French Film Festival in Australia

February 27, 2014

(Note:  this article on the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Australia originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 February 2014.)

The Jewish experience in France is a complicated one:  after centuries of persecution, Jews were emancipated during the French Revolution, and Napoleon spread this freedom to Jews in other parts of Europe as he expanded the French empire.  Yet it was in France that the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and French collaboration with Nazis in persecuting Jews was widespread.  Today, with more than half a million Jews living in France, the Jewish contribution to French life and culture continues to be significant.  Each year, the French Film Festival provides a window into the latest intersections of Jewish history and French culture.

This year two Festival films contain Jewish themes:  one on Russian-Jewish refuseniks and one on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland.  The Festival also features “Grand Central”, a new film by French-Jewish director Rebecca Zlotowski (“Belle Epine”) and a small retrospective of films by Francois Truffaut, who is a significant figure in French Jewish film.  Truffaut (1932-84) is not identified as Jewish in the popular mind, but private research in the late 1960s identified his previously unknown father as Jewish.  While Truffaut’s mother denied the allegation, Truffaut reportedly embraced it, believing that it explained much of his character and his interest in society’s outcasts and martyrs.  But Truffaut’s experience of Jewish life went further:  his first wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, was Jewish, as were his two daughters with her – Laura and Eva.  More than that, we remember Truffaut for his two classic Jewish films: “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (Goodbye, Children) and “The Last Metro”.  While neither of these films are included in the retrospective, the Festival does feature “Finally, Sunday”, “Jules and Jim” and his autobiographical “The 400 Blows”.

Despite its inherent human drama during a heightened time of Cold War tension, there are remarkably few filmic portrayals of the experience of Soviet Jews during the Brezhnev “refusenik” period, when many Jewish attempted, usually without success, to leave Soviet Russia.  The Festival features one film that deals with this time – “Friends From France” (“Les Interdits”), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski.  Set in 1979, two French Jewish cousins (played by the singer Soko and Jeremie Lippmann) travel to Odessa pretending to be an engaged couple on a holiday.  But they are really there to make contact with Soviet-Jewish dissidents.  It’s a time of danger and secret police raids.  Complications ensue when the cousins become attracted to each other, and the personal and the political become intertwined.

The “Belle and Sebastian” story started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry.  Set in the French Alps, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep.  The book was adapted into a French TV series and then a Japanese animated series.  This new film version has been re-set in 1943 and moved to the French-Swiss border, with an additional theme of local Nazi soldiers who are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  It is beautifully filmed in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing, and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters.  The French Film Festival’s screenings of “Belle and Sebastian” are the first ones in an English language country, one of many opportunities to see un-released French films.

The Festival runs in Sydney from 4 through 23 March and Melbourne from 5 through 23 March.  Click here for details on Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

her – a stylish and beautiful film about emotional disconnection in the digital age

February 25, 2014

Some 48 hours after watching the film “her” in the cinema, I am still haunted by its stylish and uncommon beauty, and its sly, understated but yet biting theme of emotional disconnection in the digital age.  Under its off-kilter romantic dramatic exterior lurks a science fiction film that raises deep questions about our present fascination with personal technology “solutions” and how this will change the nature of human interaction in the near future.

Have you ever sat with a group of people, and realised that everyone was staring into a small screen, silently swiping or typing or reading or listening through earphones?  This is the future that “her” posits, although with a difference.  Living in a higher density Los Angeles that looks uncommonly like China (the exteriors were all shot in Shanghai; will the China of today irrevocably become the future of tomorrow?).  Our main character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) ironically writes letters for a living – yes, real letters for real people who are unable to express themselves emotionally.

Everyone in “her” lives in a frictionless world, talking into their ear pieces, with a bland, pale set of colours, sort of “Apple-lite” (seen any Apple advertisements recently?).  Nobody is physically injured in “her” (although Theodore does trip, once); everyone seems to glide through a world that has been made so safe through technology that personal feelings are shielded.  The result?  Our closest relationships are those with the “operating systems” of our computers.

Does this sound like far out sci-fi, or just a slight exaggeration of the present?  I vote for the latter. (Who or what did you spend the most time with this week?  Your computer, or your life partner?)

Jonze is a genuinely gifted director.  Following his collaborations with Charlie  Kaufman (writer of Jonze’s uber-trippy films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”), he has come into his own writing this one.

One of the beauties of “her” is that the film truly has the courage of its convictions:  yes, what would genuinely happen if (when?) artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that they become our best friend.  When my friend recently swore at Siri, the iPhone’s voice intelligent system, Siri admonished her.  Really, how close are we already to Jonze’s world?

Even the name Twombly – Anglo-Saxon and yet unusual – is highly evocative.  The most recognisable person with that last name is the painter and artist “Cy” (Edwin Parker) Twombly (1928-2001), whose works were inspired by “ancient Mediterranean history and geography, Greek and Roman mythology and epic poetry”, resulting in sometimes “inscrutable” works that include “iconography, metaphor and myth”.  As Christy Harrison has pointed out, “the film’s colour scheme often seems to be directly lifted” off the artist’s canvas (see her post for two screenshot/painting comparisons).  Danny Bowes notes that Phoenix’s character even dresses like the artist.

If you live in Sydney, as I do, you will have to rush if you wish to catch “her” in the cinema – and this is a cinema film, that a widescreen experience greatly enhances, bringing you into its odd and ever so slightly bizarre world.  We watched it at the Macquarie Centre, in an afternoon weekend screening that was the only one that day.  “her” has been nominated for a number of Academy Awards:  best picture, best original screenplay, best original score, original song and production design.  In a different year – one without the flashy, louder nominated films (you know who you are) – “her” could have featured more highly in both the nominations and the actual winners.  But that’s the way it goes in the near future.

her #2

her Theodore Twombly apartment

(Australian readers note:  The Art Gallery of NSW holds Cy Twombly’s “Three Studies from the Temeraire”, acquired in November 2004.)

What I learned about life from the movies in 2013

February 10, 2014

I am sometimes accused of seeing life through the prism of the movies.  But don’t we all see it that way?

Well, I have seen a lot of movies in 2013 and learned a whole lot about life.  Here, in short, is what I learned from going to the movies in 2013:

In outer space, no one can hear you scream.

Heterosexuals get AIDS too.

Tom Hanks is a mensch.

Hobbits are native to New Zealand.

Kevin Costner is a mensch.

Athletic women shooting arrows are sexy and spark revolutions.

The next war will be fought by 12 year old videogamers.

Magicians make the best bank robbers.

There is no colour in the state of Nebraska.

The White House and Capitol buildings in Washington DC are very vulnerable to attack.

Older uneducated white guys who are salesmen know more than young tech heads about life and business.

San Francisco and New York at nice places to live if you’re rich.

Chasing volcanoes is next cool thing.

Love conquers all.

Richard Nixon was a bigot.

The American political system in the 20th century was built on the backs of uncomplaining black men.

It’s hard to kill a zombie.

The intellectual centre of the universe is Brooklyn.

Mary Poppins was Australian.

Jews were persecuted by the Nazis, but life was tough for little German girls too.

Walt Disney had extraordinary emotional intelligence and counselling skills.

Slavery was hell.

The Japanese mistreated Allied prisoners of war during World War II.

Cocaine users make lots of money and have loads of fun.

Some of the best music comes from dreary and depressing movies.

Complicated comb-overs are sexy.

The Catholic Church mistreated young mothers.

Some of the best American actors aren’t actually American at all.

All romantic relationships, no matter how amazing they are at the beginning, devolve into petty bickering.

I am not the only person in the world who loves my computer’s operating system.

When driving from Long Island to New York City, you pass through an industrial part of Rozelle, in Sydney’s Inner West.

Sound Stage 2, Warner Brothers studio

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit – the bad guys are Russian again

February 10, 2014

I am not certain what odd quirk of history has brought us around to Russian movie villains again.  But it has.  Need proof:  go watch (as I did last night) the new “Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit”, with Chris Pine in the star role originally invented by Tom Clancy.

Kenneth Branagh (who also directs) and Kevin Costner play supporting roles as a Russian oligarch and a CIA handler/boss respectively; both are great – the best things in the movie as Pine is not quite strong enough to carry our interest.  But the fact that Branagh’s character is Russian, and the Russian government is clearly implicated in the proposed terrorist attack in the film (and the attempt to bring the US economy to its knees) makes this film unusual.  Don’t expect “Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit” to be playing in the Moscow multiplexes any time soon in this era of Putin.  Or maybe they won’t notice that they are the bad guys this time?

In the Cold War, the “baddies” were always Russians or East Germans, but mostly Russian.  But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc and the reunification of Germany things changed.  Movie people needed lots of different bad guys.  So here’s a quick list, which includes a number of British films (James Bond):

“Die Hard” (1988, Germany – although changed to a generic “Europe” in the German release)

“Hunt for the Red October” (1990, Russians are actually the GOOD guys)

“Die Hard 2” (1990, South African drug lords, with Americans in assistance)

“Patriot Games” (1992, Irish Republican Army)

“Clear and Present Danger” (1994, American colleagues and Colombian drug lords)

“Die Hard 3” (1995, Germans again)

“Mission Impossible 1” (1996, internal Americans)

“The Siege” (1998, Arabs)

“Die Hard 4” (2007, rogue domestic Americans)

“Quantum of Solace” James Bond (2008, wealthy businessmen)

“The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3” (Americans)

“Skyfall” James Bond (2012, rogue British mercenaries and angry former spies)

“Die Hard 5” (2013, Russians are both good and bad guys)

“White House Down” (2013, renegade US armed forces)

“Olympus Has Fallen” (2013, North Korea)

Any patterns there? Although it’s not a complete list by any means, one of the biggest patterns arising is the presence of domestic terrorists and rogue agents.  But perhaps the new, muscular Russia with Putin at the helm will give us a “big” bad guy again?

More New Jersey uniqueness

February 10, 2014

I still wonder what it is about those of us who grew up in New Jersey:  some odd combination of “New Jersey pride” and defensiveness.  We love it, are affectionate to its foibles (even to the “armpit of the nation” references) and can’t stop seeking reassurance.  I don’t sense that from any other state in the east coast of the USA – or anywhere else, for that matter.   Perhaps New York and California (and now Texas and wherever else) are way too confident to stoop to what we former New Jerseyans do to prove to ourselves and the world (but mostly, I suspect to ourselves) that our childhoods were valid, were actually exciting and were somehow romantic.

The latest – and genuinely very interesting “isn’t New Jersey cool” websites are located on “Movoto”, a real estate sales and blog site (to figure).  There are four sets of photos that are worth checking out:

– The 29 greatest moments in New Jersey history

– The 22 maps of New Jersey they never showed you in school (From map number 5:  Did you know that New Jersey apparently is the only place in the USA where they/we call the night before Hallowe’en “mischief night”?  I didn’t.)

– The 13 maps the conclusively prove that North Jersey is better than South Jersey (and I did not know anyone cared – but they do)

– The 33 photos that will make you remember why you love New Jersey (well, they didn’t do it for me, but they very pretty nevertheless)

New Jersey postcard

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

February 9, 2014

About one month after I turned 18, as a senior in high school in New Jersey, I acted in the role of Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Our play director was Robert (Bob) Stevens, the school’s drama teacher, a man who made a profound impact on the professional and creative lives of a number of generations of my high school’s students.

He was a former southerner, from Virginia, and that spring production of Twelfth Night was the school’s first attempt at Shakespeare.  It was a great success, at least I remember it so.  But what did I know – I was 18 and thought that I had the lead role.

I didn’t, of course.  You hardly see Sebastian in the play.  But my experience was akin to that of Tom Stoppard’s lead characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: they may be off-stage for most of Hamlet, but they are convinced that the story is really about them.

An article by Hilton Als in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”) gives a joyful elucidation of Twelfth Night’s themes, reviewing Tom Carroll’s production at the Belasco theatre in New York City (closing on February 16th).  Here are two excerpts:

How marvellous it can be to let go of one’s self-conscious rationalizing, with its fear of the uncontrollable, like joy, and sink helplessly into the theatre of feelings—tender and coarse, confused and projected, authentic and invented—that drives “Twelfth Night.”

For days after I saw “Twelfth Night,” questions about the play and about Shakespeare reverberated in my mind. (Despite my love of mystery, I am, like most humans, a problem-solving animal.) How did he do it? How did he construct such a popular work out of “outsider” thoughts about gender and cross-dressing? By opening himself up to creative empathy, certainly. Where most of us succumb to the limiting power of self-preservation, Shakespeare rushed toward the enormous freedom that can come with “why”—the spirit of inquiry that jump-starts the imagination.

I was swept up with the glorious words of the play (once I could understand the words, they were delightful), but only vaguely aware of the radical gender-bending and cross-dressing elements in it.  The innocence of youth.  And Bob Stevens was nothing if not a brave man when it came to drama.  By my count, no less than five of those who acted in the play with me later went on to professional acting careers.  An unusually large number?  Perhaps, or not.

To this day, my mind is immediately transported back to that stage of so long ago when I hear the words,

“If music be the food of love, play on …”

My close friend Steve played Sebastian’s friend and confidant Antonio, and it was only a few years ago (some decades after I last acted) that I stopped reciting Sebastian’s great soliloquy, which reads thus:

This is the air; that is the glorious sun;
This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t;
And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ’tis not madness. Where’s Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant:
Yet there he was; and there I found this credit,
That he did range the town to seek me out.
His counsel now might do me golden service;
For though my soul disputes well with my sense,
That this may be some error, but no madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad
Or else the lady’s mad; yet, if ’twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
As I perceive she does: there’s something in’t
That is deceiveable. But here the lady comes.

Want to see the full script of Twelfth Nightclick here for an MIT-supplied version, part of their complete works of Shakespeare free online.

Twelfth Night1

Twelfth Night2

The Wolf of Wall Street film review

February 1, 2014

This film review of “The Wolf of Wall Street” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 30 January 2014.

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Terence Winter

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley

After more than four decades of vigorous and ground-breaking film-making, Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, literally crashes into Australian cinemas. Imagine Scorsese’s frenetic gangster film “Goodfellas” crossed with Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”; add a dose of funny voice over and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role of Jordan Belfort, a real-life young crash-and-burn Wall Street trader.

The title of this film has multiple meanings, and comes from Belfort’s first memoir.  Belfort is the voracious “wolf” who eats little people, red riding hood style.  But a better story analogy is one coined by a Forbes magazine writer in 1991: he is a “twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers.”

Jordan Belfort rises fast to make loads of money (and not just from the rich), living a lifestyle of fast cars, many women, drugs and alcohol. This bacchanalian tale includes excessive doses of sex, pill-popping, nudity and cursing. In fact, the film has more uses of the “f” word (about 550) than any other film in history: that’s more than three per minute in a179-minute film.  So be warned:  if you are not able to last through three hours of female flesh, pills and strong language, this is not the film for you.

But with five Oscar nominations – best film, best director, best actor (DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill) and best adapted screenplay – “The Wolf of Wall Street” is solidly entertaining, funny and one of the big events of this film season.  It’s a hilarious and wry black comedy that attempts (not always successfully) to satirise the culture of excess that has taken over the American financial services industry. In his scenes of lifestyle indulgence, DiCaprio gives a great performance, including a physical comedy we have rarely seen before.

Scorsese’s sense of humour continues in his other casting decisions.  Australian actress Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s second wife with astonishing depth and as a fully convincing New Yorker.  Matthew McConaughey plays the multiple-martini-lunch broker who first introduces Belfort to the techniques of Wall Street fun and money-making. Jean Dujardin (of the Oscar-winning “The Artist”) gleefully plays the sleazy French Swiss banker who helps Belfort hide millions in a Swiss bank, assisted by Belfort’s wife’s British “Aunt Emma” (Joanna Lumley). And in smaller roles, Jewish essayist Fran Leibowitz plays the judge who sentences Belfort, film-maker Spike Jonze (born Adam Spiegel, director of “Her”) appears and the real Jordan Belfort shows up to play a host who introduces the DiCaprio version of himself.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” holds some uncomfortable questions for Jews. Although not specifically identified in the film, the real Jordan Belfort is Jewish.  The DiCaprio character makes numerous references to “WASPs”, and consciously chooses the very WASPy company name “Stratton Oakmont”. Belfort’s father Max (played by iconic Jewish actor/director Rob Reiner) is even more explicitly Jewish.  So are almost all of Belfort’s friends, many with obvious Jewish names.  DiCaprio’s voice over describes Jonah Hill’s character of Donnie Azoff as wearing “horn-rimmed glasses with clear lenses so as to look like a WASP”.  Drug dealer friend Brad Bodnick wears a very prominent golden necklace “Chai”.  Why were – are – Jews like Belfort heavily over-represented amongst Wall Street insider traders and other financial criminals (think Bernie Madoff)?

Finally, one of the challenges faced by this film is its moral murkiness. Despite numerous proven charges of insider trading and money laundering, Jordan Belfort spends only three years in prison (in real life, less than two) and is sentenced to pay defrauded investors $110million (of which little has been paid in real life).  At the end of the film, he is shown running a successful motivational speaking business, talking in New Zealand.  Is this sufficient payback for a professional life spent defrauding investors?

Wolf of Wall Street Hill DiCaprio