The Problem with Apu (2017) starring Hari Kondabolu

Last WED night, Hari Kondabolu was in DC (Baird Auditorium at The Smithsonian Natural History Museum) to discuss his first documentary film w/ NPR reporter Elizabeth Blair and a diverse audience (which included MANY South Asian immigrants and 1st gen adults in their 20s-40s). This was a free event; I signed up 2 weeks ahead of time (and got a kick out of seeing /chatting w/ MANY familiar faces attending). This film is NOT only funny, it’s smart and thought-provoking (delving into issue of South Asian representation in the media). You can watch this film on truTV  tonight (SUN, 11/19). 

So, what’s the big deal re: Apu here? Well, he’s a stereotype of an immigrant Indian man who runs a convenience store, and voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria, who refused to appear in the film). The Simpsons is a nearly 30 y.o show on the FOX network which is watched/loved by millions. As Maryland-raised actor/musician Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect; The Mindy Project) summed it up: “The problem is- we didn’t have any other type of representation.” Hari interviewed MANY people incl: his parents, Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Hasan Minhaj (Homecoming King), Aasif Mandvi (best known from The Daily Show), Maulik Pancholy (Star Trek: Discovery),  Aparna Nancherla (stand-up comic/actor/writer from Virginia), Sakina Jaffrey (House of Cards), Noureen DeWulf (Anger Management), Dr. Vivek Murthy (former Surgeon General under Pres. Obama), W. Kamau Bell (Hari’s friend/collaborator on various projects), Dana Gould (a producer of The Simpsons) and Hollywood trail-brazer Whoopi Goldberg (who speaks on America’s minstrel era, featuring “blackface”).

The audience was laughing all through the film. They were pleasantly surprised to see Whoopi and Dr. Murthy (a trailblazer in his own right). I esp. enjoyed the Q&A afterwards; Hari mentioned his idea for a future doc- focusing on Bengali filmmaker Satyjit Ray. 

Watch the trailer for The Problem with Apu below:

 

 

 

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Mudbound starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, & Mary J. Blige

NOTE: This review contains MILD spoilers for the film (which opens in theaters on NOV 17th).

I was lucky enough to attend a pre-screening of this film (produced by Netflix Studios) at Landmark E St in DC last week. I ran into two friends/movie fans there; we ALL liked it (though it contains some dark, gritty, and violent moments). It will stay in your mind for some time, no doubt. The director is Dee Rees, an openly gay African-American woman, who made the critical indie coming-of-age drama, Pariah. (I read about this film, BUT haven’t seen yet.) At Sundance, Mudbound received a standing ovation. 

The story is one part fiction (based on a novel w/ a white female protagonist) and one part fact (based on real events in the life of a black family). In the hands of another screenwriter, two different films would’ve been made from this material- one focusing on genteel/educated Tennessee spinster turned wife/mother, Laura McAllan (British actress Carey Mulligan) and her straight-talking/stubborn husband, Henry (Jason Clarke, an Aussie); the other on the African-American family farming part of the McAllan’s ancestral land in Mississippi, headed by Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence, Mary J. Blige (the R&B singer). What ties these two threads together is the unlikely (and potentially dangerous) friendship between Laura’s charming/handsome brother-in-law, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, giving a strong/layered performance), and the Jackson’s eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, a fresh/compelling young actor recently in Straight Outta Compton).

Both Jamie and Ronsel, though of different ages and races, are WWII vets suffering through symptoms of PTSD after returning home to rural America. Jamie takes to drinking and wasting time, which greatly disappoints Henry, the responsible older brother and family man. Laura has strong feelings for Jamie, though she has long repressed them. Unlike his father, Ronsel can’t quietly acquiesce to the white people in town (whether it be Henry, his blatantly racist father- Pappy, shop owners, or even the sheriff). Hap and Florence worry about their son, who quietly seethes upon realizing the (very limited) role he will have as an adult black man in the segregated South. 

Watch the trailer for the film here:

Star Trek: Discovery (Episodes 3-5)

Episode 3: Context Is for Kings

Synopsis

Six months into her life sentence, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green), is on a prison transfer when her shuttle is rescued by the USS Discovery during an emergency. After a few days onboard, Burnham is ordered by Capt. Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), to assist with a scientific assignment. Burnham overhears Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp- a Broadway darling), the officer leading the assignment, discuss an upcoming experiment with a colleague serving on another starship. Lorca is soon informed of an incident on the Discovery‘s sister ship, the USS Glenn, that has killed the entire crew. Stamets leads a boarding party to investigate and finds the dead crew w/ their bodies badly twisted; a group of Klingons were also killed. There is a frightening new alien onboard the Glenn which we’ve never seen before in the Star Trek universe. Lorca later asks Burnham to work for him, explaining that he organized the circumstances that led her to him; she could help develop a new propulsion system (spore-based) that could win the war (which she started by killing T’Kuvma). He also secretly has the deadly creature transported aboard.

Review

OK, trekkers (I prefer this term), this ep is where the series really gets started! We actually get to see the state-of-the-art ship (Discovery) and its enigmatic (some have used the terms “shady” and “warmongering”) captain. Lorca is named for the 19th century’s Spanish/openly gay poet (FYI: I did a report on him, in an advanced Spanish class in college, and got applause). What’s up w/ Isaacs’ Southern accent? Well, the British character actor made that decision (along w/ producers, no doubt) b/c he didn’t want to compete w/ the memory of TNG’s Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart). Suffice it to say, Lorca is NOT like any other Starfleet captain we’ve seen before!

Looks like Burnham is an outcast, esp. among her former Shenzhou crewmates (incl. Lorca’s first officer, Saru). She is referred to as “Starfleet’s first mutineer;” however, we can’t forget the rebellious acts of Tom Paris (TNG/Voyager) and Ro Laren (TNG). Michael has the logic and brains of her Vulcan upbringing (nurture) mixed w/ the emotion and daring of her human biology (nature); Lorca knows that these qualities make her a valuable asset. Some viewers have commented that by-the-book Saru will balance out risk-taker Michael.

Stamets is snarky w/ Michael when he first meets her; we learn that he is a ground-breaking scientist who resents being conscripted for war. What is the deal w/ Cadet Tilly? Some critics felt that she should’ve been on a CW show (if you like those, sorry).  

Episode 4: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

Synopsis

Lorca assigns Burnham to study the new creature, referred to as a “Tardigrade,” to find a way to use its biology as a weapon. Starfleet orders Discovery to the dilithium mining colony of Corvan II, which is under Klingon attack. Stamets is reluctant to make such a long jump using the spores, and when the drive is activated, the ship nearly collides with a star. Lorca sends Cmdr Landry (Rekha Sharma from BSG) to keep Burnham’s research on track. When she attempts to sedate the Tardigrade (which she calls “Ripper”) to cut off its claw, it kills her. Burnham believes that Ripper was acting in self-defense, and is drawn to the spores. Stamets and Burnham transport it to Engineering, where it connects to the spore drive and interfaces with the navigation system. The ship makes the jump to Corvan II and saves the colony.

On T’Kuvma’s stranded ship, the red-paint wearing Klingon leader Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) earns the loyalty of T’Kuvma’s desperate followers, and leaves the white-faced Voq (Javed Iqbal) to die in the wreckage of the Shenzhou. L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), secretly loyal to Voq, promises that there a way for them to win the war for the house of T’Kuvma. However, Voq will have to go stay w/ “the matriarchs” of her house and be prepared to “give up everything.”

Review

MANY viewers were disappointed to see Landry (a WOC like Michelle Yeoh) killed off so early in the series (a la Tasha Yar on TNG). Well, Denise Crosby wanted off TNG after one season; she thought it wasn’t going to stifle her career. I really liked Tasha as a character, as did many other critics/viewers. Others called Landry “the stupidest Star Trek character” (b/c she acted so rashly). 

Who’s ready for some (rather tame so far) Klingon romance? Hey, I certainly am (b/c the Star Trek universe has such a lack of love stories, in general)! Mary Chieffo (who I learned is mainly a theater actress) is doing a fine job as L’Rell, esp. considering ALL those heavy prosthetics and costuming. 

Episode 5: Choose Your Pain

Synopsis

After a month of successful operations, Lorca is ordered to protect the spore drive until it can be replicated for other Starfleet ships. As he returns to the Discovery, he is taken captive by the Klingons. Lorca is imprisoned with a captured Starfleet officer, Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), and a criminal, Harcourt “Harry” Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson). Lorca eventually reveals that he killed his former crew during battle to spare them from the Klingons’ torture, but he escaped. Lorca is tortured by L’Rell, who wants the secret behind Discovery‘s new (faster) way of travel, but Lorca and Tyler escape before the Klingons can learn anything.

Burnham has grown concerned with the toll that the spore drive was having on Ripper. Along with Stamets’ partner, medical officer Hugh Culbert, Burnham convinces Stamets to find an alternative to run the drive. For the final jump needed to escape the Klingons, with Lorca and Tyler onboard, Stamets connects to the spore drive himself using Ripper’s DNA. Later, Burnham frees Ripper. Stamets’ reflection does not walk away from a mirror when he does. 

Review

The defining factor of Roddenberry’s vision is the optimistic view of the future… Once you lose that, you lose the essence of what Star Trek is. That being said… Star Trek has always been a mirror to the time it reflected and [the topical question now] is how do you preserve and protect what Starfleet is in the weight of a challenge like war and the things that have to be done in war. -Executive producer Alex Kurtzman on the balance between classic Star Trek and new elements in Discovery

OMG, why did they need to resurrect Mudd or ALL characters!? (For ALL the young/ newbie trekkers, check out Mudd’s Women in S1 of TOS. He dresses like a cowboy and ferries brides to miners on distant planets, BUT also has a sinister side.) At first, I thought that this Mudd would be funny, BUT he’s just a cowardly, self-serving jerk. I’m NOT a fan of Rainn Wilson (or his deadpan style of delivery), either, so that doesn’t help. However, Mudd does have a few good lines Starfleet sticking its nose into people’s business (quite true)!  

Hmmm… what do YOU think of the theory (circulating widely among viewers, incl. YouTube critics and podcasters) that Tyler is actually Voq in disguise? He certainly wins the trust and respect of Lorca VERY quickly, b/c he’s willing to put himself in the path of danger for a superior officer. Tyler says he has been imprisoned for 7 mos (since the Battle of the Binary Stars), BUT L’Rell has been captain of this ship for ONLY 3 mos. 

So, is this show set in the mirror universe? MANY critics/viewers think so! More on this later…