Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Wanderer's Journal

New York. Manhattan. Saturday, noon. Cold. Start walking. Lower East Side. Bridge in sight. Tempted to walk across. Walk across. Learn later that it is Williamsburg br. Cross over into Brooklyn. Get lost immediately. Wander around. Come across a very religious neighborhood. Religious schools. Very pious. Very religious. Elders, kids, everyone, dressed in traditional wear. Feeling terribly lost- as no outsiders around. Huge enclave- takes 30 min to walk across.

Find a local coffee/donut shop. Ah- respite from cold. Strike up conversation with fellow patron. Enquire about religious enclave- learn that they are very orthodox, followers of hasidic faith. Coffee and donut- $ 1.35. Get directions to Brooklyn Br. (to get back into Manhattan).

45 min more walking. Manhattan br. in sight. Fumble around to find pedestrian entrance. 15 min pass. Finally on bridge. Walk contently. Mental calculations on how many miles walked, based on the rate 3-3.5 miles/hr. Satisfied with the resulting number- thoughts of mild grandeur.

Land smack in the middle of chinatown. Wander. Gradual loss of direction. East/west? Look for landmarks. Wander into more populous parts of chinatown. Lots of restaurants. Fish market. Meat market. Fascinated by the amazing array of dead/alive animals/reptiles/amphibians. Stacked animal parts - in different stages of preparedness. Something resembling the liver of a small bird- chicken? Buckets and buckets of really healthy, live, frogs staring. Stare back in disbelief. Medium sized turtles, live. Some spongy looking sea-being. Squids. A proactive salesperson approaches. Had to retreat with some awkward expression on face - can't admit to window shopping in fish market.

Explorer spirit awakened. Wander some more- looking for little Italy. No luck. Land in SoHo instead. Beautiful people. Walk into a plush coffee shop. Get cappuccino in a glass cup. Captured by the gradation of colors in the glass mug- espresso and foam tentatively engaging with each other. Look around. Catch a girl smelling her hair. !. ?. Start writing something- end up writing this. Visit restroom - 3 ft x 3 ft. Smart-ass quote above toilet: " We aim to Please; You aim too, Please". Do best to aim.

Time to go. Some more walking to be done.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Little Children, Half Nelson - Beyond the Oscars

The Oscars have been handed out, and it is screens down and lights off at the Kodak theater, the home to the plush ceremony.

In the rubble of winners and losers are some hidden gems that urgently need to be highlighted. This post is to bring to focus two low-key movies that deserve our attention – “Little Children” and “Half Nelson”.

“Little Children” - rarely do you get to see such keenly-observed human drama staged with this level of skill on screen. There are several story threads that hold this film together- they are populated by an array of characters, all living in a suburban community that serves as a microcosm of humanity. There are those beautiful sprawling houses, manicured lawns and all things that symbolize comfort and serenity. And then there is the roaring undercurrent of humanity, waiting to explode. The characters in this film are walking, talking human volcanoes, ready to burst open at any time and unleash an unimaginable amount of emotional violence on the people around them.

And there is Kate Winslet. That is reason enough to go and watch the movie. The immense talent, commitment and presence she brings to the role and to all the characters she portrays should be enjoyed, applauded, and saluted at. The world is a better place because of her. Anybody who does what one does with such flourish, flair and excellence pushes humanity one notch closer to greatness.

“Half Nelson” is another overlooked gem. Ryan Gosling nails the character of a drug-addicted school teacher. The film looks unblinkingly at drug-addiction, drug-dealers and people who somehow exist simultaneously both in the mainstream and the margins of the society. The film is infinitely more complex and satisfying than what the above two-line description can manage- discover for yourself.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth - Genius at Work

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is several movies rolled into one. It is a political thriller, a fantasy tale for adults, and more. The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott sums it up: “Pan's Labyrinth is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it's the other way around.”

The movie is set in rural Spain of 1944, where the young Ofelia and her recently remarried, pregnant mother move into her step-father’s house. Ofelia lands in the middle of an army camp where her step-father is the captain of a regiment of the fascist army fighting the populist rebellion.

Ofelia has a lot to put up with- the war-induced turmoil around her, her mother’s pregnancy-induced sickness and depression, the pure-evil, control-freak step-father among other things. Life at the army camp has few respites for Ofelia, barring the sympathetic maid and her books, which offer fantastic tales and never-ending diversions.

As soon as she arrives at the army camp, she discovers a fairy, and is guided to a hidden world in the woods, which is filled with legends, fauns, fairies, monsters, and a portal to another world. She is guided by a faun, who may or may not be trusted, in her quest to enter the other world through the portal.

Her quests involve several classic challenges common in the fairy-tale world, where the brave, beleaguered protagonist is faced with tough choices, tempted to transgress the rules, and comes out victorious in the end after going through a true test of character. But these scenes are executed with great flourish and a wonder-filled approach that underlies the magic-fairy genre.

Interweaved with this is the tale of the unfolding political turmoil in Spain, and the battle between the army and the guerilla forces. In this war, the loyalty and courage of several of the characters are tested.

Then there is the use of violence. As much as the fairy-tale part is filled with a child-like innocence, the war/political struggle part is filled with gut-wrenching, graphic violence that will make Rambo look like a shy second grader. This makes for a curious combination. By doing this, the filmmakers reach for completely different parts of the emotional-palette and paint a complex, engrossing, and ultimately satisfying picture.

The actors bring this complex, always shifting tale to life. Such stories need strong villains, and Sergei Lopez provides the movie with a three-dimensional tyrant, and fills every bit of the screen with menace and hate. Three cheers to the director Guillermo del Toro (“Hell Boy”, “Cronos”) for conceiving and bringing this seamless, fantastic film to life.