The Holiday watchlist, Part 5: True stories


And so, we come to last of my holiday movies. These three films are based on true stories and are entertaining as well as informative. The saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to all three events depicted in these movies!

Battle of the Sexes: From the directors of the delightful 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, comes this depiction of the events leading up to the historic 1973 exhibition match between women’s world #1 Billie Jean King and retired Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs (who was 55 years old at the time). This match took place against the backdrop of efforts by Ms. King and other top women’s players to secure equal prize money from the tennis establishment of the time. In fact, the top ladies had only recently broken away from the Lawn Tennis Association and set up the WTA (which runs women’s tennis to this day) and had secured their first sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes. Just as the new women’s tour was taking root, ex-champ and serial gambler Bobby Riggs threw a spanner in the works by claiming that even at his advanced age, he could beat the #1 women’s player. If he succeeded, it would weaken the position of the players’ expectation of equal pay and equal recognition. This high-stakes story is told with a light and entertaining touch by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. And the biggest credit should go to the two leads – Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. I have talked about Carrell’s acting chops in an earlier post about the movie Last Flag Flying, in which he plays an introverted ex-Marine doctor. He plays a completely different type character here – flamboyant, attention-seeking, super-confident. And Emma Stone brings real earnestness and heart to the character of Billie Jean King, who at that time was also discovering her own sexuality, dealing with her husband’s discovery of her extra-marital affair and also fighting the establishment! This should have been a crowd-pleasing holiday movie that could have sold a lot of tickets and I am amazed that it could not find an audience. Definitely worth watching – hugely entertaining and also educational. I loved Alan Cumming as iconic tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling.

The Disaster Artist: From the sublime to the ridiculous. I don’t know how to describe this movie, but it is a must-watch for movie aficionados and it’s no wonder that it’s getting such high marks from critics and Hollywood insiders because of course, they all love movies about the industry. This is a movie about the making of a 2003 independent movie called The Room, which frequently appears in the list of the worst movies ever made! The Room was produced, written and directed by an enigmatic man named Tommy Wiseau, who also played the lead in the movie. The Disaster Artist is brilliantly directed by actor James Franco, who also does a amazing job playing Wiseau, a narcissistic man who had no self-awareness of how bad an actor, writer and director he was. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck; you know it’s not going to end well, but still cannot turn your eyes away. It’s truly remarkable that someone as un-talented and self-deluded as this man could find the money, people and equipment to make a movie. I guess it’s a commentary on the desperation of all the wanna-be artists who flock to Hollywood, looking for a break. Worth watching, although not entertaining in the conventional sense. Keep an eye out for Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson playing the supporting actors in the movie.

All the Money in the World: And finally, we come to the movie that’s been making all the headlines for the wrong reasons, which is that 80-year-old director Ridley Scott reshot all the scenes involving disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, replacing him with veteran thespian Christopher Plummer (who has come a long way since he played Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music 52 years ago). It’s amazing that he did so in a matter of days just weeks prior to the release date and still managed to get the movie out on the scheduled date. This is not one of Scott’s iconic ‘genre-breakers’ like Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller, but one that’s been superbly mounted and masterfully crafted by a veteran director who can probably put together a movie like this with one eye closed! It’s fast paced, gripping and features powerful acting performances from its two main leads – Mr. Plummer who plays the richest man in the world, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty and Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-daughter-in-law Gail. And the movie, of course, is about the infamous kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973; J. Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom and it was left to the boy’s mother (who had no money of her own) to use all her wits to find a way to get her son back. While watching the movie, one can only marvel at the heartlessness and stinginess of this man who just could not bring himself to pay (until at last he found that he could get a tax deduction for part of the ransom money!!!). Also, a great performance from French actor Romain Duris who I have only seen cast as soft-spoken young men in romantic comedies, but here convincingly plays one of the Italian kidnappers.

And so, it’s back to work this week and an end to a fun week of movie-bingeing. Keep an eye out for the many of these movies to make big news in the coming weeks and based on their awards performance, some of them could get wider releases in the theatres.

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The Holiday watchlist, Part 3: Guilt and Obsession


Continuing with my holiday movie watching spree, we enter into heavier territory now with some emotionally intense movies, some of which are in serious contention for year-end awards.

I have read articles which refer to a form of OCD called ‘Responsibility OCD’, in which a person suffering from guilt due to a past mistake or shortcoming (real or perceived), tries to assuage this guilt by obsessively trying to protect their loved ones or go above and beyond their call of duty. The characters in the films listed below seem to have that in common to some degree.

After the Storm: This is the 5th film from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda that I’m watching and the one I liked the least, along with 2008’s Still Walking; is it a coincidence that both star Hiroshi Abe? As always, Kore-eda’s films show real people and real emotions, but I guess I just didn’t like Abe’s character, a downbeat, dishonest divorced dad who is trying hard to get back into the good books of his ex-wife and impress his son. What appears to be love for his family is actually a combination of guilt and selfishness, a desire to overcome his own low self-esteem. A disappointing experience for me (not the fault of the director, just that I didn’t like the characters or the story), especially after how much I loved his previous 3 films, especially 2015’s Our Little Sister, which I wrote about previously. Even so, Kore-eda was nominated in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes for this film.

Wind River: Actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is hot property now, having written the screenplay for the highly acclaimed Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (for which he received an Oscar nomination last year). He has gone behind the camera to direct his latest script Wind River and what a piece of dynamite it is! Starring Avengers colleagues Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, the film explores themes of guilt and alienation delivered in the form of a perfectly crafted, tightly wound murder mystery. Olsen plays the FBI rookie who is called in to solve a murder at a Native American reservation and Renner is the local wildlife expert who found the body and assists her on the case. Like the rest of Sheridan’s films this too is a Western in terms of DNA, even though it is set in the bleak winter of present day Wyoming. The pacing of the film never flags, at the same time the characters get time and space to express their feelings and fears (just like in Sicario). Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as a man driven to excel at his job, trying to live with his own guilt related to the death of his daughter three years earlier. Sheridan won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes this year. I cannot recommend this film highly enough and I can see myself watching it over and over again.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Like Wind River, this film too deals with themes of guilt and alienation. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, one half of the duo who have put Irish cinema on the world map, this is a welcome return to form after the relative disappointment of his last effort Seven Psychopaths and reminds me of the tone of his first movie In Bruges. Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother who rents three billboards outside her small town to call attention to the lack of police action in solving the rape and murder of her daughter a year earlier. The film explores the darkest places of guilt, bitterness and self-reproach, but does so with a perfect blend of melodrama, action and black comedy. McDonagh brings out fantastic performances from the cast which includes Woody Harrelson (in one of his best roles in recent years), Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion from Game of Thrones), John Hawkes and Lucas Hedges. Frances McDormand got her 6th Golden Globe acting nomination as the mother obsessed with finding justice, forever remorseful of her own negligence in her daughter’s death; I would love to see her win at the Globes and I hope she will get her 5th Oscar acting nom as well. Sam Rockwell gets his first ever Golden Globe nomination as well. Highly recommended, even if the ending isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Good Time: This is yet another release from the fast emerging indie distributor A24 which was behind last year’s Best Film Oscar winner Moonlight and is distributing several award contenders this year like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Disaster Artist. Directed by fast-emerging New York based indie film makers Josh and Benny Safdie, the movie stars Robert Pattinson as a young man whose attempt to rob a bank along with his mentally challenged younger brother (played by co-director Ben Safdie), triggers a chain of events which gets him deeper and deeper into trouble with the law. I didn’t care much for the Safdie’s guerrilla style of film-making or the jarring electronic score from experimental musician Daniel Lopatin (under his recording alias of Oneohtrix Point Never), but there is no denying the intensity that Pattinson brings to this role as a man whose guilt drives him to do whatever it takes to safeguard his younger brother. The 31-year-old British heartthrob has put together an eclectic and high quality body of work in the past 5 years, working hard to deglamorize and distance himself from his ‘pretty boy’ Twilight persona. The Safdie brothers were nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this gritty crime thriller.

Last Flag Flying: After winning multiple awards for Boyhood three years ago, writer-director Richard Linklater directed the little seen 80’s set comedy Everybody Wants Some!!. He returns to higher profile material with this film which is a “sort of” sequel to the celebrated 1973 film The Last Detail for which Jack Nicholson received an Oscar nomination. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan and feature a train trip taken by 3 Marines as a key setting. The conversations on these trips form the essence of the films – exploration of beliefs, fears, the meaning of patriotism and friendship. Three old Vietnam War vets are reunited after a gap of several decades due to a tragedy and have to take a trip together during which they reminisce about their wild young days, about the mistakes they made while in combat in Vietnam and the remorse that each of them lives with. The acting by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell is outstanding and so, so real. I don’t think Steve Carell gets enough credit for how good an actor he is. There is one sequence in the train where the three men (accompanied by a junior officer) are laughing and joking about their time in Vietnam; anyone who has been to a reunion party with old college friends will relate to these scenes. The film may be a bit too ‘light’ to win any awards, but it is definitely worth watching and particularly interesting if you’ve seen the first film, as there are some parallel situations between the two movies.

In my next post, I will cover two coming-of-age films which have made a big splash in the past few weeks on the awards circuit – Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 2: Netflix’s movies with a message


Continuing on with my year-end movies list, this post is about Netflix’s two big budget films of 2017. In both cases, the directors are trying to say something personal, wrapped up in a piece of larger-than-life, big-budget entertainment. So even if you didn’t get or care about the message, you could still enjoy your popcorn for a couple of hours. Other than that, there’s not much that the 2 films have in common!

Okja competed for the Palm d’Or at Cannes in May 2017; it caused some ripples because it was not a theatrical release and a part of the Cannes establishment didn’t think it should have been featured at the festival. Nevertheless, the movie carried the sort of message that really appeals to the liberal and progressive environment at Cannes and it got a standing ovation at the end of its premiere, eventually racking up an average Metacritic score of 75/100 from 36 movie critics.

In some ways, Okja is a mirror of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 international breakout film The Host. In The Host, a huge mutated fish-creature emerges from the Han river and carries off a little girl to its lair; the rest of the film deals with her father’s attempts to rescue his daughter. In Okja, a little girl forms a strong bond with a huge genetically modified pig-creature which is being raised on her grandfather’s farm. The international corporation which owns the ‘super-pig’ takes it away once it’s fully grown and the rest of the film deals with the girl’s attempts to rescue the creature, which she has named Okja.

Unfortunately, all the characters in the film are irritating in some way (even the little girl on some occasions) and it’s not easy to really enjoy a movie when there’s no one in it that you like. Having said that, the over-the-top acting from renowned actors like Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano combined with various darkly comic set-pieces do keep the film chugging along. Even if you want to enjoy the film as mindless entertainment, it’s difficult not to think about its themes of mass-consumerism and modern society’s hypocrisy of compassion…we talk about protecting the environment and taking care of all living beings but turn a blind eye to the untold suffering of billions of forcefully domesticated animals who are put through a brutal mass production pipeline to satisfy our cravings. In that sense, the director has done a masterful job of getting his message across via a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Brad Pitt is an Executive Producer on this, by the way.

Bright was released by Netflix just a few days ago and makes no pretense of being an awards contender, having averaged a very poor Metacritic score of 29/100 from 26 critics. The film is directed by David Ayer, who for most of his career has scripted or directed films about cops, crime and corruption in Los Angeles. His films are generally hit-or-miss, with the first Fast and the Furious, Training Day (Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke) and End of Watch (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) all enjoying both critical and commercial success. He has diversified his oeuvre in the past few years, directing the World War II tank movie Fury (which I loved), the much maligned Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage (which I also loved) and the disappointing DC Comics team-up film Suicide Squad.

Bright attempts to tell the story of race politics through the allegory of ‘species politics’, much in the same way as Alien Nation did in 1988 and District 9 in 2009. Set in an alternate present, humans co-exist with Elves, Orcs, Fairies and Centaurs. Elves are at the top of the social food chain, driving Lamborghinis and wearing high fashion while the Orcs are the gangsters and thugs…respectively playing the roles of WASPS, African-Americans and Hispanics from a standard David Ayer story line. Will Smith is an LAPD cop who is paired up with the city’s first ever Orc cop and has to overcome his own prejudice as well as that of his fellow police officers against Orcs, while trying to uncover a big conspiracy. The movie actually starts off well, driven by strong performances from Will Smith and Joel Edgerton (as the Orc cop Jakoby), but the third act is an incomprehensible mess and towards the end I was just waiting for the movie to end. Okja uses elements of scifi/ fantasy to lull the viewer into reflecting on the real world, but Bright misses that opportunity. Still, it’s worth watching, but you’ll find yourself fast-forwarding through the last half hour or so.

My next couple of posts get into heavier territory, covering several movies that explore the human condition, covering the entire spectrum from black comedy to documentary/ guerrilla style film-making.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 1: The entertainers


It’s that wonderful time of the year when I put in a concerted effort to watch all the year-end blockbusters and award contenders and also catch up on any notable indie films I may have missed out on from earlier in the year. In the past month, I’ve managed to watch about a dozen movies. They seem to fall into about 4 categories – pure ‘popcorn’ entertainment, action movies with a ‘message’, movies about the human condition (guilt is a common theme this year) and one set which I classified as ‘educational’, because I learnt something about history or society through watching them (with varying degrees of entertainment value).

Today I will cover the 2 straight up entertainers I’ve seen in the past month.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – This movie has been subject of much more controversy than should be necessary for a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. When The Force Awakens came out 2 years ago, critics and audiences both enjoyed it, but they also noted that the film rehashes several story beats from the 1977 Star Wars; too safe, too much comfort food. Now with The Last Jedi, critics appreciate the creative risks taken by director Rian Johnson, but fans are incensed that he is messing with their beloved recipe. Which leads to the question: what is the vision for any beloved long-running series of books, TV shows or movies? Fans expect their beloved characters to stay consistent (or at the very least, evolve gradually over time), but want to see them in new settings, facing new challenges. Something about this basic equation has not worked with The Last Jedi. I did feel impatient with Rey chasing a whiny Luke around that island and felt the plot get very thin with the codebreaker on Canto Bight. That middle part of the narrative was choppy and uneven. But equally, there was plenty to enjoy – the opening bombing sequence featuring the heroic Paige Tico, Vice Admiral Holdo’s stunning act of bravery, the visually inventive battle on the planet Crait, the porgs, the beautiful crystal vulptices, the repeated humiliations of General Hux, the reunion of Luke and Leia, etc. Overall, I came out of the theatre happy, but now all the online criticism has amplified the faults of the film and seems to have spoilt my memory of the experience. I definitely need to watch it again to ‘reset’ how I feel. In the long run, I think audiences will forgive Disney for this film. After all, in six months’ time, we’ll have some light-hearted fun in the spin-off movie Solo: A Star Wars Story which has been put together by the ever-dependable Ron Howard. And I am pretty sure JJ Abrams will wrap up the final trilogy nicely with Episode IX in Dec 2019.

Murder on the Orient Express – I enjoyed this movie sufficiently enough to watch it a second time with my kids a few weeks later. I haven’t read Agatha Christie’s book so cannot comment on how faithful an adaptation it is. I have seen the celebrated 1974 version which was very engaging, but I had actually forgotten the plot and the outcome, so I was fully engrossed while watching Kenneth Branagh’s version. I believe that the new version can be rated one notch better, mainly because of that element of twinkly-eyed mischief which seems to permeate the film and the character of Poirot himself. The production design and Haris Zambarloukos’ lush cinematography both do a superb job of evoking the romanticism of that era. And every single member of the ensemble cast is pitch perfect – from the big names like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench to the dependable character actors like Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman and Josh Gad to relative unknowns like Tom Bateman (Bouc, the director of the train), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot) and Marwan Kenzari (the conductor Michel). Of course, in this era of political correctness and fair representation, people may ask if there were no talented Belgian actors available to play Hercule Poirot, but Branagh inhabits the character with such flair, that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now. I am very much looking forward to having him return as director and star in A Death on the Nile. And hopefully with a star-studded supporting cast.

In my next post I will cover the two Netflix ‘movies with a message’, Okja and Bright.

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!

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!