Magic in the Moonlight film review

August 27, 2014

(This film review of “Magic in the Moonlight” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 August 2014.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Simon McBurney

It is a testament to Woody Allen’s enduring influence as a Jewish film-maker that we Jews closely follow each of his releases, even when there are no Jewish concepts, themes or characters. There have been flashier and more popular Jewish film-makers (Steven Spielberg, also known for his Jewish philanthropy), grittier (Sidney Lumet), possibly funnier (Mel Brooks), possibly more accomplished (Billy Wilder), definitely stranger (Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick), “cooler” (Joel Coen), more political (Milos Forman, Otto Preminger) and “artier” (Darren Aronofsky).

And yet, Woody Allen stands at the top of almost everyone’s list of the great Jewish film directors of all time. This is partly due to his three roles – he writes, directs and acts – so that we have a strong image of Woody Allen the screen character. He undoubtedly is also one of the best screenwriters ever, with 73 screen writing credits, 16 Oscar nominations and 3 Oscar wins. It’s also due to hard work and living a long and productive life: at an age when most men are long retired or dead – he will be 79 in December – he continues to produce a film each year.

Broadly, Woody Allen’s films fall into five broad categories, with numerous overlaps and side themes: early slapstick (“Sleepers”), romantic nostalgia (“Annie Hall”), drama (“Blue Jasmine”, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”), light mystery (“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”) and – most recently – European adventures (“Midnight in Paris”, “Vicki Christina Barcelona”).

Opening this week, “Magic in the Moonlight” is Allen’s latest, falling into the latter category of a light, romantic European adventure, including magic themes (long an Allen favourite). This is “middling” Woody Allen: his fans will insist on seeing it, and many will be swept up by the characters, British-style drawing room comedy (George Bernard Shaw, where are you?), great production design and sumptuous European settings. Others may be frustrated by the film’s unwillingness to present enough substance for us to really care what happens and why.

“Magic in the Moonlight” opens in “Berlin 1928”, at a theatrical magic show run by Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who uses an on-stage Chinese persona (“Wei Ling Soo”). He makes elephants disappear and transports himself across the stage from locked boxes to chairs. Although the action quickly shifts elsewhere, here Allen is hinting at tragedies to come, in the style of the film “Cabaret”. But Allen has other things on his mind: Stanley is enlisted by an old school friend, Howard Burkan (delightful British actor Simon McBurney, most recognised for his role in “Friends with Money”), to help de-bunk the “spiritualist” claims by a young American woman, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). As a purveyor of magic himself, Stanley is a dour rationalist who specialises in un-masking fake “mediums”, although secretly – we discover – he desires to find hidden and unexplained meanings.

They travel to the Côte d’Azur, where a variety of characters have collected: Stanley’s ageing aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and the Catledges, a rich American family which has become enamoured of Sophie. There’s mother Grace (Jacki Weaver, again sporting a flawless American accent), daughter Olivia and her husband, and son Brice (Hamish Linklater) who has been smitten with Sophie, and insists on playing a ukulele as a means of wooing her. They wear tennis whites, go out on yachts and generally live a life of naive and semi-cultured ease.

The core of “Magic in the Moonlight”, however, is the growing relationship between Sophie and Stanley, and the results are mixed. While Stanley is moderately successful, sophisticated and experienced, he has little emotional intelligence and is a self-confessed misanthrope. By contrast, the younger Sophie is practical and exudes a natural charm, “opening up” the buttoned down Stanley in ways that shock and surprise him. Not surprisingly, they fall in love, in fits and starts. Colin Firth is one of the great British actors of our time, but at age 53, he is twice Emma Stone’s age. Thus the film also reflects a favourite but less-than-savoury Woody Allen scenario: the younger woman with the older man.

Allen fills the film with sharp one-liners and quotes from Nietschke about the nature of man, which often appear to be stage-like (did people really speak that way?), and he knows how never to over-extend a scene. There are two major plot point surprises, although for me one of them fell flat. Allen’s films rarely are the cause of “life or death” concerns – even the popular “Midnight in Paris” had very little emotional “weight”. “Magic in the Moonlight” fits into the fairy floss category: sweet and nice to look at, but little to remember once it is gone.

Magic in the Moonlight poster


Good Will Hunting film review

August 27, 2014

(I originally published this film review of “Good Will Hunting” in the Australian Jewish News in early 1998.  I am reprinting it in honour of the recent passing of Robin Williams.)

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard and Minnie Driver

What happens when two former Cambridge, Massachusetts acting classmates decide to collaborate on a script about their hometown of Boston? The result is “Good Will Hunting”, a remarkable first script by up and coming actors Matt Damon (“The Rainmaker”) and Ben Affleck (“Chasing Amy”). But there is more. Damon and Affleck also star in the film in the parts they conceived for themselves.

Damon plays Will Hunting, a 20 year old orphan who has suffered through years of abuse and neglect in a series of foster homes. Will is tough, cocky and full of rage, but also has one special characteristic: he is a total genius, completely self-taught, with a photographic memory and the capacity to compete with top international mathematicians and scientists. Affleck plays Will’s best friend Chuckie, wise enough to recognise his friend’s genius, but unlikely to rise out of their working class Irish South Boston surrounds.

Will is brought to the attention of prize-winning Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard, recently in “Amistad”) after Will solved a famous theorem during his evening rounds as a cleaner at MIT. After Will has been arrested for assault, Lambeau convinces the judge to let Will out of jail under the condition that he work with MIT mathematicians and undergo weekly counselling. Lambeau is determined that Will fulfill his intellectual potential, and chooses his old friend psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a teacher at Bunker Hill Community College, for Will’s therapy. Maguire and Lambeau have a long history, and it turns out that Sean also has a few hurts of his own to deal with.

From this interesting set-up, director Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”, “To Die For”) is able to develop a deeply entertaining story which works on many levels. At its most basic, this is a tale about breaking through emotional barriers and allowing oneself to care, at the risk of being hurt. You live life by experience, we are told. Yes, we have heard this before, but these simple truths are made more meaningful by Will’s romance with English heiress (and fellow orphan) Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard student. Driver (“Circle of Friends”, “Grosse Point Blank”) has never been more luminous. But “Good Will Hunting” achieves something extra special through its delicate but straightforward approach to American social class, contrasting the uneducated South Boston youngsters with the elite Harvard and MIT students across town, cleverly playing on the iconography of American academia. (Damon, by the way, studied at Harvard: it takes one to know one.)

The result is a warm, caring, convincing and at times deeply affecting film, easily the best I have ever seen set in Boston, as it recognises the social geography of that fascinating city. Let me tell you how good this film is: If I first saw this film at age 21, it would have probably become one of my favourites of all time. Although I am well past 21, I can still see in it universal truths about finding identity and love; I was captivated.


Jakob the Liar film review

August 27, 2014

I originally published this film review of “Jakob the Liar” in the Australian Jewish News on November 19, 1999.  I am re-printing it in honour of Robin Williams, who sadly left us last week.

*****

Directed by Peter Kassovitz
Written by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin
Starring Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Liev Schreiber and Mathieu Kassovitz

I desperately wanted to like “Jakob the Liar”, the new feature film about the Holocaust. It is the biggest budget “Jewish” film of the year (1999). I have been a fan of Robin Williams for some time. It is also directed (and co-written) Peter Kassovitz, a Budapest-born, Paris-based Jewish film director who survived the war hidden by a Catholic family. (Miraculously, both of his parents survived the camps.) Kassovitz has done a number of French films, including “Stirn and Stern”, a comedy about a Jewish family and an anti-Semite during the Nazi occupation of France. And he is the father of Mathieu, the young actor/director, who has made two of the most interesting French Jewish films in recent years – “Hate” (“La Haine”) and “Café Au Lait”, who appears in a minor role in “Jakob”.

“Jakob the Liar” has a wonderful pedigree: it is based on a semi-autobiographical book by the late Jurek Becker, has an all-star cast, has production design by Australian Luciana Arrighi (“Howard’s End”, “My Brilliant Career”) and its heart is in the right place. It was also shot on location in Budapest and Poland.

The story takes place in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, whose inhabitants have been depleted by transports, disease, degradation and hunger. Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) had previously owned a (now closed) café, and by accident overhears a forbidden radio news bulletin that indicates that the Soviets are beating the Germans and approaching. When he tells a couple of friends – mostly as a way of discouraging one from committing suicide, now an epidemic in the ghetto – the rumour soon spreads that Jakob owns a forbidden radio. So Jakob is caught in a bind: he is an instrument of hope in a situation which is almost totally hopeless, but his words inspire power, at times dangerously so.

Aside from Williams, the cast includes Alan Arkin as theatrical actor Frankfurter, Bob Balaban (“Deconstructing Harry”) as Kowalski the barber, Armin-Mueller Stahl as Kirschbaum the doctor, Liev Schreiber as Mischa – a young boxer formerly managed by Jakob and now in love with Frankfurter’s daughter, Rosa, played by Nina Siemaszko. This is a cast loaded with significance. German-born Mueller-Stahl has often played both Jews (“Shine”, “Avalon”) as well as Nazis and tormentors (“Colonel Redl”, “Angry Harvest”). Schreiber gave a stellar performance as a Jewish husband in the just-released “A Walk on the Moon”. And Nina Siemaszko’s late father – like book author Becker – survived the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

In feel and approach, “Jakob the Liar” fits somewhere between “Life is Beautiful” and “Schindler’s List”, two films with which it will inevitably be compared. But it lacks the fable-like quality which gave “Life is Beautiful” such resonance, and misses the emotionally mythical film-making which Spielberg brought to “Schindler”. It is hard to pin down where “Jakob the Liar” misses out. Robin Williams is a notoriously difficult actor to direct, and the role of Jakob Heym (“life”?) the reluctant hero never quite fits him. It also takes quite a bit of time for the film to get moving.

There are scenes in “Jakob the Liar” of unspeakable sadness and brutality, and this is certainly not a film for the faint-hearted. It is also undeniably moving in parts, for the story it tells is ultimately one of Jewish survival through crushing adversity. And the final scenes should bring tears to everyone. The characters are full of depth and contain the sort of ambiguities that Hollywood rarely allows. Although everyone speaks English, the European sensibility is high. But for me “Jakob the Liar” never reached the plateau of creating a universal story on a “larger than life” canvas, and emotionally did not grip me until the very end – much too long of a wait.


Australian spatial economics

August 19, 2014

Even in this digital, online world, it’s no secret that all economic activity has an important element of physical space.

Economists and geographers know this. In fact, a whole field of study is devoted to it, and it’s called economic geography.

Unfortunately, the spatial dimension to our work and our consumer lives is something that government policy makers, economic planners and regulators often seem to forget or never even consider. Too many government policies and programs assume that we are all sitting in the same space – presumably (when here in Australia) within a five to ten kilometre radius of the central business district of one of our capital cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide – or perhaps Canberra (but certainly not Darwin or Hobart).

Here in Australia, about two-thirds of us live in the capital cities, making Australia (despite our “outback” and rural myths) one of the most urbanised countries on earth. Singapore, city-state that it is (with a 100 percent urbanisation), we are not. But more than 89 percent of us live in urban areas, not far behind Japan and South Korea (both at 91 percent).

So the high rate of Australian urbanisation means we can assume geography is not significant, right? Wrong. With our massive continent and our sprawling cities, we have a number of regions that experience profound and intense geographic disadvantage. Think western Sydney, western Melbourne and most regional, rural and remote areas.

The fact is that employment and economic activity is NOT evenly spread along with the population, despite our high urbanisation rate. Economic activity is particularly concentrated in and around the major central business districts, a point made comprehensively and convincingly in a report from the Grattan Institute entitled “Mapping Australia’s economy: Cities as engines of prosperity”, by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan.

The Institute summarises the situation:

More than three-quarters of all economic activity in Australia happens on less than one per cent of the nation’s land mass. In today’s services-driven economy, Australia’s cities are the engines of material prosperity.

For a long time agriculture was the backbone of our economy, as we rode on the sheep’s back. After World War Two prosperity shifted to suburbia, with manufacturing employing one in four Australians. This report shows that Australia’s economy is increasingly driven by knowledge-intensive services located in Australia’s large cities. Within these cities the most intense and productive economic activity is concentrated around central business districts and a small number of other business hubs. The way these areas draw large numbers of businesses and workers together makes them all more productive.

Key facts from the report include:
– “Eighty percent of the value of all goods and services produced in Australia is generated on just 0.2 percent of hte nation’s land mass.”
– The CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne – just 7.1 square kilometres – generated $118 billion during the 2011/12 financial year, almost 10 percent of Australia’s economic activity.

And the major reason for the intense economic activity? The concentrations are of “highly knowledge-intensive and specialised services such as funds management, insurance, design, engineering and international education”, with highly skilled workers. And it is the physical “proximity to suppliers, customers and partners” that promotes efficiency, generating “opportunities to come up with new ideas and ways of working” (report, p. 1).

So there you go. We communicate via digital means and at great distances quicker and easier than ever. But yet, we still prefer – in fact, many of us need – to be physically close in order to work efficiently. Economic planners take note.

Mapping Australia's economy


Australian Israeli Film Festival – August 2014

August 17, 2014

I am old enough to remember when the 1984 prison drama “Beyond the Walls” became the first Israeli film to obtain a significant theatrical release here in Australia. What a moment that was for a fledgling film industry for which even the word “industry” was an overstatement.

How things have changed. By my calculation, some 13 Israeli films have now been nominated for Academy Awards: ten features for “best foreign film” (*) and three documentaries (**). This makes Israel the tenth most nominated country in the world. Pretty good, considering that it had such a late start.

But one of the biggest changes is that we in Australia now have access to the latest Israeli films (and not just random late night SBS TV viewings) through the annual “AICE Israeli Film Festival”, now in its eleventh year. The AICE (Australia-Israel Cultural Exchange) operates in as a genuine exchange, bringing Israeli films to Australia, and in turn taking Australian films to Israel.

The AICE Festival opens in Australia this coming week, running at various times in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

Of this year’s films, “The Second Son” (also known as “Dancing Arabs”) is one of my favourites. Coming directly from a rapturous reception at the Jerusalem Film Festival,  this film is directed by Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”, “The Syrian Bride”), based on two of Sayed Kashua’s bestselling novels. We follow the story of an Arab boy attending a Jewish boarding school, and dealing with crushing cultural challenges. (Below: The Second Son)Second Son photo

In fact, a large number of this year’s festival films deal sensitively with Israeli-Arab relations: “Self-Made” (the opening night film) is a black comedy in which a working class Arab woman and an upper-middle class Israeli artist have a bizarre mix-up at the Israel-Palestinian Territory border.  “The Green Prince” is an extraordinary documentary about a Palestinian and his unusual relationship with his Shin Bet (secret police) “handler”.  “Under the Same Sun”  posits that peace is possible between Israelis and Arabs, through cooperative business (this film won a recent award at the Peace on Earth Film Festival).

Like most film-makers around the world, Israeli film-makers usually sit on the “left” side of politics, and their films often provide highly critical viewpoints on the conflict with Palestinians (and social commentary generally), providing insights and a “human face” that are rarely, if ever, shown on the nightly news cycle. Thus attempts to boycott Israeli films (which have been growing in the wake of the recent Gaza war) are, if anything, oddly self-defeating. These film directors show parts of Israeli society and how Israelis really think and interact with Arabs, going far beyond usual assumptions. Attempts to silence their voices are unfortunate at best and deeply troubling.

Many of the other Israeli obsessions are showcased at the festival, including folk-dancing (“Hora 79”), the conflict between religious and secular (“In Between”), Holocaust survivors (“Anita B”), former Nazis (“Mr Kaplan”), art stolen by the Nazis (“The Art Dealer”), Jewish refugees from Arab lands (“Shadow in Bagdad”) and national commemoration (“The Ceremony”).

(*) The ten features are Sallah (1964), The Policeman (1971), I Love You Rosa (1972), The House on Chelouche Street (1973), Operation Thunderbolt (1977), Beyond the Walls (1984), Beaufort (2007), Waltz With Bashir (2008), Agami (2009) and Footnote (2011).
(**) The three documentaries are The 81st Blow (1974), The Gatekeepers (2012) and 5 Broken Cameras (also 2012).

Self Made photo(Above:  Self Made)

Next to Her(above:  Next to Her)

Kindergarden Teacher(above:  Kindergarten Teacher)

 


Begin Again film review

August 17, 2014

“Begin Again” is one of those romantic overcoming adversity fantasy films that is just grounded enough for you to suspend disbelief. I loved it.

Irish film director John Carney originally broke onto the scene of small, warm, musically-themed films with his “Once”, a delightful drama of two mismatched musicians in Dublin who go against the odds. With “Begin Again”, the action switches to New York City, and he has enlisted a strong cast to tell a similar story.  The result is highly entertaining and upbeat, guaranteed to make you believe that yes, your dreams are possible.

Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a former music executive who co-founded an independent label with partner Saul (hip hop artist Mos Def), but has fallen on hard times: separated from his wife Miriam (the ever strong Catherine Keener), he wanders the streets in an alcoholic haze and tries vainly to be a father to his 14 year old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta (Keira Knightly) is a sensitive singer-songwriter who has come to New York with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5), who in turn becomes a star, and in turn leaves her.

On her planned last night in New York, Gretta reluctantly takes the stage at an East Village nightclub to sing one of her songs, cajoled by old British friend Steve (James Corden). That’s where Dan hears her, and the result is a magical scene where Dan can hear and envision all of the instrumentation behind Gretta’s song. Director Carney does a neat job of presenting both Gretta’s and Dan’s stories to us (neatly filling in the backstories of the day leading to their propitious first meeting).

From there the film takes a familiar, but still highly satisfying course. Yes, Dan convinces Gretta to stay in New York City, and yes he produces an album of their songs. But the gimmick is that because they don’t have enough money to afford a studio, they record the songs at various locations around the city: on a subway platform, on boats on Central Park lake, in an alleyway, and on a rooftop with a view (of course) of the Empire State Building.

No prizes for guessing the outcome, nor for the inevitable Gretta-Dave reunion, nor for how daughter Miriam’s life is changed, etc etc.

Sound predictable? Perhaps. But the true delight in “Begin Again” is the film’s irrepressible good humour, absolute adoration of modern music (writer/director Carney used to play bass for an Irish rock band, so he knows what he films) and an almost pitch-perfect cast. Ruffalo is a great music exec who needs to prove himself again; Knightly, singing with her own voice, brings just the right combination of vulnerability, energy and style to her role; Keener virtually defines the ever-suffering former wife; Steinfeld is the adolescent daughter needing direction and attention; Corden is the perfect “best friend” who has just what Knightly’s character needs; and as real-life musicians both Mos Def and Adam Levine play important roles. If we did not believe the tension between Def’s character and Ruffalo’s, nor if we did not believe the Levine-Knightly relationship, the film would not have worked. Yet it does.

“Begin Again” is about … yes, rebirth, following ideals and the possibility (indeed the necessity) of reinvention. Director Carney understands this basic element of the American character, and brings it to screen in such a buoyant way that we cannot help being charmed into liking both the film and all of its characters.

Begin Again film poster


Snowpiercer – the best film you may never see this year

August 9, 2014

If there was any justice in the world of film distribution, the new English language post-apocalyptic climate change thriller “Snowpiercer” by Korean director Bong Joon-ho would be taking the world’s box office by storm.

It’s a stunning film, technically brilliant, hilarious in parts and fabulously designed, paced and directed. It’s torn from tomorrow’s headlines, and shamelessly borrows from numerous recent films such as “The Hunger Games” series, “The Road” (which still gives me nightmares five years later), “The Day After Tomorrow” (global cooling), “Divergent” and “Elysium”.

Instead, despite a 95% positive critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, excellent acting turns by John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and from Chris Evans (“Captain America”) in the heroic lead, it is only playing in a handful of cinemas here in Australia (just two in Sydney, by last count) – with an Australian box office gross of about Aus$100,000. As of yesterday, it was only in 100 cinemas in North America, where it has grossed a paltry US$4,213,337.

By contrast, the film has pulled in some US$60million in South Korea. All of the reasons for this murky release pattern are unclear but seem to have something to do with arguments between the director and the Weinstein Company, and may well become an unfortunate case study of the decline of theatrical release of films.

“Snowpiercer” may well fall into the category of one of the best films you may never see, and what a shame if it does, because this is a big screen film if there ever was one. It’s winter here in Sydney, and the cinema I saw it in was running on the cold side in my mid-morning session (with just six other patrons), so I acutely felt the cold shown on screen – the only time I have felt this way before was when watching “The Day After Tomorrow” in the cinema some years ago.

The plot, outlandish as it is: scientific attempts in 2014 to avert global warming have resulted in a catastrophic global cooling that has virtually killed off all living life. Picking up the story 17 years later in 2031, the only humans left are those on a high-tech train – invented by mastermind Wilford – that circles the globe. But the situation on the train reflects the worst sort of social engineering and fascist inequality, with severe deprivation and brutality visited on the masses in the last few cars, who are fed with gelatinous protein bars, kept in concentration camp-like conditions and occasionally recruited to do special jobs for the rich and spoiled elite who live, work and – especially – party in the front cars. As a special delight, the film presents a great mixture of white, Asian and brown faces, neatly capturing our “multicultural” present.

The dirty masses dressed in rags are perpetually scheming about how to revolt, and when an opportunity arises they take it, led by Curtis (Evans), with the support of his grand master Gilliam (Hurt), attacking the ideologue “Minister Mason” (Swinton, in a role uncomfortably close to Margaret Thatcher at her worst). As Curtis and his supporters battle their way to the front, they meet one surprise after another: I won’t present any spoilers, because this is where “Snowpiercer” is simultaneously at its most wondrous and barbaric (those who fear gore, be warned).

“Snowpiercer” is an achievement of major proportions. Sure, it liberally uses ideas presented by others on-screen, but does so in a way that is unique, riveting and ultimately very personal. Like the best of films, this one reflects our present anxious moment of both climate change and inequality of wealth (see authors such as Thomas Piketty and “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) in exceptional and unexpected ways.

Snowpiercer poster


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