Film review of Indignation

August 27, 2016

(This film review of “Indignation” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 18, 2016 in a shorter form.)

Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth

Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger and Noah Robbins

This week’s release of the film “Indignation”, based on a 2008 autobiographical Philip Roth novel, calls our attention to this pre-eminent American-Jewish novelist of the late twentieth century.  Without exception, each of his more than 30 novels and collected stories exist in a Jewish world and Jewish framework of reference.

He also holds the record for more film adaptations than any other American-Jewish author.  Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven other Roth novels have been turned into movies, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”) and “The Humbling” (2014).

“Indignation” the film closely follows the plot of the book and is based on Roth’s experiences studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.  Set in the early 1950s, 19 year-old Marcus Messner – the only son of a Newark kosher butcher – leaves home to study at “Winesburg College”, in itself a fascinating reference to Sherwood Anderson’s early twentieth century short story collection.

Jumping from Jewish New Jersey to Gentile Ohio is a shock for young Messner: of 1400 students on campus, only 80 of them are Jewish.  Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students.  He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.

But Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) – who is haunted by excessively anxious parents back in Newark – does not count on meeting the wealthy, blond-haired and very beautiful WASP, Olivia Hutton.  Hutton is played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.

After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a voice-over, “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing.  But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”

These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus.  Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust Caution” and “Taking Woodstock”.  Schamus – who is also Jewish – has assembled an extraordinary cast of unknown faces that bring a real freshness to this film.  In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the antisemitic Dean of Students of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’ parents.  The two tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Dean Caudwell, are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.

“Indignation” carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel antisemitism faced by American Jews at the time, topics that were popular in the 1960s but have mostly faded from cultural consciousness.  This film’s closest cinematic relative is “School Ties”, an inferior and less intellectually complex 1992 movie about a Jewish football player at a very non-Jewish college who also faces antisemitism.  That film was also a “throw back” to the era of “Marjorie Morningstar” and other films that explored the American-Jewish post-war suburban experience of assimilation and suburbanisation.

Because “Indignation” is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as “Transparent” have done, it may not grab a large audience.  But that’s a pity, because it is one of the finest coming-of-age dramas released in cinemas in 2016, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.

If I were now – as I once was – an American-Jewish college student on campus now, “Indignation” could very well have become my favourite film of the year, in the way that “Goodbye Columbus” captured my attention so many years ago.  Yet I am thoroughly taken by the charms and emotional depth of “Indignation”, a major achievement by Schamus.

Logan Lerman Sarah Gadon2(photo above: Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in “Indignation”)


Wealth and inequality in Australia

August 17, 2016

For those looking for a definitive statement on wealth and income inequality in Australia, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) report from last year, Inequality in Australia: A Nation Divided, continues to resonate.  Here is a 2 minute video that accompanies and illustrates the report:


Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)


Melbourne International Film Festival features Jewish delights

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, in a slightly different format on 28 July 2016).

The 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (known by its cool acronym “MIFF”) opened last week.  In its line-up of 250 features and documentaries from 60 countries sit a great array of full of Jewish film riches.

The strong field is led by “Monsieur Mayonnaise”, a feature-length documentary about the extraordinarily accomplished Mora family.  Billed as “a tale about a comic book, Nazis, baguettes and mayonnaise”, this film follows Melbourne Jewish filmmaker Philippe Mora (“Mad Dog Morgan”, MIFF 2015 & “Swastika”, MIFF 1973) as he creates a graphic novel about his late father, Georges Mora.

Although the elder Mora is well-known in Melbourne as a patron of the arts and café owner, less is known about his work with the French resistance during World War Two and his efforts in saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis, which included a friendship with the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, Philippe’s godfather.

A second heartbreaking documentary also comes from the Nazi period, “No Home Movie”, the last film by the late Belgian-Jewish filmmaker Chantal Akerman.  As a dual portrait of both the filmmaker and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor, the film poignantly captures both of their final months.

A real crowd-pleasing documentary is “Everything is Copy”, yet another Jewish family “labour of love”.  First-time film-maker Jacob Bernstein tells the story of his late mother Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally’, “Sleepless in Seattle”), including interviews with Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks.  Jacob is Ephron’s son from her short-lived marriage to Watergate co-author Carl Bernstein.

The fourth great Jewish documentary at the festival is “PS. Jerusalem”, by Danae Elon, daughter of noted Israeli writer, the late Amos Elon.  In this very personal film, the younger Elon charts three years of her family’s adjustment to the chaos of moving back to Jerusalem from the USA.

Also featured this year is an extremely rare special program of all 12 films directed by Jerry Lewis, the famed American-Jewish comic, actor, director, producer and philanthropist, in honour of his 90th birthday earlier this year (see separate post for details).

Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven Philip Roth novels have been turned into movies, also including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”), “The Humbling” (2014) and the most recent, “Indignation”, which has its Australian premiere at MIFF.  Based closely on Roth’s autobiographical experiences of attending university in the 1950s, “Indignation” stars Jewish actor Logan Lerman as Roth’s stand-in, Marcus Messner, a working-class Jewish student from New Jersey.  “Indignation” is keenly awaited by Roth’s many fans, and may be the best Jewish comedy-drama of the year.

There are many films by Jewish directors at the festival, including two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!”; octogenarian Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the New York neighbourhood, “In Jackson Heights”; and Amy J Berg’s Janis Joplin biopic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue”.  Of particular note is Laura Israel’s documentary “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank”, about the life of this Swiss-born Jewish émigré artist who has influenced generations of photographers and film-makers.

Another interesting documentary is “Life: Animated”, a documentary about Owen Suskind (son of Jewish journalist Ron Suskind), a boy with autism who finds a way to communicate through Disney characters.

The Festival also includes unusual screenings of two classic American films: Jewish writer-director Elaine May’s “A New Leaf” (1971), starring May and Walter Matthau; and Claudia Weill’s classic 1978 woman’s “coming of age” Jewish romantic comedy-drama, “Girlfriends”.  Jewish actress Melanie Mayron (“thirtysomething”) won a BAFTA award for her role as a bar mitzvah photographer who develops a crush on a rabbi (played by Eli Wallach), and eventually finds her own way in the world.

The late and much beloved Jewish musician Lou Reed acts in “Heart of a Dog”, a creative documentary by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson; and Ira Glass (presenter of “This American Life”) conducts delightful interviews in the music-dance film “Contemporary Color”, a behind-and-in-front-of-the scenes David Byrnes American stadium spectacular.

Indignation(the cover of Philip Roth’s book “Indignation”)


Australian Jewish News dominates NSW Multicultural Media Awards

July 31, 2016

The Australian Jewish News (AJN) – the newspaper that has published my film reviews for more than 25 years – has dominated the NSW Multicultural Media Awards.  The paper won five categories at the 2016 Premier’s Multicultural Media Awards in Sydney last week.  The paper’s wins were for:

  • Best investigative story: Joshua Levi, “Communal Lobby faces fraud investigation”
  • Best image (pictured below): Noel Kessel, “A walk for peace”
  • Best news report: Joshua Levi, “Royal Commission into child sexual abuse”
  • Best use of social and digital media, Facebook and Twitter coverage of the “Royal Commission into child sexual abuse”
  • Best print publication

The paper also had a finalist nomination for “Best long-form feature”, Zeddy Lawrence, “Lest We Forget: Centenary of Anzac”.

The newspaper continues to provide high-quality, professional journalism to the Jewish communities around Australia, with an extraordinarily high rate of readership in the Australian Jewish community.

Noel Kessel(photo above from Noel Kesel, that won the “best image” award)


Film review of Septembers of Shiraz

July 19, 2016

This review of “Septembers of Shiraz” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 14 July 2016

Directed by Wayne Blair; written by Hanna Weg, based on the novel by Dalia Sofer; and starring Adrien Brody, Salma Hayek-Pinault, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ariana Molkara, Alon Aboutboul, Anthony Azizi, Navid Navid, Armin Amiri, Asli Bayram, Wadih Dona, Ovanes Torosyan, Velislav Pavlov and Jamie Ward

The film “Septembers of Shiraz” – “based on true events” – had its genesis as a novel by Iranian-born, New York-based Jewish author Dalia Sofer, who moved to the USA at age 11 after experiencing the 1979 Iranian Revolution first-hand as a child.

Wealthy Jewish diamond and gem merchant Isaac Amin (Adrien Brody) and his wife Farnez (Salma Hayek) have done well in pre-Revolutionary Iran.  When the film opens in August 1979, the Islamic Revolution has been going on for some months and they are about to send their teenage son Parviz to study in the US at a wealthy private boarding school.

The streets of Tehran are full of violent demonstrations, but the secular and apolitical Amin family presumably feels immune from difficulties.  Until one day at work Isaac is “arrested” (or perhaps abducted) by Revolutionary Guards, and taken to prison.  There he is questioned about his numerous trips to Israel (“I have family there; I have never worked for the Israeli government”), but the questioners are mostly interested in his wealth and critical of his “decadent” lifestyle.  Isaac and his family are seen as symbolic of the elite business class, which aided and abetted the regime of the Shah and maintained significant wealth inequality.

The Revolution, in this instance, is portrayed primarily as an Islamic rebellion of the poor and downtrodden working class, rather than concerned with persecuting Jews and other religious minorities.  The film illustrates this issue through a series of increasingly tense conversations between Farnez and the family’s long-time Muslim maid, Habibeh, played with great dignity by US-based Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who left Iran in 1979 after the Revolution. Psychologically, these scenes are the most interesting in the film, although the script never quite develops the themes of social and economic class, humility and gratitude.

While in prison, Isaac is brutally tortured (viewers are warned), and is finally released after agreeing to give the family life savings to his captors.  The final third of the film follows the Amins – Isaac, Farnez and their young daughter – as they attempt to flee for Turkey.

“Septembers of Shiraz” manages to keep up a good pace, with a specially energetic performance from Brody (who is part-Jewish), whose haunted and hunted characterisation recalls his Academy Award for playing the Polish-Jewish Władysław Szpilman in “The Pianist”.

Despite its slick production style, the film is hampered by the challenges of portraying 1979 Iran on a limited budget: it was shot in Bulgaria, which provided a mostly – but not entirely – convincing setting, with a mixed cast of Americans, Iranian exiles, Bulgarians and Israelis.  Australian Aboriginal director Wayne Blair (“The Sapphires”) directs and Warwick Thornton (“Samson and Delilah”) provided the cinematography, particularly effective in the claustrophobic prison scenes.

“Septembers of Shiraz” nicely captures the chaotic times of the early months of the Iranian Revolution, where you could be stripped of physical possessions and thrown into prison, but still left with all of your money intact in the bank.  Despite its many achievements, the film is less successful in making a connection to present day events, especially given the 37 years since the Revolution, and it fails to indicate what happened to the almost 100,000 Jews who also lived in Iran at the time.

DSC_8985.NEF

Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody


Hawkesbury River

June 2, 2016

Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney on 31 May 2016:

Hawkesbury River


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