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.