Category Archives: Reviews

The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project Book Review

My review  for the Washington Independent Review of Books

An in-depth look at the export of conservative Islamic teachings from the Arabian Peninsula.

The term “soft power” is ubiquitous enough that it has long left the international relations arena behind and moved into public discourse. It seems intuitive that changing hearts and minds is a much less costly and subtle route to hegemony. But what sort of work is soft power and what sort of an export is ideology?

Krithika Varagur’s The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project is an incisive, salient, and comprehensive exploration of the sort of philanthropy that comes with a heaping side of religious proselytizing. Varagur brilliantly captures the complexities and contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s export (intentional or incidental) of Salafism and portrays soft power for what it really is — messy, highly unpredictable, and a far cry from the puppet-master-like characterization it has recently received.

The author offers three case studies on three continents: Indonesia (where she lived for several years); Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram; and Kosovo, which has the dubious honor of having “contributed more foreign fighters per capita to ISIS than any other country in Europe.”

It would be wrong to characterize this book as a “follow the money” exposé, all the more so because that trail has been cold for decades. Money is no longer flowing as it once did; Mohammed bin Salman, the new Saudi prince, seems especially uninterested in the grand dawa pursuits of his predecessors. Instead, Varagur’s journalistic acumen shines in her interviews with imams, government leaders, students, and the media, and in her own observations.

Dawa refers to the call or invitation to Islam, akin to mission work. The State Department estimates that as much as $10 billion has gone to charitable organizations as part of the Saudi dawa. Saudi Arabia’s Dawa Ministry has a staff of over 9,500 people, a $1.86 billion budget, and is responsible for dawa, as well as the maintenance of mosques inside the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s dawa project reached apotheosis following the 1973 oil embargo, which made the kingdom flush with petrol wealth. The Islamic University of Medina, built by King Faisal in the 1960s, brought its students into the Wahhabi fold. The oil money went toward such large projects in Indonesia as, for example, a university, a large Saudi embassy, and the presence of a “religious attaché.”

“Wahhabism is a movement within Sunni Islam named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century preacher who sought to purify his faith of the idolatrous and blasphemous practices that he thought corrupted the austere monotheism at the heart of Islam,” writes Varagur. Wahhabism lent the Saud family the religious legitimacy necessary to entrench the monarchy and shelter it from more global influences, like that of Pan-Arabism or socialism.

Varagur presents both the dim view of Salafism and its appeal (Wahhabism is a Saudi-specific term; its outside counterpart is called Salafism). Its obsession with minutiae — like how to pray, what music (if any) to listen to, and whether to take pictures with cats — speaks to its conservatism.

The flipside of what Varagur calls its small-mindedness is its austere simplicity and, she astutely points out, its accessibility: Doctrinal knowledge comes directly from texts, which are nowadays available online and simple enough to not require a mediator.

Although Saudi dawa has waned in influence and investment, The Call demonstrates how ideological ecosystems take on a life of their own. The influence of Salafism is much more apparent now, perhaps because the problematic link between charitable aid and religious indoctrination is equally so.

For example, Saudi dawa helped rebuild the Ache and other regions of Indonesia devastated by the 2004 tsunami, gaining a foothold for its puritanical brand of Islam. Indonesia, a modern and tolerant Islamic society, now has an anti-Shia league, and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been driven into refugee camps.

Perhaps one small shortcoming of The Call is Varagur’s failure to draw parallels between Christian development organizations and the rise of intolerant Christianity abroad (Nigeria comes to mind). She remains steadfastly focused on Salafism, when situating her argument into a larger context might have served it.

Ultimately, Varagur argues, the intersection between political Islam and the public sphere is complicated. But three consequences, in all of her case studies, are that an educated class of Salafi scholars, who then shape the local religious landscapes, emerged; there is rancorous intolerance against Shia and Sufi Muslims; and there is greater popular consumption of Salafi books and media worldwide. A turn toward fundamentalism breeds an environment of intolerance and strife.

“The Saudi project,” she writes, “can be chaotic and full of contradictions.” So has been the response of the rest of the world to it. In the past, the West was all too happy about the way in which conservative Islam served as a counterweight to leftism and communism and stabilized the monarchy’s control of the region. But the West has also mistakenly attributed myriad conflicts in the region to historical theological differences, which are actually fairly modern and political in their origin.

Krithika Varagur writes with the precision and nuance of a seasoned journalist. The Call is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the complicated history of the Saudi state and its religious missions. The book also raises questions about the uneasy and problematic connection between aid and proselytizing.

Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavich Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A breathtaking series of insights into people who are “becoming.”

Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short-story collection, Verge: Stories, is an incandescent testimonial about lives spent on the margins, on the cusp, on the edge, on the periphery, on the frontier, on the birthing place…of something.

Or everything. Or nothing at all.

Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. “Who amongst us can see a self,” she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.

“The Pull” is set on a capsizing raft of refugees in the Aegean Sea — the people “a wave of other leavers.” Those left behind “never swim another lap toward their futures.” Two children who had been on the swim team back home (and, as the author so pointedly writes, are from a reality that has neither a future nor a past) tie the raft to their feet and swim toward shore: “This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.”

This is exactly the kind of parsimony that marks Yuknavitch’s writing — the pathos is in the pith-os, I would like to think.

“The Organ Runner,” a story about an 8-year-old who literally runs organs between seemingly disparate yet intimately sewn-together bodies in dark streets, is equally relentless in its quiet condemnation of us:

“Whatever money — that thing more valuable than a body, or a people, or a nation — had changed hands was worth more than the life of one homeless creature in this newsless, powerless, invisible country.”

The author is neither political nor polemic, but her witness-bearing will disquiet readers. The simile “he held one arm against his body like a broken wing” is a trenchant commentary on dehumanizing others in a literal and figurative sense. And again, the author makes clear the damning, if not always apparent, connections tying the globalized world together: “Kiril would die but not by her hand. Or he would die by all of our hands.”

“Second Language” takes this tacit condemnation to a crescendo; the story will hold you hostage long after you finish it. The protagonist is a nameless, sex-trafficked child locked in a house near a freeway (anything but free to her) and “delivered like a card-board box from a UPS truck, sifted through by rummaging hands like recycling,” along with other “girl popsicles.”

To the outside world, she is a ghost, barely even noticed by the “disaffected latte pity” gaze. Her “bodyworth” is the only thing concrete about her — that, and a story in a foreign language. A fairytale, told in a grim and otherworldly tongue, which lulls the popsicle girls to sleep: “Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”

Speaking of language, the author is a masterful writer of towering genius. Her comparisons are so intricate, yet heavy, they often require a reread. A drug addiction is “four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.” “He builds the fire like a new faith for all the white (snow) against them.” “She aches to summer over into a different life.” “The streets are clean and cured and uncultured — no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant.”

Yuknavitch is also eloquent in her depiction of women. The female protagonists are on the run, gnashing and trashing and aching to tell their stories in their own language. She compares a “street walker” to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” But she is no saint, just an “ordinary woman eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” Another character is “on the edge like Ophelia, rewriting her ending.”

Verge is enthralling and should garner Yuknavitch much-deserved acclaim. It is the author’s answer to the question, “Does it hurt more to keep the secrets or to tell them?” While her characters may be on the edge of the storyline, in the dark corners of the nightly news, residing in a forgotten, misshapen geography, speaking in tongues, the book reminds you that you know these people; that you are bound to these people; that you are these people.

Pain Studies Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

If you think poets shouldn’t dabble in nonfiction, Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The book has moments so contrived that the reader might wryly observe the title as apropos.

Olstein, a poet, writes this book as a rumination on the nature of pain, riffing on her experience with migraines that she describes as “a headache that lasted three months acute-chronic, chronic-acute.”

When the author leans on her poetic skill, the outcome is beautiful, captivating prose that bleeds and thrums: “Left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your finger into.”

But when she waxes more philosophical, the reader is left baffled at best and groaning at worst. For example, there is an entire chapter on the color of pain. And navel-gazing moments like this one: “Drowning, live pain, has a way of flooding you with the present.”

When Olstein stops taking herself so seriously, she makes insightful (and incisive) observations about what we mean when we talk about pain. Her deadpan lines — “We’re notoriously bad at talking about it, even literally, as in, do you have it, how much, what kind” — will leave readers nodding enthusiastically.

Her accounts of dealing with various healers are equally wry and amusing. She uses an example of good medicine as someone who asks her whether she has found anything that increases the pain, rather than decreasing it. And we can all relate to the humor behind well-meaning advice that fails to deliver: “She’s visibly disappointed I report back miracleless.”

Some of the choices that Olstein makes, however, will confound more than cheer. She dedicates no less than two chapters to Joan of Arc. Why? Because “Joan’s refusal to translate her experience into acceptable terms” is apparently analogous to the trials of pain sufferers, and because “she was a woman surrounded by prying, know-it-all men who pelted her with questions.”

Readers may be willing to hang their coats on such flimsy pegs, but Olstein doesn’t stop there. Exploring the work of obscure philosophers like Antiphon the Sophist will, again, do no favors for those wanting to deny the characterization of poetry as affected and decadent.

Then, we have a whole chapter on the TV show “House.” While the program’s exploration of pain makes this rumination salient, in today’s rapidly moving pop-culture zeitgeist, it feels quite dated to discuss a show that ended in 2012.

Eyebrow-raising choices aside, however, the book is incredibly creative in its style, seamlessly suturing together poetry, journal entries, and discourse analysis. Olstein’s strength as a poet imbues her prose, too, even when it manifests in lists: “Opium poppy, ordeals, orthopedist, Ovid.”

The poems included in Pain Studies are vivid and enthralling. And Olstein’s portraits of how others respond to her pain are compelling and relatable. But could this unconventional meditation have benefited from ditching the obscure references and morose gravitas? A resounding yes.

Citizen K Movie Review

My review for On Tap magazine

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence.

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

My article for On Tap magazine

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

‘Tis the season for paying it forward, so we decided to put together a list of 15 ways to give back to the DC community year-round. Our handpicked list is chock-full of unique organizations eager to put new volunteers’ hands and minds to novel uses. Read on for a list of creative ways you can give more of yourself to those in need around the District.

Restore the Anacostia Watershed

Eco-minded folks can help restore wetlands, plant native plants, collect seeds and much more, all while learning about the watershed and its ecosystem.
www.anacostiaws.org/how-to-help/volunteer.html

Put Down Roots with Casey Trees

Channel your inner tree-hugger through a variety of opportunities, from tree planting and tree care to advocacy.
www.caseytrees.org

Get Your Hands Dirty with Columbia Heights Green

Put your green thumb to good use at Columbia Heights Green, one of many participating parks and gardens in the Community Harvest Program at Washington Parks & People.
www.columbiaheightsgreen.org

Show Compassion & Offer Advocacy through HIPS

Donate to and/or volunteer with HIPS (Harm Reduction Experts Improving Lives Since 1993), offering compassionate harm reduction services and advocacy to people who engage in sex work or drug use in the DC area.
www.hips.org

Expand Your Practice with Yoga Activist

Are you a yoga teacher who wants to take the practice outside of the confines of traditional studio spaces? Yoga Activist is the place to do it.
www.yogaactivist.org

Knit It Forward in the District

Do you stay calm and knit on? Join one of many knitting meetups held at DC Public Library locations and/or donate your handknitted items to a variety of charities.
www.dclibrary.org // www.lionbrand.com/blog/10-charities-for-knitters-and-crocheters

Feed the Hungry with So Others Might Eat

Help provide nourishing breakfasts for those in need. They use real eggs, too – none of that powder stuff.
www.some.org

Provide a Fitness Framework for Girls on the Run

Volunteer with the DC chapter of this national nonprofit dedicated to making a world where every girl is free to boldly pursue her dreams through running. Support students during a 10-week program to help them establish an appreciation for health and fitness.
www.gotrdc.org

Dress to Impress with Suited for Change

Help local women entering the job market dress to impress through a variety of volunteering and donating options, including leading a styling workshop.
www.suitedforchange.org

Support Senior Citizens at We Are Family

Help isolated senior citizens with groceries, cleaning, transportation or just a friendly visit. Make a new friend this season by joining We Are Family.
www.wearefamilydc.org

Save the Felines with Alley Cat Rescue

The trap-neuter-return program at Alley Cat can make life on the streets a little more bearable for our furry friends. Donate to the rescue or adopt one of their many cuddle bugs.
www.saveacat.org

Be a Classroom Volunteer at Carlos Rosario International

Volunteer in adult ESL, culinary, IT and health classes and programs at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, and/or join as a mentor through the Impact Mentorship Program.
www.carlosrosario.org/get-involved/volunteers-2

Mentor Families with Northstar Tutoring

Tutor, mentor and help support members of low-income families in DC through Northstar Tutoring.
www.northstartutoring.org

Help the Homeless at Friendship Place

Help people in need transition out of homelessness at Friendship Place through a variety of volunteer roles, from mentoring to cleaning.
www.friendshipplace.org

Go Pro Bono with the D.C. Bar

If you’re a DC lawyer, you can give back by providing a variety of pro bono legal services.
www.dcbar.org/pro-bono/volunteer

Coach Soccer with DC Scores

Score a winning goal by helping coach and referee soccer games.
www.dcscores.org/volunteer

Homewreckers Book Review

My review of Aaron Glantz’ book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream

Washington Independent Review of Books

December 5, 2019
This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”

Rebel in the Rye Review

My review

Director Danny Strong offers a tepid biopic riff on the 2013 documentary Salinger in “Rebel in the Rye.” The film explores the 1950s, around Salinger’s writing of “The Catcher in the Rye,” whose place in the pantheon of great American novels is indelible. Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, gave a voice to the disaffection and confusion of modern living and his condemnation of all things fake rendered the book timeless and dearly loved.The main issue with “Rebel in the Rye” is that it expects us to take its word for how rebellious and revolutionary J.D. Salinger was, and it certainly fails to make the audience get a sense of that. Nicholas Hoult portrays Salinger as a handsome, brash, sardonic and outspoken young man. Salinger’s strong-headedness, perhaps even arrogance as it is portrayed in the film, is incredibly difficult to reconcile with Salinger’s later turn to reclusion, when he eschewed publishing and public appearances to live in a house in the woods in Cornish, New Hampshire. “Rebel in the Rye” also falls short in its portrayal of the effect WWII had on Salinger. His stint “in the nuthouse” is only hinted at, with a repeated image of Salinger’s hand shaking as he tries to put words to paper. We don’t find out that Salinger voluntarily enlisted in the war. The film portrays D-Day only briefly, and we don’t quite get a sense of the atrocities he lived through in France during the war─a place called the “meat grinder,” where 200 men would routinely die in the span of a couple of hours. Witnessing the utter desecration of humanity in camps abandoned by the Nazis left lasting scars on Salinger’s mind, and the film eloquently portrays that with a flashback of outstretched, skeletal hands grasping for bread through barbed wires.

Some of the greatest moments in the film come from the interaction between a young Salinger and his Columbia University creative writing mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). Spacey’s “Dead Poets Society”-esque performance certainly carries the film. The poignancy of Salinger’s turn away from Burnett, who publishes Salinger’s very first story, is made palpable. So is the magic of writing, of which Burnett comments, “There is nothing more sacred than a story.”

“Rebel in the Rye” is captivating in that Salinger himself is an enigmatic, enthralling figure, but the film seems to suffer from trying to cover too much ground and fails in its broad strokes approach. If Holden Caulfield really saved Salinger’s life, as the film suggests, we get only a tenuous sense of how this happened.

 

“It” Successfully Floats, And So Will You

My review of “It” for The Eagle

Stephen King’s seminal─and wildly popular─tome “It” is newly interpreted by “Mama” writer and director, Andy Muschietti. Unlike the 1990 TV mini-series, this silver screen adaptation focuses on the protagonists’ childhood encounter with the demonic killer-clown Pennywise, leaving the adulthood one for a future sequel.

The setting is 1989 in the small town of Derry, Maine. Beneath the bucolic exterior, something dark is stirring in the town’s underbelly─literally, in the sewers, and figuratively, too. Whatever “it” is, it kills children. And adults, too. But mostly children. The film opens with the classic scene of six-year-old, yellow-raincoat-clad Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chasing a paper boat that falls into a drain. Enter Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who lures Georgie with the promise of a circus down in the sewer, inch by inch, into his demise. Muschietti allows the scene to unfurl deliberately unrushed, making it all the more unsettling. More unsettling, however, is that someone witnesses what happens and seemingly just ignores it. There is a lot of that in “It”─adults turning a blind eye to the kinds of sickening violence that “it” has made commonplace in Derry.

Speaking of violence, something is definitely in the water in Derry. Perhaps the greatest horror comes not from the sewer-dwelling Pennywise, but the adults of Derry. “It” eloquently portrays the much more pedestrian, if you will, horrors of childhood. The adults in the film loom more monstrously than the evil clown–from Beverly’s serpentine, abusive father to Eddie’s manipulative mother, who feeds his hypochondria so she can control him, to the town bully’s policeman father who shoots a gun at his son’s feet, to the bullies themselves who think nothing of carving their name into the belly of a new kid they call “Tits,” in reference to his body size. “It” also seems to suggest that the absentee adults have left the kids, in this case the self-monikered Losers’ Club, to slay the monster.

“It”–it is a horror film after all–does deliver on the scares, too, but it is refreshingly less CGI-gore-fest and more “Stranger Things” in its style. Pennywise is the amalgamation of everyone’s worst fears, even if clowns don’t phase you. The Losers’ Club and “It” both tread through some gray water and come out on the other side (you will get the reference once you see the film).

Grade: A

No Reservations–Wind River Review

My review for the Eagle

There is no comprehensive reporting system for the number of missing and murdered Native American women and girls in the United States–the only category of missing persons without one. Many reports, however, estimate that Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

“Wind River,” although fictional, portrays this bleak reality with a steely resolve. Screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario” and “Hell and High Water”) paints a picture of life on a reservation in muted, grim tones. The film brings to vivid life how drugs have ravaged the community, how violence so often punctures the fabric of daily existence, how Native culture has been obliterated and how the reservation is a place both forgotten and stigmatized.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a federal wildlife officer who hunts predatory animals at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. While searching for a mountain lion that has been attacking livestock, he finds the raped and beaten body of a young Native woman in the snow. The tracks point to a seeming impossibility–that she had been running barefoot through the snow for miles. Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the best friend of Cory’s daughter, had died three years earlier under similar circumstances.

Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner ( Elizabeth Olsen) flies in from Vegas, where she is stationed, to investigate the crime. The Tribal Police chief, who has come to accept law enforcement’s utter lack of concern for his people, jokingly remarks, “see what they send us,” when she arrives clad in summery attire in the midst of a blizzard. But Jane is different. The absolute brutality and violence women are subjected to at Wind River shakes her to her core. Olsen makes palpable the feeling of a woman contending with violence against women─as something that feels intensely and viscerally personal.

Jane asks Cory to help her in the investigation. That dynamic is also really interesting since Jane lacks the typical authority figure hubris. Witnessing the dynamics in a community that has received no help from “the government,” she recognizes that Cory can not only “help her hunt a predator” but that he can also earn the trust of the community, which has no reason to trust anyone outside of it.

“Wind River” is a so much more than a taut murder mystery. Free of polemics, Sheridan’s director hand turns the lens on how elusive “justice” can be for the Native American community, on multiple levels. Finding the perpetrator of this specific crime can’t offer the satisfaction traditional murder mystery films offer in catching the bad guy, because most other victims never get the dignity of having someone care to find the perpetrators.

“Wind River” will shake you to your core, but it is an important film to see.

Grade: A

No Justice; No Streets: Documentary Shines a Light on the Protests in Ferguson

My review for The Eagle

“Whose Streets” is a first-hand account of the protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The necessity of covering the events from a perspective other than that of the mainstream media is without question, and this film offers unprecedented access.

“Whose Streets” captures the siege-like atmosphere in Ferguson when the protests began─including how the midnight curfew, an intimidation tactic, was couched as a safety measure. A woman shouts, “This is not Iraq,” as officers begin to enforce the curfew that doesn’t start for another 90 minutes. Families in their own backyards are asked to go back inside. In another particularly chilling scene, the memorial for Michael Brown is dismantled, as though the teddy bears and candles, too, have no right to be there. Director Sabaah Folayan stays largely off-screen, instead just letting the intensity of the footage take over.

One way in which the documentary stumbles, however, is in the choice of featured activists. The way in which their personal lives are brought into the film seems haphazard and the choice of what to include also seems to have no rhyme or reason. For example, the relationship between Brittany and Alexis, a young lesbian couple, seems completely irrelevant to the activist life of Brittany. We also meet Copwatch videographer David who lives in the housing complex where Brown was killed. He offers more insight into what’s it like to watch the very organization that relentlessly watches his community.

“Whose Streets” doesn’t seem interested in shaping a particular storyline, but instead offers a collage of first-person footage, tweets and Instagram posts. It’s an image of a community pushed past its breaking point. But there are questions that remain unanswered. One scene hints at the tension between the African-American churches and the young activist community, who characterize themselves as not “your Grandaddy’s civil rights movement.” A lot is missing, though, because we never find out what makes them different. There is also no exploration about the ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement is not only about police violence. Ferguson is a city built by racial capitalism, but we don’t really get too much of a sense of how this happened.

“Whose Streets” does an amazing job of making palpable the anger and pain the community feels after being victimized by a police state for decades. It allows the viewer a perspective never quite seen on mainstream media, which perpetuated the image of the movement as “looters” and “rioters.” It absolutely dismantles this view, in fact. The film could have been a bit more broad in its selection of figures from the movement and in interviewing them more in-depth, but nevertheless, it is an important activist and art work.

Grade: B