It has been said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Suspenseful and engaging, Rankin Hickman’s film, Dark Meridian creeps up on you and keeps you in its grip for the entire journey. Set in New Orleans, the world is one of crime and not so neatly defined roles, because even criminals have rules and “codes of honor.” This criminal world is predictably karmic but not as clearly polarized as it may seem. One can easily be led to believe most things are black or white without the benefit of all the necessary details. We first see a man who has been injured dragging himself across the floor. This man is Detective Spencer Solano (James Moses Black) a crooked cop connected to Tevi Merek’s family (Dave Davis) and the underbelly of the crime world. Tevi and his father’s henchmen have been working towards finding the murderer of Tevi’s brother and his brother’s wife and daughters. We are switched back and forth and in flashbacks placed exactly where the filmmaker wants us. The journey is focused mainly on Tevi, Det. Solano and the alleged murderer Patrick (Billy Slaughter). Patrick’s encounter with a homeless woman, Dot (Deneen Tyler) foreshadows what we come to learn of Patrick. the others and resulting events. Dot may seem crazy but she is streetwise, observant and not to be messed with.
A great supporting cast and cinematography add immensely to the mood, the seedier side of New Orleans and the French Quarter playing as important a role as the characters. Gritty and sublime, it allows the viewer to marinate in the performances. Even though there is plenty of violence, the movie was not a constant assault of the senses. There were notes and influences of directors Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, David Fincher and Michael Mann, while remaining thoroughly fresh and original. There are quieter moments, but still the constant undercurrent of tension, the feeling that you have a moment to catch your breath at the top of the roller coaster before the big drop. The pace slows and quickens, but never lags. Just when you think you know, you don’t. I went for the ride and didn’t regret it.
Who is in control of your life?
What is most important to you?
What is reality? Perception?
Is it easier to follow and be passive?
Are most problems self-imposed?
So many more questions to be asked, but so necessary if you wish to move forward. The idea is to keep moving and asking and learning. Humanity and its complexities are examined in Amartya Bhattacharyya’s at times surreal film, The Lost Idea.
Our first image is of a young woman in a field seemingly giving birth. She is the embodiment the idea and Idea (Amrita Choudhury) is her name. She is the muse chased by many looking to birth their personal dreams and creations.
Two men, one older and one younger who seem to be on very different wavelengths converge. The older man (Lazy Man played by Susant Misra) who is married, sits daily doing nothing but reading his newspaper and being nagged by his frustrated wife. His frame of reference is external from whatever the news feeds him. His wife complains he is useless, but she is suspicious, jealous and unsupportive of anything that may come between them. She does not like his laziness, but does not want him to succeed either. It is as if some part of her prefers the routine of him sitting around and her nagging him to actually accomplishing something and possibly leaving her behind. In a few of the Lazy Man’s news article “visions”, he sees a well dressed woman rambling on about celebrity headlines, young women protesting the mistreatment of women and a belligerent political protester speaking against the effects of industrialization, colonization and its perpetrators. The serious and important matters of humanity, dignity and a better life take a backseat and backpages to the fluff and nonsense.
The younger man (Swastik Choudhury), is a self-described poet who sends his poems via village messenger to his girlfriend in London. He lives in a romantic, dreamy state in which he fancies himself the great poet and is seen communicating with the girlfriend about his aspirations in dreamlike sequences. He assumes she is having them published and mailing compensation back to him. We see that he has entrusted and handed over his poems (dreams) to someone who cares nothing about them in the messenger. No one will give your creation the same care and priority that you can. Inspiration is personal and trying to live another person’s life, dream or ideology is like wearing shoes not your size. If you wait to be inspired, you will keep waiting. The key is to search inside yourself, not someone else’s idea which can feel inauthentic and empty.
The subjects of Fear, Loneliness, Apathy, Envy, with the concepts of Good and Evil are expressed. How much do we question and do we follow blindly? The “mob mentality” no one dares veer from for fear of reprisals is detrimental to free thinking and contributions to make things better. One haunting vision is of a young woman wearing a red mask and a sackcloth dress with bloodstains. The film is set in India, where terrible acts towards women are not unique but well documented. This young woman represents the shame carried by the victim and guilt for being born a “weak” female. Any shame brought on families at times just by even talking to a boy or man regardless of how benign may be met with acid attacks or murder to “rectify” the situation.
As humans we are assaulted daily with what we “should” and “should not” be doing. Any deviation from the set norms of society are cause for derision and/or alienation. Even if results are detrimental, as long as the majority have decided on an approved action, common sense goes out the window. Humanity and compassion can be seen as weak because the goal is to crush, conquer and control. The town Mad Man (Choudhury Bikash Das) as labeled by his fellow residents, actually knows more than he is given credit for. But his fate is decided by the mob mentality and their disapproval and anger towards his actions of following his dream.
The movie is mostly set outdoors and lends itself to show the unpredictability and instability of life, humans are always looking to have power over. We love the feeling of control whether with our environments and/or purpose. There is a freedom and enlightenment to letting go and realizing the more we hold onto the less free we are. You make yourself a prisoner of your desires and obsessions instead of nurturing and letting it evolve naturally. Yes, an order is necessary in the world, but holding too tightly and squeezing the life out of something and perverting or destroying it is a tragedy. An interesting choice of music for a montage was The Prayer of Saint Francis: “Make Me A Channel of Your Peace”. I have sung that prayer many times and it is a message for everyone. The message of being a conduit for good, helping and having compassion towards each other.
The Lazy Man and The Poet compete for ownership of the Idea as if there is only one, not recognizing it is infinite. They ask a scary looking man representing Fate (played by Hrushikesh Bhoi) to be granted ownership of said Idea. He orders them to come back with proof expressed in a creation of their making, to see who deserves it. They each desperately try to find a way to top each other, but soon realize cooperation is a better solution. There is room for all expression, not that one is better than the other, which is subjective.
Children possess the ability to be in the moment and have that natural non-conformist attitude. It is after being continually indoctrinated that those innate feelings become clouded by doubt. In the end each of us must decide for ourselves the choices and the consequences for those choices. It makes you question plenty and that is something I enjoy. Life is never tied into a neat little package, but requires constant vigilance and evaluation. Even though the film might feel scattered, it actually flows and comes together. It has its heaviness and humor in balance and humanity throughout.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.