Keeping the Faith film review

August 29, 2010

This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 9, 2000

Directed by Edward Norton

Written by Stuart Blumberg (co-writer with Lisa Cholodenko of the new film The Kids Are All Right)

Starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Ron Rifkin and Milos Forman

Mainstream American films about rabbis are certainly not very common.  There’s The Chosen (probably the best of the genre), Close to Eden, The Jazz Singer (with Melanie Griffiths) and maybe a handful of others.  Back in 1927, Al Jolson starred in , a film based on a play based on a short story which in turn was based on his own life.  In it, he breaks his family tradition – being seven generations of cantors – to choose the secular life of the “jazz singer”.  This film has been made many times since, and is so popular in part because of its age-old conundrum:  the conflict of modernism and tradition.

Keeping the Faith falls squarely in this mold, neatly updating the issues to present-day New York City’s Upper West Side.  It’s an interesting, although possibly far-fetched story:  When they were 12 year-olds in year 6 at “PS 84” in Manhattan, young Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), Brian Finn (Edward Norton, who also directed the film) and Anna Reilly (a very blond and WASPy Jenna Elfman) became best friends.  The happy three-some broke up in year 8 when Anna’s family moved to California.  Fast forward 18 years:  they are all in their early 30’s.  Jake has become a hip leather jacket-wearing rabbi (for what appears to be either a Reform or very progressive Conservative congregation), Brian is now a Catholic priest, and Anna is a highly successful California-based business woman, whose strongest relationship is with her mobile phone.

Brian and Jake are still best friends (undertaking projects together like “interfaith drop-in centres” for the elderly), and all of them are (of course) single.  For Brian it goes with the job, but for Jake it is a problem because a bachelor has never been senior rabbi of “B’nai Ezra” (based loosely on and shot mostly at B’nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street), and senior Rabbi Lewis (nicely played by Eli Wallach) is about to retire.  Enter Anna again, posted to New York for a couple of months and looking up her old friends.  Imagine the possibilities:  the priest tempted to give up his calling, and the rabbi tempted to go out with a non-Jewish woman. Old friendships are sorely tried in the process.

Here is where Keeping the Faith enters some interesting territory – likely to be lively topic of discussion around some dinner tables – because Rabbi Jake and Anna get secretly involved.  How the film (with a script by first-timer Stuart Blumberg) resolves all of the complications that entail is interesting to behold.  The three leads are all nicely cast and very watchable (here Norton plays mild and “nice” compared to his Fight Club and American History X roles), and their supporting cast is also superb:  Anne Bancroft as Jake’s mother Ruth (who has disowned her older son Ethan because he married a Catholic woman), Ron Rifkin as President of the Temple Board Larry Friedman, and noted Czech film director Milos Forman (who is also Jewish) in the role of Brian’s mentor Father Havel.

The portrayal of Jews and Judaism is surprisingly nuanced for an American film, possibly partly due to a “Rabbi Hillel Norry” as an advisor.  There are sly references such as one to rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary, some very knowing insights into the dynamics of Jewish communal life, and a remarkably well-developed probing into the issue of continuity versus change in Jewish ritual (Rabbi Schram is very “alternative”).  There are also some hilarious moments, such as when a black gospel choir does its version of “Ain Kelohainu”.  By contrast, Jewish women do not come off all that well:  Jake’s two Jewish “dates” consist of an oversexed workout freak (played by Lisa Edelstein) and a workaholic Middle East journalist (Rena Sofer), neither character much more than one-dimensional.

Keeping the Faith pays much more attention to “faith” than you would expect, is quite entertaining and goes far deeper into “interfaith” issues than the likes of The Nanny or other contemporary fare.  Some viewers may be concerned by the Jake-Anna relationship, but at least there is a sensitivity and thoughtful approach to Judaism that few other maintstream films attain.

Film review of Laurel Canyon

August 29, 2010

(This film review of Laurel Canyon appeared in the Australian Jewish News on November 7, 2003, and is being re-printed now because of the release of Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right.  Note Cholodenko’s continued fascination with Joni Mitchell.)
Written & directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha
McElhone and Alessandro Nivola

With little fanfare but a whole lot of talent, American-Jewish film director Lisa Cholodenko looks set for big things in the future.  Her first film, High Art (1998), set against a troubled lesbian relationship, was well-reviewed, but she has spent the intervening years directing television (Six Feet Under and Homicide) and teaching.  Now comes her second film Laurel Canyon, which despite its small dramatic scale, might just gain some best acting nominations.  (Note:  it only did in minor festivals.)

Los Angeles-born Cholodenko, who both wrote and directed Laurel Canyon, is interested in coolly dissecting the complicated interplay of relationships. In Laurel Canyon, she creates an unexpected generation gap.  Sam (Christian Bale) is a second-year medical school resident, returning from Boston to Los Angeles to complete his psychiatric studies.  He is accompanied by his brilliant but withdrawn fiance Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who is planning on completing her PhD thesis – on the mating habits of fruit flies. Sam is the conservative one, in reaction to his mother Jane (Frances McDormand), who had been a music industry producer and groupie since his youth (father is long gone). Jane is a true original – an ageing late 40-ish hippy rocker, her new boyfriend (one of a very long string) is Ian (Allesandro Nivola), the charming lead singer of a British rock band whose album Jane is producing.

Jane has offered her Laurel Canyon home to Sam and Alex, but unexpectedly she is still there – along with Ian and assorted hangers on, partying, using the music studio and generally disrupting Sam and Alex’s carefully modulated lives.  You can just bet that this is likely to precipitate a crisis in everyone’s lives, and you won’t be disappointed.  Once arriving in LA, Sam rapidly becomes involved in his new work, where he finds himself attracted to a fellow resident, an Israeli named Sarah Golan (Natascha McElhone, with a Polish-Hungarian, rather than Israeli accent). He leaves Alex unguided in this new world, and she soon gets drawn into Jane’s and Ian’s orbit.

Laurel Canyon is a small film, and may very well be overlooked in the noisy entertainment marketing which surrounds us.  That would be too bad, because the performances are all outstanding, particularly that of Frances McDormand, whose long flowing blond hair and creased eyes are reminiscent of Joni Mitchell (who of course once lived in Laurel Canyon) – and resonant of her Oscar-nominated role in the music film Almost Famous.  She is the mother who never grew up, and produced a son who never had the opportunity to be a child.  Every moment McDormand is on screen is a delight; there is an odd combination of gravity and lightness to this character, making it one of the best performances of the year. She makes everyone who acts with her simply shine, with Bale, Beckinsale and Nivola all having their best scenes with her.

Laurel Canyon is also an ode of sorts to the geography of Los Angeles that sees the Hollywood Hills symbolically separating LA from the conventional suburbs of the San Fernando Valley to the north.  There has always been an odd sense of dislocation about Los Angeles, neatly captured by this film.  Part of it may be the acting: Bale and Beckinsale are both British, but play an American couple; McElhone is also British but plays an Israeli; and Nivola is American but plays a British singer.  Only McDormand is left playing her original nationality.

Jewish comedy and the marginal man

August 14, 2010

There is a whole lot of literature pointing out that so much of Jewish comedy arises from Jewish pain and the feeling of being an outsider.  Back in 1975, Mel Brooks was famously quoted (in a Newsweek article of February 17, 1975, pp. 55-58, by Paul Zimmerman) saying:

Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved, lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one …. You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.

In his review of the book It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks by James Robert Parish, Joshua Zeitz points out that Brooks is the classic “marginal man”, a concept first introduced by the late Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park in 1928 and elaborated on in 1937, specifically that he is:

a cultural hybrid, a man living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples; never quite willing to break, even if he were permitted to do so, with his past and his traditions, and not quite accepted, because of racial prejudice, in the new society in which he now sought to find a place.  A classic example: the Jew almost anywhere – the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint.” In other words, a man wise because he’s in his surroundings but not of them.

There is a long list of “marginal men” in comedy, and here’s proof that Ben Stiller is amongst them:  Tom Shone has just published an interview with Stiller (Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2010) coinciding with the release of the film Greenberg in which Stiller (for the first time I can recall) acknowledges his outsider status:

Stiller dislikes analysing his comedy – “I talk to my shrink about many things but never that,” he says – but admits you don’t have to dig far to unearth the roots of all that awkwardness in his adolescence.  The son of showbusiness parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he attended the progressive Calhoun School in New York where pupils called teachers by their first names and devised their own curriculum.  Even so, “I had moments of real awkwardness and feeling totally outside the loop in terms of being accepted.  I wasn’t a great student and I definitely wasn’t a sports jock.  I was into theatre but I wasn’t a theatre nerd – I was somewhere in the middle, having crushes on girls and not feeling worthy, trying to figure out who I was.  I was kind of a chameleon in high school, sort of a fly on the wall, a little bit.”

And speaking of Stiller, I can’t resist putting in the link to the early trailer for the film Little Fockers (the third in the series), due for release in the USA on December 22, 2010.

Canadian cinema box office

August 13, 2010

Now here’s a topic which you don’t see a great deal of writing about, at least not here in Australia – or in the USA for that matter:  the movie box office in Canada.  The post below has been adapted  from my PhD thesis, which is due for completion later this year (2010).

Few commentators have attempted to disaggregate the North American movie box office figures, but it is important to note that when people talk about “American” movie box office figures – which are typically quoted in all of the media – they actually include Canada and are thus for both countries.  However, the Canadian response to films can sometimes be quite different from the American (to be specific, “the United States of America” or USA) response, with the gross figures disguising some useful variations.  As an example, let’s examine how two controversial films released in 2004 – The Passion of the Christ (directed by Mel Gibson) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (directed by Michael Moore) fared in the USA and Canada, and how those figures actually differed.

Canadian journalist Peter Chattaway points out that as of April 2004, the Canadian population was 31,825,416 and the United States population was 293,713,183, totalling 325,538,599 – giving Canada then about 9.7% of the total North American population (or film “market”) at that time.  Analysing the 2004 figures based on the Canadian film website, he concluded that Canadians responded more strongly than Americans to British films and not nearly as well to ethnic or “Ben Stiller” comedies such as Dodgeball.  In particular, they really liked “American-politics-bashing films like Fahrenheit 9/11”, which had obtained up to 15% (50% higher than expected, or approximately $18 million) of the North American box office – compared to some 10% of the population.  By comparison, in Canada the film The Passion of the Christ only grossed 7% (30% less than expected, approximately $26 million) of the North American box office.  (See the Chattaway articles in Canadian Christianity and Arts and Faith).

The result of these differences is that the gross North American figures actually understate the relative popularity of The Passion in the USA specifically (by approximately 3% or up to $11 million) and overstate the relative popularity of Fahrenheit 9/11 by approximately 5% (or up to $6 million)[1].  Thus for some films, examining the amalgamated North American box office and making conclusions (especially cultural or political) on that alone can be misplaced, as the figures can hide what are sometimes substantial Canadian-United States country differences.  It is also important to note that if Canada were listed separately in the international box office tables – such as Box Office Mojo (where it does not appear separately), it would be listed as the second most significant market for both films and for most films that are released theatrically.

This has some relevance for comparisons to Australia, as Canadian and Australian geography are frequently compared (both countries having a relatively dense population living along a small rim of land with a vast and mostly unpopulated interior).  The Australian and Canadian box office response to The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11 were much closer than either one to the American (USA) response.  This is a concept worth testing across a range of other films and entertainment products.  But the conclusion is likely to be the same:  Australia and the USA audience responses often appear to be slightly closer than they really are in part because of the consistently mitigating effects of incorporating Canadian figures.


[1] These percentages are estimates only, based on gross North American box office.  For detailed Canadian box office figures which Chattaway bases his analysis on, see (for The Passion of the Christ) and (for Fahrenheit 9/11)

Me and Orson Welles film review

August 10, 2010

(This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 August 2010)

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr., based on the novel by Robert Kaplow

Starring Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin and Eddie Marsan

How very fitting that the new film “Me and Orson Welles” – a fictional story set around the real-life 1937 New York staging by Orson Welles of Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” – opens here in Australia just as thousands of Australian high school students are studying the very same play.  The film, directed by Richard Linklater – well known for his intelligent young adult romances (“Dazed and Confused”, “Before Sunrise”, and “Before Sunset” as well as “School of Rock”) – here creates a teen romance that is likely to appeal to an older demographic, despite the starring role taken by young heart-throb Zac Efron (“High School Musical”, “17 Again”).

So we have the paradox of an intelligent, literate and clever romantic drama about a seventeen year old that is really made for adults, not unlike “Rocket Science”, which had a recent short run in Australian cinemas.  But the similarities don’t end there:  both films are based on stories by New Jersey Jewish men, featuring of course young Jewish men.  “Me and Orson Welles” started as a successful young adult novel by Jewish writer Robert Kaplow, an English teacher in Summit, New Jersey.  His starring character Richard Samuels (Efron, who is also Jewish) makes his way into New York City one day and stumbles upon a crowd outside the Mercury Theatre, where Orson Welles is setting up for his soon-to-open play.

Welles hires Richard to play Lucius after an impromptu audition on the footpath outside the theatre.  (See clip below.)  He joins a company with some classic actors – George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) as Mark Antony, Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), managed by famed actor John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), with Welles taking the part of Brutus in the play.  Also in the play is the luminous Sonja Jones (played by Claire Danes), not apparently a real life person, with whom young Richard falls in love and proceeds to bed.  Richard also has a second girlfriend – an obviously Jewish “Gretta Adler” (played by Zoe Kazan from “It’s Complicated”, and who is the granddaughter of famed film director Elia Kazan).

The play – set in modern dress with fascist blackshirt themes (a radical concept at the time) – was a fabulous success, propelling Welles’ career along with many of his acting troupe.

Welles is played by British actor Christian McKay in a manner we might describe as “channelling” the late actor/director, he seems so real.  This Welles comes across as obsessively self-centred, articulate and bombastic, an accomplished flatterer who is used to getting his way with all things, particularly women.  He is sensitive to criticism and has a voracious sexual appetite, which appears to need satisfying every day.  This young Welles (only 22 when this film is set, but somehow already carrying a life-time of experience) has a reputation for mercilessly cutting Shakespeare to manageable lengths:  “Hamlet” in two thirty-minute blocks, and “Julius Caesar” down to just 94 minutes.  McKay is given most of the film’s best lines, such as when he advises an actress to practice her “consonants, consonants, consonants, and don’t forget the vowels”.

“Me and Orson Welles” neatly evokes the 1930s, and is shot mostly in brown sepia tones, although with a relatively limited budget (mostly using interior sets), with parts of London (including Pinewood Studios) and the Isle of Man (no less) standing in for New York City.  The film is full of knowing references to film and theatre of the 1930s, and surely must be one of the finest recent films about stage acting.  It’s not as memorable as “Shakespeare in Love”, but is irrepressibly positive, capturing the egos, claustrophobia and delights that stage work offers.

As Richard, Zac Efron does a very passable job as the young innocent; he’s intelligent, handsome and cocky, but – in comparison to the quirky characters who surround him – appears a bit bland and possibly not sufficiently insecure or in need of our sympathy.  I never felt his character was in much peril and the one scene where he could be really hurt passed without the impact it clearly was supposed to have.  Along the way Richard learns some hard lessons about the real nature of power, love and heartbreak at the hands of both Sonja and Welles.  But “all’s well that ends well” (to quote another phrase); nobody is surprised to discover that the film ends on a hopeful note.

The film’s official trailer is here:

The impromptu audition scene is here:

And here is another scene, where Richard (Zac Efron) sets off the theatre’s sprinkler system:

The future of streamed music … is much like the past

August 2, 2010

Here is one of the great ironies of our digital age: the future of streamed music in some ways is pretty much exactly like the past, as Sasha Frere-Jones writes in an article entitled “You, The D.J.” in the June 14/21 2010 issue of The New Yorker.  She starts:

No one knows what the future of the music business will look like, but the near future of listening to music looks a lot like 1960.  People will listen, for free, to music that comes out of a stationary box that sits indoors.  They’ll listen to music that comes out of an object that fits in the hand, and they’ll listen to music in the car.  That box was once a radio or a stereo; now it’s a computer.  The hand-held device that was once a plastic AM radio is now likely to be a smart phone.  The car is still a car, though its stereio now plays satellite radio (ed note: not here in Australia!) and MP3s.

Frere-Jones notes that there is in fact a whole series of software and approaches that makes this new model of “free” listening (as compared to the pay model of “on demand” listening) different.  But isn’t it astonishing how much we look like 50 years ago?  The French have a wonderful saying for that … “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Frere-Jones goes on to point out that “broadcast and on-demand models are governed by different rules” but are similar in that neither of them “depends on downloading files or finding storage space on a personal computer”.  And that Google and Apple are the two companies that “will likely change the landscape of online audio in a matter of months”.

I am old enough to remember the transistor radio – amazing to think that all of that engineering that has gone into the iPhone and other super-smart phones is only starting to reach the musical streaming capabilities of those old plastic battery-powered transistor radios.