The Post

Let me begin by talking about the weakest couple of scenes in The Post, the ones that made me so angry I could spit.

At the beginning of the final act of the film, Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post, makes the decision to side with her editor Ben Bradlee to publish an article based on the leaked Pentagon Papers that detail the US Government’s flawed decision making in the Vietnam war. The moment is pivotal for Graham’s character, because you have seen her struggle with not so much the demands of her job but with having to do it in a world dominated almost entirely by men. Everybody who is party to that conversation is a man. In every scene that leads up to this point, Spielberg walks the fine line between obvious and subtle in making us see this, and is aided by an absolutely splendid performance by Meryl Streep. So, when the camera zooms in on Streep’s face, we know what is at stake here. Not for the paper, but for her as an individual. Watching her decide to go for it carries the same charge as 1984, in the part where Orwell describes Winston’s thoughts after having made love to Julia and concludes with: “It was a political act.” Like Winston’s decision, this is a lot more than just the owner of a newspaper saying, “Let’s go.”

It is a thing of beauty.

And then, Spielberg decides that his audience is comprised of morons who don’t get it, and finds it necessary to shoehorn in a couple of conversations that restate what is by now obvious. The first of these is especially insulting, because it involves one character explaining to another how brave she was. What the hell, man!

Consider the moment where Graham is required to make yet another decision, and practically every advisor she has, barring Bradlee, is crowded around her, talking more to each other than to her. And in order to make her argument, the first thing she does is stand up and walk a couple of paces. So much is conveyed in that simple movement of one character that you now find yourself not just listening to what she says, but appreciating the fact that she is asserting herself. Why would a director who could do this, find it necessary to also spell it out in a different scene?

Outside of those missteps, The Post is a fine movie about the freedom of the press,  but an especially compelling one about a woman doing what was, until then, considered a man’s job, and finding that she has what it takes to do it well. Katharine Graham presided over the spectacular rise to prominence of The Washington Post, thanks to this and their work on the Watergate scandal. This is especially remarkable when you consider that, during the time depicted in this film, she was still straddling two worlds — the one that involved soirees and lavish luncheons and what not, and the one that involved smoke-filled newsrooms and the business of speaking truth to power. As heroic journeys go, this one’s a doozy.

 

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War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a bad film, but I left the theater feeling a tad underwhelmed.

The trouble with the franchise is, the buried themes it seems to want to explore have been done already in other sci-fi blockbuster franchises, most notably the X-Men.  Which makes it a problem because, once you take away the commentary on real life, what is left is mainly motion capture, CGI and stuff going bang.

The latter two, I’m  heartily sick of at this point. I’m sure D. W. Griffith thought he was simplifying matters when he said, “What do filmgoers want? A girl and a gun.” I just wish he had specified an upper bound on the guns as well. (We could do with more women, though, preferably in roles of substance.)

The motion capture, on that other hand, is still somewhat fascinating. I spent the entire movie watching Caesar and imagining what Andy Serkis’ actual facial expressions would’ve been. I wonder if he might be one of the great underrated actors of our time.

In its quieter moments, the film is not without its little pleasures. Steve Zahn plays a talking ape who has managed to survive alone in the wilderness, and while much of his role is written for laughs, his first line in the film is so tinged with pathos that I found myself profoundly moved.

The other thing that worked for me was the passing references to older films and books. The story, for instance,  is about Caesar’s mission into human territory to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the insane Colonel I-don’t-think-his-name-is-mentioned. Woody Harrelson even has a monologue that reminds one a bit of Col Stryker in the X-Men, but more immediately evokes Col Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Harrelson’s performance is pitched somewhere in between these two characters –  you see traces of Marlon Brando’s resigned tone as well as Brian Cox’s mania. (On a side note, any are all these guys colonels? Is there a promotion ceiling for bad guys in the military?) I was also reminded, at various points, of Cool Hand Luke, Exodus (the old testament book, not the Leon Uris one) and a few others.

Now, I am not sure how much of this was intentional. And I like it when films do these things, but my first instinct was to end this post with a line to the effect that, maybe Planet of the Apes was an appropriate title after all. But then, someone would wonder why I was being so snarky, and I would defend myself saying that I didn’t mean for it to sound snarky…

What we’d have is… a failure to communicate.

Wonder Woman

Much has been written about the fact that this is a film about a female superhero helmed by a woman, and about how this has brought a unique set of sensibilities to the genre. I have nothing further to contribute in this regard. I agree with the assessment in general, and I agree that it is a wonderful thing. (But since my favourite superhero movie still happens to be M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, you will forgive me if I don’t go into raptures about yet another movie that involves a lot of stuff going bang.)

That having been said, here are a few things I noticed:

There is obviously a feminist angle to the whole plot (how many really famous superheroines can you think of?), but what makes this one interesting to me is that this idea is presented through a different trope: fish-out-of-water. To Diana, this world, and its notion that the woman’s place is in the background, is simply alien. Her thrill at seeng babies and eating ice cream is endearing (Gal Gadot nails these portions). When she walks into a meeting where a bunch of old men are deliberating the armistice, her expression conveys that she cannot think of any conceivable reason why she shouldn’t be there. It’s like watching someone who would break the glass ceiling simply because, well, it was glass and she didn’t see it. (As a result, though, the line about slavery she tells Steve’s secretary Linda, funny as it is, feels out of place.)

The relationship between Diana and Steve is developed through gentle humour for the most part. There are moments when Diana’s naivete about the world, and about relationships between men and women, set things up for broad humour, and the film wisely sidesteps the obvious. The laughter comes from what isn’t said. (I was reminded of Bill Murray’s ageing comedian in Lost in Translation.) Chris Pine really excels in these scenes.

The scenes where Diana first encounters the horrors of World War I are a big misfire. Maybe this has to do with the fact that enough movies have laid bare the horrors of war (the long opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind). I can see the filmmaker’s dilemma — if the scenes work only at a superficial level, they feel fake, and if they work too well, they end up being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film — but there you have it.

Speaking of people dealing with wars, what works well is the performance of the two older supporting actors playing the Amazons Antiope and Hippolyta. Robin Wright’s lean face conveys such fierceness of expression that one wonders if she would’ve even been considered for the part, had she not done House of Cards before this. Her expressions provide a nice counterpoint to Connie Nielsen’s, which project a certain weariness of spirit (one imagines that this is the aged queen that her character in Gladiator might have grown to become). Those two by themselves provide a nice little commentary about living with the memories of an old war.

There are some interesting aspects to the visual strategy in the film. The backstory narrated by Hippolyta is pictured like it was a motion poster painted by Caravaggio. (I know that the art purists among you will throw up upon hearing this description, but hey, I couldn’t find a better analogy for it. Besides, which art purist reads my blog anyway?) Similarly, the fight sequences involve slow motion at crucial moments, like for instance when Wonder Woman is leaping into the air while attacking someone.

Why is this important? In both cases, the objective of adopting this strategy is to translate onto film, the way in which people think of these stories. When people hear about Greek myth, their internal frame of reference is Renaissance painting, because that is the best known depiction of these stories. When people think of action sequences involving comic book heroines, their internal frame of reference is comic book panels frozen in mid-action. The approach shows an active intelligence at work, and that is gratifying.

On the whole, I’m happy this film got made. It could’ve been better, but it does enough right to be worth a watch. Sort of like how a certain Diana, Princess of Themyscira, feels about mankind, I guess.

 

Hidden Figures: Per aspera ad astra!

A black woman in a plaid dress walks into a room full of white men in starched white shirts. She is Katherine Goble, a child prodigy who has been assigned to the Space Task Group at NASA owing to her skills at analytic geometry. In an ideal world, the first of these two sentences would be entirely irrelevant. But this is Virginia in the 1960s, so there you have it.

A bathroom break takes forty minutes because Katherine has to run ten blocks to a building that has a bathroom for colored women. When she helps herself to a mug of coffee from the coffee machine, there is a scandalized hush around the room. The next day, there is a separate coffee machine labeled colored kept on the same table. (When you see the two coffee machines, you realize why the term separate is not the same thing as equal.) Her immediate supervisor treats her with barely veiled contempt. Her name is redacted from every report she authors.

And yet, she is not cowed down. When the situation demands it, she speaks up. She goes around her immediate boss if need be, to ask for what she wants. She has a sympathetic boss-figure who recognizes her talent and has no time for petty nonsense, but the film is smart enough not to make it his crusade (one slightly shlocky scene involving bathroom signage notwithstanding).

Katherine is one of three women this film is about. There’s Mary Jackson, who needs to convince the court to desegregate night classes at a local high school so that she can eventually apply for an engineer trainee program (her conversation with the judge is a delight to watch). Then there’s Dorothy Vaughan, who supervises — in function, but not in title or pay — a group of computers, back when the term referred to people who did calculations by hand and calculating machines. Math doesn’t care about segregation, but organizations do, so African-American women computers had a separate division for themselves. (It is their bathroom that Katherine has to run all the way across the NASA compound to use.) Then NASA purchases an IBM mainframe machine. And when it does, Dorothy is among the first to realize what this represents, teaching herself and her subordinates FORTRAN so that they could write programs on the machine.

That these women face down, and surmount some pretty heavy odds is amazing in and as of itself. (In some cases, the opposition comes from white women as well, as in the case of Dorothy’s supervisor Vivian, with whom a late exchange about being treated equally is brief but incredibly loaded.) The beauty of this film is, it gives us a portrait of these vibrant, competent women who aren’t simply reduced to their struggle against a system that undervalues them at every turn. They lead full lives. You wonder if they wear their opposition down by sheer grace and force of will.

The incredible thing is how much wit and charm there is in the writing. The film opens with a shot of a car stranded on the road, with our three heroines in car. Well, Dorothy is underneath it, trying to fix it. A cop car pulls up. Our minds have been so conditioned by recent news items and old stories that we can feel ourselves clenching. But the women pull out their IDs and the surprised cop gives them an escort all the way to their workplace. “Three Negro women chasing a cop car on a highway in 1961. Now that’s a God ordained miracle,” exclaims Mary, the wiseass. The laugh comes so naturally, so explosively, you realize later that it’s because you’ve been holding your breath until then.

There is a moment late in Hidden Figures when Dorothy looks back at an empty room, on top of which is a signboard that says Colored Computers. Her facial features rearrange themselves into an ever-so-dismissive gesture that only an actress like Octavia Spencer can manage so wonderfully. The unspoken conversation between her and that signboard seems to be:

You can’t do that! <<That being, well, just about everything>>

Oh yeah? And who’s gonna stop me?

Movie Review: Moana

By far the most refreshing thing about Moana is what it does not have: gender politics. The heroine, a plucky little girl born to the leader of a tribal chief on an island paradise, is expected to succeed her father. There’s no resentment on the part of anyone in the village on this count, nothing requiring her to fight preconceived notions around what a “woman’s job ought to be”. If anything, she is regarded as being equal to the task. It’s nice to see.

Given the target demographic for these films, there’s absolutely nothing surprising about this one as far as the overall story is concerned. Ten minutes into the film, you pretty much know how the rest of the story is likely to unfold.

Not that this is necessarily a disadvantage. When you watch a romcom, you don’t wonder if the hero and heroine would end up single or attached to someone else. You just focus on how entertaining it is until they get together in the end. You don’t expect big surprises, just little ones. It is no different with Disney’s animated features. The only difference is that you more or less demand that one of the characters ought to be improbably colorful.

Here, that role is played by Maui, an exiled  demigod whose redemption forms the crux of the story. The surprise is that he is voiced by Dwayne The Rock Johnson, who seems to have had more fun with this role than with anything he’s done in a while. His performance as a braggadocio with aspects of vulnerability plays off nicely against the earnestness of Auli’i Cravalho, who voices Moana.

That, sadly, is all there is to recommend this film. It is a safe, middle-of-the-road entertainer that children are likely to enjoy. My daughter did – – it was her first visit to a movie theater. Then again, it might have just been the popcorn. Hard to tell at that age. Which might be why Disney gets away with it.

Freeze Frame #170: Twelve Angry Men

One of the most affecting scenes in Twelve Angry Men is one where one of the jurors goes on a rant about “these people”, and the others respond to it by simply getting up and walking away and turning their backs on him. The verbal response that comes at the end of the scene is effective precisely because of the non-verbal responses that precede it.

It’s impressive how loudly the silence speaks in this scene. It drowns out the actual speaker. But consider this: we, as viewers, hear the silence. But that is because the other jurors actively create it by turning away.

Period piece?

 

Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

There’s a lovely scene in Begin Again when a drunk Mark Ruffalo first hears Keira Knightley singing at a bar. You get the usual reaction shots at first — from a bleary-eyed “What am I listening to?” to a more awake “Oh, this is good”. But then…

See, Keira is just sitting on a stool with a guitar and singing solo– there’s a bunch of musical instruments lying behind her. But as the second stanza begins, you see Mark looking at the cymbals, then the piano, the drums and the other instruments, and they start playing by themselves in the background. Suddenly, what was a just nice tune now begins to sound like a polished product. And I have to say, the song does sound much better.

Consider this: you have a character who is supposed to be a down-on-his-luck record producer listening to a new singer and seeing… promise, a chance at redemption and glory, whatever. This setup is old as the hills. But usually, when you show a wizened veteran discovering a rookie, how do you get the audience to understand how good he is? Most filmmakers go with one of the following options:

  1. Play it low-key, and reveal the veteran’s talent slowly. When you’re dealing with coaches and the like, this is a tough thing to do in a manner that is relatable.
  2. Use expository dialogue: get other people to talk about how great a guy he used to be.
  3. Cast a big star in the veteran’s role, so that the audience automatically substitutes star power for the veteran’s supposed expertise. Good acting usually helps.

What Carney does here is go with a fourth option, which is to find an inventive way to showcase the veteran’s talent. In this case, the talent is his ability to hear what the others cannot. The ability to register not how a song sounds, but how it could sound. And by showing us all of this through the addition of the phantom orchestra, he establishes the rookie’s promise and the veteran’s ability to see it, all during the course of a single song. It’s a thing of beauty.

ps: The only other example of this approach that immediately comes to mind is the scene in Finding Forrester where Jamal Wallace retrieves the backpack that contains his notebooks from Forrester’s house, and finds that his writings have been critiqued by what appears to be an expert. But since it’s writing, unlike music, you can’t actually see what’s so good about it.