Film review of Vox Lux

March 9, 2019

(This film review of “Vox Lux” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 February 2019.)

Directed and written by Brady Corbet; starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle and Raffey Cassidy, with narration by Willem Dafoe

*****

“Vox Lux” is a new drama featuring everyone’s favourite Israeli-American actress, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, “Jackie”), as Celeste Montgomery, a young woman who survives a violent tragedy with her sister (French actress Stacy Martin, star of “Nymphomaniac”) and turns it into a hit song that launches their singing careers.

Portman arrives in the film half-way through; her younger self (Raffey Cassidy) is the one (careful: plot spoilers ahead) who faces the darkened eyes of a Columbine-style school shooter in her Staten Island high school, offering to be a hostage if he lets everyone go. It doesn’t work: Celeste is shot anyway, but she survives, following which she attends months of physical therapy.

With the help of her younger sister, Celeste chances on music as a form of therapy, and ends up writing a hit song about her experience, coached by a gruff manager (Jude Law) and guided by a music publicist (Jennifer Ehle). Fast forward 15 years. Celeste, now 31, is a superstar singer, a drug and alcohol abuser, and an imperious, self-centred and powerful presence, part Lady Gaga, part Madonna. She also has a teenage daughter (with no partner on the scene) named Albertine, played by Raffey Cassidy (who is also the younger Celeste). A neat trick.

“Vox Lux” is that kind of movie, striving to keep the audience off-balance. Despite the film’s nasty subject matter, it is presented with a strong ironical (and occasionally humorous) tone, partly due to a calm “voice from on high” narration by an unmistakeable Willem Dafoe. There’s something else, possibly the sound design or an at times menacing musical score by iconic composer Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers). Or perhaps it’s the edginess that most characters show on screen, that makes you think something terrible is always about to happen. Some pretty bad things take place – this is a physically and emotionally violent film, truly earning its MA15+ rating – although events never feel quite as emotionally devastating as foreshadowed. The director, Brady Corbet, may be playing with us here, distancing us from the emotions of his lead character. Or not. The result is disconcerting, intentionally so. This is clever film-making, torn from tomorrow’s news. It may not be easy to watch, but the result commands our attention.

Portman’s performance is enthralling, a haunting darker sister to Lady Gaga in “A Star is Born”. Like Lady Gaga, she sings her own songs. What she loses in melody, she makes up in aggressiveness.

Despite strong early Oscar buzz, Portman was shut out of both Oscars and Golden Globe nominations. According to The Guardian, last year – 2018 – was the worst on record for gun violence in American schools, with 94, beating the previous record (set in 2006) of 59. Are the film’s themes, so contemporary in the era of Sandy Hook and Parkland, just too strong for major awards?

The final half of the film is a count down to a major concert by Celeste, and it is shattered by a distant tragedy with uncomfortable resonance to Celeste’s own brand. Celebrity and terrorism are inextricably linked in America, “Vox Lux” seems to be telling us.

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Film review of On the Basis of Sex

March 9, 2019

(This film review of “On the Basis of Sex” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 14 February 2019.)

Directed by Mimi Leder; written by Daniel Stiepleman; starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates and Cailee Spaeny.

*****

United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the most powerful Jewish women in the world. Sitting on the US Supreme Court since 1993 (appointed by President Clinton), Ginsburg is one of three Jews and three women currently serving – and one of the four remaining liberal/progressive judges. The recent controversy surrounding the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanagh (a conservative Catholic) shows how fraught the politics of the US Supreme Court currently is.

As topical as current Court machinations are, the film “On the Basis of Sex” reaches back in history to provide a dramatic re-creation of 15 formative years of Ginsburg’s early life and career, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The film opens in 1956, when Ruth is commencing Harvard Law School, one of only nine women to enter that year. To the rousing chords of the gridiron football fight song, “10,000 Men of Harvard”, she marches into the Law School building, her blue dress standing out in a field of grey suits. She too stands out as a student, despite the efforts of some professors not to acknowledge her presence.

The young Ginsburg is played by British actress Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”). Ginsburg’s husband, fellow Harvard Law School graduate and taxation expert Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer in his second Jewish role, following “Call Me by Your Name”) must surely be one of the most ideologically sound and “liberated” Jewish males ever to appear on screen: he shares child rearing, he cooks (better than Ruth) and looks out for her career. Despite being first in her class at both Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, Ruth was denied every job she applied for immediately out of school, given excuses of “too Jewish” or “the wives would be jealous”. Instead she commenced lecturing at Rutgers University, Newark, replacing the African-American teacher who had left.

The young Ruth is disappointed at not practicing law, but grabs an opportunity that Marty discovers of a man not allowed to claim a carer tax deduction, one that women can claim. The Ginsburgs see the political opportunity in attacking gender discrimination through a man’s case rather than a woman’s. The second half of the film charts this case, in which they enlist Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux), the Jewish head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Powerful female director Mimi Leeder (“Deep Impact”, “ER”) helms the film and ensures that the normally uncinematic idea of equal rights for women is brought to life on screen. There’s no violence, just a great deal of wordplay: “The word woman does not appear in the US Constitution,” a judge tells Ruth. “Neither does freedom,” she responds. The film’s deepest insights come in illustrating how laws change, often readied by political protests: “We are not asking the court to change the law; we are asking you to give our country the right to change,” Ruth also tells the judges.

Screen icons Sam Waterston and Kathy Bates appear respectively as Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law and later US Solicitor General, and Dorothy Kenyon, lawyer, feminist and civil rights activist. Perhaps the most touching performance comes from Cailee Spaeny as the Ginsburgs’ daughter Jane, exhibiting as a teenager the same activist impulses as her parents. (In real life, Jane also attended Harvard Law, and now teaches at Columbia Law. Her daughter Clara, Ruth’s grand-daughter, also attended Harvard Law; they are possibly the only family with three generations of women – and especially Jewish women – to attend that school.) Not coincidentally, scriptwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the nephew of Marty Ginsburg and had direct access to Ruth, who we see in a brief cameo outside the Supreme Court.

Despite its slightly off-putting title (would “on the basis of gender” be any better?), the film is likely to enter the pantheon as one of the best Jewish female “biopics” ever. While the ending is not in doubt (surely all who watch the film know she wins the case), the film provides an inspirational role model to women – and especially Jewish women – considering the law as a career.


Film review of The Front Runner

February 2, 2019

Film review of “The Front Runner”, by Don Perlgut, for AJN 31 January 2019

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman and Jay Carson; starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons and Alfred Molina

****

“The Front Runner” tells the true story of the 1988 Kennedy-esque US Presidential candidate, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (played by Australia’s Hugh Jackman), whose campaign – he was the Democratic front runner for the nomination at the time – was overwhelmed by the story of an extramarital affair. This was the first time that tabloid journalism and political journalism merged, changing the nature of US national politics and celebrity. The sordid nature of that event seems quaint by comparison with subsequent sexual escapades by Bill Clinton and Donald J. Trump. The implicit question that the film never answers is why did Hart’s candidacy fail, whereas Clinton and Trump (so far) prospered?

Although Senator Hart is now a footnote in history for all but the most ardent devotees of American politics, the film’s neatly written script successfully resonates with the current “Me Too Movement”. Here was a brilliant man and attractive politician who simply could not see that his playing around outside his marriage would have political, moral and personal consequences: “It’s not 1972, it’s not 1982,” one of his advisors tells him. “The public cares about this.” Despite his brilliance, Hart – the film implies – lacked empathy for the lives of the women he was with. The public judged him badly for this.

The film’s Jewish director Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman and grandson of Holocaust survivors, has established a stellar career of dramatising “of the moment” issues, from corporate human resource management (“Up in the Air”) to teenage pregnancy (“Juno”) to big tobacco (“Thank You for Smoking”).

Reitman does a great job with an outstanding cast that includes J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager, Vera Farmiga (Oscar-nominated for “Up in the Air”) giving a perfectly controlled turn as Hart’s wife Lee and Alfred Molina as “Washington Post” editor Ben Bradlee. Jackman – an excellent physical match for the good-looking Hart – provides a strong performance. But the most touching acting comes from Mamoudou Athie, who plays a fictional African-American “Post” journalist who acts as the film’s moral centre: his character’s scrupulously fair but firm pursuit of the truth in questioning Hart is truly memorable.

“The Front Runner” is based on the book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”, written by Jewish journalist Matt Bai, who was once shamed by evangelical Christian and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich into admitting that he had not gone to synagogue that week. A large number of Jewish actors appear in minor but memorable roles, including Kevin Pollak (who has played more than 20 Jewish movie characters) as an editor of the “Miami Herald”, Ari Graynor as a “Post” reporter, and Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Molly Ephraim and Josh Brener as campaign aides.

Although “The Front Runner” never reaches the heights of classics of the political bio-pic genre like “All the President’s Men” (Nixon) or “Primary Colors” (Clinton) or even the (currently screening) “Vice” (Dick Cheney), this film is a highly engaging, sharply directed and crisply edited slice of our current political and cultural moment. It neatly illustrates the engagement and co-dependency between the media and politicians.

When the head of CBS News said of the Trump campaign in 2016, that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, he captured something that screenwriter Matt Bai says began with Gary Hart: concern for a “tsunami of triviality” has helped the rise of Donald Trump. Hart foreshadowed this in his withdrawal statement that closes the film, paraphrasing his idol Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.”


Urban murals: The Annandale House

January 10, 2019

I’ve seen lots of urban murals, but the one below is an exceptional example of the genre: a mural of a house painted on the side of the house that it depicts. This one is in Annandale, a historic suburb of inner Sydney.

The mural

The house

 


Film review of The Favourite

January 10, 2019

This film review of “The Favourite” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 January 2019 in a slightly shorter form.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn

*****

“The Favourite” is a bawdy comedy-drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Lanthimos specialises in off-kilter worlds; here he has created a world of insider court intrigue, deceit, manipulation and sex, especially lesbian sex.

Queen Anne ruled during a time of political turmoil and change, with bitter rivalries between Whigs and Tories, and ongoing military actions against both France and Spain. The film is set not long after the death of Anne’s husband the Prince of Denmark (1708), and Anne is perpetually in a foul mood, exacerbated by increasing poor health: she suffered from severe gout and a number of other medical problems, could hardly walk and is usually pushed around in a wheelchair.

The film extrapolates, with significant poetic liberties, from the acknowledged intimate relationship that Anne (played by an almost unrecognisable Olivia Colman) had with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Jewish actress Rachel Weisz), who becomes the Queen’s closest advisor. The two call each other by pet names – Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman – apparently as a means of establishing a level of equality between them. A competitor arrives in the person of Sarah’s first cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Although down on her luck and fortune – Abigail is literally thrown into the mud from a carriage outside the palace in an opening scene – through careful scheming and attentiveness to Queen Anne’s infirmities, Abigail becomes a power player in the court.

Without its trio of acclaimed female performances – Colman, Weisz and Stone – this film could have become a mash-up of seedy British monarchy stories. The performances are astonishing, lively, energetic, funny, lusty, erotic and frequently nasty. All three have been nominated for Golden Globes, a feat likely to be repeated at the Oscars, with the film and director also in competition for major awards.

Satiric spoofs on the foibles of the British political and social upper classes have rarely been as cutting as this. Palace residents and courtiers are breathtakingly out of touch with what’s happening in the world, preferring to race ducks, shoot pheasants and bombard each other naked with fruit.

“The Favourite” also operates as a form of revisionist history: these three women appear to be the most powerful people in Britain, with many men clamouring – often fruitlessly – for the attention of their monarch. The men are dressed absurdly, with long wigs and bizarre make-up. England is at war – a fact that Queen Anne occasionally forgets – and senior members of the Parliament and the army seek her approval on war strategy and financing the war effort; in both areas, Anne is way out of her depth.

“The Favourite” includes delightful lines, such as when Abigail greets a nobleman who has come to her room unannounced: “Have you come to rape me or seduce me?” “Madam, I am a gentleman,” he responds. “Rape me then,” she replies.

The film also presents as tragicomedy: Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits in her chambers, each of them affectionately named, representing her 17 lost children, most of them by miscarriage. In poor health and growing obese, Anne eats whatever and whenever she pleases, simply vomiting into a pitcher when she is full. Prospective viewers are forewarned: under its comedy, “The Favourite” has a hard and cynical edge; these players are angling for power and the stakes are high.

 


Film review of Can You Ever Forgive Me

January 10, 2019

(This film review of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 7 December 2018.)

Directed by Marielle Heller; written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the memoir by Lee Israel; starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Marc Evan Jackson and Joanna Adler

*****

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is probably the best film you will ever see with an unlikeable and unattractive Jewish lead character.

Melissa McCarthy – American comic actress best-known for her vigorous and occasionally gross physical comedy (witness “Bridesmaids”) – plays Lee Israel, a failing Brooklyn-born non-fiction freelance writer whose career has run into trouble. Despite modestly successful biographies on Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead, her book on Estée Lauder has bombed and no publisher is interested in her next project – on Jewish actress and comedian Fanny Brice.

Lee’s agent gives blunt advice when Lee complains bitterly about Jack Clancy’s success at writing action thrillers: “You can be an asshole when you’re famous.”

Desperate for funds, Israel starts selling her possessions, including her prized Hepburn letter. When she accidentally finds a Fanny Brice original letter in a library book, she realises the value of celebrity correspondence in the ephemera and memorabilia market. With no more “real” letters to sell, she develops a career as a forger of letters from the likes of Noel Coward and others, using her literary and research skills to embellish the letters in ways designed to appeal to dealers and collectors.

Set in the 1990s, this melancholy film is given extra poignancy because the story is true: Lee Israel was a real person (she passed away in 2014) – a Jewish lesbian who resurrected her reputation (she is ultimately caught) through her autobiographical book telling of her short career as a literary forger, which ultimately became this film.

Lee Israel stumbles into a close friendship with Jack, a gay man played with wild abandon by Richard E. Grant. His occasional over-acting perfectly fits his character: flamboyant, intensely verbal, slavishly loyal (too loyal) to Lee, partaking in numerous sexual delights and easily distracted.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” acts as an ode to New York City: shots of the 59th Street Bridge from director Marielle Heller and Jewish co-writer Nicole Holofcener (read my review of Holofcener’s film Friends With Money) consciously evoke Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. It’s also a film about books, writing, biography, creativity (or its absence), money (or its lack), fame (or its opposite, obscurity), professional ethics (or none), and frustrated or mis-directed love.

The film also hints at deeper questions: what, in fact, is real when forgers are so readily believed? (The film-makers slyly hint at the present moment of “fake news”.) A wordless scene near the end of the film is telling: a bookstore owner realises that a celebrity letter (written by Israel) in his shop’s window is a forgery, and removes it. After a moment’s hesitation, he puts the letter back in the window.

But the film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is Melissa McCarthy’s. Her character is unhygienic (look for the great comic scene with her cat), grumpy, ornery, irascible, unhappy and anti-social. But she’s also energetic and oh-so-real, serving to charm audiences with her story of decline, fall and ultimate resurrection.

Melissa McCarthy in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved


The Community Colleges Australia Summer Reading List

December 30, 2018

This year, I wrote Community Colleges Australia’s first “Summer Reading List”, with selected recommendations for members and friends. (You can view the CCA version here.)

“Summer reading is a sacred pastime. For many of us, it’s about the only time we now have to read without constant distraction.” – Tim Soutphommasane 

Understanding Australia 

My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches by David Marr 

David Marr’s My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches is a massive collection of his writing, from the 1970s onwards, including early works, such as the first review of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries,” writes Marr. The book is filled with Marr’s wisdom: “The true radicals in Australia are those who call themselves conservative…. Australians are a practical people…. We fight change hard here – often brutally hard – but the leaders we come to admire are mostly reformers.”

I suspect I am not the only person on whom David Marr has grown over the years. Perhaps best-known for his biography of Patrick White, Marr’s work has broadened and deepened in recent years, turning him one of Australia’s most insightful cultural and political commentators. In recent years, Marr has published Quarterly Essay biographies of Tony Abbott, George Pell and Bill Shorten. Listen to Marr’s ABC Radio National “Conversations” interview with Richard Fidler (13 November 2018) for a preview of his book’s contents. 

Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up by Gabrielle Chan

In this week’s Sydney Morning Herald (29 December 2018), Shane Wright writes: “Capital cities are eating up the rest of Australia. Already home to more than two-thirds of the nation’s 25 million residents, each capital city will soon dominate their respective state or territory in a way that will challenge Australia’s economic and political landscape.” Capital city populations became dominant in 1916 in South Australia, 1921 in Victoria, 1942 in Western Australia, 1954 in New South Wales and 1991 in the Northern Territory. It’s projected to take place in 2027 in Queensland and 2040 in Tasmania. The social, political, economic and cultural implications of this national demographic shift is profound.

It’s also one cause for the political restlessness of non-metropolitan Australia, with increasing numbers of non-major party politicians winning seats such as Cathy McGowan; the further you get from the state GPO, the higher the disillusioned minor party vote. 

That’s the context of Gabrielle Chan’s book Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up. Born to Chinese immigrants in Sydney, Chan became a journalist and moved to western New South Wales in 1996. She separates the book into 2 parts (“Shedding my city skin” and “The politics of country”) and 19 chapters – which she calls “lessons”. Examples: 1. WTF? There are people west of the divide; 2. Place is everything; 5. There is an education divide; 7. Not all kids want to go to uni; 11. Rural politics is stuck in an old model; 15. The economics of a small town are tricky. Listen to Chan’s interview with Philip Clark on ABC Radio’s “Nightlife”. 

Seize the Fire: Three Speeches by Richard Flanagan 

Acclaimed novelist Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) has begun to develop a reputation as one of Australia’s most insightful speech-makers. This short volume includes three of his recent speeches, encapsulating a unique Australian voice: “Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather an invitation to dream, and this country—our country—belongs to its dreamers . . . if we are finally to once more go forward as a people it’s time our dreamers were brought in from the cold.” 

Understanding America

The United States of America has always fascinated Australia, however during the last two years – since the ascendancy of President Trump – the need to understand what is happening across the Pacific, and it’s meaning for Australia, has become acute. These two works should assist.

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

This ground-breaking, lengthy and acclaimed historical work by Harvard academic and New Yorker essayist Jill Lepore attempts in one volume to explain the full scope of American history. Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes: “I can think of no stronger endorsement than this: These Truths is 932 pages long—and, reader, I didn’t want it to end…. Here are some of the most urgent and defining truths of the current moment—among them inequality, partisanship, nationalism, and, in particular, racism—told in reverse, Metacom to Cotton Mather to Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray to Phyllis Schlafly to Barack Obama … [p]eople who, treading the vast American landscape, bent the arc of history.”

Companion piece: Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein, a recent visitor to the Sydney Writers Festival; listen to her Festival talk here.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

American journalist, historian and environmental activist Rebecca Solnit – author of Men Explain Things to Me, about male arrogance which preceded “mansplaining” – has marked out her place as one of the most original voices on feminism, ecology and the environment and how place matters in the modern age. Her latest collection consists of 20 essays separated into four sections – Electoral Catastrophes, American Emotions, American Edges and Possibilities. The pieces in this collection were all written since 2016 and are thus imbued with a sense of urgency within the shadows of the Trump presidency. Solnit lives in San Francisco, and brings a unique West Coast perspective, compared to the New York-Washington-Boston intellectual approach we are used to.

Companion piece: Women and Power: A Manifesto by British classicist Mary Beard.

Understanding the Crisis of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, with its accompanying marketisation/privatisation agenda, has made a profoundly negative impact on Australian vocational education and training (VET), and – as a result – the community education sector. These three recent books provide arguments against the marketisation agenda and essential reading on what to do next:

Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next by Richard Denniss is a passionate, highly readable essay that shows how “the language, ideas and policies of neoliberalism have transformed our economy and, more importantly, our culture.”

The Wages Crisis in Australia: What it is and what to do about it is a free e-book from University of Adelaide Press, edited by Andrew Stewart, Jim Stanford (a recent speaker to NSW community college CEOs) and Tess Hardy. Read chapter 9, “Contracting out community services, marketisation and wages”, by Fiona Macdonald and Michael Pegg.

Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired, edited by Damien Cahill and Phillip Toner, includes 19 case studies of how marketisation has failed Australia. Read Toner’s chapter entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, which I reviewed back in November.

Understanding Economics, Democracy and Politics

And finally, the age of Trump means that more authors are writing passionately about and why democracy should be saved: