Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

I wanted to like and love Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, but sadly I cannot. Kareena Kapoor and Imran Khan star in this romantic-comedy from the Karan Johar camp. Imran Khan has led the clean and proper life his parents wanted him to lead for all his life. When he loses his job at Las Vegas during Christmas, he has a wild night out on the town with Kareena Kapoor. They become good friends, she showing him how to break out of his shell and live freely. He finally stands up to his over-bearing parents, but his feelings of love towards Kareena turn out to be misdirected.

EMAET is disappointing. It is created around what seems like a good idea, but the plot is tepid even in its best moments. Imran is flat and uninteresting while Kareena is over-the-top. Other than the title track, none of the music is memorable either. The camerawork is quite beautiful, evoking interest that is rarely satisfied by the characters or their predicament. There are better ways to kill your time than with Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.

Today’s Special

I watch The Daily Show regularly, where Aasif Mandvi appears frequently acting as a reporter. So, I was pretty interested to check out Today’s Special, when I learnt that it was written by him, based on his Broadway play Sakina’s Restaurant.

Sameer (Aasif Mandvi) is a sous chef at a French restaurant in NYC, hoping to break into the big league. Fate has other plans for him, when his father has a heart attack and he is forced to run his failing Indian restaurant business. Not knowing much about Indian cooking, Sameer hires Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), a charming quote-spewing jack-of-all-trades cab driver as the cook. With his cooking-from-the-gut method, Akbar has patrons asking for more. Not surprisingly, Sameer re-discovers his South Asian roots and succeeds.

There is absolutely nothing special about Today’s Special. Anyone who has watched a few movies of this genre can precisely predict what exactly will happen next in the movie at any time. What makes this movie warm and fun to watch are the actors. There is seemingly no end to the talent of Naseeruddin Shah, plop him into any movie and he will delight you. Given a character with a free-wheeling spirit here, he seems to be have a lot of fun playing the role. On The Daily Show, Aasif only gets to play extremely straitjacketed roles. Given the broader stage of the movie here, he too lets loose and turns out to be a surprisingly warm actor. As a bonus, the movie has quite a few delicious food-porn scenes and pithy food-philosophy lines from Shah. Today’s Special may not be a shahi biryani, but it certainly has the simple joy of a good dal.

Goodfellas

What is this fascination of Hollywood with the mafia? I can barely enjoy some of these movies and some of them just make me question what the motivation was to make such a movie! It turns out that Goodfellas, supposedly a classic by Martin Scorsese, belongs to the latter category.

The story is narrated by Ray Liotta as his autobiography. He grows up in a mafia neighbourhood and joins them right from childhood. Over time, he is given more responsibilities, and teams up with Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci. Together they go around extracting money, smuggling in goods and snuffing out people. Their exploits keep getting grander, more gruesome and insane, leading finally to their incarceration. Liotta starts a drug business while in jail and expands it with his friends once he is released. But, his luck runs out and he and his wife are caught by the narcs. He finally gives up information on the entire mafia family to gain his escape through the Witness Protection Program.

This movie feels excruciatingly long and is quite gory. People go around cutting off body parts, and shooting away with aplomb! There is dark humour and some good quotes, neither of which I can enjoy when it involves harming other humans, with no remorse. The movie does portray the running of an Italian crime syndicate in detail. The acting and direction is excellent, but to what end?! If you are the guy who is obsessed with Godfather, you might like Goodfellas, I guess.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones is an enduring symbol of adventures in exotic lands. In my mind, he stands there right behind the always-affable Tintin. But, this an image created over lots of years of watching bits and pieces of his movies. While Harrison Ford looks just as mischievous in the latest Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as he was earlier, how have the first three movies aged? I checked out the first movie of the series recently: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In this adventure, Indiana Jones is competing with the Nazis in a race to secure the mythical Ark. It is supposed to hold enormous power that the Nazis are keen to harness for war. This quest takes Jones through Nepal, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

With too much emphasis on fist fights and racing action, the cultures and locales take a backseat in this movie. Other than Harrison Ford and his Jones character, there is nothing much going for this movie. I regret to say that the best moments of the movie are right at the beginning, in the teaser where Indy is caught in a Peruvian trap. The rest of the movie never rises to such excitement and thus Raiders of the Lost Ark is barely watchable. I kind of expect that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will also feel like this, but I have some hopes set on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Up The Yangtze (沿江而上)

A few years ago, after my travel in China, I was looking for works that dealt with the impact of change on the Chinese people. What caught my eye was Up The Yangtze (沿江而上), a documentary about a few people whose way of life is impacted by the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover this movie at the library recently.

In a mere 20 years, more people in China have been affected by economic change and migration than ever before in human history. Director Yung Chang, focuses on one peasant family that is forced to transition from Old China to the New China in just a few months. They are a poor family living off a patch of land, growing vegetables, by the Yangtze river. The New China has jobs and opportunities for the trained and literate, qualities that the parents in this household do not have. Their eldest daughter Yu Shui however, has finished middle school, and is sent off to work on a cruise ship to earn some money for the family.

Ironically, these cruise ships travel up and down the same Yangtze river with Western and foreign Chinese tourists, showing them a slice of Old China before it is gone when the dam is completed. The New China is already arriving in the new skyscraper-filled cities by the Yangtze that are throbbing with electricity. Yu Shui and the other rural teenagers on the ships are scrappy and ambitious, all eager to learn and earn as much money as possible.

As Yu Shui’s ship moves up and down the Yangtze, the dam is completed, the river rises, her parents’ home and lands slowly go underwater. Her parents relocate to a small home on higher ground. Like millions of other Chinese, change has been forcibly thrust upon Yu Shui and her family. Countless homes, villages, towns, ways of life and culture have been bulldozed in the promise of a better life. As Yu Shui and her friends learn their way on the ship, they experience the new consumerist life, with new jobs, higher salaries and modern amenities. Her parents, with no skills usable in the modern China, face a harder life ahead of them.

Up The Yangtze is a beautiful documentary that captures a tiny slice of what is happening in China. There is almost no production done on the content, everything comes off raw and truthful. I felt that it was a wonderful window to catch some of the fleeting moments of nameless and voiceless people who bear all the brunt of change.

The Udacity CS101 course

I first heard about online CS courses late last year after some of my friends took the AI Class taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Soon after it finished, Thrun announced to the world that he was leaving Stanford to set up Udacity, which would offer short online courses in the format popularized by the Khan Academy.

Udacity began with two courses, one on programming a robotic car and the other CS101: Building a Search Engine. Python was the language to be used for CS101 and my partner signed up for the course to learn that. I decided to sign on since it would be nice to watch and work on the course along with her.

CS101 was a 7-week course with a lecture and homework in every week. The lecture is broken into small 1-5 minute segments, each of which is followed by a quiz. Like Khan Academy, you rarely see the instructor, Prof. David Evans. You hear his voice and his hand as he jots and draws the concepts he is explaining. In addition, there is an office-hours section every week and there are StackOverflow-like forums for students to mingle.

The material of this course was pretty elementary to me. Though I was flipping through the segments I knew about, the course turned out to be still worth my while. David turned out to be an excellent instructor, someone who can make difficult concepts accessible to almost everyone. Be prepared for a lot of self-deprecating jokes! 🙂 The course was stimulating because it was much more than just learning Python and building a search engine with it. David found opportunities to sneak in CS history, information about CS pioneers, computer architecture, the beauty of recursion, algorithmic complexity and much much more. While the homeworks were simple, the starred ones were quite interesting.

Udacity seems to have hit the right formula: the courses are short and aim to achieve something practical, while using that opportunity to teach the underlying theory. All the advantages of the Khan Academy method seem to be working well, at least for CS101. A lot of the credit should go to David, for creating such a syllabus and his teaching skills. A good teacher can make any topic interesting and I am sure we all have personally experienced this in our lives. So, it is my belief that the success or failure of future Udacity courses will rely a lot on their instructors.

CS 101 benefited hugely by providing students the ability to write Python code in the browser and test it right there. Despite this, I found myself more comfortable with a Python on Visual Studio setup to solve some of the more involved problems. The course was also engaging due to the online discussions. It was humbling to see people from all walks of life and from around the world taking this course. There was also a lot of fun online due to the Peter Chapman jokes.

With MITx, Coursera and many more online offerings jumping into the race, it certainly seems like higher education will no longer be held captive in ivory towers, by a few, for a few. For many generations, the human race has dreamed of a future where one could learn forever. We might just be at the cusp of such a revolution now. CS101 turned out to be a good experience for us, we finished the final exam last week and the grading robots handed out our results yesterday. I look forward to taking some of the other courses from Udacity whenever I get the time.

Freaks and Geeks

Director Paul Feig appeared on a recent Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! episode. His interview led me to two discoveries: the recent chick-flick Bridesmaids, which was pretty good and the TV series Freaks and Geeks, which turned out to be brilliant.

Freaks and Geeks is a high-school drama and the series that I believe it comes closest to is The Wonder Years. The series is set in the early 80s and revolves around two groups of students: a bunch of middle school geeks and a group of high school rebels, whom the geeks call freaks. The series follows the journey of Lindsay, a top-performing math student, from geek to freak.

F&G gets really engrossing after the first couple of episodes. The portrayal of school students is probably the most true and real I have ever seen. Diverging from typical school TV series, students here are not extremely violent or evil, they are just confused. Even the freaks here are not really freaks, they are just growing into an adult world and learning to negotiate it. The series beautifully drives home the fact that the geeks, the rebels, the freaks and everyone else in school are not that different from each other.

Wrapped around such a genuine core, Paul Feig throws in episodes each of which explores one aspect of growing up. Thanks to Lindsay and Sam, we get to see two transitions in the same series: Sam growing from middle to high school, while remaining true to his geekiness, while Lindsay grows into a college adult slowly revealing her inner rebel.

The episodes are 45 minutes long and totally engrossing. The rock music of the 70s is a huge running theme in the series and used heavily in every episode. There is a lot of content online that discusses the music that appears in F&G. I discovered The Who thanks to an episode that revolves around this British rock band. The casting and actors in F&G are so perfect that they are sure to remain memorable for life. While my personal favorites are the three geeks, the freaks are now Hollywood stars: James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen.

Maybe if Freaks and Geeks had appeared on HBO now, it would have thrived and survived longer. Such a brilliant act was not well appreciated by ABC viewers in 1999 and the series was sadly dumped after the first season. Freaks and Geeks gets my recommendation as the best TV series on our experiences and journeys in high school.