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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

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.

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

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+