brain was made to overproduce CaMKII at the exact moment the mouse was prodded to retrieve the traumatic memory, the memory wasn't just blocked, it appeared to be fully erased.

Excellent timing too, as Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York gets released tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hooked by The Wire

It took me around 30 minutes and subtitles to get into it - but folks, all the critical praise is not unwarranted: The Wire is a gripping tale, gritty and literary at the same time. It's so so so hard right now for me not to keep watching it and do something else.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Line of the day

Line of the day: David Edelstein on Clint Eastwood's Changeling
The way Eastwood shoves Jolie’s suffering in our face is like a threat to the Academy: “And the Oscar will go to … ” She’s a great actress. She doesn’t need his domineering chivalry.


This profile of Angelina Jolie in the Times is almost complete fluff but it makes one good point: that Jolie has ascended to superstardom without starring in a single romantic comedy.
That may be part of the reason she has become virtually the only current A-list actress to achieve her status while completely bypassing romantic comedies. Nobody is ever likely to call her “America’s Sweetheart.”
Food for thought, no?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Black Swan

I know Nicholas Taleb's stuff is widely read and interesting, and the current crisis seems to have vindicated him but I found The Black Swan well-nigh unreadable -- not for its content, but it's style, it kept circling around its main point but never made it (at least in the first 30 pages, which is when I stopped reading).

Of course this was half a year ago. Now I wish I'd read it. But may be I should go back and give it a try.

See here for another viewpoint.

Here's an example of Taleb's murmurings that makes The Black Swan unreadable.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Debate # 3

I'm so glad that Obama didn't agree to McCain's town-hall meeting proposal -- just imagine watching the two of them in fifteen friggin' mind-numbing sessions like this across the country!!!!

McCain was bad tonight -- grinning, grimacing, unable to stick to a point, weirdly aggressive one moment and piteously whining the next. And his sarcastic interjections just looked ... petty.

Alex Massie -- whom I don't read regularly but whose commentary on the debates so far has been side-splittingly funny -- used a little thingie called CoveritLive to live-blog the third debate. I wonder when we'll be able to live-blog via IM -- wouldn't that be great??!!

The financial crisis

There are tons of articles on the financial crisis out there -- but here are two (well, one is an article, the other is just a quote) that helped me make sense of it*.

Jim Manzi's exceptionally well-written take explaining what's happening in terms of a primitive hunter-gatherer society.

And this quote from

To show the impact of deregulation, consider the underlying premise of all credit transactions – loans, mortgages, and all debt instruments. Over the entire history of human finance, the borrower's ability to repay the loan has been the paramount factor in all lending. With mortgage, this included elements such as employment history, income, down payment, credit rating, other assets, loan-to-value ratio of the property, debt servicing ability, etc.

Greenspan’s decision to not supervise mortgage lenders led to a brand new lending standard. During a five year period (2002-07), the basis for making mortgages was NOT the borrowers ability to pay – rather, it was the lender's ability to sell a mortgage to firms that securitized them.

This represented an enormous change from the past.

These new unregulated mortgage brokers no longer cared about a standard 30 year mortgage being repaid over time. In the new world of repackaged loans, all that mattered was that the loan did not come back to the originator. By contract, this was typically 90 or 180 days. As long as the borrower did not default in that period of time, it could not be put back to the originator. [emphasis mine]

*Of course everyone's been talking about the housing bubble for a long time. What I didn't know about was the labyrinth of "securitization" that existed behind each mortgage which was how subprime mortages were viable in the first place -- something that is only now becoming clearer to me, as I read about the crisis. (In my defence, I've never taken out a mortgage, so I have no idea of what it entails). :-)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Organize All The World’s Information, Then Put Google Ads On It

I think Michael Arrington gets this right:
Most people still think of Google as a search business. But what the analysts understood long ago, and the rest of us are realizing now, is that what they really want to do is organize all the world’s information, and then put ads on it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Debate # 2

Line of the day -- Alex Massie's reader writes:
McCain is better than before. In that he's making his talking points fairly effectively but in his paedophile uncle, rather than his mad uncle, voice.'"

Thursday, October 02, 2008


I stayed at home, skipped the movie at the Film Festival because I thought tonight's debate could just possibly have some kind of earth-shaking moment, some monumental gaffe, something that would be remembered in posterity, even if no one really remembered Sarah Palin.

But no - this was the even more boring than the Obama-McCain debate. Palin chirped on and on and while her answers made no sense, she repeated catchphrases ad nauseam, and explicitly (!) made it clear that she would not answer certain questions, overall, it was still significantly better than her abysmal performance in the Katie Couric interviews (Oh, update on that, watch this , the latest from what Daniel Larison calls the eternal Couric interview).

Biden was very good, very authoritative and it was a good decision for him not to talk down to Palin or belittle her in any way.

Also after watching McCain's utter contempt for Obama - the congeniality between the two Veeps was kind of nice.

Oh and I was right that Palin does better with her hair loose.

Sigh, Sarah Palin

I must say that this tpmtv video chronicling Sarah Palin's "greatest hits" does make one thing clear: that even during Palin's biggest gaffe in the Charlie Gibson interview, her initial confusion about the Bush Doctrine, she was almost completely in control. She looked cocky, she looked at Gibson right in the eye and her answers, even though completely short on substance, were never as cringe-inducing as the ones she gave Katie Couric.

See for yourself:

Makes one wonder what has changed in the meantime. Has the cramming become too much? Or is it just that Palin speaks much better when she wears her hair long rather than scrunching it up into a bun? I suspect the latter -- she clearly seems more comfortable wearing her hair long.

Of course one thing is also clear. CBS did a very canny thing by releasing snippets of the interview so that Palin's gaffes seem even more stretched out. What we have to realize is that most of these cringe-inducing answers happened in one seating and clearly in times like these, one error leads to another. So Palin's gaffes must be taken in this context: that she committed a gaffe, which in turn led to her losing her cool, and committing another, and another. But by looking at one gaffe at a time, each seems even worse.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Notes on the debate

  1. This was one borrrrrring debate.
  2. Obama actually pronounces Pakistan as Paak-ees-taan, not Pak-is-tan, as most Americans do. I guess that's because of his upbringing -- one would think the Republicans would use that to paint him as a clandestine Muslim, no?
  3. McCain actually has good voice modulation -- and his sing-song style, which put me to sleep during his Convention acceptance speech, worked particularly well when he went in for some (mostly crass) emotional pitch. Still, the jibe about sitting at a table with Ahmadinejad had great rhetorical power -- though it didn't make much sense,
  4. One thing is clear though. I thought that there was bad blood between Obama and Hillary Clinton when they debated each other during the primaries. Let me just say that that was nothing compared with what exists between Obama and McCain. McCain clearly detests Obama, views him as some sort of upstart. I was really struck by the remark he made at one point -- something about how on his subcommittees at least, they do the business they are supposed to do -- his voice dripped with venom that at least I thought was unfeigned.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Against the Machne: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

So, today, I got Lee Siegel's Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob from my library to browse through and yes, the book really is as awful as they say. It's petty, full of self-regard, vicious, argument-less, sometimes unintentionally hilarious and seemingly written in a hurry. It was a pain even to browse through and I pity the people who actually had to read it word-for-word.

If you're interested in reading the only interesting essay Siegel wrote (IMHO) then click here.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin

I must say that while I've always liked Tina Fey, I never thought that she was much of an actor. Accomplished writer and performer of comedy, yes. Actor, as in the kind that disapears into a role, no. But watch her uncanny impersonation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live; even as simple mimicry, it's probably one of the most accomplished I have seen.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace, Writer, Is Dead at 46

The news is that he hanged himself.

I never read Wallace's novels but I loved loved loved this essay he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly. Called "Host", it is essentially the profile of a right-wing radio host called John Ziegler. The great thing about it is that it's extensively footnoted -- with footnotes within footnotes within footnotes -- a beautifully constructed piece of non-linear reading that managed to be the profile of a man as well as an analysis of a phenomenon (right-wing talk shows). The Atlantic's website has a nicely formatted hyperlinked version of the essay but to see how it looked in the magazine itself -- and trust me, it's worth a look! -- click here. (It's a big pdf file - almost 11 MB).

Also read Jack Shafer of Slate raving about the essay.

UPDATE: Oh - and also here is Wallace on the phenomenon that is Roger Federer (this was, of course, before we knew that Federer is human after all).

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Via Matthew Yglesias:
A Danish chain of gyms is now offering membership free of charge, with the only caveat that you have to show up, in order for the membership to be free. If you fail to show up once per week you will be billed the normal monthly membership fee for that month. This should solve the problem with incentives that gym-membership normally carries - there is suddenly a very large (membership is around 85$ per month) incentive to show up each week.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's speech

Pretty good speech, huh?

The pun on "own" (ownership/on your own) was pretty good -- as was what followed. His delivery was almost perfect, even hypnotic, even though the speech had to literally cover everything (the economy,health care, foreign policy, his "preparedness", "change", what have you) and refer to everyone (Clinton, FDR, Dr King).

I thought Obama was best when he talked like a politician (which he did 90% of the time), recited his laundry list of policies and criticized McCain. He was worst when he talked like a disapproving college professor -- as in when he said we all had to work hard, for e.g. -- but thankfully he didn't do that much.

I am faintly embarrassed to say that the conclusion was quite moving even though, as Kevin Drum points out, it was content-free and I don't generally find political speeches at all inspiring (which doesn't mean that I don't like them).

One small quibble. Don't people think that the "It's not about me, it's about YOU" line incredibly condescending? God knows I am not speechwriter but doesn't "It's not about me, it's about US" sound much much better?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Line of the day!!

I can't resist posting this. The "Today's Fortune" on my Orkut page says:
Today's fortune: You have an unusual equipment for success, use it properly

Friday, August 15, 2008

Quote of the Day

Matthew Yglesias commenting on this ad advocating abstinence:

If anything, characterizing the sex-engineering link in this manner seems overwhelmingly more likely to reduce interest in engineering than to reduce interest in sex.
He he.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Dark Knight hate, cont'd

Since I've already talked about how boring I found The Dark Knight and since the movie goes on to achieve greater and greater box office glory, here are some dissenting pieces on the movie that I've read in the past few days. Meant for the especially ga-ga fans (you know who you are!):
  • David Edelstein's review should be the starting point for everybody since he was probably the only mainstream daily reviewer to not give the movie a rave. Read also his reply to the outraged fanboys who responded with death threats (or something on those lines, I assume).
  • This one hates it even more than I did.
  • Reverse Shot's very erudite take.
  • Periperally, also take a look at Dennis Lim's great video review essay in Slate on the "choppy fight scene" (he begins by referring to The Dark Knight's incoherent action sequences).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Dark Knight is a crashing bore

What was Christopher Nolan aiming for exactly when he and his brother sat down to conceptualize The Dark Knight? I say "conceptualize" rather than "write" or "script" because that's how the film felt to me: a high-brow attempt to construct a philosophical puzzle, that unfortunately, falls flat on its face. Perhaps if the Nolans had spent less time devising philosophical scenarios that are supposed to illustrate the ins and outs of human nature, the pros and cons of vigilantism or whatever else it is that they were trying to illuminate and much much more on writing better lines (not speeches, Nolans, lines) or fleshing out their action sequences, The Dark Knight could have actually worked as a movie. As it stands though, it's a boring mess -- philosophically didactic and narratively incoherent.

Let's take it one at a time. First the philosophy. It's clear from their oeuvre that the Nolans are a philosophically-inclined team and prime examples of what I call concept film makers (Charlie Kauffman also comes to mind). . A concept film, like their breakthrough Memento, is characterized by an intriguing philosophical setup -- everything else in the film is in service of that setup. Their last film, The Prestige, is more fun but still a concept movie albeit one made in a spirit of reckless fun and one-upmanship ("you want a twist??! take that! and that! and .. ")

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, as you may all have heard (and probably seen!) by now, is a relentlessly dark movie. The darkness is there literally in the film's look but it's also there in the way the film's characters speak -- no one really talks, they all make speeches about justice and vigilantism and love and death. You know, all of those Really Important Things. And there is the body count -- I think more people died here than all the other superhero movies put together! Since all the exposition was already done in Batman Begins, the earlier, and very engaging, edition of the Batman franchise (as the studios call it), the Nolans were free to play with their quirky little philosophical concepts. The Joker is an "agent of chaos". The Batman (as the Joker calls him) is a vigilante with rules. Two-face is ... what exactly? A representation of the human spirit torn between self-preservation and the community? It's all very pretentious and borderline-ridiculous.

Consider the climax. I forget how exactly this happens (and we'll get to the jumbled narrative in a moment) but the Joker has managed to wire up two boats evacuating Gotham citizens with explosives. One of the boats has civilians on it; the other has convicted felons -- and the Joker arranges to place on each of the boats a switch: if the civilians press the switch, the boat containing the convicts will blow up but they will be saved. If the convicts press their switch ... well, you get the picture. Well, all right, the Nolans want to show us the Prisoner's Dilemma cinematically. But consider what follows. The civilians debate whether they should just pull the plug on the convicts and then -- yes, you guessed it -- they put it up to a vote (Lesson: The Perils of Democracy). Big surprise - they vote to kill (Lesson: Man is an animal). And then, of course, none of them can really do it and everyone ends up alive and well (Lesson: Human nature is good after all).

What are we supposed to make of this? That man is an animal dedicated above all to his own self-preservation ... except when he isn't?! That hard times will bring out the worst in human beings ... except when they don't?! I will admit that Nolan manages to create some tension by cutting between the scenes on the two boats but the scenes themselves are so weighed down by their symbolism -- and the conclusion is so arbitrary -- that the episode, as a whole, never comes together. The same could be said of the rest of the movie.

Wait a minute now, you might say. A studio production worth millions of dollars can simply not have civilians blowing up the convicts. Or vice versa. Commercial considerations must have played a role in how the scene ends. Well, fair enough. But my point is deeper. Yes, at least one of the boats getting blown up would have been more in keeping with what comes before in The Dark Knight, more in keeping with the bleak view of human nature that the Nolans, at least, seem to have but it would have been equally arbitrary. The movie's glaring flaw is not how it resolves its philosophical conflicts but in the ham-handed way it frames them -- in the narrative that brackets the philosophy. As Bill Clinton would have said, it's the narrative, stupid!

By narrative, I don't mean things like how the Joker gets into certain places or how he seems to anticipate almost every single thing that everyone else does. That's something I take on faith in a superhero movie. No, it's something much more banal. I've already mentioned the tone-deaf dialogue. To that I'll add the abysmal exposition. The Nolans never make it clear how we moved from point A in the plot to point B (and I say this as someone who read the reviews before watching the movie). When I got home from the movie I had to read the synopsis of the plot on Wikipedia to find out why exactly everyone had to evacuate Gotham in the end. Even worse are the action sequences. Everyone seems to go ga-ga over the scene where the huge trailer-truck (with the Joker in it) turns a huge 180-degree somersault and crashes. That is spectacular, I agree but it takes a whole of 2 seconds to happen -- what about the incoherent 10-minute chase sequence that precedes it? I dare someone to sit with me with the DVD and explain the logistics frame-by-frame. As for the final climax here's David Edelstein:
Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens. Actually, Freeman looks like he knows what’s going on. Maybe the sequence plays well in sonar.
Maybe it does! Or maybe it just needs a repeat viewing to fathom what I just called the incoherent action sequences. Maybe if I see it a second time, the movie will win me over. The first time though, I just thought it was a crashing bore.


What of the actors? I must say that I barely noticed Christian Bale in this movie. But Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart did the best they could with the bad lines that they were given. Heath Ledger, on the other hand, positively revels in his lines. But then the Joker is a concept, not a character and it somehow seems wholly appropriate for the Joker to be hanging by slender thread from the top of a building and to say "I am an agent of chaos". Ledger is SCARY. It's a go-for-broke performance that actually benefits from the movie's weaknesses. Its sad that he won't be around anymore.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Chaos over a school

The Times has a longish piece about an ongoing controversy in Brooklyn, about a new public school, that offers Arabic as its second-language. Worth a read.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The status of "theory"

Stanley Fish has a nice long post up in the NY Times about "French Theory" -- and it's a good summing up of what Theory is. Essentially its a different kind of epistemology, which stresses that fact and interpretation are inextricably bound up in each other.

The key point, in my opinion is this:
That’s a loss, but it’s not a loss of anything in particular. It doesn’t take anything away from us. We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked “What’s your epistemology?” you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.
Which is why I find the bilious comments that follow the post so strange. What do people feel so threatened by?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sentence of the day

Man, I wish I could come up with a sentence like this one from Daniel Larison [via here]:
The only thing more annoying than Joe Lieberman himself is his conceit, which many people indulge out of habit, that he is some kind of “centrist.” Perhaps if we think of the political spectrum as a series of rings surrounding a cavernous abyss (or perhaps a pit like the Sarlaac), then Lieberman and McCain can fairly be called “centrists.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What was the woman thinking?

Something puzzles me about the latest literary controversy. And no, it's not just the literal absence of the fact-checking process, although that is puzzling too. For how could an editor collaborate with an author for more than three years and not know that at least some of the author's story was false? This suggests to me that the author "Margaret B. Jones" was at least an accomplished actress (and a gifted writer) -- she kept up appearances without slipping, for three whole years! But then what was the woman thinking granting an interview to the NY Times Magazine? Did she think that the Magazine was the local Community Reporter (a local rag that arrives -- unsolicited -- in my mailbox every week)? Did she not realize that, with a story like hers, that was so transparently false, would be instantly revealed? (Incidentally it was her sister who blew the whistle on the affair, which suggests to me that the two sisters are not going to be calling each other anytime soon).

And then, finally, there's the book itself. From all accounts, it seems very well-written and a powerful piece of work. I realize the public (and the literary establishment) doesn't like being made a fool of. But there's a difference between Stephen Glass-style fabulism (he was writing for The New Republic and was in essence scamming its readers, who expected political coverage) and a fabricated but nevertheless gritty look at life growing up on the streets of L.A. I think perhaps after some appropriate punishment for Ms Seltzer, Riverhead Books should reissue the book -- only this time as a novel. She seems like too much of a good writer to ostracize.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An affair to remember

Of course I'd heard of An Affair to Remember -- everyone who is into movies has, at some point or the other. I first heard of it when I was in high school and it played on TV (my Dad told me it was a famous movie). When I started becoming interested in movies, I never really made any effort to see it because its story sounded rather sentimental to me and there were so many other movies that I wanted to watch.

I did see bits and pieces of it but my only frame of reference was Nora Ephron's hip trendy Sleepless in Seattle where an appreciation of An Affair to Remember was put up as the cultural marker between men and women -- the women wept buckets over it, the men did not.

Of course, Sleepless in Seattle is a very slight movie. But the point is -- I never really saw An Affair to Remember until last week and this was because I read Dave Kehr's beautiful piece on it (On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Fox has released a remastered 2-disc DVD edition.)

So here's a clip from Sleepless in Seattle (Yay, youtube!)

And another one:

And now watch last scene of "An Affair to Remember"

And my point? Don't let those silly (even if affectionate) lines from "Sleepless in Seattle" stop you from seeing the movie. An Affair to Remember is not a clever hip little movie that bounces off cultural references and makes fun of its own premise (that would be Sleepless in Seattle). As Kehr says:

“An Affair to Remember” evolves effortlessly, almost invisibly, from light romantic comedy to a kind of spiritual drama, as the characters cast off their public identities (they are both performers: he in the tabloids, she on nightclub stages) and approach their essences: Nickie as a practicing (though still unsuccessful) painter, Terry as a singing teacher who now must use a wheelchair.

Is there another line of dialogue in American movies as gloriously absurd, as heart-stoppingly direct, as Terry’s climactic expression of faith, “If you can paint, I can walk”?

“Yes, darling, yes, yes, yes,” replies Nickie, in a burst of affirmation that constitutes the couple’s true marriage vow. The words burst out in a spontaneous rush (as they may well have on the set: McCarey always left ample room for his actors to improvise), without protective varnish.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

It is what it is

I heard this story on NPR this morning and I thought it was pretty funny.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Aaja Nachle: some remarks

[2007 was an interesting year for me -- I actually went and saw three Hindi movies! (Yes, yes, I know how snobbish that sounds.) I'm going to review all of them here, one by one, because they were all interesting (note, not good, but interesting) and all of them exemplify some of the changes taking place in the Mumbai film industry. First Aaja Nachle, next in line: Saawariya and Om Shanti Om.]

Ram Gopal Varma once remarked in an interview that the worst thing about the Bombay film industry was not poor over-all standard of most commercial Hindi movies. It was that even the better Hindi films were probably only as good as an average Hollywood product. This is a nuanced, tricky argument that needs some explanation. What it does not mean is that Hindi movies are worse over-all than Hollywood films. That would be like comparing apples and oranges. Nor is it simply a question of who has better production values, more money or better special effects.

In what way are Hindi movies poorer then? In this day and age Hollywood movies are, in a sense, "mass-produced". That is they have generic storylines, teams of writers, endless rewrites, focus group endings, etc. And like every other mass produced good, there is a certain quality to each piece. All cars look the same, work the same and none is made especially for you as such but all of them can be driven comfortably. A mass produced movie lacks a soul, for sure, but it serves its purpose reasonably well. Recent examples would include the romantic comedies 27 dresses and Over her dead body. Not exactly The Philadelphia Story-league but they suffice.

This wasn't (and isn't yet) so for our commercial Hindi movies. Even within the narrative conventions and production values of the genre -- a concoction of a story, songs, dances, humor, action, all derived in some ways, from folk theater -- barely 10% would make the cut as "average" (meaning at the level of a standard mass-produced product like 27 Dresses). Perhaps that was because Hindi films weren't mass-produced. The story of how a Hindi film gets made is almost always a saga: the cash is provided by the underworld, scripts are written on the day of the shooting, actors do three shifts a day, working on 20 different films at the same time, as, astoundingly, do some directors (prime example, Mahesh Bhatt in the early 90s).

But this is changing now. Economic liberalization, a booming economy and the rise of an urban middle-class, a change in the revenue model so that a film earns more from urban areas than from rural areas -- all of these are slowly changing the face of Hindi cinema. Not its narrative conventions, those are still the same, at least in essentials. But some kind of mass-production aspect has definitely come in. The number of average movies -- workmanlike constructions with a solid script, good songs, decent acting -- is on the rise. Overall, I think, this can only be a good thing.

Aaja Nachle is a prime example of an average movie -- and it illustrates the pros and cons of the mass production system perfectly. It seems to be heading towards disaster in its first twenty minutes. It opens with a gorgeous credit sequence -- Madhuri Dixit dancing. Her character Diya then receives a telephone call and the movie slides into 20 minutes of exposition, punctuated by lines straight out of a Handbook for Screenwriters. The story is this: Diya loved dance, ran off with an American, disgraced her parents, had a child, got divorced, and now her dying guruwants to meet her one last time. She arrives back in Shamli and more plodding ham-fisted lines follow, until the movie gets to its premise: Diya has to successfully stage a dance musical in the local theater, with local actors and dancers otherwise it will be demolished and a shopping mall will rise up in its place.

With that premise in place, the movie does reasonably well, if not superlatively. A sampling of engaging supporting actors is introduced, notably the mandatory love interests (Kunal Kapoor, smouldering!) and Konkana Sen Sharma (fearless and funny as usual, but whose plain jane looks seem to have been the main reason why she was cast), Diya's former pining lover (Ranbir Shorey, touching), and a squabbling middle-aged couple (Vinay Pathak and Sushmita Mukherjee, both hilarious). There are the usual crises: the smarmy politician (Akhilendra Mishra) changes sides thrice, the smarmy mall builder (Irfan Khan) tries sobataging the production, and so on, but it all culminates in a grand 20 minute production of Laila/Majnu for which choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant deserves most credit.

Critics, I think, have dumped on the movie a little unfairly. Most horrid, Khalid Mohamed telling Anil Mehta: "would he please stick to cinematography?". Khalid, would you please stick to criticism? All your movies stunk to the high heavens. Then there is GreatBong who, in an otherwise valid review, says:
Okay we know how this is going to end. We also know that believability is not one of commercial Hindi movies’ priorities. But when the principal plot premise is about a rag-tag bunch of no-hopers (numbering less than ten), with no prior dance skill, putting on a dance show, why oh why does the ultimate stage production (that goes on for more than 20 minutes) resemble a Broadway musical with flawless choreography, mega sets, awe-inspiring lighting and hundreds of backup dancers who move in glorious synchrony ? How would Lagaan have been if in the climax, Bhuvan’s team came out wearing corporate logos and colored clothing under floodlights with cheerleaders dancing and Tony Greig doing the pitch report
This completely misses the point. In Lagaan, Bhuvan and his team do come out and play impeccable cricket and they beat a vastly superior team in a game that they've been playing only for a few days! That's as hard to believe as Diya's rag-tag team putting on an ultimate Broadway-musical type performance. But this brings out an important difference between the two movies, two completely conscious decisions taken by the film-makers, and the reason why Lagaan rose above its material, while Aaja Nachle doesn't.

Lagaan's makers chose to emphasize the conflicts between the lead players. The level of cricket itself was tepid, even if artfully shot. And that was fine -- the level of games in sports movies has never fared well when you compare it to the real thing. But that isn't so where dance or music are concerned. A movie audience expects that a performance at the end of a movie about the performance be fairly competent . What would Aaja Nachle have looked like if the final performance had been staged realistically, as befits a rag-tag group with no prior dancing or singing experience? What would have sustained this tension, and maintained audience interest would not be the performance itself but the relationships between the characters. How those relationships and their ups and downs fed into the performance itself. How the performance changed those relationships. What if, for instance if Kunal Kapoor's Majnu and Konkana Sen's Laila had a tiff before the final performance? Or if .. .well, you get my point.

An Aaja Nachle that was more realistic and more about what it takes to stage a show by amateurs would have been a totally different movie; a movie that would have been stunning had it worked, but a miserable failture if it had not. I, for one, am not suprised that Sahni and Mehta chose the safer way: some funny lines, quirky supporting characters and a happy ending with a big production number. With a little hard work, the product, in any case, would at least turn out average -- and it did.

Finally, that's the problem with assembly-line film-making. You turn out more good products on an average (and this is certainly better than the status quo) but even talented film-makers like Jaideep Sahni and Anil Mehta take less risks.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

For a change, an A. O. Scott essay that is no good

I think Brad DeLong goes off into an unnecessary rant about The Devil Wears Prada (so what if it isn't a romantic comedy?), in response to recent A. O. Scott's essay in the Times. That said, the essay itself is one of Scott's lesser efforts, a boring and meandering piece whose point seems to be that romantic comedies today are different than they were back then. It seems to be, as they say, "phoned in".

David Denby made the same point in a beautiful New Yorker essay which I recommend for everyone who loves movies, especially romantic comedies.

Friday, February 01, 2008


A picture in the New York Times. Caption: Margo Uusorj and Sandra Kullas of Estonia won the 2006 Wife-Carrying World Championships in Sonkajarvi, Finland.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The erection theory of power (yes, you heard that right!)

Via Daniel Drezner, from Gideon Rachman's column in the Financial Times
I got an insight into the thrill of power recently, when I had lunch with a friend who had helped to handle a national emergency in Britain, working from the emergency bunker known as Cobra – which sits beneath the Cabinet Office near Downing Street.

“What was it like?” I asked him. “Brilliant,” he replied. “There are all these video screens and generals and admirals sitting around in uniform. You have to say things like: ‘It is 3.45pm and I am now bringing to a close this meeting of Cobra emergency command.’”

Is my friend uniquely juvenile? I suspect not – just unusually honest. He certainly believed that all the other officials around the table were delighting in the little rituals of crisis management. “I guarantee that everybody around that table had an erection within five minutes,” he mused.

Extrapolating slightly, my friend developed what you might call “the erection theory of British foreign policy”. His argument was that British government’s bias towards the “special relationship” with the US, in preference to the European Union, has something to do with the thrilling nature of American power. “If you fly into Camp David on a helicopter,” he assured me, “it’s instant arousal. But if you have to go to a European summit in Brussels, its so depressing you’re impotent for a week.”

He he he.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Iowa Caucuses

I woke up this morning to the radio and the first thing it announced -- it was NPR -- was that Barack Obama had won the Iowa caucuses with Hillary Clinton a distant third. (The winner on the Republican side was Mike Huckabee -- and as much as I may disagree with his policies, I have already written about why his rise pleases me.)

My first reaction, I admit it, was a pang of sympathy for Hillary Clinton. This, again, has less to do with her policies (although she seems like a very competent woman, and would be a very good President), but more with the impression I have of her, as a very hard-working, ambitious woman, who now has very little time left to fulfill her ambitions. Mostly, of course, this is because she married another, more ambitious man, who shared her wonkishness for policy but combined it with something she lacks altogether: charm and charisma. To say that she was always in her husband's shadow is hardly appropriate -- she, after all, was a very visible face in Bill Clinton's administration and did manage the ultimately disastrous health-care initiative. But one could argue that it was only after the end of his second term as the President that she could branch out on her own, and even then her time was running out. Her campaign, even now, has something of a desperate quality to it. (It reminds me of Ivan Lendl's desperate quest for that elusive Wimbledon title: he was thwarted in 1986 by a 18 year old Boris Becker and then in 1987 again by the over-rated flash-in-the-pan Pat Cash.)

The question lurking around all this, of course, is would Hillary Clinton be where she is now -- would she even have been able to run for President? -- if it hadn't been for her marriage to Bill Clinton? This is perhaps an unanswerable counterfactual. But this is Clinton's last -- and only -- chance at the Presidency and it seems like she may lose the nomination to a young upstart. I don't think a vice-presidency would satisfy her -- she's already "served" in an administration before. It's all kind of depressing, really.

Matt Yglesias and David Brooks have made me think of Obama's win in a slightly different -- and more positive -- way. I think they are right: he definitely delivered what he promised.

UPDATE: James Fallows describes the post-caucus tableaux. Vividly. Best line:
And Bill Clinton!!! Who managed a wan smile but for seconds on end stood motionless, as if traumatized or stuffed. Better than anyone else in the country he must understand the situation. The young candidate with the sex appeal and the fun and the magic and the sense of the future and the opportunity to shed the old -- Clinton knows the advantages that candidate has. And he knows full well how feeble the appeals to "experience" and "ready from day one" and "competence and responsibility" were when they were issued sixteen years ago by a candidate who really was superbly prepared and experienced: the incumbent president, eight-year vice president, victorious war commander, former ambassador and CIA director George H. W. Bush.