Bruce Springsteen down under – Sydney 20 March 2013

March 23, 2013

It’s only his third concert tour to Australia, and I missed the first two.  So we went on 20 March.  Summary:  the most accomplished stage performer I have ever seen, but the music was too loud, too brassy and hard to understand.

I guess most of us knew the music anyway.  I sure did.

A three and a half hour concert without a break, with enough energy to power a small city for a year.  How does he do it?  What was more amazing was his audience interaction:  Springsteen almost never lost eye contact with his audience, and we loved him for it.  Highlights:

When he strolled through the crowd while singing (I can’t remember the song, but the event was riveting), and then perched himself on a ledge in the middle of the audience, while audience members held him up.  He then crowd-surfed over the mosh pit back to the stage, held aloft of hundreds of fans.  I was rapt, and just about everyone else was too.

When he brought the little kid on stage with him to sing.

When he chose audience members’ signs identifying songs to sing.

When – near the end – he danced with a female fan whose flip chart he had read out during the concert.

We sat near the back (see photo) but relatively close and he did not ignore us.  He came to the edge of the stage and pointed:  each of us thought/knew he was pointing at us individually, and we waved back.

Bruce Springsteen3 20March2013

What a shame:  Springsteen is the champion of the American working class, a supporter of Barack Obama and New Jersey, where he grew up and still lives.  Almost none of this found its way into the Homebush Bay arena.  He was awfully far from home, but it would have been nice to feel that connection.

Most ironic moment:  Near the end, during what surely were the encores (although it was a bit hard to tell), when he asked, “Are you tired yet?”

Freakiest moment:  When the lights came up and I realised that there were about six men and women perched in the rigging about 20 meters above the stage, pointing spot lights and strapped into little seats.  When did they get there?  How would they get down?  Were they ever scared?

The most memorable concert I have been at, and I am a 30 year fan.

Bruce Springsteen Sydney - 20 March 2013

Bruce Springsteen Sydney – 20 March 2013

Bruce Springsteen2 20March2013

Film review of Performance

March 15, 2013

This film review of “Performance” originally appeared in the Australian Jewisn News on 14 March 2013.  Note that the film was originally entitled “Late Quartet” in its November 2012 North American release.  (Persumably its name has been changed so as not to be confused with the Dustin Hoffman-directed British film “Quartet”.)

Directed by Yaron Zilberman

Written by Yaron Zilberman and Seth Grossman

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken and Mark Ivanir

There is something truly delightful when a director has the courage to make a film like “Performance”, which is totally devoted to classical music.  We have seen biopics of famous composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Chopin, Handel, Bach and Tchaikovsky all come to mind – but “Performance”  is the first one I can recall featuring a fictional string quartet.

Well, not quite fictional.  Writer/director Yaron Zilberman (who previously directed the documentary “Waterworks”, about Austrian Jewish swimmers during the Nazi period) has based his film on the personal histories of three real-life quartets.  Set in modern-day New York City, “The Fugue” quartet is facing a major predicament after 25 years of world-wide success.  The founder and spiritual leader, cellist Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken, in an uncharacteristically non-malevolent role) has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, confirming the virtual end of his career.  What to do?  Replace him or go their separate ways?

Long-simmering tensions and resentments arise between the other three members – cellist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), her husband and second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir).  When Robert states that he would like to share the first violin role with Daniel, he precipitates a crisis that will eventually encompass all members as well as the Gelbarts’ daughter.

“Performance” is an intimate, character-driven drama which evinces much respect and reverence for classical music and musical instruments.  How many films show a full-screen shot of a musical score?  This one does, twice.  I do not know musical string technique well enough to determine if the actors are totally convincing in their playing, but they sure looked good to me:  reportedly each one had no less than two musical coaches.  (Actual music for the film is provided by the Princeton, New Jersey-based Brentano String Quartet, and that quartet’s cellist, Nina Lee, has a cameo role near the end, playing herself.)

Without “name” actors, a film like this would not likely receive a theatrical release, but there is real star power on screen here, with Walken and Hoffman in particular turning in emotionally nuanced roles.  The real find, however, is Russian-born former Israeli Mark Ivanir.  While he is the least known, in some ways he is the most convincing:  unlike Keener, Walken and Hoffman with their well-recognised screen personas, I could actually believe that Ivanir was a musician.  (The ever-enjoyable Wallace Shawn also appears as Gideon Rose, the head of another quartet.)

The film is framed around the quartet’s plans to play Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 14 in C-Sharp minor, also known as “Opus 131” (how it is referred to in this film).  Opus 131 consists of seven movements played without a break (instead of the usual four), and is reportedly very challenging even for the most experienced musicians.

The word “Jew” is never spoken in “Performance”, and many non-Jews will not realise how totally, completely and thoroughly Jewish this film is:  every major character except one (Walken) is Jewish, as are the film’s director, writers and producers.  New York City also features almost as a character in its own right (hints of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”), all shot in a snowy but bright winter.  All of the characters had attended or taught at the Julliard School of Music, New York City’s famous music conservatory.   Scenes take place in the Upper West and Upper East Sides of Manhattan, including iconic locations like the Central Park Reservoir, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection.  Action also takes place in four different flats, each one of them carefully reflecting its inhabitants’ personalities and tastes.

In our special effects-driven digital age, “Performance” may very well get lost in the noise, but that would be a shame.  Set against the background of professional musicians, it uses the opportunity to explore some of life’s bigger themes:  ageing, infirmity, mentoring, missed chances and the sacrifices that we may make for our art.

Performance - Ivanir and Keener

Photo above: Mark Ivanir and Catherine Keener in “Performance” (also known as “Late Quartet”)


Additional note: In last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald (9-10 March 2013), critic Sandra Hall’s review included some worthwhile insights.  She called Wallace Shawn “a human signpost” whose “mere presence spells New York” (cute).  She also captured the essence of the “Performance” in its understatement:  Walken’s character shows uncommon stillness, “dignified melancholy” and “rueful downplaying”.  This contrasts with Ivanir’s Daniel – who has never mastered that art of downplaying and Hoffman’s Peter – who “has never had to try”.

New Jersey film – Admission opens in US cinemas on March 22nd

March 9, 2013

In a post I wrote in August 2012 about American Ivy League colleges, I wrote admiringly about Admission, a book by Jean Hanff Korelitz.  This novel tells the story of a Princeton University admissions officer who develops an uncommon fascination with an applicant, an event which leads her to change her life in unexpected ways.  It’s a thriller (of sorts) and a romance (of course).  It’s also, in its own way, a love valentine to small Ivy League colleges – Princeton and Dartmouth, which Korelitz attended. (Here are links to an interview with Korelitz in the March/April 2013 issue Dartmouth Alumni Magazine and the February 22, 2013 issue of The Dartmouth.  For those who are wondering, the chapter that takes place at Dartmouth was, sadly, cut from the film.)

In two weeks (22 March), the film version of the book – also called “Admission” – will be released in North America (Australian opening uncertain at this point), starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in the top-billed roles, along with Michael Sheen (one of the British actors “du jour”), Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn (who can pass up a film with the elf-like and ever-charming Shawn?).  Paul Weitz (About a Boy) directed, and Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) co-scripted.

Loved the book, can’t wait for the  movie to make it down under.

The film was partially shot on the Princeton campus in New Jersey, placing this film one of our “New Jersey film all stars“.  Click here to read a preview in the Daily Princetonian.  And here is an article from about the Princeton filming, which took place in early July 2012.

Admission movie poster

A number of other films have been shot on the Princeton campus and surrounds in recent years, including Transformers 2, IQ (about Albert Einstein), Beautiful Mind, Across the Universe and The Happening.

Fun American Geography Facts #1

March 5, 2013

Here are some fun American geographic facts – the first of occasional postings on the weird and wonderful things you can find in the United States of America.  Both of these are from the February 11/18, 2013 edition of The New Yorker.

What is the highest coastal point in the USA sound of Maine?  Give up?  In “The Toll”, Ian Frazier writes that it is the “top of Todt Hill” in the centre of Staten Island, at 409 feet about sea level.

Here’s another one:  Susan Orlean writes in “Walart” that taken as a whole (i.e. adding all of the stores together), Walmarts “are among the most visited interior spaces on earth”.




French Film Festival in Australia

March 5, 2013

(This article appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 28 February 2013 in a reduced version.)

Generations of film-goers have become used to French films with a distinctly artistic bent:  the “nouvelle vague” – “new wave” – films became associated with a casual (some would say careless) approach to telling screen stories.  In the late 1950s films of Truffaut, Chabrol and Goddard, we became accustomed to listen to “the white spaces” between the lines the actors spoke, in between puffs on their ever-present Gauloises.   How unlike the “tell them everything” approach that Hollywood film has taken.

But times have changed.  In fact many of this year’s selection of films at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival (from 5 March in Sydney; 6 March in Melbourne; later in other states) seem peculiarly, in fact almost adamantly, American in theme and approach.  Of the films in the Festival with significant Jewish interest, three of them feel like American re-makes, and two of them actually are.

Modern American romantic film comedy has developed in a number of genres.  Two of my favourites are the “I get to go back in time (usually high school) and fix the mistakes I made then”, and the “I leap forward in time, get a glimpse of my dystopic romantic future, and get to fix my mistakes”.  Classic examples of the genre are “Peggy Sue Got Married” (back in time) and “The Family Man” (the future).  (And how ironic is it that Nicholas Cage stars in both films?  The role which Cage plays in iconic American films is definitely under-appreciated, and will be the subject of a separate post soon.)

In “Camille Rewinds”, French-Jewish Noemie Lvovsky directs, co-writes and stars as Camille, an unhappy, about-to-be divorced woman (think Kathleen Turner in “Peggy Sue Got Married”).  At a New Year’s Eve party, she faints and travels back in time to her sixteen year-old high school past when she first met her husband.  She magically slips into her past life, but this time knows the future consequences of her actions and tries hard to avoid them.  It’s a light, romantic fantasy, marred only by Lvovsky’s casting herself as Camille:  the somewhat rotund Lvovksy does not look anything close to sixteen, and she has cast two actors as her parents who look nothing like her distinctly Ashkenazic Jewish features.

Camille Rewinds poster in French

Another Jewish actor – noted writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz – stars in “Another Woman’s Life”.  In their twenties, young Marie (a delightful Juliette Binoche) meets and falls in love with Paul (Kassovitz), but wakes up to discover that she and Paul have been married for ten years.  Worse yet, they are on the verge of divorce, both in relationships with other people.  Like Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni in “The Family Man”, can Marie save her marriage – the one she cannot remember even having?

Another Womans Life Kassovitz Binoche

In “Happiness Never Comes Alone”, popular Moroccan-Jewish actor and comedian Gad Elmaleh plays a French-Jewish musician Sacha.  He falls in love with Charlotte (played by a very radiant Sophie Marceau), a woman with two former husbands, three children and a busy professional life.  Will these two lovers overcome their challenges and achieve a happy life together?  Yet another truly American-style story of individuals triumphing over adversity, enlivened by the bursting energy that the two leads bring to the screen.  Sacha’s grandmother has the best funny Jewish lines, with her first “is she Jewish?” question, and her telling Sacha to check Charlotte’s sons at night to see if they are circumcised.

Happiness Never Comes Alone Elmaleh Marceau

Rounding out the films of related Jewish interest are an historic drama and a powerful documentary.  The closing night film “Les Enfants du Paradis” is an epic made in Paris during the final years of the Nazi occupation: many view this classic as the best French film ever made.  And in “The Invisibles”, gay French-Jewish documentarian Sebastien Lifshitz looks at homosexual men and women born during the period 1919 to 1939, a time when they were forced to become “invisible”.