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

Atomic Blonde is Pure Hell on Heels

My review for the Eagle

“Atomic Blonde” drives a stiletto straight into the jugular of every “girl power” spy movie out there, literally and figuratively (watch the trailer and you will see what I mean). Based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston, Sam Hart and Steven Perkins, “Atomic Blonde” is set in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is collapsing.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 operative sent to Berlin to find a watch that contains the names of wanted agents, including a double-dealing mole known as Satchel. All this while supposedly collaborating with the MI6 contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy).

The ethos of “Atomic Blonde” is pure 80s with a “Drive”-esque neon palette and a new wave soundtrack to match, but this doesn’t lead to saccharine bliss (take a scene where a guy stomps someone to death to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”). The soundtrack is also a reminder that the line between new wave and goth is a thin one. Even in the most ebullient of songs, there is a tension, a conflict, a turbulence. Director David Leitch deftly captures the disquieting energy in the air as walls tremble; rebellion is stirring the city awake while Siouxsie Sioux sings about cities in dust. In fact, this is one of the many subtle charms of the film— without being polemical, it is political in the subtlest of ways. A scene where Russian spies are shooting at German and British enemies in a crowd of protesters is a wry commentary on the shadowy workings of the state— in plain view, yet so inscrutable.

“Atomic Blonde” resoundingly disrupts the vapid “girl power” spy genre (yes, there is such a genre— think “Alias” and “La Femme Nikita”). The film is not overtly feminist, but Charlize Theron is every woman who has been called “bitch” by some old-boy type. As she soundly thrashes the archetype, she asks, “Am I still a bitch!?” The patriarchy ends up smashed in more ways than one. Lorraine also has to contend with questions of how well she is performing at her job— sound familiar? Her character, without relying on ham-handed political messages, is nevertheless that of a woman who doesn’t have time to take the numbers of those she has kicked to the curb. The dark humor of beating up men to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure” will not escape you. Similarly tongue-in-cheek is the way Lorraine makes fun of her male superior by saying had she known about an ambush, she would have “worn a different outfit.”

The fighting scenes in “Atomic Blonde” are edge-of-your-seat spectacular. The action avoids unrealistic hyperbole— in fact, it is mostly hand-to-hand combat. Theron, doing most of her own stunts, punches and kicks her way through the film with steely abandon. This is the picture of cool. There’s your girl power.

Grade: A

AFI Documentaries 2017

My review of AFI Docs 2017 for the Washington City Paper

Recruiting for Jihad

Directed by Adel Kahn Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen

Recruiting for Jihad follows Norwegian Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, who is the spokesperson for The Prophet’s Ummah, a Salafi-jihadist group. Hussain is of Pakistani descent, born in Norway and all too aware of the social benefits he enjoys in his position. Speaking to a recruit, he intones, “You will never be at home in Norway.” The native Norwegian recruits seem no more “at home” either—they all lament a life of “meaninglessness” before Islam. That is one of the greatest tensions exposed in the film: the way radical groups like Hussain’s manage to bridge the gap from conversion (or reversion, as it is called here) to jihadism. Two of the native Norwegians have never even been to Syria, yet are eager to fight there. Hussain emerges as magnetic and affable, at first—seemingly only interested in offering people a community. Yet, the uneasy way he responds when probed about his support of terrorist acts and ISIS exposes the fissure behind the façade of radicalism. The film is an enthralling look at the maddening disorientation of modern life—a Norwegian longing to be a part of a war in a place in the world he has never been, a Pakistani whose relationship with Islam is molded by an English imam… culture, identity, religion—all terms shown to be hard to unpack in a global world.

An Insignificant Man

Directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla

An Insignificant Man is the story of the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, “India’s Bernie Sanders,” and his 2013 campaign for Chief Minister of Delhi. That politics are as dirty in India as much as in the West is all too apparent—clientelism, voter bribing, corporate control over government, thuggery. The film is a political thriller in every sense of the word—the stakes are high, with goons assassinating one of the candidates from Kejriwal’s populist Aam Aadmi Party. Missing from the narrative, however, is Kejriwal’s involvement with the Anti-Corruption Law and social activist Anna Hazare; the film picks up when he decides to go from lobbying for the law to turning the movement into a political party. An unassuming (and often far too serious) figure, Kejriwal is hardly the charismatic leader of lore. But his dogged determination shines through, as does his ability to deliver on campaign promises few believe he can—cutting the electricity bills in half and providing free water. Far from a wide-eyed tale about the triumph of populist democracy, An Insignificant Man showcases that even in the muck of politics, incremental changes can truly be momentous.

La Libertad de Diablo

Directed by Everardo González

La Libertad de Diablo riffs a little bit on Tempestad, a film that played in last year’s AFI DOCs, in that it captures the banality of violence in Mexico. The narrative technique is trenchant and unsettling. Director Everardo Gonzales interviews victims and perpetrators of violence. They all wear flesh-colored masks, which make them look ghoulish and eerie, effectively blurring the line between victim and perpetrator, illustrating how truly tenuous that distinction is. The masks preserve the anonymity, yet are stretched thinly enough over the faces to show them wracked by emotion and to see the dampness of tears at the eye holes. Some of the killers earn as little as $10 per kill. A mother talks about finding the sneaker of her dead child. All speak of fear and the pervasiveness of violence at all levels, including the police and government. The masks render the speakers skull-like, as though the living are not too far from the dead.

JUST IN CASE: Know your black market weed etiquette

My article for Noise Journal

Editor’s note: While a majority of states have legalized cannabis in one form or another–for medical and/or recreational use–the election of President Donald Trump, and his appointment of drug warmonger Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, has driven fear into the hearts of both marijuana users and hundreds of thousands of cannabis industry workers across the United States. What will come next for our nation’s great experiment? Who knows. Trump and his motley crew of right wing know-nothings are sending mixed messages, having probably not even developed a plan yet. In the meantime, get involved. Call your members of congress. Attend an Indivisible meeting

And freshen up on your black market etiquette. Because, if the worst predictions come true, you could be buying your weed from that dude down the street again pretty soon.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug (22.2 million current adult users) according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That year–the most recent available–marijuana was used by 81.0 percent of current illicit drug users and was the only drug used by a majority of them. In other words, read this chapter. It’s useful.

To begin, instead of using the proper he/she term to refer to your “drug dealer,” I will use the male pronoun but only for simplicity’s sake. I will also not use the word “drug dealer” as I find it to be moderately dehumanizing and pejorative. I will refer to him as the “purveyor.” All of the following anecdotes are based on interviews and as such are “true stories,” or at least true to someone, somewhere (before you ask, I know nothing about any of this…I am but a lowly writer). I have purposely withheld the names and any details, as to allow the interviewees to share stories in an uninhibited way.

Any ideas you might have about the type of person who is a purveyor of marijuana should comfortably be tossed into the ashtray where they belong because they are patently, or should I say, potently false. People from all walks of life purvey, and they do so for an equally broad range of reasons. Ph.D.s in the sciences—yep; college kids—yep; intelligent girls with daytime jobs—yep. Literally all ethnicities, age groups, genders, and orientations are represented. Any stodgy ideas you might have about your purveyor being in any sense of a lower social stratification than you are completely and thoroughly baseless. If you think your purveyor is a “pothead,” that is also plain wrong. Your purveyor is a business man and you better believe he is on top of his business.

More to the point, however, every “drug dealer” you have seen in the movies is probably not even remotely akin to your purveyor. Scarface this is not. Nor is it Spring Breakers. The biggest way in which he is not like those tropes—dollar dollar bill, y’all. He is not stacking the ducats, son. Let me break it down for you—the profit margin on an eighth of an ounce of weed is $10, at best. Most buyers purchase eights or quarters. They do not buy pounds. So, your little transaction, as momentous to you as it may be is *hardly* momentous to your purveyor. How many of those little bags a day do you think he has to sell to be able to even make rent in a major metropolitan area? And the risk? Good. Now that I have put things in perspective for you, maybe you can better start to understand what is up.

The customer is always wrong. Well, not quite, but my point is that the customer service ethos you have so accustomed yourself to does not hold any water in the weed game. Statements to your purveyor like “I am helping you,” “You need my business,” “Look what favor I am doing you,” are…well, thoroughly asinine. Why? Because this is a market economy, yo. Wake your little bourgeoisie self up! The market sets the price; you get what you pay for…all of those trite adages are freaking true! Medical marijuana dispensaries will always be more expensive than the underground purveyors. The product is in high demand, and it’s risky to procure. Fast, good, and cheap: you can have any two of those, but you can’t have all three.

In addition, as I said earlier, most purveyors of marijuana do just that. They do not sell a smorgasbord of drugs! Just because he has really nice Sour Diesel doesn’t mean he has a kilo of cocaine. You probably won’t ever hear, “You’re right! I totally forgot I have a pound of crystal meth!” It doesn’t hurt to ask, *in person*, but do not press for answers.

OK, let’s get on with the pointers on how not to be a big dummy when buying weed.

  1. Don’t talk about drugs over the phone or any medium, for that matter. Never, ever, ever, never! Don’t even use code! The NSA is the greatest code breaker in the world; you are not going to come up with a code in the next five minutes that they won’t crack. Don’t talk about it on Facebook. Don’t talk about it on email. Don’t talk about it on Skype, Snap Chat. Whatever. Don’t talk too loudly about it in person! In most states, marijuana is still illegal. We recommend, “Wanna hang out?” or “Hey. I’d love to see you.” He knows what you mean. You’re not romantic with him. And if you are, you shouldn’t be paying.
  1. Show up. On time. Never ever, should there be a circumstance where the purveyor is waiting for you. Or even worse—you are sending a multiplicity of texts about how you are lost, or whatever nonsense/terrible fate has befallen you. You don’t keep your doctor waiting. You don’t keep your boss waiting. Right? Common sense.
  1. Get your money straight! Your purveyor does not accept barter or your Grandma’s cookies. Nor does he care to see you rummaging through your purse in broad daylight like the big dummy you are. Nor does he carry change. Or take credit card. Never ever should there be “I’ll pay you later.” These words are not in the lexicon of your purveyor.
  1. There is no free delivery! Delivery is a major and added risk; it is also incredibly time- consuming and cuts into an already low profit margin. Would you expect your pizza delivery guy to deliver without a tip? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
  1. To that point, this is not social hour. If he sets the tone with wanting to socialize, OK, but he is there to do business.
  1. If you’re meeting in a public place, don’t get into any cars you feel uncomfortable getting into. Make the transaction, and move along. A deal should take as long as it needs to take, and no longer.
  1. Do not ask or even suggest coming to the house of your purveyor unless you’ve been invited by him. Would you want your boss showing up at your house uninvited? Right; didn’t think so.
  1. Do not assume that your purveyor wants to be talked about with your friends. Treat your relationship like a relationship, and don’t spread it around. Most purveyors prefer to be monogamous, so don’t kiss and tell. If you want to hook your friends up, hook your friends up, but don’t ask your dealer to. You wouldn’t ask your girlfriend to.
  1. If you see your purveyor in a social setting, you don’t know him. Even if you are friends with your purveyor, the actual transaction is a business moment, entirely separate from your friendship. Treat it with respect.
  1. Be an informed consumer: buying good marijuana is like going to the farmers market. You don’t ask to try all of the strawberries! You try one variety of strawberry, then decide if you want those, or blueberries. Know what your tastes are. That’s what Leafly is for. Know what strains are the ones you would like, but never expect anything.
  1. Contents may settle during shipping.” The season and where the variety is grown (indoors vs. outdoors) will impact the bud, even with the same strain. Colors, crystals, and contents may vary. This is an organic product, after all.
  1. “This is not Target!” If the product is not up to your standards for whatever reason (weight, quality, packaging), point these discrepancies out immediately. Do not, under any circumstances, expect a refund at any point. After you’ve handed over the money, the deal is done. Your purveyor has almost zero interest in “cheating” you. Remember that $10 profit margin. Yeah…He has no time to listen to a litany of complaints or entitled whining. Seriously.
  1. If your purveyor has treated you to free drugs in the past, don’t assume this is going to happen again. Consider yourself lucky. Don’t ask. Free drugs are free, but should never be.
  1. If you do something that makes your purveyor decide to cut you off, don’t come back begging or threatening or even texting. Beg texting? Bexting? Threatxting? Just picture how grabby and pathetic you look from the side and by pathetic I don’t mean worthy of scorn. I mean sad. It’s sad to see someone acting like a petulant brat. Not a good look. If you are cut off, it means you were a big dummy. Accept that.

 

I, Daniel Blake Review

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

“I, Daniel Blake” is a moving look at the quagmire that is the welfare system, breaking through the callousness of glib terms like “welfare queen.” There is no crown or glory in battling an amorphic bureaucracy for something as basic as one’s right to exist and live.

British comedian Dave Johns stars as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle, UK, who is seeking public assistance while recovering from a major heart attack. He must navigate a byzantine system of two hour customer disservice calls, forms, inane questions and resume workshops. Though his many encounters with the public servants (the irony of this term will not escape you after this movie) are nothing short of tragic, Daniel still manages to inject comedy─for example, when asked if he is able to relay simple information in a conversation, he wryly responds to the clerk, “Clearly not, based on the questions you are asking me.” When his benefits are denied, he is told he has to return back to work even though his physician does not allow it. So, he is forced to keep applying to jobs he can’t actually take, while simply awaiting his right to appeal. The administration keeps promising him a call from an omnipotent “decision-maker”─again, the nomenclature is quite apt.

Subjected to humiliation, including having to sell all of his furniture, so he would have something to eat, and walking around in his house with a blanket wrapped around him because it is so cold, Daniel somehow still manages to hold on to his decency. He starts helping Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two kids who are in similar dire straits. Katie is in a state of ceaseless worry, crying in hiding when her kids go to sleep at night. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, she tears open a can of beans and scoops them into her mouth with her hands at the government food pantry because she has been starving herself to give to her kids. She then keeps apologizing, as though the degradation she has been subjected to is somehow her fault.

Director Ken Loach keeps “I, Daniel Blake” light on the polemics, instead allowing the powerful performances of Johns and Squires to shine. The subject matter is heavy, but a droll sense of humor prevents the film from being onerous and bleak. When Dan draws graffiti on the welfare administration building, writing, “I, Daniel Blake, would like an appeal date before I starve and change the shite music on the phones,” he is commenting on the very absurdity of a system that refuses to recognize his humanity. The graffiti is his selfhood writ large. His empty flat, with just a phone sitting on the floor, awaiting a decision-maker Godot who never comes, is a poignant take on the precarity that is the daily life of so many.

Peter and the Farm Movie Review

My review for the Eagle newspaper

Title notwithstanding, Peter and the Farm is a documentary about Peter and, as an afterthought, his farm. If you are looking for pastoral poesy, this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a bird’s eye-view of a farmer’s life, well, this is not it either. A film about a curmudgeonly, self-obsessed man who is not particularly likeable? Most definitely.

Director Tony Scott follows 68-year-old Peter Dunning’s life on his farm in Vermont. Considering the setting, there is surprisingly little insight about farming per se. The viewers do get some exposure to the back-breaking grind that it is, for example, to make bales of hay with machinery that breaks down daily. This scene will disabuse you of any ideas about the neatness of those bales.

There is a great deal of visceral footage, quite literally. There is a blood-and-gore-and-viscera scene of Peter slaughtering a sheep—selling organic meats at the local farmer’s market is how Peter earns a living as a farmer. The shot, however, is incredibly gratuitous. One has to wonder why Scott even included it. Speaking of which, this is a question viewers might have many times throughout this film; yes, this is supposed to be a stream of consciousness opus, but about half of the film is Peter’s mumbling through tenuously connected stories and non-sequiturs. A more stern editing hand would have been a boon to this film.

Peter and the Farm suffers from too contrived of an attempt to be arthouse and instead simply ends up…arty. A scene in which Scott zooms in on the dead face of a coyote Peter has killed is unabashedly “oh, look how deep and metaphorical this is.” Except that it is not. In attempting to take us down the rabbit hole that is Peter’s life as an alcoholic, the film’s atmosphere captures the same heavy quagmire and nightmare that Peter is suffering through. In other words, the drudgery of Peter’s life is unloaded on the viewers, who must also begrudgingly get through the film.

Peter, an artist and poet of sorts, has lost all four children and his three wives to his alcoholism. While his despair and depression is palpable, it is hard to muster up pathos when he spends the entire film railing, howling and lashing out. It is hard to feel sympathy when we are presented with exactly how he has pushed everyone away from him. “There’s not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my seed, my sh*t, my tears, fingernails, skin, and hair. I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm,” he bemoans. This statement is one of the most poignant revelations of the film—that the farm is all that is left for this man.

Peter and the Farm succeeds in giving the viewer access inside the harrowing,  quotidian existence of one particular farmer. While broader social commentary is lacking, it is, nevertheless, compelling in that it dispels romanticized ideas of bucolic paradises and other idylls of this ilk.

Grade: C

Goat Movie Review

My review of Goat for the Eagle

Lord of The Flies meets Stanford Prison Experiment may be an apt characterization of Goat, an exposé on fraternity hazing. Based on Brad Land’s memoir of the same name, Goat gets elbow-deep into the heady, terrifying mix of masculinity and violence. The movie asks why the two are in such close fraternity, especially in the context of the Greek system.

The film is unsettling and visceral, perhaps all the more because it is based on actual events. Brett (Nick Jonas) and Brad (Ben Schnetzer) are two brothers from Ohio. Brett, the slightly older of the two, is already a member of Phi Sigma Mu. After one of Mu’s parties, Brad is carjacked, robbed, and brutally beaten by two “townies” (as the film calls them). The attack becomes the unstated epicenter around which the rest of the film revolves. When the police ask Brad why he didn’t fight back if the attackers had no guns, Brad finds himself wondering if he was a “pussy” by not fighting back. The audience gets a poignant glimpse into the dangerous assumptions about the use of violence to establish masculinity.

Masculinity, or should we say hyper masculinity, erupts and seethes in every moment of the film. Shirts are in great dearth; so is talking at normal volume or abstaining from drinking, rather drinking to the point of poisoning oneself. More noteworthy, however, are the humiliations that are part of Hell Week, which involve the threat of having to copulate with a goat (hence, the name), being urinated on, touching feces, threats of forced fellatio, mud wrestling etc. Ironically enough, this is terribly homoerotic fodder, yet calling the pledges “faggots” is still meant to underline that this is something they are most definitely not. There is little reprieve from the onslaught of masculinity on the screen—the only female characters are women who (willingly, at least in the film) participate in one-night stands with the fraternity members. They are peripheral in every sense.

There is an ever present and palpable threatening thrum throughout everything the fraternity does—when they party, the excess is so overwhelming that the only thing that comes to mind is what one does when one laughs to keep from crying. It’s the kind of partying you do when you try to convince everyone just how great of a time you are having, truth be damned. Dubstep booms; people are sprayed with alcohol—it is so much fun! In a rather memorable cameo, James Franco is the frat alum who can’t seem to leave behind the good ol’ college days. He is like the much angrier version of Matthew McConaughey from Dazed and Confused.

Brohood abounds; brotherhood—not so much. One is hard-pressed to see the lauded brotherhood in Phi Sigma Mu’s members; instead the atmosphere is one of dominance and submission. Goat, however, asks some rather probing questions. Why would a nerdy, nice guy type like Will Fitch, Brad’s roommate, endure being pelted with rotten fruit to the point of getting a concussion to be a part of a group of meatheads? Much like a gang, leaving a fraternity is not like dropping a class. The fraternity confers a certain social cache that is really important in a small school, like the one in the movie. Fitch points out, quite correctly, that “they” are everywhere. And the bullying that comes along with “them” is omnipresent as well.

Peer pressure, as portrayed in Goat, is intensely animalistic and overwhelming. This pressure is a far cry from “Bro, have another beer.” The intensity is almost military-like, which is quite eloquently portrayed in a scene where one of the pledge masters takes a picture referencing the infamous one from Abu Ghraib prison of himself stepping on the naked backs of all the pledges.

Director Andrew Neel superbly allows us behind the curtain of something we have heard and read about but have likely never seen. To watch the rituals is harrowing. Yet, there is a multi-dimensionality to the characters, especially of the two brothers. Brad and Brett’s love for each other belies cartoonish characterizations. For all the talk of brotherhood, the realest example of it is not to be found in an “Animal House.” The film also steers clear of judging the Greek system, instead focusing on just one aspect of it—initiation.

Goat succeeds in portraying something plucked straight from the headlines authentically, so it doesn’t stay all Greek to us.

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.