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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.”

What Are the Odds? A computational neuroscientist and Kogod adjunct scores a career as a data scientist with the NBA.

So much of our everyday life involves making predictions—from picking the best route for our morning commute to bringing an umbrella to choosing a partner. “We predict all the time, so the process is natural,” says Grant Fiddyment, adjunct professor of predictive analytics at Kogod and data scientist for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same way we interact with technology and the world. For instance, how can I phrase my web search so that the site will match what I’m looking for? How can I pronounce a word so that a virtual assistant will understand what I’m saying? Without knowing the technical details, we implicitly learn how these technologies work.”

What is predictive analytics, and how does it offer us a glimpse into the future?

At its most fundamental level, the discipline calculates the likelihood of future events by simply (although many would cry foul at this characterization) counting the possible outcomes. Its foundations were laid in a 1654 letter exchange between French mathematicians Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal discussing how the winnings of a coin-flipping gambling game should be split. And while we all know that the house always wins in Vegas, few would know to credit Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers from 1713 as the reason why.

Despite predictive analytics’ old roots, it is responsible for many facets of modern-day life we give little thought to—things like credit card fraud detection, virtual chess partners, and, of most interest to Fiddyment, creating professional sports super teams.

Grant Fiddyment's headshot.

As a data scientist on the research and development team for the 76ers, Fiddyment helps frame and analyze the predictive questions that arise in sports—for example, how will signing a new player impact a team’s title odds, or how well will a tall lineup play against a smaller, quicker one?

Predictive analytics has long been used in sports, going back to the analog days of yore. Baseball has historically led the movement. One of the most famous success stories is told in the movie Moneyball, which follows 2002 Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he uses predictive analytics to hire under-valued players and send his team on a crowd-wowing 20-game winning streak. But the methods developed in Oakland have application across all sports.

“Most teams were asking, ‘How often does a batter get a hit when they go to bat?’ Instead, the A’s asked, ‘How many bases does a player get when they go to bat?’ Looking at total bases turns out to be more predictive of how many runs a team will score,” explains Fiddyment. “Similarly, in the NBA, teams used to ask how often a player will make a shot. But this overlooks the fact that all shots are not equal. So now teams are asking, ‘How many points will a player get when they take a shot?’”

In the past decade the number of three-point shots in the NBA has increased. Is the rise just due to random luck or is it part of a well-crafted strategy? Fiddyment and other fellow data scientists employed full-time by sports teams work to answer new questions like these. He credits the invention of video tracking as the proverbial game changer. “Chip or camera-based systems will follow players as they actively play a sport, and the data we get is much more nuanced than a single-number summary,” says Fiddyment. “For example, we can answer how many pick-and-rolls the team ran last game or how open were the shots they generated. We can analyze the individual and team as a whole.”

At the moment, this kind of data collection is limited to professional teams, making it difficult to spot up-and-coming superstars. “College and international teams typically don’t have the same camera systems, so projecting which players will become successful remains a very challenging problem,” Fiddyment says.

Despite rapid advancements in technology, however, not all data is created equal—or, perhaps, equally useful. The limitations of data translate to limitations in predictive accuracy (as meteorologists can confirm). “We need to be aware of computers’ strengths and weaknesses,” Fiddyment advises. “Computers can process vast amounts of data much more quickly than humans ever could. But they are restricted to the data they have and operate very literally, so we should never expect them to behave exactly like a human, even if they can match our performance at a given task.”

From the glitz of Vegas to the life-saving powers of storm forecasts to the way opinion polls affect voters, predictive analytics is ever-present in our lives. Advances in machine learning and big data models are improving our ability to look into the future, but they are also raising some thorny issues, one of the most notable being the boundaries of data privacy. For now, however, Fiddyment has scored a slam dunk for the NBA.

From Veteran to Venture: Kogod alum-turned-professor helps veteran entrepreneurs launch their businesses

My story for Kogod School of Business

Each year, roughly 200,000 US service members transition from the military to the private sector. Although veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to be self-employed, their rate of business ownership has dropped precipitously from the entrepreneurial high of their predecessors in the last century.

Half of World War II veterans went on to own or operate a business—a similar rate to the 40% of Korean War vets who did the same almost a decade later. Of the more than 3.6 million people who have served in the military since September 11, 2001, only 4.5% have started a business. What has led to such an enormous gap in veteran entrepreneurship?

In short, more challenges—and fewer resources to overcome them.

Although 25% of veterans say they want to start their own businesses, they face more obstacles securing the capital needed to get their ideas off the ground than in the past. Unlike the GI Bill of 1944, the updated 2008 version does not include access to low-interest loans to start a business. The financing needs of veteran and non-veteran businesses are similar, research shows, but even though would-be veteran business owners submitted more loan applications and reached out to a wider variety of lenders, they typically obtained less financing and got lower approval rates.

Because of frequent travel and work abroad, some veterans are also struggling with building a credit history and amassing collateral. And while previous military drafts drew from all segments of society, this century’s all-volunteer armed forces are more likely to come from military families, making them increasingly isolated from the non-military community and the networks that facilitate business success.

Seda Goff—a Kogod adjunct professor and MBA alumna—is helping veteran entrepreneurs overcome these challenges in her role as the director of veteran entrepreneurship at the PenFed Foundation. Through the foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP), veterans can get the seed capital and mentorship they need to build and grow their ventures.

“Veterans have given a lot to serve and protect us, and the skill sets that they gained in the process lend themselves perfectly to entrepreneurship,” Goff says. “This new generation of entrepreneurs feel that same desire to serve and to make a difference and be bigger than themselves.”

After graduating from Kogod, Goff worked for the US Department of Veterans Affairs before moving to PenFed, where she was able to build the nonprofit investment program from the ground up. Her passion for helping veterans stems from growing up in close contact with service members.

“My father was in the Turkish Navy. He worked for the navy for almost 30 years after we came to the US,” Goff recalls. “I loved being around service members and their families. Everybody is very mission- and service-oriented.”

Since launching in March 2018, the Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program has invested in and offered resources to veteran entrepreneurs. And because veterans are 30% more likely to hire other veterans, the program’s benefits extend to the entire veteran community.

VEIP is funded by outside donors, with PenFed Credit Union matching up to $1 million in contributions. Returns on all investments go back into the program to support future veteran-owned ventures. “The success of veteran entrepreneurs allows the program to exist,” Goff explains. “The dividends go right back into investing in more entrepreneurs. The multiplier effect translates to growth for businesses that are ready to launch, established businesses that want to grow, and those that are still in the exploratory stages.”

In the future, the PenFed Foundation aims to develop new resources for veteran entrepreneurs in all stages of the business cycle, with a focus on women veteran entrepreneurs—who have grown from owning 2.5% of veteran-owned businesses in 2008 to 4.4% in 2012.

Goff, who works with the American University Entrepreneurship Incubator, hopes to one day launch an incubator for veteran entrepreneurs at Kogod, too.

“I feel like the majority of entrepreneurs are just problem solvers. And if you point them in a direction, they’re going to solve problems,” Goff says. “In my work, I have seen how a military career is not something that you need to transition away from to be successful. Serving already has given vets the tools for success.”

Islamic Finance—A Centuries-Old Approach Providing Modern Solutions

Published here

Could a system of finance dating back to the seventh century offer modern solutions to problems like college debt and crumbling infrastructure? Dr. Ghiyath Nakshbendi, chair and founder of the graduate certificate in Islamic finance at the Kogod School of Business, believes so.

“In America, millennials are growing tired of the system of interest, especially when it comes to student loans. They are looking for something that is different,” Dr. Nakshbendi explains. “We also have big problems with infrastructure. More than 54,000 bridges need repairing, for example. Islamic finance could be a way to fund these projects.”

Kogod’s graduate certificate in Islamic finance is the first of its kind in the US. Although Islamic finance has been practiced for over a millennium in Muslim countries, it is relatively new to the US, with the Office of the Comptroller of Currency approving its use for home lending in 1997. It  has taken strong root in Europe, with nations like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Luxembourg at the forefront. In 2018, the UK’s largest Islamic bank, Al Rayan Bank, said about one-third of its customers were non-Muslim, up from one-eighth in 2010. So what is driving Western interest in this ancient approach?

“Islamic finance is not for Muslims only,” Dr. Nakshbendi states. “It is for humanity.”

Islamic finance is an alternative to conventional finance. Sharia law—Islamic law based on the religious principles of the Quran and the Hadith—forbids the charging of interest. Because money is only a way of defining value, making money from money is not permissible, rendering financial products like options, futures, and derivatives moot. In Islamic finance, lending can only occur in the context of a sale or exchange of some sort, meaning investments must result in something tangible.

If interest is forbidden, how do Islamic institutions interact with conventional financial markets? Profit-and-loss sharing contracts are one way, where an Islamic bank pools investors’ money and assumes a share of the profits and losses. Another way is renting or leasing products and services. Or a bank can form a partnership with the company it is sponsoring, reaping some of the benefits once the company produces its product. There are also sukuk—Islamic bonds.

Malaysia, a leader in Islamic banking, has been at the forefront of using Islamic finance to fund environmental sustainability projects. In 2018, Malaysia’s Securities Commission debuted the world’s first green sukuk, an Islamic bond used to fund environmentally sustainable infrastructure projects. Two Malaysian investment companies have already issued green sukuk to fund the construction of large-scale solar power plants in multiple districts.

Islamic finance is even finding its way into cryptocurrency. Rain, a Bahrain-based cryptocurrency exchange, announced in February that it had passed a Sharia compliance certification and bills itself as “the most regulated and secure digital currency exchange in the Middle East.”

“Malaysia and Bahrain are setting global best practice standards of Islamic finance. Business juggernauts like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been relying on this system, and they are at the forefront of all sorts of innovations,” says Dr. Nakshbendi.

The Islamic finance program attracts a wide variety of students who are eager to learn an alternative way of doing business, from creating community-minded, sustainable development to avoiding predatory lending and promoting inclusive growth.

Recent graduate Bianca Tardio sees Islamic finance as an avenue for positive societal change. “A lot of conventional finance funding provides more of a debt problem, which people obviously have trouble getting out of,” Tardio says. “Islamic finance would be an alternative to benefit not just companies or corporations but actually the people.”

Many students see Islamic finance gaining traction in the world economy and want to make sure they’re prepared to be a part of this growing global branch of finance. For them, the certificate opens up a world of career prospects.

“If one of the regular banking institutions wants to open an Islamic finance branch, someone with this certificate will be the first they will ask to get involved,” Dr. Nakshbendi says. “Even though the figure is from 2016, a study found that there are more than 50,000 jobs in Islamic finance worldwide.”

In 2017, total worldwide Islamic finance assets were estimated at $2 trillion. By 2021, they are expected to grow to $3.5 trillion. In the US, banks like Standard Chartered and JP Morgan—alongside several smaller banking institutions—are already offering Islamic personal and business banking services.

Students graduating from the certificate program are positioned to be at the forefront of Islamic finance’s growth in the US and around the world. From infrastructure development to climate-friendly investments to cryptocurrency, Islamic finance’s inherent innovation invites further exploring.

Though it has ancient roots, Islamic finance is far from irrelevant or antiquated; it offers solutions to some of the world’s most entrenched modern problems. Rather than focusing on wealth generation, Islamic finance offers an avenue to community-focused development and socially responsible investing.

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.

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

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.