Monday, April 18, 2011


Of Monarchs and Mutinies

Some people just cannot take a hint. Now I’m a monarchist through and through (mostly when the monarch is Colin Firth) but what is it about these positions of absolute power that blinds people so effectively against glaringly obvious facts? The Bourbons in France were not overthrown in one day, or even during the reign of one monarch. Neither were the Romanovs in Russia. The assassination attempts, the pamphlets and the howling mobs ought to have given them some idea that perhaps, JUST perhaps their subjects were somewhat dissatisfied. And yet, these monarchs did nothing– they carried on with their opulent, decadent parties, their fabulous dresses and commissioning their bejewelled Fabergé eggs as if nothing was wrong. Did they underestimate their enemies? Were they too insulated from the populace? Were these revolutions were fomented by power-hungry rivals? Were they just weak rulers? Call it the relentless march of time or tide or whatever, but these rulers became so completely disconnected with their subjects, that they were rendered obsolete.


The Last Emperor

Confession: This is one of my all-time favourite movies, so this won’t be so much a review as much as gushing, effusive praise for a work of art that captures the spirit of an era so beautifully. I bawl every time I watch it.

The Last Emperor is an accurate-ish biopic of the last Chinese emperor, Aisin Gioro Puyi, who became Emperor at the age of 2, till the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 after which he was forced to abdicate and was eventually tried for war crimes and collusion with the Japanese during WW II, and imprisoned. The film chronicles roughly 3 parts of his life: his childhood and youth in the Forbidden City and his friendship with an Englishman, Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), his reinstatement as a puppet emperor by the Japanese and his imprisonment as a war criminal for Japanese atrocities in Manchuria and the last of his days as a gardener.

Told in flashback, Puyi remembers his life before he became just another citizen to be “reformed”. He reminisces of a time when he was the Son of Heaven, when every one of his wishes were a command, when he had a host of servants, soldiers and eunuchs who waited on him hand and foot. What the innocent little boy Emperor didn’t know was that he had ceased to be the emperor of a vast nation, and now ruled only the increasingly isolated island of the Forbidden City.

Perhaps that is how it happened, or perhaps the film-makers had to ensure that the film didn’t offend Chinese government sentiments, but the film was a revelation as to how inevitable the revolution had become in China. When Puyi became emperor, he was part of a decaying monarchy that was in its last throes and he didn’t have the smallest clue as to the boiling sentiments of outrage outside the walls of the Forbidden City. Be it conniving servants, power hungry ministers or simply their own attitude, Puyi and the monarchy were almost completely shielded from the outside. Oh, the Forbidden City was quite the paradise: servants to do every bidding, beautiful toys, priceless works of jade and other trinkets. But it was nothing more than a pretty prison, and the monarchy did not even realize it until it was too late.

The film is pervaded with this air of sadness and the terrible knowledge that all things must come to an end. That’s because the narration of the story is purposely told as a recounting of the follies of youth, and that haunting soundtrack adds so much to the atmosphere. As Puyi narrates his story, you alternately want to wring his neck or pity him and hug him and wish he had not been born as the last emperor of China. In one scene, young Puyi is upset that his wet nurse to whom he had become very attached was sent away, and he solemnly says, “But she is not my wet nurse, she is my butterfly.

Yes, mostly just hug him.

Post Script: I also wanted to add a review of a really good French Revolution movie to make this post a (somewhat) list, because who better than the Bourbons for a good example of Ruling Dynasty In Need Of Being Taught A Lesson? But I was unable to find one: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was pretty average; I could not get my hands on a copy of Start the Revolution Without Me; I could not find the time to obtain Danton; and my copy of Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise was unwatchable because the subtitles and video were out of sync. At one point, a leader of a regiment barked this command to his troops, “My dear Guemigny, pass me the wine.”

Since my knowledge of French is limited to “Où est l’ambassade?” and other delightful guidebook phrases, I’m just going to admit defeat, say “C’est la vie” and practise my Gallic shrug.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

SPLICE (2010)

I can't handle horror movies and I usually avoid them like the plague. But there is the occasional film that has such a promising plot that I feel compelled to see (like Daybreakers (2009) or The Orphanage (2007)). I just got back from watching Splice and decided that I might as well write the review immediately, because I'm not going to sleep tonight. Or ever.

Splice is about a scientist couple who perfect animal gene splicing and now want to push the boundaries and try human-animal splicing. Their funders refuse to touch such a morally and scientifically complex subject matter, but the couple decide to do it anyway in secret. And Dren is born.

Dren is such a superb creation that, as she beguiles you with her charming face and rosebud lips, she horrifies you with her stinging tail. She has that beautiful innocence of childhood in her eyes, but there is an inherent creepiness lurking beneath that sweetness. Her face is human, but her motions are quick, animalistic and predatory. She displays some utterly human emotions but then she has these horrendous bat wings. She was created with the sole intention of making the film-goer thoroughly uncomfortable (mission accomplished). No movie creature has evoked such disparate feelings in me, in a while. You may feel a changing range of emotions towards her: pity, love, fondness and loathing, but you always fear her. Perhaps because she represents the unknown. Or perhaps because she has bat wings and a scorpion tail.

She seems to have been (intentionally or otherwise) modelled on a figure from Bronzino's painting, "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time". The figure I'm referring to is allegorical and has widely been interpreted to represent Deceit or Pleasure and Fraud. Very apt for Dren.

It's pretty hard to ignore the incestuous frenching and nippy-tweaking in the painting, isn't it? Again, this is incredibly relevant for Splice, because there are some scenes which will grab your eyeballs and make you squirm in your seat/ laugh nervously. And yet, like the Bronzino painting, it is important to remember that while the mother and son making out takes centre stage, the REAL story is being told in the background.

For a horror movie, Splice had surprisingly complex characters, especially the scientist couple for whom the movie-makers managed to create a very believable background. The inconsistency of human behaviour, where, in one day we manage to oscillate between calculating scientist, manipulative trickster, doting parent and product of our parents' insecurities is compellingly portrayed by Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley. Without realizing it, they become parents to Dren: the former reluctantly and the latter very eagerly. But as Dren grows up and experiences adolescent sexual urges, her relationship with her mother becomes fraught with envy, hate and frustration and she becomes infatuated with her father. Like all adolescent girls, she acts out (except, this adolescent has superhuman strength and a stinging tail). Most of us vow to never be like our parents, but one day you realize how much you are like your parents. Polley and Brody's response to Dren and her flashes of humanity are spot on and their devolution from scientist to parent to sexual being is a treat to watch.

No doubt this film will be viewed as a Frankenstein-esque cautionary tale about humanity's relentless march towards morally ambiguous discoveries and inventions. But interestingly enough, the movie does not decry scientific progress as dangerous; rather, it views progress as necessary and inevitable. The real questions posed are, are we wise enough to enter these uncharted waters? Can we be objective? The moment a creature whimpers or looks up at us with Disney eyes, can we stop ourselves from going, "awww"? On the other hand, if a creature is repulsive or bears traits of traditionally hated animals, can we resist the urge to pick up a shotgun and end it? Is our humanity a stepping stone or an impediment to truly discovering the meaning of biology and life?

At the end of the day, despite the cleverness this film displays at moments, it is a horror movie, so expect plenty of "Boo!" moments and why-the-hell-did-I-decide-to-watch-this-movie-alone moments, especially in the second half of the movie. You will hear complaints from many quarters that the second half degenerated into a typical horror flick. I don't think that was necessarily a bad thing: the set up in the first half is so well done, that the "mindless" second half becomes all the more fraught with excitement.

But more than just scaring you, this movie intends to provoke you, make you awfully uncomfortable and question your deep-seated fears. In the harsh, comforting light of day, one realizes that the movie makes some large leaps in character growth and sacrifices many established developments in order to give you a good and proper scare. Even so, if movies like Splice and Daybreakers are the future of the horror genre, then all you freak shows who "enjoy" horror films are in for a treat. Which is why I wholeheartedly recommend Splice to horror aficionados and people who aren't affected by horror elements in movies. For fellow milquetoasts, I assure you there is no need for bravado.

After the movie, I strongly felt the need for a shower to wash off the ick, but everybody knows that in a horror movie, the bathroom window is exactly the kind of thing a human-animal hybrid would burst through, and wiping the condensation off the mirror will only reveal the creature standing behind you, so I don't think I'll be showering ever again.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gleecap : Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)

(as appearing on


Image above (and on article thumbnail) is from nicknicalou's photostream on Flickr.

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I kick off a series of monthly episode-wise reviews of the pop-culture phenomenon that is Glee with the one that began it all.

Now, pilot episodes of television shows are difficult enough to craft, what with having to give a solid introduction to the show, establish its tone, and give a reason for harsh network executives to think that the darn thing is worth it. In the case ofGlee, that involved having to sell a musical dramedy set in a small town with big dreamers - quite a burden and one that the episode winningly acquits itself of.

Will Schuester is a soaring idealist of a teacher, now nearing burn out with a dead-end job and a high-school-sweetheart-turned-pessimistic-nagging-wife. When the McKinley High School’s present Glee Club instructor is fired for sexual harassment, he jumps at the chance to relive his own glory days by making the now-only-for-losers Glee Club into a force to be reckoned with again.

He has no idea, of course, what he’s signed up for.

In quick succession, starting with the auditions for the Glee Club optimistically titled “New Directions”, we’re introduced to the characters of the show: Kurt who’s obviously gay, Mercedes who’s obviously got quite an attitude, Tina who’s obviously … weird, the wheelchair bound Artie, and of course, Rachel Berry. Rachel’s got two gay dads, enough ego, and star power to fuel an entire town’s worth of auditorium’s, and this very first episode does a great job of showing us how one of the central conflicts of the show will be reconciling Rachel’s self-proclaimed destiny for greatness with that of the Glee club’s.

Soon enough, star quarterback Finn finds himself blackmailed into joining the club (kids, this is no High School Musical), while the chief antagonists of “New Directions” are revealed. Sue Sylvester’s portrayal of a ruthless cheerleading coach is one of Glee’s wonders, as are the performances of rival club Vocal Adrenaline.

Glee cast

The cast of Glee. Clockwise from back left - Mark Salling (Puck), Kevin McHale (Artie), Lea Michele (Rachel), Dianna Agron (Quinn), Amber Riley (Mercedes), Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina), Chris Colfer (Kurt) and Cory Monteith (Finn).

Image above is from Gudlyf's photostream on Flickr.

Creative Commons License

And now for the songs:

1) Respect - Mercedes (Aretha Franklin)

Hell yeah! Mercedes gives us her first diva-belt-blast-of-goodness in style. She definitely has my r-e-s-p-e-c-t all right.


You can listen to a preview of Mercedes’ Respect here.

2) Mr. Cellophane - Kurt (Chicago OST)

Kurt’s solo does a great job of telling us about his sexuality (he likes Broadway and look at that fabulous dress sense) and introduces us to those impeccable upper registers, as he holds a breathtaking note without breaking a sweat.


You can listen to a preview of Kurt’s Mr. Cellophane here.

3) I kissed a Girl - Tina (Katy Perry)

Tina’s not the best singer on the show, but her voice is perfectly made for certain songs, which the show will later learn to utilise well. For now though, the only thing that works here is the attitude. Oh well.


You can listen to a preview of Tina’s I kissed a Girl here.

4) On My Own - Rachel (Les Miserables)

The other Broadway selection lets you know who Kurt’s diva-rival is going to be and by getting her own intro interspersed with the performance, Glee let’s you know who its star is going to be too. Great vocals - obviously.


You can listen to a preview of Rachel’s On My Own here.

5) Sit Down (you’re rocking the boat) - Cast (Don Henley)

The first number that the Glee club performs is a bit of a joke of course - and not simply because the lead solo “is by a boy in a wheel chair, Mr. Schue!!” As those kind of performances in the show’s universe goes, this is somewhere in the mid-range.


You can listen to Glee cast’s Sit Down here.

6) I Got Chills - Rachel, Finn and New Directions (Grease OST)

Another song played more for laughs than for anything else, but the arrangement is a fun toned-down version of the original, the looks on everyone’s face, particularly as Rachel does her Newton-John with Finn’s Travolta, are hilarious, and its capped off by Mercedes’ great “Hell to the no -”

4.5/ 5

7) Rehab - Vocal Adrenaline (Amy Winehouse)

The debut performance of the competing Glee club is capped off by a camera panning across the faces of the horrified New Directions members, as they realise just how formidable their competition is. It’s justified - this is a brilliant arrangement of the Amy Winehouse smash hit, with some fantastic choreography that makes you look forward to the next great Vocal Adrenaline number.


You can listen to their cover of Rehab here.

8) Don’t Stop Believing - New Directions (Journey)

Iconic. This performance - and this song - are the heart of the show, the furious cry of small town dreams fighting to be realised, with New Directions making their first bid towards preparation for the Sectionals competition, the centre of the Glee-verse. Great, soaring vocals and one hell of an emotional punch.


You can listen to the Glee cover of Don’t stop believing here.

I’m going to give this episode a 4.5/ 5 overall. A great job of setting the tone - even though, as the next few episodes will show, that this very tone is gloriously inconsistent, sometimes even within the same episode.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grey’s Anatomy : Song beneath the Song

(as published on

One thing you’ve got to say for Grey’s Anatomy : it doesn’t lack ambition. By the time most shows hit their seventh season, they’re running on fumes, going through the motions, limping to the finish line. And yet, this here is the season where the show has experimented with a documentary format, given us a 24-style real-time episode, and now, with Song beneath a Song, taken a hop, sing and audacious jump into musical territory.

First things first - no, this experiment isn’t entirely successful, There is something oddly jarring about the way the music is incorporated into the proceedings, and the song selections themselves can be annoyingly literal. Paradoxically though, those song choices are also what the epsiode should be lauded for : instead of going into uncharacteristic Broadway territory or manufacturing original tunes, the showrunners go with the interesting decision of utilizing the indie songs that Grey’s popularized in the first place. Snow Patrol, The Fray, Kate Havenik - they all jump out of the background and into the mouths of the Seattle Grace doctors. Again, I say “interesting” only, because the problem simply is that a lot of these songs worked better as subtext, faint underlines to a scene, as opposed to coming forward as the focal point and calling attention to themselves.

Any which way, if you’ve fallen off the Grey’s bandwagon (!) or were never really on to begin with (!!) here’s the gig : we’re dealing with a hospital drama, where patients’ various afflictions often play out as metaphors to our doctors’ increasingly tangled love lifes. At the start of this particular episode, late in the seventh season, lesbian couple Arizona and Callie’s marriage proposal is rudely interrupted by their car crashing into a truck, sending unbuckled Callie hurtling through the windscreen. The near comatose state of Callie then serves as the catalyst for the musical portions of the episode : in her out-of-body experience, characters externalize their thoughts into song. My favourite musical moment of the episode plays out in the opening scene, with a smart nod to the show’s old theme song -

Nobody knows where they might wake up

- sings out-of-body Callie to her bleeding broken version. As a longtime fan, I nodded vigorously in approval.

Also earning my hearty approval was the first full blown musical number, a wonderful arrangement of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars : as Callie is rushed through Seattle Grace’s corridors, her ethereal self starts the song, to be joined in by other characters in the second and third verse, a great slow build of emotional intensity. Sara Ramirez highlight’s Callie’s anguish beautifully here, even as the lyrics of the song lend them self to generous re-interpretation given the scene.

Then, sadly, it all goes downhill. As the episode continued, I find something happening which is very rare an occurrence when I’m watching either a musical or a Grey’s Anatomy episode : I got bored. Like I mentioned above, try as you might, the kind of indie music the show uses so well works as a great background score. That very music underwhelms when its brought to the fore, aggravated by a series of not-very-smart musical choices. One of the biggest offenders is Gomez’s How we Operate, amongst the more painfully literate and cringe-worthy song choices that shoehorns its way into the proceedings during a meeting to, well, decide how the doctors will infact operate. Kate Havenik’s beautiful Grace becomes simply creepy when its sung by ethereal Callie sitting on TOP of comatose Callie as she’s rushed towards the operating room for the final time. It goes on.

SO , yes, this episode isn’t a complete success. That said, it redeems itself quite a bit by the dual power jolt of performances in the final ten minutes. First, we get a rousing performance of Fray’s How to Save a Life, which really needs to become the show’s new theme song. As the crew of Seattle Grace rally together in the operating room locked in that last battle to save Callie, the song gets the ensemble treatment with one doctor after another joining in, the verses slowly building up, punctuated by the appropriate gravitas, until in the final power chord (spoiler alert !), not one, but two lives are saved. Then, in the closing moments of the episode, Sara Ramirez knocks it out of the park with “The Story” by Brandi Carlile - the one true pop song in the mix that really makes use of her wonderful vocal range. She strides through the corridors of the hospital, giving you goosebumps with a Broadway-caliber performance, and you sigh, thinking of what could’ve been.

Friday, April 1, 2011


The Discriminating Dissident’s Essential Movie List

1. The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Adored by film students and dumb charades aficionados alike, The Battleship Potemkin is one of those game-changing films that, even today inspires film-makers. For the first time, film-makers took the camera off its tripod and explored angles. This film also experimented with montages and film editing techniques to maximise audience empathy.

Apart from its technical achievements, it is important to watch Potemkin in the right context. When this movie was made, the Tsar of Russia had been dead for 8 years and Stalin was consolidating his power. It is also important to remember that Potemkin was a government supported propaganda film; every single frame was designed to have the greatest emotional impact on its audience. And it achieves that objective most effectively. I haven’t felt such socialist stirrings since my Law and Poverty course in college. I began to see Rasputins, Tsar Nicholases and Stolypins among the characters that represented the Establishment.

In 1905, the worker uprising had begun. Disgruntled sailors onboard the imperial battleship, Potemkin want to join the workers. But the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was rotten meat. Putrid, maggot-ridden meat is served to the sailors in their borscht, despite their vehement protests. When the sailors refuse to eat it, the Captain threatens to have them all shot. But one sailor, Vakulinchuk makes an impassioned speech and the sailors are so moved that they take up arms. But in the ensuing fight, Vakulinchuk is killed. He instantly becomes a martyr, the man who was “killed for a plate of soup”.

So shaken are they by his death that even the people of the port town, Odessa, flock to see this martyr’s body. Suddenly, all the people who never wanted to get drawn to either side of the revolt realize that the battle lines have been drawn by Vakulinchuk’s death and have to pick a side.

The movie’s most iconic sequence, The (dreaded) Staircase of Odessa, where a robot-like troop of Cossasks brutally murder the townspeople, including women, children and the infirm is horrifying and riveting. As I watched it, I thought, “Clichés much?”: woman carrying dead son, pram with baby rolling down a set of stairs, weeping old woman, the unfeeling military types marching on relentlessly. Except, you realize that all these devices were used for the first time ever in the history of cinema. It is the cinematic equivalent of watching the creation of Adam and Eve, and it takes your breath away.

2. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Really, do yourself a favour and don’t watch this movie. Unless you have three sleepless nights (and three ensuing unable-to-work days) to spare. Damn you, Gillo Pontecorvo with your exquisite film-making technique and Ennio Morricone with your haunting soundtrack. If that scene where a man is tortured to reveal an insurgent hideout and then just sits there, with his dark, tear-filled eyes burning with hate and shame for himself keeps me awake for one more night, you will owe me a job.

Often called the greatest revolution movie ever made, The Battle of Algiers is about clashes in the city of Algiers between the native Algerians (a mostly Arab population) and French settlers during the Algerian War of Independence. But the depiction is so brutally realistic that it could have been a revolutionary war set anywhere in the world, at any point in history. In fact, the Holy Wikipedia says that this movie is regularly screened for counter-revolutionary and armed forces personnel to understand the nature of guerilla warfare.

Perhaps the most refreshing feature about this movie was that, it practically danced on a knife edge between the two sides. The movie never makes any sort of judgment about whose reasons for murder and arson were better. You do what you do for what you believe in, and you must accept all the consequences (this is precisely why I excluded movies about revolutionaries in this series; film-makers often get infatuated by their characters and feel compelled to rose-tint them a little bit).

War is not pretty and rarely fair. I believe it was Chairman Mao who said, “Revolution is not a tea party”, and how right he was. If you watch this film expecting some sort of justification for armed rebellion or torture by armed forces, expect none. This movie was designed to make you uncomfortable about any side you pick, because there are always consequences. Innocent infants and mute spectators die on both sides and fresh-faced, earnest young men are among the guerillas and the soldiers. The revolution leader is a brilliant strategist who makes zero moving speeches five minutes before the climax and the head of the counter-revolutionary force is not the standard issue army sadist (I’m looking at you, Colonel Quaritch), but was once part of the French Resistance himself.

A number of scenes are bound to strike a chord, even today. The water boarding scenes and some scenes which were awfully reminiscent of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, are a reminder that more than 50 years later, almost nothing has changed.

3. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

If you were in a rebel army and found a traitor in your midst, you would have him shot, right? But what if the traitor was your lifelong friend? Or your brother? What of your principles then? This pain of so many families and friends opposing each other during the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s is not an uncommon theme in Irish literature.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is the story of two brothers, Teddy and Damien who are leaders of a brigade in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). But once the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 is signed, they find themselves on opposite sides. Although sympathetic to the IRA and their demands of complete independence, this movie’s great strength was the heart it brought into a political event. The feuding brothers are an obvious allegory of the Irish Civil War, but that doesn’t make their relationship clunky or unsubtle, but their affection for each other and the strength of their convictions are extremely believable.

I always assumed that the British soldiers were dickish towards only brown people and orientals. However, if this movie is anything to go by, apparently this was a general attitude problem in the British army. Say what you will, but they really knew how to work their divide and rule policies. An enemy who is different is easily opposed. But fighting your neighbours and third cousins? Messy. They let the IRA have everything within an inch of their demands, then sat back and watched them destroy themselves over that inch. Some felt that this was a chance for peace in Ireland; others felt that this was just putting a calico frock and lipstick on a pig. And this sort of thing happens on a regular basis. The Suffragette movement in Britain, the Indian National Movement and so many others suffered the same problem. Everybody starts off with the same oaths of freedom and liberty, except, nobody can actually agree on what those words mean.

I’ll leave you to ponder these perturbing questions over a hearty Irish rebel song.