Pecore in Erba (Burning Love), directed by Alberto Caviglia

Trailer: BURNING LOVE – PECORE in ERBA from Gaetano Maiorino on Vimeo.

Review by Mike Fishman

Went to a screening of the 2015 Italian comedy Pecore in Erba (Burning Love) at the beautiful Casa Italiana at NYU on West 12th Street. Standing room only for the film screening and a Q&A with the writer/director Alberto Caviglia and co-writer Benedetta Grasso. The film, set in Rome, is a mockumentary in the style of such classics examples of the genre as Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, and especially Woody Allen’s Zelig, 1983, which the director pointed to as a particular influence during the discussion after the screening. Pecore in Erba relates the life story of Leonardo Zulliania, an infamous if satirically popular anti-Semite who we learn at the start of the film is mysteriously missing. Through “home movies,” the film traces the life of the notorious Jew-hater from his very odd and troubled childhood to maturity as a wildly popular cartoonist, writer and speaker. Along the way, we see a priest congratulating his very young students when they “correctly” answer who killed Jesus (the Jews, of course) and young Leonardo suffering a hives attack when he finds out, to this horror, that Jesus was a Jew.

It all unfolds in classic mockumentary style, swiftly moving along its realistic timeline, every scene punctuated by a wink, followed often enough by a laugh from the audience. A smart satire, the film broadens its themes beyond anti-Semitism to the very topical issue of of fake news and the oppressor claiming oppression, with an anti-anti-anti-Semitic movement springing up to defend those anti-Semites being persecuted by the larger public and to defend their freedom of expression. If that sounds outrageous, it is, and mostly outrageously funny, Caviglia’s directorial pen like a sword slicing open some of the darkest corners of society.

The mystery of Leonardo’s disappearance is made subtly clear at the end (I’d rather not spoil it for those who have not seen the film) and proves to be a bit of an ironic comeuppance. But the meat of the film is the life journey of Leonardo, the plot really just there as a framework to support the absurd situations, pointed dialogue and deeply ironic humor. It’s a fascinating accomplishment of the director, an Italian Jewish man himself, to articulate the painful and very sensitive topic of anti-Semitism in a mockumentary format. As one audience member wondered during the Q&A, where will the film, which screened in 2015 at the Venice Film Festival, play in the U.S? Perhaps on the two coasts? At least hopefully, but it is doubtful very much in between, but certainly hopefully on some widely available streaming platform. Which means it will be a challenge to find its audience, a pity because it’s a film well-worth seeing for the discussion it might generate, not just specifically about anti-Semitism but about the nature of bigotry and racism as experienced in this day and age of Facebook, Twitter and Fox news.

It’s also very funny, a fact attested to by the audience members’ reactions, with the notable exception of one individual who proclaimed to not find the film funny at all. Whether this was due to her particular sense of humor or that she felt it demeaning to the issue to make a satirical film about it was not clear. It was perhaps reminiscent of some of the reactions people had to Tropic Thunder, 2008, not a great film and certainly not as serious in intent as Pecore in Erba. But that film also, albeit with a broader stroke, touched upon racism in an interesting way by having Robert Downey, Jr.’s character, an actor, sport black face in an effort to be “more black” for a role he is playing in the film . Controversial, perhaps, but thought-provoking at least to some degree. Pecore in Erba is certainly more thought-provoking and that makes it well-worth seeking out for those who can appreciate a good laugh, and serious glance, at the underbelly of society.

See this page for a fascinating Director’s Note about the film: http://www.filmitalia.org/p.aspx?t=film&l=en&did=77956

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Broken Legacy, written and directed by Miguel Garzón Martínez

The Broken Legacy Official Trailer from Miguel Garzón Martínez on Vimeo.

Review written by Shirley Rodriguez

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Mark 8:36

It has been said, everyone has their price and The Broken Legacy from director Miguel Garzón Martínez explores this theme. What would you do and how far would you go for something you want, and what point does morality really come into play?

Opening with the main character Steven (Michael Stahler) a young screenwriter, we see him seated at a bus stop reading a flyer for a drug trial he is headed to. At the facility, Steven and five other young people gather to participate in testing a new cholesterol drug. They take a pill every morning and for one month are isolated from the outside world. Their only meal consists of a bowl of what looks like oatmeal and they are prohibited from any intimacy with others while there. They are treated coldly and as what seems to be prisoners.

Tomas (Marcos Esteves), a somewhat charming and arrogant member of the trial group, introduces himself on the first day attempting to impress and charm, especially the three young ladies in the group. He is the rule breaker, often not wearing the required uniform and rebelling. Tomas sees that Steven likes Emily (Rayne Bidder) a young woman in their group. He offers Steven advice on how to go about approaching her romantically. Tomas’ advice and behavior seem to shift between altruistic and self-serving. He seems to be obsessed with the concept of immortality.

Upon discovering Steven’s aspirations as a screenwriter, Tomas attaches himself to Steven and offers a trade. He will help Steven talk to Emily and in turn Steven will collaborate in writing a screenplay with him. This is part of Tomas’s quest for immortality. He pushes Steven forward but you wonder who he is really helping. Tomas gives Steven a copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, On The Genealogy of Morals in which the origin of moral prejudices are broken down and, depending upon your position of power, being in or under it informs your perspective. We see how each action has its consequences and each character comes to their own realization. As they get to know each other better, they clash, work together and learn more about who they really are and what truly matters in life to each of them.

The other three drug trial participants Jacob (Oren Dayan), Jenny (Cynthia Bravo) and Liz (Justine Herron) serve to round out the story. They initially seem like background characters, but serve a greater purpose in the end. Jacob, a religious young man with aspirations of becoming a Minister, Jenny a very lively and social young lady with a heavy tech addiction and Liz the tough, no nonsense girl who looks to distance others with her mean exterior. They all need the money from the study for their own reasons, but learn that money isn’t everything when you have to sell your soul to get it. In a tense conversation with Jacob, Steven and Tomas, Jacob warns the other two that they will burn in hell for their choices.

Symbolically, they allude to hellfire, then there is actual fire (Liz carries a lighter) and the descent into the kitchen (a recurring scene of conflict and possible metaphor for Hell). Steven’s deal with Tomas may even be seen as a deal with the devil, causing him inner turmoil. The uniform they are provided includes a red shirt with a letter O with a smaller letter z inside of it. It made me think of Oz as in The Wizard of Oz and the “seemingly” all powerful that remains so until questioned. That heightened arrogance and hunger for power that can be a product of extreme insecurity which in turn can bring about the ugliest of scenarios and circumstances. Without elaborating too much or being too political, that theme is very timely right now.

The effects of the drug trial steadily become more evident and bring everything to a head. At what point do you decide or continue to let others decide for you? Do you make a deal at any cost? The film examines power, the exchange of it and the choice to keep it or give it away. With choices there comes accountability and standing firm in what you believe in.

Website: www.thebrokenlegacy.com

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Dog Years, written and directed by Adam Rifkin

Review written by Mike Fishman

Went to a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival of Dog Years, the new film written and directed by Adam Rifkin and starring Burt Reynolds as Vic Edwards, an octogenarian actor who travels to the International Nashville Film Festival to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. The problem is, this is the (fictional) International Nashville Film Festival, not the much-admired and very real Nashville Film Festival and Edwards finds himself facing a mixed crowd of about 40 people (to their credit enthusiastic fans) in the backroom of a bar with a projector and a make-shift film screen. Some of the expected clichés are in evidence: the rundown motel room the festival booked for him; a drunk Edwards lashing out at at the festival staff; the protagonist in need of saving doing some saving himself; even a reconciliation with an old lover who has Alzheimer’s but who peers out clear-eyed from her cloudy mind at the right moments. But the quality of acting and the level of commitment from Mr. Reynolds and co-star Ariel Winter as Lil, his reluctant, nose-ring wearing caretaker/chauffer for the duration of the festival, bring to their roles make most scenes utterly believable and the film as a whole ultimately moving.

Rifkin (whose previous work ranges from the comedy Detroit Rock City to the gritty Night at the Golden Eagle) wrote the screenplay specifically for Reynolds. And one can see why the actor, reportedly looking for one last great role, would be game for boring deeply into the semi-autobiographical storyline. The film embraces the aging process with Reynolds, at 81 himself, staring directly into the camera, then later edited into scenes of his actual films Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, humorously yet pointedly engaging his younger self in conversation, generally to warn him about the quick passage of time, hence the title Dog Years. It makes for a fascinating revealing of a fictional life reflected by the actor’s real life. Shot differently, the film could have been a mockumentary.

Along the way we are treated to snapshots of Reynolds in his prime: spraying a can of whipped cream down Johnny Carson’s pants; conducting interviews in his trademark winking, self deprecating style; and even his infamous nude pose for Cosmopolitan magazine, which the director interestingly utilizes onscreen while Lil soaks in a huge bathtub. Happily, the film goes nowhere near a romantic entanglement between the two, saving the real relationship complexities for a reunion with Claudia, his first of five wives (!), played by Kathleen Nolan. Vic and Lil “rescue” his now wheel-chair bound ex-lover from her nursing home, hurriedly wheeling her out to freedom with the staff nearly chasing after them. They take her to the picturesque spot where Vic had proposed to her decades (and a lifetime) ago. If this particular sequence sounds predictable, it is, but Reynolds’ palpable regret and Nolan’s unadorned responses make for a truly poignant and affecting scene. That such a powerful moment can occur within such a familiar framework is part of the magic of movies and while some scenes are stronger than others, the film gains impressive momentum and succeeds beyond expectation at ruefully portraying a man nearing the end of his road, lamenting the passage of time.

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CINNEFEMME, a podcast based on The Bechdel Test hosted by Michal Sinnott & Jessica Rotondi

Co-Hosts Michal Sinnott & Jessica Rotondi curate an inclusive & intimate conversation in their living room with one woman from a rotating & diverse list of entertainment industry professionals. Based on The Bechdel Test, ‘The Test’ helps raise awareness to create greater gender equality both in front of and behind the scenes of film & television, while also collectively providing a ‘how to guide’ of sorts for how to make it in Hollywood as a member of the female tribe.

The Test is derived from The Bechdel Test and is essentially what The Bechdel Test is all about: 2+ women sitting in a room together, NOT talking about a man within the context of the movies. Inspired by The Bechdel Test and Mark Maron’s WTF long form interviews, The Test is intimate, personal and will explore one female in entertainment for each episode (producers, casting directors, show runners, actresses, editors, directors, etc), from their upbringing to early inspirations to what they’re up to right now to where they’re headed next, with a focus on their career in film & tv. It’s a digging in that’s equally light, funny, and feminist.

Visit their website at: https://cinefemme.net/programs/test-podcast/

Listen to the podcasts on their iTunes Page

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2016 Best Film List – Brendan Rose

2016 Best Film List – Brendan Rose

Well, the Academy has spoken (after a shambolic mix-up) and, I’m happy to report, the news is heartening: With Moonlight emerging as the winner, the Oscar for Best Picture has actually gone to the top Anglo-American film of the year for only the second time in my life (along with Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave in 2014). And I was born a while ago, which means that dozens of mediocre films have been honored with this prestigious award over the past few decades.

Aside from Barry Jenkins’s new classic, 2016 was, overall, a deep and powerful year in the movies. There were a series of memorable offerings across genres, in sci-fi, horror, coming-of-age, and even a spry musical of note (yes, La La Land). But for me, the year was marked by a series of impressive auteurist dramas by some of world cinema’s still early-career innovators: Jenkins, Ade, Mendonça Filho, Hansen-Løve, Lanthimos, Larraín, Guadagnino. And the most outstanding of all this year, just a hint above Jenkins, would be the Colombian wunderkind Ciro Guerra, whose films are simply astonishing. I look forward to more features from all of these ambitious and talented filmmakers.

As with any year, there are promising films I have yet to see. With apologies to I, Daniel Blake, 13th, Certain Women, Under the Shadow, American Honey, Hell or High Water, and many others, I present to you the 2016 list:

TOP TEN (in order):

Embrace of the Serpent* (Ciro Guerra): This hypnotic and disturbing film, which details contact between European travelers and indigenous Amazonian communities in the first half of the 20th Century, is a sui generis masterpiece by one of the world’s most promising and inventive directors. There are shades of Heart of Darkness here, but with a stronger perspective afforded the local community than is evident in most works derivative of Conrad’s novella.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins): Jenkins’s second feature, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, is a magnificent piece of pure cinema, with its exceptional photography and pacing, but also a film anchored in textured, subjective storytelling, overwhelming with its aching pain, its deep tenderness. There are scenes of such beauty and sentiment (e.g., young Chiron being taught to swim by mentor Juan) that the scope and impact of this film continue to grow in my mind.

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch): Jarmusch, now thirteen features in, is the most consistently stellar American film director of the past three decades. In this ode to verse, Jarmusch trains his camera on the basement poet-cum-bus driver played by Adam Driver, revealing his protagonist’s meditative daily rhythms as well as the post-industrial grace of rugged and worn Paterson, New Jersey. This sublime film’s only flaw: an underwritten part for Golshifteh Farahani as Driver’s partner.

Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho): Sônia Braga captivates as a single, middle-age music critic who stands up to rapacious real-estate interests in Recife, Brazil by refusing to move out of her apartment, the last inhabited unit in a beachside building pegged for demolition and redevelopment. Mendonça Filho’s keen eye for social critique gives this complex character study a broader agenda.

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade): This jaunty, off-beat father-daughter comedic drama from one of Germany’s finest directors keeps the audience on its toes (what a housewarming party!) while likewise skewering the sheltered English-speaking business-consultant class who traipse about Bucharest, Romania like a nouveau white-collar capitalist-colonialist clique. Remember: Never leave home without your spare teeth!

The Measure of a Man (Stéphane Brizé): Speaking of capitalism and its discontents, Brizé’s timely parable captures the pitiless professional drift of Thierry, a sacked factory worker in France, played with sensitivity by Vincent Lindon. This is the tale of one of the have-nots in this dog-eat-dog neoliberal economy; Thierry’s ‘rebound’ job as a security guard at a supermarket is both dispiriting and all-too symbolic.

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan): Lonergan, one of the most important dramatists of his generation, constructs a quietly devastating film out of material that could, in the wrong hands, play as overwrought melodrama. Instead, buoyed by expert performances, he delivers an indelible piece of cinema, the sorrow and heartbreak of which remain palpable and resonant months later.

Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve): Top-class French actress Isabelle Huppert was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for the underwhelming Elle, but her standout performance—and one of the few very best this year— was certainly in Things to Come, Hansen-Løve’s rich story of Huppert’s Nathalie, a philosopher who seeks new ways to imbue her life with purpose and meaning after a series of life-shocks.

My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin): This Proustian film of early love mesmerizes with its abundance of sharp, novelistic detail, its blending of the intellectual and the pop, its cross-decades expanse, its stinging wistfulness.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve): Few mainstream sci-fi flicks have delivered the goods like Arrival. The assured Amy Adams paces this clever, taut film depicting a contact moment between humans and extraterrestrial life. Adams’s linguist-driven diplomacy and time-bending insight prevent carnage. One fault: the poorly-realized Jeremy Renner physicist character.

NEXT BEST FILM: The Witch (Robert Eggers): This bleak, eerie horror film is set on a Puritan homestead in 17th Century New England where a tangled, foreboding, and unknown forest beckons these new arrivals.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck): One of the top films of the year. Peck’s tour-de-force is a sophisticated examination of racism in America via Baldwin’s own words from an unfinished manuscript.

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino); Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig); Fences (Denzel Washington); Jackie (Pablo Larraín); La La Land (Damien Chazelle); The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos); Sing Street (John Carney).

*Embrace of the Serpent was up for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award for 2015, but it did not premiere in New York until 2016, making it eligible for this list. Similarly, this year’s Foreign Language winner, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, which opened in New York in 2017, will be eligible for next year’s list.

List complied by Brendan Rose

Brendan Rose’s 2015 Best Film List

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The Founder, directed by John Lee Hancock

The Founder – The Man Who Turned McDonald’s Into One of the World’s Best Known Brands

The Founder
Review By Calista B., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 13

Review By Maria G., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 17

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Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven

Review by Mike Fishman

Elle, directed with dark flair by Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall), is unsettling in more ways than one might expect. Most viewers going in will already know that the film opens with a rape. In the opening scene Isbabelle Huppert’s Michele, a Parisian woman heading a video game company, is being attacked by a masked intruder and the brutality of the rape, conveyed more by sound than visuals, announces a film that will ask much of its audience. And indeed, as the film unfolds and we witness Michele (played note-perfect by the seasoned Huppert) interacting with her son who curses her, her ex-husband whom she alternately turns to for emotional support and casually takes a crowbar to his parked car, and the next-door neighbor with whom Michele instigates a game of footsy at a dinner while he is seated next to his prim wife, a moral ambiguity emerges that leads us to question her character in ways that are downright provocative.

Verhoeven, whose oeuvre includes Basic Instinct with Sharon Stone’s infamously uncrossed legs, has previously presented characters and situations that are not what they seem to be (or at least not what we expect them to be), but in Elle he wades deep into the territory of uncomfortable humor more associated with filmmakers such as Todd Solondz, who in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse, dare us to laugh at things we dare not, as did Jody Hill in the twisted mall-cop comedy Observe and Report. Though Michele appears to be haunted by the attack (which we return to in flashbacks that give deeper glimpses into the event), she urges her video game developing team to make the game they are working on more violently sexual and at a late point in the film after she has identified her attacker, turns the tables on him emotionally, urging him to hurt her. This has the absurd effect of making him recoil and proclaim that that’s not how this is supposed to work.

Michele’s moral ambiguity, though, is evident early on in the film. Moments after she is attacked and taking a restorative bubble bath, a disturbing red blood stain surfaces through the bubbles, which she seems more fascinated by than repulsed. Later, during one of the flashbacks, she admonishes her cat (who naturally just sat by and watched as any cat would), that the cat could have at least scratched him. Such humor pervades the film, reaching its darkest point when Michele, having crashed in her car, phones her rapist to rescue her, unable to get anyone else on the phone. There’s something remarkable about a scene in which a man, who has been recognized by his victim as her attacker, is helping to extricate her from her crashed car even as we see a bandage on his hand from where she stabbed him during their latest violent encounter.

Why wouldn’t she just call the police? A secondary plot details the troubled history of her childhood, when her father went on a rampage and murdered a number of their neighbors, including women and children, then set fire to his own house, a news clips from the time showing a disheveled young Michele in the wreckage of her home. Although Michele appears to be an innocent caught in her father’s guilt, the question of whether she participated in the house fire remains and, in any case, she is occasionally treated as a criminal by strangers who recognize her simply by virtue of being the daughter of the murderous monster. When Michele, who has not seen her father since he was sent to prison, finally decides to face him, she arrives at the prison only to be told her father died the night before by hanging himself. The man could no more face his daughter willingly than she could him. The film would feel grim if it were not for the dark humor, and could easily have felt forced in lesser hands, Huppert managing a tight wire act of a wronged woman deserving of sympathy yet deflecting pity with her character’s ruthless determination and uncertain ethics.

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Equity directed by Meera Menon

Review by Karim Malak

How Women ‘Make it’ in Wall Street

(Warning: spoiler alert.) In Equity, Anna Gaun plays Naomi Bishop – a lead advisor at a Private Equity (PE) firm that is handling a major Initial Public Offering (IPO) for a tech privacy company. The film shows the inner workings of Wall Street in a drastically different light. Written by Amy Fox, Alysia Reiner, and Sara Megan Thomas and directed by Meera Menon, one immediately understands that this new angle involves the question of women in Wall Street; something that remains an omission in most mainstream Hollywood films, if not all.

The plot centers round Naomi as she attempts to handle this major new deal and ‘make it rain’ in order to land a new promotion. Despite being the lead advisor for the firm, she is not promoted and her boss makes it explicit that top management doubt her. Naomi then sets out to make this deal the biggest Wall Street has ever seen. In the process Naomi displaces her frustration onto her young assistant Erin Manning (played by Sara Megan Thomas) who is also up for promotion and so has to hide the fact that she is pregnant in order to get it. She is caught dumping her alcoholic beverage in the bathroom sink and Naomi asks her how far along she is pregnant. Naomi tells Erin that she needs to suck it up, telling her not to upset their tech company client CEO ‘Ed’. A typical bro who dresses informally for his business meetings – reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s lifestyle – Samuel Roukin as Ed plays the part assigned to him well, coming on hard to poor Erin who has to lightly nudge him when he forces himself on her whilst making out. Throughout the movie one cannot shake off that it is a reminder of Facebook’s own failed IPO. In fact, at one point in the movie as Naomi learns her Wall Street boyfriend – Michael Connor played by James Purefoy – is conspiring against her; she states that she is not going to be like Facebook, alluding to its failed IPO.

The irony of how Michael gets this insider trading information cannot be missed. As Naomi’s assistant, Erin is almost about to break because of all the pressure. She comes looking for her at Michael’s apartment but Naomi is not there. Michael starts to sweet talk her, getting the ball rolling and pouring her a drink. He uses Erin’s frustration of not getting a clear answer from Naomi about if she will get the promotion or not, and gets Erin to divulge the weaknesses of the tech company’s position, spilling the beans on a key weakness discovered during due diligence.

In the midst of this, Samantha, a lead investigator at the Security Exchanges Commission (SEC), investigates Michael Connor and learns he is seeing Naomi. She tries to muscle in on Naomi for information, an old classmate. As the plot thickens and revolves around these three women (Naomi, her assistant Erin, and the SEC investigator Samantha), one sees that in Wall Street it is not only a question of the top executive making it harder for the younger one, but that it carries a certain sting to it when it is done to a woman and displaced onto another much like how Naomi does that to Erin. What is new about Equity, isn’t that it brings women into the story of Wall Street. But that it shows that in this structure of money making, the injustices done to women are internalized such that these white women do it to other women just as much.

This is perhaps the one dimension missing in Wall Street, how these white women choose to be victims but that others do not even have that option and for them trying to change Wall Street is a foregone conclusion. Rather than aiming to ask why equal opportunity hiring or affirmative action perpetuates Wall Street’s chauvinism, white women are content to being equally exploited with their male colleagues. In the name of equality white women on Wall Street conveniently forget why they are the only recipients of affirmative action policies, rather than other women who are not white. For them It is not so much about changing Wall Street to being less exploitative, or less patriarchal, but about having their place in it at the expense of non-white women. Having internalized the Wall Street hierarchy and its rules all things go, and when one is a woman it becomes markedly different and more painful for women to work inside, but that in the name of equal opportunity these women have an onus on them to ‘make it’, to demonstrate that it is an equal space, in the process accepting to hide their marriage, or that the magnanimous young hot-headed ‘bro’ may inappropriately come on to the poor assistant. Such is the ‘cost’ of doing business and ‘making it’. Naomi tries to ‘make it’ against all odds and in the process she tramples over other women and displaces what was done to her to others as part of a ritual. Samantha the SEC investigator who comes so close to unraveling the insider trading plot in the end fails and accepts a Wall Street job.

Samantha the SEC investigator who comes so close to unraveling the insider trading plot in the end fails and accepts a Wall Street job. When she is asked in her interview why she wants the job she gives a generic answer about wanting to spend more time with her family and her female partner, but seeing the interviewer’s surprise she changes her answer. She gives the same one the movie opens with, the answer Naomi gave. Women should not feel dirty that they want to make money, or that making money is a bad thing. It is OK to love money.

That is precisely the story of Equity, how in the name of making it one gives up their dreams and instead learns to love to make money, hurt others and do what was done to them to the next unsuspecting incoming young executive, even if they are a woman. In fact, especially if they are a woman so that they learn the ropes of Wall Street faster.

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Snowden directed by Oliver Stone

Review written by Karim Malak

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s lead role in Snowden is a dramatization of the documentary Citizen Four, a semi-autobiographical movie of Edward Snowden’s journey from his time as a CIA/NSA employee to private contractor to whistleblower who is forced to take exile in Russia. Snowden is quite the movie, though it is not a replacement of Citizen Four by any means. It is an interesting dramatization of Snowden’s journey that sheds light on his cause differently than perhaps Snowden would want.

The movie, for example, brings out some elements which Snowden himself presumably wanted left untouched. One example of this is the omission of his relationship with his girlfriend who is constantly and purposefully left out of his battles “for her safety”. Though Edward Snowden’s decision to leave her out of it, “for her protection” as he details in his documentary, is understandable, the movie teases out the tension resulting from his decision not to involve her in the form of the constant fights they have over his “odd” and “secretive” attitude as well as his paranoia. Other times it is more obvious, such as the moment Snowden decides to go off the grid in preparation for contacting journalists and going public about the US mass surveillance program of the world at large. Yet his girlfriend surprises him when he tells her she should go stay with her parents; she replies that if he is going to be gone it would only be noticed faster if she goes to her parents’ house. It turns out that she can think in the same way he does, and can come up with helpful suggestion. This form of comradery stands out as opposed to Snowden’s decision to go on his crusade alone with his patronizing attitude in order “to protect” his girlfriend. Perhaps had she known all along they could have shared more moments together, and perhaps she could have even helped Snowden where he least expected it. The movie – as opposed to the documentary – does a good job at problematizing the idea of the self-righteous genius whistle-blower on his lonely crusade.

Though the dramatization of the movie is sure to give away some of the documentary’s own zealous message, there are instances where it was worth it. In the documentary it is made clear that the system is rigged in favor of the government’s decision to spy on the whole world. In the movie there is a patriotic element to the CIA that engages in a lesser of two evils argument that supports preemptive mass surveillance in order to prevent the next 9/11; this of course makes it seem like the US does not have an imperial agenda of its own. Yet what was welcome, however, was the dramatization of the inaccessible technical details of the mass surveillance program in the documentary. This was achieved through a climactic scene when Snoweden is having sex with his girlfriend and he notices her laptop is still open with the front camera pointed towards them. He is aggravated and is reminded of that spying program that taps into devices and turns them on to use their camera and microphone, while mimicking that the device is still closed.

Another interesting dramatization was the portrayal of the labyrinth bureaucratization of spying on the entire world. The viewer gets a sense of how these genius programmers go about their lives, spying on any unsuspecting victim they target. It casts this act of spying as banal and day-to-day; one sees the ‘bro’ with his mullet hair, goatee and cargo pants walk around normally on a US military base designed solely to spy, the US base being the Kunia Regional Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Operations center in Hawai. This sense of day-to-day regularity of such an intrusive job is not without complication; at a barbeque party an interesting discussion plays out where these spy-bureaucrats reflect on their job. One begins talking about how he was disturbed to know when he was running technical support mission to a drone strike in the Middle East, it turned out that the successful ‘hit’ actually took the lives of innocent village dwellers. This results in a discussion of whose fault it is, and whether these technicians have any responsibility, at which point a toy drone at the barbeque malfunctions and begins to descend rapidly. Snowden, who throughout the entire discussion was nervous and sweating, falls and has a seizure when the drone hits the ground. The parallel of Snowden experiencing this sort miniature version of a drown strike helps the viewer appreciate the point that these bureaucrats are not without responsibility. Technology fails.

While the movie is Hollywood’s version of Snowden’s odyssey, it is nonetheless worth seeing, if only for Congress’s attempt to halt its screening by releasing the first glimpse into the investigation of the fallout from Snowden’s revelations one day before the movie’s opening.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

2016 Big Apple Film Festival

BAFF Trailer 2016 from Big Apple Film Festival on Vimeo.

Review written by Mike Fishman

The 2016 Big Apple Film Festival came and went in a flurry of activity and kudos once again to founder and director Jonathan Marc Lipp for an ever-growing and impressive fest. I’ve been attending since 2010 and it’s been remarkable to watch this small festival blossom and expand during its annual one-week run.

The evening of short films I attended was literally standing room only and I was lucky to get a cozy aisle seat in the back of the beloved Village East Cinemas, although the screening did not take place in their historic Yiddish theater auditorium, which if you haven’t been to, as soon as you’re done reading this go buy a ticket to whatever film they’re showing there, it will be worth it just to gaze at the ornate decorations before the lights dim. As my schedule this year allowed me to only catch one program, I settled on a Saturday afternoon of seven narrative films, hoping that most if not all would be entertaining and of high quality, and I was not disappointed in the least. Each film, running from 4 minutes to 26 minutes, was carefully crafted and lovingly made and the program, ranging from serious drama to light-hreated comedy, made for a thoughtful, enjoyable journey with the audience responding often as one, a sad sigh here, a loud laugh there.

First up was Cara Consilvio‘s CIT, about two female teenage counsellors-in-training at a summer camp, close friends, one of whom is tasked with keeping the news of the other’s father’s death until her mother can arrive to break the news herself. It’s a touching mini portrait of a friendship between two girls on the cusp of adulthood and tragedy. Consilvio brings out the best in the two young actresses and creates moments in which their friendship is allowed to breathe through shared laughs, quiet reflection, and uncertainty. This was followed by the even more serious Immunity, from director Alyn Darnay,set in 1942 Auschwitz where a young SS Officer faces his once beloved teacher, a Jew who now finds that her most prized pupil has become her tormentor. It’s a cat and mouse game between the two where the question is whether the young man is going to spare the middle-aged woman who has been separated from her family and who almost certainly have been gassed. Things lightened considerably with Kyle C. Mumford’s Jamie and Jonathan, a comedy about a suicidal writer (an all-too-familair theme most writers should recognize) who gets a second chance at being the father he never was to his young son he has no relationship with when he is tasked with driving the boy to a funeral. On paper, this may not sound like a comedy, or perhaps only a dark comedy, but Mumford keeps things light and airy with the father and son shared afternoon and car ride interrupted humorously (the boy wetting his pants when his father won’t stop to let him use the bathroom, the the two bonding over making pancakes) until very close to the end when it’s revealed that the funeral is for the boy’s mother. That this doesn’t descend into mawkishness is testament to Mumford’s direction and writing.

Next up, my personal favorite of the program, Tom Cassese’s Concurrence, whose logline reads: In the final moments before an apocalyptic catastrophe, six people come to terms with their impending doom. That the film runs only four minutes and succeeds beautifully in presenting a doomsday situation through the last actions of just six individuals with virtually no dialogue is proof that brilliant filmmaking can be realized with an extremely brief running time and extremely small budget if the heart, soul, writing and talent are in place. This was followed by Humberto Guzman’s Based on True Events, about a writer whose obsession with her story alienates her from her husband, and that gave the audience an unexpected twist. Speaking of twists, the next film, Christonikos Tsalikis’s I Am Here is defined by its twist, centering on a young man who begins texting with a woman who lived in the house he just moved into and who may or may not be a ghost. The program ended on a decidedly comedic tone with Cinder Chou’s The Man With the Western Hat, an amusing romp about a woman in Brooklyn who has strange encounters with a mysterious handsome stranger/cowboy. It made for a bright tone to end the evening of short films that, in their own unique ways, ran the gamut of serious introspection to light-hearted comedy.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

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