Baby Driver

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What it’s about: A gifted young getaway driver tries to leave his life of crime, but realises it’s harder than it looks. Mayhem ensues.

Notes:

  • Much ink has already been spilled about how this is another of Wright’s cinematographic triumphs, and I shan’t go into it too much here. Suffice to say, much of this film is not so much directed as choreographed, actors moving to the beat of an eclectic and variegated track, car chase sequences impeccably shot and edited, that makes the movie a sensorial treat on so many levels. Visually, aurally,  proprioceptively, Baby Driver delivers.
  • Or, at least, in the first half or so of the film, when it shines the brightest. The film’s best scenes are almost all in the first half, in its kineticism, its humour, its cheerfulness, and Baby’s winning, cool-kid-but-not-douchey precociousness, amidst the violence and freneticism of the car chase sequences and trigger-happy action.
  • As the film’s plot starts to go into motion, however, Baby Driver‘s unique traits – its choreographed physicality, whiplash humor – fades somewhat into the background as a more typical plotline takes over – where Baby is blackmailed into continuing his criminal activities by his erstwhile handler Doc, who threatens his girlfriend Debora and his foster parent Joseph. Heists go south with the increasingly deranged antics of the psychopathic gang member Bats, who kills at the slightest provocation, giving the film its main source of dramatic tension as we wonder when this unstable element will explode.
  • At this point, the film essentially becomes Drive, but without the sun-gold stylishness and heavy electronic beats – taciturn protagonists with assumed names raining carnage down on their enemies to save themselves and their girls from psychopathic criminals. Also, while Drive ended on a low poignant note with the Driver sacrificing his humanity to save the woman he loves, even as she distances herself from him and the things he’s done, Baby Driver has a bucolic ending and a moralistic message. Baby, the kid with a good heart who was forced to break bad, served his time in jail, and having done penance for his crimes, is clean in the eyes of the public, and most importantly, his love interest. The two films therefore share the same stylistic and dramatic beats, but have different payoffs for their respective characters. Of course, the Driver did a lot more gruesome things than Baby, though.

Verdict: With a strong, stylish and refreshing first half that unfortunately segues a little into action film generica by the finish, Baby Driver doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 iPods 

 

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Persepolis

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What it’s about: A precocious young woman tells the story of how she came of age in revolutionary Iran.

Notes:

  • To me, Persepolis exemplified one of the great virtues of reading – its ability to introduce the reader to new places and people, and most importantly, humanise them. In a climate where Iran is constantly demonised as an intolerant theocratic pariah state with nuclear ambitions, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are people living there whose hopes, dreams and fears are akin to ours.
  • But it doesn’t vacillate into cultural relativism – Satrapi is firm in stating her position that Iran’s current environment is repressive to women, foreign ideas, and alternative systems of thought and faith, and that this has robbed its culture of its essential vitality. There is much that Satrapi depicts as evil and backward about the Islamist regime, and many of the people Satrapi depicts are no angels – bigoted, cowardly, bullying, or apathetic cogs of the state. But there are good people too.
  • In this sense, Persepolis is, while funny and charming to a fault, still a tragic story of how Iran, teetering on the brink of democratic revolution, instead fell prey to its more reactionary tendencies. As part of a stratum of liberal Iranians who were the losers in this particular cultural battle, Satrapi and her family had to get by as best as they could in a climate of fear and paranoia.
  • Yet, the magic of Persepolis is that, told through a child’s lens, it is also a story of growing up and of the pleasures of childhood. While always politically and socially conscious, Satrapi, the rebellious child (and later teenager), always finds small ways to sidestep and defy the system she finds herself in – and there is a real human rawness to this because she does so not so much because of high ideological reasons but because she is simply a free-spirited kid who doesn’t want to adhere to the strictures of religiously orthodox behaviour.
  • Satrapi’s relatability and her evocation of the interstices of Iranian society who still flourish even under the hard-heeled boot of theocratic rule are powerful reminders to readers in other climes not to tar an entire people by the political brush of ideologically-inclined media empires, and to recognise our shared humanity through the power of story.
  • Lastly, a note on the art style: while simple and monochrome, Satrapi has a knack for expressiveness amidst light and stark shadow that jumps out of its simplicity.

Verdict: Entertaining, sobering and rawly authentic, Persepolis brings us closer to an understanding of Iran and its peoples through its honest evocation of growing up in a repressive Iran, told through Satrapi’s vivacious autobiographical lens.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Iron Maiden Posters

 

IT (Movie)

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What it’s about: A bunch of kids fight an evil clown (among other things) and grow closer in the process.

Notes

  • Having watched this so soon after having read the book, I obviously can’t help but compare the two. And in many ways, the movie is actually better – more taut in its storytelling, clearer in its themes, less reliant on odd plot contrivances. But, of course, the hoariness and bloat of the book is part of its dreadful charm. Reading IT, unlike watching it, immersed you in a dark tangled forest of fear, something a 2 hour movie could never quite reach.
  • The book is also replete with a depth of lore, of tangential anecdotes of the city and its inhabitants and their deep dark secrets, making the city of Derry one of the main characters of the book, when in the movie the idea of Derry as a place steeped in that miasma of contagious psychic evil doesn’t really come through. And of course, the interweaving and simultaneous plot threads featuring the characters as children and as adults, with all the intratextual delightfulness that brings, becomes a movie entirely focusing on the children, with the second chapter an as-yet unconfirmed (but highly probable) sequel.
  • Viscerally, IT isn’t actually all that groundbreaking a horror movie. It has all the tropes – CG jump scares, an overreliance on a blaring orchestral score to signal scary moments, characters acting stupid and wandering off alone in dangerous places, and of course, clowns (though Stan Uri’s fear, the Thin Woman Judith, is pretty scary). What sets IT apart is not the quality of its horror, but rather how convincingly it portrays the struggles of adolescence, of childhood friendships, (potty-mouthed) banter, and solidarity, using the horror as a foil to bind its characters together. It’s a formula that works, and now that I’ve read and watched IT, I know why Stranger Things evokes such a pang of familiarity – the It story is a near-perfect evocation of that archetype of youthful friendship in adversity.
  • As for Pennywise himself, stripped of the story of his origins (which might come in the next instalment), he actually comes across as a rather one-dimensional villain, because his motives are never really explored in the film. He’s just a supernatural shapeshifting creep with a taste for scared children. Bill Skarsgard does his darndest to come up with a unique and scary interpretation of the character, all yellow-eyed, double-jointed, drooling menace, but in a way, Pennywise’s insanity is just animalistic – it doesn’t quite have that intelligent, twisted cruelty that Pennywise has in the book, in which he delights in tormenting and stalking his prey, not just through jump scares, but through psychological torment as well. But maybe that’ll come in the second instalment.

Verdict: Don’t expect to be too scared if you’re a horror veteran (I’m not and I wasn’t that  scared), and Pennywise himself doesn’t quite get to the stratospheric heights of scariness that I was expecting, but watch anyway for a near-perfect evocation of adolescent friendship.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 pills

 

 

Kedi

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What it’s about: A documentary about the lives of the cats that roam around Istanbul, and the relationships that they have with each other and the humans that know them.

Notes

  • I’m of two minds about this documentary. On one hand, it’s a cute, beautifully composed romp through the lives of a number of cats that inhabit the streets and byways of Istanbul. On the other, however, it really isn’t much more than that. It tries to be. Most of its narration comprises the musings and benedictions of the Istanbul residents that look after these cats. They talk about how the cats have changed their lives, how they bring out the best and worst in people, and how they are themselves people-like in their character and actions. But the nuggets of insight grow thin after a while.
  • This is ultimately a documentary that outlasts its welcome. Its first half hour is everything you’d expect a documentary about cats to be. But it repeats itself and its platitudes over and over because it doesn’t have a narrative arc to guide its progression.
  • The cats are all distinct personalities, sure, but there is a sense of there being little follow-through – the documentary is a snapshot of each cat’s lives, but their stories are truncated before they have a chance to impress themselves upon us – the cat never catches the mouse.
  • The film does make me want to visit Istanbul, though – just because it makes it seem like such a welcoming city, one in which the street cat is recognised and appreciated for their tenacity and resourcefulness and in which they become part of the cultural and historical fabric of the city.

Verdict: Beautifully shot and full of cute cats, Kedi lacks a compelling narrative arc to sustain the many undeveloped vignettes of its feline stars, and ultimately becomes a bit of a repetitive slog towards the end.

I give this: 3 out of 5 cats

The Human Division

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What it’s about: The Colonial Union has lost Earth and must now rely more on diplomacy to survive, even as nefarious forces seek to bring about its destruction.

Notes:

  • This is the first of two serialised novels in the Old Man’s War universe, and as such, can read somewhat episodically at times. The novel follows Harry Wilson, one of the original friends of the erstwhile protagonist John Perry. Wilson is more scientist than soldier, relying more on his wits than his modified green body to survive. And that, I think, makes him more interesting than Perry.
  • Scalzi has great fun putting the characters into all sorts of weird situations showcasing the weird and wonderful in interspecies relations. Many chapters are almost self-contained in how they depict Wilson and his crew thinking on their feet to triage teetering diplomatic negotiations, often relying on serendipity and blind luck to save humanity’s reputation.
  • The self-contained nature of each chapter means that it doesn’t read like a novel, but more like a series of interconnected chapters. Serialised fiction is not new, but Scalzi here has somewhat eschewed the end-of-chapter suspense hook that characterises much of such fiction in favor of making them stories on their own, but unified by an overarching strand that actually never really surfaces in this book (it will the next). It’s a strange read, but not unpleasant. But in a world where information flows so freely, why indeed do books need to be self-contained anymore?

Verdict: Disjointed but entertaining and pure Scalzi in its whimsical inventiveness, The Human Division is a portentous new chapter in the Old Man’s War universe.

I give this: 4 out of 5 nanofiber crowns

Death’s End

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What it’s about: After the events of The Dark Forest, humanity has gained a reprieve against the Trisolarians due to the principles of dark forest deterrence. But the reprieve turns out to be short-lived, and humanity soon finds itself exposed to bigger threats than just the Trisolarians. It’s a big hoary galaxy out there.

Notes: 

  • The series resembles an exponential curve in terms of its timeline – the first book takes place over half a century, the second over a couple of centuries, and the third, literally billions of years. Accordingly, the scope and imaginativeness of the series also expands, while its human elements remain about the same.
  • The protagonist this round is the Chinese astrophysicist Cheng Xin, whose good nature makes her one of the most maligned characters in the entire series. Let’s just say that she’s in a position to make a number of very important decisions and manages to choose wrongly in every instance. But she gets to witness the end of the universe, which might either be a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask.
  • Cheng Xin is, however, emblematic of Liu’s rather retro approach towards the depiction and characterisation of gender in this book. While not quite chauvinistic, he takes a view that societies can take on aspects of different genders, and this guides their outlook on political and social affairs. Indeed, Liu’s 23rd century society is a feminised one, where men of the era are virtually indistinguishable from women in physical appearance and manner, and is consequently unprepared to shoulder the harsh, masculine” burden of having to maintain the system of dark forest deterrence, which requires someone who can credibly carry out the MAD option.
  • Relatedly, Liu’s sociological commentary can seem a bit fantastic at times – he posits a sort of generational cut-off after which society began to “switch” genders, and this can happen in the space of mere decades, which seems to me to be a bit of a contrived way to make a point about societies that act according to their prevailing “gender”. It assumes societies can be homogenised through the lens of gendered action, and it also assumes that gender normativities trump rational calculation, which is a coded way of saying women let their sentiment cloud their rationality – which is problematic.
  • In any case, however, this book is extremely depressing. Not least because of the wanton sense of existential crisis that constantly hounds at the heels of latter-day humanity, but because the book really makes you grok the immensity of the cosmos in a way that strips one of the self-importance of the immediate. Liu’s conceptual imagination is staggering, positing things like weaponised physics, black domains, and pocket universes.
  • But the book also hints at bigger and more magnificent ordering principles that suggests that the logic of the dark forest may not be as all-encompassing as it seems. Cheng Xin witnesses it all, an observer who somehow survives the eons of deep time until the end of the universe, when it is revealed that both humanity and Trisolarians have survived till that point – but the ensuing eras are glossed over. There is an immensity of hope in that revelation – that the species endured through time to witness the ultimate omega moment – the rebirth of a new, whole universe and a chance to start afresh. But it’s taken a long time, and a number of lucky breaks, to overcome the implied consequence of the Fermi Paradox to arrive at that point.
  • The book ends with many unanswered questions. What is humanity like at the end of the universe? What did Tianming see and experience during his time with the Trisolarian fleet? What were the “trade lanes” being hinted at, and does that mean that there is a galactic community that has transcended dark forest logics? What are the hidden warnings implied in the fairytale that Tianming told Cheng Xin? Was there really a way for humanity to avoid the two-dimensionalisation of the Solar System? And what happens after the end of the book, which stops right at the point where the fate of the universe, and of future universes, is undecided?
  • Those questions may never be answered, but in their non-answering, they connote a sense of the boundlessness and ineffable nature of the cosmos, one that cannot all be packed into a single tome. But Liu has, in Death’s End, tried to do just that.

Verdict: Flawed, complex, and messy, but ambitious and audacious beyond measure, Death’s End is a magnificently imaginative capstone to a truly remarkable trilogy.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 gravity ships

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #2)

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What it’s about: The wacky on-the-job adventures of the Brooklyn Nine Nine crew continue, but this time with a dash of high-stakes drama and romance: Captain Holt is forced to leave the Nine Nine, and Jake and Amy start to get a move on. Charles and Gina bang in what must be the most non-sequitur office pairing in sitcom.

Notes:

  • Brooklyn Nine Nine continues to be a well-written and comforting collection of good-hearted hilarity (except for its ceaseless mean-spirited riffing of Hitchcock and Scully (and to a smaller extent, Boyle) who only deserve about 80% of what comes to them).
  • Character dynamics seem to evolve somewhat naturally – while everyone plays off their stereotypes for comic effect, there is a divide between their joke selves and their dramatic selves – they are more than their own typecasting. Nowhere is this more apparent than Jake Peralta, who becomes surprisingly decent-hearted even as his naturally carefree self gets him into real hot water at least twice an episode.
  • Charles is the most hangdog-sad character in the show – an overly cultured individual with an odd interpretation of social mores, strangely worshipful towards his best friend Jake – and I somehow feel the saddest for him, just because it’s in his inherent nature to be the butt of all the jokes. His boundless and strange passions and indefatigable zest for the oddly fine things in life are oddly sympathetic, yet he is more often than not rendered impotent by his esoteric preoccupations in a way that is humorous but also somewhat tragic. And it feels that there are cracks in his friendship with Jake, which seemed a sacrosanct partnership in season 1.
  • Amy’s maturity and her wilfully blind devotion to Holt seem at odds with each other – one is played for laughs while the other makes her a foil for the zanier antics of the group. Yet the show balances this well, making Amy an accomplice to insanity at some points and a straight-laced goody two shoes another. It’s just one of the comic juxtapositions that keeps the show fresh.
  • The show ends on a bum note – Holt leaving the Nine Nine, defeated at the moment of victory by his arch-nemesis Wunch – and that is a bit of dramatic irony (because we know it’ll end up alright – it’s a sitcom!), but it really does seem rather sad.

Verdict: Same old fun, with a bit of character growth and exploration of the dramatic while not sacrificing the formulas that make this show a comedic tour de force – Brooklyn Nine Nine hasn’t lost its Season 1 spark, and may even outshine it in the feels department.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Gigglepigs