Night at the Museum 2 film review

May 28, 2009

Film review of Night at the Museum 2 – written on May 26, 2009

Directed by Shawn Levy

Written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon Starring Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat & Ricky Gervais

Night at the Museum 2 (known as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in the USA) is an entertaining, odd – and reasonably familiar – sequel.  The history of Hollywood sequels (or anywhere else, for that matter) shows that unless a follow-on film truly reinvents the genre or has some extraordinary characteristics, it rarely is better than the original.  (Witness how this phenomenon transcends Hollywood: no-one has accused Crocodile Dundee 2 of being better than its ancestor.)

My take on Night at the Museum 2 is that is pretty much line ball, no worse, but not really much better.  It does carry “sequel-itis” with it, with a tedious and unexciting reintroduction of the major characters, and assumes that not only do we know these characters, but that we actually remember how they relate to each other.

The basic plot, for anyone who has missed it, is that night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), who works at the New York City Museum of Natural History, presides over a whole menagerie of historical figures (and animals) which come to life at night because of the power of an ancient Egyptian gold wall plate.  Many of the figures are historical: Robin Williams plays President Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson plays a miniature cowboy, and there is Sacajawea (a famous native American), Attila the Hun, so on.  Maddeningly, the second instalment assumes that we know – and remember – who these characters really are from the first film.  The problem is that the relationships in the first film were not so profound:  I saw the film, but couldn’t remember why any of the characters cared for each other.

The second film starts some time later:  the various characters are all being shipped off to the national archives in Washington, D.C. – allowing the film to be primarily set at the Smithsonian Institution (the very large American museum in central Washington), and introducing lots of new ones – with some truly awesome effects.  The story (and there’s not much of it) centres mostly around how a megalomaniac Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (played by Hank Azaria, who just about steals the movie from Ben Stiller) combines with Napoleon and Al Capone to rule the museum and terrorise our hero Larry.  And this time, Larry is given a new sidekick:  a very lovely Amelia Earhart (played by a luminous Amy Adams, who neatly captures an American speech pattern of the 1920s), an adventuresome woman who appears up for anything (within the context of a PG film; but why should she be so attracted to Larry?).  The new characters provide a dizzying parade – the African-American “Tuskegee Airmen” (a sop to African-American film-goers, perhaps?), the statue of Abraham Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial coming to life, as well as “The Thinker” sculpture.

The delightful moments are not in the interminable (and mostly meaningless) chase scenes, but in the highly creative means that show the museum pieces and figures coming to life.  This time, we see paintings actually living on the walls (such as “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, 1930), and the film’s characters can interact with them.

The neatest trick is one taken right out of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo – not an original idea to be sure, but superbly executed.  While being chased through the Smithsonian, Larry and Amelia step into the famous end-of-World War II photo of a sailor kissing a nurse at Times Square in New York City, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt variously called either “The Kiss” or “V J Day in Times Square” (August 14, 1945).  They interact with the characters, and Larry drops his mobile phone there, with – this film implies – consequences later on, which are unfortunately not developed.  This film is like that:  numerous elements of true comic, artistic and technical brilliance with weak and sloppy writing that give most of the actors too little of substance to do, although Amy Adams and Hank Azaria seem to have made the most of it.

Ben Stiller is indeed the heart and soul of this film, in large part because of his willingness to play – again – a foolish character with smarts.  Or is it the smart character who is really a fool?  Either way, it’s a familiar, comfortable and engaging Stiller role: think of Stiller’s classic characterisations in the “Fockers” films or There’s Something About Mary.  There is also a great scene between Stiller and an uncredited Jonah Hill (Superbad), who plays a Smithsonian Museum guard, where the two of them play a museum form of “chicken”.  The scene has great writing and nice execution.  Overall, the execution in this film is “in spades”, as we used to say, but the writing is spotty.

With more scenes like the one Jonah Hill is in, Night at the Museum 2 could have approached greatness.  It will make a lot of money: it has already grossed $73 million in the USA in its first week, and $5.6 million in Australia (meaning that it may “under-perform” in Australia), so the film-makers can congratulate themselves – it will easily return its $150 million (US) budget.  But with so much acting and technical talent, this film could have been great and not just successful.

Defiance film review

May 13, 2009

Edward Zwick is not the most subtle of directors, but he sure knows how to do action and specialises in what many would see as “tough” topics.  His most recent film Defiance documents Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, telling the true story of the Bielski brothers in Belorussia, who led a large band of Jewish refugees in the forests, saving more than 1000 people.  It has just been released (April 30, 2009) in Australia.  Inexplicably, this was more than two months after its original planned release date in February:  the postponement came so late that a lot of reviews of the film were actually published in February, and viewers had to wait until late April to see the film – strange.

I am a great fan of Zwick, who was the co-creator (with Marshall Herskovitz) of that wonderful television series thirtysomething, which amongst other things, added a new word to idiomatic English language, i.e. “____something”, as in “twentysomething”, etc.  In that series was Michael Steadman (played by Ken Olin), in which they created an amalgam character:  the mensch-like modern Jewish man married to the non-Jewish woman, and never quite comfortable with it.  But never SO uncomfortable that he attempts to do much about it.  The Jewish assimilation story was a great – and long-running – theme in the television series, although just one of many that people of my generation (and many younger as well) found so captivating.

So witness what Zwick has done since thirtysomething finished its run in 1991:  Aside from Defiance, he has directed Blood Diamond (2006), The Last Samurai (2003), The Siege (1998) – which chillingly foreshadowed anti-Muslim prejudice in the USA post-9/11, Courage Under Fire (1996), Legends of the Fall (1994).  Back in the 1980s, he also directed Glory (1989) – about African-American soldiers in the Civil War (giving him a good taste of battle scenes, later put to good use) and About Last Night (1986).  See any patterns here?  War, battles, that sort of thing.  Pretty far from thirtysomething angst, no?

And now Defiance.  There may be a heavy hand (and some particularly clunky scenes, particularly at the beginning) behind lots of the elements of this film, but let’s categorise some of the good stuff:  Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber are very powerful actors and never less than captivating on screen.  The story itself – Jewish resistance – is so rarely shown in the great number (literally hundreds) of Holocaust films that it makes you wonder why not.  I have racked my brain on this, and the only Holocaust resistance films which I can remember seeing are The Wall and Escape From Sobibor – and both of these were TV movies without, as far as I know, cinema releases.  And Zwick and his coscreenwriter Clayton Frohman do illustrate one of the key points as to why the Bielski brothers were successful in their resistance and so many were not:  relatively uneducated, they were used to fighting, to weapons and to surviving in the forest.  They were not afraid to kill.  And, of course, there was a deep forest to retreat to, which was not the case in so much of Europe where Jews were persecuted.

Then there’s the language, which Defiance does particularly well.  How do you accurately portray characters who should be speaking Yiddish, Russian, German and other languages?  You can do the Valkeryie approach (the recent Tom Cruise film), and have the characters speak German for a few minutes before switching to English … so you get the idea.  Or you can have everyone simply speak English – such as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, with all the issues that arise – such as just who is speaking what language when?  Or you can just let a cacaphony of accents happen (as in  ).

But Defiance took a different – and I think very clever – approach.  The Jews – who were on screen the majority of the time – spoke English, albeit with a sort of Yiddish/Russian accent.  And everyone else spoke their real languages:  the Russians spoke Russian, and the Germans spoke German.  When the Jews communicated with the Russians, they spoke Russian.  So you knew who was speaking what when.  And they avoided the whole issue of having to do it ALL in non-English languages.  And all power to Craig and Schrieber for the good-sounding Russian they spoke.

Footnote about Schrieber:  Three years ago I found myself in a lift (elevator) with Liev Schrieber and someone else in a New York City hotel.  He is a big man, and was wearing a beautiful and lovely smelling pink (yes, pink) leather jacket.  I thought to myself “that’s Liev Schrieber”, except here’s the thing:  he was speaking fluent German to the other man in the lift.  It was Schrieber, who – it turned out – was starring in a play around the corner from the hotel.  A man and actor for all seasons.  I may have under-rated him some years ago, but his continuing ability to inhabit a range of interesting characters makes him a true leading man for the second decade of this century.

Fateless film review

May 10, 2009

This film review of Fateless appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 3, 2006

Directed by Lajos Koltai; Written by Imre Kertesz, based on his novel; Starring Marcell Nagy, Aron Dimeny, Adras Kecskes, Jozsef Gyabronka, Endre Harkany and Daniel Craig

With the great rush of Holocaust-themed films right now (and more to come – Inglorious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, opens in a few months’ time), it is useful to review some of the genre classics which have appears over recent years.

“I have seen the true visage of this dreadful century, I have gazed into the eye of the Gorgon, and have been able to keep on living.  Yet, I knew I would never be able to free myself from the sight; I knew this visage would always hold me captive.”

These are the words of Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian-Jewish novelist, in his Nobel Prize (for literature) acceptance speech in December 2002. This is also the background to Kertesz’ semi-autobiographical novel Fateless, published in 1975, describing the experiences of a fourteen year Hungarian-Jewish old boy in camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz.  Now that Fateless has been made into a film, this story will be returned to the level of awareness where it belongs.  Acclaimed Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai (who shot three of the finest Hungarian movies ever made – Mephisto, Colonel Redl and Sunshine) has directed it with a breathtaking sense of colour montage of sepia browns, greys and yellows.

With Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, Polanski’s The Pianist and hosts of other films, the Holocaust film genre almost feels saturated.  What is there left to say?  The power of this story by Imre Kertesz (who also adapted his book for the screen) is in its focus solely on the experiences of one young man, Budapest-born Gyorgy Koves – nicknamed Gyuri (played by Marcell Nagy).

Coming from a loving, upper-middle class existence, young Gyuri is buffeted by the winds of fate.  His father has been ordered to report to a forced labour camp and he is working at a factory outside of Budapest.  Take the bus, or take the train to work, he wonders one day in 1944.  This day he takes the bus, and that makes all the difference: a bullying Hungarian policeman has made it his own responsibility to round up Jews travelling down this road on this day.  The scene of petty bureaucracy – and the range of responses to it (all with the unknown larger threat of life and death) is one of the best I have seen in years.  And thus begins Gyuri’s chance descent into the hell of the Nazi machine.

Fateless the film runs far from both Spielberg’s emotional literalism and Benigni’s fable-like fantasy.  There is a consistent effort to capture the existential notion of fate – or as Gyuri thinks of it, “fatelessness”.  The knowledge that he “could be killed anywhere, anytime” somehow liberates him from the cruel reality of his present, and injects an underlying sense of sly humour.

The film includes many of the Holocaust scenes we have come to expect – the trains, the camps, the hunger for food. But the specialness of his film is in its devoted attention to our reluctant hero’s point of view.  There are dead bodies, but I don’t remember any killings; Gyuri either did not see them or blocked them from his memory.

Fateless does what the best dramas can do: it builds its emotional power not from the marching of armies, but from the experiences of individuals.  When Gyuri finds a fellow Hungarian mentor in the camp (played by Aron Dimeny) who teaches him how to eat, how to look after himself, how to survive and differentiates them from the more Orthodox Latvians, we learn more about human interaction under pressure than we have in tens of films before it.

Gyuri does indeed survive (just), and – despite the remonstrations of a kindly American soldier (played by Daniel Craig, the new movie “James Bond” and ironically a star of Defiance, the Holocaust resistance film which has recently opened) – he returns to Budapest.  His family is gone, and the bafflement with which he is greeted by former neighbours is so heartbreaking but so real. Produced in Hungarian and German and without a large budget, Fateless is likely to become one of the finest Holocaust dramas in this or any decade.

Australians are watching films less like Americans … we think

May 10, 2009

In this weekend’s (May 9/10, 2009) Sydney Morning Herald, David Dale writes that for years Australians have been “predictable mini-mes of American moviegoers”.  But something seems to be changing.

For thirty years, he reports, film distributors:

Have operated on the assumption that any big budget international movie will make in Australian dollars roughly one tenth of what it made in American dollars.  Thus Titanic made $US601 million over there and $58m here, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in both countries. Jurassic Park made $US357m and $33m; The Sixth Sense made $US290m and $29m; Independence Day made $US306m and $29m; Forrest Gump made $330m and $31m; Shrek the Third made $US321m and $34m.

But, shock! horror! something has changed.  In order to follow this pattern, the Hugh Jackman film Wolverine – with a great local angle and a much beloved Australian star “should have sold $8.5 million worth of tickets on its first weekend (in Australia).  In fact, it sold $6.6 million worth.  That left a giant question mark hanging over our national identity.”

What’s happening?  Dale looks at the most popular films in the USA and Australia over the last 12 months and concludes the following:

“The one-tenth-of-America rule no longer applies….  The majority of moviegoers in the United States appear to be boys under the age of 14, or people who think like boys under the age of 14….  and Australians are more diverse in their tastes than our cousins across the Pacific.  In addition to action adventures and kiddy cartoons, we are open to historic melodramas, musical comedies, epic romances and teenage vampires.”

These conclusions are different than his of a year ago (May 19, 2008), when he wrote an article entitled “In film, it’s not independence day yet” and analysed the respective box office performance of the top 25 performing films in Australian box office through mid-May 2008, testing it against the “one tenth” formula.  Although he had expected a significant divergence from the formula, he found that one half of the films closely followed the “power of 10” formula, with Australians liking British films substantially more.

Quirky accident, or a changing cultural trend?  Within the margin of error, or a new mark for Australian culture?  We shall see.  Watch this space for more comparative Australian-American cultural analysis.

Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting

May 5, 2009

With the publication last month (April 2009) of Jeffrey Shandler’s book, Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (more on this another time), it is a good moment to re-publish my review of Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler (Jewish Museum, New York & Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2003), which appeared in the Australian Jewish News in late 2003.

In all of my years of writing film reviews for the Australian Jewish News, I thought I had seen just about every possible book that could be written on Jewish film.  I am thrilled that I was wrong, because Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler is without doubt the most interesting, accessible, complete and – indeed – entertaining Jewish film book of them all.  The thesis may not be as original as Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood or as encyclopaedic as Patricia Erens’ The Jew in American Cinema or Lester Friedman’s Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, but Entertaining America is truly unique in its scope.

Hoberman (film critic for The Village Voice and author of a noted book on Yiddish film) and Shandler (a Rutgers University professor and expert on Holocaust film, amongst other topics) have put together a book which operates as lavishly illustrated social and film history (more than 400 pictures in 334 pages), coffee table enjoyment with the capacity to dip in and dip out for even a moment or two and academic rigour with contributions from eleven other scholars and film writers.  The book also simultaneously acts as a catalogue of the 2003 “Entertaining America” exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum and the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.  (Click here for the online version of the exhibition.)

This is a book which takes popular culture seriously, but appreciates its role in society.  Why are we Jews so desperately interested in our own screen images and how has this portrayal changed over the course of the last 100 years?  After a few articles on the early nickelodeons, this book gallops through the Hollywood moguls (Gabler territory), Jewish radio (the first time I have seen this seriously discussed in a book), individual stars, Jewish characters and themes, Jewish television (a particularly wonderful article on Seinfeld) and a 35-page “timeline”.  This is the first book (and may be the last) which has complete articles on Theda Bara, the Marx brothers, Betty Boop, Superman, Anne Frank, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Howard Stern and Gertrude Berg & the Goldbergs on radio, TV & stage.  Shandler has an article about how Chabad has effectively used electronic communications media to disseminate its messages, and Hoberman has compiled a “Bill Clinton Hollywood President chronology”, charting Clinton’s engagement with (predominantly Jewish and liberal) Hollywood figures.

Aside from great pictures and excellent writing, Entertaining America is so successful in part because of its sense of fun.  These people are having a good time, and they want to share it with us, the readers.  There are extensive surprises; here are a few of my favourites: a reproduction of The Jazz Singer 1927 original souvenir program; The Jazz Singer chronology from 1886 when Al Jolson was born to 1998, when the original film placed ninetieth on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best American movies; Deborah Dash Moore’s articulate re-counting of bringing the book Exodus to screen; (my) discovery of former screenwriter/producer Dori Carter’s Hollywood novel entitled Beautiful WASPs Having Sex (I promptly searched out a remaindered copy in a Boston book warehouse); the map of nickelodeon theatres on New York’s Lower East Side in 1910; and a delightful article by Susan Wender about Marilyn Monroe’s Jewish conversion – including a copy of her July 1st 1956 Certificate of Conversion, duly witnessed by husband and playwright Arthur Miller.  (The original appeared in the Jewish Museum exhibition.)

The view of this book, of course, is unashamedly American (hey, they invented Hollywood, so who can blame them?), but only a few topics and personalities will be unfamiliar to readers in Australia and elsewhere.  With its extraodinary research and archival treasures, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting is a breathtaking and inspiring achievement.  This book does the almost impossible:  it is capable of being assigned as a required text for university courses on Jewish film, of sitting comfortably on film critics’ bookshelves or in the lounge rooms of Jewish households around the world.

Dartmouth’s new President

May 5, 2009

Once upon a time we who lived in Australia did not get the news for some months.  Even films which opened could take six or more months to arrive.  The Internet and the globalised world changed all of that.  Things are pretty instantaneous now.

Except it took me two months to learn about Dartmouth College’s new President.  As other posts on this site attest, I attended Dartmouth for my freshman (first) year, and still harbour a soft spot for the place.  Hard to describe why, really.  My first year away from home, the romance of New Hampshire, who knows.

Dr. Jim Yong Kim will be Dartmouth’s new president, starting on 1 July 2009.  He is currently the Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Chief of the Division of Global Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health.  He also co-founded the organisation Partners in Health (PIH) with Paul Farmer, which is the subject of a popular book by Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains.  In 2006, Kim was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world“.

And there’s more:  he is the first Asian-American president of an ivy league school, he was class president and valedictorian of his high school senior class in Muscatine, Iowa, where he also was quarterback of the football team and played basketball.  He speaks fluent English, Korean and Spanish.  And he just had his second child – with wife Dr Younsook Lim – at age 50.  What can’t this man do?  For more details, go to the Dartmouth “President Elect” website or Dartmouth Life newsletter.

Lainie Kazan interview

May 1, 2009

The following interview article with Lainie Kazan appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 11, 2001.

This month’s (May 2001) release of the film “What’s Cooking?” allows Australian audiences to catch a memorable performance by the Jewish actor/singer/entertainer Lainie Kazan in a lead role of the Jewish mother Ruth Seelig.  Kazan’s earthy and often touching performance as the wise but imperfect centre of the Jewish family is one of the anchors of the film.

I recently talked with Kazan from her home in Los Angeles about her life, career and the experience of acting in “What’s Cooking?”  She pointed out that this is not the first time Kazan has played a Jewish mother; she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her ultimate overbearing Jewish mother role in the Richard Benjamin-directed “My Favorite Year” (1982), and has also played major Jewish roles in the Bette Midler-produced “Beaches” and as the aunt in the television series “The Nanny”.

Lainie Kazan is a contemporary of both Midler and Barbra Streisand (all three of them outstanding Jewish female entertainers who first developed their careers in the 1970’s), and her life has occasionally intersected with each of them.  As an upcoming singer of acknowledged talent, Kazan got her first break in show business when she understudied Streisand in the original Broadway production of “Funny Girl” in 1969.  When Kazan replaced Streisand for one matinee and one evening performance, the reviews were outstanding and a new talent was born.

Kazan was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940, and graduated from Hofstra University. Her mother’s Sephardic family had lived in Jerusalem for eight generations, and her father was of Russian-Jewish background. She has ranged widely across singing in nightclubs (places like the “hungry i” in San Francisco and the LA Playboy Club), concert halls and the big stages of Las Vegas, stage acting (“Gypsy”; the Broadway musical version of “My Favorite Year”), acting on television (“Kirstie Alley’s mother in “Veronica’s Closet”) and entertainment programs (“The Dean Martin Show”) movies (“The Cemetary Club”, “Harry and the Hendersons”) and releasing records.

Kazan has long been known as a very sexy and sultry nightclub singer.  “I don’t look like the character in “What’s Cooking?”, she said – meaning she is much more glamorous than the frumpy Jewish mama we see on screen.  For the cover art of a recent CD “Body and Soul”, she was encouraged to use photographs from her “Playboy” spread during her “hippie days”.

Commenting on her “What’s Cooking?” role of Ruth, Kazan said that she simply “loved that character.  She is sympathetic, not a typical caricature, a real person. She is also a gentle person, and a wise woman who could forgive and love”.  She felt the “Jewish family dynamics on the set were wonderful.  We got on famously and really ‘cohesed’. There was wonderful rapport, and we all felt great exasperation with Aunt Bee (the pushy relative played by Estelle Harris), the real awkwardness, discomfort and problems which that character caused”.  Working with Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha was great.  “She really understood the Jewish experience. Although we improvised a little bit with the script, what you see on screen is basically what they wrote”.

In addition to her professional life, Kazan has consistently supported various charities and AIDS benefits.  She recently received the “Woman of the Year” award from the Atlanta (Georgia) B’nai Brith.

Kazan has been to Australia many times to sing, and vividly recalls visits to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, and singing at Leagues Clubs, Easter Shows, the “Melbourne Auditorium”, and the Chevron.  In fact she owned property in Hervey Bay in Queensland for many years, although she unfortunately spent very little time there before selling it.

The future? “I have a new film coming out here in the US in August, called “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2009 note:  one of the most successful films of all time, in comparison to the cost of production), and is produced by Tom Hanks.  It’s set in Chicago and I play a Greek woman”.  She is also supposed to come back to Australia for more concert dates in November, but the trip is not firmed up yet.