In-Flight Movie Reviews (Part II)

June 29, 2010 in Movie Reviews, Travel by pacejmiller

(For Part I, click here)

This second part of my in-flight movie reviews rounds up the remaining 3 films I saw during my flights between Australia, Hong Kong and India.  As with the last set, please keep in mind that I was under the influence of prescription medication when I watched these films.

The Ghost Writer

A smart little political thriller directed by Roman Polanski (didn’t know and it gave me a shock when the credits rolled) and starring Ewan McGregor (who once again proves he is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood), Olivia Williams, Pierce Brosnan and Kim Cattrall.

Brosnan plays a former British Prime Minister who is writing a memoir on his life and McGregor is assigned as his ghost writer to “polish up” the manuscript after the original ghost writer died under strange circumstances.  There is a mystery to be unraveled as the ghost writer is pulled deeper into the life of the PM, who is falling under increased scrutiny for his actions during several recent wars.

It’s a very interesting film, fictionalized, of course, but with touches of reality and topical issues. Apart from the ghost writing side of the publishing world we get to see, the thriller also raises some intriguing issues about civil liberties.
Polanski keeps the film simmering on low heat, allowing the tension and suspense to build while never making it too easy for the audience to figure out what is going to happen next.  My kind of film.

4 stars out of 5

Harry Brown

Comparisons to Gran Torino (one of my favourite films last year) are inevitable with this British drama starring Michael Caine as the titular character, an ex-marine who goes Dirty Harry on the local gangs in England.

However, the films are only similar in that the lead is a lonely old man and their neighbourhood is terrorized by local hoons.   Harry Brown is a totally different film because Caine’s character is entirely different to that of Clint Eastwood’s in Gran Torino.

Gran Torino is more about the relationship the protagonist develops with his “gook” (as he liked to call them) neighbours despite his prejudices, while Harry Brown is a more straightforward, ‘lethal old man pushed to the edge’ kind of violent drama.  Both are effective in their own ways, but Harry Brown isn’t quite as effective because there’s a feel of inevitability about it – you just knew what was going to happen and where the film was heading.

It’s nevertheless a compelling film to watch primarily because of Caine’s performance and the excellent depiction of the horrific world of British teen gangs, but Harry Brown lacks the subtlety and nuance to take the film to the next level.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: And unless I am grossly mistaken about the advancement of forensic science in the UK, there are some major loopholes in this film.

The Book of Eli

I wanted to see this one since it was released at the cinemas but I never got around to it.  Without giving too much away, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world (aren’t they all these days?) where a mysterious man called Eli (Washington) is trekking across the barren plains with a special book in his possession.  Gary Oldman plays the bad guy (doesn’t he always?) who wants the book at all costs, and Mila Kunis is a feisty girl who gets caught up in the mess.

The synopsis sounds much worse than the film really is, but it’s just a fun action film that takes itself a little too seriously.  I can understand if some people think the whole thing is a piece of crap, especially after they find out why the book is so special, but it managed to keep my attention all the way until the end, where there are a few unexpected twists and turns.

Look, it’s not a masterpiece and it’s far too uneven to be a great film, but when all is said and done The Book of Eli is not a bad way to spend a couple of hours on a plane.

3.5 stars out of 5

Indian Journey Part VI: The Indian Head Wobble

June 29, 2010 in India, Travel by pacejmiller

Before I visited India I had always thought the Indian head wobble was a myth.  A humorous stereotype.  But it’s so NOT!

I was shocked to find that just about every second person in India performed the head wobble at any given opportunity.  Hotel receptionists.  Taxi drivers.  Auto rickshaw drivers.  Shop assistants.  People attending the wedding.  They do it when giving thanks or receiving thanks.  They do it when talking or silent.  They do it in response to another wobble.  But what does it mean?  It’s not really a nod, nor is it a shake.  All I know is that it is insanely infectious and I have been doing it non-stop (much to the annoyance of everyone around me).

Thanks to the Internets, I found this article explaining what the Indian head wobble is.  In short, it is a multi-purpose body gesture usable for anything from “yes,” “good”, to “I understand”, but it may mean different things in different regions and the length of the wobble is also relevant.  What a complex art!

And now, for no reason other than there being an Indian head wobble in it (at around the 0:23-0:30 mark), here is a video of Seinfeld product placements.

Hewitt ridicules Becker’s man-crush praise

June 28, 2010 in Tennis by pacejmiller

Boris Becker

One thing Australian tennis star Lleyton Hewitt loves is being the underdog.  He loves it when critics call him over-the-hill, when they say he is too short, too old, too injured — because it gives him extra motivation to prove them wrong.

Accordingly, when German great Boris Becker decided to develop a man-crush following the Aussie’s unexpected straight sets victory over Frenchman Gael Monfils at the third round of Wimbledon 2010 (6-3, 7-6, 6-4), Hewitt was not impressed.

“I wouldn’t call him a dark horse because he’s won the title before” Becker said with ardour in his eyes.  “On a good day, he’s still one of the best grasscourt players around.”

Hewitt did not enjoy the compliment.  “Of course I don’t consider myself a dark horse.  Look at me.  I’m white.  You know, I’ve always had a good record against guys like Monfils.  Look at him.  And look at James Blake.  Now you tell me what the similarity is.”

Of course, this reference harks back to Hewitt’s controversial attempt to get a black linesman removed during his US Open match against African-American James Blake back in 2001.

“It’s good to see him back and healthy and jumping,” Becker added.  “If there’s ever a fight in a bar, you’d want Hewitt in your corner because he doesn’t back off.”

Hewitt did not take a liking to this comment either.  He retorted: “Well I wouldn’t ever want Boris Becker in my corner on a night out.  I don’t want to turn around for a second and find out he’s impregnated my wife in the broom closet.

“And besides, Bec is too busy to be impregnated by Becker.  She’s got a photo shoot with a woman’s mag every week for the next 10 years.  It’s our main source of income now that I’ve fallen out of the top 25.”

These negative comments did not faze Becker from continuing his admiration for the scrappy Aussie with the tremendous endurance.

“…tennis is not only a game of height and power,” Becker explained.  “It’s a matter of heart — and Lleyton’s got one of the biggest on the men’s tour.  He has the heart and mind of a lion.”

“Why would Becker say I have the heart and mind of a lion?” Hewitt replied angrily.  “I’m a fair dinkum human being.  Lions are stupid and lazy, except for Simba from the Lion King.  Is he saying that I’m stupid?”

Desperate to prove Becker wrong, Hewitt promptly went out and lost his next match to Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

“That’ll be the last time someone compares me to an animal,” Hewitt said happily after the match.  “The size of my heart is equal to the size of Boris Becker’s pecker.”

When asked exactly how big that is, Hewitt responded:

[PS: None of this really happened.]

Indian Journey Part V: Shopping for Indian Clothes

June 28, 2010 in India, Travel by pacejmiller

We wore stuff like this

Day 2 in Hyderabad started with a morning ritual at the wedding venue.  We took two separate auto rickshaws there (two in each), praying that we’d make it there in one piece as the driver zig-zagged against incoming traffic and as beggars hounded us for money at the one and only traffic light we stopped at (I don’t know why we didn’t stop at the other red lights…).

The exterior of the wedding venue

The venue was huge and white.  A little old, stained and cracked in some areas, but all things considered it was a pretty grand place to hold a wedding — especially if it was going for 3 days.  As I understood it, parts of the venue comprised serviced apartments were the attendees stayed overnight.  There are a couple of food halls too which people can wander in and out of when they feel hungry.

The interior of the wedding venue (before filled with seats)

The main wedding hall looked like a massive concert venue with a stage at the front and hundreds of chairs.  We found my marrying buddy in the middle of the stage with a few scantily clad Indian men chanting around him.  He looked absolutely exhausted.  I hadn’t seen him like this since…hang on, he’s a lawyer…he always looks like this!

After the first morning session, he came down to say hello.  He’s had 3 hours of sleep in the last two days, though in the weeks leading up to the wedding he wasn’t doing much better as it had been busy at work and he was doing most of the wedding planning between 2am and 5am each morning.  But as I told him, he’s had the best training possible (with all the long sleepless nights at work) for this 3-day event!

Soon, another session of chanting began, and we were asked to go to the food hall for lunch.  I will do a separate post on this later, but let’s just say it was very…interesting

The afternoon was dedicated to one thing and one thing only: shopping for Indian clothes for the big pre-wedding party that night (I think it’s called the “Sangeet” and/or “Mehendi” night).  We were given a chauffeur and my mate’s cousin, a feisty young Indian girl around 16 who spoke pretty good English and was happy to take us around (well, she was kind of forced into it, but nevertheless…).

After much driving, we ended up at this factory-looking place that sold traditional Indian clothing.  We had about 4 hours in total.  The girls took up about 3 hours and 45 minutes to find two dresses (one for tonight and the other for the wedding tomorrow).  The two guys (me and my ex-colleague from London) took about 15 minutes to find a single outfit (which we could wear both days, provided the stench doesn’t become overwhelming).

The girls’ outfits were called Salwar (the Sari, which is wrapped around, was too much trouble as it had to be tailored) and the guys wore the Kurta.

There was no bargaining involved, so I assumed it wasn’t done in this kind of place.  The outfits cost around 1,000 to 2,500 rupees, depending on quality, stitching and level of complexity.  We tended to like the simpler outfits, but the cousin told us that tonight had to be “grand”, and we needed to find something more extravagant.  She also told me she had an exam the next day (oops).  Somehow, I ended up with the most expensive outfit, though most agreed I fitted mine the best (ahem).  It was a tiring but strangely enjoyable experience trying on clothes from a different culture.

That night, after dousing ourselves in deodorant (these outfits made us very hot) we set off in the chauffeured car back towards the wedding venue.  On our way there, people pointed and laughed at us.  We found it pretty hilarious too.

And when we finally got there, guess what?  Most Indian men were dressed in shirts and pants.  As if we weren’t standing out enough already!

Henna is drawn on black and then washed off 30 minutes smells like a fake tan...

PS: By the way, the night was fun and it was fun wearing the traditional Indian clothing.  The girls got henna done on their hands.  For entertainment they got this guy (who is apparently THE man on Indian Idol to perform and also bring along his group of pupils to sing for us).  They even dedicated a song to us.  He said we didn’t need to know what the lyrics meant — we could feel it through his emotions.  I dunno, maybe I was interpreting it the wrong way, but for some reason he had a very pained expression on his face all throughout the song…

Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

June 27, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

When a bestselling author recommends you a book (other than his/her own), you don’t question — you read.  That’s what happened to me with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

The lecturer in my narrative writing class is a pretty successful author according to most measures (international bestseller, million dollar advance, etc) and so when he/she said he/she reads Lolita once a year (and every time he/she takes something new away from it), that got me very intrigued.  Just what is it about this controversial book that makes it so good?

I finished reading Lolita one early sleepless morning in Hyderabad (while travelling in India).  It’s hard for me to know where to begin with this book.  Yes, the protagonist and the narrator is, essentially, a pedophile, and he does succeed in getting up to plenty of unspeakable stuff in the book.  But at the same time, it is so innovative, so compelling, and so utterly hilarious that I couldn’t stop reading it and laughing.

Lolita is such a strange book in so many ways.  It’s a fake memoir that feels frighteningly authentic, with a foreword and an afterword (in my post -1956 edition, anyway), no less.  The narrator is hugely unreliable (we are completely at his mercy) and has a wicked sense of humour, but also an acute self-awareness of the monster that he is and the uncontrollable urge he possesses.  The young girl (or “nymphet”, as the narrator likes to call them) is an absolute tease that makes you almost sympathize with the pedophile.

Nabokov has a way with words.  His writing is relatively easy to read and has this compulsive flow to it.  He’s confident enough to throw in the occasional word that has me scrambling for the dictionary but it’s not a contrived use and I never find fault with the use of that word in its particular context.  What freaked me out most about this book was that Nabokov (who is Russian) wrote it in English.  How can someone write so brilliantly in a language that is not even his native tongue?

I enjoyed Lolita a lot.  Not only because it was so well written, but because it was so devilishly funny and the story itself packed a punch.  I must say I enjoyed the first half more than the second half because the narrator’s distinctive voice does begin to tire a little towards the end and especially in the final part when it becomes less funny and more serious and self-reflective.  The ending does tie up nicely and even gave me the chills, but it sure took its time getting there.

I don’t think I’ll read Lolita once a year (there’s too many other books I want to read) but I have no doubt I’ll go back to it at some stage later in life.  Of course, the book had difficulty getting published back in the 1950s and was criticised due to its subject matter, but it’s interesting to think how a book like this would be perceived had it been published now, when our awareness of all this “stuff” is more out in the open.

4.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I have not see either film version, though I am very tempted now.]