Godless: Steven Soderbergh’s Western mini-series is both epic and intimate


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In the past 5-7 years, scripted shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Detective, Narcos, Downton Abbey and The Crown as well as mini-series like John Adams, The Night Manager and The Night Of have all brought richly detailed, large scale, cinema-quality entertainment to TV.

Netflix and HBO in particular have been very successful at attracting the best of Hollywood talent to write, produce, direct and star in these drama and fantasy epics that have pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible and acceptable on TV, in terms of graphic violence and sex as well as production values.

One of those big names who turned his attention to scripted TV is Steven Soderbergh. From 2014 onwards, the Oscar-winning director has executive produced half a dozen TV projects, including the award-winning 2013 TV movie Behind the Candelabra (about the later years of entertainer Liberace) and the 2-season show The Knick.

This week I finished watching his latest TV project, the 7-episode mini-series Godless, a Western set in the 1880s, starring Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels. After being indifferent to Westerns for many years (I didn’t really get all the fuss about Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, because I didn’t understand the genre that they were deconstructing), I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 2008 and fell in love with the genre. I embarked on a journey of ‘self-education’, ended up watching most of the classic westerns and now keep an active eye out for new entries into the genre (there haven’t been that many).

Godless is the story of Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) and Frank Griffin (comedian turned character actor Jeff Daniels); Roy was adopted into Frank’s group of outlaws as an orphaned boy and has now grown into a young man who doesn’t vibe with the group’s modus operandi of robbing and raping. Frank is by turns cruel and caring, a learned, enigmatic man with a magnetic personality who wears a preacher’s collar while committing the most violent of crimes. He is a father figure to Roy and the rest of this 30-member ‘family’ of violent and psychotic men.

At the other end of the spectrum is La Belle, an isolated mining town populated almost entirely by women. An accident in their silver mine two years earlier wiped out the entire male population of the town, with the exception of the undertaker, the bartender, sheriff Bill McNue and his young deputy Whitey Winn. The women have slowly learned to make do on their own, but in addition to their emotional distress, they are now in dire straits financially as the mine is unused and no longer bringing income to the town. Sheriff McNue’s sister Mary Agnes is one of a group of women who decides to take charge of the town’s destiny.

Living on a ranch close by is the beautiful widow Alice Fletcher (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), along with her teenage son and mother-in-law. Also a few miles from La Belle, is Blackdom, a poor farming community of African American Civil War veterans, who have settled there with their families.

All these lives are violently thrown together when Roy Goode decides he has had enough of Frank Griffith’s life of crime and parts ways with him. Frank considers this a betrayal, even more so considering that Roy intercepts the gang’s latest robbery and takes off with the loot! Roy is now on the run from Frank and his men, gets injured in a shootout with them and eventually arrives at Alice Fletcher’s ranch seeking shelter.

The basic framework of the story is derivative. To begin with, there is a significant parallel with Shane – Roy Goode becomes a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son while recuperating at the ranch. And the story of how a town holds out against attacking outlaws has been told in various classics including High Noon, Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral. However, the freshness in Godless comes from having a large part of the story set in a town without men; this creates a unique dynamic, particularly for a Western.

The show is directed by Scott Frank, who made his name as a screenwriter on movies as diverse as the Spielberg sci-fi classic Minority Report, Barry Sonnenfeld’s black comedy Get Shorty, Steven Soderbergh’s crime-comedy Out of Sight (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and the X-Men franchise spinoffs The Wolverine and Logan. There is a dark sensibility running through all his work and that is given full rein in this show; in fact, the title Godless is a reference to a statement made by Frank Griffith that there cannot possibly be a God in this land of cruelty, sorrow and despair.

I loved that the show took its time in exploring the backstories and personalities of the key characters, weaving its way through flashbacks and subplots. Some reviewers found that these diversions slowed down the pace too much, but I really enjoyed seeing all these slices of frontier life and it helped me invest emotionally in the fate of the various characters, including even Frank Griffin (such a fine performance by Jeff Daniels, who surely has come a long way since acting opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber!).

The production values, cinematography and visual effects are all top notch – movie quality – as we have now come to expect from a Netflix production. Also, de rigueur for these top tier shows now, is the striking combination of graphics and theme music that comprise the opening title sequence. Totaling 7 ½ hours of viewing, this is perfect for a weekend binge watch!

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Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End – unconditional love across race and gender in the 19th century


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How curious that after reading an extraordinary story of decades-long love and friendship in the cultured environs of a luxury hotel in early 20th century Moscow, I follow up with another extraordinary story of decades-long love and friendship, this one set in the barbaric world of 19th century USA, amidst the Indian massacres and the Civil War . The first book is A Gentleman in Moscow, which I wrote about recently and the second is Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, both published in 2016.

The styles of writing reflect the contrast in setting; while Amor Towles’ prose is nuanced and oh-so-civilized, Sebastian Barry’s narrative is raw and mercurial, like the world that his book’s characters inhabit. Barry’s story is narrated in the first person by a poor Irish immigrant turned soldier, a man who expresses his feelings without thought to the rules of language; an uncensored, unfiltered stream-of-consciousness style that is almost a sort of magical poetry. Initially I found this difficult to ‘process’, but it had a magnetic quality that quickly became both engaging and endearing.

Days Without End is the story of two men – Thomas McNulty and John Cole – who meet in their early teens in the late 1840’s and then go through a series of experiences and adventures over the next 20 odd years. I discovered while writing this post that McNulty’s family has been the subject of three of Barry’s previous novels, criss-crossing generations on either side of the Atlantic. In this book, through McNulty, we are witness to the American nation’s growth pangs as it engages in a bloody war to wrest control of land and resources from Native American tribes, then tears itself apart due to a fundamental disagreement over slavery and black rights (the echoes of which continue to reverberate even today).

The two meet as teenagers in Missouri and are hired by a saloon owner to dress up as girls in the evenings so that his patrons have someone to dance with, there being hardly any women in the mining town to be recruited for this (“It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling or fondling”, assures the owner Mr. Titus Noone). After some years, the boys, now in their late teens join the Army and go out West along the Oregon Trail. In due course, they participate in brutal warfare and massacres of Native American tribes.

John Cole progressively becomes McNulty’s friend, companion, lover and reason to live. In spite of his status as a co-protagonist of the story, Cole is a distant figure in the book, McNulty’s virtual worship of him elevating him in his narrative to an Olympian level of existence, beyond the daily scrimmages and depredations of ordinary men. Cole’s silent compassion, courage and presence of mind acts as a rudder of stability as the two men traverse the geography and events of turbulent 19th century America through the Indian Wars, the Civil War and continued troubles with the Native Americans thereafter.

Along the way, the two become three. McNulty and Cole are joined by a young Native American girl who is the survivor of yet another massacre initiated by trigger-happy soldiers. She along with other surviving children from the tribe are taken in by Mrs. Neale, the wife of the US Army commander and schooled in the ‘Christian Way’. This girl, Winona is then assigned to be a servant to these soldiers (the commander’s wife making it very clear that she is not be abused in any way) and the two men get permission to take her along with them, when they resign their commission and set off to seek civilian employment back in Missouri. Just as in Gentleman in Moscow, this novel comes alive with the arrival of a young child into the lives of the protagonist/s; she unlocks degrees of love and parental instinct that these characters did not know they possessed and which in the natural course of life they could not have experienced (Count Rostov as a lifelong bachelor enduring house arrest in Russia and McNulty/ Cole as gay lovers in 19th century America).

In the following years, the little ‘family’ live through a roller coaster of experiences and emotions – happy times, times of separation and times of extreme stress and persecution. They stay sane and alive and together through their unstinting and unconditional love for each other. The twists and turns in the plot elevate the story to almost thriller-like levels of anxiety and anticipation; at one point, I was convinced that one or the other of the three would not make it to the end of the story alive. Suffice to say that there is indeed a happy ending, although one cannot say to what extent the physical and psychological scars will impact the trio over the remainder of their lives.

I mentioned earlier about the magical quality of the first person narrative. As in the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, there were many lines and passages I highlighted while reading the book that I went back and read again, some of which I have listed below.

When meeting their old benefactor Titus Noone after a gap of many years, McNulty remarks how well old Mr. Noone looks – “His skin is made of the aftermaths of smiles.”

Marveling at the beauty of his adopted daughter Winona, McNulty says,”Goddamned beautiful black hair. Blue eyes like a mackerel’s blue back. Or a duck’s wing feathers. Sweet little face cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead.”

Later in the book, describing Winona’s singing voice,”Such a sweet clear note she keeps in her breast. Pours out like something valuable and sparse into the old soul of the year.”

Days Without End has won both the 2016 Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread Book Award) and the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction from the UK. As with A Gentleman in Moscow, this is a book that reminds us what it means to be human!

Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow – House arrest in the good old days


It’s not often that I take a break from my steady diet of scifi and even when I do, it’s usually to read a travelogue or a biography. So I surprised even myself, when I decided to pick Amor Towles’ highly acclaimed 2nd novel A Gentleman in Moscow as my next read. All I knew about the book was the blurb I read on Goodreads. At the time, I had never heard of Amor Towles and knew nothing about him (graduated from Yale, lives in NYC, investment professional for 20 years).

What a good decision it was! I tend to carried away with praise for a book I really like; especially immediately after I’ve finished it, I’ll go around saying “this is one of the best books I’ve ever read!”. That’s why I waited a week after I finished the book and after that, I skimmed through the entire book a second time (stopping at various passages which I had highlighted during the first read) to check if I still felt the same way. I do. This IS one of the best books I’ve ever read!

This is a story of a member of the Russian aristocracy who in 1922 is sentenced by THE EMERGENCY COMMITTEE OF THE PEOPLE’S COMMISSARIAT FOR INTERNAL AFFAIRS to live the rest of his life under house arrest for writing a poem which was considered to be disruptive to the spirit of the Revolution. With immediate effect, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is escorted back to the luxurious Hotel Metropol in Moscow, which is where he had been in residence for the previous 4 years, using it as a sort of serviced apartment as was the practice of the wealthy in those days. When he goes upstairs to his room, he discovers that he has been moved into a tiny attic, which can only accommodate his massive writing table, a chair, a bed and his large collection of books. Everything else has been confiscated by the State.

From this point, we become intimately familiar with the landscape of the hotel where this entire story plays out. The restaurants – the Piazza and The Boyarsky, the Shalyapin Bar (where he has his nightly aperitif), the barbershop, the kitchen, the card room, the florist’s room, the seamstress’ room (yes!) and of course, staircases, corridors and storerooms.

This is a character-based rather than plot-based novel, woven around a series of vignettes, the author dipping in every few years into specific events.

The first major event happens when the Count meets 9-year-old Nina Kulikova, the daughter of a widowed Ukranian bureaucrat, who is resident at the hotel. Nina’s governess has chosen not to send her to a regular school, nevertheless she is incredibly well-informed for her age (in their first meeting, she sagely proclaims that “a woman is always involved” when talking about duels between gentlemen). The Count and Nina quickly form a partnership of equals. While he educates her on the ways of the world (especially her desire to know “how to become a princess”), she teaches him how to navigate the various hidden and forgotten passageways of the hotel…a skill that will be immensely helpful to him in the decades to come.

This young and enterprising girl stays at the hotel until her teens. Some years later, the Count sees her walking through the hotel lobby with a couple of acquaintances. She has become an intense, passionate, but utterly humorless young woman with many idealistic thoughts and an activist nature. At this point, I shared the Count’s deep disappointment that this little girl whose wisdom was so charming in her youth had grown up into this serious, boring young woman. As the Count says to one of the hotel staff when describing the encounter, “I fear that the force of her convictions will interfere with the joys of her youth.” I felt sad that the story had been deprived of their entertaining relationship.

But I needn’t have worried. Soon after this incident, the author brings in a new source of charm, innocence and youthful wisdom. The very same Nina returns furtively to the Metropol, specifically to meet the Count. She is now married and her husband has been sent off to some correctional facility and she has decided to follow him there in the hope of being able to secure his release. She leaves her 6-year-old daughter Sofia in the Count’s care, until she returns. And this is a significant event, because Nina never comes back. The Count effectively adopts the little girl and brings her up as his own daughter. This relationship between the Count and Sofia forms the emotional core of the story.

By this point, the Count has become fast friends with the Chef Emile Zhukovsky and Andrey, the maître d’ at the Boyarsky. This triumvirate eventually become a cohesive parent/ guardian unit for the girl, frequently assisted by Marina the seamstress.

And into this already rich mix of relationships that the Count develops, there has been another addition: Miss Anna Urbanova, a fast-rising actress, who clashes with the Count when they first meet (there is quite a commotion caused by her two dogs chasing the resident cat across the lobby and the Count chastises her for not controlling her pets) but eventually reappears in his life years later and goes on to have a long-term relationship with him.

All these key characters, as well as others like the bartender Audrius, the desk captain Arkady, the old handyman Abram who cultivates a honeybee nest on the roof, the concierge Vasily, form the human landscape of this story.

And indeed it is a story of retaining one’s humanity and being civilized in the midst of some of the most turbulent times in the history of Russia. And above all, it is a story of love. Strangely, the author that I was most reminded of while reading this book was J.R.R. Tolkien. Although Tolkien wrote of elves and dwarves, his books too were full of sincere, good people who cared for each other and helped their friends through difficult times. The style of narrative of both books is evocative of an earlier, simpler age when good people didn’t have shades of grey.

And running throughout the book is Towles’ sensitive, intelligent, witty and cultured dialogue. Was it really like this among the educated classes in Russia at that time? Perhaps so, given this was the land of Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin and countless other world-renowned wordsmiths. Take for instance, this description of the conversation between the Count and Sofia after he fails to find an object that she has hidden in a room during a game:

Sofia: “Are you giving up?”
“I am conceding,” said the Count
“Is that the same as giving up?”

“Yes, it is the same as giving up.”
“Then you should say so.”
Naturally. His humiliation must be brought to its full realization.
“I give up,” he said.

There were so many such passages in the book and I found myself quietly chuckling away every few minutes. I was tempted to include more examples in this post, but had to give up the plan as I’d have ended up putting half the book in, especially since the wit works best within the larger context of the scene and not necessarily when just quoted as a standalone sentence or phrase.

In a strange way, this was also a coming-of-age story. Not the normal sort about teenagers or young adults, but of a cultured gentleman of leisure who in keeping with the times, never actually did anything prior to his house arrest (as he informs the committee at the start of the book “it is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations”). In due course, his intrinsic humanity helps him become a hardworking, contributing member of the closed society within the Metropol.

While reading it, I started thinking that in the hands of a good director, with great casting, this would make an eminently watchable movie. And so I searched and was thrilled to read that a few months ago indie production company Entertainment One secured the rights to adapt the book into a TV series to be directed by Tom Harper (War & Peace, Peaky Blinders). Very much looking forward to that!

PS: Here’s a short interview with Amor Towles by the Wall Street Journal in which explains how he came to write the novel. After watching this, please go read the book!

Revisiting a classic: The Maltese Falcon


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Last night, I watched John Huston’s film noir classic The Maltese Falcon again after a gap of more than 10 years. When I first watched it during my initial period of “film self-education”, perhaps I was in a rush or I didn’t have enough context at the time; either way, I realized I could remember virtually nothing about this movie. And so, I decided to revisit it. In the intervening years, I have watched 9 other Bogart classics and he has become one of my all-time favourite leading men from the B&W era. So, to see him on screen again was like visiting an old friend and I settled back to enjoy the experience.

As the credits rolled up at the start, I was thrilled to see the names of 3 beloved character actors – Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet and Ward Bond. As I said, I remembered almost nothing from my first viewing all those years ago and was pleasantly surprised to see the names of these actors who have enlivened some of my favourite films.

Indeed, the most enjoyable aspect of The Maltese Falcon the second time around was watching the story take shape around these beautifully realized characters. This film could easily have been a stage play, given that it really revolves around just 4-5 people who dominate most of the screen time:

At the centre of it all is hard-boiled detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. This was the movie that catapulted Bogart out of playing gangster roles into leading man status. A year later, he and Ingrid Bergman made sparks fly in Casablanca and the rest, as they say, is history. In the mould of all noir film characters, Sam Spade comes in many shades of grey. One can’t be sure if he is heartless or whether the tough exterior is just for show. One of the first things he does after his partner is killed is to have all the signage in his office changed to remove his late partner’s name…not a shred of sentimentality there. Not just that, he’s had an affair with his partner’s wife, but now is no longer interested in her, just when her husband’s death could have paved the way for an open relationship. On the other hand, his professional integrity cannot be bought or compromised, which becomes amply clear in the closing minutes of the story, when he chooses justice over (possible) love and hands over the femme fatale to the cops. Bogart’s great asset is his face; he was not a handsome man and his head seemed too big for his physique, but he learned to use his facial expressions as a way to amplify his character and he could really project an air of menace on-screen with his look and expressions.

The femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is played by Mary Astor in her best known screen role. I don’t think I’ve seen a more pathological liar on-screen, someone who just finds it impossible to say the truth, who only looks out for herself. She certainly has the audience fooled through the early part of the film playing the helpless lady in distress until Sam Spade peels back the lies and deception layer by layer, like onion skin. She ends up in a strange relationship with Spade and right until the end, it was impossible for me to figure out if her feelings for him were genuine. As she confessed at one point to Spade, perhaps even she no longer knows whether what she thinks and says is real or just playacting. Although there are other villains in the film, she was the one I really disliked and I hoped against hope that her character would not be redeemed to give the movie a happy ending. And indeed, in spite of her entreaties at the end, Spade holds firm and hands her over to the law.

Peter Lorre plays Joel Cairo (I love this name!), the assistant to the main villain. Lorre first shot to fame as the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M, then moved to Hollywood and played interesting characters in films like Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He is instantly recognizable because of his nasal, whiny voice and bulgy eyes; it became such a trademark that Warner Bros. later created a mad scientist character in his likeness called Dr. Lorre for their Looney Tunes cartoon shows. Because of his looks, he ends up playing slimy, unlikable characters and the audience always gets great joy when he inevitably gets roughed up by the hero or the cops!

Sidney Greenstreet is the main villain, Kasper Gutman; he’s the man who has been obsessed with the Maltese falcon (a relic from the Crusades that is supposedly made of gold and encrusted with jewels) and has been on its trail for the past 17 years. Unlike Mary Astor’s character, Mr. Gutman is quite open about his pursuit of this treasure and willing to pay a fair price to get hold of it. I was amazed to read later that this was Greenstreet’s first screen appearance at the age of 61 after a decades-long career on the stage. He went on to appear alongside both Bogart and Lorre in Casablanca a year later and brought his immense physical presence (he weighed nearly 300 lbs) and affected English accent to many memorable roles during his brief film career from 1941-49. In fact, the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki was code-named “fat man” after the nickname of his character in this movie.

I was also highly entertained by the fat man’s gun-for-hire, Wilmer who is constantly at the receiving end of Sam Spade’s verbal and physical barbs. The actor Elisha Cook Jr. does an amazing job of playing a man who is wound up so tight, he has tears in his eyes at one point from the unbearable rage he feels towards Spade.

Another notable aspect of this movie is the camera work. This was John Huston’s first film as director (after several years as a script writer) and he immediately clicked with cinematographer Arthur Edeson. The film is uses interesting camera angles to emphasize relationships between characters (the early couch scene between Bogart and Astor) or the personality of an individual (especially Sydney Greenstreet as he recounts the history of the falcon), zoom shots during dramatic moments and the trademark light-and-shadows of film noir.

There’s a lot packed into a 100 minute running time; I remember noting that so much had happened in just the first 15 minutes.

I definitely see myself revisiting other classic films in due course, given how much I enjoyed this experience.

Ozu’s Late Spring and Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum both tell poignant father-daughter stories


I just finished watching Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, her 2008 family drama about a widowed father and his college-going daughter who live in an apartment in Paris. It’s a wonderful film, built on snapshots of their life together and showcases the strong bond that exists between the two.

The film is thematically based on Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, which also tells the story of a widower and his devoted 27-year-old daughter, who ultimately gets married and moves out. Late Spring was my first ever Ozu film and I was deeply affected by the famous final scene in which the father (played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu), comes back from his daughter’s wedding celebrations to a now-empty house, sits down and slowly peels an apple as the realization sinks in that he will now live alone for the rest of his days. For me, this scene is on par with the final scene in Forrest Gump in which Tom Hanks sits at the school bus stop having sent his little boy off to school.

Likewise, in 35 Shots of Rum, the film ends with the father (played by Alex Descas) coming home to an empty house after a round of drinks (he drinks 35 shots of rum) at his daughter’s wedding celebrations.

Although one is based on the other, the two films are naturally different in terms of tone and scenes. After all, they are separated by time and space, one taking place in the reserved and polite world of 1940’s Kyoto while the other is set in a multi-cultural suburb of 21st century Paris:

Late Spring was filled with scenes of temples, tatami mats and Noh theatre, which gave international viewers an insight into Japanese culture. In 35 Shots of Rum, viewers across the world will instantly recognize the ubiquitous home equipment (radio set, washing machine, stove, rice cookers) and modes of transport (trains, car, scooter) which are so much a part of our lives.

In Late Spring, the daughter is overtly devoted to her father’s well being, stating early on in the film that she will not marry so that she can continue to look after him; it is the father who has to push the daughter out of the nest for her own future well-being. In 35 Shots of Rum, the daughter of course cares deeply for her father but there is no question that she will eventually move out and live her own life. In fact, it is the father who wistfully hopes that they can continue living the way they are, although he can see that she is starting to respond to the overtures from the young man living upstairs.

There is one point of singularity between the two films and this is food. A number of scenes take place at home and while the homes themselves are vastly different, the father and daughter eating their dinner together showcases the degree of intimacy and easy comfort that exists in their little world. I think there is something universal about how the preparing and sharing of food allows people to express their affection for each other in subtle ways.

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I can’t remember much of the music in Ozu’s Late Spring, but I did like the music produced by English rock band Tindersticks for 35 Shots of Rum; they created a simple riff which repeats through the film and I found it both wistful and comforting.

Overall, 35 Shots of Rum showcased more subtle film-making than Late Spring (which itself is considered subtle given the time and culture it came from). Without being overtly manipulative, both films tug deeply at the heartstrings and lead the viewer to think about family bonds, parent-child relationships and the aching inevitability of growing old.

The history of Istanbul by Thomas Madden is as gripping and entertaining as Game of Thrones


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How do you compress the 2700-year history of a city (and empire) into 450 pages without losing any of the drama or human stories nor reducing it into a dry listing of events and dates? Thomas F. Madden, the 56-year-old American historian shows you how with his extraordinary 2016 publication, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Mr. Madden is the Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and has been known for years as a specialist on the Crusades, so it seems only fitting that he write this history of the city that was the focal point of the war between Christian and Muslim armies for centuries.

I have always been fascinated by Istanbul/ Constantinople – its breath-taking architecture, its unique geographic position between Asia & Europe, the fiction it has inspired such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and even its cuisine including the Baklava and Turkish delight. I’ve not yet had a chance to visit this iconic city, so to prepare myself for a future journey (and perhaps to compensate for not having visited it before it became like any other modern world city), I searched for a comprehensive yet compact history of Constantinople which brought me to Mr. Madden’s recent publication.

By the time I finished the book, I was convinced that much of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones must have been inspired by people, events and settings from this city’s history! Even the Unsullied, the slave-soldiers of Astapor sound a lot like the elite Janissaries of the Ottoman ruler.

The book starts off with the founding of the city in 667 BC as Byzantion, a north-eastern trading outpost of the Greek city-state of Megara (now a small town about 40 km west of Athens). The outpost was about 600 km from Megara as the crow flies and the voyage by ship would have taken the Megarans across the Aegean Sea, through the narrow Dardanelles strait, past Gallipoli peninsula into the Sea of Marmara before arriving at the Bosporus straits. The Bosporus linked through to the Black Sea and was the key source for goods and grain from Central Asia. The control of this key trade route eventually made Byzantion the most powerful city in the world for close to two millennia.

It’s easy to think of this sea route as a straightforward journey when viewed on Google maps today, but I was amazed at how these ancient seafarers could have discovered this particular route from among all the hundreds of other possible combinations they could have taken on the open seas!

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From this point, the book takes us through the many rulers and dynasties which shaped the destiny of this city which became the seat of the Greek (Byzantion), Roman (Constantinople) and Ottoman (Istanbul) empires before emerging as the modern, secular city it is today.

There are many fascinating characters who have played a role in the city’s history. As in Game of Thrones, one realizes how the ambition, courage or foolhardiness of a single individual can influence the fate of empires and millions of subjects. This is a story of intrigue, betrayal, blindings (a common way of dealing with a rival to the throne was to gouge his eyes out), beheadings, massacres, pillage and destruction. But also a story of the creation of incredible artefacts and architecture, much of which have been destroyed over time and many of which have survived till today.

In particular, the individuals whose stories have stayed in my memory are:

Constantine I “the Great”: By AD 285, the Roman empire had grown so vast that it was divided into two halves, with the Western empire governed from Rome and the Eastern empire based in Byzantion, which had been “liberated” from Greek rule in 196 BC. This was the time when a new religion called Christianity had taken hold among the poor and downtrodden. After an initial period of peaceful co-existence, Christianity came under fire and was outlawed in AD 302 leading to large scale persecution of Christians. But then a new Western emperor came to power in AD 312 called Constantine. During an earlier military campaign, he had a vision that his victory would be assured by Jesus Christ and after coming to power he formally converted to Christianity. This led to the stoppage of the persecution and the elevation of Christianity as a religion of the emperor. In AD 324, Constantine defeated the Eastern emperor, unified the Roman empire and chose to live on in the East rather than return to Rome. He rebuilt and expanded Byzantion, renaming it as Constantinople. It became – along with Rome – the heart of the Christian world for the next thousand years.

Justinian and Theodora: In AD 532, Emperor Justinian was on the verge of being overthrown by a rival faction in what is now referred to as the Nika revolt. There were violent riots between the two factions for nearly a week with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. Justinian and his advisors were on the verge of fleeing the city when his wife Theodora made an impassioned plea to stay and fight. Theodora came from humble beginnings; her father was a bear trainer at the famous Hippodrome which held chariot races of the sort shown in Ben-Hur. She then worked as an actress and a prostitute (the two professions were interchangeable in those days) before coming to the attention of Justinian while he was heir to the throne. It was this former prostitute turned empress who prevailed on the ruling elite to resist the rebellion. Inspired by her words and spirit, Justinian did so and went on to rule Constantinople with Theodora for several more years, building aqueducts, bridges and churches including the famous Hagia Sophia.

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Andronikos Komnenos: Perhaps one of the most colourful of the Byzantine rulers, Andronikos was supposedly a handsome and striking personality, a general and statesman who lived a charmed life of debauchery, seduction and intrigue. He rose to the Byzantine throne in 1183 at the advanced age of 65. His rule was marked by murders, massacres and terror. He was eventually overthrown and handed over to furious mobs who tortured him publicly for several days; his right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair pulled out, one of his eyes gouged out, animal dung and boiling water thrown on his face. Finally, he was hung by his feet between two pillars and two soldiers competed to see whose sword would penetrate his body most deeply!

Alexsios IV Angelos: The machinations of Alexios IV to reclaim the Byzantine throne on behalf of his deposed and blinded father Isaac II resulted in four different emperors on the throne from July 1203 to April 1204. In a ridiculous turn of events, the Fourth Crusade which was organized to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims ended up sacking, looting and destroying Constantinople, the capital of the 2nd largest Christian empire! These events would lead to the eventual weakening of the Byzantine empire and 250 years later it would fall to the armies of 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in May 1453.

Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan: In the 1530s, Sultan Suleiman (the great-grandson of Mehmed) sent shockwaves through the empire by marrying his Ukranian concubine Roxelana (later named Hurrem, “the cheerful one”). Previous Sultans never married, but fathered children from the many women in their harem, rarely sleeping with the same woman twice (there was a strong preference for virgins). However Suleiman became captivated by Hurrem and the two became true soulmates, effectively ruling the empire together for two decades. This was the Golden Age of the Ottoman empire, which saw the reform of education, taxation and criminal law. Suleiman’s brilliant architect Mimar Sinan supervised the construction of nearly 500 buildings, including the famous Blue Mosque and the even more impressive Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture. Hurram’s partnership with Suleiman led to the 130-year period known as the Sultanate of Women, during which the wives and mothers of sultans exerted considerable political influence in the running of the empire.

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Incidentally, it was a failed invasion of Vienna by Suleiman during 1529-32 that convinced Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire not to burn Martin Luther at the stake as he needed the help of the Protestant leaders against the Ottoman threat. Thus the Protestant Reformation thrived and was saved from being snuffed out.

Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’: The father of modern day Turkey, Ataturk was an Army commander who went on to become the 1st President of Turkey, abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and bringing to an end 2500 years of empire in Byzantion/ Constantinople/ Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal was responsible for establishing Turkey as a modern secular nation, adopting the Western calendar and the Roman script to re-integrate the nation into the global economy after decades of decline, recognizing and celebrating the pre-Islamic history of the city including conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum.

And so, I came to the end of this fascinating book which has got me even more excited about visiting this city one day soon. The complexity of Istanbul is perhaps best represented through this 16th century illustration of the city by Danish renaissance painter Melchior Lorck.

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WftPotA: An intelligent movie trilogy about smart apes comes to an epic conclusion


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The Planet of the Apes prequel series which began with  Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, comes to an epic conclusion with the just released War for the Planet of the Apes. Other than the unwieldy titles, there is virtually nothing to complain about in what is perhaps the most intelligent sci-fi movie series of modern times. Particularly after the disappointing remake by Tim Burton in 2001, few industry watchers could have foreseen this franchise finding new life in any meaningful way. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starred Charlton Heston and was based on the 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle (he also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai). This new series serves as a prequel, setting up the chain of events which leads to apes gaining intelligence, speech and eventually, mastery over man.

A lot of the credit for this new series goes to the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the script for Rise and Dawn, while also co-producing all three films. Their achievement is surprising given their previous track record which is nothing to write home about. In fact, they didn’t even have any credited screenplays between 1997’s pulpy sci-fi horror film The Relic and the 2011 reboot of the Apes franchise. I would love to know what these two were doing during these years and how they convinced Fox to greenlight this smart and insightful approach to bringing the Apes property back to the screen. They also wrote the story/ screenplay for 2015’s Jurassic World and while that film was an outstanding box office success, it shows nowhere near the same level of attention to plot detail or plausibility as this new Apes series.

Another key factor is the extraordinary use of motion-capture and CGI technology in recent years and that too, applied at scale across dozens of characters. But mo-cap technology is only as good as the actor behind the CGI and in this case, no praise is too great for the unique talents of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Surely Serkis deserves a lifetime recognition award of the highest order for the iconic CGI characters he has brought to life over the past 2 decades, starting with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and then the titular character in King Kong (2005); I am looking forward to his rendition of Baloo the bear in the Warner Bros. version of The Jungle Book which will be released in October 2018 with Serkis behind the camera as well.

War concludes the epic saga of Caesar the chimpanzee. In Rise, we are introduced to baby Caesar, whose mother was experimented on with an intelligence-enhancing viral-based drug developed to treat Alzheimer’s. Caesar inherits his mother’s intelligence and in due course, uses an improved version of the drug to enhance and free several other apes from the testing facility and also from the San Francisco zoo. After a pitched battle with police on the Golden Gate bridge, Caesar and the newly-intelligent apes escape to the woods outside the city. Meanwhile, the drug mutates and sets off a worldwide pandemic, wiping out most of humanity. Ten years later, in Dawn, Caesar and his tribe have established a settlement in the woods. But he has to deal with another ape Koba, who challenges his leadership and also triggers a confrontation with a group of surviving humans in San Francisco. Caesar defuses the conflict with the help of a sympathetic human family and the film ends Godfather-style with Caesar re-establishing his authority as the leader of the apes. War is set 5 years later and sets up the ‘final conflict’ between apes and man, as Caesar and his tribe are hunted down by a well-trained and armed militia led by a merciless colonel. One can see the influences of both Western and prison break genres in parts of the movie; and even though it’s the longest film of the trilogy, there is a strong forward momentum to the plot and the running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes does not weigh the film down.

The film also continues to explore the recurring themes of the franchise – racism, family bonds, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Throughout the films, we are frequently left to wonder if it’s the apes or the humans who are more civilized. I had read that the third film was the darkest of the trilogy but in fact there are surprising moments of humor, particularly with the new ape character named “bad ape” and voiced by Steve Zahn. Woody Harrelson plays the ruthless colonel with an understated menace and keen sense of history and purpose, rather than as an over-the-top psycho (which Harrelson is well capable of doing!). The plot also employs the clever use of a little orphaned human girl Nova (played by Amiah Miller) who joins Caesar’s group and acts as a counterpoint to all the human brutality.

The technical level in this series has been consistently top class, but in this third installment it’s worth calling out Michael Seresin’s cinematography, particularly in scenes at the apes’ waterfall camp and later on the beach (which recalls the iconic final moments of the 1968 original). Also, composer Michael Giacchino employs some interesting percussion to heighten the tempo in key scenes. I’d love to see both of them get Oscar nominations this year.

For anyone new to the series, I recommend watching the 1968 original followed by this prequel trilogy. Fans of the series will enjoy references to earlier films, such as the beach scene or the use of character names like Nova and Cornelius.