New York I Love You film review

May 21, 2010

(This film review of New York, I Love You appeared in a shorter form in the May 20, 2010 edition of the Australian Jewish News.)

New York, I Love You comes from the same group which did Paris, Je t’aime a couple of years ago.  It is an ensemble film, with ten segments, each written and shot by a different director.  The result is frequently touching, occasionally hilarious, often very sexy and maddeningly uneven and frustrating at times.

New York has been the setting for literally hundreds of films – and has been the scene for some of history’s best movie romances.  And this is not the first time that more than one director worked on an anthology film set there:  New York Stories (1989) had segments filmed by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

From the opening shot of the East River, we know we are in a New York closer to Woody Allen than to the grit of Scorsese.  It’s an oddly romanticised New York, where no-one is mugged, and there are no knives or guns, just lots of explicit talk about sex.

Two of the ten stories (in fact, two of the best) are explicitly Jewish.  The second segment “kosher vegetarian” – directed by India-born Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has Natalie Portman playing a Hasidic diamond merchant about to get married and purchasing a diamond from a Jain played by classic Indian actor Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire).  The story makes little sense, but Portman is great.  Here is a link to an interview with Mira Nair, with some clips from the segment:

That’s the way New York, I Love You is:  made mostly by an eclectic group international group of directors – Israel-born French Yvan Attal from France, Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) from India, Shunji Iwai from Japan, Fatih Akın from Turkey/Germany, Jiang Wen from China and a handful of Americans – Portman, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), Allen Hughes (The Book of Eli) and Joshua Marston.

The result is frequently European in feel, a series of delicate sexual comedies filled mostly with migrants (as one character explains:  “I love New York because everyone is from somewhere else”), far from the brash Americana, and almost virtually lacking any thick “Noo Yawk” accents.  Also lacking is a strong sense of place.  Given that hardly any of the directors have actually ever lived in New York, they appear to have all – with only one exception – opted to set their segments in unspecified sites in Manhattan, although some take place in Central Park and at a landmarks such as Tavern on the Green and the Dakota apartment building.  Where are the other boroughs:  Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and (the ever-forgotten) Staten Island?

The exception is the other Jewish segment, written and directed by Marston, and starring Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as an ageing Jewish couple living near Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.  Their story simply has them going to the beach and back home, talking all the time (mostly about Wallach’s character’s infirmities), and consistently entertaining, building on its perfect casting choices.  You can actually watch the full 6’14” of this segment online here:

The rest of the cast is also a fascinating “who’s who”.  In addition to Portman and Wallach, other Jewish actors include James Caan in an excellent but underwritten role as an Italian pharmacist, Shia LaBoeuf, Justin Bartha and a host of real Hasidic extras.  Other actors include Andy Garcia, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright Penn, Bradley Cooper, Julie Christie and John Hurt.

About six of the stories work very well, and include some truly quirky surprises, like the white guy who speaks fluent Chinese, the woman who turns out to be a hooker (an exquisite piece of filmed theatre by Attal – you can see a short preview here:  ), and Ratner’s “the prom” – a scene simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious and touching in a Catcher in the Rye type of way.

There’s lots of depth and clever writing here – so good, in fact, that I am keen to watch many of the segments a second time.  But too many characters and not enough interaction between them robs New York, I Love You of its emotional pay-off.  There are no transitions between the stories, and although some characters amusingly do travel to a number of segments, the writing (partly by veteran Jewish playwright and screenwriter Israel Horowitz) simply does not make use of the interconnections between the stories in the way that, for instance, the film Babel does so effectively.  The problem with the film is that the great scenes simply do not add up, leaving the whole distinctly less than the sum of its parts.

Digital TV and rural health in Australia

May 20, 2010

I have just published an article on “Croakey”, the health and medical blog of Crickey – an Australian current affairs website.  The article, entitled “Is rural health going to miss out on the opportunities of digital TV?” discusses the new digital satellite platform about to be launched in Australia, and how it is not – at this stage – providing any access to health communication organisations such as the Rural Health Education Foundation, of which I am the CEO.

The White Ribbon film review

May 10, 2010

The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke, has recently premiered at the German Film Festival here in Australia and has opened up nationally in cinemas.  This film delves deep into the lives and not-so-pleasant events of a small German town immediately prior to the outbreak of the first world war.  Shot in bleak, monochromatic black and white, the quiet patterns of the town are loudly broken by strange and increasingly nasty events. Guilt, violence, denial – the themes are all here.

The film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, was nominated for two Oscars, and is truly a work of art.  It is of significant Jewish interest because it the director is trying to explain the genesis of the Nazi generation and the roots of the Holocaust: these children, with their random acts of cruelty, will grow up to be that generation of Germans.

Here is a link to my video review of The White Ribbon:

The Concert film review

May 6, 2010

(This film review appeared in the May 6, 2010 edition of the Australian Jewish News.  Also note the link to my video review of “The Concert” below).

Directed and written by Radu Mihaileanu

Starring Aleksei Guskov, Melanie Laurent, Dimitri Nazarov, Valeri Barinov and Miou Miou 

Romanian-French Jewish film director Radu Mihaileanu specialises in fable-like stories with major Jewish themes.  His 1998 film Train de Vie (Train of Life) portrayed a Jewish village in Poland that organised to escape the Nazis by taking over a train and shipping themselves (with the best German speakers playing German soldiers) to Palestine.  Although Life is Beautiful gained the awards and international recognition, it was Mihaileanu who first used fantasy as escape from the Holocaust.  His last film, Live and Become, was about an Ethiopian Christian boy who pretends he is Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel during “Operation Moses” in 1984.

Mihaileanu’s current film The Concert uses the same theme of pretence and identity switch, this time set in the present day.  The film opens on a Russian symphonic conductor, Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov), blissfully conducting a rehearsal in a major concert hall.  But all is not as it seems, as the camera pulls back and we realise that Filipov is only pretending to conduct from the balcony seats, and is in fact a cleaner, a disgraced former conductor of the “Bolshoi Orchestra” who lost his job three decades earlier during the Brezhnev era for refusing to fire Jewish musicians.

When Filipov intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to give a concert at the famed Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, he rashly decides to bring his old group of musicians together and do it himself.  But this is no simple task:  he needs to find, convince and organise his widely spread group of misfits – mostly Jews with a few gypsies thrown in for good measure – to make their way to Paris.  Against the vehement protestations of his Jewish cellist Sacha Grossman (Dimitri Nazarov), he enlists a die-hard former Communist Party official, Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) as the tour’s negotiator and manager.

Part of Filipov’s plan is to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, and to enlist young French violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent, from Inglorious Basterds) – who he secretly adores from afar – as the soloist.  But the difficult Jacquet is shielded by her manager and guardian (played by classic French actress and the wonderfully named Miou-Miou), and clearly there is more to the Jacquet-Filipov story than is first apparent.

This delicate and highly entertaining film makes clever and often hilarious points about modern entrepreneurial Russia (the Russian musicians all immediately race out to try to make money when they arrive in Paris), French artistic pretensions, and the clash of cultures between new and old Russia (the ex-Communist leader Gavrilov still holds illusions as to how the French masses will unite behind him) and Russia and the West.  The Russians all speak a delightfully fractured French, which apparently charmed the French audiences when it opened there late last year (a passing knowledge of French definitely helps to understand the humour).  The Concert opened at number one in France, and achieved almost two million admissions, making it one of the most popular French films of 2009 – and where it was also nominated for best film, director, script and editing in the French “Cesar” awards (and won for best music and sound).

The Concert is about making music and finding your dream.  But it is also about the modern Jewish condition, because the background theme to the whole film is the anti-Jewish actions of Communist Soviet Union from the 1960s and 1970s.  The film has Mihaileanu’s characteristic combination of broad comedy and touching personal identity search, this time blended with Gallic philosophising and amusing Russian consumerism.  I found the mixture to be both moving and delightful.

Watch the video review here: