Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Bird Box, 2018

Whatever you do, don't open your eyes.

Danish film director and Academy Award winner Susanne Bier’s Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic thriller and more. It also has shades of science fiction, horror, fantasy and the supernatural. Take your pick. The absence of visible monsters and hideous creatures is more than made up by the unseen, ghostly whispers and hallucinations.   

The Netflix movie—based on the 2014 namesake book by Josh Malerman, the lead singer of the American band The High Strung—begins with Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, named Boy and Girl, making a perilous two-day journey to safety. They must grope their way through a forest and paddle down a fast-flowing river—blindfolded.

If they open their eyes, they risk coming under the spell of an invisible apparition (or entities) that causes psychotic behaviour among people, brings out their worst fears and forces them to commit suicide in horrible ways.

Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) to the children: "Listen to me. I’m only gonna say this once. We’re going on a trip now. It’s going to be rough... Understand? Under no circumstances are you allowed to take off your blindfold. If I find that you have, I will hurt you. Do you understand? If you hear something in the woods, you tell me. if you hear something in the water, you tell me. But you never, ever, take off your blindfold. If you look, you will die. Do you understand?”

Cut back to five years earlier.

Malorie, single and pregnant, and her elder sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson) are returning from the doctor’s when the entities they heard about on television invade their town and nearly wipe out its population. The sight of the unseen causes Jessica to crash their car and kill herself. Malorie barely survives and finds shelter with a group of survivors who include Douglas (John Malkovich), a self-centered man with a gun, a helpful gentleman called Tom (Trevante Rhodes), and another pregnant woman named Olympia (Danielle Macdonald). The motley crew hide in a house, the doors locked and the windows covered up.

Director Bier does a clever job of taking the viewer back and forth throughout the 124-minute film, between Malorie’s impossible journey on the river (in the present) and the chaos and death she and the others confront in their hideout (in the past). The frequent flash-forwards and flashbacks, though a trifle annoying, do not lessen interest in the film.

Cut to five years later.

The entities are still omnipresent in the world. Malorie and Tom are now lovers and possibly the sole survivors in the town. The boy is Malorie’s, the girl is Olympia’s. Both are five years old. She loves the girl as her own. One day, infected survivors charge their house, forcing Tom to sacrifice his life and allowing Malorie to escape with the kids—down the river in a boat.

Bird Box, in Stephen King’s words, is riveting. I was, therefore, surprised at the scores of negative reviews of the film. I agree with the Master of Horror when he says, “Don't believe the lukewarm reviews, which may in part have been caused by reviewers’ ambivalence to the streaming platform, as opposed to theatrical releases. One might say movie reviewers suffer from the dread NP syndrome: Netflix Prejudice.” I’m glad I don’t suffer from it.

Susanne Bier packs several elements in this intensely atmospheric film—the chilling spectre of the unseen, the assorted characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar, the unpredictability of human nature, and the thought of what it’d be like to live (or die) at the mercy of a sinister presence. Just what the hell is that thing out there? It’s a question you keep asking even as Bier distracts you with one unfolding piece of action after another. And there's plenty of it.

From start to finish, Bird Box is Sandra Bullock's film. She carries it very well. If you’ve watched her other movies, you’ll see why she is suited for this one. She is spontaneous and, predictably, hyper-realistic; her character responding to the fearful circumstances with a mix of emotions, often loud and unsettling. It’s understandable in her situation.

I had two reservations about the film. One, the versatile Malkovich being pigeonholed as a bit of a looney, and two, Bullock and the children escaping blindfolded through miles of cold and hostile territory. Neither stopped me from enjoying the film on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Partners: Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

“I’m not sure I want to get involved in this one,” Sebastian mumbled.

© Doubleday
Partners: Rogue Lawyer (2016) is a 60-page prequel to John Grisham’s full novel Rogue Lawyer published a year before. It is also the bestselling author’s first digital short story, or novella. And it’s written in Grisham’s trademark style; the prose sharp and precise, where every line impels the reader to move on to the next line and the one after, and read through until the end.

Since I hadn’t read the novel, it seemed appropriate to read the short story first and learn how rogue lawyer Sebastian Rudd meets up with Thomas Cardell (alias Tee Ray) who, by the end, offers to become his man Friday, his partner, bodyguard, law clerk and driver rolled into one.

Basically, Grisham wrote Rogue Lawyer introducing Rudd and Cardell to readers, and then decided to write a prequel about how the two met.

Rudd, somewhere in his early thirties, is a street lawyer who operates from a cheap bar-turned-law office in a drug-infested neighbourhood. He defends people other lawyers won’t go near. He knows they’re criminals and probably guilty even before they step inside a courtroom. Rudd has built a reputation as a skilled defence lawyer and has had more jury trials than others his age. He is also the most unpopular lawyer in town.

The rogue lawyer’s unpopularity shoots up when he reluctantly agrees to defend Tee Ray, a Black drug carrier arrested for killing a White cop in self defence. The dead cop, an honour student and a decorated Marine, has the town, the media and the entire police force behind him; Rudd has the backing of his client’s employers, a territorial drug organisation, and threats to his life.

Rudd is aware, without evidence and witnesses, the drug dealer would be sentenced to death for the
murder of the police officer. So he digs and discovers, with help from his point man in the organisation, that Tee Ray is actually telling the truth; that he was forced to shoot the cop only after the former fired at him several times. The cop wanted a scapegoat, to achieve his month’s target, and Tee Ray seemed like easy pickings. He was clean when he was set upon. A swift trial follows.

Partners is a fast-paced and well-crafted story about not just a street crime or a crime against a police officer, but also about racial violence against Blacks, and is reminiscent of America in the 60s and perhaps even today. Grisham, as is his tradition, handles the subject with skill and sensitivity. What I liked about this story is he not only makes the good guys look good, he doesn’t make the bad ones look very bad. His characters, irrespective of which side of the law they belong to, are only human, with their share of foibles and weaknesses. Another endearing quality about Grisham’s stories is his empathy for the underdog—like Tee Ray
and his dream of providing a good life for his teenage son—and the manner in which he gives them a voice that touches the reader. He makes one think, there is justice in this world, after all.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut and other books

“I was the baby of the family. Now I don’t have anybody to show off for anymore.” 
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

I bought no more than a dozen secondhand books this year. I’m pretty sure of that. Let me see—a few westerns, thrillers and spy fiction, Lee Child, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Enid Blyton, Kurt Vonnegut. Yes, that’s about it, though I haven’t read any of the books yet. I seldom buy new fiction.

© Prashant C. Trikannad
I also ordered nonfiction from Amazon, as part of the annual office book allowance I’m entitled to. They’re all there in the picture on the left. I haven’t read any of those either, though I have been leafing through the books on writing. I usually don’t read guide books from cover to cover.

Separately, I also picked up Khushwant Singh’s autobiography Truth, Love & A Little Malice (2002). Singh was a well-known and an outspoken diplomat, journalist, parliamentarian, columnist, and author of scores of books. He was one of India’s most engaging storytellers, and also its most controversial. He had an easy and lucid style. The publication of the politically-sensitive book was held up for five years due to a court case.

© Viking, New Delhi
I also added a handful of comic-books to my collection. These included two graphic adaptations from the popular Warrior Cats multi-series by Erin Hunter, a combined pseudonym of a group of children’s book writers. Besides, I downloaded comics from Amazon under its ‘free comic book day’ attraction. I mostly read these on my tab during office commute.

From among fiction, I intend to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake first. It’s not exactly a novel; rather it’s a semi-autobiographical work marketed as a novel. The author, himself, has described the book as a “stew” and his “last novel”.

The following blurbs will tell you more about the book.

“There's been a timequake. And everyone—even you—must live the decade between February 17, 1991, and February 17, 2001, over again. The trick is that we all have to do exactly the same things as we did the first time—minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again. Why? You'll have to ask the old science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. This was all his idea.” 

© Berkley Books, New York
“Using his science-fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut talks about a recalcitrant book of Trout's whose premise would have been that ‘a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum’' occurs, creating a 10-year hitch in time in which everyone is forced to live that period of their lives over again, every word and action exactly repeated, from 1991 until 2001, at which point their lives move forward once more. It is a nice conceit, and Vonnegut and Trout have some fun with it, all interwoven with anecdotes about the Vonnegut family, how it feels to be an aging author and suchlike.” 
Publishers Weekly

“Family is obviously an important anchor for Vonnegut. Through Timequake, he keeps track of a wide variety of siblings, uncles, children, wives and ex-wives, etc. It says a great deal about Vonnegut's view of family that he is close to his family and is also a successful writer while his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is an unsuccessful author and has no family. When Trout does gain some success in Timequake after the rerun has concluded, he has also gained a family of sorts.” 
— Review on SF Site

The late Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers mainly because I enjoy his writing to the extent that I'm tempted to imitate his style. He kept it short, almost staccato, and simple. He managed to say a lot without saying much, a tribute to his ability to write with brevity and minimum fuss. He also had a wry sense of humour.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a comics fan!

© Miika Laaksonen/Unsplash

Bill Maher, political commentator and television host, was accused of mocking comic-book fans for mourning the death, November 12, of Marvel legend Stan Lee. He wrote on his blog, “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” and added, somewhat self-righteously, “Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own.”

As a comic-book fan, reading and collecting comics for over four decades, I wasn’t offended by the American comedian’s ill-conceived remarks. Maybe he was trying to be funny, except no one felt like laughing. Comics are a serious business, an alternate religion, even for the lighthearted among diehard fans.

Here’s what happened next. Like dirty linen, Lee fans took Maher to the cleaners, to be washed, rinsed, spun and dried on social media. His attempts to clarify that he meant no disrespect to Stan Lee failed to cut ice with his legion of followers.

Stan Lee and Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3. © Sony/Marvel

The outrage against Maher can perhaps be explained in the words of Hollywood actor Chris Evans who, in an unrelated context, said, “The comic book world is so dangerous. You know what I mean? You say one thing and people—they’re ravenous—they are very opinionated fans. But they're great fans.” Who better to tell us than the man who plays Captain America and the Human Torch in Marvel’s Avengers and Fantastic Four?

What Maher probably didn't realise is that, comics, in spite of spawning a global cultural phenomena for nearly a century, is a personal thing. We may share and enjoy comic-books collectively, swear lifelong allegiance to the sequential panels of vivid characters, images and balloons, but we read them as individuals, in the seclusion of our mental cocoons where no outsiders are allowed and trespassers like Maher are prosecuted.

Most of us, and certainly those who grew up in the second half of the 2oth century, have fond memories of spending many a summer holiday borrowing and reading comics, and then exchanging those for new ones from the circulating library. Mine are no different.

Here, I'm going to digress.

I recall the first time I stepped inside the world of comics. I was around eight years old when an uncle from San Diego, California, sent my dad 40 DC and Marvel comics by post. The crisp and glossy Silver Age (1956-1970) and Bronze Age (1970-1985) comics, neatly packed in a carton, travelled nearly 7,000 miles and inspired him to start collecting comics and rope me in as his young co-conspirator.

It was the beginning of a delightful adventure with an eclectic roster of valiant heroes and superheroes—the Pandavas and the Maurya Kings, Justice League and the Avengers, and so many others—dedicated to fighting evil and making the world a better place.

© Amar Chitra Katha
One evening, my dad picked up Gopal and the Cowherd, a popular Bengali folktale from Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories)—India’s largest-selling comic-book imprint—and read it out to me.

In the comic-book, Gopal, a poor young lad who lives with his devout mother in a tiny village, must walk alone through a dark forest to get to school on the other side. Naturally, he is afraid to make the journey alone. His mother calmly tells her son, “Whenever you’re scared, call out to your brother. He is a cowherd and his name is also Gopal. He will come and protect you.” Relieved, the boy happily sets off for school. As he is passing through the forest, Gopal calls out to his “brother” who materialises out of nowhere—wearing peacock feathers in his golden crown and playing a flute—and escorts the boy to school and back. When his mother hears about the mysterious brother and the herd of cows with tinkling bells, she realises that her son’s saviour was none other than Lord Krishna. She prays with silent gratitude, “You took care of my son, my Lord. I called and you came.”

It was one of the most beautiful and poignant stories I had heard and read at the time. It was also one of my earliest inspirational lessons in values and virtues. And that’s what comic-books are all about; often, a better teacher than pedantic textbooks.

Over the years, since then, I frequently turned to comic-books, to such brave and self-sacrificing heroes as Arjuna, the maverick archer in the great Indian epic Mahabharata and Captain America, the patriotic super-soldier, for both inspiration and entertainment. I found the richly illustrated panels and speech balloons riveting. In difficult times, comics were a form of escapism, a secret place where you overcame fear and despair, replaced negative emotions with hope, wonder and positive choices, and steered through life’s inevitable challenges with a new strength and optimism.

In that sense, comic-books, notwithstanding their digital avatars and billion-dollar movie franchises, are a liberating medium primarily because of their emotional appeal and visual influence and because, as Peter Parker’s Aunt May tells us so eloquently in Spider-Man 2, “There’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

May Parker’s eulogy, in many ways, is a tribute to comic-book fans who yearn to be like the mortal, supernatural and other-world heroes they admire and venerate so much. Actually, the rest of the world isn’t very different. Everyone, at some point, imagines living vicariously through the lives of those they look up to. Even Bill Maher.