Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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.

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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?

The Diplomat Documentary Review AFI Docs

My review of The Diplomat for the Washington City Paper

The Diplomat offers an insider’s view of U.S. foreign policy by examining the storied, 50-year career of Richard Holbrooke, who is widely credited with ending the Bosnian War in 1995, with an accord signed in an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. His oldest son David directs, gathering a who’s who of dignitaries to speak on his Dad, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, and a number of top journalists. But this isn’t a wide-eyed paean to diplomacy’s power to bring peace; nor is it a cynical exposé on the backroom dealings of a few powerful men. As The Diplomat traces the legacy of Holbrooke from his days in Vietnam to Bosnia, and finally to Pakistan and Afghanistan, it humanizes diplomacy, yet also shows its dark underbelly—a battle of wills between a select few who are far removed from the front lines. Holbrooke, though surely fallible, was keenly aware of the “service” part of the Foreign Service; The Diplomat shines a light on the strategies he employed to make peace an all-too-rare reality.

Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime Review for AFI Docs

Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime review for the Washington City Paper

Attacking The Devil tells the story of London’s Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans and his fight against the makers of the “morning sickness” drug thalidomide, which left 100,000 babies born in the ’50s and ’60s with severe deformities and caused nerve damage to nearly 500,000 adults. The film is a powerful testament to the importance of good investigative journalism: Sir Evans launched numerous such campaigns to effect changes that would have been unlikely or impossible without his journalistic intervention. His work was epic, both in scope and in the momentous ways in which it changed the status quo. The Distillers Company, the maker of thalidomide, refused to admit malfeasance or compensate the victims for the irreparable damage its drug had caused. Evans devoted space in the paper every day to reveal the company’s wrongdoing, fighting a legal injunction that prevented the discussion of any case under court consideration. Evans’ passion is palpable in this documentary, and it serves as a reminder that speaking truth to power is not an overnight process.

Of Men And War AFI Documentary Review

My review of Of Men And War for the Washington City Paper

The second feature film by French director Laurent Bécue-Renard (War-Wearied) offers an unprecedented and intimate look at PTSD and some of the war-ravaged men and women suffering from it. Set in the Pathway Home, a treatment facility in California for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film benefits from its fly-on-the-wall approach, squarely turning its lens on the group therapy sessions and residents’ interactions with their families, which allows the soldiers to tell their own stories. They seem unable to extricate themselves from the war zone, forever held hostage and unable to unsee the horrors they’ve witnessed. They describe feeling “embarrassed, small, defective… crazy.” The degree of access granted the filmmaker is truly amazing, and it’s even more impressive considering the degree of trauma with which each of these soldiers is wrestling and the Herculean effort required of them to share something so antithetical to the “be stoic about it” military ethos. An unflinching exploration of the “collateral damage” of war trauma, the film poignantly illustrates that there is nothing collateral about it. Of Men And War is one of today’s most engrossing and gut-wrenching commentaries on the high cost of our recent military conflicts.

True Story Film Review

My review of the film True Story

True Story, the debut of director Rupert Goold, is based on Michael Finkel’s 2005 memoir of the same name. Finkel was a star reporter for the New York Times, who quickly fell from grace and when it was discovered that a Sunday cover story he wrote on modern-day slavery was a little too loose with its details. Finkel (Jonah Hill) retreats to his hometown in Montana to regroup and attempt to rebuild his reputation and career, a feat that proves to be rather difficult. The proverbial “journalistic equivalent of a lottery ticket” falls into his lap: Christian Longo (James Franco), a fugitive accused of murdering his wife and three children, is apprehended in Mexico, where has been calling himself Mike Finkel of the New York Times. Fortuitous and strange, could Mike’s literary redemption come at such a sordid price?

That’s the question True Story attempts to thresh out. This is not a courtroom procedural, a cat-and-mouse game, or a CSI-episode-turned-film. If you are looking for a whodunit, this is not it. In fact, while in some ways, Edward Norton and Richard Gere’s cinematic relationship in Primal Fear is reminiscent of Finkel and Longo’s, this is not an exploration of “look how clever and deceitful sociopaths are.”

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Maybe True Story *is* about “the truth” and how elusive that actually is. As a character study, the film is incredibly compelling. James Franco’s acting is especially superb: in his tete-a-tetes with Mike, Franco is the very embodiment of the word “mercurial.” Forget two-faced–he’s three faced.  Polar opposite emotions literally flitter across his face every second. He’s chilling, sincere, introspective, alluring, repulsive, calculating, heartless… it is all there. In their push-and-pull relationship, it seems that both men are learning more about themselves, actually. We get the sense that the excuses Finkel offers to himself for why he lied in the story are as much of a sham as Longo’s. The film suggests that though the gravity of their transgressions is nowhere near the same caliber, both of them know a thing or two about being a pariah.

True Story explores the idea of culpability in a really interesting way. There is no doubt that Finkel, to a much lesser degree, has a bit of a narcissist in him, but the film really wants us to denounce his ambition and point to it as the proverbial cause of his downfall in a Shakespearean sense (e.g. his fatal character flaw). Yet, Finkel’s actions make a good bit of sense: faced with the prospect of never writing again, he latches on to the one story that someone Longo picks *him* to tell. There is the rub: both men are using each other and need each other. Longo needs to sow the seed of doubt about his guilt and Finkel needs a sensationalistic take on a story literally plugged from the headlines. He needs this “scoop” no less than Longo does.

The portrayal of the journalist in True Story suffers from the same wide-eyed aggrandizing that is ubiquitous in just about every film and TV show on the subject (heck, House of Cards, anyone?). We are supposed to sympathize with Finkel because he only fibbed a little on the details to make the story trenchant enough to make a difference in the lives of the children’s lives he covers. In other words, he does this out of noble motivations. Yet, it would have been no less impacting had it stuck to the truth. In a particularly ironic exchange between Longo and Finkel, Finkel asks Longo why he picked his name to use on the run. “Because he wanted to see what it was like to be Finkel,” he responds. Why not use any other more anonymous name? Well, because Finkel’s name is just that. What a jab to Finkel’s ego and a wry nod to the viewers! What’s in a name? Clearly, one is famous only when one is infamous. Nobody but the most die-hard acolyte would have recognized Finkel’s name.

The push-and-pull relationship between Finkel and Longo is incredibly compelling to watch. If one goes in with the anticipation of watching a character study rather than a crime thriller, True Story would ring true and engrossing.