Sunday, May 19, 2019

Happy Days

Not to put too fine a point on it but yes, it was about time.
An added amusing statistic to this Italian Open triumph- his first title since August 2018, egad!- was the fact that R. Nadal served up bagels all week long. Even the runner-up, his arch-foe Djokovic, had the pleasure of indulging from the Rafa Nadal Bakery Company Inc. (This led to a lot of jokes on whether said bagel was gluten-free in deference to Dojoko's famed  intolerance, and caused me interminable giggles.)
As for the match itself? Satisfying. Djoko was fatigued because of his previous two three-setter battles, but did manage to wrest a set from Rafa. More importantly, Rafa himself looked a lot like his old self, i.e., imperious and clinical. In truth he looked fed-up from the start of this tournament, like he'd had enough of losing and tongue-lashed himself back into reality: this might have in fact led to the severe beatings he handed to every last opponent. Poor Djoko was reduced to smashing his racket and whining about the sun- the sun!! being in his eyes. Welcome to Italy, Djoko, I felt like saying, now quit your tantrums and accept the truth.
He recovered fast though; upon his final losing shot he rushed to the net to hug Rafa's neck, looking almost lovelorn into the bargain. Then we had the pleasure of the Serbian and the Spaniard both making speeches in quite-good Italian, much to the delight of the Roman crowd. (Rafa's Italian is markedly better than his dreadful French.)
And now Roland Garros is almost upon us. This year's tournament feels especially loaded and filled with suspense. The usual suspects are all lined up, but also a resurgent Delpo (how he fought Djoko in the quarter final!) and the other tricky Argentine, Diego Schwartzman whom I must also thank for tiring out Djoko in the semi. Then there's Stan Wawrinka, always suspect but at his sneakiest in the Grand Slams. And finally, the Great Vampire himself, who usually goes by R. Federer. Even though he hurt his hand playing two matches a day at the chaotic Italian Open, his dastardly ways are NEVER to be doubted.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Watched: The Durrells in Corfu

In what appears to be a strange, long-lasting drought of TV shows that can compel me to gape at a screen for an hour more after a long day at work, the Durrells offer a great escape.
Fully three-quarters of its appeal, I suspect, lies in its cinematography. Never before in my limited experience has the beauty of the already-heart-stopping Mediterranean (here it's the Ionian Sea) been captured quite so fittingly. When the camera first sweeps over the family's cliffside villa in its poignant peeling-plaster glory, it immediately reassures you that what you are about to watch is going to be something good, very good.
And that it is. The whole show has the indefinable quality of being right, of clicking, of having been worth the pain to create. We are deep into the third season, and the appeal has continued to burnish its own self further with every episode. It's a kind of alchemy when cast, writing, story and place come together in a pleasing whole that makes curmudgeons such as ourselves indulge in a little beauty and escape. 
Sigh. Although we live in a beautiful part of the world, the gem shades of the sea there in 1935 Corfu seem almost unearthly. The whites seem whiter, the sunlight is like honey, or butter, or some other melting golden thing, the bougainvillea are profoundly brilliant, the shutters on the houses are such a faded green that it makes you want to weep.
I'll stop now. Clearly there must be a more vigorous search on both Amazon and Netflix to snap me out of sentimentality. (To be fair, there is the entertaining but too-serious Made in Heaven, but I need more to sustain me.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Double-decker Thursday

Well then. As if being cheated out of a whole day's play by the rain in Rome was not enough (Roman rain, how romantic though) today we have yet more drama.

I read about Nick Kyrgios's wild interview as soon as it dropped yesterday, and 'dropped' is a good verb here. The loudmouth really outdid himself in this one. Tearing into one Rafael Nadal first and stating how 'salty' the Spaniard is, he then turned his attention to N. Djokovic. This latter, K avers, only wants to be liked as much as Federer is liked, and thus will always remain short of greatness. He went on and on, astoundingly brash and rude, in this vein. In the end Kyrgios came across as a petulant 12-year-old who didn't get invited to a party. Only, the 12-year-old will probably grow up someday, while Kyr clearly has not at 23.
But that was not the end of his theatrics. In the middle of a match against Norwegian qualifier Caspar Ruud, K didn't like losing a point. Thence he worked himself into a froth of historic proportions that he topped off by swearing at the crowd, kicking a water bottle, and finally chucking a chair straight across the court. THEN he flounced off the court. Result? Automatic disqualification.
As I said, Well Then.
Meanwhile Thursday is turning out to be a dizzying day because they need to make up for the Roman Rain from yesterday. Ergo, all the biggies are playing two matches today. Poor things! Upset no.1 was Dominic Thiem being taken out by sneaky veteran Fernando Verdasco. After this, FerVer jumped all over Karen Khachanov and defeated him. His reward? A meeting with his 'good friend' and compatriot, R. Nadal. Who for his part seems in a terrible hurry. He first dispatched of Frenchy Jeremy Chardy 6-0, 6-1. In his second instalment of the day, the victim was the dangerous N. Basilashvili- summarily walloped 6-1, 6-0. These scorelines seem to reflect the Nadal of old, but these are changing times.
Then poor Fed had to earn his supper, being put through the wringer by the tenacious Borna Coric. Uncle Fed squeezed through in a horribly tense three sets and will meet the winner of Tsitsipas-Fognini. As for this match, it is ongoing; Tsitsi looks set to win but I have a tiny flicker of hope for Fognini playing on home ground.


Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Watched: Gully Boy

After much hesitation owing to my tepid feelings towards rap music in general, I finally gave in and watched Gully Boy, on a Monday night no less. Am I glad? Yes: I had already anticipated heavy doses of rapping boys so I could focus on the movie on its own merits.
Of these, there are many. Notwithstanding the dull poster where the two leads are adjusting their earrings while pondering what to eat for lunch, the movie itself carries a certain rough charm largely owing to its unvarnished telling.

Thus we follow slum boy Murad- a mercifully restrained Ranveer Singh- as he gnashes his teeth through his anguished but not-miserable life. His great love, surgeon-to-be Safeena (Alia Bhatt, elfin as usual but more on her later) and his lifelong friends, his beloved mother make up his universe. (The dad is a hellion whose new much-younger wife is causing further pain to his first wife, Murad's mother.)
Murad's early exposure to the local rap scene in the cramped alleys of Dharavi marks the beginning of his transformation. With the help of an established local star named MC Sher and a young student-producer visiting from the US, Murad begins cutting his teeth, putting out a single set to his own lyrics. The only jarring note here was the established initiation rite of the young rappers, all male, vying to establish credibility by engaging in 'rap battles'- which to me seemed the polar opposite of what Murad wants to achieve. Still, perhaps this was one of the lessons that MC Sher so generously imparts.

Inevitably, the young producer- a free spirit who calls herself Sky- falls for the intense Murad and they fool around. Promptly, Safeena sniffs a rat. Safeena then makes her stance clear by breaking a bottle over Sky's head- and this is where Alia Bhatt takes great advantage of her cherry-blossom face in portraying the impetuous, imperious Safeena. When she uses subterfuge, cunning and plain old violence to get exactly what she wants, the contrast between looks and actions is stark and effective. The script thus goes to great lengths to give her a place of imperfect glory in the emerging story of Murad's journey.
Meanwhile, things progress nicely on the musical front. A contest comes up in which he participates to the detriment of his uncle-provided job. (We know he will win.)
But the kernel of the story for me was the way having the world- the internet- in the palm of your hand at all times is changing the youth of India. The seduction of YouTube-generated validation, the joy of being recognized for his music, the translation of his lonely tears into lyrics that he then performs in a stylized, Mumbai version of the American swagger- all this transforms the pain of the young man into something concrete. And perhaps that is what we are all hankering for still. Perhaps that is the lure of the American entertainment industry- not just the outward style, although that is a great part of it- but the central theme or idea of 'self' that the Yanks have perfected over three centuries. While in India, as an anti-individualistic society, we have stretched that ideal of 'belonging' to the group so much that the bubble is slowly beginning to burst.
Finally, during another heated (physical) exchange with his father, Murad puts it into words: "No one else will tell me what I am. I am...something."

All this makes me curious to see what kinds of stories will emerge from India in the coming years. As for Gully Boy, it was engaging and well-intentioned, if too heavy on the rap battles. Director Zoya Akhtar handled this one nicely, giving her leads ample backing with a superb supporting cast. (The whole car-thievery episode could have been cut out altogether to save time, but in the end the fast-forward button helped me avoid crankiness.)

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Readings: Sandstorm

The Middle East, I knowledgeably said once to a friend, is an impossible stew.

Years later I am none the wiser, which fact has been clearly but needlessly illustrated after reading Peter Theroux's excellent Sandstorm: Days and Nights in Arabia. Written in the 1980s, it of course presents a much different picture, but the thing of it is, I am still so vague on that region's politics that you could probably have fooled me into thinking it was rather more recent or more dated.
Here, the young Peter has landed in Saudi Arabia by way of Egypt. Egypt itself he is quite taken with; he speaks of the dignity of the Egyptians owing to their rich, deep history as one of the world's great civilizations. It is this clear-eyed journalistic skill that drew me in right away, and I was glad of the decision to pick up this book at the sale because of that weighty last name. In this case, blood is very much thicker than water, if I have my sayings straight; Peter is the brother of the great Paul.
Anyhow, the young Peter in Riyadh quickly finds it an inscrutable place. The many religious edicts and lashings (!) of chauvinism only serve to heighten the sense of being in a hall of mirrors- all compounded by his fascination for a missing politician, one Imam Moussa Sadr. This Sadr is widely speculated to have been offed in Libya but is also rumored to be floating around in Italy. (Theroux later goes on to write a book on the subject.) Then there are the locals, who while strictly following the religious precepts seek out booze and sex as voraciously as anyone. (Of the local women, there are none save the young girls who make random telephone calls in hopes of chatting with other girls or then anyone who speaks English.) Theroux himself produces highly-forbidden wine along with a friend, hilariously naming the red and white ones Scarlett and Blanche in conversations on their tapped phone lines.
But all that seems almost incidental, if interesting. What gives this account its real heft is his grasp of the prevailing politics  there. And it is that which bogged me down, as usual. The Saudis have a love-hate fling with the Americans, the Israelis bomb Beirut but also Palestine, Egypt and Syria have it in for each other, Iran and Iraq are at war, but the Libyans have a different axe to grind...or is it that the Egyptians and the Lebanese hate each other? No matter how good Theroux's writerly hand is, it's all too much for my feeble brain to keep straight.

In the end I am glad I read it. I must seek out more of his works and to my great joy I find that our very own city of angels is the subject of one such.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Spanish Omelet

We are at such a juncture in the men's clay season that the clichés almost write themselves. Monte Carlo was the start. Was this going to be No. 12 for one Rafael Nadal? The world expected it to be so, simply because it is so. (See: 2017, 2018.) However, let us not forget certain facts. RN is coming back from the umpteenth injury of his career, a sound drubbing by his arch-nemesis Djoko at yet another final at the Australian Open (his SIXTH losing final there), another injury pullout prior to the Indian Wells semifinal with another great rival, Roger Federer. Hmmm.
But this was clay, wasn't it?
Flaming Fashion Flamingo Fabio Fognini had other ideas. Full of fire and flash, he was in such fearsome form that he fileted his great foe in the semis at Monte Carlo. Rafa was left dejected, hanging his head, moving listlessly and worst of all, so tentative as to be rendered completely mute on court. "Why is he playing like a shell-shocked ballerina?" I often wondered. Then I noticed his quavering ankles in the close-up shots, the slump of the shoulders between points.
On to Barcelona. Here they are so enamored of him that they've gone and named one of the courts after him, never mind that he is not only alive and er...well, he is also playing in this very tournament. So it was that on Pista Rafa Nadal, Rafa Nadal was slowly and painfully ground into the red clay by one very hungry young gun named Dominic Thiem. Again, the shyness in the service games, the dainty unforced errors, the utter helplessness in the face of the younger man's ferocity. Still, Rafa insisted in his presser that this loss gave him confidence. "The best" he's felt so far on clay 2019.
Whatever you say, Rafster. We are in Madrid now, where not only Dominic but Djoko and (gulp) Uncle Fed, back with great fanfare on clay after 2016, await with slavering jaws.
If I were to put a positive spin on it, I would say that Djoko is somewhat off: his strangely poor record on the Masters' courts, the racket-smashing notwithstanding, speaks for itself. Then Federer, waltzing back on clay like he has nothing to prove because he has nothing to prove, is 37 and historically has always fallen to Rafa in the crucial matches. The only monster who is worth his salt at this point is Dominic Thiem. He is so raring to go and so bloody powerful that he is slowly becoming the scary sight on court that Rafa once used to be.
There we have it. Onwards and upwards, as they say. To divert myself from thoughts of impending doom- changing of the World Order (or insert cliché of choice here) I will focus on Rafa's fashion and hope he has changed the color of his outfit before Roland Garros.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Watched: Queen of the Desert

Grand title, dramatic poster, major star. Could I be blamed for high expectations? Hardly.
But the viewing experience turned out to be curious. It felt as though the true story was something else in its flavor entirely, and what we were being told had been laid on top of that one in a translucent layer. Thus the slightly disorienting sensation of watching a movie on top of a movie: what do they call this effect? A ghost painting, I think. (Or palimpsest?)
See, the thing of it is, I did not know anything about this Gertrude Bell, who is the lead character in this 128-minute long sandy saga. I only began to gather that she was a real human being via the helpful captions on screen beginning in Scene 1 where such heavies as Winston Churchill et al discuss the future map of the Middle East. They mention her name in this discussion. And we launch into her story.
Except we didn't get to see why she was important enough to mention in the first place. What we did get to see was a rich young girl being sent to Tehran for her own entertainment, falling in love with an unsuitable boy, pleading with Daddy to be allowed to marry him, tears upon the news of the boy dying. This death is such a blow to Gertrude that she then dedicates her life to 'exploration and writing'. In the movie, this entails: gathering a professional-level caravan of screaming camels and devoted servants, swiftly learning Arabic, and eliciting moony looks from any and every man she meets, including none other than T.E. Lawrence. The one man who tries to stop her 'foolish expedition' across the desert is simply told 'no' by Gertrude, and off she goes.
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