The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta)

US Presidential hopefuls take RVs, Che went on a motorcycle. The point is you need to go on a road trip to become a successful leader of the people

Ee Adutha Kalathu (Recently)

Strange and familiar make an appearance together for the first time in Malayalam cinema and the pair is a hit

Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl

Four feisty ladies, upbeat music and a handsome conman. Anushka gets Ranveer. Bollywood gets Parineeti

Das Boot (The Boat)

Best WWII film ever, in fact the best war film ever. In true German fashion, restraint is applied by shooting the entire movie inside a U-boat

Neelathamara (Blue Lotus)

Blue lotus shares the same stature of blue moon in Malayalam, so do good remakes. This one bucks the trend.

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May 18, 2019

A review of Prithviraj's and Mohanlal's Lucifer

What is in a name? Mohanlal by any other name would be just as magnificent, then let's call him Lucifer. Lucifer is a sophisticated sobriquet with devilish undertones and would appeal to the masses for its coolness quotient. The man has carried off exemplary titles like Ravanaprabhu, Narasimham, Pulimurugan, Madampi, Paradesi, Nattu Rajavu, Neerali, Peruchazhi, Bhagavan, Villain, Udayon and Odiyan with great success.

It is perfectly alright if we have to introduce an unnecessary character to tie the name Lucifer to the movie's leading man and the story. Indrajith does an excellent job as slightly off-the-rocker journalist though. Collateral damages to the script and credibility are totally irrelevant when you are making super hero movies. I've given up on Murali Gopi scripts after Tiyaan.

Prithviraj, the new director on the block is a man synonymous with style. He has injected himself into the plot as the dashing international assassin with the killer looks of Backstreet Boys, Sayed Masood. He kills it with style and a couple of sentences in Hindi. The story line could have done without this lady-killer, but this is Prithviraj's directorial venture, who would say no if he desires to play a two-bit part? I would not, not to such eye-candy.

All said and done Prithviraj respectfully relinquishes the screen-space to the greatness that is Mohanlal. But not without inducting few other style icons into the boys club - Tovino Thomas as the heir apparent and a suave and smooth villain - Vivek Oberoi. It is a hunk-fest, if you can ignore Mohanlal. Manju Warrier is an important piece in this political drama but as a woman, she is cast in the damsel in distress mold, just like other underlings - their sole purpose is to put themselves in dire situations and patiently wait for Lucifer to rescue them.

As Malayalam cinema's one and only white man savior (post 2000s) Mohanlal aka Lucifer arrives without fail to rescue his helpless sheeple. He is the hero Kerala deserves, but not the one it needs it right now - try telling that to Malayali movie-goers.The flick of the mundu, the underside of his footwear, the jeep, his 360 degree vision, scowling jowls - are all used in the right measure to establish Lucifer's super-hero status. CGI crowds roar as he performs feats of exceptionalism with or without firearms or plucks a dialog out of thin air and delivers centuries old political wisdom to a bewildered opposition.

This is a Prithviraj play-it-safe movie, I hope it is because it is his first film as a director. He uses all the elements that will keep the box office ringing, including the choice of Mohanlal for the hero. The established brand-recognition of Mohanlal and the assurance of success it gives, is hard to ignore for a newbie director with deep-pocketed producers to back him up.

The way I see it, it is a world-wide trend. As nations get swept up in the conservative wave where power is concentrated in a few people or the top 1%, every movie features exceptional lead characters with super human abilities, touted as the only ones who have the power to change the world. Mohanlal movies of late are all of this genre, only thing that he is missing from his Hollywood counterparts is a latex suit. These movies reinforce in the mind of their audience that community action or collective effort cannot bring about advancement, it can only happen if you have powerful, exceptionally talented individuals on your side. They could be called Satan or Dark Knight, but long as you are in their good books, you are safe.

On another note, I really wish Mohanlal had gone on vanaprastham after his 1999 movie Vanaprastham. IMHO, it is his last good movie. Twenty years of great movies from a great actor, then twenty plus years of mediocre to bad movies from an actor sliding down the acting scale.

May 16, 2019

Njan Prakashan

Njan Prakashan is very much a Satyan Anthikkad movie, with occasional strokes of brilliance from Sreenivasan's pen. Sreenivasan continues being Sreenivasan. Njan Prakashan's script is Sreenivasan's opportunity to speak his mind, deliver a social commentary to the masses, packaged in a  wholesome Sathyan Anthikad movie. He does not waste the opportunity, although with the intermittent voice-overs in Sreenivasan's voice it is established that it is an older person's take on the current Kerala society.

Sathyan Anthikkad is the Head of Wholesomeness in Malayalam movie industry, he will not have it any other way. The audience is guaranteed they can take home the feel good vibe after watching an Anthikkad movie, this one is no different. It is funny and light-hearted, almost tricks us to ponder about the variety of human personality types on this planet. Somewhere towards the end it runs out of ideas to liberate P.R.Akash from himself, so Sreenivasan, Anthikkad and Co. recruit Grim Reaper as the villain, very much in line with pre-1980s Indian movies.

P.R.Akash, Fahadh's character is the new generation M.A.Dhavan. He is a caricature of a man and Fahadh delivers without much effort. Nikhila Vimal's role is much smaller than I had anticipated. Devika Sanjeev is a find. Anju Kurien could've used less make-up for a girl who harvests 30-40 lbs cassavas with her bare hands. 

A light entertainer, I found myself smiling most of the time I was watching this movie. What else is a lazy Saturday afternoon flick supposed to do?

Apr 2, 2019

The Big Country & The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford

The American West is the stuff of myth and legends. While East coast was all about the original boat people aka the Puritans and the blue bloods, the West was the indefatigable frontier that drew in the itchy feet adventurers and crazy eyed outlaws.I have been enamored by the landscape of the West, despite having no birth-right citizenship connections to it.

The wide brown expanse of semi-aridness playfully taunted by rolling tumbleweed, sweeping hills dotted with cattle or the majestic outcrops of rock that have hid many a vigilante - the once famed frontier of the US of A is indeed poetry in landscape mode.

Recently I had a chance to watch a couple of beautifully shot Westerns, made fifty years apart.

The first one is1958's The Big Country. The wide angle shots of this outdoor epic directed by William Wyler (dir. of Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur,...) makes the title very appropriate. Shot in Mojave desert using a large screen cinematography technique called Technirama, the movie starred Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives (won the supporting actor for his role) and Jean Simmons. It is often called as a Western for people who do not like Westerns. It even has a New-Englander pacifist - Peck's character James McKay for a hero.

Jerome Moross composed the remarkable score for the movie which has been reused several times in ad campaigns and such - it is a musical piece that captures the essence of all Westerns.



While looking up the shooting locations of the movie, I found an interesting page - Orvis Cattle Company & Ranch.

About the story of the movie, you can watch it yourself if you want to know. I liked Burl Ives' Rufus Hannassey, the best. Peck as McKay was overly Gandhian for my taste, but great performances by all actors nevertheless.
---

Then from 2007 came this visual poem of a Western - The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford. This is the first movie I could truly feel sympathy for a character played by Casey Affleck - the anti-hero to Brad Pitt's anti-hero - Jesse James, a notorious outlaw at the time. Affleck is a perfect fit for the hero-worshipping mumbler turned Judas, Bob Ford.

Roger Deakins' cinematography is evocative of vintage photos with blurry edges. The vast wheaty prairies and the still life shots of life in the old West with close-ups of complex characters is a visual treat. The sombre, nuanced nature of the narrative is aided by the intermittent voice-overs, like that of a historical observer.

Directed by Andrew Dominik, the sweeping frames of the movie is one of the few characteristics it shares with the classic westerns. It is a slow-burn film, delving on and developing its characters in an un-predictable way although the ending is self-evident from the movie title.

Maybe because it was the presence of Brad Pitt in the leading role, I felt it had something common with slow sweeping crescendo of the movie, Tree of Life by Terrence Malick.

Mar 26, 2019

John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley: In Search of America

John Steinbeck says he was born lost and takes no pleasure in being found. It feels good to be lost with Mr.Steinbeck, one of the greatest story tellers America has ever produced.

I took a road trip with Steinbeck last week. He was in his 'tricked out' truck camper -Rocinante, with his dog Charley, cruising along the sixties streets of change, on a coast to coast journey to catch an America that was fast making itself scarce. Travels with Charley is a simple travelogue, a journey of discovery with a strong undercurrent of philosophical rumination, penned later in life by a wise and experienced writer.

John & Charley. Pic courtesy: NY Times Bettman/Corbis
At some point in the 2000s Bill Steigerwald, a journalist tried to retrace the path taken by Steinbeck across America and found many factual and temporal discrepancies and came out with a verifiable conclusion that many meetings and events in the travelogue were figments of the great writer's imagination. I knew this before I had started reading and I had approached the book as a sort of part travelogue - part memoir - part a mirror held onto sixties America by one of the most deserving and critical mirror-holders available in this country at that time, with some liberties of finessing taken by the author. Which published author does not?

There are several passages and statements of reflection and insight in this little travelogue. Here are a selected few. Remember these are the first years of the sixties, the book actually ends with Steinbeck describing the Kennedy inauguration which took place in a snowed-in Washington D.C in January of '61, although much of it could be true even now.

"....the big towns are getting bigger and the villages smaller. The hamlet store, whether frocery, general, hardware, clothing, cannot compete with the supermarket and the chain organization..."

".... for all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners... The American identity is an exact and provable thing...."

If you like road-trips, which is the only way of real way to get a feel of this modern nation state built upon its network of highways, freeways, arterials and local streets, you surely must have felt what Steinbeck describes below,

"...I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation -- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move...."

“..You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory...” 

Steinbeck's prose also does not fail elicit chuckles as we tag along with him.

“And finally, in our time a beard is the one thing that a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus.” 

“But it isn't hunger that drives millions of armed American Males to forests and hills every autumn, as the high incidence of heart failure among the hunters will prove. Somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how.” 

“Once Charley fell in love with a dachshund, a romance racially unsuitable, physically ridiculous, and mechanically impossible. But all these problems Charley ignored. He loved deeply and tried dogfully.” 

Feb 18, 2019

Bad Times at the El Royale

Mid-century modern architecture. The Dude aka Jeff Bridges. Retro hippy California captured in amazing production design.Tautly suspenseful. These factors did me in, even before the movie started I was a fan.

This Drew Goddard movie is a loopy mystery built on the much used story device of a bunch strangers coming together in a strange place for a short period of time. But the adherence to the stock formula ends at the beginning once the scene is set.

The characters are unconventional, the twist and turns unpredictable and you can't help but rooting for the Dude even though you are an atheist and he is in the guise of a priest in this movie. The only single bell hop and mostly absent caretaker of the motel, Miles, is played by Lewis Pullman.The rest of the quirky cast is made up of Jon Hamm as the traveling vacuum cleaner salesman and the amazing singing and acting talent of Cynthia Arivo as the single African American woman who is on her way to audition as a backup singer for Supremes in Vegas. Then there is Dakota Fanning as the hippie Emily Summerspring and the charismatic cult leader Billy Lee - played by a mostly shirtless Chris Hemsworth.

To find later (after watching the movie) that the entire El Royale motel was built inside a warehouse in Vancouver with set design, color palette, architecture, and even singular details like bar stools or the distance from the bar to the reception made to match up with exact measurement of the movement of characters and the aesthetics of the movie was mind-blowing. Martin Whist, the production designer deserves a ton of credit for the amazing setting. The El Royale motel is also an important character of the movie and merited all the attention and detail it received, of course it has its hidden dark secret too. The California-Nevada state line running right through the hotel is an interesting element of the story.

Bad Times at El Royale has a captivating story line, engaging actors and an incredible set for film noir fans with a finesse modern technology can afford us now. 1969 looks better than it ever was at this border line between sunshine state and sin city.


Feb 15, 2019

The Audacity of a Rich and Connected Narcissist: Elizabeth Holmes and her Monumental Fiasco called Theranos

Thank you John Carreyrou for an un-putdownable expose on one of Silicon Valley's greatest screw-ups.Also highly commendable are the brave ex-Theranos employees like Erika Cheung, Tyler Shultz, Ian Gibbons and others who risked their lives and careers for divulging the information they were privy to in order to protect the lives of ordinary Americans. 

The Silicon Valley startup Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes was willing to put millions of lives at risk with fake blood test results while lying through the teeth to federal agencies to make her scam company a success. John Carreyrou started following the scent of this sham of a start-up, first through the investigative pieces he wrote for his employer - The Wall Street Journal. But a scam of such monumental proportion could not be contained in a couple of articles and it became the book Bad Blood: Secret and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.

I remember the days when Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos founder and CEO, was everywhere - from NPR to Hillary Clinton fundraiser. Media loved her - a female founder of a highly successful Silicon valley startup, probably the only one of a startup of this stature. A girl (19 year old when she started the company) - rich, powerful, intelligent, blonde and beautiful - a girl who broke into the proverbial boy's club, what is not to like, right? She had the right credentials for a start-up CEO - she was a Stanford drop out, under thirty and hungry for success, plus she wore the black Steve Jobs turtle necks, to play the part from neck to the boot.

To me, reading the book, articles and her interviews, Elizabeth Holmes comes off as a rich and connected narcissist who thought she knew more than 99.99% of humanity and could con them with miniaturized blood tests (which she couldn’t miniaturize because there were reasons why the people with experience in the industry had not done it yet) because in her mind she was the once in a blue moon tech-entrepreneurial genius – along the lines of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And there were rich white men confirming her genius and expressing approval by contributing millions to her vaporware dream.

She was a charismatic charmer who had populated the board of Theranos with the aging American stalwarts ranging from George Shultz and James Mattis to Henry Kissinger who fell for her so-called new-found technology hook, line and sinker. Her investors included Larry Ellison, Kraft family, the Waltons, the DeVoses and Rupert Murdoch. With such big names backing her who would have the nerve say this company is perpetuating a sham which is nothing bigger than a middle school science project.

With billions in funding and billionaires backing her up, Elizabeth Holmes recruited the best and brightest in the industry but Theranos forever remained a revolving door. The brlliant minds enticed by the charisma and 'vision' of the CEO were found leaving after a few months or a year burnt by Holmes' outright lying and ruthlessness and the company's unethical practices. She was also aided in this process by her boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, twenty plus years her senior, but just as cunning and ruthless. The two kept their relationship secret from the board of the company for the longest possible time while Balwani continued being the President of the start-up.

Bad Blood is an excellent investigative revelation which documents the fall of a rich, powerful and a ruthless bully, lawyer-ed up to the gills that not a single person, unless you are a billionaire yourself with billions to spare, would ever dream of going against. If you like stories where the underdog (in this case the tortured employees and deceived patients) trounces Goliath in a story with a happy ending, this is it.

There are lots of videos on Youtube featuring Holmes and Theranos, if you are interested. There is also a film coming out soon based on the book starring Jennifer Lawrence as the controversial founder of Theranos.

Jan 30, 2019

The Tale of Four Pegs & Other Poems : A poetry review

The Tale of Four Pegs & Other Poems by Ananad Haridas
The Tale of Four Pegs & Other Poems is the debut poetry compilation from Anand Haridas, a journalist turned writer based in Kochi, India. The poet is a friend of a friend. Two degrees of separation, not distant enough to divert incoming friendly fire after a scathing review that I had in mind.

The book is available on Amazon. You can buy it here and I won't get any commission from the sales.

I do not have any idea how to do a poetry book review. I ended up going through each poem and composing my own new poem stringing together my take on each - few words or a line per poem. It seemed to be the only way to do justice to a versified creation. Although if you have not read the book the review below would not make any sense to you.

Here goes,

We get a peek into your think pad, it is honest and clear, though at certain places
metaphors are muddled or similes reckless, you could have taken out the traces
of construction equipment – conjunctions, explanations crowd your unpretentious core
diluting the profound and the mindful down to just another garden-variety heart-sore.

We partake in your pegs1, the fourth as you had predicted shows a sapient promise
traveling from you to you, we stop at the traffic light caught in the night rain’s fuss2
run over by a wagon train of your thoughts, in a deluge of imagery laden droplets
a few-thousands-more-than-needed hoofed histories, albeit all well framed surrogates.

You give us a lift on your bike,3 your glasses accidentally misplaced,6 no worries, forgettable
is the scenery if not for the mongrel and the shawl wrapped figure.3 The bonsai is noble4 
for a tree stunted, lonely and lost, finding its way through the symbolism of your words
nonetheless we lose our bearings on a bridge to nowhere5 where a fog of memories girds

your night. Fatigued we take the last flight on the wings of your migratory books,7 the ride
up, unexpectedly unusual,9 wormholes into Che’s OBE hovering over your death side9
where surreal verses sideswipe with singular views,3 you’re reborn in a tearful glass of wine10
we meet your muse and the sailor’s mermaid at the ship wrecking yard,11 as if by design

the sailor is at sea (still) stateless11, short on memories the forgetful lighthouse beacon
beams a glassy-eyed calm,11 unsure whether we can handle another reincarnation season
we get shimmered in your monsoon pale, sunny raindrops pelt glitter - dramatic12
not so the scantily scaffolded summer splintering flecks of winter,12 they’re radio static.

Smoke rings taunting death pass us by incognito,13 on their way to meet your demons14
we recede silent to make room for your vapory journey, yellow meteorites even wee ones15
can’t beguile us back, we team up to enumerate the foliage, with your pied piper traveler,16
to be preserved for after, much after the ambulances are done collecting fare from the maker17

on the home stretch, the gutted nest is mournfully moving,18 the blue god’s ominous dance
paints anticipation,19 broken reeds and spoken Nos20 leave us without any redeemable chance
at a befuddled bank where grounded boats wait for ferries21 to take them to light (for real?)
let the unease gush, wounds scale healing word wines, do a twice-over, heart the unheal.


Notes:
  • the part of the poems I liked are italicized; 
  • reference to the poems are denoted by numbers,superscript their order as in the table of content;




Jan 26, 2019

Badhaai Ho

Neena Gupta, the actress who plays one of the main characters in Badhaai Ho has a lot in common with Gloria Steinem, whose book I just read and posted a review about, than meets the eye. In their personal lives, both ladies stood their ground and redefined societal norms in a place and time when not many women had attempted or succeeded in doing so.

Neena Gupta became a single mother to an illegitimate child in the conservative India of the eighties and raised her alone to become a successful adult. Like Gloria Steinem, Neena Gupta has aged beautifully - natural and elegant. In Badhaai Ho, she plays the mother of two grown-up boys. who accidentally becomes pregnant again in her fifties.

There is not much of a story in Badhaai Ho. Once you see the poster the main theme is self evident. From the beginning we are aware that the success of this film depends on the presentation and the development of the subject, or in short it is the script that could make or break this movie.

It could lose its way in cliches or it could soar like a Vicky Donor. And soar it does, in a Delhi winter floated up by its well rounded characters. Akshat Gildhial - a first time script writer, who wrote the story as well as the dialogs for Badhaai Ho has hit a home run with his debut. Juhi Chaturvedi, here comes your competition!

All the actors have given amazing performances - Ayushmann Khurana, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Surekha Sikri and Sanya Malhotra, under the expert direction of Amit Sharma.

Ayushmann Khurana's selection of films is commendable. He is filling in the Amol Palekar niche in Bollywood or it could be that he is creating his own with the help of terrific writers like Juhi Chaturvedi and Akshat Gildhial.

Badhaai Ho is also an accidental feminist film with three strong women characters - the pregnant Mom, her older mother-in-law and her son's girl friend. Gajraj Rao and Ayushmann brings up the male front with their immensely likeable father-son duo with their perfect comic timing. All in all, a light-hearted wholesome movie.



My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinhem, a book review

I read Gloria Steinem rather too late in my life. This beautiful feminist (inside and out) writer, activist and organizer could have fitted perfectly as an icon I could have looked up to guide me in my youthful disquiet. (I am aware of the Hillary debacle, still I believe Gloria is glorious.)

My Life on the Road starts with the author's childhood gypsy life when her family was always traveling (she didn't go to a regular school till she was eleven or so) and progresses through native American country and various women's marches in the sixties and seventies across the United States

There is a section which delves into Gloria's experiences and ties with the Native American community, especially her friendship with Wilma Mankiller, first ever woman chief of the Cherokee Nation. Through pow-wows and potlucks and marches and demonstrations we get to see a peek into the real time workings of the twentieth century women's movement.

Gloria is all over the calendar and the map in this book. Chronology and organization is not what travels with Gloria is about. It is about taxicab conversations and having a front row seat at the history of the feminist movement and women's activism in the United States, walking in the shoes one of its principal crusaders.

Jan 5, 2019

Rehashing old blog posts: My favorite poet, once upon a time when I used to read poetry - Rod McKuen

This is rehashed blog post, (not much of a rehash other than changing tenses to match the changed lives and times,) first posted fourteen years ago in my now deleted LiveJournal.

The only readers of poetry are angsty teens, wannabe poets or desperate lovers sniffing around to make off with a verse or two. In the early nineties I gained entry into the first category and started to write...poems! Thereby getting admitted to the second category as well.

I must have just crossed in to my teens. I could be often seen thumping through the pages of yellow moth eaten slim volumes of contemporary poetry, before deciding which one to take home, at our city's public library. Some of these were as recently published as in the summer of '69, which more or less marked the end of the period called contemporary at this historic place of books and learning. That was as current as I could get in 1990s without straining my pocket.

And then I met him….. in a lonesome city, listening to the warm – Rod McKuen. Here was a man after my own heart. A poet singing of love, loneliness, angst and all things in between. Reading McKuen was the closest I came to reading paperback romances, but it does not undermine the value of his works nor do I regret reading them, I enjoyed every secret bite I took of his poems. He was my first girlish crush in the world of words and had a permanent seat in my altar before T.S.Eliot unseated him some years later.

This former rodeo cowboy, lumberjack, cookie cutter, railroad worker, surveyor and US Army infantryman in Korea (wonder whether they still make such renaissance men?) had sold 75 million copies of his books, translated into 28 languages world-wide. A poetic mouthpiece of the sixties flower children, McKuen had recorded 215 albums of original music, 67 went platinum and 115 gold. McKuen’s songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists from Frank Sinatra to Madonna and from Barbra Streisand and the Boston Pops to The Kingston Trio.(Thanks, Wikipedia)
Rod McKuen at Stanyan St., SFO.  Photo by Ralph Crane

Critics said he had no rhyme or rhythm, it was prose faking as poetry, cheap kitsch for the unrefined masses. Who cared, back then I enjoyed it. I hate the maze of metaphors, or in the present day, the overuse of thesaurus. Poetry should be simple, understandable and from the heart. If someone blamed McKuen of being self centered, for pimping his life, I pity him/her – isn’t a person an agglomeration of his experiences and some scattered leaves of memory in someone else’s scrapbook when s/he is dead?

Looking back, most of the McKuen stuff I had once liked with their recurring love-loneliness-sex themes seems cheesy for my now evolved, refined senses(ROFL, who am I kidding), but once upon a time they served my girly teen spirit just right.

Turned out that the first city which became my home in the US was also a favorite muse of McKuen and his place of birth (Oakland technically.)

Here’s a McKuen poem about a familiar street (to me,) at the corner of the hippydom’s Mecca in San Francisco's Haight - Ashbury dist., there’s Stanyan Street and other sorrows….

And now unable to sleep
because the day is finally coming home
because your sleep has locked me out
I watch you and wonder at you.

I know your face by touch when it’s dark
I know the profile of your sleeping face
the sound of you sleeping.
… I have total recall of you
and Stanyan Street
because I know it will be important later.
It’s quiet now.
Only the clock
moving toward rejection tomorrow
breaks the stillness.

-Rod McKuen, from Stanyan Street and other Sorrows 

Not earth shattering, not even poetry by many people’s standards, but somehow those lines got me started on writing and have led to this day that you’ve to endure my blog.

McKuen was still hale and hearty when I had made the original post in 2006. I had assumed he was still alive. Today while checking upon him on the internet after ages, I found that he had passed away four years ago, this month at the age of 81.

Rest in peace, my dear poet and thank you for your songs.

Dec 31, 2018

Memorable Books I read in 2018 - My best books of 2018

I was of two minds. I do need to do at least one "best of 2018" list like the rest of the populace, that is a given, and I will do a non-fiction books list (and a movie list if I get time in the next 2-3 hours before 2018 ends in my time zone.) But should I do a list of the best books of 2018 or the best books I read in 2018 which could have been published in the years prior?

My book buying habits are almost non-existent. Unless I really like the author and want to contribute to their welfare, I do not buy books, which means I am dependent on libraries (digital and analog) and the choices they offer - that made the decision for me. I will go with the best books I read in 2018, even if some of them could have been published 100 years ago. No, that's a stretch, I can't digest ancient scrolls. Anything more than a couple of decades old usually bores me to death. I am a child of times, an instant gratification seeking speed-reader blessed with an attention span that has not yet graduated kindergarten.

Here's my list of memorable reads from 2018, in no particular order. Some of them were published during the 2012-2018 period, I just happened to read them in 2018, so they find a place in this list.

How to change your mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018) by Michael Pollan
Anything big government bans is worth some research. Michael Pollan researches on your behalf so that you don't have to order magic mushrooms on the dark web. This is also the first Pollan book I finished. Omnivore's Dilemma, here I come (again.) A great companion TV series for Pollan's book is Hamilton's Pharmacopeia - an excellent series for the curious lifelong learners.


Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections (2013) by Patrick Smith
If you travel by air or intend to, this is a first-rate insider's perspective from a blog turned book written by a commercial pilot. Something along the lines of - a thousand things a commercial airline employee would not tell you, but you should know.

Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (2017) Edited by John Freeman
Oh the divided nation....how much longer are you going to survive? Stories from the front lines of a discordant nation as told by the bards of the hour, edited and put together by John Freeman.

Life in Code: a personal history of Technology (2017) by Ellen Ullman
As an incidental coder, my inquisitiveness about women who code led me to this book. Ellen Ullman didn't disappoint.

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (2016) by Sue Klebold
A force majeure. I wish Sue Klebold didn't have to suffer the tragedy she did, nor the people who died and/or suffered by the actions of her son had to undergo the devastation of their lives at Columbine, for the readers to be able to get this book. But as a mother, as a lover of words Ms.Klebold's work is quite tectonic.

The True American : Murder and Mercy in Texas (2014) by Anand Giridhardas
An interesting true story of an Asian American immigrant who became a victim of hate crime in Texas, pitting him and his transformation against a white supremacist who caused the tragedy.

Kannur : Inside India's Bloodiest Revenge Politics (2018) by Ullekh N.P
How many people get to read a book titled with the name of their birth place? It would have been disrespectful not to read it. I was lucky I got a copy the month after it came out. You think you know everything about the place you are from, I was wrong. My review here.

2018 was my initiation year into the true-crime genre.The next three are brilliant works of investigative journalism bolstered by first-rate research by the authors, these are the ones that got me hooked.

I'll be gone in the dark: One Woman's obsessive search for the Golden State Killer (2018) by Michelle McNamara
I feel so bad/sad that Ms.McNamara died before she could taste the fruits of her labor.It is a brilliantly researched, well put-together work about a serial killer who terrorized California in the seventies and eighties, who was finally caught in 2010s, thanks to DNA evidence. McNamara made her life's mission trying to track down this low life, but she died in 2016 before the killer was finally caught. The last section of the book was put together by a couple of friends of hers after she died. My review here.

Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial (2016) by Rabia Chaudry
The stigma of being a Muslim in post 9/11 America is what stands out in Adnan's story. Although the crime and the punishment occurred before before Sep 2001, the discrimination and the lapses of Baltimore PD are hard to ignore. I hope Adnan gets justice real soon. My review here.

Lost Girls : An Unsolved American Mystery (2013) by Robert Kolker
A killer yet uncaught, disposing off 'escorts' in a world where prostitution has moved into the virtual realms like Craigslist. It is structured in sections where each victim and their life is highlighted, might get too detailed and confusing to follow, still an engrossing read if you are willing to spend some time to lose your self in their hopeless stories.

Dec 29, 2018

Varathan

Varathan is a liberal Keralite couple's POV and experiences in a part of Kerala, which suspiciously feels more Bihar than Kerala (IMHO.) More on the Bihar situation later. In addition to having two stylish lead actors - Fahadh Faazil and Aishwarya Lakshmi, style has been injected into the track by the liberal use of slow motion. It is wonderful to watch Aiswarya Lakshmi evolve as an actress, although this movie is essentially a Fahadh vehicle where he headlines in and as the film title (character.) The easy going chemistry between the lead pair contributes much to the smoothness of the narrative.

Costumes, casting, BGM, sound track and production design are excellent. The frames are beautifully metaphorical. The cockroach-killing metaphor is an overkill, if you ask me, but then again you have to appeal to all sorts of audience.

The only unconvincing part of the story is the BIMARUfication of Kerala. The high range town/village where the movie takes place is shown populated with lecherous males with pent-up sexual frustration and out-dated ideas about women's place in society in the age of Whatsapp (which is Tinder, Snapchat, FaceTime - all combined for the Kerala populace.)

Dec 26, 2018

I'll be Gone in the Dark - A review of Michelle McNamara's book about the Golden State Killer

Cleaning up my drafts folder before the New Year, here are some posts I typed out but didn't post.

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I have been binging on true crime reading when I was not binging on streaming TV series. Between both types of binging, R&R was pretty much taken care of.

Michelle McNamara's "I Will Be Gone in The Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" is an un-put-down-able book. She died trying to get a handle on her obsession before the book could be finished and published. It was later finished by two of her journalist-investigator friends. The difference between the earlier chapters of the book written by McNamara and the later ones cobbled together by 'non-writers' can be clearly felt.

Golden State Killer, a name given by McNamara to the serial rapist and killer who the law enforcement authorities had nicknamed EAR (East Area Rapist) was a notorious serial rapist/killer/vandal who terrorized Bay Area and Sacramento in the late 70s. Like some of the police officers and investigators involved in these case, McNamara spent years of her time investigating, analyzing, compiling and putting together an arresting narrative which brought public attention back to the case.

But she would be gone (died in April 2016 of an accidental prescription drug overdose couple with an un-diagnosed heart condition), before police would catch the Golden State Killer, almost three decades after his crime spree had ended - in April 2018.

Michelle McNamara's magnum opus truly deserves the best non-fiction nominations and awards it has garnered in 2018.

Nov 13, 2018

Theevandi

Theevandi has an old-timey charm. It brings to mind the un-pretentious story lines about the common man that was symbolic of mid to late eighties Malayalam cinema. In an age of omnipresent cellphones, missed calls, Whatsapp groups and Facebook posts it is quite an achievement for the story and the script writer to create a realistic blend of digital and analog worlds we seamlessly inhabit.

Tovino Thomas is Bineesh Damodaran, a chain smoking, unemployed young man who dabbles in politics as a hobby in a North Kerala village, somewhere near Kozhikode, would be my guess. The movie tracks his progress from his induction to smoking as a high school-er to the event that leads him to quit it years later, with several comedy gold instances that keep the audience entertained.

Vini Viswalal’s story and script directed by T.P Fellini has in addition to Tovino, Suraj Venjaramoottil, Surabhi Lakshmi, Saiju Kurup, Samyukta Menon, Sudheesh and a bunch of other talented actors. The music by debutante music director Kailas Menon is a perfect fit for the simple yet meaningful lyrics penned by B.K.Harinarayan.

Mayanadhi, Maradona, Theevandi – 2018 has been a rewarding year for Tovino, his smart choice of scripts and directors is paying off pretty well.

Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial


True Crime is a burgeoning genre, with it early beginnings in literature (Truman Capote's In Cold Blood comes to mind) and moving on to television with America's Most Wanted and similar shows.If the culprits were caught and justice had prevailed every a time a crime was committed this genre would have never existed.

We can thank our much flawed criminal justice system and the government for keeping the true-crime genre alive and thriving. The cases taken up by The Innocence Project, the cases like West Memphis Three , Central Park Five and Fairbanks Four are some of the instances that showcase the monumental failure of United State's criminal justice system. Thousands of wrongly convicted innocents languish within the confines of the U.S's biggest money making machine - the America's prison industrial complex (PIC).

PIC thrives on the constant injection of minority blood. Minority young men and women (and also poor white youth) are wrongly convicted or slapped with atrocious prison terms that are no match to their minor crimes. They are brought in young, grow old and die chained to the PIC conveyor belt.

I was introduced to one of it typical victims - 17 year old American from Baltimore, MD - Adnan Sayed, wrongly convicted and incarcerated in 1999, through his friend, neighbor and lawyer Rabia Chaudry's book called Adnan's Story: The Search For Truth And Justice After Serial. More on Serial below. Adnan was a perfect candidate for PIC to devour, as a representative of minority two times over - brown and Muslim. It hardly counts that he was American, born and bred.

Adnan's story might not have seen the light of the day had not Rabia Chaudry become the torch bearer of the crusade to bring justice for Adnan and find the real killers of his friend Hae Min Lee. Rabia brought Adnan's story to the attention of This American Life's Sarah Koenig who made into a podcast called Serial in 2014. Serial became the most downloaded podcast in the history of podcasts bringing national and international attention to this monumental botch-up which destroyed a promising young man's life and messed up an entire community.

Rabia's meticulous deconstruction of Adnan's case, as a friend, a lawyer and a brilliant narrator, picks up the thread from where Serial left off. This gripping real life account adds and fills in the gaps Serial did not bring to light. There is also a newer podcast, Undisclosed, bringing in data and evidence, not presented in Serial. Undisclosed also has a huge fan following as it explores and presents evidence against (wrongful) convictions handed out by the U.S criminal justice system.

On July 22, 2016, right on heels of Serial's success and a couple weeks before Adnan's Story was published, a Baltimore circuit court judge Martin P. Welch overturned Adnan Syed's conviction for the 1999 murder of his friend Hae Min Lee. But as we all know the states do not accept their guilt or wrongdoing as easily and quickly as they handout guilty verdicts to the innocent citizens. The State of Maryland has succeeded in keeping Adnan's fate in limbo for another year.

The latest status (Sep 2018) of Adnan's case as per the law firm representing him is as follows,
"To recap, we won a new trial for Adnan more than two years ago(2016). Since that time the State of Maryland has been appealing the ruling granting the new trial. First the State appealed to the Court of Special Appeals (and lost). Now they are appealing to the Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in Maryland. The State, as the Appellant, filed the first brief a month ago. Today’s filing is our response. You can read the filing HERE."

Reading up on Adnan led me to revisit Damien Echols book - Life After Death and I watched the HBO documentary series Paradise Lost 1,2,3 in a couple of sittings. Maybe I will get around to write a review soon. After being immersed in such accounts of injustice it seems incredulous that we continue trusting our lives to these fallible human institutions like courts and governments. They are supposedly designed to serve and protect us, citizens, but many times they end up doing just the opposite.

'96 - a tamil movie review

96 is a very topical movie. The only question was who would make the topic (more on the topic right after this) into a watch-able movie. Like many ground breaking moves they make (discovery of A.R.Rahman for one), Tollywood claims the story and victory.


Chat apps like Whatsapp, WeChat, Line or Telegram didn’t make any significant inroads in the U.S because the U.S already had free SMS and free calls with most cell phone bundle plans. But for the rest of the world and emerging markets like BRIC, these chatting apps are huge players with about 70-80% market penetration. This gave rise to school and university alumni Whatsapp groups, a la  Snapchat for adults with privacy and secure territoriality packed into an instant message environment.


There was only a matter of time before someone made a movie out of this ubiquitous social networking phenomenon. High school and college Whatasapp groups provide ample material for sentimental, nostalgic stories. There is always ‘the one that got away’ and the ‘could-have-beens’, but ’96 directed by C.Prem Kumar, starring Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan does not dissolve into a syrupy emotional mess, it could have become with a different script and a different director.


Tamil movies rarely operate at the pace of real life, but ’96 takes the slow lane. Although it was dragging at places, it can be excused for keepin’ it real.

Nov 2, 2018

Ranam: Detroit Crossing , A Review

Close-ups framed by somber voice-overs in down and out desperado jargon paints a picture of a big specter in the offing - a fight for the dangerous under belly of Detroit. This is where Ranam (transl: the battle) happens - at Detroit Crossing. And guess who is trying to lay claim to the ruins of America's original motor city - some South Indians and a few Poles! I don't know what the Black Mafia or the Flatheads will have to say about that, but I am guessing the film maker will pull up his creative license card if questioned.

The director, Nirmal Sahadev, teases the audience with the prospect of an ever-present menace in the motor city, employs tightly framed shots so that none of its mundaneness leaks in. To up the danger quotient and maybe also as a nod to his inspiration (the 2014 movie, Drive), there are plenty of red lighted scenes, red pills, blood, guns, germs and steel. The last two were thrown in by me for the Jared Diamond effect, they do not feature in this movie to any significant degree.

The people who feature in Ranam are Malayalam's own answer to Hollywood - Prithviraj and Isha Talvar who is miscast as usual. Giju John as the lead detective is impressive in his debut while Rahman with his remarkable on screen presence is a great pick for the mob boss, Damodar Ratnam. He reunites with his co-star from the Tamil noir movie Dhruvangal Pathinaru - Ashwin Kumar, who plays his side-kick Selvan. Jakes Bejoy has scored the music for the movie, which includes a decent mixed-rap title track.

Ranam comes off as a forced chronicle. Prithviraj's rigidity, even if his role calls for some of it, does not help the case. The dialog sounds lame, especially the cynical, street smart musings in English delivered in half-baked scenes. The most unconvincing part of the story is the entirety of the Tamil gang trying to control Detroit is comprised of all of two people - Damodar Ratnam and Selvan. One Prithviraj with a hammer, which he brings to all his gun fights, is more than enough for these two people - I cannot even begin to understand why he wasted two hours doing it.

Oct 18, 2018

Karwaan


Road trip movies seem to be the route of choice for Mollywood actors for their Bollywood debut. If it is a Bollywood road movie, it invariably has Irrfan as the laid back, philosopher of life who nurses a can of worms of his own – not too lethal, just enough to cause some minor hiccups to spice up the story line (Piku, Qarib Qarib Singlle, Karwaan)

We had Parvathy making her Bollywood debut with Irrfan in an Indian take on eat-pray-love called Qarib Qarib Singlle. Now we have Dulqar Salman taking the south Indian scenic route with Irrfan in Karwaan.

In addition to the gorgeous Nilgiris and Kerala lagoons, the other key elements in this movie are an indian youtube sensation – Mithila Palkar, a couple of dead bodies and Hindi – the lingua franca of southern India, if we are to believe Karwaan.

The story is by ad-man turned director Bejoy Nambiar and directed by Akarsh Khurana. The dialogs are natural, photography showcases the best of South India and the actors have tried – but the story lacks juice and feels forced in most places – I made full use of the fast forward button.

Dulqar’s acting was the most believable and Irrfan plays Irrfan – a slightly off the rocker, lovable eccentric. This could be a short film for Kerala (and Tamil nadu) tourism, starring a Mollywood celebrity and a Bollywood celebrity – if we can edit this down to about 15 min.

Oct 17, 2018

Paperback Reviews

Six Seconds by Rick Mofina : Fiction, of the throwaway paperback kind that you can comfortably leave in an airline seat pocket or the departure lounge once you've finished it. It's been ages since I read something of this category. It was ok, an extremely fast read, mostly because I was skipping the obvious. The beginning was good, that was why after reading a few sample pages I decided to check it out. I would not get into the science behind the story or implausibility of certain events, all in all it was a quick engrossing read with chapters which can be skimmed in a few minutes.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: An emotional book about unhinged people. Not sure how it became a huge hit. I guess it just goes on to prove that the reading population has very different tastes than me. Meh.

Oct 7, 2018

Kannur : Inside India's Bloodiest Revenge Politics by Ullekh NP and a companion movie Eeda

Red - Kannur breathes and radiates red. From the laterite hills to the communist party flags and from its blood killing fields to its iconic Theyyams, red is the go-to color of this west coast city at the northern tip of the southern Indian state, Kerala.

With my personal connection to the place, it would have taken some significant amount of restraint to stay away from the red-jacketed book titled Kannur : Inside India's Bloodiest Revenge Politics by Ullekh N.P. The author is a native of Kannur and a journalist with Open Magazine.

The book tracks the history of violence and blood-letting that has become synonymous with the Kannur as the political killing capital of Kerala. Many faces and names of people appearing in these pages reminded me of people we might have ran into at an afternoon political discussion, at a panchayath function or at the neighborhood AKG vayanshala, all those years ago in the eighties.

My impression of the eighties Kannur, where Congress party and CPI(M) as the de-facto rivals contradicts the murders painted by numbers in this book. It is true that post-1990s, after the Babri Masjid demolition, religious fundamentalist organizations like RSS made considerable inroads into Kerala, one of the last bastions of the liberal left in India and thus replacing Congress as the main enemy for CPI(M) in Kannur. The passing of the mantle of the main CPI(M) enemy from Congress to RSS (BJP) is not evident from the narrative. At present almost all (if not all) the political killing victims are either Marxists or Hindu nationalists, Congress party members are nowhere in the picture.

The book also explores the question, why? Why did Kannur become the hot-bed,by exploring some unusual theories about the social, historical, genetic and geographic composition of the district and its inhabitants. From Chekavars to Assyrians to Portuguese it is fascinating to see various interpretations of history in an investigation to make sense of the mess.

...........

Eeda (translated as Here)is an excellent fictional companion piece for Ullekh N.P's book. It is a contemporary look at the political rivalries of Kannur through a Romeo-Juliet angle. Communists and Hindu nationalists stand in for Montagues and Capulets, while a young couple tries to escape the tentacles of their inherited political legacies.

Shane Nigam (Kismath) and Nimisha Sajayan (Thondimuthalum Drikthasakshiyum), the protagonists come from similar families in Kannur except their political affiliations - one with strong Marxist connections and other with Hindu nationalist leaning, which is the other side of the tracks as far as the other is concerned.

It is a smooth,natural flowing movie, the directorial debut of editor turned director B.Ajithkumar and Collective Phase One. Although other than the lead couple's accent, most of the other characters do not sound like locals, it is not because they didn't try. There is an impressive lineup of supporting characters essayed by Alencier Ley Lopez, Surabhi Lakshmi, Manikandan Achari, Sudhi Koppa and others.

Oct 6, 2018

Kannur, an old post : A prelude



Kannur is close to my heart, for undisclosed reasons. I have spent many childhood summers tearing across its red laterite hilltops and endless cashew groves with the local kid brigade. I had written a few lines in my old blog about this piece of heaven I was fortunate to spend a few weeks every summer, cut-pasting it below..... (I am running short of writing fuel that I have to resort to rehashing my old stuff.) I was planning to post a movie and a book review, both set in Kannur. But from the length of it, the reviews will have to wait, here's the prelude first.

Kannur is one of the northern districts in the southern Indian state of Kerala, on the west coast of India. Here's Kannur's Wikipedia page.


a post from Oct 17, 2009
Paradise in those days of bruised scabby knees and wild hair was set in red laterite country. It had grandmothers who moved around in an ether of Ayurvedic oils handing out admonitions and sweat-meats with equal ease. The main citizens of this nation were a mob of tanned and rowdy cousins who would crawl out of the woodwork the minute we city-dwellers landed. Within the next few weeks we’d map every nook and cranny of the wild farmlands to the last earthworm and the last dragonfly (Dragonflies were particularly useful as these when tied with a string on their tails could be used as backhoes for picking up stones.) Our feet would tear fields and playgrounds to shreds as a determined sun watched on while vaporizing an occasional itinerant cloud.



…..and what you see above is a piece of that paradise. If it was a human this photo will be eligible to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages by this year. It doesn’t know what it is missing. But you know. You are looking for 72 virgins, swaying palms and cool emerald water that are notable by their absence in my dated version of paradise. Instead what you see on either side of the mud road are rice fields getting roasted in ample solar radiation typical of April in South India. A river which could’ve salvaged the otherwise dry and dusty frame hides a couple of hundred meters behind me, the photographer.

I took the picture with my trusted Yashica. A few of my cousins and my sister are in the photo. The two men in lungi are passersby. The photo has been tickled a bit by my funny photoshop bone. I couldn’t help but contribute to the mutilation of the photo already warped by time, weather, scanning conditions and a 13 year old amateur camera aficionado. The only person untouched in the picture is the man wearing thoppikuda (thoppi= hat, kuda = umbrella.) It is my homage to an extinct age when thoppikudas could travel inconspicuously in public without eliciting puzzled glances and when I was at an age, like the one perfectly summed up in this song,

It was always summer and the future called
We were ready for adventures and we wanted them all
And there was so much left to dream
And so much time to make it real

Earlier in the day this song (or rather the refrain, I do not know any song beyond their chorus) was making rounds in my brain. Sung by the beefy bard of modern rock ballads a line from it was adopted by automakers world wide and affixed on many rear-view mirrors. The automakers might claim it was the other way around. But I wouldn’t doubt the ingenuity of bards of any kind, from anywhere, whether from New World or Old Country.

I’ve unstuck a line from the lyrics and have pasted it on the photo. The rest of it is here.

..There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground

But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far
And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are

Like Kenny in the song this photo has a cousin of mine who is with us no more (you can only see his brown legs, not his face) and there are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark…..I am thirteen again and it is summer blazing up in the lost paddy fields in far-off Malabar.



Jul 2, 2018

Reviews of books that I gave up half way


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown : At this late age one thing has been decided for me, after attempting to read The Boys in the Boat. I will not be taking up rowing as a recreational sport anytime soon. 

The main character's back story was interesting from a historical perspective - how living in Pacific North West in the depression era was like for ordinary Americans. Apart from that I couldn't garner any interest in rowing competitions, the techniques required or the in the lives of people involved, as I plowed through to reach midway point of this book. 

I could also not figure out what is historic about this 1936 rowing gold medal, when 8 years ago University of Berkeley team won gold in the same competition in Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. It could be Daniel James Brown likes to pay homage to his adopted state, Washington, as is evident from the list of books he has authored. 

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs : If you have to break into the literary scene, one of the places you should check for material is your college dorm. You are in luck if you had interesting room mates with exotic background and arresting histories.

Jeff Hobbs got Robert Peace - an inner city African American kid with cliched background (absent incarcerated father, hard-working single mother) who got straight As, won a scholarship to Yale, studied molecular biophysics and after successfully completing his undergrad was shot to death at thirty - probably in a drug deal gone bad. The story sounds absolutely worth checking out, but I couldn't get past the half-way mark with Jeff Hobb's book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

My reasons for giving up half way are - too lengthy, couldn't muster up much affection for the protagonist, or maybe because I already knew the ending was going to be tragic but the writer seemed to be in no hurry to get there?

Coming up, hopefully I will manage to finish some books and jot down a few thoughts about them :-)