Thursday, October 05, 2017

" Adapt or Die " - Billy in Moneyball

Moneyball is really not my kind of movie.

I am not into baseball and I do not enjoy an "all-guys" movie.

But, I made an exception and decided to give it a shot. And I am glad I did.

My weird reason being, in one of the podcasts I listened to, Malcolm Gladwell mentioned that the author he admired the most is Michael Lewis, the writer of Moneyball.

Moneyball is actually not about baseball. It is about change.

How everyone dreads it, how people like to stick to status-quo, how the odds are against change agents, how people oppose the change, why the stakes are really high for those who introduce change, why some adopt new methods and others don't.

I see that everyday in the world of technology and can totally relate to it.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of Oakland Athletics baseball team, is looking for a new strategy to bring victory to the team with the minimum budget provided to him.
According to him, "We're like organ donors for the rich. Boston's taken our kidneys, Yankees have taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old "good body" nonsense like we're selling jeans. Like we're looking for Fabio. We've got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies." 

He meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a math wiz from Yale, who uses statistical  analysis to predict winning patterns.Peter's theory is to pick relatively unknown players, but who have techniques that can be used to their advantage to beat other teams. And, they cost way lesser than well-known players.

(Side note: Those of us in tech would draw an analogy to the use of data analytics in decision making. Most organizations even today don't use it to the extent that it can be leveraged.)

When Billy presents the selection of the players to his team, they all revolt. They have the usual excuses when anyone looks at disrupting the status-quo.

The other classic example is when Art (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the manager of the team, does not agree with Billy and does his own placement of players on the field. After multiple loses, Billy deals with this situation like a player of chess. He makes an excellent move by sacking some of the players that forces Art to pick the players Billy wants him to.

This is an instance of when you have to deal with someone who opposes the change and has the power to meddle with the situation. You will have to think creatively to get around that situation. And that is exactly what Billy did.

The Oakland As ultimately break the record for the highest number of consecutive wins in a major baseball series. They do not actually win the series.

But, it changed the way baseball is being played.

Baseball players were previously paid big bucks based on gut feeling, based on what people like, based on intuition. While all these produced some results, they were not as powerful as using data analysis to pick players.

This quote expresses the movie best "If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done".

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Power is neither male nor female.

Although "Pulp Fiction" is touted as the best Quentin Tarantino movie, I disagree.

"Jackie Brown" according to me is his best. Not to mention the best movie ever with a strong female lead character. (Not it is not Erin Brockovich!).

The villainy laced with humor, the edge of the seat thriller with a touch of romance and the memorable one-liners. Yes! this is my favorite Tarantino movie.

Having watched it over five times, I still get some nuggets every time I re-watch it.

Jackie Brown (an awesome Pam Grier), a middle-aged 44 year old air stewardess, is in trouble when she is caught smuggling cash and some dope. She needs two things to survive and live a decent life - not go to prison and not get killed by her repugnant boss and smuggler, Ordell (Samuel L Jackson).

What she does to achieve both these goals would put Scarlett O'Hara to shame!

There are so many things that hit the right notes in this film that it is difficult to know where to begin.

So I will start with my latest favorite scene (this keeps changing every time I re-watch it).

There is a scene where Jackie Brown is picked up by the bail-bonds man,Max Cherry, from jail. Jackie is sauntering towards the car and Max strains to catch a glimpse of her. That somehow forms the essence of the movie. Here is a woman who is coming out of jail but her pace and her stature seems dignified, cool and almost intimidating. Is this the moment that Max falls for her or is it when she plays "Didn't I do it baby" by The Delfonics, the next morning?

But don't be fooled by the soft undertones described above.

The gruesome scene where Ordell kills one of his employees,Beaumont, with the famous line
"An employee I had to let go" shows that Ordell is out to get Jackie unless she out-smarts him.

And she does more than out-smart him. She comes up with a ploy to fool both Ordell and the cops. With the help of Max, she manages to come out of it unscathed.

But that is not the point of the movie after your first viewing.

Quentin is great at establishing characters. Listen to this dialogue by Melanie, Ordell's girlfriend.

Ordell  You know you smoke too much of that shit, that shit gonna rob you of your own ambition.
Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV...

Melanie is also greedy and how that greed lands her in trouble is a scene not to be missed.

And what can I say about Robert De Niro. We forget that he is the great actor from Taxi Driver or God father. He plays Louis, a daft friend of Ordell. His role is understated and De Niro morphs into it.

The highlight of this movie is Pam Grier.

As Jackie Brown, she dominates every scene that she is in.

The way she smokes her cigarette in front of the cops,  how she manages to buy a suit in the midst of a sting operation, the music that she sways to just after getting out of jail and standing up to Ordell even when the stakes are high. She is the female version of Rick Blane. Except with brass knobs on!

Of course, this writeup wouldn't be complete without mentioning Robert Forster. He was rightfully nominated for the Best Support Actor Oscar for his role as Max Cherry. His restrained acting whether dealing with Ordell or not revealing his true feelings for Jackie makes him the twenty-first century Stevens.

In the last scene when Jackie asks Max if he is scared of her? He gestures with his fingers saying "A little" and we can't help but nod in agreement.

(And whether this last scene is better than the one in "Lost in Translation" is debatable) 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"But Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew." - Professor Charles Rankin in "The Stranger"

Orson Welles' "The Stranger"  reminded me of Hitchcock's "Shadow of a doubt". But do not mistake them for being alike. They use very different formats to enthrall the audience. While "Shadow of a doubt" revels in oscillating between the truth and doubt, The Stranger focuses on nothing but the truth. There in lies the beauty of this film.

How can a movie still hold any intrigue and aura if the secret is revealed in the first half of the film? How can you hold your breath in anticipation when you know what you are looking for? But you do. Orson Welles creates that sense of suspense right from the opening scene where a Nazi prisoner,Meinike, is set free. The hope is that Meinike would lead Mr.Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) ,of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, to a dangerous mastermind Nazi criminal,Franz Kindler. 

Meinike leads Mr.Wilson to a small town in Connecticut, Harper. But before Mr.Wilson can find out Franz, Meinike is killed. Mr.Wilson stays back in Harper to reveal the true identity of the hidden criminal. 

Professor Charles Rankin is a local school teacher who marries the supreme court justice's daughter Mary (Loretta Young). There is an interesting conversation between Mr.Wilson and the professor. The professor believes that " people cannot be reformed except from within. The basic principles of equality and freedom never have and never will take root in Germany. The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue. "All men are created equal", liberte, egalite, fraternite - but in German..."
Mary's brother remarks " There's Marx. "Proletarians, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains." to which the professor replies "But Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew." 

This confirms his identity to Mr.Wilson but he has no proof. Only if Mary confesses that she had seen Meinike the morning of their wedding, the professor can be persecuted. In spite of being shown the atrocities of the genocide, Mary refuses to believe that her husband is a criminal. She is torn between her love and her belief that she cannot fall in love with a criminal. 

Every step of the way, we are shown the truth, the truth is shouted from roof tops but what would Mary do? Would she turn her husband in or live in the hope of reforming him? Would Franz Kindler win this battle between the innocent and the conniving?  Would Mary's family and the Harper town people know the true identity of an innocent teacher? 

Watch another of Orson Welles' great movies where you get a good dose of closeups, play with shadows and light as well a slickly edited action-packed climax that makes you wonder why modern day film-makers do not learn such techniques.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"I still have a mind of my own. Elsewhere being gracious is acceptable. "- Leslie Benedict in Giant

 I would count "Giant" in the same category of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia". It is a saga but the big difference is that Texas forms the background of Giant instead of Arabia and the story is a family epic. 

There is a scene in "Giant" where Leslie Benedict (an excellent Elizabeth Taylor) walks into a group of men and wants to participate in a political discussion. Her patriarchal husband , Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), asks her to join the women in their siesta and "behave like everybody else" and boy! she fights tooth and nail to make her point. Her feisty yet caring nature is the backbone of their marriage. This saga spans a few decades starting with Leslie's move from Maryland to her husband's home in Texas and ending with their grown-up, married children. Adopting both the Texas land as well as the people, Leslie is a strong support to her rancher husband, Bick Benedict. Bigotry forms an interesting thread inside the story without being glaring about it. Leslie helps the Mexican-Americans with medicine and help, which is frowned upon both by her husband and other locals. Although Leslie is not the ideal wife that Bick expected and their marriage has the ups and downs over the years, their bonding shines through. 
I cannot help but mention, the role of Jett Rink (James Dean's last movie role) , who starts off as their help and later strikes oil and makes it rich. Jett Rink is someone whom we have come across in our lives. He is apathetic, loathes others just because they have money and finally becomes a wealthy alcoholic.

 The movie is a concoction of strong performances by both Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson but it Liz Taylor that shines through. Her feminist and spunky Leslie shows the real Elizabeth Taylor, who could not be bridled by anything. I was not impressed by James Deans' acting - as a young and unruly help, he was being himself and as an older drunkard, he seems too melodramatic.He is remembered for 'Giant' as the last movie before his untimely demise. The surprise for me was Rock Hudson, who  represents a rancher in the '50s,  caught between his feudal upbringing and his wife's attitude against sexism and bigotry. The director, George Stevens' Texas is no Arabia but he showcases the brown and rugged terrain and the ranger home Reata equally beautifully. He is worthy of the Oscar he won. 

I wish there were more movies made today that can juxtapose a romantic epic saga along with issues of women empowerment and color discrimination. Although it was made in 1956, "Giant" is worth viewing today to appreciate the amazing actors we miss.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

“What happens when a man stands up and says, ‘enough is enough?'" - Martin Luther King, Jr. in 'Selma'

What is the difference between a person who manipulates people for the good or for the bad ? The former  is called a salesperson and if it is for the good, he is called a "Leader". Martin Luther King is one of those leaders , who through sheer force of words led the movement of the African-American suffrage in early sixties in America. "Selma" showcases King's( ) campaign and struggle to win the rights they truly deserved. All politicians have agendas and it is no surprise when King meets President Lyndon B. Johnson and requests a bill eliminating restrictions on voting for the Black community, Johnson says it is not his priority. How King manages to ultimately convince the President of the Bill forms the rest of the story. 

The movie focuses on Martin Luther King and his strong belief in the cause, without being melodramatic or documentary. It shows that King is not only a great leader, he is also sympathetic, warm and compassionate to everyone. He influences people to participate in this fight of equal voting rights. The initial march between Selma to Montgomery is stopped midway by violent police attacks on the innocent African Americans. This incident is very similar to India's salt satyagraha march by Mahatma Gandhi and shows how much King was influenced by Gandhi and his non-violent methods. It opens this injustice to the rest of the world and soon King has followers from both Caucasians as well as African-Americans. Finally Johnson had to concede to the bill of rights , which posterity will remember Johnson for. It is a huge landmark in the history of African-American civil rights movement. 

Selma is excellent at  creating this '60s period drama. It provides a glimpse into America's history by focusing on the cause rather than people and creates a beautiful narrative flow because even though we all know how history turned out, we are still eager to find out what happened to one man's quest for voting rights in a non-violent manner.