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Retracing the Oregon Trail…

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My reading Rinker Buck’s book The Oregon Trail was a product of serendipity. What I thought was a classical 19th-century work by Francis Parkman is, in fact, a very engaging and wonderful book that beautifully melds history, travel and adventure, and memoir.

Rinker Buck is a journalist who decides to recreate the torturous journey taken by pioneers – most of whom were immigrants — to settle the uncharted American West. Pioneers took a huge risk at a time when going anywhere west of the Mississippi River was a dicey proposition. For many, the Oregon Trail began on the western frontier of Missouri, traversing Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and, finally, Oregon. There was not one Oregon Trail, but many; and not all pioneers were heading for the Pacific Northwest. Included among them were gold prospectors making their way to California to, hopefully, make their fortune.

As the pioneers went so did Rinker Buck. He took the journey in a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules. To make it into a family affair, Rinker brought his ornery brother Nick along, as much as for company as for his expertise. Nick is not only an experienced carpenter, but has an encyclopedic knowledge of mules and covered wagons, which we will find later proved to be quite handy.

For Rinker, the decision to recreate a 2,000-mile overland journey from Kansas to Oregon was not a light one, but deeply emotional and personal. Recently divorced, and in middle age, he wanted a way to reconnect with the fond memories of his youth. Rinker frequently recounts the trips he and his siblings took with their father, a restless adventurer. They, too, traveled in a covered wagon, but they only went far as Pennsylvania from their home in New Jersey.

I’m still reading the book, but it’s so absorbing, and Ruck is such a great storyteller, that I had to share my thoughts right away. It has also inspired me to want to take a similar journey.

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Written by niraj

March 9th, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Posted in books,history

Tales by Light

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My current love on Netflix is the documentary series Tales by Light.

Originally produced for National Geographic, Tales by Light examines the art of adventure and nature photography through some of its finest craftsmen (and craftswomen!). It’s an arresting piece of work that is visually stunning: the landscapes, the wildlife, the people. All in vivid detail.

Some say photography is a lesser art due to the ubiquity of digital technology which makes almost anyone and everyone an amateur photogprapher, but this is not the case. Just because we live in a world saturated with images, doesn’t mean there is no art in it. And even with the capability to take pictures through our smartphones doesn’t mean we are — or can be — photographers. The difference between a dilettante and a professional is the passion and dedication to the craft; and it’s displayed in spades in this documentary series.

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Written by niraj

December 27th, 2016 at 10:51 am

Stranger Things: An 80’s Flashback…

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Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things is great storytelling that is both visually pleasing and visceral – it literally scares the shit out of you. Synopsis of the story can be found here. But the purpose of this post is not about Stranger Things, but it’s depiction of a decade whose milieu no longer exists but still endures for those that experienced it.

For me, Stranger Things is simply an ode to 80’s goodness.

The Cold War had an overarching presence during the 80’s. It permeated almost every aspect of our lives, from politics to media. Pop culture was not immune and it manifested itself in two major ways: the idea that the Russians, a.k.a. the commies, were out to get us; or, for the more conspiratorial, the U.S. government, through its sinister agent, the CIA. There were often fantastic claims made about the CIA. Experiments from creating super soldiers to developing mind-control techniques. Naturally, such paranoia was fodder for Hollywood: that monster lurking in the dark or that alien from another planet, all out to get you. These same tropes are being used in Stranger Things to great effect.

The Duffer Brothers, creators and executive producers, as well as writers and directors, have created an atmosphere in almost every detail: from clothes to cars, down to hair styles. This was before the internet, cell phones, personal computers, or even cordless phones. There was television, of course, but cable and VCRs were yet to be ubiquitous.

Stranger Things is filled with numerous references to 80’s pop culture. Too many to mention here, of course, but Star Wars – the gold standard — does get a mention as does Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose popularity was always a mystery to me. There is even a nice reference to the 1980s horror movie Poltergeist too. And let’s not forget the soundtrack, which is filled with memorable 80’s tunes. It lends both an authenticity and credibility to the show.

These references made me nostalgic and is reason enough to watch Stranger Things. However, even if you don’t give a hoot about the 80’s, it’s still a damn good show.

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Written by niraj

October 2nd, 2016 at 6:07 pm

Jessica Jones: Dark, Surly, and often Drunk

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If I had to reduce Jessica Jones, a new Netflix series from Marvel Comics, to one word, it is cynicism. Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones is dark– perhaps even darker. Prepare to be brutalized and have fun in the process.

Jessica Jones is a surly alcoholic private detective with superpowers she knows she has but is reluctant to use (hint: she hasn’t totally mastered them). Jessica is fixated on stopping Kilgrave, a man she has a history with, and who has the ability to control minds of people around him. Kilgrave is played brilliantly, with great wit and charm, by British actor David Tennant. The dynamics between the two is the crux of the series, but there are other characters who play vital roles in helping Jessica to take on Kilgrave: Jessica’s childhood friend Patsy; Hogarth, a crooked lawyer; a mysterious cop named Simpson; and a drug-addled neighbor named Malcolm. Luke Cage, another Marvel Comics character, plays Jessica’s love interest.

It’s interesting to note the dynamic between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave and the cat-and-mouse game they play. Kilgrave is a sociopath who uses his power capriciously. He will not hesitate to kill people if it meets his whimsical fancy. Yet he is madly in love with Jessica and wants her to love him, but she repeatedly spurns him. Kilgrave could force Jessica to love him, I suppose, but that wouldn’t be love, now would it? Nevertheless, Kilgrave persists even to the point of disregarding his instincts for self-reservation. He could just kill Jessica, and had many opportunities but doesn’t do so in the vain hope she still has feelings for him. In this futile attempt at love makes Kilgrave come off as a hopeless romantic.

Unlike Daredevil, which is bright and colorful as neon, Jessica Jones is muted: a persistent color of grey. The pacing of the series is almost glacial. Add a jazz-infused score and it makes Jessica Jones an almost a hard-boiled, neo-noir affair. But it works.

Jessica Jones is second in a series of four Marvel Comics-based storylines. There is the aforementioned Daredevil, and upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fists. All four characters will then reprise their roles in the series The Defenders. In addition, Jessica Jones has been renewed for a second season. Which is good news.

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Written by niraj

April 7th, 2016 at 7:54 pm

To Be Good Do You Need to Be Bad?

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Currently reading Literary Rogues, an anthology of anecdotes on the bad boys – and bad girls! – of literature. I’m over half-way through and have come to the conclusion that to be brilliant (simply being good is not enough) you must suffer from some emotional instability, have a chemical dependency, and live a life of endless debauchery. And, yes, being an obnoxious jerk helps.

The word normal seems almost alien here. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but sooner or later writers tend to descend into some kind of “hell” that fuels their creative spirits. We as a culture benefit from this, of course, but not so much for those directly connected to the author. This begs the question: to create do you need to suffer?

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Written by niraj

March 11th, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Posted in books

Deadwood Movie On the Way…

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There will be a Deadwood movie! TVLine writes:

HBO programming president Michael Lombardo confirmed to TVLine that he personally gave series creator David Milch the green light to resurrect the acclaimed yet painfully short-lived Western.

Not only was it damn short, but it was damn good too. I’m of the opinion Deadwood should’ve been given at least one more season to wrap things up, especially the unresolved father-son issues between Al Swearingen and Seth Bullock. No doubt this will be the focal point in the movie.

I would also like to know how rest of the cast, presuming they all return, will fit into the movie. I’m also guessing the movie will take several years after we last saw them, so it will be interesting to see how this passing of time is taken into account.

Given the complexities of a television drama, with its multitude of characters and story arcs, a movie is totally inadequate, in my opinion. It would be unsatisfying. I believe a proper send-off for Deadwood would be a mini-series.

Regardless, I can’t wait to see it.

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Written by niraj

January 17th, 2016 at 7:42 pm

David Bowie: RIP

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Woke up this morning and discovered that David Bowie died of cancer at the age of 69. I’m a lost for words, so I will have to leave it to Nick Gillepsie over at Reason to describe who David Bowie was to music:

Like Bob Dylan, Bowie was a shape-shifter and a persona-generator who over the course of dozens of records and film and TV appearances was constantly evolving, mutating, and maybe most important of all, obviously enjoying himself.

He was a one-man Ovid, constantly metamorphosing, first from folkie David Jones (his given name) to space-rock weirdo to a glam monarch to Berlin degenerate to bi-sexual androgyne to “Thin White Duke” to New Wave and MTV pop master to heavy metal kid to elder rock god to you name it.

Bowie’s ability to master cultural change is what made him such a successful artist in a career that spanned 40 years. While many artists are prisoners of their times, Bowie took on the challenge of shifting styles and tastes and still be relevant.

As a child of the 1980s, my exposure to David Bowie was what I saw on MTV and listened to on Top 40 radio. I missed his Ziggy Stardust days of the 1970s, but fully experienced his New Wave phase, including the Niles Rogers produced hit “Let’s Dance.”

He recently released a new—and ultimately last—album, Blackstar. David Bowie has been relatively low-key since the 1980s, preferring to eschew the limelight and release experimental albums that only hardcore David Bowie fans would enjoy: It’s David Bowie making music for David Bowie. God knows he had nothing to prove…to anyone.

Rest in peace, sir…

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Written by niraj

January 16th, 2016 at 8:16 pm

Posted in music

Rey Looks So Damn Fine…But Why?

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I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens as any rational human should, fan or not, film lover or not. Naturally, it was awesome. It’s a great ode to the past while looking ahead to the future, which is hard to do with any franchise, especially one beloved as Star Wars.

Nevertheless, I have one observation—for now—that is bothering me.

It’s about Rey, the titular character in this latest epic. For a poor scavenger living on the barren, forsaken planet of Jakku, I find it interesting how great she looks. Did you notice how great Rey’s teeth look and her beautiful, unblemished skin?

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Compared to other jamokes Rey shares the planet with, she looks fabulous, quite dishy in fact. Her athletic frame, adorned with perfectly fitting clothes, moves smoothly across the screen. Luke Skywalker gave off the same impression when we first meet him, but he worked on a farm, which clearly puts him in a higher income bracket than Rey, hence we are not surprised he has style. He had the cash. Not Rey.

It’s not a big deal and doesn’t take away from the narrative one iota. Hollywood is just strange this way—you can be poor and still be hot!

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Written by niraj

January 8th, 2016 at 8:03 pm

Tarantino’s Ode to Ultra Panavision 70

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In the opening credits of Hateful Eight, Tarantino does an unusual thing: he gives credit to Ultra Panavision 70, the camera used to shoot the film.

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Credit for camera equipment and film is normally reserved for tail end of closing credits, where it’s mostly ignored by the audience. Tarantino gives the camera its due respect—he puts it right up front where no can miss it. Always thought the camera was unheralded. In a way, it’s a star in its own right.

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Written by niraj

January 6th, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Thoughts on Hateful Eight

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Hateful-Eight-posterHateful Eight was the last movie I saw in 2015 and I have some thoughts that I would like to share. Like any Quentin Tarantino film, it was fantastic. It had it all: great script, brilliant dialogue, fluid, near perfect performances, and excellent cinematography. Where it ranks in the Tarantino canon is still up in the air.

A period piece, taking place in post-Civil War Wyoming, it’s Tarantino’s third such film. The other two, of course, are Unglorious Basterds, set during World War II, and Django Unchained, set during pre-Civil War South. Tarantino said he wants to be known as a Western director and plans two additional movies set in the West, so expect more.

And like Unglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Hateful Eight is a meditation on race. There’s no doubt where Tarantino stands on the issue. He has the police squarely in the crosshairs with his comments protesting police brutality. People forget the context of race these days: Race still matters; we are not living in a post-racial world as some would like to believe. You just have to follow the Black Lives Matter movement to figure out why.

Another interesting thing to note about Hateful Eight is the portrayal of women. Of the eight main characters in the film, only one is female, Daisy, and she’s detestable. Even though she’s a criminal, a racist, and a cold-blooded murderer, she inspires sympathy because she is abused—by a man!—throughout the movie. Is society sympathetic to abused women simply because she’s a women regardless how vile a human being she might be? And if a man was vile as Daisy, and was abused like her, would he be equally as sympathetic? I guess Tarantino wanted us to think about it because he doesn’t answer the question for us.

Lastly, like all his other films, Tarantino engages in genre-bending with Hateful Eight. It’s a mystery movie wrapped in a western, wrapped in a political polemic. And as usual, it works brilliantly.

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Written by niraj

January 5th, 2016 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized