And lo, just like that 2013 ended in a frenzied explosion of dragons and drugs. A year that increasingly got bloated under the sheer weight of the summer blockbuster frenzy, almost inducing viewer fatigue. A year that pretty much solidified that sequels and superheroes are likely to dominate box offices for quite some years ahead, especially given the not-so-great performances of original content (of course, it didn’t help that some of the original fare were just execrably bad, Cough *After Earth* Cough). This was also the year that proved that destruction of the Earth remains a fairly viable movie proposition (and not in real life of course). 3D still remains a money grab proposition with most movies hardly making use of 3D to supplement the story experience and instead using it more as a gimmick (Gravity and Pacific Rim being obvious exceptions). Finally, this was also the year that truly cemented the Marvel juggernaut. A juggernaut that increasingly is forcing other studios to jumpstart their own shared universes so as to not get left behind (DC’s painfully rushed attempt at the long planned Justice League movie and Sony’s own attempt towards a Spiderman shared universe)

With over half the year spent in the US, especially during the summer time, my movie viewing experience was fairly peaceful. Barring for a few movie, one rarely has to book tickets in advance and could just walk in to watch a movie even if it’s a new release. Picking out a list of top movies from all the movies watched is quite an exercise especially when one has to compare across genres. There are some obvious parameters like story, plotting, acting etc but then there is the one other important aspect which is typically given a short shrift when it comes to ranking top movies by critics (snobs!), which is the fun and sheer entertainment aspect of the movie. While movies do have a responsibility to serve as a window to our past, present and future and also educate if possible, the primary purpose of movies still remains that the audience have a good time. And that is something that usually gets lost when any top movie ranking list is prepared. In the same approach as last year, below are the top movies of 2013 (in no particular order)

1.  American Hustle: Bringing together the acclaimed cast comprising of actors from his previous award winning movies (Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), David O Russell crafts a fine movie that avoids the pitfalls of Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook and works brilliantly. The movie is predominantly about the characters and each one trying to hustle the other (except for poor Jeremy Renner). Strong performances from the cast truly drive this movie; Bale as the hustler with the heart of gold, Amy Adams as a hustler who would do anything to survive, Bradley Cooper as the relentless, ruthless FBI agent, Jeremy Renner as the mayor who does not mind breaking/ bending the laws if it helps his constituents and Jennifer Lawrence as the true wild card, scaring everyone. This period film with all its wigs, costumers and music is quite humorous (if darkly) and frankly, very entertaining (even if you see the ending coming)

American Hustle

2. Gravity: As folks would know, I am not a fan of 3D. It’s just a money grab proposition and nothing else. However, 3D if done properly, is quite an awesome experience and the first 15 mins of Gravity remains one of the best movie moments of the year. Watching Sandra Bullock spiraling in space, your heart beat escalates and you (almost) forget that this is a movie. Gravity is a sheer triumph of what technology can achieve in film making and as well as, how the real deal lies not in blowing up stuff but in how you blow up the stuff. A survival tale, Alfonso Cuaron’s  real triumph is making you feel claustrophobic in a movie set in space

Gravity

3. Rush: A big screen retelling of the epic 1976 formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt & Niki Lauda, Rush is a heart-pounding, adrenaline-driven comparison of the rivals who were complete contrasts to one another. The trailers focus a lot on Chris Hemsworth, playing up his good looks and the daredevil attitude but the movie does a far better job of focusing equally on both the characters. Daniel Bruhl portrayed as the rat-faced Lauda does get his fair share of screen time and quips. The movie does a fine job of not being judgemental or portraying either of the characters as hero or villain and therein lies its greatest achievements.

Rush

4. Prisoners: You know what they say that there are no new stories, just new ways of telling stories. Denis Villeneuve, takes a Taken-like situation (Angry dad, hunting for his kidnapped daughter, takes the law in his own hands going after the kidnappers) and creates a movie that is deeply uncomfortable. While you cheer for Liam Neeson as he trashes Paris, in Prisoners, you bear an uncomfortable disturbed silence as you watch Hugh Jackman torture Paul Dano to find out where his daughter is. A sense of dread pervades the movie even as you start feeling conflicted towards the happening on the screen. Hugh Jackman is quite brilliant (seeming angrier than any of his Wolverine movies) and Jack Gyllenhall presents an intriguing detective names Loki with his tattoos and nervous tics that increase as the movie goes on. A complex, complicated movie that forces you to ask uncomfortable questions

Prisoners

5. Pacific Rim: This is a movie for your inner 12 year old. Granted that the movie suffers from a complete lack of surprise in the story (or as remarked, a story itself), some annoying characters, general clunky, cringe-worthy dialog (“Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse”), all of which do not make a difference as you watch giant robots (called Jaegers) slugging it out with ginormous lizard like creatures (called Kaiju). Fantastically shot, Guillermo Del Toro brings about all the love and affection that he has for the old robot-monster fighting movies. Each set piece is bigger than the previous one and there is a particular jaw-dropping moment when one of the Kaiju unveils an enormous pair of wings and drags a Jaeger upwards into the sky. A rousing, pulsating score from Ramin Djawedi and a fun cameo from Ron Perlman helps distract attention from the absolutely wooden performance of Charlie Hunnam. It also must be said that Idris Elba carries the movie with gravitas (and the name Stacker Pentecost is among the coolest names that I have come across)

Pacific Rim

6. 12 Years a Slave: While Django Unchained was a typical Tarantino twist on slavery, 12 Years a Slave paints a harrowing picture of slavery. Brutal and unflinching, made all the more remarkable as this is based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave is an uncompromising take and told poignantly in just over 2 hours. A remarkable performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor and supported brilliantly by Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve McQueen should be among the frontrunners this award season for this terrific movie

12 years a slave

7. All is Lost: If one strips Gravity of all its special effects, dialogs and the back-story, the movie you would get is All is Lost. Featuring a one man cast of Robert Redford who is adrift in the Indian Ocean as his boat develops a leak following a collision with a shipping container; it’s a story of survival. We do not know the name of Redford’s character nor his backstory. All that we want is for him to survive as he faces the elements. Redford’s character does all to survive braving all the hardships that comes his way but things turn bleak fairly quickly. JC Chandor is fast becoming a hot shot director with his 2nd impressive movie after Margin Call. Robert Redford’s gives quite a performance with barely a few sentences of dialogs and in fact, one of the most powerful moments in the movie is when he yells an heartfelt invective as all things go bad

All is Lost

8. Iron Man 3: In an age where superhero movies are becoming angst-filled and going dark, Marvel Studios are bucking the trend and making movies that are fun (even if they have darker aspects to it). How does one make a super hero follow up to Avengers? Simply, by not making a super hero movie. Iron Man 3 is more of an action thriller movie rather than just a superhero movie of saving the world when all is at stake. An exploration of what Tony Stark is without the suit, Iron Man 3 addresses some of the major pain points of the prior 2 Iron Man movies, (notably a coherent 3rd act). RDJ remains as snarky as ever and owns the role (even if it’s not sure if he will return for an Iron Man 4). While there has been a fair amount of online outrage of the identity of the Mandarin, it was definitely one of those plot twists that stayed away from the constantly buzzing internet spoiler boards. As always, Iron Man’s suits are simply awesome and it’s definitely cool to see how the suits have constantly evolved from the 1st movie. A fun summer movie without a lot of superhero angst.

Iron Man 3

9. The World’s End: The concluding part of the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Blood and Icecream Trilogy, The World’s end is a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Subverting cinematic tropes like the previous 2 movies, The World’s End is about a bunch of friends reuniting to complete a 12 pub crawl that they did not complete when they were kids. And as things go, there is an entire world of weirdness in store for them as they discover an alien invasion paving the way for laughs and action through the course of the movie. Simon Pegg indeed has one of characters of the year with the refuse-to-grow Gary King who wants to relive his best days while the others are quite reluctant as they had grown up and moved on. Gary King is one of the saddest characters to be encountered this year despite all the outside bluster. And yes, the Cornetto wrapper makes its customary appearance as does falling over the fence.

The Worlds End

10. This is the End: Another apocalyptic comedy, another ensemble cast feature and another awesome movie. This one stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride among a host of other Hollywood celebrities, all playing grossly exaggerated caricatures of themselves facing an apocalypse that devastates LA and forces them to band together to survive. And boy o boy, this is the last group anyone would want to be part of, when one has to survive. A bunch of spoilt prima donnas, each person’s worst character comes out rather easily as they try to survive and the group isn’t afraid to take digs at each other during the course of the movie. Irreverent, wildly and wickedly humorous, it thoroughly deserves its R rating. Watch out for all the celebrity cameos including one at the very end that was completely left field. (Watching the movie, one does have a question if Danny McBride is really that obnoxious in real life or just that all his characters are be it Thadeous in Your Highness or Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down)

This is the End

Movies that almost made it

1. Now You See Me: You know there are some movies that if you leave your brain behind and just go with the flow, you will have a great time. Now you see me fits that category perfectly. A fun caper thriller, the movie has an electric pace and as an audience, you go with that flow and it’s only when you step out and try to think about it, you realize that it quite did not make as much sense as it did. But for those 2 hours, you are thoroughly entertained and involved due to the pace of the movie as there is literally no breathing time during the movie

2. Wolf of Wall Street: A movie based on the life of Jordan Belfort, the titular Wolf of Wall Street and brought to life on screen by DiCaprio and helmed by Scorcese, this is a movie that celebrates the giddy excesses and highs of Jordan Belfort and his cronies making money in not so legal ways. A non-stop high ride, this is a movie that pushes the envelope constantly and what makes the entire drama unbelievable is the fact that it’s exactly what Belfort and his cronies did in real life as well. A fantastic performance from DiCaprio (he really wants that Oscar doesn’t he) and supported by Jonah Hill, the movie unfortunately suffers from a long running time. It also features one of the scenes of the year when a drugged DiCaprio tries to drive back home

3. The Place Beyond the Pines: A compelling ambitious movie that explores the whole idea of “Sins of the Father”. A movie with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper should frankly be a must see movie. Prepare to dampen your excitement as the pair shares just a single scene in the movie. A rather unevenly paced, the movie falters in the 3rd act when the other characters in the movie are forced to carry the burden. Deeply moody and filled with conflicted characters, The Place Beyond the Pines is not a light watch

4. Pain & Gain: Yes. That’s right. A Michael Bay movie almost making it. Pain & Gain is as atypical a Michael Bay movie as Anonymous was for Roland Emmerich and that is quite an achievement for both of them. Based on a true story, it’s the story of a bunch of bodybuilders who decide to get rich fast by kidnapping, torturing and extorting money from rich people. It’s darkly humorous, peppered with scenes of violence and extreme stupidity. While Mark Wahlberg does a good job, the real surprise of the movie is Dwayne Johnson. One never thought he could carry off a role like this so well.

Like last year, this year also had its fair share of clunkers. Poor scripts, badly acted, abysmal plotting, and a host of other factors (including the lack of a brain while devising the movie) feature in the list below

1. After Earth – or the movie that Will Smith did for which he rejected Django Unchained

2. Machete Kills – or the movie that only stayed true to half of it’s prequel’s “So bad that its good”

3. Bullet to the Head – or the movie where both Stallone & Jason Momoa deserve that Bullet

4. Parker – or the movie where Statham’s formula finally fails

5. Red 2 – or the movie where aged stars just turn up to pick up their paychecks

2013 Movies missed out which could have figured in the list – Inside Llewyn Davis, Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, Don Jon, The Spectacular Now, Kings of Summer, Out of Furnace

Next Post: The 2013 Beanbag Critic Award

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What a great year to be a reader of speculative fiction. Some long awaited books finally out, a few series getting over (and potentially be part of future best series), emergence of flintlock fantasy as a new sub-genre, promising debuts and a renewed focus on military fantasy (both medieval and modern).

Personally, this year marked a significant change in my reading habits. I started reading a fair amount of current year releases than previous years, motivated partly by the need to keep track of what’s happening in the space and driven partly by the completion of some of the older series. While the number of books I bought has remained more or less the same, I have almost stopped buying physical books (running out of shelf space is quite a reason) (Non-fiction and Indian authors being the only books I end up buying, purely owing to the well, the non-torrentability of the Indian authors and outrageous prices for the ebooks). The amount of books consumed as well went up this year primarily due to technology convergence and syncing. From starting a book on the tablet to continuing to read it on the laptop to finishing it on the phone, this helped me reduce the multiple book syndrome and concentrated attention to 2 and at max, 3 books at a time. Urban Fantasy, which I discovered last year courtesy Jim Butcher, formed a decent chunk of my reading. Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (Dresden-lite, if you will) and Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka proving to be discoveries of the year. This is likely to continue with books from Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell being part of my immediate TBR (To Be Read) list. I closed the year with a good heaping of military fantasy, polishing off The Shadow Campaign by Django Wexler and The Red Knight by Miles Cameron in quick succession and would definitely like to retain the taste for military fantasy in 2014.

With the amount and the sheer variety of the books, ranking does become inherently challenging. While I diligently capture book ratings on Shelfari (I somehow love the site more than Goodreads) (I love viewing my shelf of Shelfari), the book ratings often are a function of more than just how the book shaped out to be. Apart from being a function of the characterization, world building, pacing of the book, and the language, the rating also is affected by extraneous factors like, the timeframe book was read (during stressful / non-stressful periods, during travel or quick peeks) and how it was read (both the medium as well as how interrupted the reading cycle was). Given the profession and the pressure, it definitely is not realistic to expect an uninterrupted peaceful reading atmosphere every time and that one must grab every possible opportunity to read (sometimes even at the cost of re-reading pages to get back into the flow of the book)

Having caveated (I am a consultant after all), below are the list of some of my favorite books of 2013 (in no particular order, except for the 1st, which is my book of the year)

1)      The Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire Series, Book 3):

Emperor of Thorns

Synopsis:

Mark Lawrence brings to a thrilling close his epic trilogy of a boy who would be king, a king who would desire an empire—and an empire on the edge of destruction…

King Jorg Ancrath is twenty now—and king of seven nations. 

His goal—revenge against his father—has not yet been realized, and the demons that haunt him have only grown stronger. Yet no matter how tortured his path, he intends to take the next step in his upward climb.

For there is only one power worth wielding…absolute power.

Jorg would be emperor. It is a position not to be gained by the sword but rather by vote. And never in living memory has anyone secured a majority of the vote, leaving the Broken Empire long without a leader. Jorg has plans to change that—one way or the other. He’s uncovered even more of the lost technology of the land, and he won’t hesitate to use it.

But he soon finds an adversary standing in his way, a necromancer unlike any he has ever faced—a figure hated and feared even more than himself: the Dead King.

The boy who would rule all may have finally met his match…

*************************************

A compelling tour-de-force. Mark Lawrence brings to conclusion his epic series in style. This remains one of those series that turns the fantasy trope on its head. Despite featuring a protagonist who knows of no other way to survive than be evil, you want Jorg Ancranth to win, to succeed and to rail against those who say no to him. It indeed has been a fascinating journey. Lawrence crafts the book with dark black humor and in this age of ever expanding series size, he brings the book to a conclusion, which is the conclusion we need and not necessarily the conclusion we deserve. Easily among the best books of the year.

2)      The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (The Lives of Tao, Book 1):

The Lives of Tao

Synopsis:

 When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

*************************************

Ever wondered if the voice that sounded in your head was never really you but an alien parasite residing in you, an alien species that has been part of this planet for billions of years, influencing human civilization, through acts big and small right through the ages. Lives of Tao is the result when the alien parasite enters the body of a stuck in a dead-end desk job, slacker who also suffers from low self-esteem and well, is supremely unfit as well. An utterly hilarious romp with enough action and training montages packed in, Lives of Tao is a fantastic read. While the sequel (The Deaths of Tao) didn’t really live up to the potential of the 1st book, it’s still worth a read. A delightful delicious romp with unique character voices and philosophical ruminations when you least expect it. A fabulous debut

3)      Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole (Shadow Ops, Book 2):

Fortress Frontier

Synopsis:

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began to develop terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Overnight the rules changed…but not for everyone.

 Colonel Alan Bookbinder is an army bureaucrat whose worst war wound is a paper-cut. But after he develops magical powers, he is torn from everything he knows and thrown onto the front-lines.

 Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.

 Now, he must find the will to lead the people of FOB Frontier out of hell, even if the one hope of salvation lies in teaming up with the man whose own magical powers put the base in such grave danger in the first place—Oscar Britton, public enemy number one…

*************************************

Contemporary military fantasy is a difficult beast to get right once, let alone twice. After a rocking debut that was Control Point, Myke Cole betters it with Fortress Frontier. A more likeable, consistent character, an expansion to the existing world, building up of secondary characters, and the nuclear weapon of great books, a well-timed betrayal sets up this fast paced, intriguing book and leaves one salivating for the 3rd book (out in another few weeks)

4)      The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wacker:

The Golem & The Jinni

Synopsis:

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

 Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

 Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free

 Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

*************************************

Another fascinating debut. This book is as far removed away from fantasy fiction as it can get and yet retains all the fantasy elements necessary to bring about magic. A magic in writing, a magic in world building and a magic in characterization. This is a story about belonging and purpose. A love story and yet not a love story. Helene Wacker is a name to watch out for

5)      The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham (The Dagger and the Coin, Book 3):

The Tyrant's Law

Synopsis:

The great war cannot be stopped.

 The tyrant Geder Palliako had led his nation to war, but every victory has called forth another conflict. Now the greater war spreads out before him, and he is bent on bringing peace. No matter how many people he has to kill to do it.

 Cithrin bel Sarcour, rogue banker of the Medean Bank, has returned to the fold. Her apprenticeship has placed her in the path of war, but the greater dangers are the ones in her past and in her soul.

 Widowed and disgraced at the heart of the Empire, Clara Kalliam has become a loyal traitor, defending her nation against itself. And in the shadows of the world, Captain Marcus Wester tracks an ancient secret that will change the war in ways not even he can forsee.

*************************************

A book that gets into this list by the sheer dint of having crafted one of the most compelling antagonists in recent times. There is this popular saying that the most dangerous villains are the ones who believe that they are doing the right things. Geder Pallaiko thinks that his actions are just since he is doing the right thing but in reality, his actions are the actions of a weak man, who does not realize that he is a puppet and when he takes unilateral action, its usually is a result of his own insecurities and fear. This unpredictability makes him extremely feared by his opponents who view him as a hard cruel man. Being the middle book in the series, it does tread water a bit which is amply made up through the rich characterization

6)      Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage Trilogy, Book 1):

Promise of Blood

Synopsis:

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

 It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…

Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

 It’s up to a few…

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

 But when gods are involved…

Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

 In a rich, distinctive world that mixes magic with technology, who could stand against mages that control gunpowder and bullets?

*************************************

Another debut author featuring in the list, Promise of Blood places itself right after a coup has taken place and is a non-stop ride after that. With an unique magic system involving gunpowder, Promise of Blood packs in political intrigue and religious struggles amidst an action packed plot. While reading the book, I was constantly making comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s works and realized that McClellan is one of Sanderson’s students. If imitation is the best form of flattery, McClellan has definitely chosen the right template and mentor and the end product could be written by Sanderson himself. No bigger praise than that

7)      Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar, Book 2):

Happy Hour in Hell

Synopsis:

I’ve been told to go to Hell more times than I can count. But this time I’m actually going.

My name’s Bobby Dollar, sometimes known as Doloriel, and of course, Hell isn’t a great place for someone like me—I’m an angel. They don’t like my kind down there, not even the slightly fallen variety. But they have my girlfriend, who happens to be a beautiful demon named Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands. Why does an angel have a demon girlfriend? Well, certainly not because it helps my career.

She’s being held hostage by one of the nastiest, most powerful demons in all of the netherworld—Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell. He already hates me, and he’d like nothing better than to get his hands on me and rip my immortal soul right out of my borrowed but oh-so-mortal body.

But wait, it gets better! Not only do I have to sneak into Hell, make my way across thousands of miles of terror and suffering to reach Pan- demonium, capital of the fiery depths, but then I have to steal Caz right out from under Eligor’s burning eyes and smuggle her out again, past demon soldiers, hellhounds, and all the murderous creatures imprisoned there for eternity. And even if I somehow manage to escape Hell, I’m also being stalked by an undead psychopath named Smyler who’s been following me for weeks. Oh, and did I mention that he can’t be killed?

 So if I somehow survive Hell, elude the Grand Duke and all his hideous minions and make it back to the real world, I’ll still be the most hunted soul in Creation. But at least I’ll have Caz. Gotta have something to look forward to, right?

 So just pour me that damn drink, will you? I’ve got somewhere to go.

                                 *************************************

Our favorite wise cracking, cynical and general wise-ass of an angel is back. Thematically though, the book sees a change moving from the urban crime investigation theme to more of an exploration of hell. Tad Williams takes the readers along with Bobby Dollar through the various levels of hell and it ain’t pretty. While the pacing of the book is on the slower side and the plot does not really progress much, this book clearly subscribes to the fact that the journey is as important as the destination and with its description of hell, you feel the torment and the tribulations that Bobby Dollar undergoes, for a forbidden love

8)      Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis (Milkweed Triptych, Book 3):

Necessary Evil

Synopsis:

 12 May 1940. Westminster, London, England:  the early days of World War II.

 Again.

 Raybould Marsh, one of “our” Britain’s best spies, has travelled to another Earth in a desperate attempt to save at least one timeline from the Cthulhu-like monsters who have been observing our species from space and have already destroyed Marsh’s timeline. In order to accomplish this, he must remove all traces of the supermen that were created by the Nazi war machine and caused the specters from outer space to notice our planet in the first place.

 His biggest challenge is the mad seer Gretel, one of the most powerful of the Nazi creations, who has sent a version of herself to this timeline to thwart Marsh.  Why would she stand in his way?  Because she has seen that in all the timelines she dies and she is determined to stop that from happening, even if it means destroying most of humanity in the process. And Marsh is the only man who can stop her

                                *************************************

Mixing magic with the real world is a recipe for extreme kitsch and laziness in plotting for most authors. Thankfully Ian Tregillis isn’t most authors. The concluding volume of the Milkweed Tiptych utilizes these elements perfectly and is a seamless continuation of the middle volume, with a significant chunk spent exploring the 1st book. With the aid of a plot device, that when used in most other books (and movies and TV series) usually gives me a headache, Tregillis uses it in a way that seems entirely plausible (in the context of the book). Oh and also a big thumbs up for introducing a character best described as a precognitive sociopath through this series

9)      Blood Song by Anthony Ryan (Raven’s Shadow, Book 1):

Blood Song

Synopsis:

 “The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.”

 Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.

 Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.

                                *************************************

If we cannot have Patrick Rothfuss, at least we have Anthony Ryan. High praise and comparison indeed. Rothfuss has demonstrated a style of writing and narration (albeit over two books) that is a pleasure and Anthony Ryan does the same in his debut book. While it’s difficult for any character to be even closely comparable to Rothfuss’ Kvothe, Ryan does a phenomenal job. The story has the easy pace, cadence and flow that you are lulled into a fascinating journey and without realizing, it’s 4AM on a working day

10)   The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett:

The Troupe

Synopsis:

 Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.

 But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change.

 Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives.

 And soon…he is as well.

                                *************************************

Heartachingly beautiful. No other ways to describe this story of longing, belonging, love and hope. It’s moody and dark but never without hope. There is truly something about books/ movies that deal with music, traveling musicians, circuses et al that if done right easily vaults up to the top of my reading list starting with McLean in Caravan to Vaccares to Rothfuss in Name of the Wind. The Troupe is no exception to that and looking forward to more books from RBJ. (This is also the only exception in this list. All the books in the list were released in 2013 except for the Troupe. The Troupe due to the simple fact I read it in 2013. My blog, my list, my rules (when convenient of course))

Honorable Mentions:

1)      The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

2)      The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

3)      Hunted by Kevin Hearne (even if the new POV introduced is kind of grating and inconsistent)

Ambivalent Reactions:

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch: This is a book that I guess everyone had massive expectations on. We all wanted to see our familiar rogues (Locke and Jean) take on the world and with the introduction of a character that the Gentlemen Bastards considered a legend in flesh, this book should have had it all. Instead Sabetha didn’t live up the hype and the romance between Locke and Sabetha lacked chemistry. However, Scott Lynch remedies the situation by introducing a completely new wrinkle to the story, almost transforming perceptions on how future books are likely to pan out and this is my cause of excitement for the rest of the series.

PS: As one can see, I have gone with Speculative Fiction over the traditional fantasy fiction. Speculative Fiction is an overall umbrella that encompasses fantasy fiction, horror, supernatural, superhero, science fiction, apocalyptic et al (in short, the genres I pretty much read)

PPS: Disappointing read of 2013 could very well be The Daylight War by Peter V Brett. As much as I liked the Painted Man, this one got steadily irritating especially wrt some characters and the cliffhanger at the end of the book did seem a cheat of a way to end the book. And sadly, despite the title, there was no war

My very 1st time being in the US at the time of the US Open. Given that I had just missed being in London for Wimbledon a couple of years back, this US Open was one I definitely wanted to catch. Despite ticket prices seem to be going up the way the rupee was going up against the dollar, tickets for both the morning and evening sessions were procured. A Nadal match in the morning and a Federer match in the evening. (and preceded and followed by a host of other matches, but who really paid attention to that (just kidding, you do pay attention when tickets prices can equal the average size of a Congress scam)) (I do love nested parenthesis)

Arthur Ashe Stadium

Arthur Ashe Stadium

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An American Underdog

The first match of the day pitted the former No.1 (and immensely cute) Ana Ivanovic against American Christina McHale. Ivanovic as the seeded player was naturally the favorite. However, the crowd support for the local girl was significant and it also helped that she was up a set and a break ahead in the 2nd before the enormity of the situation caught up to her following which she promptly dissolved in a flurry of errors to concede the 2nd. That marked the beginning of the end and Ivanovic, to her credit raised her game to clinch the 3rd and the game

Take That......

Take That……

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Thwack!!!!!

That was the sound that was produced in the 1st game of the Nadal-Dodig encounter when Dodig’s serve crashed against the boards. The previous game had lulled one into familiarity which was dispelled by the sheer pace and power that being generated by the current duo on court. Limbs flailing, wrists cocking before unleashing the next rocket, this was a slap in the face designed to wake you up. But Dodig’s power, it was very clear where the game was heading. How does one defeat a player like Nadal who beats you at your own game? He chases down every ball and hits them not only harder but with much more revs. The ball loops, dips and kicks up from even a hard court surface. The writing was very clear on the wall and one particular point illustrated it better than anything. A fantastic Dodig serve had Rafa seemingly caught out of position and Dodig followed up with a foray to the net. But Rafa had bent low and from a seemingly impossible position, conjured up a passing shot that caused Dodig to stumble and reach out for a ball that was wickedly low and just never there

That Rafa shoulder-wrenchy top-spinny forehand

That Rafa shoulder-wrenchy top-spinny forehand

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A Tale of Two No.8s

A pair of similar matches unfolded during the day. Both matches featured the current No.8 seeds (in Mens and Womens section), Richard Gasquet and Caroline Wozniacki. Both are touch players, not necessarily the power hitters. Across the net, were players who were not hitting but bludgeoning the ball, in Tursunov and Giorgi. That’s however where the similarity ended. Gasquet was able to weather the Tursunov storm and take the match to the big hitting Russian with his elegantly beautiful backhand, often skimming the ball over the net and skidding it, forcing Tursunov to bend low while returning, robbing him of the stable base from which he could launch his rockets. Wozniacki meanwhile struggled to match up to Giorgi’s pace and depth in her shots. Giorgi was hell bent on the hitting as hard and as deep as possible leading to as many winners as unforced errors. Tursunov could not see the match to the end as he abruptly retired but Giorgi, with the vast majority of the Arthur Ashe behind her celebrated an absolutely famous victory

The Tursunov Rocket - More miss than hit

The Tursunov Rocket – More miss than hit

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Fleeting magic to last for a lifetime

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare one for the reception that Roger Federer gets even when he is not on court. The reception when his name is called out or when he appears on the screen before his arrival on the court is simply stupendous. The reception is more than what McHale got when she seemed like winning over Ivanovic, more than what Giorgi got for her upset of Wozniacki and even more than what Rafa got when he walked in or when he won (Make no mistake, the crowd did love Rafa, punctuating every point of his with cries of “Vamos Rafa”). The moment Roger walked into the court, ten thousand flash lights go on all at once and the sound level would lift the roof of Arthur Ashe (if it had a roof). All at once, Roger looks like he owns and belongs on this stage. His opponent, a hapless Frenchman, Adrian Mannarino, was clearly overawed to just be sharing the same court.

You know what they say about saving the best for the last. This was clearly the case here. Right throughout the day, tennis seemed to be a battle. Every point was fought for, sweated for and struggled for before it could be claimed. One needed to expend sweat by the bucketful (make no mistake, it was a hot day) before one could claim victory. All of that was swept away in the magic that was wrought on center stage by Federer. Waving his racquet like a wand, he was a magician who could sweep away the world’s troubles. Federer made tennis look easy. Rasping forehand winners, devastatingly aching backhand slices, and pin-point services in a 3 set demolition that was but fleeting. The swift evisceration of an opponent in a rather skillful manner.

The Fed-Express Arrives....

The Fed-Express Arrives….

Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion

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A thing of beauty is a joy forever

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

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It actually does bring up a question, would you rather be defeated by a player against whom no matter what you try, you just cant get through or be defeated by a player who does not seem to let you try at all? Would you rather be bludgeoned or be skillfully skewered using a rapier?

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PS: While Arthur Ashe provides the marquee names, unless you are prepared to pay a bomb, you are quite far away from the action. For the real experience, visit some of the side courts. You watch the action literally beside the player and that’s when you get a sense of the pace of the game

PPS: One day, that left arm of Rafa is going to wrench itself out of its socket and slap him in the face. That’s the amount of effort he expends when he goes for his all or nothing forehand

PPPS: Even as I write this post, Federer plays an appallingly bad match to lose in straight sets to Robredo. The magic looks even more fleeting, even more ephemeral.

The very kind folks at Gollancz had air-mailed this book all the way from UK for me to review. The best part about the deal was the book was free and all one had to do was to review it within 3 weeks. Below is the review that I had written for the book. (what better way to keep the blog active, given how hectic schedules have become all of a sudden, there is barely anytime to read a book, let alone update the blog)

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Wolfhound Century

Imagine being invited to a sumptuous 5 course meal. Extremely rich & extremely delicious. However, as you finish the 2nd course, the dishes are whisked away and you are asked to come back again at a different time for the remaining courses. Wolfhound Century is a bit like that. A fantastically well written, brilliantly imagined world, set in a Russia, that may not be a Russia, Peter Higgins builds his world deftly and populates his world with characters and hidden worlds that are living breathing characters in themselves.
In a nutshell, the plot revolves around Vissarion Lom, a police investigator who is empowered by his supervisors to root out and find the leader of the revolutionaries, creating problems for a totalitarian government. However, things are not what they seem. Betrayals, corruption, deceit and bureaucracy confront Lom in every direction. Lom is a character we can all root for. A decent cop (a rarity), his are the eyes through which the book enfolds and what a world that is. This world is a one that had angels fall from the skies and has a hidden world that is targeted for destruction.
Its quite an intriguing thriller and Higgins has short chapters that help drive a sense of urgency to proceedings. The book starts with a bang, lands you smack in between and lets you figure things out, even as things keep on happening. At 300 pages, a doorstop it is not. However, the very lack of length of the book throws a curve ball at you since you realize as you reach the end of the book, that the central conflict is not resolved and sets up the stage for a sequel, which does seem to come out of nowhere. Its a scenario where in you expect the Battle of Helm’s Deep to complete the Two Towers movie and instead the movie stops when Legolas takes out the Saruman’s Wargs. Which unfortunately is the aftertaste that you are left at the end of the book.
Peter Higgins definitely has a bright future given his prose and world building. However, what he needs to be working is to up the stake of his novels and make his climax bigger.
Count me intrigued for the next book in the series.
Overall rating: 6.5 Stone Angels on 10

Lo, the most awaited awards ceremony has been conducted & awards bestowed on the deserving candidature of the Twilight series & Adam Sandler. Oh yes, I am talking of the Razzies. Which one were you guys thinking of? The other small, not so significant awards ceremony that takes place in Dolby Theater. That awards ceremony which voted for Brave over Wreck-it Ralph & ParaNorman. The same awards ceremony that was torn about by critics for Seth McFarlane being inappropriate (Who would have thunk?). All said & done, it is now time for the inaugural Beanbag Critic Awards, doling out awards, good & bad on movies, most of whom do not find any Oscar love at all (but do end up grossing more than your average Oscar nominated movie)

 

You don't say...

 

Entertainer of the year:  The Avengers

Action movie of the year: The Raid: Redemption

Thriller of the year: The Headhunters

Horror movie of the year: The Cabin in the Woods

Sci-fi movie of the year: Looper

Animated movie of the year: Wreck-It Ralph

Disturbing movie of the year: The Skin I live in (Wonder what kind of mind even thought of the movie)

Bat-shit crazy movie of the year: Iron Sky (Nazis in moon decide to invade the US, what could be more crazier)

Comedy movie of the year: 21 Jump Street

Drama of the year: Moonrise Kingdom

Wildly & Wickedly Inappropriate movie of the year: Ted (please please please listen to the Thunder Song from Ted)

 

 

The Transformers of 2012 (in all aspects): Battleship 

Visually outstanding with disappointing storytelling movie of the year: Prometheus. Wattay disappointment. I happened to catch the 1st 15 mins of the movie in 3D Imax. You are literally blown away and then the movie starts and you wish someone would blow the folks on screen with a shotgun

 Movie Kevin Costner would be proud of: The Grey

The Best Performance of the year: Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. An amazingly astonishing performance from the 9 year old.

Vanishing Act of 2012: Ryan Gosling (Hello, where did you vanish after an awesome 2011)

 The Nearly Man of the year: Joseph Gordon Levitt. Part of 2 major box office successes in TDKR & Looper but overshadowed by Christian Bale & Bruce Willis respectively. Solo lead in Premium Rush that tanked miserably

 The Needs-To-Read-Script-Before-Signing-Up Star of the year: Taylor Kitsch. Not one, Not two but three clunkers in the year (despite his best efforts). John Carter (Nothing new but massively big budget). Savages (Oliver Stone must have been smoking the same drug that was depicted in the movie). Battleship (Transfomers-Like, that too without Megan Fox)

 

"I promise to read the script the next time"

“I promise to read the script the next time”

 

Best Lone-Good-Spot-in-an-Abysmal-movie: Tom Cruise singing “Dead or Alive” in Rock of Ages (Disappointing movie, very disappointing)

 

 

Chemistry of the year: Tony Stark & Bruce Banner (Yes, seriously). For traditional chemistry of the year, Andrew Garfield & Emma Stone in the Amazing Spider Man

Intense performances in an unremarkable movie: Jeremy Renner & Rachel Weisz in The Bourne Legacy

Cameo of the year: Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street

Best Tommy Lee Jones Impersonation of the year: Josh Brolin in MIB3

 

Tommy Lee Jones, on the left

Tommy Lee Jones, on the left

Worst Bruce Willis Impersonation of the year: Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper (Movie was awesome, make up was extremely distracting, mannerism copying was brilliant)

 

JGL Bruce Willis

 

The Andy Serkis award for best performance in motion capture: Andy Serkis as Gollum in Hobbit

 

kinopoisk.ru

 

Expression of the year: This!!!!!

 

Loki Expression

 

Song of the year: Far Over the Misty Mountain Cold in Hobbit. Goosebumpy Max

 

 

Most Satisfying BGM of the year: Hans Zimmer for the TDKR

 

 

Takedown of the year: Gina Carano’s takedown of Michael Fassbender in Haywire. Downright brutal, nasty hand-to-whatever-you-can-lay-your-hands-on fighting

Accessory of the year: The Bow & Arrow. (Hunger Games, Avengers, Brave)

Brave Hawkeye Hunger Games

 

The Coolest Equipment of the year: The Bat Pod (yeah!!!)

Batpod

 

Dialog of the year: “Ok, I am drawing a line in the F*cking sand. DO NOT Read the Latin!” – Marty to Dana, in Cabin in the Woods. Dana promptly reads the Latin & unleashes 11 kinds of hell

Comeback of the year: “Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?” “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” – Tony Stark to Steve Roger, Avengers

 

Moment(s) of the year:

1) Hulk Smash Puny God

2) The climatic moments of TDKR

3) When Dana presses the button in Cabin in the Woods

4) The closing sequences of Safety Not Guaranteed. If you cannot help cheering that moment, you probably deserve to watch Ghost Rider 2 & Wrath of Titans for all eternity in an empty theater

 

PS: Same disclaimers as the previous post, Missed all those Oscar level movies in 2012. Catching them up slowly now.Argo & Django brilliant so far

 

PPS: 2012 stats. 51 movies. 24 in theatres (not bad at all) (more if you count the repeated viewing of Avengers, TDKR & Hobbit). Average rating of 7 on IMDB.

It was the year of prequels & sequels, some more sequel than the other. It was the year of reboots, resurrections & rebirths, some unsuccessful, some more so. It was the year when the earth was saved & the earth was destroyed. It was the year when aliens visited (nay, invaded) the earth & earthlings visited other worlds. It was the year when directors returned to their roots (& made you wonder why). It was the year when vampires were created, awakened & destroyed. It was the year when super spies undertook shady activities & shady characters undertook super activities. It was the year when aging stars “tried” to rock their way through music & bash their way through action, while aged stars bashed their way successfully & got presidential. It was the year when a movie involving a stoned teddy bear proved to be more fun than a party involving stoned teenagers. It was the year where you traveled through time or did you?. It was the year when kids behaved like adults & adults behaved like kids

Finally, it was also the year where bad guys (again) committed the cardinal sin of kidnapping the wife & daughter of the man who trained Batman & Obi-Wan Kenobi, played Zeus & Aslan, and fights wolves with bare hands

Personally for me, it was a year where my watch list just kept on expanding, I went through a 2 month phase without watching any movies, caught a few movies that I probably should not have, missed a few I should not have among others, averaged a new movie a week in theatres while in the US (what relief is it to not pre-book movies on Wednesdays). I ended up watching movies that were pure fun, pure crap, interesting (sometimes all in the same movie as well). To come up with a best of the year is a particularly challenging task, especially given the year we had, all the movies missed & most of the movies in the list below were solid imdb 8s/9s for me. In light of all that, rather than calling them just best of the year, I would call them movies that had an impact (positive) on me, either in terms of fun, made me think & contemplate, made me give a major fist bump at the climax or generally made me laugh & wonder. In alphabetical order, the movies of the year

1)      21 Jump Street: Among the best comedies of the year, 21 Jump Street comprised of an unlikely pairing of Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum, cops owing to their youthful (baby-faced) looks, sent back to high school to uncover a drug operation & find the dealers & suppliers. A role reversal of sorts for the 2 as back in school, it’s now the nerds who are the cool things while jocks are looked down upon & how each takes their roles too seriously. A foul mouthed hilarious performance by Ice Cube, a delightful cameo by a star and terrific chemistry between Channing Tatum & Jonah Hill with not a single dull moment make this one of the genuinely chuckle-worthy movies of the year

21 Jump Street

2)      Headhunters: In this age where CGI effects & action set pieces pretty much rule the roost, it is refreshing to see a thriller that relies on a strong plot & a strong sense of dread & suspense to keep things moving. Headhunters, belonging to the Swedish crime thriller genre, has Roger Brown, a niche recruiter for companies, who has a lucrative side business as an art thief, who steals from the candidates he recommends to jobs until he crosses the wrong man, Clas Greve. What follows is a cat & mouse chase and a menacing turn from the enigmatic & charismatic Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Clas Greve.  Murders, betrayals & intrigue are served in heavy doses as the movie rushes towards its gripping climax

Headhunters

3)      Looper: Too often in science fiction movies involving the future & time travel, too much importance is given to the nature of time travel & technology placing them at the center of the movie. In Looper, time travel is merely an enabler to set up the story which involves Bruce Willis forced to travel back 30 years in time to face death at the hands of his younger self played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, a process called closing the loop, a process used by mob to kill people in the future. Bruce Willis however has other plans & has traveled back in time to prevent the future from happening. A thrilling ride ensues as both characters try to escape from the mob that is after them while their destiny leads them inevitably towards each other. A niftily directed movie, Looper is a clever movie anchored by great performances by Bruce Willis, JGL & Emily Blunt. While JGL’s make up to look like Bruce Willis is distracting initially, the mannerisms of Bruce Willis that JGL imitates, right up to the talk & the way they cock their head is quite something to watch

Looper

4)      Moonrise Kingdom: A pair of younger underage misfit minor lovers runaway together causing an upheaval in the 1960 New England town, Moonrise Kingdom is a delightfully charming & quirky tale of young love & the reactions they provoke across the board. Wes Anderson infuses his movie with a delightful color palette while treating his precocious lovers with gravitas. A seemingly light hearted romp is anything but that. Scratch the surface & Moonrise Kingdom is in fact a look at how certain kids are misunderstood owing to their non-conformance to societal standards, standards set by adults, who break societal rules per their convenience. Sterling performances by the lead pair of Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward & admirably supported by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray & Frances McDormand, Moonrise Kingdom is one hell of a charming movie

Moonrise Kingdom

5)      Safety Not Guaranteed: Exploring a newspaper ad about a man seeking partners for time travel, a reporter & a couple of interns land up to determine if the man is a fraud or not. Arising from this set of circumstances is this truly special movie which on one side is a look at the motivations of people wanting to time travel while on the other end is an exploration into the fact that going back to your roots, to the place you spent your most memorable parts of your life & attempting to rekindle it, is time travel of sorts. Aubrey Plaza, keeping in line with her past efforts, stars as a summer intern who quite does not fit in anywhere. Mark Duplass essays the challenging role of portraying a character who either might be the inventor of the time machine or the biggest fraud out there. This is a movie that keep us guessing right throughout. Delightfully snarky, charming, offbeat & optimistic, Safety Not Guaranteed makes you root for each character, be it Aubrey Plaza or Mark Duplass or the shifty slacking reporter or the shy Indian intern who takes up the reporting internship for diversity needed for grad school application

SNG

6)      The Avengers: Possibly the entertainer of the year, Joss Whedon achieved the impossible. He brought together a set of disparate characters in an entirely fun filled action packed romp that takes great care to keep things moving or blowing things up while at the same time ensuring some character development, bonding, storming takes place when characters butt heads (literally in some cases). While really stands out is how one thing leads to the other in the movie, while the movie is skin deep as best. This was probably the movie that we needed to see atleast one half of the heroes we want united on the big screen. Grand on scale, ideas, technology & geekiness, it’s a fun filled romp

Avengers Big

7)      The Cabin in the Woods: Horror movie of the year, this is in reality not a horror movie at all. Motivated by the disturbing trend in horror movies towards torture hack & slash porn, Whedon & Goddard create what is the cleverest & the sharpest movie of the year. Or as they call it, a loving hate letter to the horror genre. This is a movie that is not what it appears is very evident from the first frame. However, just when you think you have gotten what lies beneath the movie, comes another yank of the carpet. Ambitious in idea, scale & execution, The Cabin in the Woods is as wicked as its title is generic. Delightfully clever & cruelly cute, The Cabin the Woods stands out among the releases of 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

8)      The Dark Knight Rises: An ending to Nolan’s remarkable journey with Batman, the movie does suffer in comparison with its predecessors. Ultimately, what makes the movie stand out is the fact that it is the culmination of a journey. And in a way, it comes full circle. Whatever happens in the movie, the feeling that you get towards the end of the movie, is something that has to be experienced to be believed. Ambitious (even if it does not take it all the way), depressing (a statement of our times), this is a proper summer blockbuster movie

TDKR

9)      The Grey: For a movie whose trailers promised men being chased by wolves & Liam Neeson fighting them barehanded in the cold Alaskan environment, The Grey is misleading. It is a deeply introspective movie on survival, group dynamics, grief, isolation & terror. Liam Neeson delivers a subtly nuanced performance on a suicidal wolf hunter who realizes his survival instincts are stronger than his grief. Battling the conditions, hunted by a pack of killer wolves, The Grey stays in your mind for a long time with an ending that is deeply satisfying

The Grey

10)   Wreck-it Ralph: Possibly the best animated movie of the year, Wreck-it Ralph is a joy ride through the game of video games. However, the heart of the movie is an exploration of what it means to be a hero. Terrific action, animation, humor, voice acting & detailed game worlds, this is a movie filled with tons of inside jokes & especially for those folks who grew up playing games on the Nintendo consoles, tons of recognizable characters. An animated movie that focuses on character development & the plot over the gimmicks, Wreck-it Ralph is the movie of the year with the greatest heart.

Wreck-It-Ralph

Honorable mentions:

1)      Ted: A movie on a teddy bear that smokes, dopes & indulges in general debauchery, why wouldn’t this movie be fun. A weak & uneven third act prevents the movie from being a classic

2)      The Raid Redemption: Easily the action movie of the year. Features a one man (at times, two) army rampaging through a building as part of a police raid gone wrong. Fast-paced, brutal, violent & no-holds barred, it is fist thumping, head-breaking, knuckle-busting action at its best

Well, not all movies can be hunky dory & be good. With great expectation, there is also chance of great disappointment & 2012 featured some movies that would adorn the walls of all time clunkers effortlessly. Some of these movies had simply pathetic story telling (or no story at all), high expectations, misleading trailers, disinterested or just-going-through-the-motions actors looking for a paycheck or hamming it up big time (Yes, Nic Cage, I am looking at you) or a combination of all of the above.

The Facepalm movies of 2012

Baby Facepalm

Epic Facepalm

1)      Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

2)      Underworld: Awakening

3)      Resident Evil: Retribution

4)      Project X

5)      The Wrath of Titans

Dishonorable Mentions: Dark Shadows, Battleship

2012 movies missed out that could potentially have landed in the best movies list:

Paranorman, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Seven Psychopaths, Flight, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Chronicle & Hotel Transylvania

Next Post: The 2012 Beanbag Critic Awards

The Day The Music Died

Posted: December 26, 2012 in cricket
Tags:

Sachin

 

All of us, those who follow cricket with more just than interest but passion would have indulged in building a best World XI team at some point in time. If the 1st unanimous name one would pencil in the Test team was Don Bradman, the 1st unanimous name one would pencil in for the ODI team was Sachin Tendulkar. While most in our generation would not have the privilege of watching the great Don play, we have 1st hand experience of watching Sachin play & now, for the rest of our lives, would have to draw on this experience given his retirement from the stage he made his own. A quick glance at numbers tells us why. Over 18,000 runs scored at an average nearing 45 at a strike rate over 85. Toss in 49 centuries, over 60 man of the match awards, 150 wickets & the mind boggles at the sheer enormity of the numbers. However, numbers alone do not do justice to Sachin

 

My earliest memory of cricket or Sachin (The two are entwined in my mind forever) was during the 1992 WC.  It was a match with NZ. I was woken up by the excited murmurings of an uncle at home (this at around 4-5AM in the morning) to see a tiny batsman reach out & guide a full delivery to point. I don’t remember if the ball went for a boundary or not but I do remember the batsman & ended up slavishly follow him for the best part of my life. As cricket grew to occupy an important part of my life, especially with Indian wins, Sachin proved to be the driver of that. Given the pre-internet, pre-cable days at home, I ended up following Sachin through newspaper scorecards (even the limited information on the scorecards could tell immense stories for a highly imaginative 10 year old), highlights on DD (for India games) & cross cable connection (getting feed from someone else’s cable feed when their cable wire would cross your TV wire or as we called it “thiruttu” cable) (for overseas tours). It was through the grainy images of the thiruttu cable that I got to see Sachin’s audition for the opening slot. I would like to say that I caught that innings from ball 1. Sadly, I switched on the TV as I was getting ready to go to school & saw Sachin walking back towards the pavilion with the scorecard under him reading 82(49) which due to the graininess I read as 52(69). That sure was one way to downplay the greatest move for Indian ODI cricket. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, one small shuffle up the order for Sachin, a large shuffle up the cricketing order for India. One day cricket has never been the same for India since that fateful day & the rest is history.

 

Scour the net & there are tomes to be found on Sachin’s awesome knocks. Those twin centuries in Sharjah against the Aussies as well as the natural elements, the 98 against Pak in Centurion, the century against Zimbabwe in Benoni, the 1st ever double century against SA, the twin knocks in the finals agains the Aussies in the CB Series where he guided a chase in the 1st finals & set up a total in the 2nd finals, the savage mauling of Henry Olanga on the way to a sublime century, the 186 and the great 300 run partnership with Dravid versus NZ, the emotion filled century against Kenya after his dad had passed away. However what gets missed are some of his other knocks that may not have the weight in terms of runs but definitely have the weight in terms of the impact that it had on me. Each time Sachin gets out, it just feels like a massive disappointment, especially during the 90s when a Sachin dismissal was as good a sign as any to switch off the TV and get back to normal life. Some of these knocks that are special to me are truly gems as they magnified that feeling of disappointment when a truly special piece of magic is cut short in its prime.

 

There was a scintillating 40 odd scored at over run a ball against the rampaging might of Ambrose, Walsh & Bishop on a spiced up surface at Trinidad where Sachin the captain took responsibility for his decision to bat first before being sawn off by a rough decision

 

There was an outrageously aggressive statement of intent in the 35 odd against the Australians, specifically against McGrath in a match better remembered for Yuvraj’s 84 in Nairobi where Sachin decided to give McGrath some stick through bat & (the only time I remember) verbally as well. A frenetic innings where Sachin had made up his mind that McGrath was going for runs & smote him for 3 sixes, one a wild slog that went over third man

 

There was a brazen 41 off 26 balls versus Pakistan in Dhaka in the deciding finals of a tournament chasing 315. This was also the 1st tournament that Sachin was playing after his 1st disastrous attempt at captaincy. This is a match that made Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s reputation for all eternity , a match set up through an awesome parternship between Dada & Robin Singh but it was an innings that was positioned through Sachin’s initial assault on the Pakistani bowlers

 

Among the many (!) things I learnt at business school, I learnt something around the funda of risk vs reward i.e to gain a higher reward, high risks have to be taken. Sachin’s ODI career has definitely turned that theory on its head. His batting is a product of elimination of risks while maximizing scoring opportunities.At a point in time, I had described Sachin’s batting as being highly efficient.  For a cricketer who started off as an aggressive I-have-more-than-2-shots-for-every-ball to a player who would judiciously wait before playing the least risky shot to get runs, Sachin redefined one day batting. Take for instance any Sachin century & compare it with any other, the same shots would repeat. The tuck past square leg, the flick to midwicket (with the strong bottom hand), the punch off the back foot splitting cover & point, the straight drive (the only shot where he would add a flourish) & then the lap shot during the consolidation phase. In fact, the lap/paddle shot was his way to keep the scoreboard ticking without wasting any balls. His batting also clearly stands out for the lack of flourish as though he determined that adding a flourish led to inefficiencies (except for the holding the pose on straight drives, a human touch if you will)

 

Paddle

 

Being surrounded by folks who are passionate about cricket brings about heated discussions on almost any cricketing topic & one of the frequent ones often discussed is the fact that Sachin has not really seized a moment & led a fightback (nothing is as romantic as a fightback, isn’t it) ala Steve Waugh types & he scores his runs only when there is no pressure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A quick look at the numbers (thanks Statsguru) dispels the notion. Sachin averages 42.33 batting 2nd overall & 55.45 batting 2nd in matches India won. In tournament finals (what could be more high-pressure than that), Sachin averages 54.44. Gargantuan numbers, no doubt. Given the position where Sachin batted, more often than not, a fightback would not be required as Sachin would have already taken care of the problem. Fightbacks by their very nature in cricketing terms would entail a team going for glory after the loss of early wickets & such. A Sachin innings would prevent a situation like that from even happening. Or as they say, Prevention is better than Cure. A Sachin special innings would release the pressure on the Indian batsmen, transfer it on the opposition & thus prevent a situation needing a fightback. Given that India won 33 of the 49 (67.4%) matches where Sachin scored a century, compared to the 234 of the 463 matches (50.5%) India won when Sachin played, India did have a better chance to win when Sachin scored a century

 

There is a whole generation who grew up watching Sachin play cricket. To this day, we do not know cricket without Sachin. While his appearances have been sporadic in one day cricket, it was still always there but reality has hit us with his retirement. That familiar tingle when Sachin walks in to open an innings, the crowds waiting for the magic to be turned on, the crotch grab at the start of each delivery, the tap-tap on the pitch, the gesticulations towards the sightscreen till its perfect, the chants of “Sachin Sachin” audible even over Ravi Shastri’s machine gun of a voice, the screech of the voice yelling Yes/No, the enthusiasm of a person who was born to play cricket & knowing nothing other than cricket, the enthusiasm of a 16 year old who dashes around the field, diving & chasing balls in the body of an almost 40 year old aging champion, these are things we would definitely miss in the coming days. Adios Sachin the champion

 

Straight Drive

 

PS: May be he was hinted (or pushed) by the selectors or may be it was his call, what really sucks is the fact that he did not get a proper send off. May be it’s the way Indian cricket functions but we really do not get to give a proper farewell to our cricketers compared to the way a Steve Waugh or a Rick Ponting got. May be the BCCI feel (in all their infinite wisdom) that this would draw the team’s attention from the match onto the farewell but come on, there is nothing worse than a 8-0 drubbing followed by a loss at home. (Yes, I know Sachin has only retired from ODIs but may be this is something that has to be thought of.) (Yes, this is my crib for Laxman & Dravid not getting proper farewells at home & Yes, I am a biased towards them)

 

 

<<Spoilers for Minority Report & Total Recall>>

Who doesn’t love happy endings? We all love & savor happy endings. Often at times, we walk out of movies with a buoyant feel due to a happy ending. Directors feast on that & try to guarantee a happy ending on most occasions. Good defeats evil, the hero get the girl & they live happily ever after, the lone warrior/ranger heads off into the glorious sunset, being classic examples of some happy endings. There are certain stories however that benefit from having a not-so-happy ending (or as they say cynically, a real-life ending). Arlington Road is a classic example of one such movie. It’s a chilling thrilling ride with the kind of ending that would make you uncomfortable because it seems so eminently possible. Ultimately though, happy endings at movies lead to a greater chance of happy endings at the box office because typically, we go to movies to experience happy endings, an escape from the real life. A not-so-happy ending typically depresses us & the word does spread about it (through comments such as “the movie is dark”). A happy ending also has an unintended (or may be in a calculative fashion, intended) effect of glossing over the faults of the movie (presents the Dark Knight Rises as evidence)

While indie movies have the (relative) freedom with respect to their endings, movies backed by the big studios (& thereby big budgets) have a lot more at stake & hence there would be considerable opposition towards ending a movie in a non-conventional fashion. Given these constraints, directors do end up coming up with ways of endings that deliver the so-called happy ending while remaining true to their overall message. Nolan does that in The Dark Knight. We all like the fact that Batman has defeated the Joker & saved Gordon and his family from Two-Face – a happy ending, sort of. However, what is hidden under the happy ending is the true ending. The Batman takes the fall for murders. The Joker is the ultimate winner. As Harvey says ‘You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. (What made it even more depressing at that point was Nolan stating that he did not think he would come back for another Batman movie)

& then there are some movies that end up on a happy note seemingly but on repeated viewings, lend itself to a different kind of interpretation, one that is completely at odds with the initial ending. Minority Report & Total Recall (The Colin Farrell starrer) are movies that fall into this category.

Minority Report has this seemingly happy ending. John Anderton is rescued from the halo-ed state he is placed in during his capture by his ex-wife & post escape, he ensures that he exposes the bad guy & clears his own name from the murder charges & the movie ends with him being reunited with his wife even as she is expecting their 2nd baby. That’s exactly what Spielberg (director of the movie) wants you to think. But there is this cutaway scene very early in the movie when a captor describes what a halo-ed person feels. They are incapacitated & as the captor says “All your dreams come true”. Which drives the question, what if the ending we saw was entirely John’s dreams or vision? Which pretty much means Anderton is still captive & technically, there is no happy ending

Total Recall has a nice happy ending. Colin Farrell having his memories supposedly unlocked after a visit to Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories, discovers himself to be a spy & brings down the evil guys. Just as the movie is ending, the sun comes out & an advertising board that displays Rekall is shown prominently for a few seconds & then Farrell hugs her heroine & basks in the sunlight. But what if all of this was really happening in Rekall. What if his fascination to be a spy is what is being played out in Rekall & he thinks that is the real life. It is an interesting thought & again adds up to an unconventional ending.

It is quite possible that the directors in both these movies had not really thought of it or meant it the way I have interpreted it but in this day & age of no wasted shot & exact editing, it does not seem too far-fetched a scenario.

Here’s hoping for more such movies J

Title Source: Avril Lavigne’s “My Happy Ending”

PS: May be it’s a Philip K Dick thing. Both Minority Report & Total Recall were based on PKD’s short stories. While I confess to have not read his books (I don’t read much sci-fi), I would like to think may be that’s how PKD wrote it in his books

PPS: I don’t remember much of the 1st Total Recall movie starring Arnie apart from the fact that it was kind of fun & involved travel to Mars & had a very hot (at that time)Sharon Stone

1)      Around 10 days back, I had the opportunity to visit campus for the summer placement process, this time from the other side (the dark side if you will, depending on where you are looking at). While a lot of things on campus have changed, the placement madness has most definitely not. The tense nervous stench that permeates the campus has not changed even after half a decade (sheesh, it has been that long). The faces may have changed but the expressions remain the same. The deathly stillness, the absolute freezing of the face muscles so as to not show any expression lest it be construed for weakness, quite a few students sitting together in a circle preparing while each wages an internal war, some confident, some mentally rehearsing, things just have not changed. Looking at things this time from outside in, one cannot help but wonder if there is an alternative to this process or are students & placement committee comfortable with the process. The reason for bringing it up arises from the fact that students who end up coming from interviews (especially once they see a decent chunk of their batch getting the plum offers) invariably are nervous, jittery & low on confidence. There is an air of desperation & the risk of trying too hard is quite significant as is the risk of making a bad choice & accepting an offer, just to get out of the process

 

2)      The charm of certain hole-in-the-wall eat-out spots lies in their role as a social leveler. It is the kind of place where the quality of food is so awesome that at any given time you can find people from various strata frequenting. One such place lies very close to Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore. It is a literal window in a house that opens out to the street & sitting at the window, a team of 4 cooks cook up a veritable delight to the senses through a range of South India dishes. This place has been in existence for over 15 years (by my reckoning or since I had something first there) & still the crowd remains while the fare remains as excellent as before. Proof being the plate of awesome bhajji that I polished off in no time

3)      Science Fiction movies, the one set on earth, have the same uniform color palette. It is bleak & usually in various shades of grey (No pun intended). It almost looks like color has been outlawed and grey is the only permitted color. Scorched earth & Scorched skies (usually a by-product of a nuclear war). I wonder if all of us (film makers & viewers) have such a pessimistic view of the future

Actors are at times defined by the relationships that they portray on screen. It sometimes does not matter who the other person in the relationship is, all that matters is the relationship itself & the actor portraying that relationship. That relationship tends to define the actor & bring about the best in him/her. One of the best examples of the above happens to be John Noble.

John Noble in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as Denethor, Steward of Gondor was my first introduction to him & he was everything that one expected out of Denethor. Haughty, proud, stern (or to borrow liberally from GRRM, Unbent, Unbowed & Unbroken).  John Noble’s weathered beaten craggy face conveys emotion perfectly. He plays a man grieving the loss of his first born, his heir & contemptuous of his second born for not measuring up to the standards expected of a heir, while at the same time, he absolutely resents the presence of Gandalf meddling in what he sees is Gondor’s concern. Denethor’s feelings for Faramir (his second born) comes pouring out when Faramir lies close to death. That is when Denethor gives up, starts acting irrationally & goes as far as to consign both himself & Faramir to flames.

Denethor, Steward of Gondor

Acting irrationally for his son is the theme that continues in John Noble’s roles & this was further reflected in Fringe, a science fiction tv series, where John Noble plays the proverbial mad scientist helping the FBI solve unexplained ala X-Files level cases. John Noble as Walter Bishop plays a nuanced character that is in equal parts brilliant, mad, guilty, eccentric, tormented, driven, focused, haunted and afraid. In order to save his son, Walter Bishop crosses a line (literally & figuratively) & in the process, puts the world in peril. His countenance is of a man weighed down by the guilt of his not just his actions but also of the belief that if he would have to do it all over again, he would do it the same way. The resulting guilt drives him to seek refuge in drugs (LSD in particular) & ultimately, seeks refuge in temporary madness. One look at Walter Bishop & we realize, here is a character that has experienced loss, & suffers from extraordinary guilt. He craves forgiveness & is willing to do anything to redeem himself for crossing the line but also knows that he is probably beyond redemption. Regret is another aspect that drives Walter Bishop. Regret for activities committed in the past. Activities that included experiments (of all weird kinds) on children. He understands now the mistakes he had committed & the lives that he has affected (in some cases, ruined)

Walter Bishop

The later seasons of Fringe requires John Noble to play an entirely different character. A wronged, vengeful, ambitious, powerful man who would do anything to get back at those he believes, are his enemies. His acting chops are never as evident here as we try to banish the character we had seen before & try to accept this new persona. Everything is perfect. If the previously weathered lined face represented a beaten man, the new weathered lines of his face represent a toughened man. The voice is deeper, the slouch, the hesitancy & the diffidence are gone & we have a tough sounding leader in place now. Again, this iteration of John Noble is again driven by the love for his son. It’s nothing short of a powerhouse performance from John Noble.

Walternate

It is a norm that actors often get typecast. But based on his performances in LOTR & Fringe, it probably is not a bad thing for John Noble to be typecast again as a dad who would perform the most desperate of acts for his son (Not a bad idea to have John Noble do a movie like Taken. I said it first here. Patented & Copyrighted)

PS: Given his performance in Fringe, it is indeed criminal that John Noble does not have even an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor, let alone winning it. It kinds of ties into my theory that Academy awards judges & Prime time Emmy judges are snobs & cannot acknowledge science fiction, fantasy & super heroes as mainstream (Though it was indeed a relief that Peter Dinklage broke through last year)