Wednesday, February 28, 2007

BCCI's Dos and Donts

Reportedly the BCCI handed a list of "dos and donts" to the Indian cricket team on the eve of their departure for the cricket World Cup in the West Indies.

Balle Baaz - my special BCCI mole - has leaked some of the contents, which I have reproduced below.

We the BCCI have compiled a list of do and donts for you based on our past experiences. They are the following.

  • Do not be paying for a lap dance beforehand, you might getting cheated

  • Be suspicious of a woman who accepts your offer for make friendship eagerly, she may actually be being a man

  • Do not be doing limbo after tequila shots. Your barf can blind you for days

  • Do not be using the opening line "you want a piece of me?" on the women. They will whup your ass.

  • Do not be saying "kya kallu ki aulaad" to Chanderpaul. He can bat really well.

  • Do not be taking Shri Pawar with you to the beach and be giving him a soda to drink. He will be running after the women in no time saying "you want a piece of me?"

Yours Truly,
Secretary Niranjan Shah

Monday, February 26, 2007

79th Oscars - Gobsmacked!

Jodie Foster doesn't invoke high glamour - instead articulating a warm, intellectual style (beady, if you ask me, but its rare enough that we won't complain). Last night, though, she got everything right.

79th Oscars - Foreign Edition

There were plenty of foreign stars at the Oscars, what with them romping all over the Best Actress category.

Here is Spanish actress
Penelope Cruz wearing something that looks like a gown that got caught in a shredder.

Kate Winslet has always looked uncomfortable being glamorous to me. And god bless her for that! If you aren't a stellar dresser - keep it simple like Kate.

And speaking of English roses, here is Rachel Weisz who can be infuratingly inconsistent with her style. A bit on the thin side if you will, but still pretty magnificant.

And as always, Australian actress Cate Blanchett manages to pull off a classic look.

79th Oscars - Ingenue Edition

Anne Hathaway looks good in just about anything. And yes, that dress would have looked plain without anything on it, but you think that bow is a tad large? She still looked great!

Hathaway's costar from that movie, Emily Blunt, wore something in the most terrific color of the evening. And contrary to looks, that dress did not fall off. Much disappointment for the Nipplegate Club.

Kirsten Dunst had this plastered look. Perhaps she watered her dress so well, it started growing around her ankles.

I'm not a big fan of Reese Witherspoon, especially since she can't decide how to wear her hair and has kept this particularly bad choice going for a while now. Nice outfit and va-va-voom attitude, though.

Maggie Gylenhall's glum beauty gets a bit of a lift in this very cool gown (that color again) kept wisely understated.

79th Oscars - Veteran Edition

How did the older gals do on the red carpet?

Faye Dunaway came in a dress inspired by a curtain call. Or one really freaky poodle. Take your pick.

The legendary Meryl Streep is an all-round goddess but the Oscars are a formal affair. Sigh, what can one say? Tying anything around your waist that is not a proper belt is not a good idea. A pendant bigger than your fist - along the same lines of bad.

Helen Mirren's somewhat befuddling acceptance speech aside, she was easily one of the sexiest at the Oscars. Especially since she seems to have figured out that really dark lipstick looks somewhat tarty on her.

79th Oscars - Justin Timberlake Edition

Here is Cameron Diaz looking cute in that wispy haircut and sending a twinge or two through her ex - Timberlake's - heart, I'm sure.

Meanwhile another rumored Timberlake ex, Jessica Biel looked ripped. And delicious - kind of like my son's Strawberry Juice Bar.

79th Oscars - Best Veggie Imitation

Celine Dion gave me the sudden urge to eat asparagus. Maybe I should have laid off the carbs during the pre-show...

79th Oscars - Super Slinky Edition

Here's two actresses badly in need of a tan trying to look their slinkiest.

Nicole Kidman does well even though the tie at her throat and hairdo are a little distracting.

And Gwyneth Paltrow does her best imitation of a swoosh, walks the fine line between slinky and sleazy and ekes out a win.

79th Oscars - Dreamgirls Edition

So how did the Dreamgirls do?

Jennifer Hudson, you might have gone home with an Oscar, but next time, try not to audition for the latest Eddie Murphy sci-fi comedy project at the same time as the ceremony.

Sure, Beyonce always goes over the top with oomph - but she does put the "oo" in there as well.

And Anika Noni Rose, in a last minute snafu, realizes she's left her dress at her mum's. So she bravely runs around the house and grabs all the silver foil she can get her hands on...

79th Oscars - Worst Dressed

Ok, someone help me understand this. You land a high profile role in the most internationally renowned action series and your movie is a worldwide blockbuster. More people have seen your face than ever before. Your agent lands you an appearance at the Oscars!

And Eva Green, you can't comb your hair with a brush and press your outfit??

For my patni on our anniversary...

Her favorite beautiful people...

Happy 13th!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Transatlantic flights - Part 1

Here is a post expanded from an earlier one into a two parter, which was featured on Desicritics recently.

Having made numerous transatlantic flights from US to India and back with two kids ever since they were born (or even incubating) - I've endured the bad and worst of air travel.

This January, on our way to the airport for a direct flight from Delhi to Chicago, we were stuck in the kind of thick fog that makes even long term residents of Delhi raise their eyebrows. We knew we wouldn't be heading out at 12:15am. A two hour wait in the pre-security waiting area ensued. We quickly annexed extra seats to stretch our legs on and were surprised at the patience of our fellow travelers who hardly shot us a dirty look. When ours was one of only three international flights that were not canceled for the night, we smiled our way through security.

The joy evaporated slowly when we were made to wait for three more hours in the waiting area because the plane crew was stuck in the fog trying to make its way to the airport. (We knew we were in trouble the minute the airport staff told us the crew was merely "five minutes" away.)

Thankfully a big screen TV was showing
Star Wars Episode III, which I had previously thought was gory enough to keep my sons away from. However, given the torture that awaited us, I felt inappropriate gore was a highly acceptable option and allowed my two delighted kids to watch. Right after that - after a round of hastily devoured sandwiches packed from home - an impromptu Star Wars club was formed with two other little denizens of the future-fantasy world and one more hour went by comfortably for our sons.

Since the lounge was packed, I had previously asked my wife to pull up a floor and make herself comfortable. A number of false announcements were made regarding the time of departure, each announcement revising the estimate of the previous one. I kept a close eye on the only open chai stand in the lounge. "When he starts packing," I told my wife, "it's time to stand up and get in line". Sure enough, five minutes before we ultimately boarded, the chai stand virtually folded itself in a flash and our friendly vendor all but melted away into the night. It was 3 am when we boarded.

It's cheaper for airlines to make their passengers wait than it is for them to reschedule. So we waited in the plane, the fog thick as milk around us. It was a full four more hours before we took off at 7am. Our kids were snoring like Kumbhkaran. The attendants had hastily given us the only packaged meal to help us ward off immediate hunger. The experienced travelers among us knew we would be one meal short on the flight, so we squirreled stuff away for jet-lag-fueled hunger pangs later.

Then we took off, and our sixteen hour journey began.

We've traveled enough that we eked out a good amount of fun even on that flight. There is always one person who'll grab you on the plane and force you to listen to his successes and triumphs in life. There is always at least one person who is sleeping so uninhibitedly that you have to make up excuses to pass by their seat periodically (it helps maintain the humor). Often you look at the watch and fake yourself out by imagining only 10 minutes have passed, then squeal with delight when you look at the watch to "discover" it's been a full 15 minutes since you last peeked. It all works - you do what it takes to get through.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll list out some lessons we've gleaned over the years in the hope that they will be helpful to you.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Desi Dabba is online!

Sakshi Juneja has started a hugely colorful blog called Desi Dabba that covers topics of interest related to Indian TV. I recently wrote a piece on the desi actors on NBC's Heroes for Desi Dabba and am working on a Friends-related series for the new site, which should be up soon.

Go check it out if you get a chance!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Daisy Kutter: The Last Train

It’s not like WKA (Women Kicking Ass) hasn’t been done before. James Cameron launched the underwhelming career of Jessica Alba as a WKA in the short-lived Dark Angel and more recently J. J. Abrams made a star out of Jennifer Garner in Alias.

We’ve also seen WKA in Westerns in the form or
J. T. Edson’s recurring character of Calamity Jane modeled after the real one, of course. And robots, we are familiar with (anyone remember George Lucas)?

And it s not sci-fi and westerns haven’t been combined either:
Joss Whedon did that on TV (Firefly) and later adapted it to the big screen (Serenity). But a WKA in a sci-fi western? That was a bit new for me, although only just.

Daisy Kutter is like the version of Calamity Jane romanticized by popular literature. She is a reckless adventuress, a sharp shooter with nerves of steel. Her blond hair is curled under her ears, her head covered by a wide-brimmed Wyatt hat decorated by a band made from silver buckles. She has also bid farewell to her former life of robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains and now runs a small supplies store in a small unnamed town. When her job bores her to tears she picks up some toy dart guns and nails every object in the store. Her ex-partner, still romantically inclined towards her, makes her cringe. She dismisses him and consigns him to a heap of other things she wants to forget along with her past. She is desperately trying to turn over a new leaf. But it goes so against her grain that she is clearly struggling.

In the graphic novel
Daisy Kutter: The Last Train, the writer and illustrator Kazi Kibuishi does a marvelous job sketching out the essentials of Kutter’s character using clean, well defined lines PhotoShopped to perfection in various tones of gray. As a writer, Kibuishi has the considerable talent of narrating with short bursts of dialogue, which makes the comic sound both playful and grown up and also frees up precious space to pack in a lot of detailed action.
And as in all good sci-fi westerns, robots show up all over the place and play an important role in the action.

The plot of The Last Train starts off with Kutter being approached by two entities – a human and a robot paranoid about discrimination by humans – who offer her an undisclosed sum of money to rob a train. Kutter refuses and dismisses them. Later, she is drawn into a card game of Texas Hold ‘Em and manipulated into taking up the offer. The rest of the comic shows us the train robbery and its aftermath.

While Kibuishi keeps things entertaining through the series, you get the feeling he misses a few tricks. As a visual medium with the most alternative audience, comics can afford to take a lot of chances and being populated with maverick rebels who enjoy turning things on their heads, stories have become wildly inventive. The Last Train starts off with a promising premise but it is positively staid in its execution. In all cases but one, you can predict the surprise coming from quite a few panels away.

More than the comics themselves (there are four chapters, each of which was published as a separate comic during its first print run), I enjoyed the additional material Kibuishi provides in the graphic novel. There is a small section on how he renders each page that was quite interesting, more so because the illustrator admits that drawing, which is a high point of the novel, is the least favorite part of the process for him.

Later, in the best section of the book, he invites his artist friends to render their version of Daisy Kutter. And in reimagining Kutter in dozens of interesting and unique ways, the artists reveal their styles, preferences, interests and environments. It’s a fascinating study on how different people can use the same medium, dwell on the same topic and come up with such a superb variety of interpretations, no two being the same.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stan "The Man" on Heroes

Anyone who has read comic books, even the young whippersnappers these days, has heard of Stan Lee. Most famouse for creating Spider-Man (and getting embroiled in a highly public hassle with another illuminating talent Jack Kirby), Stan Lee has had his fingers in numerous Marvel creations.

And he tends to make a
cameo in all Marvel productions.

Of his cameos that delighted me the most: in the Ben Affleck clunker
Daredevil, he is saved by a young Matt Murdoch coming to terms with his power. Our man is reading a newspaper and is about to step off the curb oblivious to the oncoming bus. Young Matt stops him with his blind stick. Then in the choppy Brett Ratner helmed X-Men: The Last Stand, he is a gardener befuddled that the water from his hose is travelling upwards (Jean Grey is causing this by having a fit although our man never finds out).

Last night he showed up on Heroes. Lookie, here is Hiro boarding a bus to Las Vegas.

Here is Ando, pleading with Hiro to let him come with. (Hey is that a subtle Vulcan salute there?)

And here is Stan "The Man" Lee, a bus driver. He even gets a line: "Hey young fella, all by yourself?"

You can watch the show on NBC here. Stan shows up in part six.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Introducing Kids to Charlie Chaplin

There is something very captivating about the films of Charlie Chaplin that had me fascinated as a little kid. It wasn’t that they were uproariously funny, although I did come for the slapstick. It wasn’t that they had simple themes, which were easy to understand when I was a 10 year old. It wasn’t to check out how Raj Kapoor had copied Chaplin’s nuances in Awara, although I found that amusing to watch.

More than any of these there was a deep rooted lesson on capitalism and how fragile life could be for people who didn’t have resources. Long after the laughter faded, the lessons on how to laugh even when surrounded by adversity lingered on.

Chaplin’s carefully crafted recurring character of the tramp was perfect to depict those gritty times after World War I. His character survived indifference from the white collars and cut-throat finality from the blue collars. Somehow using his instincts, he managed to eke a triumph of some sorts in his movies. All this was very captivating when you are an impressionable boy growing up. Although films like
Modern Times, The Great Dictator, City Lights or any of Chaplin’s magnificent short films were my favorites, when it was time to introduce his comedic genius to my children, I chose to show them The Kid.

The Kid was released in 1921 and like all Chaplin films is in Black & White and is a silent film. Meta information about the scenes is provided in captions spliced between scenes. Sometimes some heavy handed imagery is used to substitute for words.

In the movie, a mother (Edna Purviance) all but forgotten by the father of her child (Carl Miller) deliberates a life of hardship for her and her newly born child. In a moment of desperation, she leaves the child in a car outside a wealthy looking estate assuming that the child will be looked after by the owners and cared for in style. The car is stolen by two hoodlums, who upon discovering the baby in the car, leave it in a dumpster and drive off with the vehicle. Having had a change of heart, the mother can no longer get in touch with her abandoned child.

Enter Charlie Chaplin taking a luxurious walk across the neighborhood dressed in his least torn clothes, carefully selecting a smoke from among best preserved cigarette butts found on the street and doing his best to avoid trash being disposed off from above. He finds the baby and through a set of comical circumstances is forced to take him home. (These circumstances later inspired similar sequences in the late Indian comedian Mehmood’s tour-de-force Kunwara Baap). Soon the tramp comes to love the child, improvising his care along the way. A full five years later, the kid (Jack Coogan) helps out his surrogate Dad with chores and his business as a window repairman.

In the meantime, the mother has met with success of her own in theater is now a wealthy woman. Alas if she could only have her son back. Haunted by memories of what she did, she now traipses around poor neighborhoods distributing toys to kids. She even stumbles on her own son in this manner, not realizing it of course.

This Manmohan Desai setup gets resolved neatly in the end with the rather naïve simplicity that was typical of movies from the silent era.

Both my sons enjoyed The Kid, but I had to keep up a running commentary for them to answer their questions. Having grown up in the era of plenty, there were some things they just didn’t understand. A sample: why would anyone leave their kid in a car? What is that box the kid had to put a coin in so Chaplin could cook? And why is the kid breaking all those windows in the neighborhood and then Chaplin fixing them? There is quite a bit of emotional ground you have to cover with them. And more importantly, you have to explain how people sometimes bend the rules in order to make ends meet.

Clearly the sequences where the kid is being separated from Chaplin teased out my sons’ abandonment issues. There was much wide-eyed dismay and the overly theatrical acting from Coogan, which squeezes the last bit of juice out of that tragic lemon, added to their agony.

But I felt the movie was a rewarding experience for them. They got past the neatly packaged lessons in Disney movies and were able to explore more complicated themes. They got a great laugh while they were at it because no one did physical comedy better than Chaplin. And they got a nicely packaged happy ending. Most importantly, they are on their way to loving Chaplin as much as I do.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Technology in Alan Dean Foster's Sagramanda

In Alan Dean Foster’s rollicking sci-fi novel Sagramanda, technology has permeated all but the most impoverished levels of the Indian subcontinent. But what makes Foster’s effort noteworthy is that the technology blends seamlessly with Indian life.

Clearly, Foster has spent time trying to understand the country at a subcutaneous level. First, he’s created a technical universe in which the gadgets and effects have been tailored to Indian life. Automatic brewers serve up tea on command. There are inventions that have evolved to deal with vast populations. Myraid models of automated
Marutis traverse the roads. Having taken note of India as a spiritual nation, Foster gives religion a central role to play in the defining of the technology. Sadhus are equipped with narcotic gizmos that induce hypnosis. Virtual 3D images silently enact scenes from epics like the Ramayana in lobbies and museums. A Sikh uses a communicator built into his kada.

Foster deliberately doesn’t offer a date and time in which is story takes place other than it is in the “near-future”. The sophistication of the sorroundings and the comfort with which people deal with them suggests at least a millennia or so in the future. Foster also gives his characters cosmopolitan names and writes somewhere in the style between second and third generation Indian writers. He uses Indian words copiously but translates only a handful of them (usually in the same flowing sentence). The reader is left to decipher the rest based on context.

All these efforts have paid off handsomely, transforming a formulaic thriller into a highly exotic read.

The wireframe of the plot is set in the titular city (although not specifically called out, it bears more than a striking resemblance to
Kolkata) and is as follows: an Indian scientist has absconded from his employers with a revolutionary piece of technology. His name is Taneer and although we are led to understand that the invention is his creation, he’s clearly in it for the money. His girlfriend is Depahli De, a dalit of consummate beauty and boldness. In his quest to sell the secret technology to the highest bidder, Taneer employs the services of Sanjay Ghosh, who runs a shop, dabbles in illegal trade and daydreams of making enough money to be able to send for his wife from the village. The corporation duped by Tanner - anxious to get its enormously expensive secret back - employs a professional problem-solver called Chalcedony Schneermann, half German, half Marathi, nicknamed Chal, who hates India, admires the West and is prone to dramatic violence. The latter character Foster clearly has a lot of fun with.

Those are the essential characters. Somewhat unfortunately, Foster doesn’t stop there. He introduces at least four more with an equal number of subplots. There is a French woman, Jena, who is hacking up people randomly as sacrifice to
Kali, there is a tiger on the prowl and hunting humans in a forest preserve, there is Keshu Jarnail Singh the cop who is investigating the serial killings effected by Jena and finally, Taneer’s father comes to Sagramanda in an effort to eradicate the shame caused to his Brahmin family by his son’s dalliance with a woman of the lowest caste. To his credit Foster ties up all the subplots neatly in the end but while the book runs its course, collectively they serve as distractions. Most notably, Sanjay and Chal are the only characters that feel fully fleshed out.

While Foster keeps moving things along at a fair clip, he doesn’t forget to pause and smell the flowers. His observations about India and how it would adapt to a new century of technology are insightful but also on occasion humorous. In this new age, there is room on the streets for beggars, cows, monkeys, riots and cannibals (who are referred to as Admikhana). It’s a canny way of rooting the story in present-day reality. Of course, Foster presents these so matter of factly without any note of defensiveness that they don't feel stereotypical or exploitative.

Footnote: Important business conversations in India still begin with a discussion of cricket. But other than two tangential mentions of Bollywood, this other Indian obsession is hardly given adequate time in the tome.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Blood and Gore in Marvel Zombies

Having been in our consciousness for so long now, zombies have stopped scaring us. These single-minded, hulking undead creatures – their very flesh rotting so badly that it keeps falling off – are now best presented as either a nostalgia retread (Dawn of the Dead) or plain-out satire (Shaun of the Dead). It’s hard to make a serious minded zombie piece any more – regardless of the medium.

Which is precisely why Robert Kirkman’s
The Walking Dead (Image Comics, 2003) was such a standout. In that graphic novel, Kirkman imagined a world where zombies overwhelmingly outnumber humans. A small set of characters stick together and in the face of overwhelming odds try to escape the backwaters and make their way to Atlanta in order to survive. Laced with the basics of a great soap opera and couched in a vibe of post apocalyptic dread, The Walking Dead was a high profile success for its creators and ostensibly the reason Kirkman was invited to write a romp involving zombies and the beloved characters from the Marvel Comics Universe.

Marvel Zombies is a story set in a parallel universe, which is really an excuse for writers to indulge in some creative storytelling without regard to legacies, both emotional and financial. It’s a perfect landscape for bloodletting, a fact which Kirkman exploits to his advantage. Kirkman also wisely eschews trying to repeat his previous success with a serious storyline. Kirkman injects life into Marvel Zombies primarily by infusing it with so much irreverent gore, that all of it becomes funny.

In the story, an unidentified carrier has spread an infection that converts everyone into a zombie. Most of the Marvel superheroes and villains are now zombies. There are no humans in sight, most probably devoured by the zombies. Unlike most undead you see in popular literature, these Marvel zombies have a range of emotions and can talk...a lot.

They get depressed, bicker, fight among themselves, threaten each other, trash talk their opponents and make detailed medium range plans. All of this centers around their next meal - which consists of anything living they can find.

In the startling opening sequence of the novel, Magneto, a survivor of the plague is chased by a number of Marvel Zombies, including Captain America, Spider-man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Giant Man, Thor and Wolverine. Powerful as he is, the master of magnetism finally succumbs to a bite on his neck from the Wasp. And as he goes down, the former superheroes descend on his body in a feeding frenzy. “I hope you choke on me” cries Magneto the last time you see him.

Illustrator Sean Phillips, relatively unknown in the US but a serious talent, renders the zombies with limp and unfinished lines, displaying them as decaying and physically unraveling. His zombies have glazed white eyes and sharp knitted fangs, their mouths perennially caked with blood. The scenes of carnage are depicted in panels soaked in red and black.

It’s roundly gross and full of pulpy humor.

During a fierce battle with a potential meal, Iron Man is ripped into half and requests a fellow zombie to throw his torso back in the fray so he can grab a bite. Spider-man agonizes over how he had to consume his wife and aunt to curb his cravings. He also gets his leg ripped and has to request Luke Cage to carry him around. Captain America has his own shield thrown at him and gets top of his head neatly sliced. In a later battle, his exposed gray matter is exploited by his archenemy Red Skull.

Kirkman particularly has savage fun with Bruce Banner. Banner transforms himself into the Hulk whenever he is angry, which here happens whenever he is hungry. This is pretty much all of the time. But after the Hulk has fed, the anger settles and Banner returns. This presents a problem, because the large portions eaten by Hulk no longer fit into Banner’s stomach. The stomach bursts open. And then things get really gruesome.

Kirkman finds news ways of tearing down mighty superhumans, showing us how they've lost all sense of heroism and indeed humanity itself. It's a recurring theme in a lot of literature: the best can turn evil in the worst of circumstances.

For all its cleverness, the book remains a bit of a one-trick pony. To appreciate that trick in a way that sustains you through the length of this work, it helps if you are familiar with the Marvel Universe, which is why this is a novel primarily for fans. Having patiently consumed recycled plots in the mainstream Marvel series, fans will likely delight in this diversion.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Valentines, to my beautiful

Once there was a boy who felt lost in this world
Then one day over pizza he met a lovely girl
She fit him like a glove
And showed him real love
She swept up his life in a rainbow-colored swirl

When he needed her she responded with care
Everything he had was hers to share
Together they read
Together they bled
She taught him true love was a lifelong affair

Soon enough they agreed that they should be wed
Bypassing a pundit they went to a court instead
A judge in black coat
Solemnly took note
Of the new life they had chosen to tread

We won't ever have kids! Together they vowed
So they were blessed with two sons, handsome and loud
They knew how to raise hell
But their parents could tell
Their sunny little boys made them happy and proud

Time flew by at a chortling pace
And happiness and sorrow added lines to his face
But when he saw her
He had to concur
She had added nothing to her person but more grace

Was it so special that her beauty was serene
Or that she still appeared in all his daydreams
Then in sudden vein
The answer was plain
His little princess had turned into a shining queen

But amid all the perfection there was one travesty
Alas, she had one huge fault you see
Although she didn't tire
from trying to inspire
She could never teach him how to write good poetry

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Of Snow and Bikes

It's that time in Chicagoland where its well below zero, snowing continuously and you are wrapped up in about four layers of clothing that covers everything but your eyes. You are grunting with the effort of shovelling bucketfuls of snow from your driveway. It occurs to you that maybe, just maybe, this Global Warming phenomenon might be good news. Bring on the climate change you mutter. More thoughts flit in and out of your head: Why would anyone want to live in a place like this? Wait, why am I here? How can I be sweaty and cold at the same time? Why is this a man's lot?

An hour later you let out a sigh of relief. You look back to admire your handiwork. There is another inch of snow on your driveway. You shrug, give up and go inside to brew some chai. At least your kids will have fun.

While at times like this its ridiculous to even think about the outdoors (unless you want to whoop it up on a ski mobile), there are plenty of entertainment options that the area has built up over the years that helps you tide over inclement weather.

Last weekend we were at Cycle World's International Motorcycle Show at Rosemont. There weren't too many kids there, but I thought that was a shame because no one was more excited than my sons and their friends.

First, dozens of motorcycles from dozens of manufacturers, ATVs and scooters dotted the show floor. Apart from a select few machines, the kids could clamber on any of these and pretty much do anything they wanted with the dashboard as long as it wasn't overtly destructive.

A couple of show babes even stopped by and asked the kids if they could take a Polaroid with them. I could see a cluster of Dads nearby wonder why this never happened to them before.

Interestingly enough the booths that scored the most with the kids were the ones run by Harley Davidson and Ducati. Those Harley guys really know how to make big, shiny bikes with really cool seats! And Ducati's floor looked exclusive and showed off their bikes as specialist race machines.

Just for the record, I am neither a fan of snow or motorcycles. But Vespa scooters! Now those I love!

And BTW, the Art Institute of Chicago has free general admission all through February. The boys get to enter and exit through the weapons room, which will tide you over when you have to ask them to be patient walking through the Delaneys and Klimts. As always, don't forget to ask them what they see in each painting - their answers will likely surprise and entertain you.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Woody Allen's Scoop

When you first see Wood Allen in his comic, romantic mystery Scoop, he is Splendini, the magician, launching into a show in front of packed theater somewhere in London. He essays a number of tricks to thunderous applause and the expression on his face is of bewildered amusement. Splendini is surprised as much as he is delighted at the audience reception.

This might well be how Allen reacted to the reception for his last movie, Match Point. Made with $15 million – luxurious by his own standards – and written and directed by Allen, the morality drama bagged $78 million in box office receipts to become the biggest hit of his career. It marked a creative revival for the stagnating multi-hyphenate and made it on a lot of year-end lists as one of the best. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess that Match Point was an Allen film at all – so intense, gripping and tightly framed was it.

A few seconds later in the same scene, Splendini starts talking. And the words tumble out of his mouth, tripping over one another, much like any of Allen’s characters from dozens of movies past. Suddenly you realize, Woody Allen is playing Woody Allen again! At this point, you could have two reactions. You may chuckle with delight, in which case you should - especially if you are doing this on a Sunday afternoon - sit back to have a really good time at the movies. On the other hand if you roll your eyes or emit a soft moan because Allen is doing his usual shtick, then turn the movie off and return the DVD immediately because you’ll be disappointed.

There are two things about Scoop that make it a problematic movie for some audiences.

First, it’s not Match Point. And that’s not a frivolous point to make. Match Point rode on people’s lack of expectations and delightfully jolted them. Many felt Allen had resurrected himself and the movie would mark a creative turning point in his career. For those who held that belief and waited eagerly for his next surprise, Scoop is a return to the type of films he has churned out for years and hence largely a disappointment.

The second issue is, I’m afraid, Allen himself. In a scene in the movie Allen delivers an uproariously funny line to a guest at a party: “I used to be of Hebrew persuasion but I’ve recently converted to Narcissism”. True to that statement, the movie gets consumed by Allen’s personality. To be fair, his presence also gives the movie the light-footedness required to pull off the more implausible aspects of the plot, but the drama, when it arrives, is distinctly low-cal.

The movie is largely informal in its execution, even loose and improvised at times, with very workman-like framing. This allows the actors to act in a theater-like crucible and interestingly, for us to be able to observe the actors closely.

For the record, I quite enjoyed Scoop. Sure it’s unmemorable, but all movies don’t have to be unforgettable. Sometimes just being entertaining enough works quite well.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Frank Miller's 300

In the mid-1980s DC turned to a writer-illustrator from rival Marvel Comics in order to revive its flat lining Batman franchise. Frank Miller, who had worked thanklessly on numerous cheesy storylines for Daredevil, took that opportunity and crafted a Batman who was part hero-part vigilante, with a flamboyant streak of cruelty and who scared the daylights out of his opponents. More importantly, it celebrated this character who didn’t mind bending morality as long as the end result was to his satisfaction. The result was The Dark Knight Returns and it captivated the imagination of readers and energized Batman creatively and DC financially. It was hailed as a seminal event in comic book history.

Years later, Miller returned to pen a sequel
DK2 in which he drove his point home by staging the battering of flagship hero Superman by an aging Batman and his super hero friends.

All of this became part of comic book folklore and Miller’s subsequent works became bestselling events. Some of them, like Ronin and Sin City, were made into movies.

What marks Miller’s work is that each panel he illustrates can pack shards of passion, cruelty, tragedy, bravery, triumph - basic human wreckage. His drawings capture emotion by coding it into how his characters carry themselves, how they present their silhouettes, and above all, the look in their eyes. Beyond conveying essential emotion, the drawings are coarse, the lack of detail providing a singular point of focus.

In his ambitious graphic novel,
300, Miller takes us through the essential events of the Battle of Thermopylae. The battle itself was short but the campaign on either side was a lengthy one, resulting in the later repulsion of the Persian forces at the battle of Salamis. This tale is often presented by Western historians as a triumph of democracy over slavery won in the face of overwhelming odds and treachery. It’s not difficult to extrapolate a whole bunch of racist undertones in this.

There are a few problems with this concept. The Greeks themselves in those days were enthusiastic practitioners of slavery, rapine and other forms of barbarism. They had monarchies as well. They had a harsh culture, especially in Sparta, where babies not worthy of becoming soldiers were killed at birth. Persian culture was fairly diverse and rich, although no one is suggesting that it was superior or less bloody and cruel in any way to that existing in Greece and its neighboring states.

Sure, the map of civilization in the western world would have looked very different if Xerxes had expanded his empire by consuming the states of Greece. And the beginning of the slow decline of the vast Persian Empire can be synchronized back in time to their unsuccessful attempt to subjugate Greece. The significance of Thermopylae can be grasped easily but as we all know, the winners get to write history. Or as in this case, the losers get to lionize their own because of better PR.

300 starts with the Spartans, led by their proud and violent king
Leonidas – already a living legend in his country – leading his men up to the pass of Thermopylae. As the group marches, Miller sketches out the events leading up to the present in flashbacks. This opening sequence maps out a tone of heroism amidst impending doom that runs through the rest of the book.

Miller stylizes his key characters, most notably Ephialtes, depicting him as a horribly disfigured hunchback. He also presents Xerxes I as a lean, hairless, ebony king layered in gold chains. As far as Ephialtes goes, Miller’s depiction is conjecture at best and with Xerxes, it’s downright inaccurate. Events are also jiggered quite a bit in a way that will test your patience if you hold history dear. All of this is quite deliberate, an edgy and admirable artistic license that allows Miller to cover vast storytelling ground in such a shortened format.

Heroic profiles and silhouettes are used to depict the pride of the Spartans. Stories abound of how Spartans bred their men to be the ultimate warriors and their women to be mothers and wives to these men. When Leonidas heads out to the battle from which he will not return, his queen evokes an oft used phrase in Sparta – “Come back with your shield or on it” – implying that you either returned victorious or as a corpse. These themes of ancient masculinity also course through the book.

When depicting the devastating force of the battle itself, Miller’s drawings take on a haunting and unkempt look. They are forceful in their effectiveness. 300 is worth reading if you are a fan of comics or history on either the western or eastern side of the world.

It is also being made into a very striking
motion picture by Warner Brothers to be released on March 9 this year.