Sunday, January 22, 2017

XXX: Xander Cage is Back and Ridiculous

What makes a good sequel? I feel it is the upgrade that you do to the basic idea of the original like in the case of Fast and Furious franchise. Every succeeding movie covers the previous installments, brings back the good characters, increase the stakes and never compromise on the quality. XXX series already squandered the chance when they made State of the Union, a very substandard sequel in terms of everything that was XXX. I consider it an excuse rather than a sequel. Now they are back with XXX: Return of Xander Cage.

...and screws it up again.

This one is still a few steps below the first part in every element- action, stunts, pace, suspense, plot, characters. The movie looks good, Vin Diesel is OK, Deepika and Donnie Yen are awesome. I am really happy to watch Yen getting noticed in Hollywood. He is a terrific actor. Deepika Padukone makes her presence felt. A few stunts are indeed breath taking. And that about sums up the good things of Return of Xander Cage. Ok, and the entry of Neymer in the first scene.

A gadget that can control satellites is stolen by a bunch of former XXX operatives and Xander Cage, who has feigned his death, is the only person capable of fixing the situation. He goes on the mission after recruiting some new members.

We had seen how bad the idea of recruiting new members backfired in Expendables 3.  The same issue repeats. All we get is a bunch of uninteresting nitwits whom we are to suffer for the entire running time. Other minor characters are also a pain to watch.

The character introductions never reveal anything interesting and take up half the movie. By the time some action set pieces start showing, we cease to care. There was a scene that was more ridiculous than the Batman- Superman patch up that we saw last year.

Tony Jaa got a raw deal. Here is a guy who has proved that he can carry an entire martial arts movie on his knees and all he do is appear. The only relief is that his role is a tad longer than the blink-and-you'll-miss-me one that he did in that Fast and Furious movie.

The stunts come no-where near the original. While XXX was made as a fun alternative to serious spy flicks like James Bond ones, this one tries to imitate Expendables and Fast and Furious. While XXX had some great music, this one is a letdown. The plot is an excuse, no context, no suspense and totally predictable.

The only surprise twist they finally came up was to remind us of the bad aftertaste of XXX: State of Union by bringing back the guy who made it unwatchable. The better alternative to XXX: Return of Xander Cage is a rewatch of the original. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies...

Martin Scorsese is a director who has delivered a string of great movies. Undoubtedly he is one of the living legends of cinema. That's why I was excited about a movie in which he talks about movies. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is a BFI produced  documentary. Made in three parts, it spans a total of three and a half hours.

As the title says, in this movie, Scorsese recounts the history of cinema in America. As he himself is a director, he narrates it from the perspective of a director. This is evident from the first movie that he introduces- The Bad and The Beautiful, a drama about the relationship between a producer and a director. The creative struggle of the director forms the backbone of the documentary. His dilemma, whether to make a movie according to his sensibilities or to cater to the whims of the investors and to play it safe, is a constant theme that Scorsese often falls back to. His selection of movies is divided into four segments according to the different roles played by the director in making movies.

He starts by lauding the role of director as a story teller. For this he introduces three genres that has got identified as distinctly American- Westerns, musicals and crime film. He describes the inception, growth and evolution of these three genres, showing clips of movies from different eras as examples. He talks about directors who established the ground rules of generic film making and explains how social changes of different times were reflected in their evolution.

Next, he shows us the director as an illusionist who uses technology to create images instead of just copying them. It is incredible and inspiring to watch how new technologies and new ideas in editing, cinematography and special effects progressed step by step and made it possible to create movies with increasingly complex narratives. Directors who used techniques effectively opened up new frontiers and revolutionised movie making. From silent to sound, from black and white to colour, American directors were more open to embrace and experiment with innovative technical processes. 

The studio system seriously curtail the freedom of a movie maker. But there are directors who worked within that system, cheated it and got away with it. They discreetly included their personal visionary statements in their movies. Most of these directors were champions of B-movies because B-movies suffered lesser interference from studios. Scorsese calls them smugglers. Along with horror and science fiction, film noir was also a genre that facilitated smuggling of ideas and political and social statements into the movies. It's another matter that the directors never knew they were making film noir, as the term was created much later by French.

The last part deals with directors who are to be considered iconoclasts. These are the directors who unlike smugglers, took the system head on and made groundbreaking movies that defied convention. Sometimes their uncompromising nature made them failures. These include visionary directors like Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Sam Peckingpeh who had to suffer the ire of studios at some point of their life. But more than the ones who conferred to the system and made movies that earned money for studios, the iconoclasts earned longevity in the annals of movie history.

In a movie that constitutes of a procession of movie clips and footage videos, Martin Scorsese's passionate narration is the element that binds it. He speaks with a precision and clarity that gets straight inside your heads. Adding to the pleasure are clips from interviews of several iconic directors. From Griffith to Kubrick, the movie showcases greatness in its many forms. It's an essential watch for movie enthusiasts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Little Prince: Reminding Our Days Of Innocence

Normally most of the books have designated target readers, who are interested in consuming them. Like crime thriller or romantic novels will be appealing only for readers having taste in them. There are novels that appeal only to people living in certain region. Sometimes some books are made which will be interesting to readers liking diverse genres- like Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist which was lapped up by enthusiasts of different genres like romance, fantasy and self help. But few books have such universal appeal that anyone belonging to any age, region or personal liking can benefit by reading them.

French novel The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint- Exupery is one such book. I had read a Malayalam translation of it when I was a small kid. That book was there with me till I was 16 and the times I had read it is countless, each time giving me immense pleasure. A few weeks back I read the English translation and realised that, even after these many years, it is still relevant- to me as an individual and to the society in which I am living.

The Little Prince starts by the author recounting an incident of his childhood. He drew an elephant eaten by a boa constrictor, but all adults who looked at it saw a hat. The author stopped drawing after that. Story fast forwards, and now we saw him, who went on to become an airplane pilot, stranded in a desert following a crash. He meets the Little Prince, who used to live in a tiny planet in space there. Prince tell him his story. The author learns valuable lessons about living. The novel ends in a sad note when Prince return back to his planet leaving the author alone in the desert.

The Little Prince is written in simple language intended for kids. But it deals with several issues like love, possession, patience, selfishness and the difference between adults and kids. It stress the importance of keeping the life simple and thereby more enjoyable. This book is a must read for kids. They will definitely enjoy the story and illustrations, at the same time learn valuable lessons about life. Adults also will enjoy the story as it will remind us of our days of innocence and may prompt some of us to simplify our complex and hectic lifestyle.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A Loose Cannonball

I just finished reading Paul Beatty's novel The Sellout. It is the Man Booker prize winner of 2016. The Sellout is a biting satire about post racial US society, the one with a Black person as it's President. It was a tough read for me as it took almost double the time that I usually take for a book of its length. I had to re-read many parts again to find out if I had missed something and there were many points that were clear only while re-reading.

The protagonist of The Sellout is a black man whose first name is never mentioned and his surname is just Me. He is summoned to the Supreme Court to deliberate a case of apartheid. It seems the guy was reinstating segregation and owning slaves in his home town, Dickens in Los Angeles.

This guy is the son of a psychologist, a single black father, who used his son as a Guinea pig for his psychological experiments. He was counting on his memoirs to take them out of poverty. But one fine day police 'accidentally' shoots him. The son continues his father's part time career of a Nigger- whisperer - rescuing suicidal black people.

When he realised that his home town is no more in the American maps, totally wiped off, he comes upon the idea of reinstating segregation as a means of retrieving it, much to the horror of his father's friend and later rival, Foy. An aged black actor, Hominy forces Me to take him as a slave. What follows are the attempts by the duo to reintroduce segregation and reclaim Dickens.

The book consists of a torrent of wise cracks and jokes about post racial US society. As a novel, it doesn't have a strong structure or plot. The whole book gives you a feeling of watching a very long stand-up act about racism. Several of the jokes and observations are ingenious. The author deliberately avoids any meaningful characterisation and keeps them all two dimensional caricatures. Instead of weakening the novel, it makes you not to care for them and concentrate on the rants of the protagonist, which is actually the strong point of the book.

I feel the intention of the book is to criticise the attitude of modern society to avoid discussing of racial difference altogether. The author tries to put forward a view that it is better to go back to the old ways of segregation if there is no atmosphere to openly discuss and agree on racial differences. It is more difficult for the minor ethnicities to live in a society that obliterate it's identity and makes it conform, rather than giving it space to develop its culture. In the novel we can see that segregation leads to better performance of students and general uplifting of the quality of living.

The Sellout is a highly contextual novel. It is specific in its historical, political and social contexts. To appreciate it fully, one has to physically experience these. There are many elements that are universal, and easy for people without the background to enjoy, but I feel it will be a different reading experience for people who are aligned to any of the sides portrayed in the novel.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Sceptical Patriot: Auditing India Facts

Internet is a medium for transmitting information. The problem is that there is no guarantee that it is right information that reaches us. Day by day we are assaulted with loads of data on dozens of subjects and most of them come without substantial proof.

We wisely ignore some of them, like the ones about wives of overturned dictators trying to transfer their ill begotten wealth out of their countries and the ones about Mark Zuckerberg donating one dollar for the cause for every one share or like of a picture. But there are others that appeal to our soft emotions and make us believe them. Finally we end up sharing it and becoming part of the chain.

The Sceptical Patriot is a book written by Sidin Vadukut, Indian blogger, writer of Dork series of satirical novels and journalist, that sets out to evaluate how much truth lies in the kind of forwarded stuff that he has named India Facts. I think there won't be any Indian who hasn't encountered forwarded messages containing list of all things that are supposed to make us proud as Indians. Some examples are the claims that India has never attacked another nation in the last 10000 years, or the claim that it was Indians who invented zero.

The patriots amongst us immediately pat their own back and spread the good words. The sceptics shout aloud that all these are bogus and ignore or delete the message. But Sidin, being the sceptical patriot, took upon himself the task of making the record straight.

When I took to read this book, I was in-fact sceptical about it. Sidin, being a writer of humorous pieces and the task being the inspection of history, I was sure that this is going to be a terrible mish-mash of humour and shallow history. But there was one statement in the introduction that made me feel that my expectations are going for a toss.

"...just when it looks like we have unshakeable proof to buttress some historical argument, new discoveries will come along and make everything before them meaningless."

If he is smart enough to figure out this fact, the uncertainty in finding out what exactly happened in the past, I felt it would be reasonable to give my time to this book. And I wasn't dissappointed. For a book on history that is designed to entertain the reader along with its other goals, The Sceptical Patriot scores.

In ten chapters the author tries to find the truth in as many India Facts. To his credit, he never goes for shortcuts. Most of his missions end in more questions. Some of the claims stand meritorious and some dubious. Most stand in between. Without going for the temptation to proclaim each claim as true or false, Sidin gives them a rating out of 10 according to their truthfulness. I appreciated that element the most in this book.

The Sceptical Patriot is a book that instils in its readers a sense to question the knowledge bequeathed through internet and to gauge its merit instead of blindly choosing to believe or deny it.

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