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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State of the Union (1948) starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, & Angela Lansbury

Introduction

This classic film’s screenplay was adapted from a Broadway play which opened in NOV  1945 and ran for almost 2 yrs. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. The themes present w/in this tale are a perfect fit for optimistic, first gen Italian-American director, Frank Capra, though I consider it more sophisticated than some of his (more famous) films. The first choices for the leads were Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, BUT those actors didn’t work out, so Capra brought in Spencer Tracy. Once Colbert was fired (for refusing to work nights), Tracy suggested Hepburn (who has some of the best lines). For ALL of who realize that politics is personal, this is the movie for you

Synopsis

The only heir to a publishing house, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury- then ONLY 24 y.o.), desperately wants to fulfill her dying father’s ambition of putting a man in the White House. So what if the one who may fit the bill, successful airplane manufacturer Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), is VERY reluctant? Kay convinces political strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) to groom Matthews for their (Republican) party’s bid. A wise-cracking writer, Spike McManus (Van Johnson), comes along on the trail. It turns out that Grant and his wife, Mary (Katharine Hepburn), have been separated for some time; this is something that the public must NOT know. Mary is more than willing to play the supportive wife, IF this is truly what will help Grant. Does Mary still love Grant? Does Grant  love Kay (their behavior is far from platonic) or Mary? Will Grant accept the party’s nomination? 

Review of the Film

He’s beginning to wonder if there is any difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. -Kay reveals to Jim (seriously) / Now that’s a fine question for a presidential candidate to ask. There’s all the difference in the world. They’re in and we’re out! -Jim replies (w/ exasperation)

This is the type of film you need to see twice to get all the jokes, looks, and little moments (which make it a fine piece of cinema). The straight-shooting Grant is “a man of the people” who is hesitant to water-down his message to fit into the mold of a typical politician. Jim comes to realize that some of Grant’s ideas are too liberal for the party. Mary is NOT only hoping to reconnect w/ her husband, she is disappointed when he gives in to pressure from Jim. 

Kay probably has respect and affection for Grant, BUT what she truly loves is the power that she can yield on a national stage. Lansbury admitted that no special aging makeup was placed on her; she “simple had an air of sophistication” which makes her believable as a confident, strong, middle-aged woman. (She also has the best outfits in the film.) Notice the way Kay orders around her (all-male) editors? Of course, she has to be tough in typically male worlds- publishing and politics. Mary comments that men first admire Kay, then start following her around, and eventually fall in love w/ her. 

You politicians have stayed professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs. -Mary comments to a group of political strategists (during the radio broadcast at the Matthews’ home)

Grant and Mary share a special spark, though disappointed w/ how their relationship turned out. (They have two cute school-aged kids, BUT we don’t hear/see much of them until the big climax scene.) The way that Mary talks about Grant, you realize that she is still crazy about him! She admits to Jim (a cynical old bachelor) that she set up fake dates to make Grant jealous. Jim reminded me a BIT of Tobey from The West Wing. Mary finds a sympathetic ear in Spike, who gains a lot of respect for her, and ends up rooting for the couple to end up together. Spike is an youthful man who likes to act nonchalant, flirting and cracking jokes, BUT also has a good heart (something you see in Capra films). 

Real-Life Politics Behind the Film

At the time the film was released, President Truman had NOT made his political comeback and was considered a sure loser in the 1948 election by many, which is why both the Republican presidential nomination is considered so valuable in the movie. It’s also why Spike McManus is amused when a young secretary tells him (at the start of the film) that she thinks Truman will be elected President in his own right in November.

Menjou was an ultra-right-wing political conservative who had co-operated with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), named names of persons he considered to be Communists and was a strong proponent of “blacklisting.” Hepburn was decidedly more liberal and had been an outspoken critic of the blacklist. Menjou had made several comments accusing Hepburn of being a Communist sympathizer, and possibly a Communist herself, which angered Hepburn and her co-star/romantic partner Tracy. Capra was so concerned about the tension that he closed the set to the press.

Star Trek: Discovery (Episodes 1 & 2)

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the first two episodes of this new Star Trek series (available on CBS All Access).

The Importance of the Star Trek Universe  

I recently learned that inventor of the cell phone was inspired by the communicators used by Kirk (William Shatner) and his Enterprise crew on Star Trek (the original series- TOS). MANY young people (incl. scientists) were inspired by creator Gene Rodenberry’s imaginative writing, characters, etc. The Vulcan nerve pinch was invented by Leonard Nimoy (who played the iconic Spock); Shatner went along w/ it and ad-libbed the fainting effect. Roddenberry loved it, so it became part of the canon. Though the newer J.J. Abrams films operate on the alternative (Kelvin) timeline, they build on earlier works. The power and influence of the Star Trek universe (starting in TV, then branching off into movies) is comparable perhaps ONLY to Star Wars.

As some of you (who follow me on Twitter) know, I’m a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), which I caught towards its later seasons, then went back to watch. I saw a bunch of eps w/ my younger sibs and (sometimes) my parents. FYI: My favorite captain is Picard (Patrick Stewart). I was a BIT disappointed that Picard and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) never became more than friends; the actors had such great chemistry together. Riker (Jonathan Frakes- who directed some Discovery eps) was one of the few men who looked better w/ a beard. And who could forget the friendship between engineers- LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner)? I saw Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) when it originally aired, though I haven’t seen the final season. I was excited when Alexander Siddig’s name (he’s British of Anglo  and Algerian heritage) popped up in the opening credits; I loved his character, too. Sisko (Avery Brooks) was NOT only a strong captain, he was a widower and loving single father to Jake. It was refreshing to see a different side of Worf from TNG (Michael Dorn) during his romance w/ Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) on DS9. My favorite romance  was the slow-burn relationship that developed between long-time co-workers and friends, Kira (Nana Visitor) and Odo (Rene Auberjonois). The bromance between Dr. Bashir and O’Brien (Colm Meaney) was one of the rare male friendships on TV (at that time). Unlike TNG, there were a FEW supporting characters on DS9 that operated in shades of gray. This show was NOT afraid to delve into controversial issues, primarily military occupation and religion (incl. types of worship and the existence of gods). 

My Initial Impressions of Star Trek: Discovery 

Some people were hating on Star Trek: Discovery (set 10 yrs before TOS) even before it aired; they feared that Star Trek’s legacy would be ruined (whatever that means). The main character is an African-American woman w/ a male name, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who starts off as “Number One” (First Officer) to Capt. Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh- internationally known, primarily in martial arts films) aboard the Shinzou, a ship of exploration at the edge of Federation space. They have served together for 7 yrs, so are NOT only co-workers, BUT share an almost mother-daughter relationship. I liked the chemistry between these two characters. 

The main antagonists in this show will be the Klingons, BUT they don’t look anything like Worf (or even those on TOS). The Klingons we meet here have no hair, different skin tones, and a LOT of ridges on their bodies (or just clothing). I think their costumes are unique, BUT it’s tough to see the actors’ expressions through so much prosthetic (which takes about 3 hrs. to apply). We hear a LOT of the Klingon language; this could put-off those who are new to Star Trek. Some critics compared these rogue/fundamentalist-type of Klingons to ISIS; others thought that their ideologies were similar to white nationalists. 

Michael’s birth parents were killed by Klingons during a battle. Now here is where some fans take issue: she was raised mostly on Vulcan by Sarek (played by one of my fave Brits- James Frain), who is also the father of Spock. Michael still adheres to the Vulcan way of thinking, though she has also has emotions that can’t always be suppressed. The banter between Michael and science officer, Saru (Doug Jones), was pretty interesting; Martin-Green said in an interview that these two characters were BOTH ambitious, so were competing to please their captain. Critics are saying that Jones is one of the strongest aspects of the show so far; he is of a (new) species that “can detect the presence of death.” Speaking of positive aspects, the special effects are VERY good (“like a movie,” as some viewers noted).

TV critic Matt Mira asked (in After Trek, the after-show following E2): “Where is the Discovery?” Well, you won’t see that spaceship until E3, as these first 2 eps were more like a prologue (as a few critics noted). We will meet more of the regular cast in E3, including Capt. Lorca (Jason Isaacs); the British actor got heat for his tweets re: Trump supporters. I saw on IMDB that there will be three South Asian actors (WOW)- one American (Maulik Pancholy, noted for Weeds, but also a theater actor), one Canadian (Rekha Sharma from Battlestar Galactica), and one Brit (Shazad Latif from The Second Best Marigold Hotel and The Man Who Knew Infinity). 

One of the main issues is that this series is behind a pay wall ($5.99/mo. w/ commercials is the plan I chose). As one critic (on Collider) commented, a Star Trek series should be accessible to ALL (free). Is the show taking advantage of its (already existing) fan base? Will it find an audience among those who are NOT “trekkies” (or “trekkers,” if you prefer)? The TV shows and movies on CBS All Access may NOT be appealing to everyone, BUT I was glad to see that The Good Wife was available.

Are you planning on watching this show? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! 

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