Saturday, February 19, 2011

And the Oscar goes to ....

For Hollywood, 2009 was all about the nine-foot blue humanoids in Avatar and the misplaced bravado of a US soldier in Hurt Locker. Barring Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio tries the ultimate heist by hijacking human dreams to extract information, 2010 is more human: a man is caught between a rock and hard place (127 Hours); a ballet dancer bites off more than she can chew (Black Swan); a junkie who wastes his boxing talent on drugs achieves glory through his brother's antics in the ring (The Fighter); two homosexual mothers go through emotional upheaval with the re-entry of the sperm donor into their unconventional family (The Kids Are All Right); King George VI overcomes his bad stutter (and how) with the help of a ridiculously indefatigable speech therapist (The King's Speech); Mark Zuckerberg is the equivalent of a moustache-twirling villain in an unflattering take on his Facebook journey (The Social Network); a bunch of toys face an uncertain future as their owner is about to go to college (Toy Story 3); a 14-year-old exacts revenge on her father’s killer with the help of a bounty hunter in a Western drama (True Grit);and a 17-year-old has shoes too big for her to fill after her father goes incognito and mother becomes increasingly withdrawn, leaving her with two siblings to take care of and a mountain of debts to clear (Winter’s Bone).

Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is a major improvement on his Slumdog Millionaire and James Franco’s gut-wrenching portrayal takes the film to a different level but the uneven last 45 minutes might not find many takers in the Academy. Black Swan is a fabulous showcase for Natalie Portman's histrionics but, barring that, the movie gets unnecessarily dark, with ballet peeling off Portman's skin and a faux lesbian relationship that doesn't pack the required punch. And just when you thought the boxing movie genre couldn’t go beyond its grand-daddies, Raging Bull and Rocky, David O Russell comes up with The Fighter, an otherwise oh-so-predictable boxing movie saved by its multiple layers, including a crumbling sibling relationship, a blow-hot-blow-cold love affair and a boxing match that has a lot at stake (don’t they all?). If anything, the Academy might overlook this gritty drama for its intimate American setting.

The Guardian was scathing in its appraisal of Inception, terming it “an intelligent movie for stupid people.” However, barring any David Lynch flick, only Nolan managed the near-impossible: have people talking about it long after the movie was over. However, Inception will find it hard to get an Academy nod, considering it’s not suffused with emotions, compromised for the delectable action sequences. The Kids Are All Right will likely remain a nomination and, more important, a little gem of 2010. Christopher Hitchens sneered at it as “a gross falsification of history” and the pedant in Martin Filler was aghast that it ignored the fact that its subject was considered a “nitwit” and a “moron.” But whatever the experts say, Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth give The King's Speech an air of jocularity even in the grimmest parts.

The Social Network is a rich, understated character drama about one of the internet era’s most bitter court cases. Though the main characters come from the rarefied worlds of Harvard and Palo Alto, director David Finch renders them human. Toy Story 3 was last year’s top grosser at the box office but the Academy might give it a thumbs down for its denouement, which would have been better off as a delicious tangle than a neat bow. Coen Brothers’ take of a successful Western film, True Grit is not a No Country For Old Men but it affirms that no material is elusive in their able hands. The remaining nomination, Winter’s Bone, will win the viewer's heart, if not an Oscar. Think of the hillbilly flick as 2010’s Precious, sans the incest and racial overtones.

My bet: It has to be The King's Speech but the preferential balloting introduced in 2009 — in theory, “the movie with the largest number of votes in first place can lose to a film with a strong second-place showing” — can be its biggest undoing


Black Swan may not be Darren Aronofsky’s ticket to Oscar glory but it cements his position in the pantheon of Hollywood mavericks like Todd Solondz, David Cronenberg and Lars Von Trier, while with True Grit, Ethan and Joel Coen come up with a cinematic picaresque adventure that can put Don Quixote to shame. David Fincher, the man behind Fight Club and Zodiac, would be the last person expected to piss on Mark Zuckerberg’s parade but piss he did with The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue is aptly complemented by Fincher’s direction — restrained, except for an exhilarating rowing sequence at the Henley Regatta. Tom Hooper displays a hitherto unknown panache to turn a seemingly melodramatic and mannered tale of a would-be king’s speech problem into the story of a man next door in The King’s Speech. Regardless of the verdict on February 27, David O Russell should be a happy man with The Fighter, making an uncomfortable movie that affirmed Christian Bale can act out of his limited gamut and Mark Wahlberg is capable of nuanced emotions.

My bet: Put your money on Tom Hooper.


As the father of two battling a debilitating disease and too much blood on his hands, Javier Bardem sinks his teeth into his role in Alejandro Inarritu Gonzalez’s bleak drama Biutiful. He won the best actor award at Cannes and Oscar glory doesn’t seem too elusive. Jeff Bridges is hitting a purple patch of late. Who knew Bridges had it in him to deliver such a magnificent patch-eyed rugged performance in True Grit, especially after his soul sapping Crazy Heart? As Rooster Cogburn, in the role earlier played by John Wayne, he becomes a man, not a myth, so much so that even his mutton chops assume a character of their own. Jesse Eisenberg is a class apart as the conflicted genius with a mean streak in The Social Network. Like Bridges, Colin Firth’s career too is scaling new heights, of late. As the tortured and tormented gay English professor in A Single Man, Firth was a revelation but that was just an appetiser compared with the range of emotions he displayed in The King’s Speech. For the most part, James Franco is in a monologue in 127 Hours but not once do you see him performing— he lets you get so close, you stop noticing the camera.

My bet: Firth will be second-time lucky


As the ‘man’ of the house in The Kids Are All Right, Annette Bening is an inspired bit of casting and her innate wholesomeness gives the movie’s plot, which is as light as a whisper, a fillip. Nicole Kidman conveys the pain of losing a child and its excruciating aftermath beautifully in Rabbit Hole. Her performance anchors the movie even in the choppier parts. Jennifer Lawrence displays astonishing sensitivity in her role of a girl dealing with multiple problems in Winter’s Bone. Natalie Portman has already won a raft of awards for her breakout performance as a devil personified as a ballet dancer in Black Swan. In Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams barely puts a foot wrong, though the story itself is replete with awkwardness of every kind, the ones that are a given in a marriage where love has fizzled out.

My bet:
Portman may be just a hop, skip and jump away from Oscar glory

Wrong is the new right, always

Writer Vladimir Nabokov was a self-taught expert on butterflies. He would have gained rock-star status if only professional lepidopterists had taken his idea seriously: Polyommatus blues, a group of butterflies, had originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait and headed south all the way to Chile in a series of waves. After reading David H Freedman’s Wrong, I thought of possible reasons why this telling research on the evolution of a group of butterflies was nipped in its bud. Nabokov didn’t do any academic gigs; his ideas weren’t published in any top-of-the-heap scientific magazines and peer-review journals; he didn’t have the Internet to “blog” his ideas.

While my arguments might seem shaky, they stem from an equally uneven book. The book’s subtitle “Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them” is a dead giveaway of the Gladwell-isms that are buried between the covers. Here the word “experts” is a veritable kitchen-sink that includes “scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, high-powered consultants, health officials, and more”.

It’s painfully obvious that Freedman would skewer those at Wall Street for pushing unwitting investors to the edge of a financial precipice with questionable investments while masquerading as experts of finance. It would have put things in better perspective if Freedman had cared to talk about the financial deregulation that Ronald Reagan perpetrated in the early eighties.

Where Wrong breaks new ground is in its take on the scientific community. And as long as Freedman sticks to the scientists, the book is a rip-snorter. By limiting their research to a handful of people, the scientists extrapolate the numbers. The implicit assumption is that all humans are equal and that if 20 out of 30 displayed similar characteristics, the next group would be similar. Another fallacy to which scientists are prone is animal tests. “A drug that fails animal tests but that would have worked fine in humans is a drug lost to the world. Sample this: It is frequently claimed that penicillin might easily have become one of those mistakenly discarded drugs because it sickens rabbits and guinea pigs in large or in oral doses. It’s this arbitrariness that suggests a layman should approach these studies with a fistful of salt. Freedman does a piercing diagnosis behind these trials: “The way science works is, when you end up backing a theory, you can’t afford to be wrong or your grant will suffer.”

The strengths of the book are Freedman’s Mobius-strip like arguments. The writer believes that the public is a sucker for stripped-down advice for which the template is “The [number between six and thirteen] tips [or secrets, rules, etc.] for [aspect of the world the reader would like to master].” Example: “The 6 Myths of Creativity” or “Seven Paths to Regulating Privacy”. He laments the frenetic pace of living that makes us mistake junk food for nourishment and consider Dale Carnegie our saviour with his How to Win Friends and Influence People, 73rd on the all-time global list of best-selling books in any language.

This perspicacity is most visible in the book’s most important chapter “The Internet And The Technology of Expertise”. Of all the sacred cows that he slays in the book, Freedman reserves the maximum relish for Google. Freedman takes off from Eric Schmidt’s damning quote of Internet turning into a “cesspool” of false and misleading information and cites Google’s famed ranking algorithm as a possible root of all online evils. The frequent failure of Google’s results to provide links to trustworthy advice can be frustrating. “The ranking scheme is highly susceptible to being gamed by people who master the art of manipulating webpage language, code and links so as to boost a page’s ranking far above what its usefulness, relevance or popularity might reasonably merit.” Thus, it’s hard to find clear, consistent medical advice online.

Moreover, all that talk about the Internet being a level-playing field where ideas can be discussed in a free-flowing manner is pure balderdash. Freedman cites the initiative of Richard Gallagher, the editor-in-chief of The Scientist, in 2008 to introduce a forum in the magazine’s website where the readers are given a free hand to debate story ideas. A year later, Gallagher confesses to Freedman that the forum has been “a real disappointment in terms of members of the community posting on new topics”.

Freedman, however, loses the plot in the latter half of the chapter when he cries hoarse over the “online wisdom” of recommendation engines like Amazon, Netflix and other retail sites that serve to suggest products one might be interested in. Freedman’s gripes are symptomatic of how much we are expecting a nascent technology that has just entered its twenty-first year to deliver.

The book has four appendices in which Freedman harks back to ancient times (as early as 2500 BC) when Egypt had seen the development of something beginning to resemble mass expertise and went to reckon that Earth was a spinning globe that orbited the sun, and that the position of the stars could be charted to enable predictions of when the Nile would flood. Somehow, this charting of expertise, diverting anecdotes and ironic asides aided by epigraph-like quotes at the beginning of each chapter coheres into a compelling narrative. But, the reader needs to discount some enormous castles built on the shakiest of sands.

Ending recession, musically

It was with much trepidation that I took the really late night bus to Pune for the Bacardi NH7 Weekender. Why trepidation? Using plastic loos for a prolonged period is not my kind of thing and Woodstock is nothing more than a relic of a glorious past. With these niggling doubts I attended the concert this weekend and I wished that the following three people were present among the 10,000 people: Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and D Subbarao.

Apart from promoting Indian independent music, concerts like these are a quick-fix solution to the economic slump that we are going through. All those 10,000 people had bought tickets (mine was Rs 1,500 and I was dragged along by a friend) and what more, the people who man the multiple stages (eight in all), the ones in charge of car parks, the bar tenders, the security personnel, all owe some of their living to the 60 bands that belted out their best music.

And I haven’t even started talking about the engineer in charge, who makes sure that Vishal Dadlani’s growl is absolutely audible, and the multiple lorries that are used to ferry the kit. What more can the trio expect, when people are loosening their purse strings generously at an event where the vibes are post-apocalypse Woodstock?

Here are a few performances that made me mark the event in my calendar as a must-visit every year. Susheela Raman’s meditative Tamil chants from her latest album were just the kind of start a Saturday evening wanted. When she was singing ‘Vel Muruga’, it was as if everyone present were having a pie of her séance. The ensemble performance that included Rajasthani folk artists was the closest anyone could come to a commune with the Divine Being. Susheela’s wicked version of ‘Voodoo Child’ was just the sort of denouement the act needed. Now I got a clear picture of why Sigur Ros’ Icelandic lyrics broke all language barriers. It’s not about the words, stupid!

Following was the headlining act of the day Indian Ocean that at last seemed to have made peace with the death of one of its band members last year. Starting with ‘Bandey’, they went through their predictable-yet-delectable playlist that includes ‘Maarewa’ and ‘Kandisa’. I look at this band and I am really chuffed that they chose to stick to their passion at a time when rock music in this part of the world was unheard of. To think of it, it is still unheard of here considering most of us are yet to go beyond Bryan Adams and— may the force be with them— MLTR.

In gourmet terms, if Saturday was a starter, Sunday was the most expansive platter. I had so much to choose from: right from Shaa’ir + Func to Raghu Dixit Project and Midival Punditz to Asian Dub Foundation. Not to forget, the British indie act The Magic Numbers. This band made up of brothers and sisters seems like a love child of Belle &Sebastian and Drums. Every hook of theirs only reinforced my belief. Be it the riff-laden ballad ‘Love Me Like You’ or the soothing ‘Forever Lost’, here was a band that in the right time period would have been lumped along with the British New Wave movement.

My musical evening, however, began with Monica Dogra’s crunchy voice. While she was singing stuff from both the band’s old and latest albums, I was wondering if this is the closest India can come to Black Eyed Peas and one look at Monica she would remind you of Fergie, a campy one at that. For a brief while I listened to Junkyard Groove and was reminded of a line from poet Jack Black. “No, you’re not hard-core/ Unless you live hard-core.” These guys do.

Up ahead were the electronic duo Midival Punditz, whose 70 minute electronic genius stuff started with a tribute to Edvard Greig (recall the rowing scene in Social Network?). Following that, they beat the bejesus out of the electronic equipment what with a glorious mish-mash of Hindu chanting and schizoid verses. With a little bit of chemical assistance, the music was a guaranteed brain-melter.

The son-et-lumiere, both literally and figuratively, of the evening was Asian Dub Foundation. With an expansive set arrangement that includes dhol jamming with guitar interspersed with rap lyrics, it was pretty obvious that this London group packs a wallop.

Thus, as I was saying, we should be having more of such concerts where people can lounge around and quaff alcohol to get out of the meltdown rut. This might seem like a simplistic solution. But the times are such that I know what ‘quantitative easing’ means but not ‘money’!