Shades Of Words


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Marvel Studio’s Dr. Strange

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If you are expecting an objective review then I recommend walking away as I am fan of Benedict Cumberbatch and am often more forgiving of his creative endeavors than others. Let me begin with acknowledging the obvious – Cumberbatch yet again embodies a hyper-intelligent, narcissistic, apathetic character. He is predictably brilliant in the movie and displays a surprising sense of comic timing. I don’t doubt his talent but I will really like to see him do something else.
Dr. Strange is an odd movie to review, immensely enjoyable but definitely distinctive from its other Marvel counterpart. The arrogant, flamboyant, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange lives the life of millionaires and have-it-alls callously stepping over the lives, dreams and hopes of others. An automobile accident leaves him severely damaged and for once in his life he finds he doesn’t pull the strings. In a desperate attempt to regain the strength of his hands, he follows the tales of mystic healing to the base of the Himalayas to Kamar-Taj in Nepal. After the usual dramedy of he-is-stupid-but-still-the-chosen-one, Strange is taken under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, who makes this silly character look effortlessly real), and very quickly learns to bend the universe to his will. In fact it appears he had probably studied longer to be a neurosurgeon than to be an astral plane traveler. Strange graduates just in time to fight the evil sorcerer Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen, whose considerable talents seem wasted here), who is trying to absorb the planet into the Dark Dimension where Dormammu rules. The planet is the price he is willing to pay for a life of eternity.
In realms of fantasy, Dr. Strange pushes boundaries like no other Marvel before. Imagine Inception on steroids. Strange’s first out of body experience is exactly that for the audience too. Psychedelic montages take us through freakishly bizarre journey through the universe. The time-reversal sequences alone are worth the price of the ticket.
The weak thread of the movie is story. Super hero movies need to latch on to strong moral themes to create empathy for cartoonish, ridiculously clad characters. Dr. Strange is more about one man’s personal journey. The good versus evil storyline is not clearly defined, nor the universe of the mystical magical world. The CGI effects often carry the movie away from the core story. Even the ever brooding Chiwetel Ejiofor cannot provide any gravitas to the flailing storyline.
And the movie makers get it. While immensely entertaining, this movie doesn’t imbibe the sincerity that makes superheroes films somber. It’s almost if everyone realizes how foolish this is and decides to simply have fun with it. For instance, the Cloak of Levitation while obviously a very powerful weapon for Strange to command is used for comical effects. Or the grand climax where the super-villain is defeated by getting stuck in a timeless loop. By the time, Dr. Strange stands up to Dormammu the 5th time, I was rolling in my seat. Movie climaxes are supposed to be awe-inspiring, not nerdy and silly.
It’s sad that the most interested I was in the movie was when the credits finished rolling and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor appears requesting Dr. Strange’s assistance to look for Loki. Now I want to see that movie!
At the end of it this is what I took away from the movie – Use bluetooth while driving.


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Kapoor & Sons

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Let me start by saying that I was really surprised by how much I liked Kapoor & Sons (K&S). The trailer wasn’t promising; the movie appeared to be another glossy love story with pointless dance and song. So not true.  Thematically similar to Dil Dhadakne Do, a movie about a wealthy dysfunctional family, Kapoor & Sons focuses on interplay of relationships in a small middle class family settled on the hills of Coonoor. In terms of depth, relatability and subtlety it does far better job than the shiny travel brochure that Dil Dhadakne Do was almost on the verge of being.

The movie begins when the head of the Kapoor family, Daadu (Rishi Kapoor in geriatric makeup) has a heart attack and is admitted to the hospital. This brings his diasporic grandsons back home completing the small family unit. The heart of the story is the dysfunction masked by love between the four main characters of the Kapoor family – the mom, dad and the bickering brothers. All of them hide their own terrible secrets. Rahul (Fawad Khan) is the perfect and very obviously favored son. A successful writer, he enjoys moderate fame and wealth. He comes first in everything including his parent’s affection. Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) is obviously the disgruntled neglected child constantly looking for approval and trying to escape the shadow of his big bro. Unable to stick to a job he invites constant contempt from his family. The mom, portrayed by Ratna Pathak in a scene stealing performance, is the typical Indian housewife. She is the glue that holds the family together even though she suffers the most thru other’s faults. Rajat Kapoor (in another brilliant performance) as Harsh is the cheating husband and insensitive father. Each character brings a lot of emotional baggage and no conversation is innocent of accusations and past hurt.

Movies about dysfunctional families aren’t new, not even for Bollywood. What makes this really worthwhile is the edge of the seat drama, brilliant performances and the beautifully layered story.  No character is devoid of secrets or sin. Each scene exposes a speck of the mess that the Kapoor family is, building the tension until the climax when all hell breaks loose.

Alia Bhatt’s character, Tia Singh, is charming and fun and provides some impetus to certain parts of the movie when it tends to drag. This is the first movie of her that I have seen and she is a revelation as an actress. While her character is not truly essential to the narrative, her performance makes it worthwhile.

Fawad Khan brings a steady and believable performance as that of the older and more responsible brother, while continuing to look superhot. Sidharth Malhotra has the more difficult part to play and he does mostly well in this sensitive role, stumbling through some intense emotional scenes.

There are some oddities that are probably worth mentioning. For a story set in a hill station in Tamil Nadu, there is a disproportionate high number of North-Indian Hindi speaking families settled there. While Tia’s character is pleasant, her plotline begs credibility.  Daadu’s antics as a party loving old man are sometimes cute and other times annoying. All scenes with Rishi Kapoor appear contrived. He is a plot point necessary to force the characters together for all the fireworks, but he himself does not add any value to it.

These quibbles aside, Kapoor & Sons is an incredible smart and sophisticated movie. A movie that can be watched more than once.


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PINK

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I will start with the obvious. PINK is not just a movie but social commentary – and it is done really, really well. It’s the kind of movie that will (hopefully) impact the discussion on sexual consent for years to come. At the least, it will bring this discussion to your living rooms. If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this review and go watch it.
The plot is straightforward enough. Three girls –Minal, Falak & Andrea- join a few guys at their resort for dinner & drinks after a rock concert. Something transpires and the girls flee the scene after hitting a boy almost fatally with a bottle. While we are never shown what happened, it’s implied heavily that Minal was molested. Alone and scared of the incident, the girls just want to move on with their lives. The boys Rajvir, Dumpy and Ankit hatch plans of revenge. They are going to show these modern ‘characterless’ girls their place in this world. The threats and the harassment begin. The girls finally go to the police which make matter worse for them. Minal finds herself in prison on charge of murder and the girls truly hit rock bottom. Help comes in the form of Mr. Deepak Sehgal, a retired lawyer who defends their case.
The first half of the movie is a slow stretch – establishing the premise, the characters, their dynamics and desperation. It’s like elastic being pulled back, and then it snaps in the second half. The courtroom drama is the moral center of the movie. It takes on the trite and over-used ‘she was characterless so she deserved it’ approach head on. The defense aids in establishing that she may be characterless (whatever that truly means) – but did she consent to sex. The emphasis on consent is the core theme. The movie also calls out on the inherent feudal mindset that prevails on today’s urban men that appear deceptively modern. Rich, educated abroad, trotting about in designer wear – they still don’t see women as equals or people with free will.
Taapsee Pannu as Minal and Kriti Kulhari as Falak bring in fine, nuanced performances. Taapsee Pannu does a phenomenal job in the portrayal of an assault victim. Sexual assault may not always leave physical marks but the emotional scars are as important. She easily outshine Amitabh Bachchan in every scene (a side note – his towering presence was really not required on the poster of a movie about a women’s issue). The movie is low in melodrama until Bachchan appears on the scene (just kidding – well not really). I do like the fact that even then the focus remains on the girls. Mr. Sehgal’s character breaches on the edge of sermonizing but is often stopped short which is a relief. It’s important for movies to drive social messages without occupying the pulpit.
Some narrative decisions seem very deliberate. As an audience we never see the actual incident till the ending credits roll. Along with the court, we rely on the testimony of the girls and the witnesses. It’s a parallel to real life where often in cases of molestation there are no witnesses and the onus of establishing the incident often falls on the traumatized victim. The movie makes an important point of mentioning that consent is important even if it’s the women in question is your wife – a pointed barb at the lack of laws around marital rape.
It’s important to note that this movie is not about rape in general. It deals with a very specific type of incident about a very specific section of society. The focus of the movie is rather on the deep seated patriarchal values that drive men in India to assume themselves as the proprietors of woman and self-appointed judges on their transgressions and habits. ‘You drink, so you are fair game. You smile ‘freely’ at me, so you are fair game. You refuse me, how dare you, you slut! Let me show you who I am!’ These values extend to the police force whose job is to protect its citizens. The condescending and dismissive inspector who discourages Minal from filing her original complaint; the rude and unsympathetic female police officer who arrests the girls without proper investigation. They are not characters in fiction – they are characters that you read about everyday as yet another rape story hits the news.
Minal, Falak and Andrea are normal working girls. What happened to them continues to happen to a lot of girls like them. And they are not as lucky to have a Mr. Sehgal help them.


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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” – Shakespeare

So. Many. Thoughts. Where do I begin? Perhaps at the very beginning – when a little magical baby survived a deadly attack from a very cruel wizard setting in motion events that culminated in the Battle of Hogwarts in which the evil wizard was finally defeated. But what if the magical baby did not survive? Or what if that cruel wizard did not kill him? What would have happened then and what would the world of Harry Potter look like today?

The Cursed Child may be a story in the future but its feet are planted in the past. At the heart of it is the misunderstood Albus Potter and his troubled relationship with his father, Harry. Albus is Harry’s middle child, mediocre in his magical prowess, forever in his dad’s shadow and a Slytherin. Can you imagine being a Potter and a Slytherin? Though 22 years have passed, the prejudice dividing the houses remains unchanged. He is further alienated from his friends and family because of his close friendship with Scorpius, Draco Malfoy’s son. Scorpius is rumored son of Voldemort which makes him very unpopular in school. Scorpius maybe Draco’s son but to me he seemed to be Ron & Hermoine’s progeny. He is funny yet nerdy and by far the most lovable new character in the series.

All through the story, Harry and Albus have a difficult relationship. Albus resents that his father’s celebrity status and is determined to find his flaws. Harry does not know how to deal with this moody, rebellious kid. Their failing relationship drives impetus to Albus’s mission to undo the wrongs of his father. A chance encounter with the Diggorys, Amos and Delphini, set Albus and Scorpius on a quest to reverse the past and save Cedric Diggory’s life. Time-Turners come into play and famous landmarks are revisited. We skirt the forbidden forest, swim through the pipes in the 1st floor girls’ bathroom at Hogwarts, take a dive into the Hogwart’s lake and find ourselves inside the Whomping Willow. Every time Albus goes into the past, he changes the future. The Cursed Child is a chance for JK Rowling to legitimize all the alternate endings which would have swirled in her head when she wrote Harry Potter the first time. There is a lot of fan service as we go back to some of the most pivotal events of the series. The most poignant is when we along with Harry witnesses the death of Potter’s parents – the gravity of letting fate take its place for the greater good.

I found the book to be surprisingly consistent to most characters. It’s not strange that Harry is not the greatest dad, he had after all very little experience with his own parents. It’s also not unusual that he is a bit self-absorbed by his past. He has been a celebrity since he was 11 years old and no one lets him forget it. He of course suffers from PTSD. Hermione has become the Minister of Magic and continues to be bright and resourceful. Ron has been reduced to a bumbling idiot – which was his point wasn’t it? Hermione’s daughter would of-course be named Granger-Weasely. All three of them would of course be celebrities – their lives well documented and well known.

This books is full of self-references and tongue in cheek humour. The irony of Albus, Scorpius & Delphi polyjuicing into the Ministry of Magic as Ron, Harry and Hermione isn’t lost on us. Inside jokes abound – lax security of Hogwarts, how you ‘must’ find life-long friendship on you first time in Hogwarts Express and so on.
There has been criticism on the quality of writing and stupidity of the story arches of The Cursed Child. I wholeheartedly agree. The writing is sloppy and simplistic at times. Scenes are wrought with high emotions. In one scene Dumbledore & Harry are crying and declaring their love for each other (not what it sounds like!) which seems quite out of character. Two young kids hoodwinking enchantments set by Hermione in the library scene seems far-fetched. Hermione repeatedly fooled experts when she was 17 – there is no way her enchantments would be this lame. What really saddens me is that somehow with age Harry & Hermione have become more of the politicians and less of the righteous wizard that we knew.

JK Rowling’s strength has always been in the storytelling – intricate plotlines that form pieces of a larger puzzle that keep coming together. She loves exploring relationships – with a lot of focus on friendships and familial bonds. You see patterns in our first seven books. Harry’s abusive childhood would lead him to form strong attachments with Hogwarts and the people he met there. With Albus, the story is inverted. Hogwarts is place he hates. But both share an unhappy childhood and both feel isolated. Both carry resentment for the life they were given are quick to anger and reckless. Both rely on friends over family. Both share a love for foolish adventure.

As The Cursed Child is a script, readers have complained that it doesn’t do a great job in creating a visual spectacle of magic that prose format does. I don’t necessarily agree. Magical is secondary in this story. The assumption is that the people reading are inherently familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Magic just happens and does not need to be explained. The story is really about love and friendship and loss. It’s about good versus evil. That’s what Harry Potter has always been about.


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Lucifer: Devilish Detective Show

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Let me begin by being upfront about this – FOX’s new show “Lucifer’ is nothing but  guilty pleasure entertainment. Its average though stylish TV that often rises above the mundane due to its sharp script and brilliant casting. The show is based on DC comics by the same name that I am completely unfamiliar with, so I did not have any preconceived notions on what to expect before I watched the show.

The premise is intriguing. Lucifer (Tom Ellis), the fallen angel, rebels against his given life as the devil, and comes to earth to find himself. This infuriates his father, God and he sends Amenadiel(D.B Woodside), his brother angel to bring him back to hell. This existential journey that Lucifer undertakes on earth forms the long arch of the show. The more day-to-day existence of Lucifer is tied in running his very hip LA bar with the help of his personal demon, Maze and helping Detective Chloe Decker(Lauren German) of LAPD solve murders with his powers. Mortals love to confide in him and spill their secrets. I love fantasy fiction and murder mysteries so this show is the perfect poison for me. The Pilot introduces the main cast of characters and sets up the team of the crime fighting duo. The initial few episodes seem light as the focus is on introducing key players . The murders of the week are mostly meh. I personally enjoy the aspects that focus on Lucifer’s self discovery – his conversations with Dr. Linda Martin ( his therapist, yes you read that right, its LA – even the Devil has a therapist) and his brother Amenadiel are always revealing. Ofcourse, every good story needs a good villain and we get one in the form of Malcom, a corrupt cop who has been brought back to the dead with the express purpose of killing Lucifer and sending him back to hell.

The show finds strong footing in the middle of the season with “Favorite Son”,Wingman” and “A Priest Walks into the Bar”. All of these are heavily focused on the theological and fantastical aspect of the show. These are the episodes one connects the most with Lucifer’s dilemma of being forced into a role that he did not want, of always living in his father’s shadow. There is a lot of potential for the show to grow as it explores themes of humanity and redemption.

Tom Ellis ( of Miranda fame) brings a whole of swagger and depth to the character of Lucifer. He literally lights up the screen with his good looks and charm. He is also get some of the best lines on the show – both witty and emotional which he delivers flawlessly. There are moments when Lucifer’s smugness can be borderline annoying, and that’s where the character of Chloe Decker (played brilliantly by Lauren German) grounds the script. The thing that I like about German’s performance is that even with her supermodel looks she is able to pull off this intelligent, focused and homely single mom role with such sincerity. Her acting seems effortless. It’s fairly obvious that Chloe is the eventual romantic pairing for Lucifer but what’s really amazing is that there is no angst and will-they-won’t-they drama that drives viewer crazy. Their friendship and admiration for each other is established early on and there is no need for cryptic dialogues and hints. Affections are expressed honestly and maturely. One of the big things that we are all waiting for is when will Chloe realize that Lucifer is the devil. Again, Lucifer being the devil is no big secret. He keeps telling everyone about it and often shows his true form – but most people have trouble accepting it. This is another refreshing take on how Lucifer is presented to the viewers.

The music on the show is wonderful – it forms a big part of creating the atmosphere. The first few episodes were heavy with songs referring to the “Devil” which was honestly an overkill, but they maintained a good mix of jazz with classic rock and roll. Ellis also sings a couple soundtracks, the most famous one being his performance of Nina Simone’s Sinnerman in “Favorite Son”. You can find the list of songs here here

Let’s be clear – there is a lot of good TV out there. This is not the best. But it’s really entertaining, fun and the full of super hot people🙂. It’s not a waste of your time.


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The Legend of Tarzan

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The Legend of Tarzan

I have fragmented memories of watching the 1999 Disney animated movie when I was too young to question the politics of the story. Based loosely on Edgar Burrough’s adventure series, any interpretation of the movie will be fraught with problems inherent to colonial literature – racism, imperialism, the savior complex etc. The Legend of Tarzan is a retelling of the tale that tries commendably to cater to modern sensibilities of the 21st century.

It’s firstly not an origins story. The audience is introduced to Tarzan, already living the life of an English lord. It’s been eight years since his discovery and return from Africa. We learn of his childhood in the wild through flashbacks. He is now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, married to the feisty Jane Porter, living a quiet retired life in his English manor. He is requested to accompany Captain George Williams (played by Samuel Jackson) on a diplomatic mission to Congo for a friendly visit to King Leopold’s territory. The covert purpose is to investigate a suspected slave trade encouraged by the government of King Leopold.

This is where history meets fiction – as a Captain George Williams did indeed go to Congo, discovered and reported on atrocities committed by the private militia on the Congolese people. In the movie, there is a larger plot afoot – King Leopold plans to mine the diamonds of Africa and couple it with underground slave trade to become the richest kingdom in all of Europe. This strategy is masterminded by Captain Léon Rom (played reliably and effortlessly by Christoph Waltz) who is driven by ambition and pure evil. To achieve this he needs to deliver Tarzan to Chief Mbonga, the tribal chief who owns the diamond regions.

Tarzan and Jane’s down-the-memory-lane trip turns sour pretty soon as their host village is attacked and Jane is kidnapped. The movie now follows the predictable path; Tarzan must rescue his Jane and save the people of Congo from Rom’s devious plans.  And so he does, swinging gorgeously from vine to vine, fighting apes and jumping across trees through the forests of Congo!

The very buff and good looking, Alexander Skarsgård plays an understated, brooding version of Tarzan, rightly so for someone who has spent more time in the wild then in the company of men.  Jane Porter is the only significant female character in the story and Margot Robbie plays her with aplomb. Jane’s character often mocks the traditional role. When the villainous Rum asks her to scream, she throws her head and retorts – “Like a damsel in distress!” She does do a commendable job of putting up a fight, but for the sake of convention and the box office, she is gloriously rescued by Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan tries hard to be politically correct – not an easy task given the original material. The choice of adding a black man as the partner to Tarzan’s journey is very deliberate, as is reference to slave trade, and the colonization of Africa. Somewhere buried in the script there are references to civil war and the cruel treatment of Indians. The movie addresses a lot of political hot topics with a brushstroke without delving into the details.

In the end, in spite of all its ambition, The Legend of Tarzan remains a silly adventure romp.


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Good Evening, Mrs. Craven

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I often find that great stories are not just about the writing, the plot or the characters, but what they tell us of the human condition.  That is what really pulls me into the pages and makes me think about what I have read long after I finished the book.  Stories about ordinary women in extraordinary situations are my personal favorite, which is why I am in love with Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

The author, Mollie Panter-Downes was a columnist for The New Yorker during the Second World War. Over the years she contributed war reports in the form of Letters from London and several short stories. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is the compilation of these stories. The focus on these stories is not on the battlefields, the soldiers or the war machine itself, but the effect of war on the home front in England.  These are the stories of women who may not be sitting in trenches in the line of fire, but are still acutely aware of the danger the war brings – both emotional and physical.

The collection is a mix of the comical and the tragic, of the optimistic and the hopeless. These short, sharp stories give us a window into what would have been the condition of hundreds of civilians as the years of the war swept by. The stories are arranged in a chronological order, with each story being darker than the ones before.  And all the stories are very, very English. There is not a touch of histrionic to be found anywhere; an entire nation is facing Armageddon but the stiff upper lip only just quivers.

With the declaration of war so many people in small villages across England found themselves playing hosts to families, friends and strangers escaping the air-raids of London. Outwardly a sense of righteousness prevails with the noble act of providing help to those who need. In the hearts there is the natural apprehension of strangers as portrayed in In Clover where a lower class poor mother and her children find refuge at the fancy Manor House in the village. All attempts at gentrification fail and the gentle folk are confused when the ‘lucky’ family gives up on the better life and decides to go back. All the good intentions cannot make up for the loss of privacy and the annoyance of guests as in Mrs. Ramsay’s War who finds her cottage and life taken over by kin of her friends. Mrs. Dudley, In Danger cannot believe her state of happiness when her evacuees leave.

‘But happiness was beginning to steal over her. She gave up trying to do anything, and went out into the hall and started drifting aimlessly from room to room, luxuriously listening to their emptiness. She couldn’t remember when she had last felt so happy”

For some the war is a much needed respite from the dullness of their existence. The war has opened up opportunity to be useful, to be wanted. Meeting at the Pringles focuses on the petty politics of the village committees set up to help with war efforts. Issues of leadership and organization are discussed with firm politeness and only the English genteelness kept the rivalries and jealousies at bay.

Even as other’s find purpose, there is still a lot of loneliness to go around.  The Waste of it All finds Frances desperately holding on to the memories of her husband before the war – a man she was briefly married to and now only knows through long letters. She has learned to live her life without him and replaces with a borrowed family. Only when the illusion breaks, does the revelation of wasted years bite her. My personal favorite is Goodbye, My love in which Ruth prepares for her husband’s imminent departure for military service.  Nothing and no one can comfort her or prepare for the moment of farewell. It takes all of her strength to put on a brave face.

Not all stories are about women. For men war is time for serving the country, fighting for freedom, for glory and even getting shot is better than being left behind. In It’s a real thing this time a retired Major Marriot keeps hoping for being called in for duty. He keeps hoping that the war gets worse and it gets ‘real’ and his country needs him. In the last pages of the story, his neighbor finds him keeping vigil at the night sky waiting for enemy paratroopers.

‘He shifted the gun from one arm to the other and looked  up again at the sky. Mrs. Trent could see in the half-light that he was smiling sweetly ….The Major looked up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”.

In Year of Decision, Mark Goring who has spent most of the war at a desk job,  can’t help feeling happy at the chance of going to an overseas appointment  and seeing some action.

The beauty of the stories is in the subtlety, in the thoughts between the lines and the haunting presence of war. The only way to understand is to read them.