Sunday, February 26, 2017

A new beginning!

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
By Ben Kane

Ah, Rome! From the ashes of the Empire that went down fighting (twice) have come many a work of historical fiction. Robert Harris was the one to have gotten me hooked to Cicero and the tumultuous transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. But I will be the first to admit that I know very little about the entire breadth of Roman history. Well, one century at a time.

One period of Rome's history that I have remained blind to is the Punic Wars - yes, I did hear of Carthage courtesy video games, but I had no idea that the Roman adjective for them was 'Punic'; and yes, I heard of Hannibal, but that's just about it - I had no idea about his miraculous trek through the Alps into the very heart of Rome. Now, courtesy Ben Kane's Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, I can start a new chapter and learn about that period.

Don't get me wrong, the novel is not written as a history textbook. But, as the author justifies, a lot of it is based on actual events and even actual characters, thanks to the Roman fetish for maintaining detailed records. Having finished this book, I intend to find the next one in the series. I think I've found a worthy successor to Harris (until he comes out with something new, that is)!

Worth a watch

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Produced By: 20th Century Fox, Marvel
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, and others
Pros: Good story, good VFX, no dragged-out action scenes
Cons: Too long
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Finally! After being subjected to the twin tortures of Zoolander 2 and Dirty Grandpa, I found a good movie to watch. Of course, it was hardly a risky affair, coming from the already popular - if slightly overdone - X-Men franchise. And, as has been the case with the last couple of films in the series, the story is going somewhat backwards, introducing some characters in less-than-flattering terms.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a standard formula film - it gets a good story from the comic books (with some modifications - credit due there), and melds it with good VFX and cinematography, basically doing everything by the textbook. Which is sad, because the director seems to have expended minimal creative energies to improving on the story - if anything, Bryan Singer should've tried to avoid some unnecessary sequences and bring down the length of the movie.

One problem with action films recently is the excessively long action sequences that go on for far too much time (cough,... Transformers...). Apocalypse steers clear of that - the sequences are timed as needed, and does not make you yawn. Overall, a movie you should consider watching. (OTFS)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Fadnavis Wave

Typically, municipal elections don't get much national coverage - the issues are hyper-local, the candidates unknown outside their wards, and the larger impact limited. But in one of India's most urbanized states, Maharashtra, and the city government of one of Asia's richest metropolises, Mumbai, rarely have municipal elections become so big. The reason? Things are changing in the state.

Today's municipal results in the state can be described as the culmination of two simultaneous and connected waves - a wave in favor of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who many in the right wing see as a worthy future successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi once he chooses to leave public life; and a pro-saffron wave that decimated the so-called "secular" bandwagon led by the Congress and NCP. For those two parties, which ruled the state for 15 years until they were unseated in the Modi wave of 2014, the results today come as a reminder of just how much ground they have ceded.

Consider first the Fadnavis wave. Less than 5 years ago, the BJP was a bit-player in Maharashtra, with only some influence in Vidharbha because of the influence of the RSS. Since 2014, Fadnavis has used political tactics together with a strong development plank (no doubt borrowed from Modi himself) to decimate the NCP which, unlike the Congress, used to have a fairly loyal and strong voter base. On top of that, he had reduced the Shiv Sena to the second pole of the state, with the BJP now the biggest party, controlling a plurality of local bodies, not to mention being the senior coalition partner in the State Government. The results are for all to see - in Mumbai, once a Sena bastion, the BJP has come second on its own, and first if you count pro-BJP independents. True, the BMC is now hung and there is going to be a major tussle for the post of Mayor of Mumbai, but the fact is that this was considered impossible a few years ago. Nothing says it like numbers: the Sena offered the BJP all of 60 seats to contest in an alliance; Fadnavis refused and broke the alliance, and won 82 seats.

Which brings me to the saffron wave. Although the BJP and Shiv Sena are clearly at loggerheads, with the latter threatening to pull down Fadnavis' government (their threat to pull out of the Central Government is mere symbolism, because the BJP has a blackmail-proof absolute majority of its own in the Lok Sabha), the fact is that they both represent the same general space in Indian politics (which is why they are fighting in the first place). As one tweet put it so well - it is center-right versus far-right in Maharashtra. Between them, the BJP and Shiv Sena control a strong majority of local bodies in the state as well as the state government itself. The NCP has been severely weakened by Fadnavis' policies regarding APMC markets and his successful Jalayukt Shivir program, not to mentioned Sharad Pawar's retirement from active politics (his daughter is more a Rahul Gandhi-image). And the Congress is and has been on a national meltdown since the 2013 round of assembly elections - the party is actually the biggest loser in Maharashtra (after the MNS, but that is a story of its own).

Will these elections have national reverberations? Highly unlikely - not even Mumbai has that much clout. However, they will have one immediate impact on the ongoing elections in UP, which is proving to be difficult for all the three major groups fighting there. Prime Minister Modi, in an election rally, brought up his party's strong performance in Odisha  local polls in a bid to convince UP voters (and this may work, because as FiveFortyThree rightly says, Indian voters tend to have a winner-take-all psyche). No doubt he will do the same with Maharashtra - and remember, the vast number of migrants from UP in Mumbai, all enabled with Whatsapp, can be a potent force-multiplier.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Oh, the torture

DIRTY GRANDPA (2016)

Producer: Lionsgate, and others
Director: Dan Mazer
Starring: Zac Efron, Robert de Niro, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, and others
Pros: -
Cons: Everything
Rating: Don't even bother

It seems 2017 is going very badly for me in terms of what films I watch. First there was the epic disaster called Zoolander 2, and now I had the misfortune of subjecting myself to Dirty Grandpa, a pathetic attempt at sleazy humor that was not funny in the least, and was boring at best. I am not being overly harsh here - even bad movies have gotten at least one star from me in the past. But this one was in a league of its own.

This movie has only one thing going - beautiful bodies (except Robert de Niro's, that was... never mind). That's it. The storyline is flimsy at best, the characters are entirely random (Zac Efron does a particularly bad job oscillating between good boy and nut job), the less said about the acting the better... need I go on?

Recommendation? You've got to be kidding me. (OTFS)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Talking about Fake News

Ever since Donald Trump beat virtually everybody to be elected to the US Presidency, a lot of talk has been going around about 'fake news' being the means by which Trump managed to 'fool' the electorate, because of course those who voted for Clinton were the enlightened lot. This has been attributed to some sly teenagers in Eastern Europe, or to a 400 pound person in bed. The term was then taken over by Trump when he called CNN, 'fake news', which he has used repeatedly. It goes perhaps to the political genius of Trump that he showed the mirror to the mainstream media and used their own term on them!

But the term 'fake' has a certain connotation to it - it implies that everything coming from the media is the truth. In that respect, it is as much as a condemnation as it is self-praise. Except that it isn't true - the credibility of the media, world-over, is at such a low that hardly anybody believes what so-called journalists say. The trend of 'celebrity journalists' - people who are better known for their opinions than their ability to report news - has only added to this.
What we get from the media today is some facts, massively distilled through the fire of the journalist's personal opinions. And, as media is increasingly controlled by a few big corporations, these journalists then to be a part of the elite, possibly the most-hated class in the world today (and perhaps since the dawn of history?). Thus, trust in the media has declined. It didn't help that most big media houses were confidently proclaiming that Clinton would win the elections, and had to eat crow when Trump won.

So what really is fake news? There is the obvious candidate - downright untruths peddled as facts. But there is a more subtle form of fake news: opinions masquerading as facts. It used to be called propaganda once, but today it is basically CNN every night. The death of 'truth' came when news and opinions were melded seamlessly on prime time news. Trump has merely reminded the media of that 'fact'.