Monday, January 26, 2015

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" - John Le Carre' (7/10)

A brilliant spy story.

At the height of the cold war, Alec Leamas, head of the British intelligence in West Germany, returns to London in disgrace after all his agents have been eliminated by East German intelligence. In London, Control, the head of Circus (British intelligence), offers him one last assignment before he can come in from the cold, that is, retire. The plan is for Leamas to fake his defection to the East in order to implicate the head of East German intelligence, Mundt, as a British double agent and therefore eliminate the Circus' biggest enemy.

The best thing about the story is that the plot is handled expertly. There is a triple bluff in the story that is set up and executed flawlessly. The writing is supremely controlled. The settings and the characters are so controlled and understated that it makes the entire story credible. You can believe that these things could really happen, because they are so unlike the loud action in James Bond, that is clearly too over the top.

The writing overall is very, very good. I usually expect the writing in thrillers to be at a lower level than dramas. Thats because there is already so much interesting stuff going on in the story that the writer doesn't need to make things interesting with his writing. But here the writing is great. There are so many layers and undertones to the things that are said and left unsaid. Its a spy story that frequently becomes philosophical, but in a really good way. Its hard-hitting, showing the espionage world in a stark light, where there is no good or bad, just effective and ineffective.

Loved it!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Mr Mercedes" - Stephen King (6/10)

By Stephen King's standards, writing this story must have been like doodling for him. A nice little compact novel.

A retired detective, Bill Hodges, is goaded by a killer, Mr Mercedes, towards suicide. Mr Mercedes had killed a number of people by plowing a Mercedes into a group of people at a job fair. Hodges had been the lead detective on this case, but retired before being able to solve it. Now, the killer sends him a taunting letter encouraging him to commit suicide. Unwittingly, though, the killer gives the ex-cop a reason to live. With the help of a few allies, Hodges races to find Mr Mercedes before he can unleash more carnage.

The story is fairly simple. There's no suspense because right from the beginning we know who exactly Mr Mercedes is. I found that the detective work was quite limited as well. But as ever with Stephen King, the writing is good.

A nice little read.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Birdman (9.5/10)

I loved this film. Being a huge admirer of 21 grams, I have a lot of respect for Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his film-making ability. In Birdman, my high expections were not just met but greatly surpassed.

Birdman is a very simple story told in a wonderfully creative way. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up hollywood actor formerly famous for playing the superhero, Birdman. Now to revive his flagging career, his credibility, his very life; he is writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play, that he has adapted from a Raymond Carver book. The film charts the final few days leading up to the opening night of this play, during which we see the insecurities, the doubts, the desperate efforts of this former hollywood star to regain some professional credibility and respect, and personal redemption especially with his failed relationship with his daughter.

The first thing that struck me was : so much music! The entire movie is played out to the beat of a background jazz drum that hardly ever stops. The music dictates and controls the pace, the tone and the telling of the story. I have never seen a movie use music so much and in such an innovative way. This is not a musical, and yet it relies so much on the music that it wouldn’t be half so good without it.

The other winning aspect of this movie is the camerawork. I don't usually notice, or care for, the technical aspects of a movie. But in Birdman, you can’t help but notice and admire it. The film has been shot in such a way that it appears to have been shot in one single continuos take. This feeling of being in a one continuous shot really brings home to the viewer the agitation, the confusion and the claustrophobia in the mind of the protagonist as he tries to come to grips with his alter ego, his disturbed daughter, his difficult co-star, and the failing finances of his play as the opening night approaches. You can feel the walls closing in, just like the actor feels because of his failed career, failed relationships and now his ever-closer-to-failing play. I'm not for technical wizardry just for the sake of it, but in this case, the camerawork does so much to make the movie so much closer and more real to the viewer. As we traverse through the backstage of the theatre, we live every single moment with the protagonist. Its wonderful!

Finally, the acting is brilliant all round. From Michael Keaton to Edward norton, and from Emma Stone to Naomi Watts, every single actor has put in a great performance.

Excellent movie!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Flashback" by Dan Simmons (1/10)

I had forgotten how bad a writer Dan Simmons is. You tend to remember good things and so when I think of Dan Simmons, I remember the wonderful world of Ilium and completely block-out the terrible writing in "The Rise of Endymion" (review here) and "Endymion" (review here)

Flashback brings to the fore all the limits that Dan Simmons' writing has.

Its set in the near-future, around 2032, where the world has changed a lot. America has declined both economically and politically, so much so that it is not even capable of holding on to its territory (just 44.5 states remain in the USA). It has bankrupted itself due to the so-called "entitlement programs". China has imploded. The new superpowers are Japan and India. And a powerful Global Islamic Caliphate has emerged that exterminated all of Israel with nuclear bombs wiping out over 6 million jews.

Flashback is a drug that allows people to relive their past and 95% of Americans are now addicts. America is a place of rampant lawlessness, frequent terrorist attacks and Americans live in conditions akin to, or worse than, the current third-world conditions. The USA has absolutely no importance on the world stage and is bullied around by Japan and even the Caliphate. The USA hires out its armies to the Japanese for money and there is a giant mosque at the 9/11 ground zero site and there are annual CELEBRATIONS that commemorate the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

In this world, our hero Nick, is an ex-cop, now-addict of flashback, who is hired by a powerful Japanese billionaire to solve the murder of his son six years ago. Nick was the detective who investigated the murder 6 years ago without any success. Since then, his wife has died and the grief has turned him into a flashback addict, reliving his happy times with his wife. He's so shattered that he doesn't even care about his 11-year-old son whom he has sent off to his grandfather in Los Angeles.

That is all I'm going to say about the story. Lets just say that the plot is flimsy at best and the ending is formulaic and predictable.

Now with the problems.

The biggest problem is this future world that Simmons has created. I DON'T BUY IT! I just don't. Its too unbelievable, too fantastical and far-fetched to the point of ridiculousness. I don't care for this world because I don't like it, and more importantly I don't think its credible at all. I can envisage the USA not being a global superpower, but I don't think it'll ever get to being the utterly spineless USA that this book depicts. I mean, seriously, how ridiculous is it to see celebrations of the 9/11 attacks inside the USA, at Ground Zero actually? Such is the overly exaggerated decline of the USA in the book, and it is explained away by reasons so simplistic that it insults the intelligence of the reader.

The entire book was a huge political rant. A very myopic view of the current issues facing USA that blames the shocking decline squarely on the Obama administration. It feels so much like an excuse to vent the author's decidedly republican political views. And when the story took a breather from being a very badly written political rant, it felt like a very boring geography lesson. So many times in the book, the story comes to a complete standstill as the author either rants about his political views or gives a completely unnecessarily detailed geography lesson on the American southwest. So, for no reason at all, the story stops all of a sudden and you are reading the history of some stadium, or some park, or some specific building, while waiting for the story to restart. This adds nothing whatsoever to the story, is completely irrelevant to the plot and completely breaks the flow of the story. And it happens over and over and over and over again, throughout the book.

Another extremely annoying thing was how many times Simmons makes his characters say really stupid things. And as if it thats not bad enough, the character justifies saying that stupid thing by thinking of an excuse. WTF? Either don't write stupid dialogue, or if you do, at least don't attract attention to it by making an excuse for it. Its just bad, amateurish writing, even I know that!

One last word about the characters. Dan Simmons has never been good at making his characters real human beings that you care for, and that is sadly the case here too. Suffice to say that I didn't care for Nick, his messed-up son or even his dead wife.

The only good thing about this book was that it ended.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Interstellar (1/10)

I did not like this movie. NOT. ONE. BIT.

I found it painfully slow, plodding, fantastical, melodramatic, pompous, nonsensical and unconvincing. Its hard to believe that the guy who made the wonderful Batman movies is the same guy who made this sorry excuse of a movie.

I think that when you say bad things about something, its important to rely on cold, hard facts much more than when praising it. To that end, this review is going to be full of SPOILERS and so if the reader is planning on wasting 3 hours on this swindle of a movie, he or she is advised to stop reading right here.

The reason I did not like this movie is because I was expecting a scientific movie based on scientific explanations (with a bit of poetic license), while what I got was a full-blown fantasy epic-wannabe!

My biggest problem - the so-called “they”. It seems like any time the director didn’t feel like actually coming up with a logical explanation for something he attributed it to these mysterious beings. For example, when a worm hole conveniently and suddenly appears out of nowhere and its appearance is explained away by mysterious beings, that, for me, is cheating. Its the director being too lazy to come up with a real, in-some-way scientific reason for it. I just felt that the whole movie was filled with such instances of cheating and it was extremely off-putting.

Then there were so many sequences that just weren’t properly handled. For instance, the final space shots interspersed with earth scenes were very very badly done, with very little logical connection between the two. The sequence in which Doyle dies was just so stupid. Why didn’t he get into the flipping ship instead of standing there dumbly? He was not helping anybody and he saw the waves coming and still remained standing outside.

Another very stupid thing which is quite common in American movies is that the Americans try to save the world all on their own. Why on earth (get it? on ‘Earth’) would just one scientist work on an equation on which the future of the whole mankind depends? Its moronic and stupid beyond words.

Lastly, the acting was just not up to scratch. Matthew McConaughey was ok, but Anne Hathaway was surprisingly bad! Even Michael Caine came across as pompous.

With so many big problems, there is very little that could actually save this movie. But one of the rare good things was the music over the last hour that actually managed to create some kind of interest in how the movie would end.

A very very disappointing, nay, annoying movie!

Friday, January 09, 2015

Absence Haiku


the shape
of her absence
new moon

--- Great Haiku by Chen-ou Liu

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street (9/10)

I love Martin Scorsese! From the first shot of Goodfellas (the first Scorsese film I ever saw), I have been a huge fan and he has never disappointed.

This movie is based on the real life story of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt Wall Street Stockbroker. It charts his rise to wealth through aggressive sales techniques and downright corrupt practices. It depicts his highly decadent lifestyle filled with drugs and prostitutes. It is filled with swearing, so much so that hardly a minute goes by without an expletive.

I love it because all this decadence is portrayed extremely artfully by Scorsese. Despite showing this completely over the top lifestyle of the protagonist, the film itself never ever loses credibility and avoids descending into a farce. This exquisite control over something portraying a completely out-of-control protagonist is what I admire the most. The acting is uniformly great, from di Caprio as this larger than life character, Jonah Hill as his trusted friend and partner to Kyle Chandler who plays the understated FBI agent tracking Belfort. The icing on the cake is Matthew McConaughey, who is wonderful in a short cameo.

Great movie!

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)

Came across this sonnet from Shakespeare today. Such an unusual (unpoetic?) way of conveying true love. Love it!

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
          And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
          As any she belied with false compare.