February 6, 2013

Book: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:58 pm

imagesAfter the spectacular success of his fourth book (The Davinci Code – See the review elsewhere in this forum) , this is his latest book. All the normal Dan Brown ingredients are there: The World’s Shortest Chapters, the taut suspense at the end of each chapter, the tension, the famous hero Robert Langdon – the symbologist – everything is there. The storytelling style is familiar and even the explosive twist is there in the book – and yet, it does not look as taut as the last two books of Dan Brown. This time it is Washington DC that is chosen as the locale of unexpected wonders.

When Langdon is called for a lecture to Washington, he is asked to bring in a box that was given to him for safekeeping. When he enters the auditorium where he is expected to give his lecture, he is already a few minutes late and is frantic. But when he enters the lecture hall and finds no one waiting for him, he realizes that something is very wrong. He is not aware that he has started on a desperate race to solve a puzzle and save his mentor and friend, Peter Solomon, whose severed hand is left as a clue on the centre of the hallway of the building.

And so starts another treasure hunt of symbols, chase by the FBI and keeping one step ahead of both the police and a vicious killer Malakh, who is determined to get to the end of the puzzle with Langdon’s help.

The story races ahead with a lot of trivia and technical wizardry. The tension is there, a cute girl is there, and a puzzle to solve.

The story is not as gripping as the Da Vinci Code since the subject matter is mundane. Religion and the bible enter the picture again but only peripherally. The story, in my view, ends quite a few pages (about 40) before the end of the book and that is a disappointment. What is even more disappointing is what fills the last 40 pages. If Dan Brown thought that material is exciting enough to fill in for the story at the end, I suppose he is in a minority.

The story is also incredible. After suffering a great loss (to tell you more would be to give away the plot), in the very next scene the characters behave as if nothing at all has happened and are ‘excited to show Langdon the greatest spectacle he has ever seen’. Really? It is like those cartoons where Sylvester Cat is chopped to bits and the next scene it is whole, doing its next prank.

The story is still good and keeps your interest, but is this the best book he has written? No. I would rank his books personally in the following order, from best to least good: Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol (this one), Deception Point and lastly Digital Fortress.

Back to this book: Let us say a 7/10

— Krishna


Movie: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:45 pm

imagesStay as far away from this as you can. Even the surprises and twists are cliché.

Unbelievable! The movie starts with the original Hansel and Gretel and how they get the witch killed.

Even that original part of the tale is told in an amateurish style. Then the movie tanks. The premise is that they grow up to be witch hunters and keep killing witches like there is no tomorrow. There are giants, ogres and all kinds of weird things in case you get bored of just seeing witches in grotesque features through the movie.

Grown up Hansel is Jeremy Renner, who has the right looks and expressions to play a hero, and used it to good advantage in, for example Avengers. (Reviewed here earlier). He is also getting noticed after the latest Mission Impossible movie and getting more roles. But he has not scaled the histrionic heights of a Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp and seems to settle down more in the class of a Keanu Reeves – much more comfortable with action than any kind of emotion.

Gretel is Jemma Arterton, known for Prince of Persia movie role. She manages to look cute and the epitome of the modern girl, but again, no great drama from her.

The plot is hackneyed, and finally they assemble an ensemble in the hope that, if this becomes a runaway hit, they can go for a sequel. I think it did well in the box office too, but I did not see any redeeming qualities there.

The action is mildly interesting but other than that, the plot and the filming style could have come from a 1950s flick.

The story repeatedly involves finding witches and killing them until they meet the Super Witch, and struggle against her. They also learn the ‘mystery’ of why her mother asked the father to drop them in the jungle. (Never mind that the original story says that it was the stepmother and that she hated the kids. That is too simple, is that not?)

To say more would be a repeat of all this all over again and so, I stop here, with a rating of 3/10

— Krishna

February 2, 2013

Book: The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:47 pm

imagesRichard Dawkins definitely has a gift for writing that draws you in and keeps you intensely immersed, interested and indeed fascinated throughout the book. The Selfish Gene by him was an immensely pleasurable read for the most part until he starts talking about memes in a context that is similar to the biological gene propagation (at which point you go ‘Is it the same author writing this chapter?’) but overall that was a very rewarding book.

This book is a great idea. It is true that the subject is very, very close to what The Selfish Gene describes and in fact, most of his books are on the same subject of Evolution and so tend to read very much alike. I am almost tempted to say that you can read just one of his books (anything other than the God Delusion, which is on a totally different subject) and you do not need to read any other book of his.

It is largely true of this, if you compare the subject matter with that of The Selfish Gene. However, if you want to pick one book out of the two, pick this one. This is a much better told tale and is cleverly designed as a pilgrimage back from the current times, especially us, tracing our ancestry back through the evolutionary (animal and other) ancestors until we reach the very origin of life.

He has attempted to keep a similarity with Pilgrim’s Progress  in theme, where on a long journey, several pilgrims join, each telling a tale. However the difference in this case is that the pilgrims do not ‘tell the tale’ and the travel is through evolutionary time. And I do not know about the Pilgrim’s Progress, not having read it, but in this book, you travel backwards with humans in the beginning, joined by the first ancestors and then the second etc. Interesting analogy, interesting theme, excellent storytelling style.

You easily get absorbed in the journey when you read on, caught up in the evolutionary tales and his virtuosity in telling a story with passion and skill, taking you along the ‘journey’, if you must think of it that way. Along the way, you meet various animals and their amazing ways of life, all told from the point of view of evolution and the competitive pressures to improve. The book reads like a fascinating story and, as I have already said, is much better than the Selfish Gene.

The pet themes surface, sometimes rather unnecessarily, and he cannot resist taking potshots at Creationists when there is no call to do so. We all have read how he thinks that evolution can explain all the variety of life, and personally, I happen to think he is right. However, bringing in Creationist’s views during a purely scientific book like this and refuting it all sounds unnecessary and artificial, and really takes away from the subject matter and the flow of the book.

The second critique is that he goes into some deep details in some cases, either explaining things in tedious detail (for instance the section on catalysts) or repetitively (you get tired of reading that he ‘really does not mean conscious decision on the part of evolution when he says that some organism was forced to evolve in a particular manner’ when you encounter it for the fourth time in the same book).

But these are few and far between and in places where he is bang on, his passion and the clarity of narration takes you along and make you admire not just the subject matter but his prose. I still think that Bill Bryson did a better job of making a science topic totally fascinating (Please see the review of A Short History of Nearly Everything in this forum), but Richard Dawkins is no slouch and does not lag far behind, and is at his best in this book (at least among the ones I have read)

A very good read, and is more than worth the effort. Deserves an 8/10

— Krishna

Movie: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:29 pm

imagesA docu-drama,  this links the fictional aspects of drama with the reality base of a documentary. This outlines the fight against terrorism in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and depicts the tracking down and killing of Bin Laden.

The central character of the story is Maya, who is a new recruit in the CIA and is thrust into the forefront of the battle for finding Bin Laden.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. There are parts that are interesting, where they show the waterboarding of the prisoners, the angst of the CIA officer Dan (played by Jason Clarke) after many years of trying to elicit information from terrorists by any means possible, frustrated both with what he needs to do every time with every prisoner as well as, paradoxically, with the changing rules of the game with the political change in US,  the decision of Dan to show his face (originally everyone wore baklavas when in front of the prisoners fearing reprisals against self or family) and many others.

The deal that they make with the terrorist chief that literally blows up in the faces of CIA officers is very intense.

The intelligence blind alleys in terms of finding the driver and messenger who may be a link to Bin Laden is very nice and novel.

The hunt and the organization of the chief himself, the gamble that Maya takes in convincing everyone where Bin Laden is, with no conclusive evidence and the success of the scheme is also interesting, though the hunt and the kill are told in a very confusing fashion.

The role of Maya by Jessica Chastain is remarkable by the standards of the complete contrast shown by the same actress in Mama (Reviewed in this forum earlier) but I did not see it at a level that is being raved about by the media and the critics. Yes, it is good, but in this role, I thought she did not reach the emotional versatility shown by Meryl Streep, for example, in many of her roles. And there was definitely a good opportunity to show these.

The documentary itself slows down in the middle with the endless search for the messenger, the repeated shows of prisoner torture and the supposedly touching attachment of Dan for “his” monkeys, when he thinks nothing of inflicting pain on his interviewees.

It is worth a look but I was not blown away. Let us say a 6/10

— Krishna

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