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.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

I got robbed, I tell you.

A few years ago, when I wrote a review of MI4 (not to be confused with the smartphone model — this one’s more expensive, and that one won’t do too well hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa), I wrote about Ethan Hunt’s hypothetical dilemma: would there be a mission he’d look at and say, “Nah, I think I’ll sit this one out, man.”

And early on in this film, Ethan finds his mission description in a record store, and the message is a wicked little riff on the usual format.

In my review of the earlier movie, I wrote of the missed opportunity in not casting Vadivelu (to be fair, I said that about Citizen Kane as well).

And in this film, you have Simon Pegg playing a sidekick who is dropped into a bunch of situations where he finds himself in grave danger (is there any other kind in this franchise?). They didn’t get the great man himself, but they certainly infused the film with his spirit.

So you see, someone somewhere owes me a lot of money. Not that I’ll ever get paid. (My mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to get a percentage of the gross rather than contribute to it in a miniscule fashion. And I’m choosing to sit this one out.)

But protestations of theft aside, here’s what I think. I think the franchise is a victim of its own success.

The first film did laughable things with computers and the Internet, but had absolutely kick-ass sequences (most memorably, a scene where the Hunt tries to get into a secure computer by hanging from the ceiling), and a plot so labyrinthine that it looked like Picasso wrote it after eating a few too many magic mushrooms.

So the sequel-makers had to ask themselves, how do I top that? You can’t make the plot any more complex if you want anyone to watch it, so what’s left is upping the ante on things going bang. And it’s not just the earlier films in the franchise you have to outdo: it’s every other franchise in the same race. The second one didn’t do so well on that count and the third was no better. The fourth managed a couple of truly impossible feats (hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa and driving fast through Mumbai rush hour traffic), and added a dollop of humour to what was becoming an increasingly sombre series.

The success of the fourth film (not to mention someone’s blog posts), must’ve given the makers an idea: maybe humour is the answer. So you have a, um… plot as usual, but Simon Pegg has a lot more to do and Jeremy Renner gets a nice bit part that allows him to deliver straight lines with wonderful comic effect.

Which is good, because the action has skipped past impossible to ridiculous. There’s probably a whole batch of JEE aspirants solving the physics problems in these movies rather than focusing on Irodov like they usually do. It’s not that I found it implausible – that’s never the driving factor. I simply got bored.

I gotta give them points for one thing, though: the use of the word “torus” instead of “ring” in a particular context. I don’t know if it sounds any cooler, but it certainly makes it easier for those JEE aspirants, and allows me to me hold out hope that the next MI film will have a computer hidden in a Klein bottle.

And if that actually happens in the next film, I’m definitely suing. Or writing a blog post, whichever sounds more possible.

Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

Time passes slowly when you’re not having much fun

The effects of dilation of time
Are magical, strange, and sublime.
In your frame, this verse,
Which you’ll see is not terse,
Can be read in the same amount of time it takes someone else in another frame to read a similar sort of rhyme.

— Courtesy: Physics limericks page on the Harvard University website

It’s funny how, for a film of this scale, the scene that works best in Interstellar is the one that involves a sequence of grainy video messages. It comes somewhere in the middle of the second act, when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his space station from an expedition that has, owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole, caused over twenty years to elapse on earth while he spent barely a few hours on another planet.

Now, read that last sentence again, but try and ignore the part that goes “owing to the time dilation caused by proximity to a black hole”? Apart from how much cleaner the sentence sounds, do you realize that you probably missed nothing of importance between the first reading and the second?

Fundamentally, I don’t think the film wants us to care about wormholes and black holes. It wants us to care about fathers and daughters, and about devil’s alternatives, and about survival being a zero-sum game at times. The science is basically just a way of putting people in difficult situations. What the characters do in these situations is a function of what they are faced with, as well as what they are like. There’s even a little space for ironic sidebars, such as how world hunger has brought about world peace, and how history has been rewritten to encourage students to think about the earth rather than the sky.

It’s not a bad premise to start with. Or even all that new. Like my wife said to me during the interval, it’s like Armageddon, except with a little less macho posturing. I suspect Christopher Nolan isn’t going to be overly thrilled with that comparison, but hey, she calls ’em like she sees ’em.

But here’s the thing: when you make a three hour movie about an interstellar expedition aimed at finding a new planet for humans to screw up, you want your audience to take home a wee bit more than a little scene that probably cost less than your catering budget for a week.

It’s okay to want to push both big themes and big visuals at us. I can see the ambition, even applaud it. But for the strategy to work, at least one of these things has to succeed spectacularly. Otherwise, one is still left with Armageddon without the macho posturing, and frankly, the macho posturing was probably the most enjoyable aspect of that film.

In order for the big themes to work, you have to be willing to follow your ideas to wherever they lead you. If you place hard choices about the survival of the species before your characters, you cannot allow yourself the luxury of a deus ex machina in the last 30 minutes. Also, I don’t think it helps your case when the protagonist’s humongous flash of insight about space-time is that the universe is like a little girl’s bedroom.

In order for the big visuals to work, you have to create at least one truly memorable sequence that people will keep talking about. Like Inception, where people would walk out of the film and tell their friends, “Oh, you just have to see the sequence where they roll up Paris.” Or The Matrix, where everyone remembers the business of bending over backwards to dodge a bullet in super slo-mo. (Or better still, the torture sequence in Narasimha, where Vijayakanth makes a power source explode simply by grimacing.) Or even something as leisurely as the docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, as a friend of mine once memorably pointed out, you could watch on your laptop at work and convince your boss it’s a screensaver. There isn’t a single visual in Interstellar that expands your conception of what you could see in a  movie theatre.

As for all the science, it helps, I think, to think of it like this: When a film like Star Trek uses the term “warp speed”, the makers are fairly certain that 99.9% of their audience don’t understand it, while the remaining 0.1% deliberately try not to. All they need the audience to understand is, there’s a spaceship with good guys and one with bad guys, and warp speed is a thingummajig that allows the good guys to evade or catch up with the bad guys.In the Interstellar-verse, the side-effect of warp speed would be that the bad guys would’ve died of old age by the time the good guys got there, I guess. Or maybe I just don’t understand the science all that well. You know, I miss the good old days when you could solve problems by simply uploading a virus onto an alien spaceship’s computer.