Posts Tagged Movie Reviews

Son of God – Movie Review

A husband and wife team, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, had produced a mini-series called “The Bible” that was aired on the History Channel, about a year back.  “Son of God” is the part about Jesus from the mini-series.  The mini-series was nominated for 2 Primetime Emmys and the audience had rated it highly.  I have not seen the mini-series, but I found the movie somewhat interesting but more on the simplistic side.  This movie is not anywhere in the same league as “The Ten Commandments” or other historical fictional films like “Cleopatra” or “Passion of the Christ”.  This is not a great film.  It is not able to powerfully narrate the history of the time when one of the greatest religious leaders walked upon the earth.  It is a fairly decent narration of Jesus and the challenges he encountered, and is told from a spiritual perspective.

After showing the birth of Jesus, about 30 years later Jesus (handsome Diogo Morgado – also dubbed “hot” Jesus) approaches despondent Peter (Darwin Shaw), the fisherman.  Peter is not able to find many fish, to make a living as a fisherman.  Jesus tells Peter “just give me an hour and I will give you a whole new life”.  Jesus joins Peter in fishing and Peter finds many fish.  Peter is now convinced of Jesus’ powers and travels with Jesus, as Jesus acquires more apostles including Mary Magdalene (Amber Rose Revah), and goes around spreading his message of love, kindness, abundance, and forgiveness.  When he notices a group of men ready to condemn a “sinner woman” to death by stoning, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  When a Jewish man confronts him that he is disobeying the rule of law and that he has no authority to forgive, Jesus says, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”.  Jesus is asked how one should picture the kingdom of God, and he replies, “the kingdom of God is like the mustard seed, a smallest of seed that a man can plant would grow into a big tree”.  To the people worrying about food and clothes, Jesus says, “God will provide.  Put God first and everything else will follow”.

The film places Jesus right in the midst of the authoritarian, dogmatic Jewish traditions and the oppressive Roman regime.  The Jewish leaders constantly tried to placate the Romans, both to hold on to their tenuous grip on power and to save the Jewish people from being crushed by the oppressors.  The average Jewish people however, are not happy living under strict traditions that have no margin of error and being squeezed by the Jewish money lenders.  They also frequently suffer the wrath of their whimsical Roman oppressors. Jesus’ message appeals to them. As the tension between the Romans and average Jewish people builds up, Jesus decides to take his message to the people, in the heart of Jerusalem, and rides to the city on a donkey, on the day before the Passover.  In his message to self serving, narcissistic people, Jesus says, “anyone who praises himself will be humbled and anyone who humbles himself, will be praised”.  Jesus refuses to be drawn into physical fights. He also implores Peter to “turn the other cheek”, instead of responding with aggression.

Gradually the city is getting worked up into a frenzy over excessive taxes levied by the Romans.  At one point, the demonstrators ask Jesus, in full view of the Romans, whether people should pay the taxes or not.  If Jesus advices the people to pay the taxes then the people would revolt against him and if he advises them to not pay the taxes then the Romans would take out their anger on him and his followers.  Jesus masterfully avoids being trapped.  He asks, “whose face is on the coins?” The people respond, “Caesar’s”.  “Well then”, says Jesus “give to Caesar, what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s”, meaning offer your soul to God, even if you have to pay taxes to Caesar.  Jesus’ message begins to sink in.  Jewish leaders are not only fearful of loosing their grip on power but they are also fearful that if Jesus creates any more ruckus then the new Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate (Greg Hicks) may close down the temple on the big religious day of Passover.  They tap Judas (Jow Wredden) to betray Jesus.  Very soon thereafter, they arrest Jesus and he is condemned to death.

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pitsak, a Medieval Armenian scribe and miniaturist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up to this point, even though Jesus’ miracles come across in the film as cheap magic tricks, his parables and messages give meat to the story.  I would have liked to see much more of Jesus’ preachings.  Once Jesus is condemned then there is a long drawn out period of his carrying the crucifix, his being crucified, and his final resurrection.  But all this happens mostly in absence of his messages.  At this point, the film completely looses any depth it might have had.  At this point, an impartial observer becomes critically aware of the opportunity lost to tell how magnificent, yet simple Jesus’ messages were, how critical his influence at that period in history was, how extensive, broad and forever lasting was the impact of his simple preachings.  In one final scene, the apostles have a vision of Jesus and hear him say, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations”.  But a point of powerful significance is that Jesus lived a short life of 33 years.  Born in a manger in the tiny town of Bethlehem, he taught in Nazareth, and he preached in Galilee, before riding to Jerusalem; all in a short radius of less than 50 miles.  But his message has lived on for over 2000 years, and has spread to every corner of the world. Perhaps his story is not easy to tell.  Perhaps it could be better told.  I am giving this movie a rating of 3.4 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being excellent.


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Inequality for All: Robert Reich’s Documentary – Movie Review

The film “Inequality for All” premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking.  Huffington Post calls it a “must-see movie” and according to Variety, this film “does for income disparity what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for Climate Change”; a deeper understanding of the issues and meaningful conversations around some action.  How cool that our local community college hosted the screening and fabulous panel discussion, following the film!  DeAnza College at Cupertino is a model in providing top notch all-rounded education experience, with opportunity for civic and community engagement.  Economic disparity is a very real problem in our society and here is a link to my previous blog on this issue and the huge fragmenting impact of economic disparity on the fabric of our families and communities – .

In “Inequality for All”, economist, author, professor and former labor secretary, Robert Reich examines the widening income disparity in the US, and discusses its impact on our society, and on our democracy.  So how wide is the gap?  In 2011 broadcast of “The Daily Show”, Jon Stewart cited a CIA Gini Index in which the United States ranked 64th in income inequality (worse than Cameron, but just above Uraguay).  Later CIA revised the figures, but as Robert Reich explains in the film, 400 people in the US have more wealth than half the population of the USReich examines the years leading up to the crash in 1928, and in 2007, and finds striking parallels.

President Reagan’s economic policy was based on reducing growth of government spending, reducing federal income tax, reducing capital gains tax, reducing government regulation, and tightening the money supply to reduce inflation.  The very wealthy often made their money in capital gains, and at 15% rate, frequently pay less in taxes than the average Americans.  When wealthy do not pay higher taxes, the middle class gets stagnated.  When middle class is squeezed, it stops spending, stops buying, and there is less revenue for states, for public institutions.  This results in cost of higher education going up, higher school dropout rate, less skilled workforce, more jobs going abroad, higher unemployment and so on.

It is a misnomer to believe that when the very wealthy have more money, they would spend more and hire more.  They may buy 3 more cars or 5 more pairs of jeans.  But in the end, there is only so much they can buy, compared to a mass of middle class people.  The more wealth they accumulate, the very wealthy invest in speculative assets, in gold, housing, and/or invest it abroad.  That is exactly what happened in the years preceding the crash in 2007.  The financial sector ballooned and greater deregulations helped the speculative assets to grow.

Meanwhile, the average American worker was struggling to keep up.  Not wanting to get locked out of the American dream, middle class families too were buying homes.   While middle class salaries had stagnated, two income families grew, and many people were working two and three jobs, in addition to borrowing heavily (often against the equity in their homes), just to make ends meet.  With greater deregulations, union bashing, and union squashing, increasingly their voices were not heard.  In 1992, President Bill Clinton promised to cut taxes for the middle classes, and make the very wealthy pay their fair share.  He also promised to contain outrageous executive pay.  Many executives then began to get paid in stock options which further fueled the growth of speculative assets.  Government sets the rules by which the markets function, says Reich.

Robert Reich of the Roosevelt National Advisor...

Robert Reich of the Roosevelt National Advisory board, as Secretary of Labor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Big corporations are simply not designed to generate jobs.  They operate with focused objectives of making profit and delivering value to the shareholders.  Technology and globalization enable big corporations to take the jobs away from average American workers and go to the regions of the world, where labor supply is cheaper.  Who looks out for the average American worker?  The answer is “nobody”, says Reich.  President Clinton’s policies did nothing to stop the downward spiral of the middle class.  The eventual economic crash further harmed the middle class families.  Many of them cannot afford to stay in their homes and resulting pressure often fragmented or broke up families.  Please do check out my previous blog on its devastating impact on our families – .  The very wealthy do not benefit when things get so dire for the majority. Reich makes the points emphatically, citing data and sources to bolster his perspectives and with appropriate amount of humor.

Panel Discussion

This much is clear from the film that this growing income disparity is lethal for a society and for the democracy.  People are polarized and on edge.  No one benefits from it.  In the end, it also hurts the very wealthy.  What communities would they live in when the teachers, the grocery store clerks and others cannot afford to live in the same communities?  But how can average Americans take back their voice and get heard?  What can they do?  The panel discussion that followed the film was enlightening and heart warming.  The panelists included Professor Ben Pacho, Professor Jim Nguyen, President of De Anza College, Dr. Brian Murphy, Dr. Crystallee Crain, and Dr. Cynthia Kaufman.

Dr. Murphy advised that we not just focus on marginal shifts but focus on the big picture and reclaim public institutions.  He suggested we learn about power and leverage the capacity to build coalitions by forging connections across diversity of race, gender, and cultures, to focus on the true cause.  It might be a long struggle but with unity, we can counterbalance the power of money.  Dr. Kaufman (author of “Ideas for Action” and “Getting Past Capitalism”, added that we need to focus on building deep, authentic relationships with each other and with “stuff” so that we end up requiring less stuff.  According to Dr. Crain, we need to overcome apathy and Professors Pacho and Nguyen emphasized the need to get involved in the community.  All panelists emphasized they would not want to see the students getting burnt out.  In fact, Dr. Murphy talked about the power of “random episodic silent thinking” or rest!  He said, no one can do any kind of community or activist work, if they do not deeply love.  This love may be for someone or something but deep affection anchors the values and purposefulness and provides the drive to be involved in things one cares about.  It may not be everything that we all can take on.  But apathy just won’t do.  Each of us can take on and contribute to something we deeply care about so we can leave the world a better place.

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Hola Venky – Movie Review

“Hola Venky” is a low budget film, a budget so low that many Bolywood films use that amount of money to shoot just one song.  Hola Venky was shot with a small budget of Rs. 10 lakhs, and was shot by a small 3 member crew.  It is an irreverent, romantic, quirky comedy with a great deal of Mariachi music thrown in.  How cool is that?  Written by Sandeep Mohan, the film portrays a software techie in India; in Matunga, Mumbai, of all places!  Loved to see the familiar scenes of where I grew up, the dreams that my friends and I nurtured of coming to the US, walking the streets of Maunga!  But India is different now.  India is on a cusp of major transformation. And change is never painless.

Roger Narayan is excellent in the role of Venky, doing the things that society expected of him.  And what does Indian society expect of a young man, with a reasonable education?  To get a job doing software coding (hopefully in a multi-national corporation, get a chance to go to the US and do the same thing), get married, and have children, all in that order.  But priorities are shifting in India and there is change in the order of things as well as change in the value system of young people.  Narayan got a job and married his college sweetheart and then got divorced.   His wife began to believe that sex was not good for a man’s long term health.  As Venky tells his story a video plays in the background with a woman explaining “Ejaculation is often called coming but it should be called going – because everything — erection, vital energy, millions of life’ sperms and even a little of man’s personality goes away with ejaculation.”  Venky on the other hand (in a classic Hindu tradition where everything and everyone is a manifestation of God) performs Groin pooja, with flowers on his penis.

Venky is engaged to be married again, to Damini, a divorcee.  Damini is jaded from the whole drama that goes with love; she feels her clock ticking, and she has transformed into Ms. Pragmatism.  Albeit there are many contradictions in what she seeks in her life and from her marriage.  When asked by Venky if she was marrying him for his sperm, she clarifies, “after marriage it is nothing like your sperm and my sperm, it is our family sperm”.

Venky is caught in a rut doing his job, and he lacks passion in life, job, or for his upcoming marriage.  His boss recommends him to go to the US for leadership training.  Journey to the US is not just a physical journey for Venky, to a land where everyone is not a software engineer.  It is Venky’s “upward” journey from the groin to the heart, from tequila to mariachi music, from cultural and professional imprisonment to cultural expansion, from following a life based on predetermined rules, to finding a life of joy.  Following a series of comedic turn of events, Venky meets Inez, a senorita who never has a bad hair day and has a fine nose for solving mysteries and getting people out of trouble.  A budding Mexican American actress, Sonia Balcazar, is stunning in her role as Inez.

Director Sandeep Mohan has done a fabulous job with this micro-budget movie after his work with Love, and Wrinkle-free, for which he got Adult Certificates from  the Bolywood Censor Board, that resulted in their Satellite rights getting stuck.  So he contacted producer Giju John and got him on board for a lot budget film; finding their audience through innovative channels and social media marketing, they are redefining the distribution model, in the internet era.   The crew did not include an assistant director or makeup or costume people and it was shot without a track or trolley.  Editor, Shreyas Beltangdy, Sound Designer Ravidev Singh, Grading/VFX artist Vijesh Rajan, and Music Supervisor Vivek Philip have done a fabulous job of working within the resource constraints and bring this film to completion.  Bay area artists starring in the movie include the local celebrity, Papiha Nandy and real estate professional, Tony Kazi among other professionals.  Hola Venky has couple more shows in the bay area and for a short time, the producer is available to bring the film for private screenings, for small groups, at their preferred location.

Hola Venky! (2014) Poster

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American Hustle – Movie Review

The movie “American Hustle” is based on a series of real events that took place surrounding what was dubbed as the Abscam Washington scandal that rocked the nation during 1970s.  American Hustle is a movie about quintessential hustle for money, power, royalty, plunging necklines, head full of hair, and ego and power, characteristic of the capitalistic west. Director David O. Russell has done a brilliant job, and the movie has a stellar cast to represent all the memorable characters.  Entry of each character scales what is at stake and builds the excitement.  Here is a spoiler alert for the entire review below.


The movie begins with the story of a brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld (superbly played by Christian Bale) who figures out “how easy it is to take money from desperate people”.  Rosenfeld is hilarious, subscribes to his own set of principles, and is obsessive about his hair.  (He is not the only one obsessing about hair but more on that later).  Rosenfeld decided he needed a partner with some polish and finesse to grow his con business.  He promised to secure mega loans for his trusting clients, some of whom got duped twice.

Amy Adams is superb in her role as Rosenfeld’s partner in crime, Sydney Prosser, who later becomes his mistress.  To their clients, she goes by as a Brit, Lady Edith.  She is nobility; smart, successful, flashy, and beautiful, who meticulously curls her hair, and dresses in exquisite clothes with plunging necklines.  While enabling her lover, Prosser was not fully aware of the extent of his crime, until the feds targeted her and had a warrant for her arrest.

And so enters another colorful character, FBI agent Richie Di Maso (played by brilliant Bradley Cooper).  Di Maso promises to drop charges against Rosenfeld and Prosser, if Rosenfeld would work with the FBI to uncover a bigger crime, involving politicians and other public figures.  Rosenfeld agrees and the trio become new partners in crime with a goal to “trap” other high profile figures.  If obsession with hair is any indication of vanity, DiMaso is as obsessed with hair as his other two partners.  He is also obsessed with getting as many convictions as possible, regardless of costs in money or ethics or relationships.  Lavish schemes are hatched, meetings are organized, money needs are identified, and Di Maso cajoles, begs, promises success and ultimately succeeds in convincing his budget conscious superiors to shell out money for a grand front, replete with dome Perignon, authentic Louis XVI furniture, and even rented Lear Jet with (Mexican American FBI agent Michael Pena) ridiculously funny, fake Arab Sheik.

The target of elaborate scheme to entrap the rich and famous begins with the beloved, popular, and family man; the charismatic Mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito (played beautifully by Jeremy Renner) and eventually involves several politicians and Mafia bosses, including notorious and violent Mafia overlord Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).

Even from such a stellar cast, Jennifer Lawrence manages to steal the thunder in her role as Rosenfeld’s wife.  Her husband refers to her as “Picasso of passive-aggressive karate”.  With her passive aggressive tactics, she holds Rosenfeld tightly on a leash, so he cannot leave her, but she isn’t afraid to hook up with a mafia  underling and naively spills secrets, almost giving away the FBI sting operation.

I think enough secrets are spilled here.  Watch the movie to learn about the scandal where the FBI agent himself got caught up in ego and greed and kept raising the stakes, a scandal that in the end trapped him in his own greed; a scandal that resulted in real-life, in sixteen convictions, and brought down famous people, hustling to acquire more of everything they had plentiful.  With terrific star power, fantastic mix of mystery, evil, greed, and comic relief, this can quite possibly be the best movie of the year.  I rate it a 4.8 on a 1 to 5
scale, with 5 being excellent.
.Movie night

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Philomena – Movie Review

The movie Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Gabrielle Tana, is based on a true story, narrated in the investigative book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Marin Sixsmith.  I cannot imagine if this excellent movie could have had as strong an impact on the minds of the audience, had it not been for the awesome performance by Judi Dench, as Philomena, a character who has been so wronged but one who lives her life in the here and now, with optimism, with childlike naivety, with curiosity about the world, with an ability to see good in everyone, and with a tremendous capacity to accept the strange twists and turns of life; and above all, to forgive.

Philomena, Sarlat

Philomena, Sarlat (Photo credit: TheRevSteve)

This is a story that begins in Ireland, in 1952.  Young Philomena, beautifully played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, is orphaned at an early age, and is put in a convent, under the care of the nuns.  She gets pregnant, during her teen years and it greatly displeases the stern Irish nuns.  They let her endure her intensely painful breech birth, without painkillers, as a penance for her sin, and then along with other teens in similar circumstances, she endures further punishment in grueling conditions, in virtual slave labor, in the convent laundry.  She and other young mothers are allowed to see their children only an hour, a day, but the anticipation of that hour, brings spring in their step, lights up the fire in their hearts, and enables them to endure the harshest of conditions.

However, unbeknownst to the young mothers, the nuns arrange for the children’s adoption, in lieu of the money it brings them.  Philomena’s child is thus “sold”.   But far from being a sentimental tear-jerker, the movie has mystery, detective elements, comedic fun, and elements of spirituality, without being preachy.  After a long period of almost 50 years, when Philomena finally decides to find her son and put to rest the questions in her mind and pain in her heart, she tells her daughter, about the son who was snatched away from her.  Her daughter approaches Martin Sixsmith (expertly played by Steve Coogan), an investigative journalist, who has recently lost his job.  At first, he refuses to take on this new story, saying, he would be working on writing Russian history and that he had no interest in this story because “human interest stories are for week minded, ignorant people”.

But at some point Sixsmith takes the story on and embarks on an investigative assignment, on behalf of a local media organization, with Philomena, to find out what happened to her sweet, sensitive child who was taken away from her, at a very early age.  What happens next is their incredible journey through painful, beautiful, accepting, voicing, funny, sad, evil, good elements that spans across two nations divided by an ocean, political party at odds with reality, and events too painful to accept but enormously disturbing to not accept.  The journey unfolds a deep down, subconscious level yearning of a child to get to the roots, the love of the mother that never rests until she has the answers, and a love that is too strong to hold on to any hate for the wrongs done to her and her child.

Philomena is a complex character.  She is raised in a convent, is very religious and prudish, yet admits to having enjoyed her liaison that got her in trouble; she does not blame the nuns but will not rest until she can find the answers; matter of factly accepts her son’s homosexuality but almost falls apart at the thought that her son might not have cared for his homeland or inquired about his mother.  Philomena takes child-like pleasure in large free buffet breakfast bar in the hotel but at one point is willing to sell all that she owns so she can pay off the media organization sponsoring the investigative work, so her story does not have to be told; she forgives the nun whose evil, thoughtless deed caused so much pain but decides in the end, that her story must be told.  Only Judi Dench could have carried off this role and she did it with total aplomb.

Whereas Philomena has unshakeable faith in religion, Martin is a skeptic.  Whereas Philomena wants to accept and forgive, Martin wants light shined on evil for accountability and responsibility.  Whereas Philomena is hugely optimistic and her curiosity is endearing, Martin suffered some anxiety and depression on account of his career setback.  Whereas Philomena’s jokes are simple and funny, Martin can be sarcastic.  Their interaction is beautifully balanced and saves the movie from relapsing into a sentimental tear-jerker or an apathetic investigative report.

Philomena is a well directed, beautifully acted movie and on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being excellent, I rate it 4.8.



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Nebraska – Movie Review

In Director Alexaner Payne’s Nebraska, Bruce Dern gives a touching performance as Woody Grant, a simple man, an old man, a father of two, who is perhaps suffering from dementia, and insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his current residence in Billings, Montana, to collect his $1M sweepstakes prize.  While Woody’s son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) discusses with his mother Kate (June Squibb), his son David (Will Forte) decides to entertain Woody and take him on a road trip to Nebraska.  Nebraska was also where Woody had previously lived and has many friends as well as many members of his large family.  David arranges for Woody to see his hometown, stay at one of his brother’s place for a few days, and have an opportunity to meet his childhood friends.


Nebraska at Mill Valley Film Festival

Nebraska at Mill Valley Film Festival (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)


The journey that father and son undertake offers a glimpse into the American heartland, its vastness, gentle rolling hills, fields, plains, and simple family life centered around food and football games.  The bleakness of life amid negative economic impact of the downturn, and scarcity of resources and lack of other stimulation, is also striking and often, depressing.  Streets in many towns are dead and empty and businesses shuttered, with most of the life happening at beer bars and pubs.  Despite David being fully aware that there is no rainbow at the end, or in this case, there is no million dollar prize waiting for Woody, he takes Woody on this journey.  In the course of the journey, David learns a great deal about his father.  His now alcoholic, crusty, old father, was once a kind, giving man, who was lauded for his service in the war, who had also stolen the heart of a young maid, before he married David’s mother, a quarrelsome woman.


But while David learns a great deal, Woody remains uninterested, often confused, mostly crusty, and singularly focused on obtaining his million dollar prize.  Woody’s family and friends refuse to hear from David that the prize is not real and their need and greed makes them relentlessly pursue Woody, in the hope of getting a piece of the pie.  The movie gives a strikingly realistic portrayal of what age does to a person, the fading faculties that never fully bring anything meaningful into focus.  The movie also gives a glimpse into life in fading towns in America’s heartland that may never be the focus of meaningful happenings.  While insightful and philosophical, the movie is depressing.  Perhaps clips and short segments will be shown and discussed in many academic classes.


The movie essentially portrays lack of excitement.  However, the end is beautiful, touching, exciting, and offers a redeeming quality to this “blah” movie.  I rate it a 3.6 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent.


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The Book Thief – Movie Review

“Here is a small fact.  You are going to die”.  I wasn’t too thrilled when the Grim Reaper began narrating the story and was glad to hear the voice of death only couple of times and only in very short pieces.  This is a story based on the original book by Markus Zusak and adapted for the movie by Michael Petroni.  Movie is directed by Brian Percival.

The story unfolds in Germany, during World War II, between 1938 and 1945. Liesel’s poor mother, unable to care for her children, is compelled to give her up for adoption.  Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans indulges her and teacher her to read, while her adoptive mother Rosa is a bit distant, at first.  Liesel is a bright girl who immediately picks up the linguistic skills and relishes books.  As is the case in all autocratic rules, knowledge is often suppressed, with suppression of freedom of expression, and in Hitler’s Germany, books are burned publicly and very few books have survived.  Liesel discovers a large home library and eventually finds a way to steal books to read, though she says, she is only borrowing them.  Her best friend Rudy promises to keep it a secret but incredulously asks, “people are dying due to lack of food, and you are stealing books”?  But in the end, it is the books that bring Liesel hope and helps the young Jewish man, Max survive, who is hidden by her adoptive parents, in their home, at incredible risk to themselves.  Liesel reads to Max, when he is fighting off poor health, she tells stories when people are taking refuge from the bombs, in the shelter, and she reaches out for a book, when she seems to have lost everyone and everything, as she emerges from the rubble, created from allied bombs.

The casting in the movie “The Book Thief”, is brilliant.  Recently, I heard Alexander Payne, (Director of such films as Nebraska and Dependants) say that 90% of directing is casting.  In “The Book Thief”, each character is marvelously played and that includes the roles of Liesel’s adopted parents, beautifully played by Geoffrey Rush as the kind and caring father, and outwardly stern and practical but inwardly soft mother, played by Emily Watson.  Ben Schnetzer, in the role of Max (son of a Jewish friend of the family) and Nico Liersch as Rudy, are perfect.  But it is Sophie Nelisse, in the role of Liesel, who captured my heart and wowed me, with her acting.  There are many opportunities for over-acting and the story and the plot certainly might compel a less experienced actor to do just that.  However, Nelisse conveys with very simple gestures, smiles, or sometimes by simply looking away, enormous depth of emotion or seriousness of the situation.  I will certainly look for her in other roles. 

The movie has made an effort to bring to screen a best-seller, but as is often the case, it has not succeeded entirely in rising to the level of being unforgettable.  However, overall, it is an engaging plot, great story, and Nelisse’s acting is supsuperb.  I give it a 4 on 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being excellent.

Cover of "The Book Thief"

Cover of The Book Thief

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The Fifth Estate – Movie Review (Story of WiKiLeaks)

Book Cover of German book "Inside Wikilea...

Book Cover of German book “Inside Wikileaks” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is sad that this movie has been a relative flop at the box office.  Based on the screenplay by Josh Singer, documentarian Alex Gibney’s, “The Fifth Estate”, directed by Bill Condon, is a powerful movie.   It is highly informative about the unfolding of this century’s one of the most significant media phenomena and is very insightful about the people involved.  Benedict Cumberbatch, a British actor has done an outstanding job in playing Assange, brilliantly capturing his speech and mannerisms, his ego-leaching confidence and his vulnerabilities.  While the story is about Assange and WikiLeaks, most of it is told through Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s eyes. Daniel Bruhl’s portrayal of Berg is excellent.  Berg, a computer wizard, worked with Assange during early stages, to bring Assange’s idea to fruition.  Berg’s book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” is one of the sources on which the film is based.

Based on a series of true events surrounding the rise of website, some might interpret the film as portraying somewhat unflattering picture of the founder of WikiLeaks, Australian activist, Julian Assange, who has strongly objected to his portrayal in the film.  However, in my opinion, Assange emerges as a real person, with amazingly brilliant mind, big ego, and misdirected but good intentions.  He does not come out as a hero but neither does he come out as a villain.

As he explains his beautifully simple plan to render shady organizations more transparent, Assage quotes Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he talks with his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.”   His plan is based on the simple premise that if there are any moral people unhappy about conspiratorial workings in organizations, and if they are accorded some measure of privacy, then they are will be likely to come forward and tell the truth.  Further, he believes that truth is a powerful thing that can “topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes”.  As the movie unfolds it becomes clear how this simple premise is both brilliant in its simplicity and powerful in execution.  It is based on how information flows in society and using technology to make it more accessible.  Armed with a secure database where whistleblowers can privately upload information, in an era where technology enables leads to be encrypted and untraceable, programmer Assange embarks on a journey that ultimately leads to a tool so powerful that it makes the world’s powerful people and institutions shiver and he does not see any irony in that.

It starts with the leak of the anonymous records of the bank Julius Baer’s wealthy clients holding money in trusts in the Cayman Islands.   It progresses to show the leak in Kenya that exposed extensive corruption and theft of millions from the state and rigging of the elections by former President Moi.  The film gets exciting as Assange clarifies his objective “transparency in institutions and privacy for individuals”.  Assange counters Berg’s words of caution saying, “it does not matter how small you are, as long as you have faith and a plan of action.”  He is looking for scale, looking to add more servers and get more leaks.

And there are more leaks.  Leaks from Lhasa, Tibet showed the Chinese government’s atrocities there.  Peruvian leaks revealed confidential information including leak of a global intelligence consultancy heavily critiquing the Peruvian President Humala and Peruvian politicians taking bribes.  Information about scientology founder was leaked.  Former Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s email was hacked and her personal information was revealed and it led to Palin’s call for Assange to be hunted down like Osama Bin Laden.  Palin was not the only one enraged.   Many unintended consequences begin to follow the leaks.  After the Kenyan leak, Kenya erupted in violence that flipped the election but also likely led to death of over a thousand people and over 350,000 were displaced.  And CIA was getting concerned.  Leak of a set of US documents revealed US government’s concern about the kind of government that would follow the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure.  Berg was pressuring Assange to spare the time to redact the cables and remove the names of those who provided information to the US officials, before posting on WiKiLeaks, but Assange wanted the truth out immediately.  Apparently, some of the identities were compromised.

Moreover, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning shared in the chat room that he was the source of leaks on WiKiLeaks site of more than 700,000 classified files.   Manning was working as intelligence analyst in Baghdad and the documents leaked by him included incident reports from Afghanistan and Iraq wars, information on detainees at Guantanamo and thousands of state department cables.  This was the biggest breach of secret data in the nation’s history.  Leaked documents also contained battlefield accounts that included a 2007 gunsight video of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff.   Documents included the number of people internally stated to be killed, along with geographical location of each event.  Entries were written by soldiers, intelligence officers, embassy officials and so on.

As Berg’s girl friend pointed out to Berg, Assange was neither cautious about his own safety nor concerned about safety of the people whose identities were compromised.  “He is a manipulative ass#$%^”, she says.  She assures Berg that the success was a result of both of their efforts and that Assange needed be kept in line and Berg was the line; Berg was the grounded one.  However, it soon becomes apparent that Assange cannot be kept in line.  Assange is driven by revealing secrets, “getting to the truth” but unconcerned with consequences.   He wants the truth revealed and revealed now.  “You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion.”

Assange is a complicated man.  He has currently mounted a crusade against the movie.  The transparency zealot who insisted “people have a right to know”, does not want people to know this story of events surrounding inception of WiKiLeaks and fallout from the truths being revealed, because it is told from a different perspective.  And yet Assange’s ego is perhaps somewhat proportional to his smartness and his ability to turn a simple idea of offering anonymity, fueled by supreme ethical value “truth” and marrying that with technology to create conditions so powerful so as to reveal bribery, corruption, and money scandals of powerful people and institutions.  That was brilliant.  Without such transparency, a society shrouded in secrecy, can hardly strive to be fair and egalitarian.  After all, hasn’t every breakthrough for the disadvantaged in a society, historically come from unveiling some truth, demasking the privileged hiding behind anonymity and revealing their excesses?

English: Demonstration in front of Sydney Town...

English: Demonstration in front of Sydney Town Hall in support of Julian Assange, 2010, December 10 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, WiKiLeaks came to be one of the most complex media phenomena with gigantic consequences, outside of anyone’s control or anyone’s plan.  In the end, does anyone own the truth or does it stand alone?  Is it true that truth when revealed will always lead to a good conclusion?  To what extent a good conclusion depends upon how truth will be handled by those who come upon it?  The issues about truth and consequences are far more complex, with many shades of gray.  As a dedicated non violent, vegetarian, gun control enthusiast, and a die hard pacifist, I would even tell Assange, “life trumps truth” on the ethical scale (but I am much less bright compared to him and therefore more willing to acknowledge that it is only my viewpoint and there are other points of view different from mine and just as valid or sometimes more valid).

The film does an outstanding job of telling the facts surrounding this complex series of events.  Facts however, never stand alone.  They are always embedded into the context of people telling, people receiving, people interpreting, and people executing upon them.   I loved this movie and will definitely see it again.  This is a box office flop – but I give it a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent.  This story must be told for current and future generations and in this movie, it is masterfully told.

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Captain Phillips – Movie Review

After all, it is Tom Hanks who plays Captain Phillips, and he gives one heck of a performance, which is not surprising.  It is however, the amazing performance by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Faysal Ahmed, in the role of Somali pirates, that takes the viewers by surprise.  Abdi’s acting as lead pirate, is simply superb.  Not knowing how to swim, Abdi learned to balance unstable pirate skiff in choppy waters and he learned to climb a ladder aboard a swaying ship.  Their incredible lean physique made these actors originally from Somalia, perfect for the role as the Somali pirates.  Great kudos to the casting director, Francine Maisler.  The four young men traveled to Malta, where they got lessons in handling the guns and the boats.  These four actors did not meet Tom Hanks until the moment they came aboard the ship.  “When they blew that door open and came in screaming at us, I saw four of the skinniest, scariest human beings on the planet and the hair did stand up on the back of our heads”, says Hanks.

The movie directed by Paul Greengrass is based on the true story of Captain Phillips (screenplay by Billy Ray), during seizure of his cargo ship Mersk Alabama, in 2009.  The large cargo ship was sailing several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia, toward Mombasa, Kenya.  When the pirates were spotted, the ship took protective measures but the pirates still managed to board the ship and eventually, nab a hostage, Captain Rich Phillips.  The five day drama on the high seas was covered by cable news and riveted the nation.  US counter-terrorism vessel, hostage negotiators and the Navy SEALS were brought in and the drama concluded with 3 extremely well coordinated US snipers taking down the 3 pirates, at the same exact moment.

A little background on the rise of Somalian piracy

Nearly 30,000 tankers and cargo vessels navigate these waters annually.  One 2010 study estimated that on account of piracy, it has cost between $7 billion and $12 billion in annual losses, on the global economy in extra insurance premiums, more robust security measures, and ransom money.  In 2009 and 2010, 26 ships were ransomed for an average of $4.9 million each.  But this would only tell one side of the story.

Here’s the other side.  When I grew up in Ethiopia, my father (from whom I learned much about the world) talked about the neighboring Somalia with capital Mogadishu, to be a fairly important center for commerce, at one time.  My father first started his business in Yemen and then traveled to Djibouti.  From there he traveled on ponies to Ethiopia and settled in Dire Dawa and later in Addis Ababa and actively traded with and traveled to the neighboring regions.  Somalia was under Italian occupancy, which ended in 1940, at which point, Northern Somalia remained a protectorate and Southern Somalia came under UN Trusteeship.  In 1960, the two regions were united to form independent SomaliRepublic, under a civilian government.  However, in 1991, President Barre’s government collapsed and Somalia lapsed into decades long civil war.  The country has no recognized rule of law, has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world, has no prospect of doing better, disillusionment reigns supreme, and the dumping of the toxic waste has severely constrained the ability of the local fishermen to earn a living.  Amidst the bleakness of Somali existence, was born the extreme radicalized group Al Shabab (sponsor of terrorist plots all over the world and currently implicated in the Kenyan mall attack).  One bright ray of hope for Somalia had been its location, on the horn of Africa.  Bordered by Ethiopia to the west, Djibouti to the northwest, the Gulf of Aden to the north, the Indian Ocean to the East, and Kenya to the southwest, Somalia has the longest coastline on the mainland.  Somalia was used and abused by colonial powers for their own national interests, and it now uses its location to assert its own brand of power.  Cargo ships have to navigate through there and in the absence of trade, commerce, and viable fishing opportunities, piracy has quickly become lucrative.  Somalian piracy has elevated localized lawlessness to an international level threat.  Eliminating it will perhaps require understanding of the broader issues of livelihood, education, stability, and rule of law, in Somalia.

English: Horn of Africa and Southwest Arabia i...

English: Horn of Africa and Southwest Arabia in the mid 1930s, prior to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the film subtly demonstrates, the pirates themselves are often victims of the circumstances, surviving in conditions of starvation, deprived of their livelihood, and slaves to kath addiction, and to the war lords who control their lives and livelihoods, who pump the money into buying more ammunition, greater propaganda and planning terror attacks on the sea and land.  “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people”, Captain Phillips says to pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Muse responds, “Maybe in America”.  While it is a story about good versus evil and terrorism is always bad and is nice to see that bad looses in this fight through courageous, brilliant maneuvers; at a deeper level, without becoming preachy, the film subtly raises some thought-provoking issues about good and evil, choices and responsibility.   I give it a 4.9 score on a scale going from 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent.

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Madras Cafe – Bolywood Movie Review

The two early dialogues in the movie, during the discussion between Indian Government officials, give a preview of what is to come.  One of them asks, “who are we fighting” and another one says, “regardless of who is involved in the conflict and the reasons for the conflict, the common people suffer”.   In a war, does it ever remain clear as to who the enemy is and while for generals the war is fought on maps, common people bear the the real cross.

John Abraham gives an excellent performance, in the role of Vikram Singh, an intelligence operative assigned by the Indian officials, to run a covert operation in Sri Lanka, in the midst of the raging civil war.  Vikram is assigned the task of slipping into Jaffna, and infiltrate and sniff out the information about LTTE (by then dubbed a terrorist group) and then help weaken the militant group, by arming and supporting the opposition.  Vikram’s wife (Rashi Khanna) is unaware of her husband’s extremely risky covert operation and while Vikram has “a whole army” to support him, she fights “her battle alone”.  In telling this series of interesting historical events, leading up to the assassination of Indian ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, Director Shoojit Sircar has done a fabulous job in not going overboard.  The story is told without typical Bolywood song and dance masala, without exaggeration.  The story of true events marked by extreme violence and covert operations is effectively communicated in a way that conveys the seriousness and the importance of the events, without explicit use of torture or extreme violence.   Nargis Fakhri gives also gives excellent performance in her role as the British journalist, also without overdoing it.

Acknowledging the fact that true and complex history that unfolds over a period of several decades is hard to chronicle in a movie, a Bolywood movie nonetheless, with Bolywoodish expectations; the film chronicles it well.  Film has been criticized for portraying Tamil Tigers (LTTE) to be extremely militant, while not acknowledging the equally violent acts of Sinhalese army against the Tamil minority.  However, in telling any history, one can only go so far back and the film did make a mention of violence against the Tamil minority; in fact, that is where the film begins.  The film is very well made and I would rate it as 4.8 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being excellent.

For anyone interested, I have tried to capture here, a brief history of the events.

Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was know then) got independence from Britain, at the end of World War II.  Ceylon’s politically savvy workforce was clamoring for independence and formation of its own socialist party and they opposed all types of communalism.  The national bourgeoisie saw their power weakening and they responded with separatist and communalistic policies.  A new citizenship law disenfranchised the large numbers of Tamil plantation workers brought from India, during the British colonization period, as indentured labor.  The educated and organized Tamilians in Ceylon began making their own demands, and even began to demand their own separate state.  These demands were met with change in the constitution affirming Sinhalese as the state language and Buddhism as the state religion.  Against this backdrop, LTTE emerged and at first was crushed with severe violence by the Singhalese army.  The LTTE resorted to its own brand of terror and with the control of infrastructure and savvy organization, put up severe opposition.  The LTTE was at first armed by India, and later got out of control and then fought against India.  It came to be listed at a terrorist organization by 32 countries, including India and the US.  When Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, he emphasized peaceful negotiation and fair elections and stressed that political solution was the only way out of this quagmire.  The LTTE opposed it and Mr. Gandhi was assassinated by first human bomb, by an LTTE member, specifically dispatched to India, for that goal.   Ultimately, in 18 year civil war, nearly 100,000 people died.  (At the time, the population of Ceylon was about 10 million).

An enlargeable map of the Democratic Socialist...

An enlargeable map of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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