Film review of This is Where I Leave You

November 6, 2014

(This film review of “This is Where I Leave You” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 6 November 2014.)

Directed by Shawn Levy

Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel

Starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard and Jane Fonda

Take one dysfunctional family of adult children, many of whom actively dislike one another.  Add a death – say the father.  And then force them to spend a week together in the same house in the New York suburbs, on the basis that they all must “sit shiva” – the dad’s dying wish.  It’s a recipe for much drama and potential humour; it’s also the plot of “This is Where I Leave You”, a film based on the novel by American-Jewish author Jonathan Tropper.

“But mom’s not even Jewish, and dad was an atheist,” protests Judd Altman (Jason Bateman).  No matter; mother Hillary (Jane Fonda, in a rare return to the screen) insists that they follow his wishes.  So they settle in for a week of funny bickering and unexpected drama.  Jason has recently been cuckolded by his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), who has been sleeping with his boss at the radio station where he works.  Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) – who once went out with Judd – are desperately trying to have a baby.  Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) has a husband so distracted by work that he hardly notices her – and she too has an old boyfriend in town, living across the street and still working in the “Altman Sporting Goods” store that father Mort founded.

And then there’s younger brother Phillip, played by Adam Driver (“Girls”, “Tracks”) – a “cut-up” who has not changed.  He’s the immature playboy, fiery, funny and proverbially late – including to his dad’s funeral.  He also arrives with an older woman in tow, Tracy (Connie Britton), his former therapist.  Tracy in turn is a great fan of “mom” Hillary, who became famous for writing a “tell all” book about her family and her children, entitled “Cradle and All”, which revealed various sexual secrets about her children as they grew up.  Resentment still stirs from the experience.

Fortunately for Judd, his old childhood sweetheart Penny (Rose Byrne) is back in “town”.  And then there’s the rabbi (Ben Schwartz), an old family friend who has been tormented by the Altman siblings ever since his youth; despite his rabbinic position, some things never change.

It’s quite a set-up, an ensemble cast of mixed characters with interlocking histories in close quarters and forced to come to accommodation with their past anger and present disappointments.  Think “Parenthood” mixed with “The Big Chill” and the rarely seen “Eulogy”.

What happens?  The adult kids argue, couples split, others get together, all of it proceeding from the (is it particularly American?) notion that the romantic relationship we have at age 20 affects us forever.  With one exception, the overladen plot is predictable, with director Shawn Levy (“Date Night”, “Night at the Museum”, “The Internship”) usually telegraphing plot points well in advance.

Fortunately Levy has assembled a wonderful cast, with Jason Bateman the true stand-out.  Bateman, particularly known for his role as “Michael Bluth” in the TV series “Arrested Development”, has slowly grown in stature as an actor.  Here he is the real star, on screen more than anyone else, and he truly shines.  He is the “broken” brother, but also the most mature, the one who through personality, wisdom and caring helps everyone to heal.

This is Where I Leave You


Do all American history professors really want to be the Secretary of State?

November 5, 2014

A few weeks ago, the American television series “Madam Secretary” premiered here in Australia. It’s being billed as a contender for the “The Good Wife” audience mixing it up with “West Wing”, with a strong and attractive female central character played by Tea Leoni. I am a great fan of Leoni, despite the fact that she has never really had a “great” screen role: my favourite films of hers are “Family Man”, “Fun With Dick and Jane” and “Ghost Town”, none of which qualify as truly memorable, despite their warm hearts and Leoni’s warm performances.

In “Madam Secretary” (which she also co-produces), Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent turned history academic who gets tapped to become the Secretary of State. It’s a great set-up, with endless possibilities around the conflict between academia and governmental service, the former CIA connections and the nature of women in the halls of power. Sadly, despite the attractiveness of the cast, I am left underwhelmed. Sadly, I should say. McCord has a wonderful husband, a religion and ethics professor (played by Tim Daly); wouldn’t all professional women want a man like that – he cooks, looks after the three handsome children during her inevitable long days and nights in the office, AND holds a full-time full professorship.

The show is popular, but it plot lines are simplistic and often unrealistic, the supporting cast mostly uninspiring, and – as Woody Allen would say – there are so few of them. Where is the rich panoply of supporting (and one-off) characters that we find in “The Good Wife”? Even the President (played by Keith Carradine) comes across as bland. Where indeed are her under-secretaries, the ambassador to the United Nations, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor?

There is also a basic issue with Leoni in this role: at age 48 (and a youthful-looking one at that), she is too young to be a Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton made it there at age 62. The current one, John Kerry, is almost 71. Sure, Condoleeza Rice was 51 when she took on the role, but at least she had been the National Security Advisor first. And that’s the natural role for Elizabeth McCord – with a possible elevation later on. But the producers were impatient, and the show is all the poorer for it.

A number of academics have risen to become Secretary of State. Aside from Rice (Stanford University), we have had Madeline Albright (Georgetown University) and Henry Kissinger (Harvard). When I studied at Cornell University in the 1970s, we even thought that my American history foreign policy professor, Walter LaFeber – now 81 years old and still going strong – was aiming at that office. I studied with him for two semesters, three lectures per week, which he did with no notes and a simple chalked outline that he wrote behind him. The third lecture was on Saturday mornings. And here’s the thing – in this day and age you might expect that few students would attend the Saturday lecture (or any, for that matter) – they were the best-attended. Why? Because people brought their friends and visitors. That was how well-respected and impressive LaFeber was on the Cornell campus at that time.

Was it just a rumour that LaFeber was interested in the role? Who knows. But “Madam Secretary” shows that this interest does not fade.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary


Film review of The Farewell Party

October 30, 2014

(This film review of “The Farewell Party” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on October 23, 2014.)

Directed by Tal Granit and Sharom Maymon

Starring Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelshtein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar and Rafi Tabor

Further proof that Israeli film has gone “mainstream” arrives with the black comedy “The Farewell Party” (Hebrew: “Mita Tova”), part of this year’s Jewish International Film Festival here in Australia. This unusual story features a group of elderly Jerusalem aged care home residents who build and successfully operate a euthanasia machine to help the desperate to die.

Conventional film-making usually ignores films about ageing and dying: how do you turn the depressing into an uplifting story?  “Benjamin Button” did it through inverting the chronology, “Harold and Maude” through a May-December relationship and the characters in “Cocoon” found eternal life.  But “The Farewell Party” is more grounded in the reality of death and dying.

The opening scene sets the comic tone:  former engineer Yehezkel enjoys “playing God” by ringing a very elderly woman, comforting her by using a voice synthesiser to sound like the Almighty.  However, his devoted wife Levana is in early – and rapidly increasing – stages of dementia, and their close friends Yana and Max are facing a crisis, with Max in the final painful stages of life.  With the assistance of Dr Daniel, a veterinarian in their building who knows quite a lot about “putting down” animals, their team is complete to grant Max his wish.  (The Australian angle is that the euthanasia machine constructed by Yehezkel is based on one popularised by Philip Nitschke, the Australian doctor who has long advocated the practice.)

The cast is wonderful, filled with many of the ageing greats of Israeli film and theatre.  There are also a number of wonderful and slyly funny scenes:  one character decides to come “out of the closet” as gay; the friends scheme to fool hospital staff monitoring by switching the equipment; and they farewell a lung cancer patient through a smoking party.

Ultimately, the film becomes quite serious: who are they, exactly, to play God in this way?  Facing these ethical and moral dilemmas, particularly once their “technique” is known and appears in demand, is a conundrum that the characters are not prepared for.  The topic is challenging, and – despite many great moments – the film-makers never quite achieve a balanced tone in “The Farewell Party”, varying between the darkness of “Amour” to the lightness of “Cocoon”.  The result is a good, although not great film.

The Farewell Party


Film review of Gett – The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

October 30, 2014

(This review of “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Jewish News on 23 October 2014.)

Directed and written by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz

Starring Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Menashe Noy, Sasson Gabay and Eli Gorstein

There are few more dramatic moments captured on film than courtroom interplay, seen in the best courtroom dramas such as “Twelve Angry Men”, “A Few Good Men” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”.  But despite the many thousands of Jewish films over the past 100 years, there has only been one great Jewish courtroom drama – “Judgment at Nuremberg”.

That was then.  Now there’s a second one, and it’s the opening night film in the Jewish Film Festival.  “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is nothing but courtroom drama:  no exteriors, no back story and no historic replays.

At its simplest, “Gett” is Viviane’s (Ronit Elkabetz) attempt to get a Gett, the religious Jewish divorce, from her passive-aggressive husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian).  The action takes place over five years, with countless appearances by Viviane with her advocate Carmel Ben Tavin (Menashe Noy), a secular son of a noted rabbi.  Despite the long-term separation and the clear breakdown of their marriage – they seem temperamentally unsuited in all ways – Elisha steadfastly refuses the divorce, even when ordered to by the three rabbinic judges, and is even willing to suffer a short stay in jail.

The point of “Gett” is crystal clear:  women, at least in matters of marriage and divorce, are second-class citizens in Israel, and are effectively powerless.  Viviane rarely speaks in court, and is a virtual bystander in decisions on her own fate.  As Viviane, Ronit Elkabetz gives a breathtaking performance of controlled fury.  She also co-directed and co-directed the film with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz.  This is the third of their trilogy about the Amsalems with the same characters, following “To Take a Wife” and “The Seven Days”.  But “Gett” can be appreciated on its own.

Courtroom dramas are ostensibly about justice, but what drives the action and most engages the viewer is really character, specifically the clash of characters:  the judges, the witnesses, the lawyers and those on trial.  And this is where “Gett” shines: a tight script (in Hebrew, French and Arabic) gives these characters much to say and do.  Through the Amsalems and their advocates, relatives, friends and neighbours, we see a superb portrayal of Israeli society, one frequently infused with moments of black humour.   Brilliant in all ways.

Gett Trial of Viviane Amsalem


Amanda Barker appointed new consumer director on COSL – one of Australia’s two credit ombudsman services

October 30, 2014

I am pleased to note that my former colleague at ASIC – the Australian Securities and Investments Commission – has now been appointed a new consumer director at COSL, the Credit Ombudsman Service Limited, which is one of Australia’s two ASIC-approved credit ombudsman services.

I worked closely with Amanda for almost two and a half years in ASIC’s Community Outreach Program:  she was the team leader and I was the deputy team leader.  I know of nobody who is better able to take on this important role – especially given her long experience and commitment to financially vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians.

The official media release goes as follows, and can be found on both the COSL website and the Consumers’ Federation of Australia website.

*****

The Board of the Credit Ombudsman Service Limited (COSL) announced the appointment of Ms Amanda Barker as the new non-executive consumer director of the company, effective 22 October 2014.

Ms Barker is well known for her work with culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Indeed, she has been nominated for the Prime Minister’s Community Award and was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2012 which recognises outstanding service by employees of the Australian Government.

Ms Barker was the Senior Manager of the Community Outreach Program at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), where she was employed to engage more meaningfully with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

Ms Barker’s experience ranges from individual casework to policy reform and educating consumers in relation to consumer credit. She has worked collaboratively with government departments that fund programs for these target groups and has provided guidance and advice about policy settings and service delivery.

Mr Mark Scanlon, COSL’s Chairman, congratulated Ms Barker on her appointment and noted: “Ms Barker is exceptionally well qualified for the appointment as COSL’s new Consumer Director given her experience working in consumer advocacy and consumer protection, particularly in relation to consumer credit.”

“Her acknowledged stakeholder engagement and management skills and reputation, dealing particularly with the vulnerable and disadvantaged, will contribute to the effectiveness of COSL’s work in this area. I look forward to working with Ms Barker in continuing to develop COSL as a leading external dispute resolution scheme,” Mr Scanlon said.

“Ms Barker replaces Ms Karen Cox who stood down from the Board on 27 August 2014. My Board, staff and I are indebted to her for her input into the development and continued growth of COSL,” continued Mr Scanlon.

 

 

 


Wish I Was Here film review

September 18, 2014

Wish I Was Here(This film review of “Wish I Was Here” appeared in – in a shorter form – in the Australian Jewish News on September 18, 2014.)

Directed by Zach Braff

Written by Zach and Adam Braff

Starring Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Pierce Gagnon, Kate Hudson, Joey King and Mandy Patinkin

Remarkably few films portray Jews living a Jewish life, married to other Jews and bringing their kids up Jewish. Most American – and Australian – Jewish life takes place in the suburbs, but few film-makers have set Jewish-themed films there. American Jewish actor-writer-director Zach Braff (“Garden State”) has now made a notable contribution to this thin genre in “Wish I Was Here”.

Braff writes, directs and co-stars in this film as struggling actor Aidan Bloom, and is joined by the ever watchable Mandy Patinkin as his father Gabe, Josh Gad as his nerdy brother Noah, Kate Hudson as his long-suffering wife Sarah, and Joey King and Pierce Gagnon as his 12 year old daughter Grace and son Tucker.

Set in suburban Los Angeles, “Wish I Was Here” tackles big issues: parental disappointment, chasing illusive dreams, dealing with professional failure, and death and dying. That the film engages with all of these issues in a thoroughly Jewish context marks “Wish I Was Here” as one of the most notable “Jewish” films of our not-yet-half-over decade. That Braff’s film is also deeply flawed through loose writing, misplaced attempts at humour and some odd Jewish representations is unfortunate.

The main characters in “Wish I Was Here” – all of whom are Jewish (when’s the last time you saw that? probably in “A Serious Man” from the Coen brothers) are quirky and delightful. Patinkin has now shifted his screen persona to the wise but flawed Jewish elder (also see “Homeland”), and he’s on full show here. Antisocial brother Noah – living alone in a trailer above Malibu Beach – is a fabulous invention, slowly adding increased depth to the film. And in Joey King (“Ramona and Beeezus”) and Pierce Gagnon (the telekinetic kid from “Looper”), Braff has cast two excellent and uninhibited child actors.

Ironically, the acting falls down in one of the film’s key relationships: Aidan and Sarah are married, but their clichéd and under-written scenes makes it seem like they are sometimes appearing in two different movies. He’s the actor who can’t get a new role; she supports the family through a dead-end job with the Water Department, trying to “enable” his dream. They love each other, but I hardly believed they were even in a relationship. Braff’s a likeable guy, but here his passive and depressive character is just about the least interesting in the film.

Similarly, the Jewish “stuff” is a great try, but some of it falls flat. Both kids attend an Orthodox day school (“Hillel Yeshiva”) and young Grace is particularly religious. Except so many of the details are wrong (I didn’t notice a rabbinical advisor in the credits): one rabbi chides Aidan for not coming to “Temple” – surely the American Orthodox reference would be “shul” or “synagogue”, not the Reform/Conservative “Temple” term. Braff also does not know how to present the elderly white-bearded rabbinical leader: is he for laughs, or for taking seriously? I’m still not certain, and this uneven tone imbues much of the film. Why would Grandpa Gabe insist and pay for their studying in a Yeshiva rather than the more typical American Conservative day school? He may be steeped in Jewish tradition and own a dog named “Kugel”, but he does not strike me as a man committed to Yeshiva.

For these reasons, I was ready to go away disappointed from “Wish I Was Here”. But somehow Braff manages to pull the film together in the last half. He drops the lame humour and organises most of his characters to connect in emotionally satisfying ways. The Bloom family’s historical hurts are carefully revealed, and the film gels, in part because Braff gets out of the way and lets the talented Patinkin, Hudson, King and Gad move onto centre stage. This quartet saves the film and shows how a pretty good film might have been a great one, given the chance.

(Film notes:  Zach Braff co-wrote this film with his brother Adam, who did in fact attend a Yeshiva as they were growing up.  And the film presents just that:  an adolescent perspective on Orthodox Judaism, just the way the Braff brothers probably remember it.  What a shame they couldn’t have tried harder.)


Books that made an impact

September 13, 2014

Not long ago, I was “challenged” on Facebook (simultaneously from Israel and Washington, D.C.) to list ten books that have impacted me in some way, with the following rules: only take a few minutes to pick the books, they don’t need to be great works of literature, but books that have stayed with you. So here’s my book list. It’s not chronological, just the order that they came to me.

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: I adored Hemingway when I was in high school. Spare, muscular prose, very “male”. But yet “A Farewell to Arms” is terribly romantic. I remember this as his best.

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is, admittedly, one of the darling authors of the far libertarian right. This 1943 best-seller is about an architect, Howard Roark, and his striving to express his individualism. Dynamite stuff when you are 17.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Probably the best American college “campus” novel I have read. Neatly captures life at a school (Bennington in Vermont, where I visited once, so I could picture the setting), but adds an intellectual mystery thriller. Great prose, highly engaging, strong characters. I envy people who have not read it already: an experience awaits.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: I am one of many for whom Jane Jacobs is an icon. This 1961 polemic attacks the excesses of urban renewal, and voices the joys of mixed neighbourhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village. I read it in my first year of graduate urban planning study at UC Berkeley and will never forget it. Do you think Jane Jacobs is outdated? No way, There’s a fascinating current literature analysing her still.

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard is also a UC Berkeley revelation, assigned in a design social factors course by my then teacher and mentor Clare Cooper-Marcus, a landscape architecture professor of uncommon ability, insight and depth. I still have my original copy; it sits about two meters from where I write. What is this book? An poetic essay on nature or a spiritual autobiography? Both and more. The subtitle is “a mystical excursion into the natural world.” It is.

“Flicker” by Theodore Roszak is, genuinely, one of the creepiest books I have read. Roszak is a historian, sociologist and a philosopher who taught at Cal State Hayward. He is best-known for his “The Making of a Counterculture”, but he clearly loved film – thus this book. This mystery – loosely based on the life of film critic Pauline Kael – is, thrillingly, back in print. Unbeatable.

“Stop-Time” by Pat Conroy is one of those novels you read at age 19 and never forget. I did and I have not. It’s sitting on my bedside table for a re-read right now.

“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Roth has influenced me in more ways than I can count. I am happy to say that I was an early predictor of Roth’s later success, based on this book. I adored “Goodbye Columbus”, and I equally adored the 1969 movie version starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. Who else has captured suburban American Jewish life better than Roth? Like Woody Allen in film, Roth has covered so much territory that almost every American-Jewish author since gets compared to him. This is his first book, and although possibly not his best, it is one of his most autobiographical.  Here’s more of what I have to say about Roth’s books and influence.

“An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler: Some books set you on a twenty year quest. This one did for me. This is, in essence, a “group biography” of early Hollywood Jewish moguls who started film studios. I used Gabler’s thesis for years in my lectures on American Jewish film history, and it has underpinned my film reviewing for the “Australian Jewish News” for more than 25 years.

“The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. The world falls into two categories of people: those who love Malcolm Gladwell, and those who are not yet aware of his work. The second category is getting smaller every day. I am part of the first. My copy of “The Tipping Point” is still heavily annotated. I used it for my PhD thesis; I have referred to it in almost every job I have done since it was first published in 2000. I even have a “Gladwell” category on this blog. Need I say more?

Four women and six men: not a bad gender breakdown. Five novels – although all of them published before 1993; one autobiography (Conroy), one impassioned essay on urbanism (Jacobs), one historical group biography (Gabler), one poetic meditation (Dillard) and one marketing/social psychology/”new age” business book (Gladwell).


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