In Selma the film, Martin Luther King is a man who listens

March 1, 2015

I am too young to remember Dr Martin Luther King, but I am not that young that I have not been deeply influenced by his legacy as the leading American civil rights campaigner.

“Selma”, the biopic of a slice of Martin Luther King’s life, can be a deeply affecting experience, at least for those of us for whom the American civil rights movement remains an important cultural, political and social touchstone.

Director Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who seems to have held many roles in film from publicist to writer and director, has arrived without fanfare to show us that she is one of the strongest directors in contemporary film. Her re-creation of historical events – a number of key activities taking place primarily in Alabama in the southern US – and her ability to portray recent historical figures on screen is astonishing, especially African-Americans: King himself (an amazing performance by David Oyelowo), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin, Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and even a brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The white historical figures are equally as good: Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace of Alabama (Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and a host of others. But the film’s ability to get “inside” the African-American characters gives them three-dimensionality, substance and coherent identity – that is this film’s greatest achievement.

I am not quite certain why “Selma” is not more popular in the USA, hovering just over US$50 million in the theatrical box office as I write this. While not a flop, this is by no means a success. Part of it may be the mini-controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson: the film shows a number of discussions between King and Johnson, and paints Johnson as deliberate, strategic (fair enough) but wanting to hold King back at every turn. “You have one cause to worry about,” Johnson says to King at one point, “I have 101 causes.”

Those who live outside of the USA, unless they have read widely in American history, have no true concept of the enduring stain and trail of social dysfunction and blight that the history of slavery and racism has left on that country. Even today, African-Americans are heavily over-represented in American jails and prisons: six times the rate of whites, and nine times the rate for young black men.rs in jail.

As the film “Selma” points out, institutionalised disenfranchisement of African-Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As late as the mid-1960s, African-American voting rights were widely ignored, particularly – and especially – in the south. Just to be clear, this meant that in large areas of the south at that time, African-Americans simply were unable to vote, enforced through a wide range of tricks, regulations and petty bureaucracies. In turn this meant that they could not serve of trial juries, with deeply negative implications for African-American interactions with the justice and court systems. The master strategist King understood all of that. In an early scene in “Selma”, an older African-American woman attempts to enrol to vote and is asked a wide range of questions, including reciting the preamble to the American Constitution (she can, can you?), and finally rejected. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the woman is Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

It’s a shame that “Selma” will not be more widely seen in the USA or even here in Australia, where it has barely registered with the audience, other than with film critics, who wholeheartedly endorsed it. The American civil rights movement had a direct effect on the cause of Indigenous justice here in Australia, inspiring a wide range of campaigners. But aside from Barack Obama, whose personal story captured the attention of many Australians, African-American stories are not popular here.

And finally, a comment as to why “Selma” is able to transcend the biographical film genre in new and unexpected ways. According to American film critic Max O’Connell, there are six ways to make a biopic live and breathe. I quote them directly from his review on letterboxd, rather than attempting to summarise:

*****

1. Focus on one small part of the character’s life.
2. Focus on the backroom deals, the horse-trading, the deal-making and the compromises needed to make progress.
3. Cast an actor who’s as good a listener as David Oyelowo, who’s commanding without ever feeling pre-bronzed because he’s constantly leaning in to what everyone’s saying and weighing information.
4. On top of that, get someone like Ava DuVernay to direct, as she’ll get the least-showy performances out of both actors that tend to show off (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi) or characters that beg actors to give show-stopping performances (George Wallace, LBJ). Everything is perfectly measured, and with the exception of Martin Sheen as the world’s most dignified judge, none of the stars are particularly distracting (also: props to Oprah for never making scenes about her even in movies that seem to encourage it, a la “The Butler”).
5. Show the violence honestly without ever lingering too much on the brutality, instead showcasing how it affects the people and how they’ll have to adapt (or not).
6. When dealing with questions of whether or not the film’s noble center was a flawed man, don’t dodge the issue (here, it’s MLK’s philandering). Show how it hurt the people around them. At the same time, show how it’s just one facet, not an all-consuming problem, and that it’s insignificant compared to the work he did.

*****
I particularly love O’Connell’s point number 3: David Oyelowo’s King actively LISTENS to the people around him. This is something that a large number of leaders and those in power are unable or unwilling to do. King apparently did this, and in “Selma” Oyelowo illustrates it beautifully, in scene after scene. In his short film career – Oyelowo has also starred in “The Butler” – for me, this actor with the sonorous voice has already earned his place in the pantheon of great screen performances, Oscar nominations or not.

David Oyelowo in Selma


Film review of The Interview

February 12, 2015

(This film review of “The Interview” appeared in print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 12 February 2015 and online on 18 February 2015 with the title “Interview with a comic twist”.)

Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Written by Dan Sterling; Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang

In case you missed the news, “The Interview” is the film that may (or may not) have brought the major film production and distribution company Sony Pictures to its knees. This did not occur, like disasters of yore, because it cost heaps of money and flopped (“Heaven’s Gate”, “John Carter”), but for another reason entirely. Many experts (including the United States Government) allege that this fictional comedy about the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, resulted in a massive and unprecedented cyber-hacking of Sony’s computer systems by North Korean agents, revealing corporate secrets on an unprecedented scale.

In the movie, James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of sensationalist and low-rent television current affairs show called “Skylark Tonight”, with Seth Rogen playing his producer, Aaron Rapoport. When they realise that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un enjoys watching their show, they propose to the North Koreans that they interview him. After Kim Jong-un surprisingly accepts, the CIA approaches the television duo with a plan that they assassinate the dictator. After some hesitation, they agree, in part because they are “honey potted” (seduced, in a way) by sexy CIA handler Lacey (Lizzy Caplan). Upon arrival in Pyongyang, however, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) shows a warm and charming personality, successfully be-friending Dave Skylark, who in turn has second thoughts about the planned assassination. What follows is a fair bit of mayhem that even includes a possible nuclear war.

At its heart, “The Interview” is a B-grade film masquerading as a political satire of the American obsession with North Korea – or perhaps it is a political satire masquerading as a B-grade film: the result may be the same. Do not discount the schlocky, broadly comedic elements of “The Interview”: Seth Rogen – now widely recognised as one of America’s top comics – and his co-director Evan Goldberg are as close as we can get to this generation’s Mel Brooks: what was “Blazing Saddles” other than a broad satire on American race relations, under the guise of broad comedy?

Like so much of American political satire (and its intertwined cousin, American comedy), “The Interview” stems from a Jewish sensibility and outlook. Almost all of the major film-makers and actors (Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, Caplan) are Jewish, with Seth Rogen’s character clearly identified Jewish. In “The Interview”, Rogen further develops his on-screen Jewish persona: an intellectual (naturally), slightly overweight and highly sexed neurotic who over-thinks. His dalliance with a female member of the North Korean military elite (Diana Bang) is one of the cuter parts of the film. He is anything but an action hero, but is adept with physical comedy, which he performs here – at times with B-grade “gross-out” elements (be forewarned).

A particular delight is Korean-American actor Randall Park’s performance as the North Korean dictator, giving a wonderfully modulated and hilarious performance. There are also lots of fun cameos, with Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appearing.

Structurally “The Interview” is way less than perfect. There is at least major one device – the use of a killer poisonous bandaid-like strip – that is just left hanging (as it were). It’s a great set-up (one of the film’s best) that sadly lacks a punchline (or did I blink and miss it?). No matter, “The Interview” is good-humoured and very funny in parts, as well as a must-see for Seth Rogen fans.

*****

(The following is the original poster for the film, prepared prior to its postponed release.  According to Wikipedia, the Korean text reads: “The war will begin”, “Do not trust these ignorant Americans!” and “Awful work by the ‘pigs’ that created Neighbors and This Is the End“.)

The Interview original poster


Film review of Mortdecai

February 7, 2015

(This review of “Mortdecai” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 February 2015.)

Directed by David Koepp; Written by Eric Aronson; Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum and Jonny Pasvolsky

The new film “Mortdecai”, starring Johnny Depp as “Lord Charlie Mortdecai”, a shady British art dealer fighting off bankruptcy, follows a long tradition of the British comedy caper. Based on the humorous novel, “The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery” by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mortdecai has a lot in common with P.G. Wodehouse’s foppish Bertie Wooster. Both are bumbling members of the British upper classes who romp through with witty dialogue, attended by loyal manservants (Wooster’s Jeeves and Mortdecai’s “Jock Strapp” – get the pun?).

“Mortdecai” races from one exotic location to another: from Hong Kong to London to Moscow to Los Angeles. In each one, Charlie manages to get himself into trouble and is invariably saved by the loyal Strapp (Paul Bettany). The production design is excellent (the “transitions” from one city to another are novel and funny) and the cast is strong. Aside from Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow stars as his wife Johanna; Ewan McGregor an old university friend, MI5 Inspector Marland, still in love with Johanna; Jonny Pasvolsky an international terrorist; and Jeff Goldblum a flamboyant American art entrepreneur.

“Mortdecai” falls into the category of a lightweight and enjoyable “guilty pleasure”, but where it falls down is in the script adaptation by first-time scriptwriter Eric Aronson. The dialogue is indeed witty, but the plot is overwritten, revolving around a stolen Goya painting that may or may not include the code to a Swiss bank account that contains Nazi riches. This reference to Nazi art theft is only a notional device that allows the characters to run around the world bumping into each other.

Much attention is paid to Mortdecai’s insistence on keeping his new moustache (the original book’s theme), to the disgust of Johanna, who refuses to sleep with him because of it. This must have seemed funny back in Wodehouse days, but in 2015 it is anachronistic and inconsequential. Another running joke is that servant Strapp continues to “take bullets” and other physical punishment for his master. There is a strong potential satire here about the attitudes of the British upper classes towards the lower classes, but this never properly develops.

Because we do not much care about Charlie Mortdecai’s problems, emotionally there is little at stake in the film. Underneath his roguish charm, Mortdecai seems a man out of his era, with a sensibility more suited for 1950.

Although the name Mortdecai could be mistaken for one of the stars of the “Purim” story, Lord Mortdecai is definitely not Jewish, although there are lots of Jewish connections to the film: (almost certainly) scriptwriter Eric Aronson along with actors Jeff Goldblum, Gwyneth Paltrow (Jewish father), and of course, Jonny (Jonathan Marc) Pasvolsky (see accompanying article), who plays the character of international terrorist Emil Strago. Pasvolsky is a South African-born Australian Jewish actor whose credits include one of the most Jewish Australian films, “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”. One minor character is even called Spinoza, although it’s not clear if this is a Jewish in-joke or not.

****************

Jewish movie trivia:

This film is the big Hollywood break for Australian actor Jonny Pasvolsky, who appeared in the Australia Jewish film “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”.  (See photo below of Pasvolsky in “Mortdecai”.)

IMDB reports that British actress Norma Attalah – who, as far as we can tell is not Jewish and acts the role of “Bronwen” in “Mortdecai” – played the Vishkower family maid in Barbra Streisand’s 1983 film “Yentl” (1983). Attalah was also Streisand’s “stand in” on the set, and memorised Yentl’s lines so that she could recite them while Streisand (as film director) was setting up shots. Recently Attalah also acted in a role in the British National Theatre’s production of the Nicholas Wright play “Travelling Light”, about the early Hollywood Jewish moguls.

Jonny Pasvolsky in Mortdecai


2014 Film Critics Circle of Australia Nominations Announced

February 3, 2015

The Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), of which I am a member, has announced the nominations for the 2014 FCCA Awards.

The nominations for Best Australian Film of 2014 are The Babadook (producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere), Charlie’s Country (producers Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr and Nils Erik Nielsen), Predestination (producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan and Michael Spierig), Tracks (producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman) and The Water Diviner (producers Troy Lum, Andrew Mason and Keith Rodger).

Leading the nominations with nine nominations is The Water Diviner, followed by The Babadook and Predestination both with eight. Five nominations have been awarded to Charlie’s Country, Felony, The Rover and Tracks. The awards have been spread over twelve films released across Australia during the 2014 calendar year.

FCCA President and ABC Radio host Rod Quinn said, “This year’s nominees show the diversity of the Australian film industry – from a scary movie set in a haunted house, to a modern day epic, and stories that cover our entire continent. The filmmakers nominated include the biggest names in Australian film and many talented newcomers.”

The 2014 FCCA Awards Ceremony will be held on Tuesday 10 March, 2015 from 6.30pm at Paddington/Woollahra RSL, Paddington. During the ceremony there will be a tribute to three eminent members of the FCCA who have recently left their long term positions, Evan Williams who has retired from his position as film critic for The Australian, and Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton who have departed their 28 year television careers as hosts of SBS TV’s The Movie Show and ABC TV’s At The Movies.

2014 FCCA AWARDS NOMINATIONS LIST

BEST FILM (producers)
THE BABADOOK: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
CHARLIE’S COUNTRY: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
PREDESTINATION: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Michael Spierig
TRACKS: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
THE WATER DIVINER: Troy Lum, Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger

BEST DIRECTOR
Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
John Curran: Tracks
Rolf de Heer: Charlie’s Country
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST ACTRESS
Essie Davis: The Babadook
Sarah Snook: Predestination
Mia Wasikowska: Tracks

BEST ACTOR
Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
Joel Edgerton: Felony
David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Don Hany: Healing
Guy Pearce: The Rover

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Justine Clarke: Healing
Melissa George: Felony
Erin James: The Little Death
Jacqueline McKenzie: The Water Diviner
Susan Prior: The Rover

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Jai Courtney: Felony
Adam Driver: Tracks
Yilmaz Erdoğan: The Water Diviner
Robert Pattinson: The Rover
Tom Wilkinson: Felony

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUNG ACTOR
Tilda Cobham-Hervey: 52 Tuesdays
Ashleigh Cummings: Galore
Angourie Rice: These Final Hours
Noah Wiseman: The Babadook

BEST SCREENPLAY
Matthew Cormack: 52 Tuesdays
Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Joel Edgerton: Felony
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Ian Jones: Charlie’s Country
Radek Ladezuk: The Babadook
Andrew Lesnie: The Water Diviner
Ben Nott: Predestination
Mandy Walker: Tracks

BEST MUSIC SCORE
David Hirschfelder: Healing
David Hirschfelder: The Water Diviner
Antony Partos: The Rover
Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST EDITOR
Bryan Mason: 52 Tuesdays
Simon Njoo: The Babadook
Matt Villa: Predestination
Matt Villa: The Water Diviner

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Jo Ford: The Rover
Alex Holmes: The Babadook
Chris Kennedy: The Water Diviner
Matthew Putland: Predestination

FCCA logo

 


ABC the most trusted institution in Australia

January 27, 2015

A January 20th report from Crikey notes that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is Australia’s “most trusted major institution” – and this is despite “an ongoing campaign by the Coalition and News Corporation to undermine it”.

The numbers according to Crikey:

  • 53% say that they “have some or a lot of trust in the ABC”.
  • This is the “same level of trust as the High Court” of Australia, although the ABC slightly betters the High Count, because 20% “have a lot of trust in the ABC”, which compares to 17% “a lot” for the High Court. In other words, the ABC’s trust is marginally stronger in feeling.
  • The previous figures: in July 2013, 54% trusted the ABC and 57% the High Court.
  • “The Reserve Bank continues to be the third most trusted institution”, at 49%.
  • At the bottom of the scale: the least trusted Australian “institutions are political parties (14%), religious organisations (22%), business groups and trade unions (23%)”.

A fascinating insight as to what the Australian public really things, and not just the editorial writers of major newspapers.


Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut and being Jewish

January 23, 2015

(I originally wrote this article back when Kubrick’s film “Eyes Wide Shut” opened in 1999.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film “Eyes Wide Shut” is how a film which is directed by a Jew (Stanley Kubrick), co-written by two Jews (Kubrick and Frederic Raphael), based on a story (“Traumnovelle”) written by a Jew (Arthur Schnitzler, a close friend of Theodore Herzl) where the original character (Fridolin) is a Viennese Jewish doctor – can turn into a film about a definitely non-Jewish New York doctor played by Tom Cruise. American-born (and British-educated) Raphael’s book about working with Stanley Kubrick – entitled “Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick” (1999) – gives us more than a few hints.

The original story had Fridolin suffering alienation “like every Middle European Jew”. Raphael reported that he was keen to keep the Jewish aspect of the story, particularly in its (new) New York setting. But Kubrick was firmly opposed to this: he specifically wanted the Fridolin character to be a “Harrison Fordish goy and forbade any reference to Jews”.

Raphael spends some pages in his book speculating on the effect which Kubrick’s Jewishness has had on him and his work, arguing that it was a fundamental aspect of his mentality. He notes that few of the obituaries mentioned that he was Jewish, and that Kubrick himself “was known to have said he was not really Jewish, he just happened to have two Jewish parents; he seemed to expose, or at least to dwell on, many ugly aspects of human behaviour, but he never confronted anti-Semitism.”

Despite Kubrick’s public distancing himself from his Jewish background, in conversation he reportedly brought it up with Raphael again and again, as when they were discussing how Tom Cruise’s character would talk, Raphael quoting Kubrick as saying “Coupla Jews, what do we know about what those people talk about when they’re by themselves?”

Raphael recalls that Kubrick “did try, for some time, to develop a (Holocaust) novel by Louis Begley, “Wartime Lies”, into a movie, but he never ‘licked it'”. Kubrick also discussed his interest in Holocaust films with Raphael, commenting on “Schindler’s List”: “It was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ was about six hundred people who don’t.” Raphael’s analysis of Kubrick: he was “concealing – even as he displays – the sense of alienation which came of the Holocaust.”


Film review of St Vincent

January 15, 2015

(This review of “St. Vincent” appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 15 January 2015, under the title “Sobering lessons of life”.)

Directed and written by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher

There are a number of certainties about the new Bill Murray film “St. Vincent”. The film is way better than its promotional trailer, unlike some where the trailer is the only thing worth watching. It’s a genuine starring vehicle and a virtually certain Oscar nomination for Murray, who has already received a Golden Globe nomination. He plays Vincent McKenna, an alcoholic down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran who accidentally ends up looking after his new neighbour’s child, Oliver Bronstein (12 year-old Jaeden Lieberher).

Oliver is the son of a single mom, x-ray technician Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), who has recently had an unhappy split from her husband and moved to the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn for her new hospital job. Maggie enrolls Oliver in a Catholic school, despite the fact that he is Jewish (“I think”), revealed in his first scene with his lovable teacher Brother Geraghty, played by Chris O’Dowd (“The Sapphires”), when Oliver is asked to lead the class in prayer. Oliver’s lack of Catholic prayer knowledge, rather than an embarrassing disaster, becomes a time when most of his class offers their religious beliefs (“I’m a Buddhist”, “I’m an atheist”, etc) – shades of an early scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. Brother Geraghty then has one of film’s funniest speeches, in which he talks about how good it is to be a Catholic, “because we have the best clothes and the most rules”.

Although religion plays only a minor role, “St. Vincent” is ultimately a film about redemption, giving and growing, all done in a mostly non-ecumenical manner: the title is a giveaway. There are no prizes for guessing the plot. Grumpy ageing and angry man gets humanised, nerdy picked-on kid gets more confident and his stressed out mom gets more settled. “St. Vincent” is not a surprising film, but a charming one.

Part of its charm is in the performances. Bill Murray shows that he can, indeed, act, although his performance is less about subtlety and more about fully inhabiting a very flawed character. Melissa McCarthy convinces, and Naomi Watts appears in a cute but predictable role as a Russian prostitute with a heart of gold.

There are some odd real-life resonances in “St. Vincent”, which make the film a bit more poignant for those “in the know”. Young Jaeden Lieberher, like his character Oliver, is Jewish. Like Oliver again, he moved with his mother from one city to another – from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to act in films. Numerous people have commented that “Bill Murray must be just like that in real life”. I am not so sure that the crotchety character we see on-screen is anything other than good acting. Murray puts his ability for understatement to good use (think “Groundhog Day” and “Lost in Translation”), giving us a performance of surprising depth in what appears at first to be a broad comedy but ultimately becomes much more than that.

There is at least one unexplored theme in “St. Vincent”, having to do with a bank account opened for Oliver, setting up a deep disappointment that is never realised. That led me to believe that the film-makers did some very judicious editing to make the film flow better. They have succeeded.

St Vincent poster


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