For Here or To Go?


A Bollywood dance number in the Silicon Valley.

(2015) Dramedy (Many Cups of Chai) Ali Fazal, Melanie Kannokada, Rajit Kapur, Amitosh Nagpal, Omi Valdya, Samrat Chakrabarti, Keith Stevenson, Damien Chen, Alan Coyne, Malavika Jayasimha, Niyati Joshi, Gaurav Dwivedi, Vij Nathan, Satish Sattnathan, Dee Marshall, Robin Oleson, Debbie Vu, Ashok Tangri, Gursimran Singh, Richa Sukla, Anita Vora. Directed by Rucha Humnabadkar

 

Immigration is a hot button topic these days. Often it seems that immigration of any kind – even the legal sort – is anathema to some. It is fact, however, that more illegal immigrants overstay their temporary visas than climb over walls and cross rivers. It is the most common form of illegal immigration.

Not that Vivek Pandit (Fazal) is considering it. He is a talented programmer who has come up with some software that will make a difference; even though he is working for a large company that doesn’t appreciate him, a new start-up is more than interested in his software and it looks like a lucrative offer is imminent.

The problem is that time is running out on Vivek’s visa – he has a year left until he must leave. The start-up really doesn’t have the manpower or the inclination to help him get his green card and the offer falls apart. Frustrated, Vivek looks to try and get his immigration status sorted out.

With him are his roommates Sam (Chakrabarti) who has a zest for life and a somewhat indefatigable attitude and Lakshmi (Valdya) who is a gay man and is terrified of telling his parents, which further fuels his desire to remain in the United States permanently. All three are facing their own immigration issues; while all are making good money in Silicon Valley, none of them are willing to buy furniture while their immigration status is in limbo.

Vivek also meets Shveta (Kannokada) at a Bollywood speed dating event  and the two hit it off, but once again Vivek’s uncertain future prevents the couple from truly exploring the possibilities their relationship could offer.

Although the movie first made its first appearance at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival back in 2015 (appropriately enough since it’s set there) it’s just getting a theatrical release now and it certainly is as timely now as it was then if not more so. Considering the ruling party’s seeming disdain for the role of immigrants in our society and a feeling that the system which is clearly broken and in need of fixing that it is not going to get anytime soon this could make for compelling viewing had the filmmakers not gone the light touch route.

Fazal is an appealing and handsome lead and exudes charm, charisma and screen presence. He could very easily become a romantic lead in major studio films if Hollywood weren’t so squeamish about casting Indian men in anything but villainous roles. He has done a couple of Hollywood films (including Furious 7) and looks to have a very promising career ahead of him.

The movie has a lot of energy and even does a Bollywood-style musical number in Silicon Valley (which is about as surreal as it gets). Having lived and worked in that area for more than 12 years prior to coming to Orlando, I will admit that some of the settings in America’s tech capital brought back some memories that gave me the warm fuzzies. That won’t be true for everybody but do take that into account when reading this.

While the romance between Vivek and Shveta seemed to be somewhat by-the-numbers, there were a couple of scenes that generated some heat. However the romance seemed a bit more of a distraction than a central aspect of the plot. Given the subject of the systemic issues of immigrating to America which I think would make a great movie, it’s a bit disappointing that it is treated more as a light comedy rather than a serious issue.

Don’t get me wrong though; this is very entertaining, charming and sweet. The leads are likable and good-looking. There is a lot of energy in the film and you can tell it was made with affection and joy. All of these are very good things indeed. I think the movie was trying to skirt the line between being light entertainment and a serious issue film and ends up falling over the light entertainment precipice. Perhaps someone else will make a film from the legal immigrant’s standpoint that will shed some needed light on this controversial issue.

REASONS TO GO: Something like a Bollywood film in an American setting, the film takes on the complexity and frustration of our immigration system. It’s buoyant and fun upon occasion.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic aspect seems a bit rote. The subject matter is often given a much more lightweight handling than it deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature-length debut of director Rucha Humnabadkar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outsourced
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg

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Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta

In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.

Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.

With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.

It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post – attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.

The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).

As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.

As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.

Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.

What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.

It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

The Fluffy Movie


Gabriel Iglesias works the crowd.

Gabriel Iglesias works the crowd.

(2014) Stand-Up Comedy Concert (Open Road) Gabriel Iglesias, Jacqueline Obradors, Gina Brillon, Armando C. Cosio, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Ron White, Tommy Chong, Alfred Robles, Rick Gutierrez, Piolin, Ray Williams Johnson, Juliocesar Chavez, Martin Moreno, Chuy Lopez. Directed by Manny Rodriguez and Jay Lavender

Some may not be aware that Gabriel Iglesias is one of the most popular comedians on the planet. Having taken a run on Last Comic Standing that was promising but was cut short due to a rules violation (he phoned home despite a ban on communication with family which got him disqualified), he has parlayed that disappointment into mega-popularity. He has sold out hundreds of shows around the world and his Unity Through Laughter tour took the portly comic to dozens of countries in an effort to embrace the philosophy that no matter how different our cultures we all have laughter in common.

Stand-Up concert films tend to be less cinematic than music concert films. A big budget production can fill a big screen but when it comes to stand-up, the focus is entirely on one guy telling jokes. While the small screen is adequate for that, sometimes on the big multiplex screen it can seem a bit lost.

Still, Iglesias is warm and funny and you get a sense of his commitment to his family (including a stepson he raised, something which I can relate to), his pride in his culture (comparing it to the culture of India) and his loyalty to his friends (discussed in a story of a drunken night with his friend Martin in a gay bar). You can’t help but like the guy.

Much of the comedy has to do with his teenage son Frankie who is at that phase in his life where he communicates in monosyllables and the most important thing in life is playing videogames. Iglesias describes his frustrations in communicating with his son and his inability to get him to take out the trash (sound familiar to anyone out there?) which leads Iglesias to the realization that he’d spoiled his son.

Like with most stand-ups, Iglesias is at his best when he gets personal with his own life. He talks about his battle with his weight – he had ballooned up to 455 pounds which is, as he put it, “just shy of a Discovery Channel show” – and has lost a significant amount of weight. What prompted him to lose the weight was his doctor’s diagnosis of Type II Diabetes and the doctor’s prognosis that if he didn’t do something about it immediately, he’d be dead in two years. That’s the kind of thing that motivates people. Not a candidate for gastric bypass surgery due to his lifestyle on the road, Iglesias did it by essentially eliminating carbs. He still eats tons of cholesterol but as he puts it, “that’ll only kill me in ten years. I figure I’ve gained eight years.” Barrio math.

Recorded at the Shark Tank in San Jose (previously known as San Jose Arena, HP Pavilion and currently as SAP Center) – an arena I’m intimately familiar with having attended several concerts and hockey games there – he turns an arena that seats close to 20,000 people into an intimate club setting. While he can’t interact with his audience the same way he might in a comedy club, he certainly relates to them.

The crowning glory of the movie takes place over the last twenty minutes or so and it is why I’ve rated this movie as highly as I have. The movie opens with a skit that depicts the meeting between his mom (Obradors) and his mariachi-playing dad (Valdez) in a Tijuana club. The result was little Gabriel who in the second act of the opening skit is inspired by a nefariously rented videotape of Eddie Murphy Raw. The two events become central to the film’s denouement. It is also no accident that Raw also begins of a skit enacting events from Murphy’s childhood.

Gabriel describes how his father, who had abandoned the child he’d created and the woman he’d created him with, got in contact with him after 30 years. Iglesias was reluctant to get together at first; there’s a lot of anger that comes in being abandoned by a parent as you might imagine. Some of that anger gets expressed here, some of it through humor. Iglesias finally agrees to meet his absent father which leads to some surprising discoveries.

Not long after, Frankie’s natural father contacts Iglesias and announces that he wants to get involved in Frankie’s life. That can be devastating to a stepdad who worries how the dynamic might affect his relationship with his son, and whether bringing someone into their lives who may well have been better off out of their lives might create tension. How this works out is a tribute to stepparents everywhere (as Iglesias gratefully acknowledges in the end credits).

Standup concert films aren’t for everyone, but this is one of the best I’ve seen. The end of the movie had some tears falling as well as the laughter and I don’t think you have to be a stepparent to feel the emotion that Iglesias brings out with his storytelling. Not everyone will relate but there is enough common ground here that all of us can find something to laugh about.

The Spanish word mija is one I wish we had in the English language. It is a word, spoken sometimes with exasperation but always with affection in regards to your children. “What do you want, mija?” or “Don’t cry, mija.” There’s nothing analogous to it in English; we tend to use existing words like son or sweetie or baby with our kids but we don’t have a specific word that carries with it such love and affection. Hearing a parent refer to you as mija is like being wrapped in a warm blanket of love and that reference continues well into your own adulthood. We are all children of somebody and our relationship with our parents informs our relationship with our kids, those of us that have them. When a movie comes along that reminds you of how amazing that relationship is, it’s a movie worth seeking out. That it comes from a stand-up comedy routine is even more amazing.

 

REASONS TO GO: Very funny stand-up work. The last 20 minutes are absolutely devastating.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the personal material jarring after the more traditional comedy.

FAMILY VALUES:  A smattering of mildly foul language and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The stand-up content was aggregated from two shows filmed on February 28, 2014 and March 1, 2014.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie Murphy: Raw

FINAL RATING: 8/10

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