Thursday, December 31, 2009

Avatar


Movie Review : Avatar
Released : 2009
Genre : SciFi Adventure
Director : James Cameron
Staring : Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana
My Rating : 10 out of 10

Many many years ago, while growing up in Mumbai, I watched "Star Wars". It was my first movie in a theater with stereophonic sound. That and the visual aspects simply blew me away. And as the sequels happened, I became a life long fan. I agree with a lot of deficiencies pointed out by critics of Star Wars. But to me, they simply do not matter. Star Wars is a fairy tale for adults and an experience to immerse yourself in.

Avatar generates exactly the same feeling in me. And I know there will be critics. I might agree with the objections they would raise. There is very little character development. The movie has a strong political message, about the history of interactions with Native Americans, as well as the desire to go on a war for "minerals". Cameron is repeating some of the "save the planet" message from his own "Abyss". I might shock a lot of people, but there is a certain lack of originality here. Yes, I mean it. The aliens are very human-like, the animals very much like dinosaurs, and the planet is very much earthlike. The plot elements have been seen in many movies, from Disney's "Pocahontas" to Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves". The planet that's alive (kind of) has been used in many SciFi stories. Even certain scenes like jumping in the waterfall have been done numerous times from "Fugitive" to "Anaconda". OK, enough.

So why 10 out of 10 ? Because all the objections listed above don't matter. Of course, more originality would have helped. There is enough imagination to overcome any such defects. But that's not the point either.

This is an experience. I watched it in IMAX 3D. Without 3D or IMAX, the opinion might be drastically different. I don't know. When you are watching the movie as it was intended to be watched, the awe and amazement of the entire package will overwhelm you. The action scenes, the attention to detail, the music and of course the extremely realistic 3D will put you "in there". You will not just be watching it, you will feel it.

The movie is not just action and visual effects. It is strong in the story-telling department. It's easy to root for the natives. We know them more than the human characters. We understand their lifestyles and their desire to protect it. The human characters are extremely single dimensional, but they are mostly villains, so it's OK I guess. It's kind of strange to be happy at the end when aliens win and humans lose.

Will this revolutionize movie making the same way Star Wars did ? I am not competent enough to discuss that. We will know in coming years. I am sure there will be sequels. Good sequels are more of an exception than norm. Unlike Star Wars, this is not a multi-generational saga, at least yet. And Lord Of The Rings is one cohesive story across many books. Here  story has ended, and Cameron will have to invent a continuation, may be another attack by humans. But he has proved that he can do great sequels, "Aliens" and "Terminator : Judgement Day". So I think I should look forward to them.

Please make sure you watch this in IMAX 3D. Movies as game changing as this, do not happen every day. Most kids would enjoy this, but younger ones may get scared once in a while.

Jon Stewart and India

Here are some nice Jon Stewart episodes related to India from 2009.
First about the suspected mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks being caught in Chicago - "Scary Plotter".


The best was about Indian Space Agency discovering water on Moon - "Deep Space Naan".

The one about Shah Rukh Khan was just OK. Nothing great.
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Shah Rukh Khan Detained at Newark
www.thedailyshow.com

Daily Show
Full Episodes

Political Humor
Health Care Crisis

Monday, December 28, 2009

Taken


Movie Review : Taken
Released : 2009
Director : Pierre Morel
Genre : Thriller
Starring : Liam Neeson
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Taken has at its heart, a nightmare scenario for every parent. A son/daughter being kidnapped. To make matters worse, the teenage daughter is kidnapped in a foreign country by a large criminal network, who is not interested in ransom, but selling off the girl for prostitution and then eventual murder.

This time, the parent happens to be an ex-spy who still possesses superhuman skills and great contacts. This aged superhero is racing against time to save his daughter and has to succeed in an amazingly diverse challenges thrown at him by the situation.

These are the kind of movies that require a firm commitment to not raise any logical objection whasoever. If you start thinking then you can find more holes in the plot than there are craters on the Moon. So the director has to make sure that the viewer does not get any time to think. And in this movie, the director succeeds.

He does that, by keeping the movie short, by not wasting any time in any unrelated fluff, by keeping it moving at a very rapid pace and by letting a very good actor take on 90% of the screen time. Casting was extremely important here. Liam Neeson is neither Daniel Craig (James Bond) nor Matt Damon (Jason Bourne). But he is perfect for this role who has to play both a doting father and a skilled mercenary. Everyone else, including the villains and the kidnapped daughter, gets only a few minutes, and manage to not ruin the fun.

I recommend this movie if you are willing to just enjoy a fast and furious 90 minutes of action.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Brief History Of Mind



Book Review : A Brief History Of Mind
Author : William H. Calvin
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond".

With a provocative title (obviously inspired by Stephen Hawking's blockbuster "A Brief History Of Time"), I was very enthusiastic about reading this book. But I came out much underwhelmed after reading it.

The book starts off well. The author is trying to trace the chain of events that must have led to the evolution of our mental abilities. It's mainly anthropology, with some neurobiology sprinkled in. Obviously, we start with investigating behavior of primates and then move along the evolutionary branches.

There is a wealth of information here. The author is trying to explain what must have been the "Big Bang" for our mental abilities. This turns out be the development of language, which seems a very logical conclusion. And it's also one which author arrives at by presenting a strong case.

So why am I not so happy about this book ? I am not a student of anthropology, but it does seem to involve a lot of speculation. That's not a problem to me, because even a lot of cutting age theoretical physics seem speculation to this layman. My problem is about the style of presentation. After reading many chapters, I was wondering, yes, the discussion is interesting, but how exactly does it help the argument move forward ? After reading a chapter, I would go back and read the summary of it in the contents pages, and then would I understand, "Oh, so that's what the point is of this chapter". Considering how short these chapters are, summaries should not be needed, but ironically, it was these summaries that made me understand the point of some chapters.

In many cases, the author presents what we think must have happened, only to discard it quickly, without presenting an alternative. I was not sure, if I was following the chain of reasoning correctly. Hence I didn't always detect a coherent theme and was getting lost once in a while. This reduced the enjoyment of such a nice idea for a book.

As a result, I am very much interested in reading and learning more about anthropology. I remember reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" written by Jared Diamond a few years ago and was extremely impressed with it. I yearn to read a book like that again.

I can only tentatively recommend this book. It's quite good, but it could have been so much better.

Audit The Fed : Response From Senator

I had sent a letter supporting the bill to "Audit the Fed" to both my congressman and senator. I had received a response from the congressman very quickly. It took a while for the senator to respond, but it sure did come.

It doesn't look like Senator Feinstein supports this bill.
Dear Mr. Avachat:

Thank you for contacting me to express support for legislation to increase transparency at the Federal Reserve. I appreciate your interest in monetary policy and welcome the opportunity to respond.

The Federal Reserve was originally established in response to the country's need for a sound and independent central bank to manage decisions relating to U.S. monetary policy. I understand your concern with some of the unprecedented steps that the Federal Reserve has taken recently to ease the flow of credit and stabilize financial markets.

On March 16, 2009, Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) introduced the "Federal Reserve Sunshine Act of 2009" (S. 604), which would require the U.S. Comptroller General to audit the Federal Reserve System before the end of 2010. This bill has been referred to the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a similar bill (H.R. 1207) in the House of Representatives. Please know that I will keep your support for this legislation in mind should it come before the full Senate.

While I recognize the importance of accountability in the operations of the Federal Reserve, I strongly believe that monetary decisions should be made independent of political influence or motives. You may be interested to learn that I supported an amendment to the Congressional Budget Resolution (S. Con. Res. 13) offered by Senator Sanders requiring the Federal Reserve to disclose how it has disbursed emergency economic assistance to financial institutions during this severe economic crisis. Be assured that I am carefully monitoring the actions taken by the Federal Reserve to help stimulate our economy and unfreeze credit for businesses and homeowners.
  
Once again, thank you for writing. I hope that you will continue to share your views with me. If I can be of any further assistance, please contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

      Also, may I take this opportunity to wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. And may 2010 be a good year for us all.


Sincerely yours, Dianne Feinstein
        United States Senator

Further information about my position on issues of concern to California and the Nation are available at my website http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/. You can also receive electronic e-mail updates by subscribing to my e-mail list at http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=ENewsletterSignup.Signup.

Kambakht Ishq


Moview Review : Kambakht Ishq
Language : Hindi
Released : 2009
Director : Sabbir Khan
Starring : Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor
My Rating : Not worth rating

There was a time when I could watch any movie till end, or read any book till the last page. Maybe it's age, may be it's scarcity of time, maybe something else. I cannot waste my precious time on anything now. Beginning of a movie or a book, very quickly gives you an idea of things to come. Based on this, I make a decision to invest more time or not.

Kambakht Ishq, in it's first 15 minutes of pathetic comedy, told me to move on. Maybe the movie turns out better as it progresses. I was willing to bet that it won't. Hence I did not watch it past that point.

Of course, my recommendation is to avoid this movie.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One for the winter

It's been cold and wet here for last few days. Cannot get away this time, so I have to console myself looking at these pictures.







Going to Hawaii in an off season is highly recommended. You will have the entire beach for yourself.






 

Or I could be easily here, in Mexico.





Sigh.

Henry The Cheater

Last world cup, Zidane's heroic effort made it possible for France to reach the finals, only to be overshadowed by his headbutt. I was sorry for France and upset with Italy. Being World Champion, Italy has already qualified, but I am still going to root against them. But now, because of what Henry did, I am not going to root for France as well. Not that my rooting matters, but this is how I feel.

Playing against Ireland in the deciding match to qualify for World Cup 2010, France sneaked through, based on this handball by their best player Thiery Henry. Incredibly, neither the referee nor the linesman saw this. Poor Ireland lost their bid due to Henry's skillful hands.




I know soccer players try to get away with as much as they can. But this is disgraceful. I hope France, along with Italy, does not even make it to the knockout stage in World Cup 2010.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kaminey

Movie Review : Kaminey
Language : Hindi
Released : 2009
Director : Vishal Bharadwaj
Starring : Shahid Kapur, Priyanka Chopra, Amol Gupte
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Vishal Bharadwaj does many things. He is a music composer, director and also writes screenplays and dialogues. To be honest, I have not been a big fan of his work, neither as director, nor as music composer. I thought Omkara was way over-rated and mediocre movie at the most. Fortunately, with Kaminey, he has changed the league and I can use the cliché "has arrived".

This is an interesting story of identical twins - both played by Shahid Kapur. Both have different speech problems. Charlie is a small-time criminal with big dreams. Guddu on the other hand is a simpleton, who is getting married to Sweety - sister of another criminal Bhope (Amol Gupte). Intersecting their story is yet another group of criminals and corrupt police officers. Well, the title is "Kaminey", so you should expect a lot of bad guys here.

Charlie accidently discovers a guitar filled with drugs and wants to score big with it. The corrupt police officers to whom this belongs, capture Guddu by mistake. So a trade is arranged to exchange Guddu and Charlie. What happens after is a heavy dose of crazy confusion.

I should correct that sentence. Even what happens before is crazy confusion. That's how the screenplay is by design. This style of narrative is not uncommon in Hollywood, but is definitely rare in Hindi movies. It requires the viewer to pay close attention and tie the lose ends. This becomes a fun challenge, but it demands a lot from the director and writer. It's a tightrope walk to keep it smart but to not overwhelm the viewer. Vishal Bharadwaj almost succeeds. Almost.

On the plus side, there is not a dull moment in the movie. There is enough whimsical dark humor throughout. It zips and zaps from one scene to another. Acting is very good. A lot will be said about Shahid Kapur, who has to show two very different personalities, and he deserves the praise. All other actors lend admirable support. The real one who deserves a special mention is Priyanka Chopra's portrayal of the fiery, mad-in-love Sweety. She doesn't get as much screen time, but she makes a disproportionately larger impact on the movie. 

There are some problems though. It's way too dark in many scenes to see clearly what's going on. The screenplay tries too hard to be smart and goes overboard. Maybe some scenes were simply deleted by the editor to save on running time. I don't know. For example, the scene in the beginning where the corrupt police officers are waiting in the hotel room after killing someone would only generate "Huh ?" from confused viewers. They could have removed Charlie's dream scenes and explained some more storyline. But I guess it's mandatory for an Indian hero to show off his body. And who killed Bhope's men when they accompanied Guddu at the end to get the stash ? How did the killers know they were there ? Or was it Charlie who killed them ? If the director wants to carry the movie on the road to smartness, he has to avoid such potholes in the plot. The riotous end has some funny moments, but it's another overdone cacophony.

I know that some of the songs are hit. But this is not my type of music. And I think Gulzar should really stop tarnishing his image as a lyricist. Retirement is not that unrespectable.

So I recommend this movie with some reservations. If you don't like dark movies, don't watch this. Even if you do, set your expectations appropriately. This is not a great film, but it's worth watching.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Burn After Reading



Movie Review : Burn After Reading
Genre : Coen Brothers :-)
Released : 2008
Director : Coen Brothers
Starring : George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich
My Rating : 9 out of 10

In all aspects, this is a Coen Brothers' movie. This is how they make movies. Quirky and unpredictable. This is not intended to pigeon-hole their work, but to note that that have a unique unmistakable style of their own. This will also help you decide if you want to watch this movie. Did you like their other movies - especially the ones that came before "No country For Old Men" ?

I am not sure I can capture the synopsis of this tangled tale. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is being demoted from his CIA post. His wife Katie who is already unhappy with this eventually files for divorce. She is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who himself is as dishonest a husband as one can be. In parallel, are Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who work at a local gym and their lives getting curiously tangled with the first set of people. What follows is a mixture of comedy and tragedy.

The brothers keep a very calculated control over this entanglement. The movie never gets more complicated than needed. In spite of never taking itself too seriously, it works on many levels. These people are deeply unhappy, so you feel bad for them. But they are either not-so-nice or dumb-witted, so you cannot really root for them. So you just end of chuckling at their plight (most of the times, not always) and at the same time, you cannot ignore the real social issue that the movie is highlighting in passing.

Helping the brothers make this a wonderful ride is their usual cast of actors (George Clooney, Frances McDormand), and of course Brad Pitt. Both Clooney and Brad Pitt have been given different roles than what you would expect from their personality and both shine. Frances McDormand is as good as she was in Fargo. John Malkovich is delightfully weird.

Overall, I highly recommend this movie. It's quite short - less than 100 minutes. As usual, Coen Brothers have delivered a movie that more than satisfies the desire to watch something different.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dekh Idhar Ae Haseena

For some reason, I have been humming this song today. From the movie "12 O'Clock". It's a Rafi-Geeta Dutt duet. Very nicely sung by Rafi, for Johny Walker. A typical OP Nayyar composition that combines multiple rhythms and tunes into a song. It's a very nice tune, but it's not as famous as other OPN compositions.

But what I like most about this song is the "mukhada". It uses a common theme of traditional Urdu poetry "zulfoN kaa saaya" in a very humorous way.
dekh idhar ae haseenaa, June kaa hai maheenaa,
Daal zulfoN kaa saayaa, aa rahaa hai paseenaa
- Majrooh Sultanpuri

देख इधर ऐ हसीना, जून का है महीना,
डाल ज़ुल्फ़ों का साया, आ रहा है पसीना !
- मजरूह सुल्तानपुरी

The rest of the song is quite normal. Just the "mukhada" is imaginative.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dharm

Movie Review : Dharm
Language : Hindi
Released : 2007
Director : Bhavna Talwar
Starring : Pankaj Kapur, Supriya Pathak Kapur
My Rating : 9 out of 10

The Sanskrit word Dharm is often used in contexts where it can be interpreted as "religion" or "duty" or both. The point being, the right religion is duty and vice versa. The movie "Dharm : Come, Question Your Faith" stays true to this theme and forces the viewer to accept the broader meaning of "Dharm".

Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur) is a famous, scholarly priest. He practices what he preaches, hence even his adversaries respect him. He is not afraid to say the truth, has no political ambition and simply wants to live an austere life according to his interpretation of "Dharm". He has a loving wife and an obedient daughter. Together they are happy in their simple life.

One day a woman hands her baby to Pandit Chaturvedi's daughter and vanishes. She brings the baby to their home and assures her father that the baby is of Brahmin cast. When the police cannot find the mother, Panditjee wants the baby sent to a proper orphanage. But his wife and daughter are already attached to the infant and somehow convince him to keep the baby. As days and months pass by, he himself gets attached to the child. A father-son bond develops between the kid and the priest. And we see that the stern priest has a soft heart inside him. Then the real mother comes back to claim her child.

Not only is this a blow to the family, but a much harsher shock to the Pandit, as the boy's real mother is anything but Brahmin - she is a Muslim. The weeping boy - named Kartikeya by Panditjee himself - is sent off with his real mother. Now Panditjee has to fight to keep his social status. His real fight, though, is with himself. His belief system is at severe odds with his fatherly affection and tests every single drop of his resolve. But when the Hindu-Muslim riots break out, he realizes the true meaning of Dharm.

This is a simple and very powerful theme. Director Bhavna Talwar handles it without melodramatic cliches and remains very honest with the sensitive nature of the subject. She does not use the priest to preach wordy messages to the audience. Beautifully shot, everything in the movie feels real - the setting, the people, and the dialogues.

Of course, as important as the director is the lead actor. Pankaj Kapur gives a towering and flawless performance. The movie is centered on the character of Pandit Chaturvedi and his internal struggles, and Pankaj Kapur lives the part. Even his long silent moments on the screen convey his every single feeling clearly to the viewer.

I absolutely recommend this film. It's a slow paced feature without any entertainment. But it's immensely satisfying.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Unknwon Quantity



Book Review : Unknown Quantity
Author : John Derbyshire
My Rating : 4 out of 5 star

The complete title of the book is "Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra".

John Derbyshire is a brave author. He first had the audacity to write Prime Obsession, about Riemann Hypothesis and make it accessible to an average reader. He was immensely successful. In this book, he is trying to pull off the same trick about entire Algebra.

He starts with very primitive - by today's standards, but no small feat then - algebra that existed in Fertile Crescent. From there, he proceeds to solving general polynomial equations and complex numbers. Things get more abstract, as he moves on to vector spaces, groups, fields and other advance topics such as category theory.

This is a significantly harder undertaking. He has to cover a lot of history and a lot of math. Derbyshire is a master at mixing these two aspects. Great anecdotes and biographic sketches are delightfully mixed with mathematical explanations. We all learned algebra in school. But we hardly learned anything about the mathematicians who advanced the theory. This book will fill many, if not all of those gaps.

But eventually the scope of the topic is just too immense to be covered in one book. I think that will restrict the target audience. You have to be really interested in math to enjoy this book. I am, and long time ago when I was doing my graduate studies, algebra was my favorite subject. Still that really was long time ago, and it was not easy to follow the latter half of the book. But if you want to learn why groups and fields are important (and interesting), this is very good gentle introduction.

This is a wonderful book, but you have to be willing to work with it. Even if you just want to browse the historical sections and skip the math, there is a lot to enjoy here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

They Really Said It ! [7]

Today was Bernanke's reappointment hearing with Senate Banking Committee. Nice day to walk down the memory lane. Did he save the economy ? Or did he make it worse ? I think he has made it worse, although the problems of the Fed balance sheet will become clear only in future. No matter what you may think of him, history will associate his legacy with one infamous remark
At this juncture, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.
To this Jim Grant responded, "They are contained to planet earth" !

Not much point detailing all mistakes of Chairman Bernanke. This famous video is more than enough.



Reelecting him reminds me of the joke, where people kept requesting "once more" to the singer - not because he sang it great, but because they kept hoping maybe he will get it right with practice !

Audit The Fed : Response from Congressman

I received the following response for my letter about auditing the Fed.

November 30, 2009

Dear Abhay,

Thank you for contacting me in support of H.R. 1207, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009. I appreciate learning your views, and I welcome your input.

Congress created the Federal Reserve System in 1913 to serve as the country's central bank. The Federal Reserve regulates the banking industry, provides services to banks, and also plays a central role in the nation's monetary policy. The Federal Reserve acts as an independent entity to minimize political influence on its decision making.

The Federal Reserve has played a significant role in our national response to the recession, and ensuring transparency at the Federal Reserve is an important objective. H.R. 1207 requires an audit of the Federal Reserve System, and the bill was referred to the House Committee on Financial Services, of which I am not a member. Should this legislation receive a vote by the House of Representatives, I will keep your opinion in mind.

Thank you again for expressing your views. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of additional assistance. To learn about other issues that I am working on in Congress, I encourage you to visit my website at www.mcnerney.house.gov

Sincerely,

Jerry McNerney
Member of Congress


Please do not reply to this message as the mailbox is unattended.
If you wish to contact me again, please visit my website at http://mcnerney.house.gov.

Maybe this is a token and standard response. But hey, at least they listen. They may completely ignore it later, but I must say that I was pleased with the response.

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3


Movie Review : Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Released : 2009
Director : Tony Scott
Starring : Denzel Washington, John Travolta
My Rating : 5 out of 10

I have not seen the original movie of which this is a remake. So judging this just by itself, I found this move nothing more than average.

This is one of the many thrillers that Hollywood can churn without much effort. There is a bad guy (Travolta) who takes a train hostage, demands lot of money and will negotiate only with the other protagonist (Denzel Washington). Does it sound exciting new idea ? Didn't think so.

With this kind of routine plot, the film needs a lot more than routine sequences to rise above average. The bad guys shouts a lot, kills people in cold blood to make his point, disburses intelligent thoughts to the good guy and has hidden motives. Nothing new here. Oh, and the good guy is not all good, he has made mistakes too. And he is willing to bravely confront the bad guy in order to redeem himself. OK. Let's just say that this is not exactly an imaginative setting.

So does the film offer anything else ? Whatever the bad guy says, only helps give clues about himself and his motives. Not a very smart villain. Is he menacing, evil, disturbing ? Unfortunately John Travolta fails to scare us. I was actually bored by his performance.

What about the good guy ? Well, now that's one positive point, because Denzel Washington is very convincing in his performance. He keeps the viewer interested. Interestingly, since the villain is so lame, the side characters manage to add something to the movie. James Gandolfini as the Mayor of New York shines in his small role.

With the action not so exciting, and the humor not so funny and dialogues not at all smart, and plot having way too many convenient co-incidences, there is little reason to watch this movie. It's not a complete waste of time - it's a very short movie. So if you are in a mood for some quick entertainment where you don't have to be very attentive, go for it.
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