Morris from America Movie Review

My review of Morris from America for The Eagle

Morris from America is this summer’s Dope. Thoroughly winsome and immeasurably feel-good, it follows the life of a father and son adjusting to life in Heidelberg, Germany. This is precisely what is so incredibly refreshing about Morris from America — it is a coming-of-age movie about hip hop, set in Germany. A pretty novel premise, indeed.

13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) follows his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), when he moves to a strange land so he can work as a soccer coach. Morris doesn’t speak German particularly well, but he speaks the universal lingua franca of hip hop. This, we find, is all he needs to know. Hip hop is what allows Morris to relate to his dad and defy his own feelings of not fitting in.

Chad Hartigan directs this movie with an excellent sense of pacing–bright colors abound, propelled by the sounds of EDM with laughs sprinkled in effortlessly. There is no pandering or didacticism. Morris’ character develops from the stereotypical perma-scowling, thinking-all-adults-are-lame teenager to a much more nuanced character. In fact, it is the exchanges between him and his father that really carry the film. Craig Robinson is comedic gold in just about every line he delivers; their banter about who is the best hip hop artist and why is incredibly amusing. Curtis is truly relatable as a single dad who is trying to build a life for his family in an unfamiliar place but is just as out of place as his son. As he puts it, “we are the only two brothers in Heidelberg.”

Speaking of which, Morris from America wryly and subtly pokes fun at the stereotypes still affecting the characters, yet the issues Morris faces are not racism per se but perhaps more general cultural misunderstandings. For example, the kids at the youth center assume Morris must be good at basketball because he is African-American. When one of the counselors asks Morris whether a joint he found in the woods is his, Morris exasperatedly responds, “Why don’t you ask the other kids!?” The counselor’s response, comically enough, is almost, “yes, why didn’t I think of that?” It could have been a tense moment but threat and negativity is mercifully absent in this feel-good film.

Then there is “the girl” (as Morris’ Dad says, “there always is a girl”). 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) is Morris’ ticket out of social exclusion. She is cool, beautiful and has a famous DJ boyfriend. She is always inviting Morris to parties (which hilariously, Morris first hears as “bodies”). Sure, she sometimes makes fun of him too, but their very platonic relationship is the vehicle that allows him to finally take the spotlight, quite literally, and deliver a jaw-dropping freestyle.

Morris from America is effortlessly ebullient–which is incredibly amusing when one considers how much time Morris initially spends sulking. Without going for cheap laughs, it will leave the audience beaming nevertheless.

Grade: A

Equity Review

My review of the film Equity for The Eagle

f the women in the film Equity are the “She-Wolves of Wall Street,” the men may well be the hyenas, sneakily feasting on the carrion of the wolves’ spoils. Director Meera Menon offers a female perspective on the epitome of a bastion of male domination. Equity upends the very underpinnings of the financial thriller genre—the glorification (and conflation) of greed and power and the lionization of the “ol’ boy network” as the only interesting and significant players. Like The Big Short and Margin Call, Equity lets us look under the hood of the Wall Street machine, exposing the lifeblood to be as much “scoop” and “perceptions” as it is cold hard facts. The film asks, “Why are women not allowed to like money and to enjoy power?”, Or better yet, as Anne-Marie Slaughter asked, “Why Can’t Women Still Can’t Have It All,” (which, cheekily enough, is actually referenced in the movie).

Naomi Bishop, played with steely intensity by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, is an investment banker adept in helping companies go public. Yet, despite her formidable portfolio, she is only as good as her last IPO, which was not particularly successful. Her smarmy boss’ explanation for why she won’t be getting a promotion is “the perception” that she “rubbed people the wrong way” on her last IPO and that this is “not her year”—very objective criteria, you see. So much for Wall Street’s reliance on data and not emotions. Determined to prove herself (how many times over!?), Naomi sets her sights on Cache, a social network that prides itself on its privacy controls. Unfortunately, there are far too many egos to coddle and no one in Naomi’s circle can be trusted personally or professionally.

Equity’s plot alone is certainly compelling and filled with the kind of tension viewers expect from the genre. The way in which the film provokes the audience into questioning assumptions about gender roles and the corporate environment, however, is its greatest asset. Naomi’s right hand woman Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the film’s producers) finds out she is pregnant. In one particularly memorable scene, Erin, in the middle of her ultrasound, wants to take a client’s phone call. Her husband pointedly rebukes her, telling her that the client would want Erin to “enjoy her sonogram.”

The film aims to make the viewers squirm and it does so with great aplomb, putting front and center so many of the assumptions about women and making the viewer question them not only in the context of the film but also in one’s response to their portrayal in the film. Meta indeed. This is what is so incredibly ground-breaking about the film–why are we made uncomfortable by Erin’s attitude toward her pregnancy as a nuisance that will ruin her career? Why do we assume Naomi wants to be single and childless and never notice the sacrifices she has made to get to play with the big boys? Why do we assume that women are not supposed to like money?

The way the men are portrayed in Equity is also quite interesting–one gets the sense that like hyenas, they stand by, awaiting to feast on the hard work of others. They are incredibly chauvinistic, paternalistic, but mostly bumbling and terribly inept. The head of Cache, the IPO Naomi launches, is the ubiquitous tech bro, more interested in eating expensive sushi with beautiful women than anything else. In her personal relationship with an investment banker, Naomi’s character shines as the kind of woman we rarely see in films–guarded with business matters and not quick to brag or tell anyone that will listen to her business, literally. The cause of her downfall is not the usual gullibility or lack of foresight–it is people betraying her or not trusting her. We get the sense that while Wall Street is a game, Naomi still plays by its rules. The ones seeking to break them are the men who created them.

Equity also excels is in portraying the process of a company going public in accessible, layman terms. In that sense, it also shows just how reliant the stock world is on gossip, hearsay, hunches, “perceptions,” and tips–the irony is not lost on the viewer, as these are the very things that have been labeled to be the hallmark of the “feminine.”

The film truly shines in upending commonly-held ideas about heroes and antiheroes…or should we say heroines. The women of Wall Street may inhabit a world utterly unfamiliar to us, but the way in which they are forced to navigate around the roadblocks constantly placed in their path will not be. If the film is feminist, it certainly does not blare its politics through a megaphone. The very existence of Naomi on Wall Street is already incredibly impactful and Equity shatters the glass ceiling of everything you might believe about them.

Grade: A

Les Cowboys Review

My review for The Eagle

Les Cowboys riffs on John Ford’s The Searchers in a modern-day take on the story of a father looking for his lost daughter. Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s previous films Le Prophete and Rust and Bone showcased the same subdued yet visceral ethos that he brings to his directorial debut here.

The film opens at a country-western fair in France, in 1995. Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife, and two kids, Kelly and Georges/Kid, are the epitome of the wholesome family. The person who rides off into the sunset is no valiant cowboy, however, but Alain’s sixteen-year-old daughter Kelly. In the original film, the “bad guys” are the Comanches (racism found its way into cowboys movies, too). Bidegain’s Les Cowboys centers on “the Other” of present day–”radical” Muslims.

As Alain begins to search for Kelly, he discovers her notebooks (filled with Islamic propaganda) and finds out she has run away with her boyfriend Ahmed (whom they did not even know existed). What is especially mesmerizing about the film is that the suspense does not come from wondering if the father will find his daughter–very early on in the film, Kelly sends the family a letter asking them not to look for her and that she has chosen this life for herself.

So, we know immediately this will not be a more cerebral Taken or a whodunit. Alain’s all-consuming obsession with finding Kelly is what is most poignant and engrossing; his pain and bewilderment are palpable. Played with firebrand intensity by Francois Damiens, we see the same ardent love a father feels for his daughter transformed into an equally devouring, Don Quixotian quest that incinerates everything in its path–Alain, too, in the most literal sense. Alain goes everywhere from Syria to Yemen and Amsterdam, a broken man trying to find a broken bond. When a smuggler tells him that his daughter is not his daughter anymore, we can see how true yet utterly hollow that rings to a father.

9/11 happens and Georges/Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), Kelly’s brother, starts working for a relief organization in Afghanistan, secretly hoping to run into her somehow. John C. Reilly makes a (somewhat comedic) appearance as an American mercenary. The cadence of Les Cowboys is certainly compelling; the plot unfurls at an engrossing clip. The way traditional western film tropes are translated into the present is also quite creative. Kid, unlike his father, doesn’t want to pull Kelly away from her new life. He simply wants to see her and make sure she is alright. The final scene packs a stunningly emotional wallop, sans any words exchanged.

Les Cowboys will haunt you long after it’s over, and not because of what it states outright but because of what it implies. The dialogue is minimal to non-existent, yet the actors are able to educe a lyricality from their characters that is eloquent beyond any words. Alain’s character is stoic, like a true cowboy, but he is not one-dimensional.

The film also obliquely addresses racism and Islamophobia by pulling it out of the shadows, without commenting on it. In one scene, a man tells Alain that “now that you see how we live, you understand what has happened”–Alain gets enraged that the man is trying to engage him in some sort of a political discussion when all he cares about is Kelly and nothing else. The scene speaks volumes about how hatred also grows out of thin air–we don’t get the sense that Alain holds any prejudices until the fruitless quest that saps everything from him leads him to the point of calling the people he encounters “ragheads.”

Les Cowboys chooses to stay mum on politics, yet Kelly’s character who voluntarily chooses to leave her Western lifestyle behind, also offers a trenchant perspective that belies the broad-strokes stereotype of “brain-washed” and “abducted” women as the only ones who join radical Islamists. Nevertheless, just because it lacks in histrionics, it is no less moving. Les Cowboys does not ride off easily into the sunset without jostling you awake first and making you question the difference between good and bad guys and searches and crusades.

 

AFI Documentaries 2016 Reviews

My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries

AFTER SPRING

Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching

Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.

THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED

Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue

The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.

TEMPESTAD

Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.

The Man Who Knew Infinity Review

My review for The Eagle

The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of the math genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan who is famous for making groundbreaking contributions to theoretical mathematics.

Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t fail in making formula-writing into riveting plot material. It fails in the ways that a lot of the “genius genre” films do: oscillating between melodrama and unbridled wide-eyed “oh, aren’t you impressed” theatrics. The authenticity rings hollow and the film falls victim to many overused tropes–namely the “obscurity to recognition” trajectory of geniuses and the fact that only the West is deemed authoritative enough to recognize geniuses.

Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a self-taught mathematician living in India, barely scraping by as an accounting clerk. In his spare time, he writes formulas for ideas such as the number of partitions a number has, with the number growing to infinity. He writes a letter with his work to G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a mathematician at Trinity College in Cambridge. Hardy is so impressed by Ramanujan that he summons him to England to learn more about his theories.

The relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan is easily the most compelling part of the film, as the audience hardly gets to know much about Ramanujan other than his work. Ramanujan credits divine inspiration for his incalculable formulas—he says it’s intuition that things are right is all he needs. Hardy is presented as an atheist who couldn’t possibly grasp the mystical ways of Hinduism.

This precisely is the issue with the film—you won’t have to look far for “Orientalist” overtones, ad infinitum. Ramanujan’s spirituality is presented clumsily, replete with elephant Ganesha statues and all sorts of reductionistic motifs. He is made to look provincial in mind—merely the vessel for genius bestowed from up above.

The colonial mentality of England is presented surprisingly well, on the other hand. Everyone, but a few people like Hardy, make little effort to hide their disdain for Ramanujan’s Indian origin and humble beginnings. Micro aggressions, including not being allowed to step on the grass at Cambridge, abound.

Jeremy Irons plays Hardy beautifully, as a man wanting to help Ramanujan but perhaps too timid in facing down the pervasive racism leveled at his protégé. He publishes Ramanujan’s work and seeks to get him a fellowship but not once does he actually ever address the colonial mentality espoused by his colleagues—he simply, and formulaically, advocates for Ramanujan as a mathematician, not as a person.

Dev Patel, too, stays mired in playing Ramanujan as a bumbling country bumpkin; tall, gawky and impossibly awkward in every sense. All he wants, he says, is to publish and to get people to read his work, the scope of which is mind-boggling. In a true genius sense, he can’t be bothered with Hardy’s pedantics of proving theories.

The viewers are made to feel as though he has so many ideas bursting forth, it is all he can do to keep up with even so much as recording them. But the person gets lost in the formulas. We never understand, for example, much about his love for his wife, whom he left behind in India. We get little nuancing of him other than as a repository for other-worldly ideas. In the midst of all of this, mawkishness abounds… soft lighting and Indian sitar strains do, too.

Grade: B+

Nasser’s Republic Review

My review of Nasser’s Republic, a part of Filmfest DC, for the Washington City Paper

Gamal Abdel Nasser was the very embodiment of the proverbial “charismatic leader” you read about in political science textbooks, but Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt steers clear of breathless paean-singing. Instead, the film captures the process of shaking colonialism’s chains and building a nation. It also offers a very comprehensive look at the anti-Western, pan-Arabism movement, showing Nasser as equally pragmatic and idealistic. The themes Nasser’s Republic tackles are big, yet the film is able to give a panoramic view of the issues of nationalizing an economy, gaining public support, contending with the Muslim Brotherhood, and wrestling with the thorny issue of what democratization and nation building actually looks like. Through interviews with Nasser’s daughter and a number of scholars and journalists, a portrait of a doggedly hard-working leader emerges. Nasser’s political milieu turns out to be not too terribly different from modern-day Egypt’s, and as such, it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in how a country moves from colonialism—and its effects—into autonomy. But sometimes autonomy can devolve into autocracy, and that’s something Nasser’s Republic does not shy away from exploring.

A Burning Hot Marketing Spot: How Burning Man Moved from Counter to Corporate

My blog post for Ministers of Design

Burning Man, the festival in the Nevada desert, oft-presented as the ultimate celebration of counter culture has undergone a bit of a transformation. The “playa” has now, for better or worse, becoming the playa-ing ground of some big-time tech players.

Once a year, tens of thousands of people (dubbed “burners”) gather in the Nevada Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, and all things DIY.

Along with the hippies, however, also came the CEOs and the venture capitalists. Now, you might be wondering, how can a place that is supposed to be devoid of any sort of cash or barter transactions become host to business wheeling-and-dealing.

Among the 68,000 attendees are some unexpected names – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. It is not a rare sight to behold wealthy techies arriving, via private jets, to luxury desert camps fully staffed with cooks, masseuses, and assistants.

Burning Man’s founders are not exactly fearful of these new playa-ers–after all, they often fund the massive art installations and the festival’s nonprofit pursuits.

“What we’re seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team,” said Marian Goodell, Burning Man director of business and communications.

But what other way to describe what is taking place than “gentrification?”

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.”

For those with money to spend, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” says Tyler Hanson, a “Sherpa.” “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”

So, if you can grit your teeth and close your eyes (not just to the sand in the desert), Burning Man might just be the next frontier for some surreptitious networking and deal-making…you know…like the cool kids do it. Hippies meet hipsters; hipsters meet hippies.

Tinder Takes a Swipe at “Dating Apocalypse” Characterization

My blog post for the Ministers of Design Blog

Tinder, the dating app, took umbrage at a recent Vanity Fair article that pointed a finger squarely at the app for precipitating a “dating apocalypse” and replacing romance with hook-ups and…well, insipidness.

The piece by Nancy Jo Sales posits that Tinder has created a culture of one night stands, hook-ups, and a general commodification-cum-free-for-all in the world of relationships.

Not exactly controversial news there, however, more noteworthy is Tinder’s Tweetstorm response to the article–one more reminiscent of a jilted lover than of a brand with Tinder’s global reach. Case in point: “Little known fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.” Neither funny nor particularly much of  a zinger. Or even more pathetically: “Next time reach out to us first @nancyjosales… that’s what journalists typically do.” Umm, actually, no, Tinder–journalists interview users of the app, not the company…typically. As she aptly pointed out, “@Tinder not clear: are you suggesting journalists need your okay to write about you?”
Even worse: “It’s about meeting new people for all kinds of reasons. Travel, dating, relationships, friends and a shit ton of marriages.” We get it, Tinder, you are so hip, you can drop the s word in an official Tweet, but the “come at me, bro” is hardly business speak.
So, in the battle of Vanity Fair vs. Tinder, I would argue that Tinger’s pathetic swipe at the magazine fell shortly. If they were a romantic interest, no one would have swiped right on them. Seriously.

Sensing their own Tweetstorm was about to create a storm of a different kind, they offered this spineless apology: “While reading the recent Vanity Fair article about today’s dating culture, we were saddened to see that the article didn’t touch upon the positive experiences that the majority of our users encounter daily. Our intention was to highlight the many statistics and amazing stories that are sometimes left unpublished, and, in doing so, we overreacted.”

Moral of the story: get better social media directors, Tinder.

Guest Fashion Blog Post for Goodwill Fashionista

My guest blog post for the Goodwill Fashionista Blog

If the very phrase “floral prints” evokes images of Pamela Des Barres’ I’m With The Band (or maybe that’s just me), it’s time to reconsider your flower child-flower print conflation! Floral prints can be…well, incredibly boring, but I think that is mostly because budding fashionistas have failed to let their creativity blossom when it comes to them (*groan* I will stop with the flower puns. Soon.).

My theory is that floral prints on baggy, waist-less, loose flowing dresses are generally a recipe for “I look pregnant, but I am really not. I am just a flower child, not *with* child.” The solution, I find, is that to mix fabric media when it comes to florals and to make the dresses fit!

All of the below dresses were procured at my local Goodwill. Brands include XXI, Aerie, Forever 21, and Banana Republic.

floral dress selfie
IMG_1952

 

This skirt is a brand called..wait for it…Hot Gal, of course. Perfect name, for a fabulous skirt! Notice how having more geometric patterns really moves them from Lane Bryant Land to chique, mod, and edgy. Ideal for posing in front of motorcycles with 🙂

black lace top from Goodwill

The black lace top part of this rose top takes it from snooze fest to Stevie Nicks La Reina territory!

In conclusion, if you are going with floral prints, try to find more interesting (and tight) fits and mix different fabric media. Now put “Summer Breeze” on and get a shoppin’.

Florals are a staple in any fashionista’s closet! Do you have any floral dresses or items in general  that you cannot live without?

VICE’s New Channel for Women Aims to be the New Face of Feminism

My post for the Ministers of Design Blog

VICE, the magazine and online platform that has long be THE platform for all things subversive and hip (and arguably, wryly hipsterish), is launching a new channel Broadly, described as a “women’s interest platform that will feature original, reported stories on pretty much everything from a female perspective with online videos and articles.” By women; for women.

Tracie Egan Morrissey, a veteran editor at Jezebel, brought the idea of a site telling stories from a woman’s perspective to Vice cofounders Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi last year. “I pitched them this idea,” she says, “and they hired me on the spot.”

At launch, Broadly has “Ovary Action,” a show about the war on women’s reproductive rights; “Style & Error,” a show about women’s fashion, like the iconic power suit; and an interview series called “Broadly Meets,” featuring prominent women like Rose McGowan and Virginie Despentes.

To avoid the terrible trolling that usually besets anything even remotely related to women on the web, Broadly will have no comments section: “When women are speaking online, it’s such a lightning rod for every angle—other feminists are telling you you’re not doing feminism properly, MRAs are coming in and calling you a fat whore,” Morrissey explains.

Vice tends to skew to a rather masculine audience, even if a lot of the readers are female too, but with swagger-ific coverage of things like the Atlanta Twins, porn stars, and Action Brosnon, it’s not exactly Gloria Steinem’s oeuvre either.

“Young women—millennial women—are really smart, are really well educated, and they want this kind of news,” Morrissey adds. “It’s fun to be distracted on Twitter with bullshit here and there, but covering abortion rights and the things happening to women right now is really, really, really needed.”

So how does Broadly intend to deal with the dreaded “feminazi” label or even more the point, the commodification of feminism as “girl power.”  “I think if you’re a woman, and you’re not a feminist, then you’re an idiot,” Morrissey says.

So, here’s to Broadly–the broad news sources for us broads. With its grrl power, rather than “girl power,” ethos, Vice’s “better half” looks to be off to a riotous start. Follow Broadly on Twitter at @Broadly.