“Thanks Dad, you’re the best!”

Once upon a time, in a city not very different from yours and mine, there lived an artist. Now, this artist was everything you’d expect in an artist, and want, too! He knew how to work his magic with colours, how to create the most magnificent sculptures you’d ever see, how to get his art promoted in all the best art galleries of the world, how to butter up certain politicians to get concessions, council and committee memberships; all the while (and he was very proud of this) influencing less-than-stellar reviews of his rivals’ displays and shows.

Yes, he certainly was a true artist. But, this true and great artist had a hidden sadness, a sorrow that had crept its way in to his heart through his delicious swiss-cheese fame.

“Curse the Artsy League of Artists! “ He bellowed, crumpling up the third rejected application into the fireplace, “Why don’t they accept me! Surely I, one of the best (“And truest!” A voice inside him said with immense pride) artists in the world, deserve a seat on that League!”

And then, oh, how he would pace up and down in his room, wearing out the soles of his shoes, shouting curses at his despicable snub!

“Surely! Creating life can’t be as good as they hype it to be, can it?! “ And he would roar again, sending a row of the finest imported paint flying across his – palatial – room.

Sadly enough, it was all true. The Artsy League of Artists considered life the greatest artistic creation in the known universe, and they had never been known to accept members who had not had the artistic achievement, known only in their circles as… “Creating-Life”. And for this reason, this man we have met, this greatest and truest artist in the world, was denied membership for three years running!

And that was terrible.

“Curse the Artsy League of Artists!” He hollered yet again, with considerably more force this time, “They look past my gorgeous wall paintings at the 53rd Humperdinckian Exposition, only a few years ago, (“And having received raving reviews!”  He quickly reminded himself, for reflecting on his glory gave him much pleasure) and…what more! They even have the nerve to pass over my amazing sculpture of the Empress herself, standing in this very city!”

And then he would stamp his feet for effect, because he liked seeing how his brushes, pencils, chalk, assistant artists, and bottles of paint – that is to say, all his tools – shook and quivered, terrified of their master!

“How can Creating-Life be SO great? Hmph! “

And he never understood how something so puny could be that good.

“Fine then! I shall show them! If its life they want, its life I shall create! And it shall be the greatest, most spectacular, most life-like Life that has ever been created!” He proclaimed, and spent the next few days working tirelessly in a tiny shell of a room.

______________

“CURSES!”, Standing in his workshop, he proclaimed a few weeks later, snarling with manic passion. “This is imperfect as well!” He shook his fist at the heavens and proclaimed.

For indeed, he was so close to creating that he had vowed so passionately to!

“I need to master this art!” He jumped up and down with frustration and anger. “Surely, I, such a perfect artist, MUST create a perfect Life as well!“

He bunched up the paper and threw it out the window, as he had done with countless others before. All justified, of course, since they were not perfect!

And then he toiled endlessly towards creating a perfect life, his perfect, ideal offspring.

______________

It is said that things exist in pairs. If something is present, so must its counterpart. A balance, if you will, must exist. And this concept is what brings us to the impoverished young artist living in a run-down shanty of an apartment. It’s most distinguishing feature was a leaky roof.

Now when we say he was a young, impoverished artist, we use that term as loosely as possible, you understand. In accordance with the principle of balanced and opposing pairs, this young man was the counterpart of the Master artist we have come to know before. Starting from their housing arrangements, and continuing on in other areas as an artist.

Oh, he was decent with his pencils and colours, of course, but in all other areas which truly matter, he was, for a lack of better words, a complete failure. He had never managed to get his art displayed in anyone’s living room, let alone an art gallery. He was not good with people at all. Politicians, councilmen were unaware of him, for he had never sucked up to, or bribed them for getting concessions, or his art promoted.

Unbelievably, the young artist thought these things below what an artist should do. He had praised artists whose works had captivated him, and for those which hadn’t, he had expressed his opinion on that honestly as well.

As clearly seen, he was severely lacking in all areas which matter, and thus cannot be called a proper artist in the same breath as the True one we have met earlier. Therefore we shall simply call him by Nemo, a name for no-one.

Of importance, at any rate.

______________

One day, while going through the trash, trying to pick out someone’s abandoned blanket or some leftover food, Nemo was quite surprised, to find a crumpled up, shiny, oddly out of place paper among the rubbish.

Now then, what could this be? Expensive art paper?” and he picked it up, unfolded it, and looked at it.

It brought tears to his eyes.

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”

The girl in the half finished painting was naked, bruised, shivering and cold. Being crumpled up and thrown out the window, then landing in the garbage heap, had taken its toll on her.

He swaddled her in his ragged clothes there, in the cold of the night, bringing her back to his apartment.

He unrolled her, set her on his canvas, and cleaned her up. Brushing away the wounds tenderly. He then noticed the drawing was incomplete. With a few swift strokes of the pencil, he fleshed out the facial structure as best as he could, half guessing the intentions of the original artist, half filling in with his own imagination. When he gave her a mouth, he was finally greeted with a tiny voice.

Thank you! God, I’ve been shut up for ages!”

And she flashed him a grateful smile. He smiled back, feeling the room become a little less cold and wondering vaguely if the heater miraculously started working again.

Bit cold here though, isn’t it? Wish I had something to wear..”

Wrapping her naked body around herself, she shivered. Nemo didn’t really need to hear it from her to know she was cold, though. He was already in the process of drawing some simple, stout clothing for her, drawing from reference ; of the only type of clothes he had ever known and worn. He hoped it would be good enough for her.

Thanks! These are so comfortable!” She said. Relieved, he set to work on the other parts of the drawing.

He felt it weird that the original artist had given her such an attractive body, but had drawn no heart. Curious, he sketched in a heart, and while smudging it with his finger to create the shading and contours to give it depth, he was distracted by the tiny voice, sobbing. Alarmed, he immediately brushed away the tears of that tiny face, tenderly with his dirty fingers, and asked her what was wrong.

Nothing’s wrong, I just…just…feel so much all of a sudden! What did you do?”

He told her he’d given her a heart.

Then these must be tears of happiness! I’m so…happy, I feel so grateful. So fortunate to have you. How could I ever repay you…?”

He laughed aloud at that, and said she had no such responsibility. He only wanted to do right by her, and this was deserved.

He had mostly completed the painting by morning, and it was the best few hours of his life. She had talked her heart out to him, smiled, laughed the purest of laughter. He played with her tiny little fingers, laughed together.

As the sun rose though, the blank texture of the canvas didn’t seem befitting of the little girl residing there. It’s one of those things you can’t explain, you can only feel, and if you are fortunate, make right. It came to him like a flash, and before he knew what he was doing, he’d had an onslaught of feelings to his chest.

I’d give my life’s blood to make the life of this child as fulfilling as it can be.

He’d pricked his thumb, and infused the drops in the drawing. For an instant, nothing happened. Then, as the sun rose slowly, the many rays filtering through the cracks in the dirty glass, and fell on the drawing on the canvas, he could only stand back in awe and feel the tightness in his chest dissolve. A childish, heavenly joy took its place, leaving him fighting back tears, at how perfect this moment was.

There she stood, golden, radiant, innocent, feeling the sunrays touch her face for the first time. She was beautiful, but it’s hard to describe this kind of beauty. The kind of beauty you see in your child when she takes her first breath, greets the daylight for her first time. But there she was. And here he was, at a loss for words.

And now you go off into the big, bad world! Say hello for the first time!” He said jovially, in an awkward attempt at breaking the silence. He expected her to laugh along, but she was strangely quiet.

And what do you want me to do with this life?” She said, shaking her head.

He laughed. “It doesn’t matter really, I have no idea about these things. Make it whatever YOU want it to be. Do what you want.

And what if you’re disappointed in my choices?” she said quietly.

“I can’t be! You know I can’t” He laughed again. Then, holding her hand in his, he whispered.

You’ll still be perfect to me.”

No words were said, they just stood there for a long time, him holding her tiny hand in his. I’d protect you from the world. I’ll be here for you no matter what. These words do not need to be said in such a bond. They are known. Felt…

Thanks Dad, you’re the best.”

And as they stood there, as the new day dawned…

… his room no longer felt cold. His room no longer felt alien.

His house felt like a home.

______________

Some years passed. The master artist’s second work, went ahead with every bit of manpower he could muster. Soon enough, it was finished. And it was all that he planned, right down to the most minute detail. Oh, how the Artsy League Of Artists were in awe over his masterpiece! He had finally Created-Life! She said all those beautiful words carefully chosen by the Master to enchant and fill with wonder, she smiled with the most beautiful of smiles he had painted on her, she was everything Life  SHOULD be, as the Master, in all  his wisdom, judged! The League fell over themselves inviting him into their fold! All watched in awe, as the Master artist marched in triumphantly, smiled, posed for pictures, and talked about his greatest creation, Life, with a carefully cultivated tear in his eye.

How he was adored and bestowed with riches and titles!

His creation was kept in a glass jar in the museum, forever preserved like this; talking, smiling, and singing just as brilliantly for the benefit of the audience. Unmoving. Unchanging. Adored. Prized.

Nemo died later, years of a life lived without care, devoid of fame. All he had to show for it was the adopted, aborted creation of the Master artist, which he had fed, watered, warmed, cared for, given a home…and made the additions of simple but clean clothes, a heart of gold, and his own blood to create those rosy cheeks. So Nemo died, leaving behind that girl holding his hand, beside his deathbed. That girl who had grown into a young woman.

So there Nemo lies, a life lived without care, devoid of fame and riches. But not a life without love. Not any empty life without substance or merit.

Two fulfilling lives. Two lives mutually made worth living. One house, made a home.

And the few words she spoke, which created two lives that day.

“Thanks Dad, you’re the best!”

Review : Pacific Rim

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Y’know, I might be overrating this movie a tad bit. Coming off the dark, dreary puddle of fail that was Man of Steel, Pacific Rim‘s big, bright, beautiful, uplifting themes and visuals are a breath of fresh air to drive away that stench. But what can I do? Taking away every bit of these technical review parameters, the simple fact is that this movie is TONS of fun. (Pun intended.) And it’s been ages since I’ve seen anything THIS enjoyable.

So, cut to the chase then. Long story short : Transdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, opening up an alien universe home to gigantic monsters (Kaiju, if you will, after that word for the giant-monster genre in Japanese fiction). So the world goes “Nah man, screw differences in race/language/religion and all that jazz. Bros (and sisters) before h- ahem .. certain annihiliation.

Enter : Gigantic mech suits piloted by people in futuristic jumpsuits (Gundam and Blue Gender, eat your hearts out.) This proves successful and the pilots become, essentially, rockstars (woohoo! Hear that, Ray, Noa and crew? Sucks for you that you existed only in the 80s) UNTIL even BIGGER baddies pour through in some sort of geometric progression.

Yikes!

Time for the only logical solution : A last ditch attack by these robots (Jaegers, didn’t you know) to close the portal with an illegally acquired nuclear warhead! Fun!

The action is BEAUTIFUL. Visuals are jaw droppingly good, especially when in motion. The fight scenes are perfectly choreographed and perfectly straddle that fence between “over-too-soon” and “meh-this-is-going-on-too-long” *coughManOfSteelcough*. One of my friends said this movie’s VFX made Michael Bay look like he was still in elementary school, and I agree completely. Sadly though, the 3D postprocessed conversion was, as is the norm, bad. To that usual point where :

Image

Well, to be fair, they DID do SOMETHING. Made the picture *clear* and not blurred six ways to Sunday, so there’s that. (3D my backside…)

Anyway. Moving! On!

The first half is EXTRAORDINARILY weak. Coming into this movie with a ton of hype, I was devastatingly disappointed. One token action scene, lots of “NOOOO!!!” -s and bad acting (with HORRIBLE fake accents, mind you) later, and an hour had already passed and it was intermission. And I had seen nothing yet to make it seem anything worth the price of admission. It was better than The Transformers, sure. But that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, most movies would be better than that pile of crap.

The lead guy Raleigh, played by Charlie Hunnam, is the worst offender here, he has ZERO charisma, and the vast majority (ESPECIALLY the most emotional) of his lines are delivered with as much gusto as if he were Shah Rukh Khan.

(FYI : that’s a bad thing 99% of the time, in case you didn’t know.)

Not much to be said about the other actors, though Idris Elba channels his best Luther  here from his TV show of the same name , absolutely bringing it to the table as a tough as nails marshal in charge of leading a team to save the world. Ron Perlmanplaying his FIRST human role in a LONG, LONG time (PRAISE BE THE LORD!) brings his brand of absolute badassery here as well, and these two are, for me, the biggest stars in this movie worth watching, apart from the CGI/Robots/Monsters themselves.

Annoying characters fill out the rest of the cast; like that bespectacled scientist who tries the mind meld with one of the monsters (“Well, THAT escalated quickly.”) He tries channeling Simon Pegg, but ends up about a lightyear (give or take a few kilometers) short of that goal, and ends up looking fake.

It might seem this movie was bad, but hold on! Everything takes a HUGE turn for the better after the 1 hour mark. Hunnam’s acting suddenly becomes serviceable, family/trust themes are fleshed out magically, scientist guy does an OK job, the action picks up even more , if that were possible, and Elba/Perlman STILL bring it. Right on!

Of course, there are some moments where suspension of disbelief is stressed, one such moment being the climax where radio contact is maintained EVEN across different universes. Wow. But on the whole, everything stays in its place, and is , for the most part, seamless. As far as you can tell, caught up in this bright extravaganza anyway.

When Bay’s Transformers first came out, a very common wish of exasperated, disappointed fans was “They shouldve just had ONE <expletive> token human and left the show to the <expletive> robots“. Pacific Rim takes this a bit too seriously and follows out this plan to a T, to the point where this movie feels like 90% action filled out with a 10% afterthought of a story. This film is simplistic, formulaic, and very basic. But guess what? It doesn’t pretend to be ANYTHIGN more, and does a DARN good job with it. It’s a simple story told VERY well. And this is one of the great things about this movie. There’s no unnecessary injections of angst or tragedy as a plot device (Oh darn it, I can’t help myself. *coughMANOFSTEELcough*). Uplifting, soaring, it’s a breath of fresh air, like I said.

The themes touted as setting this movie apart from the millions of brainless summer blockbusters, though, ARE NOT ALL DEVELOPED. There’s this concept that a robot cannot be piloted by just ONE, as that is too much of a load for the nervous system of one person. Therefore, there must be TWO people working in perfect sync and harmony, one for each hemisphere of the brain. Where does that put us? in theory, this means that there are NO SECRETS from your partner, the mind meld process makes sure you know each other better and more intimately than anyone else living on the planet. You MUST trust each other to SURVIVE. There’s no middle ground here, no room for doubt or suspicion or conflict. You must place TRUST paramount, across sex/race/faith. So basically, you – in essence – must develop feelings similar to that of falling in love, to even have a chance of surviving. This is a beautiful dynamic and a great idea for a story.

Too bad none of that is explored. 

The best Jaeger teams are immediately introduced to us as either being siblings or lovers or parent-child. And all from the same nationality, obviously. So where’s this variety? Where’s the unity in diversity touted as a theme? The film plays this too safe to score a homerun on any deeper or thematic storytelling. The main character and his new partner are the only diverse team here, and even then it is never mentioned WHY they share a bond (Drift Compatibility). One sparring session and studying each others’ pasts is enough? Seems too off. Like I said, opportunity lost.

A  thematic element I really liked was that there’s no “HURR DURR ‘MURICA” tone in this movie. People from all over the world must collaborate on the Jaeger program, and fight together, to stand a chance. There’s no overt military (not even for satire ala Starship Troopers) or nationalistic sentiments (major props for that). The message here is one of universal brotherhood and unity over being “human”, borders and nationalities be damned.

Also, an interesting plot thread : One of the scientists mind-melding with a kaiju brain. The kaiju are shown to have a hive-mind, and events afterwards indicated they somehow recognized  him. Perhaps the mind meld left behind his “signature” for the creatures to follow?  But again, this was never fully explored. The idea was introduced, ran with for awhile, then dropped in favour of the action. Another lost opportunity (hopefully the sequel fixes that and toys with this idea more)

All in all, this was a BEAUTIFUL homage to those ’80s Mecha animes, and those old Japanese monster vs monster movies. This was a gorgeous ride, introducing those two old genres to a new audience, making it enjoyable to both children and adults alike. A ride that I enjoyed tremendously, despite its many shortcomings and lost opportunities. Hopefully these will be fixed in a sequel.

Final Rating : 7.5/10

Watch it!

P.S. I had one HUGE geek-out moment in the movie, when I realized that the computer voice for the good guys, was none other than…….GlaDoS from the Portal video games!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48848ae8Am0

Review : Man Of Steel (2013)

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It wasn’t too hard to believe a man could fly; it was just hard to see the “Super” in Superman sold away to make this grand, huge, spectacular rehash of Michael Bay’s Transformers.

I wish I could say I liked the movie, I really, REALLY do. I badly wanted to like the movie, I had SUCH high expectations for this going in, after that magical trailer. Granted, the personnel involved had me a tad bit antsy, but my only thought was, “Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? It’d be 2006’s Superman Returns only with a lot more action and a half decent origin story thrown in which builds on Superman : Birthright. Not bad, right?”

Nothing could have prepared me for this debacle.

Sure, there’s some awesome imagery and chill-factors when the movie starts, with Jor-El and the Kryptonians. The movie begins with a birth; and it’s poignant enough that you might think this would be absolutely ripe grounds for some thematic storytelling.

You’d be spectacularly wrong.

This doesn’t EVER get built on, and the Krypton sequence quickly degenerates into what you’d believe was a scene from the recent Star Trek reboot. This was still intriguing; since we got to learn more about this Krypton and its people. But then even more of the magic is lost when the iconic imagery of Kal-El‘s rocket leaving Krypton just as it is destroyed, doesn’t even occur. The rocket gets launched, THEN Zod and his cohorts are sent to the phantom zone, and THEN Krypton is destroyed. This all feels amazingly anticlimactic, even to a viewer who has zero idea of the origins of Superman.

And this is nothing, compared to the fact that there is just no theme to the entire movie. The plot is paper thin and can be elaborated in it’s entirety on the back of a matchbox. The film just moves from one big action setpiece to another, from one blatant plot device to another with more seams than a cut and pasted together Frankenstein. Sorry for that fairly labored metaphor.

And while this may appeal to the Michael Bay audience, the fact remains that Superman is no Transformers, it could NEVER fly being one huge visual effect laden extravaganza, and it would positively die on the vine being completely stripped of soul to make a ham-fisted action fest.

And guess what? That is exactly the way it goes down.

The dialogues are, simply put, HORRIBLE. Ranging from awkward to cheesy to utterly inappropriate. Characterization is…well, saying it’s bad would be an understatement. Superman’s home is a cold, sterile place, he obviously has no connection to his people. But then, his foster dad’s a jerk, at one point suggesting he should’ve let a bus full of kids die, instead of exposing his powers. Clark himself is a jerk right back at his foster parents (and without even realizing it, at times, case in point : His behaviour and conversations with Martha Kent) . Amy Adams as Lois Lane is…just out there… looking pretty. “I’m a pulitzer prize winning reporter!” says Lane at one point, and at NO point in the movie can we even suspend disbelief for a second to believe her claim. Lawrence Fishburne‘s character does pretty much the same thing, and the only established scientist in the movie (Other than Jor-El) does the immensely science-y thing of turning a plate by about 30 degrees counterclockwise, to fix a bug with the Fancy Kryptonian USB Drive™! Woot!! Lamest scene in the entire movie.

The only two characters who end up seeming like they have a bit of integrity are Jor El and Zod. Their acting, of course, make up the best performances in the movie. The rest of the acting is, at best, average, with Henry Cavill‘s titular character being the worst offender.

Seriously, the dude goes through ALL of three emotions throughout the movie. Smug, Teary/Mopey, and, of course, the 4 or so “NUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” ‘s , while bungling every other line and mis-emoting scenes (if that’s even a word)

Awesome.

The fight scenes are the only good things in the movie, they are VERY well choreographed and shot, and they have the (martyr’s) honor of being the only things which make this movie worth watching even once. EVEN then, they are protracted. Thousands of explosions and collapsed buildings abound in this movie, because Superman in his fighting, always prefers to use his fists to solve every monkey wrench that gets thrown in his path. This approach ends up destroying nearly the entire city of Metropolis, leading to more damage and death toll than the entire alien invasions of Independence Day and The Avengers combined.

The same approach also leads to how the fight between Supes and Zod ends. It is an absolutely out of character thing for Superman sure, but what makes this scene SO painful to watch is that any average viewer can point out about 4 different ways in which that situation could have been resolved. SOMETHING, ANYTHING other than the way it did in the movie. In the end, that scene, though impactful (in a completely shock and awe kind of way, obviously), feels…cheap, for a lack of better words.

This movie has no charm; its mechanical, where the only intention seemed to be to make it as titanic as possible. Chris Reeve’s Superman made you go, “Now THERE’S a hero. THERE’S someone I can trust my life with. THERE’S someone I can call a Superman.”. No such luck here, and the dark, gritty Batman-esque characterization does nothing to help the cause.

In conclusion, watch this movie if you a) Want to see about 15 minutes of Krypton, b) Tons of explosions and protracted fight scenes which are, admittedly, well choreographed and c) The very obvious Henry Cavill factor. AKA, “I think he’s kind of hot”, as one character says at the end.

So yeah. All these fabulous points add up for a grand total of…

FINAL RATING : 1.5 / 10.

It’s loud, huge, spectacular, all flash and no substance, extending for a less painful, more boring ~2.5 hours. In essence, we have here, the Call of Duty of superhero movies. No endorsements from me here, than you very much.

P.S. You want to know what sums up the character of this Superman in this movie? When Zod reveals his plan of terraforming earth to rebuild Krypton on the grave of Earth, all Superman says is “I CANNOT BE A PART OF THIS!”. There’s no “I will stop you!” or anything to that effect. Just. That. He. Cannot. Be. A. Part. Of. This. Let that sink in for a minute.

The video game which costs $190,000, GRiD 2 Mono Edition

So the racing video game GRiD 2 was released recently, this is one of those pseudo-simulation racing games with a heavy mix of arcade elements, ala NFS Shift. We are not here to talk about all that. I would like to draw your attention to the special edition of the game, termed the “Mono Edition”, which costs $190,000.

The name is completely justified, since there is going to be only ONE copy of this special edition that will ever be produced.

GRiD 2 Mono Edition is the most expensive video game you can buy, coming in at a staggering 125,000 GBP – which equates to around $190,000. Yes, THAT much. What could it possibly have to justify this price point?!

The answer is staggering.

A 190,000 US dollars will net you the following.

  1. A copy of the game itself.
  2. A PlayStation 3 to play the game on
  3. A custom designed BAC Mono, a 280 horsepower, mock-Formula style car that you can drive on the road as a private car.Yes, you read that right.Image
  4. A matching driving outfit, complete with helmet and gloves.
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5. One day at the BAC factory in Germany, with a tour of the premises and activities, and    custom tune your BAC Mono to your wants/specifications/country standards.

Amazing! This has got to be one of the most innovative marketing schemes I’ve ever seen. I’ll definitely be watching out for the unboxing video of this special edition on youtube, for good reason!

….But the most amazing part of this?

For $190,000, you get the car free with the game, NOT the other way around!

Review : Inferno, by Dan Brown

You know, this might be a tad bit naive on my part? But I really believe that Dan Brown writes books to make people think. No, really. His novels are almost always tailored to create discussion and debate, be it on cryptology, religion, history, art, or, as is the case in Inferno, the global issue of overpopulation. It’s just that, in most cases, when you’re practically custom building your stories for the purpose of inciting a debate, sometimes it can just feel…unwieldy, or shall we simply say, clunky.

As is also the case with Inferno.

Dan Brown's Inferno

So without further ado, it’s time for…

TEH SYNOPSIS!
Brought to you by Woody Allen! Of the…err…’I-read-War-and-Peace-in-20-minutes-it-was-about-Russia‘ synopsising (?) fame!

*possibly slightly embellished

Mad Scientist® loves Dante Alighieri. Mad Scientist® also loves biotechnology and genetics and shiz. But Mad Scientist® hates overpopulation and how The WHO (the organization, not the band) is, in his opinion, exercising plausible deniability to ignore the aforementioned problem. Mad Scientist therefore comes to the ONLY AND OBVIOUSLY CORRECT solution : Come up with a modern day Black Plague to toss 1/3 of the world population overboard, so as to speak. And he carries this plan out in an elaborately twisted and curious way, all the while leaving generous clues to dare our protagonist to thwart him in time! Fun! Also, speaking of our protagonist….

Enter Robert Langdon.

Or actually, NOT enter Robert Langdon. Seriously, dude has one of the WORST entrances of any protagonist in recent memory in this book. Anyway. Moving on! Dude instantly is targeted by Teh Bad Guys®, goes on the run with female interest. The plot thickens then, and we figure out how the antagonist ties in to our Dude’s predicament, yadda yadda yadda. And adventure ensues, with the marriage of impending doom, religious iconography, art, architecture, and code as is the standard Dan Brown fair. And yes, there be riddling. Lots. Of. Riddling.

So, where to start. Hm.

First off, this central plot and theme actually WORKS this time around (surprise, surprise) as compared to the horrifically inept Noetic science crap from TLS. I mean, your genre is, when you strip away the excess, essentially  Clancyesque thriller. By cardinal rule, you CANNOT deviate too far outside the realm of plausible science fiction. Suspension of disbelief is a phrase that’s thrown around far too often. You grasp what it actually means only when you read a Clancy or Dan Brown thriller and decide you actually liked it. It is only in hindsight that you realize it was implausible. In essence, you ‘suspended’ your ‘disbelief’ with the intent of enjoying a piece of entertainment media. Fair enough. Inferno is a GREAT example of this. Nowhere in this ~470 page book would you find yourself jarringly disconnected from the book because it is simply too unbelievable, in contrary to what Lost symbol was. A large part of why Dan Brown is popular is because of this alone, IMO, his ability to make the most inane plot/theme seem relevant and believable.

The second thing that you’ll notice is that there is a far, far less emphasis on puzzles this time around. This is hardly a complaint though, since the plot this time around hardly allows much room for elaborate code and puzzles ala Da Vinci Code. So in context, this is acceptable – we’re simply not dealing with that Duality/Puzzle within puzzle theme anymore, so it’d have been quite stupid to encounter throwaway puzzles here anyway. However…

RIDDLES replace the puzzles in this book. For the most part the riddles themselves are well crafted and shows the author’s extensive research/familiarity with Dante Alghieri’s works. The problem here, though? The solution to these riddles. Whereas DVC’s riddles felt natural and so organic and blended so perfectly with the storyline, here it is jarringly detached, despite having been included as part of the storyline. I felt like I was playing an old 90’s era adventure game ala Phantasmagoria or Tex Murphy where the puzzles/riddles abound for the heck of it, hardly tying into the storyline. But those are meant  to be puzzle games…THIS is a book with a story. The riddles DO tie in to the big picture of things though (pun intended). But the solutions to the riddles are, more often than not, forced. And I mean really, REALLY forced. Often times the solution to a particular phrase of the riddle escapes by a hair, nothing more than a mere literal technicality. This is what creates the jarring…in-organicness?

And after the brilliance of DVC, this just leaves the reader exasperated and feeling cheated, for a lack of better words. There are maybe two riddle phrases whose solutions end up being the “so complicated yet so blindingly simple in the end” type, which endeared Dan Brown’s storytelling to us all.

The storyline progression is, at first glance, boringly reminiscent of Da Vinci Code, formulaic to a T. HOWEVER! I was VERY impressed with how he pulled a swerve on us, and completely subverted that formula with a huge reveal around the 70% mark. Very impressive.

There are a fair amount of twists and turns in the storyline….ALL of which are blindingly obvious to anyone who’s been reading this genre for some time. Honestly, you see 90% of these twists coming a mile and half away. The subversive twist I mentioned above, and the final twist, thankfully, are some of the better ones of the book, and very much worth it. However, the ending is…well, to use a pro-wrestling terminology here….overbooked. It’s like the author wanted to shoehorn in as much twist-y and shocking stuff possible at the very end, to wow the reader. Most of it falls flat, but the main twist stands separate from this. Pretty cool, and I didn’t see it coming.

Much like Dan Brown’s previous books though, some very obvious, well known in the recent world, general knowledge stuff is ignored by the characters, because, duh, acknowledging them would bring the entire premise of the plot come crashing down.

The character of Robert Langdon feels very subdued this time around, toned down to the point of him being a faint buzz, almost lost in the thousands of words describing history, art and architecture. We hardly ever see him let loose. The character focus this time around, is instead on Sienna Brooks, the main female lead. She gets more characterization than any supporting cast in any Dan Brown books.

This actually could’ve been a good thing, but alas, not so, because it essentially built up to a lost opportunity in the book. Sienna Brooks is hardly explored, the leap from her being the child prodigy to what her role is in this book (Spoilers avoided, sorry folks) is wrapped up too suddenly. It’s finished off with a couple paragraphs about her in the beginning, once in the middle, and one near the end; in what are all infodumps. VERY, VERY RUSHED.

Quick! Someone sign Dan Brown up to Character Design 101, namely the “Show, not tell” chapter, he needs it to make realistic characters! *Sigh* Mr. Brown, if you are reading this, please note. Infodumps DO NOT make for good characterization. It just comes off as lazy writing, especially when you use infodumps as dialogues between characters. Prime guilty party here : The last 3-4 chapters.

/end Rant

*Ahem* So, yes! Moving! On!

To put it bluntly, the ending will sharply polarize readers. It’s unique, and you won’t see it coming if you’ve read tons of this genre.

It’s a non-finish, an anticlimactic ending.

But whoa! Hold your horses, I didn’t say it was a bad ending.

It makes sense.

That’s the most I can say about the ending without spoiling too much. Yes, it’s a non-finish and an anticlimax, but it just might be one of the best non-finish/anticlimactic endings made. It essentially serves as a set up to the debate and discussion on the book. Crafty move there, Mr. Brown. Definitely a departure from the clear-cut endings of a generic book in this genre. Or even his own previous books’ styles.

HOWEVER, I’m not a fan of the 4 or so chatpers that follow the ending. Guess what? THOSE chapters are yet ANOTHER massive infodump.

Can I just say, ARGH. Just, ARGH, dude.

I don’t understand why Dan Brown has to do this. He just kills whatever momentum( or faux momentum, as the reader may decide) he had achieved coming fresh off the unconventional ending, with those last 3-4 chapters which were too long and infodump-y to warrant inclusion in ANYTHING other than the Epilogue.

WHY DO THIS?

*Sigh* Moving on.

In conclusion then, as with all Dan Brown books, a good read or not – you WILL learn a LOT about linguistics , etymology (an area I’m especially interested in), and tons of art/architecture/history. What I mean here is, of course, that reading all these woven into a coherent page-turning storyline and context, you are compelled to Google every bit of those things mentioned in the book and check them out, research about it, and hopefully develop an interest in it.

For realz.

Obviously, you cannot rely on Dan Brown’s books themselves for this, because of his horrible reputation (and justified it is, too) of falsifying information outright to make it fit in the story and/or make it more dramatic. No issues with that. Just make sure to research the authentic thing afterwards.

I’d give the book 3 stars out of 5.

VERDICT : Not as good as Da Vinci Code, and not as horrible as Lost Symbol. What it is though, is a very compelling read, which just MIGHT stay with you after you finish it. Definitely a page turner, but the clunky writing style, characterization missteps, and the tendency to fill out chapters and pages with what essentially is offloading of information as dialogue between characters drags this down from what it could’ve been. Won’t win any awards for sure.

P.S. Given the changed political climate since the last Dan Brown book came out, and with the part about the similarities and differences between Christanity and Islam in the Hagia Sophia  near the end of the book, might it not be a reasonable guess to say that Robert Langdon, a professor in religious symbology, would take on a religiously-fuelled adventure bridging the gap between those two religions, in the future? I know I’d definitely like to read that book if it comes out. 

Princess Merida and Disney’s Brutal Commercialization

So this is the latest news. Merida, the main character from the Disney/Pixar animated movie Brave, is set to become the 11th Disney Princess. This “official” recognition of her as a Disney Princess™, was a big deal.

Image

And why exactly is the entirely fictional royal ascension of an entirely fictional character, a big deal?

Well, because of what it represents, of course. If you’ve seen the movie, you’d know that Merida is anything but the image which pops into your head when you read the word “princess”, much less a Disney Princess. The concept of the phrase ‘first image’ here is important, because what I mean of course, is that physically, Merida is the exact antithesis of what a Disney Princess is. She’s not “beautiful” in the classical sense of the word, not elegant, and not as refined as the others on that list (Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, etc. etc).

What she is, though, is strong, confident, adventurous, real –

…and Brave.

I liked Brave. It was a traditional Disney tale – forming strong familial ties, or reinforcing them, with lots of good animation and acting. But the reason why I liked it was deeper than that. One reason, was that the real villain in that movie turns out to be not a singular figure,  but an abstract concept of not accepting who people are, lack of communication, and ultimately, a lack of understanding.

The OTHER reason was that there was this Old School vs New School of female Disney characters going on in the movie, namely, the conflict between Merida and her mother, the Queen Eleanor.

merida and mom

Queen Eleanor was the perfect Disney princess/queen figure – in essence, a template for all Disney female leads and Princesses, who wanted her daughter Merida – who is the exact opposite of all those standards – to conform to what is expected of a princess. In the end however, is the happy ending – everyone is accepted for what they are, and accept the fact that things which make people great, differ from individual to individual.

So let’s recap what Disney had done with Brave, shall we?

Disney had made, basically, a Disney Princess movie while completely breaking away from the mold of what a princess was supposed to be. It had a thematic element and message where it challenged antiquated norms, and, reinforced – and I say reinforced since the idea itself is already out there – that a female can be the exact opposite of what traditionally is supposed to be the perfect woman, and still be a princess. One’s inner nature is what makes one worthwhile (In this case, royalty) – and NOT how they look or act. Since every princess figure in myth can be attributed to the creators’ vision for a perfect woman, can’t it?

….And then, at the unveiling ceremony in Disney World, Orlando, FL, on May 11th, 2013, Disney undid ALL of this work done by Pixar and the creators of the movie, by unveiling the new, redone, canon, character design of Merida.

merida-brave-new-look1

Let’s put that in a better perspective for you.

Here is a comparison image, with the original design on the left, and the new design on the right. A “Before and After” shot.

Before And After

Changes? Lower neckline on the dress, exposing more skin. More organized hair – better conditioned and made up. Brighter gown of a more fancy material. Gold lacework on the dress. Bow and strap for holding the quiver gone, replaced by a fancy royal looking sash/belt.

*Sigh.*

Imagine being an artist/animator/creator. Now, you made a character who isn’t stereotypical, is awesome, does absolutely amazing things, and is an inspiration for people who see her as a role model.

THEN, the company who hired you to make this character, and a movie about this character, tells you, “Hey, congrats! You guys did a great job! This character you made is really popular, she’s amazing and everyone loves her! Buuuuuuuuuut…….uhm…….its not up to our standards of what this character SHOULD be like, to sell well as a brand. You feel me? So, we gotta redesign it!”

And off they go, redesigning your character.

They completely miss the point of your character, and squeeze her into colorful, bright, gold laced gowns and give her a makeover, because that’s their norm for a Princess, and anything else wouldn’t sell, in their eyes.

Brave_Merida-formal-dress-top_Image-credit-Disney-Pixar

Remember this scene from the movie? It’s where Merida is squeezed into layers of pretty dresses and expensive material in which she can hardly breathe. She finds it absolutely uncomfortable but puts up with it for the sake of her parents’ honour. Then comes the realization that one of those men will “win” the right to her hand through a competition. It is then when she takes to the field with her bow and arrow, proclaiming to challenge for her own hand and not have it given away to someone.

7441860720_3b80d800f2

But when the time comes to shoot the arrow though, she is restricted by her dress, which is too tight. She then stretches her arm anyway, tearing the fancy dress in the process. It’s thematic – because her tearing through the dress to make room for her arm, symbolizes her breaking free of her barriers of femininity to do what is good for herself.

And that is a major facet of this particular Disney Princess. Which Disney completely misses with their redesign.

I get how this is all an intensely commercial move on Disney’s part. They saw how Merida was their most famous female character in ages. Given the tone of the movie, it’s a perfect business decision to make her a Disney Princess, their 11th one. I find this great news, actually. For reasons mentioned before, it would send a great social message. Disney princesses are supposed to be a great influence on young girls everywhere, and having one who ISN’T the stereotypical elegant princess would definitely do a world of good, where young females wouldn’t feel pressurized to stand up to the standard of the Cinderellas and the Snow Whites, but a more realistic, reasonable person who refuses to admit that the old, traditional, outdated, classical Disney Princess is a good model for young girls – and sets about making her own path, and being her own person.

But the problem lies in what they did after that – the character design change. They felt that Merida in her original form would never sell well as part of the Disney Princess line of toys, lunchboxes, bedsheets, bags, and so on. Their most unique princess would also be the one which sold the least, and they couldn’t have that. Thus the change.

The worst part about all this, is that from an absolute commercial standpoint, given the immense popularity of the Disney Princess line’s main competitor – Mattel’s Barbie, it’s very clear that in that cutthroat competition, it would’ve been an unsafe decision for Disney to NOT have made that character change and ‘princess-ize’ Merida more, before giving the all-clear to the launch.

What’s unfortunate about that, is that Disney should not have to be put in that situation in the first place.

Parents, who buy these toys and lunchboxes and whatnot for their girls, should be parenting more. They should realize what or who they can provide for their children as role models, and something to strive to be like – and what to be avoided as such.

Why should Disney have to choose between taking a huge financial hit and doing the right thing? Surely parents should know better which one of Barbie and Merida is the better role model for a girl child of the 21st century?

Because if they don’t..? And if these current lousy standards of what makes people (PEOPLE, not only females, mind you) more appealing , continue to thrive in this market..?

These unnecessary and exhausting changes will no longer be limited to toys, backpacks, lunchboxes, crayons, etc. They will extend to the films themselves, with no one wanting to take the “risk” of designing normal, non stereotypical, realistic characters for fear of financial losses.

It is now up to us to stand up and be Brave.

[Images Courtesy : NBC, Yahoo, Insidethemagic.com, Clothesonfilm.com, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Disney]

Of Nemo, From Iran

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of Iran? What are YOUR  first wave of emotions, the first thoughts about the country? What do you feel with its mere mention? Suspicion, apprehension, mistrust, about something so foreign and alien that you cannot comprehend or explain? Images of women oppressed and veiled, bloodthirsty militants, bearded, brandishing swords and guns, burning effigies of western figureheads and mass anti-American protests?

Thought so.

What we need to understand here, is that most of these images and presumptions about the country, are in fact, a product of what we see on the television, movies, other entertainment and popular media. I’m not saying this is an international conspiracy or anything like that. What I do mean, is that perhaps we all could do well to have an open mind. Minds narrow enough to refuse admittance of any other imagery other than the ones described above, is dangerous. Certainly so in light of recent events, and certainly unfair to the subject of your presumptions.

…And there are always different versions of the truth.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have an intelligent conversation online, with someone from Iran. It was compelling, enlightening, and very insightful – giving a glimpse of a culture which was almost completely foreign to me until today. When I mentioned to them I had a blog, they were enthusiastic enough to ask me to write this, to let my followers know about life in Iran. An average person’s view of it. Please note that I cannot verify with 100% authenticity the factual accuracy of this information. The smaller day to day personal details are impossible to verify, and while the big picture information was accurate, like I said before, there’s no 100% guarantee here. Sorry about that.

You will find no intense political or religious debates here. You will find no bias on the same, and you will most certainly not find propaganda. If you are here for any of those, I humbly urge you to explore other blogs or articles which explore these themes.

What you WILL find here, though it might be a long read, can most accurately be defined as the insights into the culture and opinions of someone who was born in, and lived in Iran for a claimed 22 years of their life, and is a person like you or me. Someone who enjoys hanging out with friends, cherishes their family, loves movies, popular music, a bit of video games, loves tea with a passion. You are free to form your opinions about the identity, gender, sexuality, political, and religious leanings of the person. I am not here to discuss those.

For sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to this anonymous person as Nemo, a gender-ambiguous name, as well as a name for no one. We’ll run with that, it seems good for this purpose.

I will stick to the original words used by this person as much as possible, filling in grammatical corrections wherever necessary to enhance readability of the English used.

Let’s start, then, with the fundamental question most of us wonder about Iran.

Is Iran like Afghanistan or Iraq?

According to Nemo, the answer to that is a resounding NO.

Comparing the average social freedom enjoyed by an Iranian to those countries, is like comparing a sea to a small lake. Education is incredibly important in the country and the stress the parents put on their children to excel in studies, attend university, and take up streams based on Science and Mathematics – is almost the same as Indian parents. This is frustrating to the point of being maddening to a person who has artistic leanings and loves writing and painting. (This was quite a surprise for me personally, I could identify with Nemo right away.) As is the same here.

It IS, however, also laudable, since female education IS given a decent level of importance by parents (YES, you read that right) and in that same field of Math/Science, (And very non-intuitive considering a middle eastern country) since the early 1900s. This is true in almost all middle to upper class families, while spotty in poorer sections of society. People of this age group, male OR female, are even looked down upon if they skip university after high school.

Actually, this is kind of easier to process when you consider Iranian…history, shall I say – in the field of science and technology, dating back to ancient times.

But women’s freedom?

To sum up, it is what you expect from a country in this region of the world . Improved considerably from the early 1900s with the passing of several secular and progressive laws, up until the Revolution of the 1980s, when it got progressively worse, because, according to Nemo, “the new government wanted to Islam-ify the country….establish (the identity and) behaviour of (an) ‘ideal’ muslim woman”.

Here’s a question/answer session with the interviewee, outlining some other things talked about, with respect to the condition of women there.

Q:Going out/Getting acquainted with men, even at a level at par with India?

A:No

Q:Arranged Marriage?

A: Is the norm

Q:Freedom of expression?

A: “Normal”

Apart from all that awkwardness that comes with the arranged marriage situation (which, obviously, would be the same as here in India) Sex before marriage is an extreme taboo in the family model, honor killings however are “not substantial“, and I couldn’t get a better idea of this than that phrase from Nemo. Nemo had not been exposed to any of that in their neighbourhood or family, mercifully. Single parenthood is looked down upon, especially if that single parent is a woman (much as it is here in India)

And just how is life affected by the politics?

This is going to be a slightly controversial section than the ones before it. I would like to remind the reader that this is all based on what Nemo said, since I know little to nothing of society/politics over there.

It is my belief, that the government of a country does not reflect or represent its peoples. Be it India, USA, or any other. One cannot cast judgement on the people of a country by their government.

According to Nemo, the current government has a high population of religious extremists, HOWEVER, these are in the minority and do not represent the average Iranian. The President is, technically, the supreme power, however in reality (again, according to Nemo), the clerics/Mullahs hold the true power, with the President being, unfortunately, little more than a puppet. Nemo’s family does not believe a change in presidents would bring about much true change in their day to day life. This current religious regime, enjoys an intensely polarized sentiment among Iranians. Some of them absolutely HATE it, while some absolutely LOVE it. Bivalent ones are few and far between.

Nemo has not known anyone in their friend circle, social gatherings, family, or neighbourhood who harbor anti-American/anti-Western sentiments. Nemo was not sure it even exists among the masses in Iran.

Iran might be an Islamic country, but in its day to day life it enjoys a surprising amount of secularism (Comparing and contrasting with another Islamic country, like,say, Pakistan, shows the huge rift between the two in this regard). Muslim names are very common, but that DOES NOT mean they are this staunch, ultra-orthodox, inflexible people that media imagery has made us come to expect from an Islamic country. Quite the contrary, in fact. They are normal people like you or me, with needs and wants and aspirations which are not different from ours. It made me think how we should do our best to not be influenced by popular media, and focus on finding out the truth, no matter how obscure or veiled.

Especially if our views about an entire culture and people are at stake.

Freedom of the press?

More than most other middle eastern countries, but as much as can be expected under an authoritarian regime. The situation has worsened since 2009. There have been several instances of journalists, and in particular political cartoonists – who criticize the regime – arrested, tortured in prison, and extradited (if lucky). The government came down on political cartoonists with a vengeance after the 2009 elections. Human rights activists were not spared either.

The Life Of Nemo

….away from all the politics and religion and stuff like that?

“It’s good, I enjoy it :-) “, says Nemo.

Nemo’s family is a large one. Iranian society is incredibly close knit, giving a lot of importance to the value of family and close bonds it brings. The aforementioned family pressure for success, higher education in the field of science, especially medical/engineering professions, does take its toll, and especially for someone with an interest in the arts like Nemo. However, it has never taken away the family centric attitude prevalent in Iranian culture. This is surely appreciable, especially considering world societal conditions today, and everyone’s tendency to be detached and alone in their privacy.

Cleanliness is VERY important to Iranian society, apparently. Or this may just be the case with Nemo’s own household. They could not be certain, but they had noticed this trend of cleanliness in all Nemo’s social circles. He/She kind of grew up with it, and as is the case with many things we grow up with – they tend to become a kind of behavioral norm. Nemo appreciates this.

Nemo LOVES persian pop music. It is quite popular there, and his/her parents listen to a lot of 50s/60s era Persian pop. Among the younger generations, it is not that popular, though the genre survives and thrives. Though, contemporary music such as hip hop, or ones with mass autotunage is also prevalent there. (Hey, look! Yet another similarity!). My contact with persian pop music has been limited only to those artists which Indian music composers were “influenced by” in their own Bollywood music in that era, and I got several recommendations from Nemo which I plan to follow up on!

In what is another, shall we say, “identifiable” trait, Iranian teenagers (and to an extent, even the adults) have an obsession with brand value. Or expensive stuff which would make you look like you got – for a lack of better words – “swag”. Expensive apparel, and notable brands such as Samsung and Apple are just as popular as you’d expect. ( Even though certain electronics companies such as Samsung and HP are slowly pulling out of the Iranian market, yet another victim of the embargoes placed on Iran due to its nuclear program. )

Pollution is a serious problem in certain cities, especially the normally-picturesque Tehran where Nemo live(s/d), smog abounds. (Smog = Smoke + Fog, for the environmentally unaware) This is especially common on winter mornings, which is a shame, since according to Nemo, the view of the cityscape is best enjoyed in the morning, with the landscape surrounding the urban sprawl making for a breathtaking sight.

Iranian food apparently contains a lot of spices like saffron and coriander. I was able to get names of a few dishes/cuisine from Nemo, such as things like “kemeh” which apparently is a tasty, spicy, stew, and a few kebab variations. My conversation with Nemo was drawing to a close by this point and I didn’t want to press him for the recipes, which admittedly, are easily googleable(if that’s even a word)

We eventually said our goodbyes, and as is the norm on an anonymous chat site such as the one I was on, personal details are not usually exchanged.

And so we logged off, Nemo forever showing up as “Anonymous User” on my screen.

Yet after our heartfelt conversation, I felt like I’d known him – or her – for ages.

They had become a close acquaintance, and I felt grateful to Nemo for having given me such a valuable insight into his/her world, culture, and society. I could hardly guarantee if the information was legitimate enough, but it was certainly compelling enough to honor Nemo’s wish of writing on my blog about his life and his world, to dispel the media manipulated image of a middle eastern, Islamic country like many of those countless faceless others in movies and the news, firmly rooted in the minds of the masses. Be it here in India, or the USA, or elsewhere. And in the end, that’s all that mattered to me. Thus I can only hope this article reaches as many people as possible.

Peace out