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).


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.


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