Films of Jewish interest: upcoming in early 2011

December 28, 2010

Lots of films of Jewish interest are coming up in early 2011.  Here is a summary (with apologies to readers outside of Australia; these release dates are Australian – in some cases the films been released, or will be released earlier in the USA).

Late December 2010 (all in current release)

Love and Other Drugs – not a Jewish story, but director Edward Zwick (a co-creator of thirtysomething) is.  A nice romantic drama with two very appealing stars (Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway) and a fascinating sub-theme: that of a pharmaceutical rep (for Pfizer!) pushing drugs on to doctors.  

Sarah’s Key – a French Holocaust drama starring Kristin Scott Thomas, intersecting the past and the present.  A great story, too bad it’s fiction.

Meet the Parents: Little Fockers – the third in the series starring the great match-up of Ben Stiller the Jewish nurse with the retired CIA agent played by Robert de Niro.  I love the casting of Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman (two classic breakthrough Jewish actors from the 1960s) as Stiller’s parents.

Life During Wartime – the latest installment from Todd Solondz, a bleakly humorous film that almost no-one went to see when it screened in North America in July/August.  Limited release in Australia.  Read my review of the film here.

January 2011

True Grit, Jewish directors Joel and Ethan Coen directors remake the classic.

Black Swan, Jewish director Darren Aronofsky plus Jewish actresses Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey.

Catfish, a documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, starring Nev Schulman, who is obviously Jewish.  Is this real or fiction?

Another Year, by British Jewish director Michael Leigh.

The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, who has a Jewish father and lots of his characters have been Jewish.

February 2011

How Do You Know, directed by James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons”) who is Jewish.

No Strings Attached, Directed by Ivan Reitman (Jewish) and starring Natalie Portman again.

Inside Job, a documentary about the Wall Street fiasco, must surely feature many Jewish players.

Conviction, dir by Tony Goldwyn who is Jewish, and a direct descendent of Samuel Goldwyn the film mogul.

The Human Resources Manager, an award-winning Israeli film shot partly in Romania.

Barney’s Version, a very Jewish story based on Canadian Jewish writer Mordechai Richler’s novel.

March 2011

The Debt, a thriller about Mossad agents and Nazi war criminals starring Sam Worthington and Helen Mirren.

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The Garden State: Living on the Edge of the World

December 27, 2010

It’s taken me a while to find the book Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take On the Garden State, edited by Irina Reyn (Touchstone Books, 2007, thankfully still in print).  This book of essays about New Jersey is an absolute goldmine for those who have grown up in New Jersey and are still working out what the meaning of it all.  I love one of the central themes of the book: that all of New Jersey can be categorised by the exits of the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.  For example, here is a list of the book’s chapters:

Introduction by Irina Reyn (Exit 156: Fair Lawn) – you can read this chapter here.

The Family Farm by Kathleen Demarco (Exit 7: Hammonton)

Rose of the Jersey Shore by Jonathan Ames (Exit 82: Seaside Park)

Notes on Camden by Lauren Grodstein (Exit 4: Camden)

A Rumble and a Scream by Caren Lissner (Exit 7A: Great Adventure, Jackson)

Suburban Legends by Elizabeth Keenan (Exit 9: Princeton Junction)

New Jersey: The Movie by Adam Lowenstein (Exit 9: Highland Park) – “Nothing could be less cinematic than New Jersey,” he starts his chapter.  And later continues:  “But for me, New Jersey is where my own passion for cinema was born ….  Today as a professor of film studies, I can trace a direct line from my awakening to movies to the work I feel lucky to devote myself to every day.”  His chapter reflects on “how New Jersey became cinematic because of its mythic awfulness, not despite it.”  (See additional notes on this chapter below.)

Straight Outta Garwood by Tom Perrotta (Exit 135: Garwood) – Perrotta is the author of some of my most favourite New Jersey novels:  Joe College, The Wishbones and Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies.

The Venice of New Jersey by Askold Melnyczuk (Exit 137: Cranford)

New Jersey, 1963 by Dani Shapiro (Exit 143B: Hillside)

Ogling the Statue of Liberty by Gaiutra Bahadur (Exit 14B: Jersey City)

The Commute by Christian Bauman (Exit 14C: Hoboken)

Hell, Home, or Hoboken by Caroline Leavitt (Exit 14C: Hoboken)

Uncommon Criminal by James Kaplan (Exit 145: West Orange)

The Muse of New Jersey by Cathi Hanauer (Exit 145: West Orange)

Exit 15W by Joshua Braff (Exit 15W: South Orange) – author of New Jersey Jewish coming-of-age novel The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, and the older brother of actor/director Zach Braff.

Horizon House by Frederick Reiken (Exit 18W: Fort Lee) – Reiken is another great New Jersey fiction writer – see his The Lost Legends of New Jersey.

So Close, Yet so Far by Lucinda Rosenfeld (Exit 18W: Fort Lee)

Taking the Nets by David Roth (Exit 165: Ridgewood)

It appears that more than half of the authors are Jewish, many of them writing about their Jewish experiences – see this New Jersey Jewish News article by Judy Wilson for more details.

In the article, Dani Shapiro is interviewed quotes the saying by Flannery O’Connor “Any writer who lives to fifteen has enough material to write about for a lifetime.” – “That seems to go double for New Jersey natives,” Judy Wilson concludes.

My favourite chapter in this book is, naturally, Adam Lowenstein’s, where he neatly connects his (and my) hometown – Highland Park – with movies set in New Jersey.   He draws from films as diverse as Cop Land, Jersey Girl, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Garden State, connecting them all to his experience of growing up in New Jersey.  You can actually read most of this chapter online here at Google Books (but hey, publisher, don’t worry – I bought a paper copy of the book anyway!  Just going to prove that book digitisation does not necessarily kill physical book sales, well at least not yet).  Lowenstein grew up in Highland Park (HPHS class of 1989, and an editor of the yearbook in his senior year – pushing for the theme “across the river”; which river would that be?) and is currently an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on horror film.


Life During Wartime film review

December 25, 2010

Directed and written by Todd Solondz

Starring Shirley Henderson, Alison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Ciaran Hinds and Ally Sheedy

(This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23 December 2010.)

American-Jewish film director Todd Solondz is not known for his sunny, popular film-making.  Instead, he makes challenging, darkly (that’s very darkly) humorous and challenging films, including Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling and Palindromes.   His latest – Life During Wartime – opening in Australia on Boxing Day (December 26, 2010) after a preview at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival – operates as a semi-sequel to his 1998 film Happiness, set more-or-less ten years later.  Most of the original film’s characters reappear, but they are all played by different actors, a neat, disconcerting and playful trick that will certainly entertain Solondz fans.

Life During Wartime is set around three Jewish New Jersey-born sisters:  Joy (played by Shirley Henderson, who was “Moaning Myrtle” in the Harry Potter films), Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy).  Joy has married badly, to an African-American man who makes obscene telephone calls.  Trying to sort out her life, she visits Trish, now living in Florida with two of her children, and later Helen, who has moved to Los Angeles and become a successful writer, making references to a “Keanu” (presumably Keanu Reeves).

Trish’s ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), has just left prison, having been incarcerated for child molestation, and who is seeking some sort of resolution with his family and has a one-night stand with a self-described “monster” (played by Charlotte Rampling).  Trish’s son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is studying for his Bar Mitzvah, and Trish advises him that if he is ever touched by a man that he should scream.  Trish also has begun to go out with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a sensitive older Jewish man, and is particularly attracted to his support of Israel. “He voted for Bush and McCain,” she explains. “But only because of Israel.  He knows those people are idiots.”  This is Solondz’s Jewish context, which makes his films particularly interesting.  There’s more, and all of this in a tightly written 90 minutes.

Life During Wartime was recently named as one of Time magazine’s “top ten” films of the year (as well as a number of others), so clearly it does connect with some people.  Those people mainly appear to be film critics (it currently has a 68% “fresh” – or positive – rating from the film aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes), because the film only grossed USD$281,447 in its North American theatrical release (July to September 2010), hitting a maximum of 20 screens there.  As of 25 December 2010 (according to Box Offfice Mojo), it had – ironically – done much better outside North America, with $486,569 gross box office (and this is not counting Australia from tomorrow onwards).

But it is one of those films you either love or hate: it’s a difficult film, extremely challenging for most viewers.  Even though the film is frequently (and intentionally) hilarious and is about forgiveness and letting go, with its dark themes of paedophilia and its thoroughly miserable characters (even the ones who come back as ghosts), it’s tough going.  This is a niche film, only recommended for those willing to engage with a highly demanding script; mainstream audiences need not apply.

The title of Life During Wartime is a clear reference to the post-September 11th American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Many people assumed that those events and their aftermath would promote a return to patriotism in American films, a so-called “end of the age of irony” (so pronounced Graydon Carter in September 2001).  We may have expected John Wayne, but instead have seen a return to the 1970s paranoid pessimism such as the Jason Bourne trilogy, Syriana and The Constant Gardener.  In Life During Wartime, Solondz gives us a different response to the last decade of “American wartime”, nuanced, at times ugly but certainly thoughtful.


Book review of Manhood for Amateurs

December 8, 2010

This book review of Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon (published by Fourth Estate, Aus$32.95)  originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in February 2010.

At 46 years old, Michael Chabon is no longer a young American-Jewish writer, but well and truly entering middle age – although with progressive sympathies and his young and crazy memories still intact.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning author (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) has marked out an important place in American-Jewish literature.  Equally comfortable in contemporary comic realism (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Wonder Boys, which was made into a film starring Michael Douglas), alternate history (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), young adult fantasy (Summerland) and short stories (A Model World and Werewolves in Their Youth), the Berkeley California-based Chabon has now turned his hand to a kind of memoir in Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.  (Here is the publishers website for that book, and here is the Amazon.com link.)

His new book is a selection of 39 short pieces, each running around eight pages long (making it particularly easy to read on the bus or train), and presents a mixed bag of topics.  There is lots about his family (he is married to the Jewish-American author Ayelet Waldman, and they have four children together), some of which approaches sappiness at times:  I did not need his short chapters on how his children bring home artwork from school or the mysteries of lego, but Chabon is a writer of such wonderful prose that I forgive him.

He is capable of analysing the recent history of American feminism, male friendship, the love of a father-in-law, early sexual experiences, the process of writing itself and classic literature, with insights such as “Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map”.  Astonishingly, he willingly delves into some truly painful life experiences, such as his first marriage (to a non-Jewish woman) and the chilling description of his own very recent reactions to his (current) wife’s bi-polar disorder and deep depression.

Chabon’s book is like reading the articulate musings of a very good friend, for one of the tricks of his success is that he genuinely appears to like and respect not only his characters but his readers.  The result is a truly pleasurable read, particularly for someone like me, a Jewish family man not all that much older than Chabon.

Chabon describes himself as “a liberal agnostic empiricist, proud to be a semi-observant Jew”, and his Jewish identity and commitment pervades most of his writing.  Three chapters stand out, one on the Jewish attitude towards Christmas, one on circumcision (“The Cut”) – which lovingly captures all the mixed feelings which a modern, semi-secular Jewish American parent has about the procedure, and one on bat mitzvahs (“Daughter of the Commandment”), which concludes the book. For some reason I opened Manhood for Amateurs to this final chapter, as it turned out on the day of my father’s Yahrzeit, to read the following words:

My oldest child became a bat mitzvah in an afternoon Sabbath service. She read from the Torah in flawless Hebrew, taught us something about what she had just read in poignant English, and was blessed by a woman of readily apparent holiness. And then she was on her way: a daughter of Commandments.

Now, everyone knows – sorry, Maimonides – that there really is only one Commandment and that, sooner or later, we all obey it.  Toward the end of every Sabbath service, those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a parent’s death rise for the ancient Kaddish, and as the parent of that day’s bar or bat mitzvah, you can sit there beaming, proud, filled with love and knowing – knowing – that if you have done your job properly, it will not be       long before your child will be getting up from a pew somewhere to take note in Aramaic of your own utter absence from the world.

Anyone who has had a child recently bar- or bat-mitzvahed (as I have) and has lost a parent (or two), cannot be moved by this.  I certainly was; worth the price of the book for that alone.

(Postscript:  Interested in a useful and informative fan website devoted to Michael Chabon?  Go to http://www.sugarbombs.com/kavalier/.)


Highland Park, New Jersey loyalty

December 5, 2010

There is an uncommon loyalty by people who have grown up in the state of New Jersey.  Perhaps this commitment is shared by most Americans who grew up in small towns, but my experiences tell me that this feeling is by no means universal.  I grew up in a small town called Highland Park (and graduated from its high school), located in central New Jersey (exit 9 on the NJ Turnpike), consisting of some 14,000 souls in 1.8 square miles (4.8 square kilometers), tucked in to the Raritan River and across from (north of) the middle-sized historical city of New Brunswick (George Washington slept there, or at least I think he did), home of the main campus of Rutgers University (the State University of New Jersey) and the international headquarters of the pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson – also known as “J&J”.  The larger township of Edison is located to the northeast (think Thomas Edison, the antisemitic inventor of the lightbulb and many other things) and Piscataway Township is located to the west.  I know that it’s notoriously changeable, but Wikipedia has a good summary of Highland Park.

J&J has a long and fascinating history:  It is used as an important example of a high quality company “built to last” by business authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (I have the third edition published by Random House in 2000, see http://www.amazon.com/Built-Last-Successful-Visionary-Essentials/dp/0060516402/ and http://www.jimcollins.com/books.html).  I currently live in Sydney, Australia, not far from the J&J Australian headquarters, which is housed in a building that I just love:  it is a three storey red-brick building with white Doric (?) columns out front, looking for all intents and purposes just like it was snatched from the fields of New Jersey and plunked right down in … the northern suburbs of Sydney.  It’s totally incongruous, and only us American-born folks recognise that building for what it is:  an outpost of an American pharmaceutical giant sitting in the South Pacific nation of Australia, whose head of state legally still is … the Queen of England.  (And by the way, the mayor of Highland Park from 1920-21 was Robert Wood Johnson II, the son of the founder of J&J and later its President and Chair of the Board.)

For those pining for the Highland Park of yore, there are three essential books for your bookshelf, all published by Arcadia Publishing, which specialises in local American histories.  For Highland Park alumni, residents and former residents here are three “must have” books from their “Images of America” series:

–          Highland Park, by Jeanne Kolva, Joanne Pisciotta and Highland Park Historical Society (1999)

–          Highland Park: Borough of Homes (2005), again by Jeanne Kolva, Joanne Pisciotta and Highland Park Historical Society – a follow up book.

And for completeness, go to another Arcadia book, this one about New Brunswick, by Timothy E. Regan (2003).

Coming up soon:  literature set in Highland Park, New Jersey.