The Last Frontier – Alaska, where land ends!

The inner passage of the Alaska panhandle consists of large land masses separated by fjords created by glacier activity. Cruising this passage begins in Vancouver. Most of the regions along the passageway are accessible by ships or seaplanes; a target of opportunity seen here – a Chevron gas-station in the middle of the bay at Vancouver:
Cruising was an experience in itself that I will save for a later post, ditto for the natural wonders of Alaska including some 20 story high glaciers! This post is reserved for the wild-life we saw along the way. First stop was along the Tracy arm with the Sawyer glacier in the background and ice along the edge of the glacier.
On this shelf of ice we saw hordes of seals – this is where they come to give birth and rear their young!

The Bald Eagle is the National bird, has pride of place in the center of the US Presidential seal, but is rarely spotted in the contiguous United States. However it reigns over Alaska and is an opportunist raptor that forages on salmon and steals from other nests! This thievery earned it the ire of Ben Franklin.
bald eagle
” After the end of the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin wrote a famous letter from Paris in 1784, to his daughter, criticizing the choice and suggesting the Wild Turkey as a better representative of American qualities. He described the Bald Eagle as “a Bird of bad moral character,” who, “too lazy to fish for himself” survived by robbing the Osprey. He called the Bald Eagle “a rank Coward” easily driven from a perch by the much smaller kingbird. In the letter, Franklin wrote the Turkey is, “a much more respectable Bird,” which he described as “a little vain & silly [but] a Bird of Courage.” (WIKIPEDIA)
Who cares about the thievery if this bird can soar majestically and look so grand? We saw several nests with hatchlings being nursed, and many many adults with the white heads.

Then a boat cruise into Juneau bay will take one to the humpback whale habitat. These gentle giants give a first hint of their presence with a spout of water, then can make a huge splash and go under showing the signature tail fluke.
Of course these same waters are teeming with sea lions with their cute puppy dog faces!
In addition to all this, sightings through binoculars included bears, grizzlies, and even a moose running along a deserted remote beach. (note to self – get a better camera with a bigger zoom lens – wait, who will carry it?)
How could I end without mentioning the ubiquitous seagulls – they are everywhere, waiting to snatch a quick meal wherever they can find it.
gulls on ice

Strangely enough the Rousseau-esque painting on the cruise ship was tropical in theme and showed animals more suited to an African safari!


A few Jhat-Pat reviews!

Managed to catch a few films and have not had the time to do detailed reviews. Some need a re-watch and a serious review – others were seen, been there done that. Here are two:

Doubt – a priest gives a sermon on doubt, a stern nun sees it as some sort of public yet veiled confession and charges the priest with abuse of the first black student the catholic school ever had. A young and dedicated nun watched from the sidelines, in doubt herself on whom to believe. Meryl Streep play the gorgon Sister Aloysious – sure and stern and yet with a core of caring inside her. She will not let this infringement go by. Philip Seymour Hoffman is growing into one fine actor – as Father Flynn he is cocky, sure, caring and yet also raises all kinds of doubts within us. Sister James is played by Amy Adams as a naive and dedicated nun, new to teaching, new to the convent. In the end Father Flynn is kicked upstairs and Sister Aloysious left with doubts on what she did. For me there was doubt too but less – and the giveaway the perfectly manicured, just a tad long fingernails!! I give the film 7.5/10 – worth a watch for some fine acting in a setting that is somber yet engaging.

Iruvar – I definitely need to see this one again. Any really good film that is subtitled deserves a second watch just so one can catch all the nuances that were earlier missed. At first pass I found the film to be a thing of stunning beauty – Mohanlal as MGR or Aanandan, Prakash Raj as Tamil Selvam or Karunanidhi, Aishwarya as Kalpana and later Pushpa, Tabu, Gautami and Revathy – every single person delivered top-notch performances. The songs were set in the way that only Mani can set his songs – maximum effect with minimum fuss. Special mention goes to Mohanlal – right from the opening fight scenes down to the bitter end, he breathed life into the role. 9/10 for now – will re-watch soon.

Serene, ethereal, calming – songs for the soul

You are by yourself, in an introspective mood. You want to keep the world at bay for a little while longer, keep the lights dimmed, and just be. What songs do you listen to in such moments? Here are my picks:

Khoya Khoya chand khula aasmaan
Aankhon mein saari raat jaayegi
Tumko Bhi Kaise need aayegi?
– absolutely divine Rafi is made even better with the lights off!

Then there is this stunning gem from AR Rahman and Gulzaar, Udit singing
Ae Ajnabi tu bhi kabhi aawaz de kahin se
Main yahan tukdon mein jee raha hoon
Tu kahin tukdon mein ji rahi hai

My next pick is from Pakeezah – the film is not a favorite but this song is melody personified:
Chalo Dildar chalo Chand ke paar chalo
Hum Hain Taiyyar chalo

Then there is Kishore Da singing the song from Door gagan ki Chaoon mein
Aaa Chal ki tujhe main le ke chaloon
Ek Aise gagan ke tale
Jahan gham bhi na ho aansoo bhi na hoon
Bas pyaar hi pyaar pale

Next up is this one from Kishore and Lata
Tum aa gaye ho noor aa gaya hai
Nahin to charagon se lau jaa rahi thi!

Junglee – the Yahoo man in a most somber mood, voice of Rafi singing:
Ehsaan tera ho gaa mujh par, jo kehta hoon woh kehne do
Mujhe tumse mohabbat ho gayi hai, mujhe palkon ki chaaon mein rehne do!

A forever kind of love – Boleros for the Disenchanted!

Jose Rivera is the first Puerto Rican to earn an Oscar nomination – for his adaptation of the Motorcycle Diaries. He was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the mainland USA when his parents emigrated there to try and realize their American dream. They did manage to send two of their eleven children to college and Jose was one of them. In Boleros Rivera tells a very personal tale – set in two time periods. In the first Flora (his mother) has just had her heart broken by a philandering fiancé and she then goes off to her cousin’s to repair it. There at a street corner, over the strains of her (and her two-timing fiance’s) favorite Bolero, she meets Eusebio, an ensign in the National Guard who has missed his bus. As Eusebio misses his bus two weeks in a row, the two fall in love and decide to get married. Flora’s father and mother have already lost a child to the evil maws of America and they listen in horror as Eusebio tells them that he and Flora will move there too.
Then we jump forward 40 years to Alabama to meet Flora and Eusebio again. Now Eusebio has had both legs amputated due to diabetes, and Flora looks after him all day long, from cleaning him up and feeding him to withholding the remote and the Mets games when he is acting up! Into this mix walk in a young Puerto Rican couple who want to get married and are seeking counsel from Flora and Eusebio. Eusebio tells them what life has been like for Flora as she looks after him day after day. He then says he saw an angel who told him he is about to die and needs to confess. He confesses to a few extramarital affairs that shock his long-suffering wife! Flora threatens to kill him and consigns the Mets (Eusebio’s favorite team) to perdition.
Running through the play is the theme of slow decay of the Puerto Rican life style, the despair among young and old alike on the island, the visions of the American dream they all carry, and how the dream is shattered as the Puerto Ricans are far from embraced by the mainstream. But it really is an ode to love, told through an exploration of the various kinds of love one encounters at different stages in life. There is Flora’s young and idealistic love for her fiancé, there is Manuel’s selfish love that tells him Flora is the gem he should have but there are countless other women he needs because he is a man and men are different from women, there is Eusebio’s love for Flora and this is a pure and idealistic love, there is Flora and Eusebio’s love for their unborn children that forces them to leave Puerto Rico and go to New York so they can provide for these children, there is Flora’s love for the crippled and bed-ridden Eusobio – now a staid and in the groove love, there is Eusebio’s love for the old Flora – now a love full of the burden of gratitude. But Eusebio’s dream of the angel of death sets in motion a cataclysm that cause Flora to look at his infidelities and realize that Eusebio’s love for her still matters to her. Eusebio forgoes a euthanasia solution and when asked why all he can reply is he’d rather be like this and still be with Flora! In the end the triumph of love over death, pain, disillusionment, infidelity is the strong message that Rivera sends to us. He does all this boldly with wit and humor and charm. The play does not have a dull moment and the dialog crackles with one-liners like “As much as Jesus loved his cross”, when Flora tells her mother “I thought you love Pappy”!
The production is excellent with minimal but highly effective sets and Carey Perloff’s directs deftly. The cast does a commendable job and does double duty in the two time periods of the play. Lela Loren plays the young Flora with a naivete and charm coupled with a will of iron that is extremely touching. Drew Cortese’s young Eusebio is again naïve but ebullient. Flora’s mother and father are played by Rachel Ticotin and Robert Beltran. The back and forth from love to hate between this couple is that of two who cannot stand each other and yet cannot live without each other. And the same couple play the older Flora and Eusebio with an equal amount of familiarity, love and hatred between them. Does Rivera want to tell us that we play out the same old drama generation after generation? Only the characters change but not the screenplay? But that in the end the love that binds couples together forever is of the “in sickness and in health till death do us part” kind? That is something we feel we knew all along, but Eusebio and Flora’s journey brings the message home with a brutal kind of reality.

To boldly go where the series had not gone before – Star Trek!

Just over 40 years ago Gene Roddenberry created a whole futuristic universe for our newly minted color TV sets. The show was marketed as Cowboys in space but was really supposed to be a series of adventures with a parable embedded within each one. The setting was post-apocalyptic mid 21st-century and humans had technology that was way beyond what was reality at the time – space travel at speeds faster than light accomplished with a warp drive, and people beamed from place to place! There was extensive contact with other sentient civilizations in distant galaxies and a Federation of these policed the universe through Starfleet. The original series showed a Federation Starfleet ship, the US Starship Enterprise, on a 5-year mission to “boldly go where no man has gone before!!”

The current generation likely has no connection to the original series or the succession of series and films, even spoofs (like the witty Galaxy Quest), that it spawned. But the faithful followers of the original still dress up in Star Trek costumes and go to conventions and watch endless reruns of the six different series! I was weaned on Star Trek (the original series) when it showed up in India. We had no TV then so I recall watching it on a neighbors’ TV set and saw every series and film that followed. So what was the aim of this new film? Was it to generate a new generation of fans or to make the old trekkies (like myself) happy?

This film can best be labeled a prequel, as it starts with the encounter between the USS Kelvin carrying Captain Kirk (the father of James T) and a Romulan ship captained by Nero – who is seeking revenge on Spock for the destruction of Romulus! But wait – if James T is not yet born, then who is Spock? This establishes alternate time lines and makes for a delicious time travel tale that even includes an encounter between Spock the youth and Spock the ancient (called Spock Prime in the credits)! As Captain Kirk is vaporized by Nero, his son is born, and we finally know what the aim of this film is. It is to keep the trekkies happy by providing them with a prequel, and it is to boldly get new fans in the youth by creating unforgettable and cool characters in Kirk and Spock. We see the young Kirk as a hell-raiser kid, in his stepdad’s automobile, playing the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage really really loud, then we see him trying to pick up a woman (who will be Lt. Uhura) in a bar, and finally we see him reluctantly joining Starfleet and sitting next to a young Dr. McCoy! Kirk is still a philanderer and a loud-mouth, and he still has that famous intuition that allows him to spot trouble.
As an aside – this version of Sabotage filmed by Spike Jonze is as crazy as anything Kirk could dream up!

The journey of Spock from child to adult is even more interesting – half human half Vulcan, he is treated as an outcast right from childhood, and struggles to master his emotions, until someone pushes the right buttons. And we see that human side of Spock several times, not to mention the fact that he is romantically involved with the svelte and beauteous Lt. Uhura.

The usual gadgetry is there (Trekkies breathe a sigh of relief) but updated and slicked for modern times. The costumes are still in blues and oranges and greens, but somehow a patina of class is overlaid on them. And the science is still a mixture of plausible and implausible, but still a ton of fun, because it was never about the science was it?

I was skeptical about the film after viewing a trailer. How can a cast that seems chosen for physical/facial similarity to an old cast actually perform well?

Is it possible to have great acting and a good resemblance to the old cast? The makers succeeded somewhat. In Chris Pine they actually found an actor who could be Kirk while still putting in a decent performance. But in my opinion this very ability to act somewhat diluted the impact of Kirk. Esquire magazine once said “Every man (except James T Kirk) has some doubts about his masculinity!” Real men do not need to act, do they? Did Schwarzenegger have to act? William Shatner was man enough to kiss a woman and then smack her in the face ( – check out clip number 3!). I am afraid that now James T Kirk will be modernized and civilized up for the next-gen. But what I missed in Kirk was more than made up for in Zachary Quinto’s Spock. Actually it began with the child Spock (Jacob Kogan) trying to be in control of his emotions and not react, until his class-mates mock his Earth born mother (Winona Ryder is a brief cameo) and he erupts into violence.

And Quinto carries that persona forward in perfect pitch, being just as we would imagine a young Spock to be. These are the two best-etched characters, but others do a decent enough job. We have Zoe Saldana playing Uhura, and while she is a little on the thin side, she does get to romance Spock in a surprising twist in the tale. We see Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime, but every time he spoke I was afraid he was going to lose his dentures so it got a bit distracting, and the moment lost some of its gravity.

The special effects were excellent and the updated bridge and insides of the Enterprise similar enough to the original to generate a level of comfort. There were lots of battles in space – something that was certainly a next-gen grab effort. The original Star Trek was not really about battles, but about the people and their human and inhuman emotions, something that I missed in this prequel. There were enough references to the original to keep the most die-hard Trekkie happy and when Spock finally shows up as first officer on the bridge and we have the voice of Nimoy intone “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, its continuing mission……..” we have boldly, and blissfully, gone along with J. J. Abrams on a fun ride and enjoyed the whole. The easy part is done, and now an old and new generation of fans await new adventures of a new Enterprise and crew.

It was A Wednesday!

This is a late review – but if you have not yet seen the film and plan to, please be aware that this review contains spoilers.

I finally caught up to A Wednesday. It had been soundly praised all over and even got several nominations – something unheard of in small budget films. Directed by Neeraj Pandey, the film begins with a somber Anupam Kher, a police chief on the verge of retirement, talking about his most interesting case, “That bastard! That bastard had the guts to come into our life and blow it apart – it was a Wednesday.” Thus we are told right at the start that there was a criminal – he was a “bastard who blew lives apart”! And so we expect a criminal, and as we are led along the story we expect someone with terror connections, someone who is out to get law enforcement and force them to free known and incarcerated terrorists. The cast of characters in simple – there is the police Commissioner Rathod (Kher), his able lieutenant – Inspector Jai Singh (Aamir Bashir), a “rogue” cop (Jimmy Shergill), a newscaster Naina Roy (Deepal Shaw), and the “bastard” – or common man (Naseer Shah), some captured terrorists – and a bunch of extras.

The common man is first shown leaving a bag in a busy train station, then at a police station, and then setting up his operations from a rooftop of a building under-construction. The Commissioner receives a phone cal telling him that there are 5 bombs planted across the city and several imprisoned terrorists must first be gathered in one location until further instructions. After this a taut cat and mouse game ensues that involved cell phone number rerouting, phone switching, elaborate scheme to blow up the terrorists with high tech explosives, and the common man is one step ahead of the cops all along the way. The TV reporter is used as a pawn by both sides. In the ultimate shocking revelation we see the terrorists blown up by the common man and then we hear his explanation for how frustrated he is with the lax ways of the authorities, their trading terrorists in deals, their inability to provide for the basic safety of the common man and how he has taken things into his own hands! Even the police chief is shown to applaud his activities in private.

The chase scenes are a thrilling zig-zag between speeding cars on Mumbai roads, or foot chases in narrow alley ways in the city, as various informers are hunted down, and bombs discovered. The teeming city of Mumbai with common people rushing about their daily business, makes a perfect backdrop for this play-out of angst within common men. Born of our anger and helplessness, this self-affirming actionmakes us root for him and the film as some elemental level, as we have often felt what he is now articulating and we have wanted to hit back as he has hit back.

The performances range from great to decent. Anupam easily tops my list, followed by Jimmy Shergill and Aamir Bashir, and then Naseer. Jimmy is a great actor who is woefully underutilized in Hindi cinema. Aamir Bashir is a find! While Naseer starts out enigmatic and matter of fact, he settles into a groove as the film progresses. However, for me this one is far short of his great performances as it lacks the intensity one expects from him.

This brings me to the story itself and to the “moral responsibility” issue such a story is supposed to carry. This is where I began to have problems with the film. The makers used “sleight of hand” to manipulate us into thinking this was a story of a terrorist masterminding release of other terrorists. The opening sentence by Anupam Kher “The bastard walked into our lives and blew it apart” implied a BAD man. Then we see him dropping off a bag at a train station and then at a police station. So we were told there were multiple bombs and shown two – in the end the common man says he had only planted one in the police station, again playing false with the audience. Anupam Kher whispers to Aamir Bashir to shoot Jimmy – and Jimmy looks on knowingly and with a look of helpless sadness, implying that he is a rogue cop and will be taken down. But in the end he is to be injured as a reason to shoot the terrorists. Why can Jimmy not be part of this exchange? These deception devices keep the audience engaged but in the end they are huge plot-holes in the script. The fact that a common man is more savvy than the authorities and keeps them on their toes by using modern electronics and technology is another issue – the regular common man struggles to have one cell phone, and does not have the wherewithal to have multiple phones, switching devices, to buy explosives and set up such a major scheme. There is no back-story to convince us THIS common man is capable of all that, and indeed such a back story would make this man most uncommon. The moral responsibility issue is even more troubling. It is exhilarating and liberating to see terrorists blown up by the common man, but it is troubling that the repercussions of such an act are not fully comprehended by the makers. The authorities have to take responsibility for this elimination of terrorists and that in itself is a method to generate more terrorists, who will retaliate for this elimination by inflicting more torture on the common man. This is an escalating war and every action has an opposite and more intense reaction. Thus the makers lose out on the “moral responsibility” issue in the film and fall far short of making anything with a good message. They have merely made a thriller and one that thrills not because of excellent writing, but because it starts out with deceptions and cheats the audience.

The pacing is good and the lack of music a boon given the subject matter of the film. One hopes that Neeraj Pandey will use this experience to create a taut script and give more thought to all the ramifications of the story next time. A hawkish eye-for-an-eye approach has limited success is the war on terror.

Wacky comedic moments in film songs!

Comedy is a difficult genre to tame. It can become forced, or crude or just is not funny. But sometimes if done just right then magical moments are created. Here are some such moments of comedy in Hindi cinema.

1. I will start with the classic Chalti Ka Naam Gadi. The real-life Ganguly brothers played brothers in the film. Ashok was the stern older brother, hiding the tragedy of a broken heart and now completely against women, Kishore was the youngest brother – uncomplicated and free and ready for love, Anup was the middle brother – not quite here nor there and constantly caught between the two extremes. One night in their car repair garage Kishore meets a girl, and here is how he is describing that encounter to his brother Anup – whose lament “O Mannu tera hua ab mera kuya hoga” is priceless:

2. My second pick is from the same film – the girl left without paying for the repairs to her car, and now Kishore has to get the money from her – all 5 rupees and 12 aana! Here Kishore is after the money as Madhubala cavorts across stage with her purse firmly tucked away!

3. My third pick is yet another Kishore Kumar number – with Mehmood thrown in for good measure. Kishore chose to not do films but instead sing and compose music – thus a fine comedic talent was subdued by musical genius! Here Mehmood and Kishore are caught in a musical fight between the soon to be sweethearts Saira and Sunil Dutt – Ek pe raho na, ya ghoda bolo ya chatur bolo – again priceless!

4. Next up is Amitabh in Laawaris – Mere Angne mein – singing and playing totally to the galleries in various get ups. It takes a macho man to dress up so crazily! And the simple yet bawdy lyrics “Bistar pe leta do gadde ka kya kaam hai” crack me up everytime:

5. How can I forget the classic comic number “Pehle paan phir gaan” from Don? Amitabh with a gamcha wrapped around his forehead indulges to the max with bhang and paan, then cuts loose among a group of bhaiyyas, and the rest is history!

6. I will end with a modern day favorite – the lead up is extremely comic and the song is full of an energy not seen in recent times. The Bhujpuri Inglish takes one right back to the streets of UP/Bihar! The blonde wigs donned by the cast only add to the insane appeal for me.

I could go on – but I will let you share your favorites!