Film review of Irrational Man

August 21, 2015

(This film review of “Irrational Man” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 August 2015.)

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone and Parker Posey

Even on a bad day, a Woody Allen movie is worth watching. While his latest film, “Irrational Man”, is a distinctly minor addition to his impressive oeuvre, it contains at least two performances of extraordinary quality and attempts to deal with philosophical questions that most directors avoid.

Allen’s film career as a writer, director and actor now spans more than 50 years. “Irrational Man” returns to one of Allen’s favoured themes, of evil deeds going unpunished. He explored this in great length in the comedy-drama, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, which was set partly against the background of his character’s obsession with the Holocaust.

“Irrational Man” instead takes an academic approach through its main character Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor played by Joaquin Phoenix, who arrives at a small New England college suffering from writer’s block and general ennui. Unable to progress his book on Heidegger and fascism, he commences a desultory affair with a depressed married colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). And against his better judgment, he is drawn into second affair with one of his brightest undergraduate students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), the daughter of two local professors – both of them obviously Jewish. Both women want to be rescued by Lucas, who in turn is seeking some escape from his lonely and alcohol-fuelled musings (“just what the world needs, another book on Heidegger and fascism”).

I have never been a fan of screen alcoholics, as perpetual drunks are rarely fun to watch, and following their journeys is rarely interesting. Abe’s situation creates a structural problem for the plot of “Irrational Man”, so Abe’s tortured character decides to do something drastic to rouse himself (no plot spoilers here). As Abe, a mis-cast Phoenix falls into his classic speech-slurring mumble, spouting philosophical truisms (“anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”), but without the conviction that other actors have been able to give to Allen’s intellectual lines.

By contrast, Parker Posey and Emma Stone both shine in their roles, creating two believable and totally watchable characters. If this film were stronger, I would tip both for possible Academy Award nominations. But the weak and underwritten plot with a too-easy ending and Phoenix’s loose performance all weigh it down. Despite the scenic Rhode Island setting and a few cute pop culture references (“I am at a ‘Zabriskie Point’ moment”), “Irrational Man” leaves little emotional resonance.

Last year, the New York Post posed the question, “Does Woody Allen write good roles for women, or is he a great director of women?” Seven performances in Woody Allen films have won Academy Awards, six of them for women, an almost unparalleled achievement. “Irrational Man” contains two more good female roles, unfortunately lost in a flawed film.

(Photo below: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in “Irrational Man”)

Irrational Man

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Hollywood Jews and the Iran deal

August 17, 2015

It’s been quite a long while since we heard the phrase “Hollywood Jews”. We will soon approach 100 years of debate about the “Jewish influence” in Hollywood, a word that broadly describes the American film and television (and other entertainment) industries in Los Angeles. There’s lots of documentation that shows that:

1. Jews are over-represented in Hollywood, especially in some key creative and some high-profile positions.
2. The Jewish “influence” over Hollywood is overstated by an enormous amount – even by Jews themselves.
3. There are lots of good historical reasons why Jews gravitated to work in the American film and television industries – primary among them because historically they were locked out of a large number of other industries and professions. Hollywood, for a complex set of geographical, historical and economic factors, was open to “the Jews” at a key point in Jewish and film history, and has remained relatively so since.

Here’s what Neal Gabler, in his 1988 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, writes with respect to point three: “There were no social barriers in a business as new and faintly disreputable as the movies were in the early years of this century…. There were none of the impediments imposed by loftier professions and more firmly entrenched businesses to keep Jews and other undesirables out.”

And here’s a good example of point number two. Premiere, a monthly film magazine published in the USA from 1987 to 2010, used to present its annual “Top 100 power list”. I analysed the “power list” every year over a ten+ year period (approximately 1995 to 2005), to see how many of the “top 100” on the list were, in fact, Jewish. When I gave lectures on Jewish representation in film, I would ask the audience how many on the list did the audience think were Jewish. These were Australian Jewish audiences, reasonably sophisticated in media, in film and with a high degree of Jewish “awareness”, and not prone to over-estimating Jewish power in the world. The average guess was about 50%, with some people estimating as high as 90%. The lowest estimates – yes, the absolute lowest – only just met the reality: between 22% and 25%. Over the ten or eleven years in my survey, the top number was about 29%, and the lowest 20%.

Okay, so 25% is a lot, you might argue, especially when Jews make up only about 2.5% of the American population. Yes, it’s an over-representation by a factor of ten, but far from control. And the further down the list you go, the fewer Jews actually appeared. I strongly suspect that the second 100 (if totalled) would be significantly less.

So that’s the some of the background of the recent headline coverage of “Hollywood Jews support the Iran deal”, with some pretty strong criticism of the full-page advertisements that appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal last week. We Jews – and many non-Jews, both sympathetic to Jewish causes and not – are pretty alert to “Jewish power” issues. So when the “Hollywood Jews” make a statement together, well … we notice. And we notice a lot more than when it’s a simple group of Jews, because of the nature of Hollywood film history. “Cleveland Jews” making a statement just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

So here, below is a copy of the advertisement. You can find a lot more information on the Hollywood Reporter website. Even The Times of Israel insisted on calling the group “Hollywood Jews”, when the more accurate description – one used by the group itself – was “Los Angeles Jewish leaders”.

Hollywood Jews endorse Iran dealFor the record, here is the list of signatories to the ad:

Mel Levine, Mickey Kantor, Eli Broad, Norman Lear, Frank Gehry, Stanley Gold, Irwin Jacobs, David Abel, James Adler, Daniel Attias, Elaine Mitchell Attias, Lawrence Bender, Peter and Barbara Benedek, Michael Berenbaum, Donna Bojarksy, Peter Braun, Rabbi Sharon Brous, David Bubis, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Eli Chernow, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Bruce and Toni Corwin, Geoffrey Cowan, Bert Deixler, David Fisher, William and Patricia Flumenbaum, Terry Friedman, Abner Goldstine, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Arthur Greenberg, Earl Greinetz, Richard and Lois Gunther, Stephen Gunther, Janet Halbert, Michael Hirschfeld, Elaine Hoffman, Jane Jelenjo and Bill Norris, Charles Kaplan, Marty Kaplan, Steven Kaplan and Janet Levine, Glenn and Miriam Krinksy, Luis and Lee Lainer, Mark Lainer, Peter Landesman, Shawn Landres, Shari Leinwand, Irwin Levin, Peachy Levy, Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Mike Medavoy, Douglass Mirell, Charles Mostov, Allan and Nicole Mutchnik, David N. Myers, Mark and Marsha Novak, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Carolyn Ramsay, Gene Reynolds, Victoria Riski and David W. Rintels, Fredric D. Rosen, Rick Rosen, Monica and Philip Rosenthal, Ranni John Rosove, Thomas Safran, Dena Schechter, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Larry Shapiro, Abby Sher, Richard Siegel, Glenn Sonnenberg, Carolyn Strauss, Bradley Tabach-Bank and De Dee Dorksind, David A. Thorpe, Larry Title and Ellen Shavelson, Matthew Velkes, Hope Warschaw, Rick Wartzman, Matthew Weiner, Sandford and Karen Wiener, Daniel Weiss, Marcie and Howard Zelikow and Michael Ziering.

It’s an interesting list, with a few well-known names, including Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Eli Broad (philanthropist and entrepreneur), Norman Lear (TV mogul) and Frank Gehry (the architect, not a media person), Mike Medavoy (a genuine Jewish film mogul), Michael Berenbaum (Holocaust film scholar) and Mickey Kantor (former politician). A fascinating group, but (a) not a “power list” of Hollywood personalities (how many do you recognise?); and (b) includes lots of non-entertainment types. Missing are most of the biggest actor, director and producer names. Not exactly what I’d call a “Hollywood Jewish coalition”, by any means.

However it suits the media to frame this as a “Hollywood” (read: film and television) list.


Walking on screen

August 13, 2015

Bill Bryson’s visit this week to Australia to promote the film “A Walk in the Woods” – based on his 1998 hit book about walking the Appalachian Trail – brings renewed attention to that oldest of human past-times, walking (what did you think I was going to say?). The film stars Robert Redford as Bryson, and Nick Nolte, playing Bryson’s dissolute walking mate and childhood friend, Stephen Katz. Emma Thompson provides support as Bryson’s British wife. Now that’s cool: Bryson never imagined that Redford would play him on screen. The film opens in North America and Australia the first week of September, following its premiere at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival early this year.

There’s a problem with this casting, as ABC Radio presenter Michael Cathcart pointed out on ABC Radio National “Books and Arts” program (click here to listen to the delightful interview): Bryson was just 44 when he “walked the woods”, and Redford was 78 when the film was shot in 2014. That casting changed the theme from a “reconnecting with America” theme – Bryson’s ostensible reason to undertake the walk – to two ageing men battling infirmity in their trek. (Click here to watch the “7.30 Report” interview with Bryson.)

But no matter. I am a great fan of Bryson’s work (like me, he is an expatriate American who has spent the majority of his life living overseas – in his case, the United Kingdom) and of Robert Redford. So the pairing, for me at least, will be irresistible.

Unlike most Australians, I have actually walked short parts of the Appalachian Trail: some bits in North Carolina (the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; my friend Dave lived nearby in Knoxville while studying at the University of Tennessee) and some in New Hampshire and Vermont, near Hanover, New Hampshire when I attended Dartmouth College in my undergraduate university days. Not much, mind you, but just enough to claim some personal knowledge of the Trail. Local Knoxville newspaper “The Daily Times” reported this week that the Great Smoky Park is gearing up for another invasion of walkers, following the release of the movie in a few weeks’ time.

Tales of walking are popular on screen, and are some of my favourite recent films. In “Wild”, based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed (love that name), Reese Witherspoon dramatises Strayed’s adventures walking the Pacific Crest Trail in western USA. “The Way” with Martin Sheen, follows a (fictional) pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (the Catholic Way of St. James) in France and Spain. In “Tracks” (one of my favourite Australian films of 2014), based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays the main character’s solitary walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in Western Australia.

Other books about walking – possibly less filmable – are on my “read soon” list: Rebecca Solnit’s essays in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” and Martin Fletcher’s “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation”, about walking the Mediterranean coast of Israel from Rosh Hanikra to the Gaza border.

(below an image of Bryon’s book)

A Walk in the Woods image


Film review of Trainwreck

August 6, 2015

This review of “Trainwreck” appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 6 August 2015

Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Amy Schumer
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton and LeBron James

This is Amy Schumer’s year. Her “Inside Amy Schumer” TV show is hot hot hot. In April, she was named one of “Time” magazine’s “100 most influential people”. Schumer wrote and stars in “Trainwreck”, which is directed by Judd Apatow, the American Jewish film-maker who seems to have reinvented film comedy in the 21st century. Where will she go next?

Amy Schumer’s character in “Trainwreck” is called “Amy Townsend”, and is clearly autobiographical. Her on-screen sister – excellently played by Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street”) is called Kim (just like her real sister) and her on-screen father (“Saturday Night Live” veteran Colin Quinn) is called Gordon, like her real dad.

Amy (the character) lives in New York City, working for a popular men’s magazine, edited by Dianna, played by unrecognisable Swinton, who creates a character of breathtaking – and genuinely hilarious – self-obsession and total lack of empathy (Swinton also wrote the “Time” magazine article about Schumer). Amy is unhappy in love, using men for sex and not expecting much from her relationships. Things change when Dianna assigns Amy to write a story about a sweet-natured sports physician, Dr Aaron Conners (comedian Bill Hader). Aaron “gets” Amy, understands her weaknesses and appreciates her strengths. Much of the film then charts Amy’s and Aaron’s attempts to develop their relationship, in the best of the romantic comedy tradition.

Like almost every Judd Apatow film, “Trainwreck” is slightly overlong with a predictable plot and conventional denouement, filled with many wonderful – some truly memorable – scenes, but ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its component parts. A number of scenes and plot devices simply don’t work. I could have skipped the “film within a film” called “The Dogwalker” starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) and Marisa Tomei, much of the time spent on Amy’s relationship with her father and his illness, and an odd scene with actor Matthew Broderick, tennis star Chris Evert and New York sportscaster Marv Albert (all playing themselves) when they “counsel” Aaron.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that “Trainwreck” contains some of the funniest film lines this year, the romance is fully believable, and most minor characters (some played by previously unknown actors) give unforgettable performances. In addition to Tilda Swinton, professional basketball mega-star LeBron James – playing himself as a colleague and friend of Aaron’s – gives a subtle and delightfully comic performance. Bulked up professional wrestler John Cena also adds a lovely comic turn as one of Amy’s boyfriends (Schumer once dated professional wrestler Dolph Ziggler). Vanessa Bayer plays a ditsy magazine colleague of Amy’s who smiles when nervous (watch the scene between her and Swinton and you’ll understand). A deadpan Ezra Miller plays the funniest young editorial intern to appear on film, and – at age 100 – legendary Jewish actor Norman Lloyd plays a crotchety Jewish resident (named “Norman”) of Gordon’s Long Island nursing home.

“Trainwreck” is Amy’s story, however, her first starring film role. Like Lena Dunham in “Girls” (which Schumer recently appeared in), Schumer reflects the present moment of semi-confident, young, urban women fitfully seeking romance and professional success, in a long film tradition that extends back to “His Girl Friday”, “Working Girl”, “9 to 5”, “Legally Blonde” and “The Devil Wears Prada”. Along the way, Apatow and Schumer find time to pay quick homage to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”, even shooting a brief scene at the Queensboro Bridge and playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.

Schumer is not your typical or classically beautiful romantic star: “Sydney Morning Herald” film critic Jake Wilson describes her as “one of the most original romantic comedy stars since Barbra Streisand. But like other comics of her generation, she is apparently fearless, more than willing to make a fool of herself (think Sarah Silverman). Although Schumer is Jewish (and a cousin of New York Jewish Senator Chuck Schumer), her character in “Trainwreck” is Jewish only in that its self-deprecating comedy is filled with the angst of self-doubt. Schumer is a great physical comic, and “Trainwreck” truly soars the film lets Schumer “strut her stuff”: the last scene, set in New York’s Madison Square Garden, is a total delight.

Unlike the majority of Judd Apatow’s films, which are aimed squarely at male geeks (“40 Year Old Virgin”) and slackers (“Knocked Up”), “Trainwreck” will appeal to women more than men. Minor criticisms aside, this film is a crowd-pleaser, and audiences are likely to leave the cinema feeling happy. What more can you ask for?

“Trainwreck” is Rated MA15+ in Australia, for “strong sex scenes, sexual references and coarse language”. There is lots of use of “f” word and simulated sex – much of it hilariously portrayed.

Trainwreck_poster