Indigenous imprisonment one of top 10 blog posts in 2015

December 27, 2015

This falls into the category of “shameless self-promotion”.  My blog post entitled “Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration” (Open Forum, 12 March 2015) was one of the “top 10 of 2015” for the Open Forum blogging website.

It’s more than self-promotion, though.  It is a good indication that there is an interest, perhaps a hunger even, for discussion about that topic.  More on Indigenous Australian as well as African-American criminal justice to come in 2016.


Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016

December 24, 2015

(This article on Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016 appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 24 December 2015.)

“Goosebumps” (Roadshow, January 14) is based on the works of R.L. Stine, the mega-popular Jewish writer of children’s horror fiction. Stine – often called the “Stephen King of children’s literature” – is the author of hundreds of novels, which provide the basis for this 3D live-action/computer-animated children’s horror/comedy film. The film stars Jack Black (playing the character of Stine), Dylan Minnette as a teenage boy who moves to a new town, Odeya Rush as “Hannah Stine” – R. L. Stine’s daughter (in real life, Stine only has a son), In the film, Stine (Black) keeps all the ghosts and monsters in his books locked up in manuscripts. Zach and a friend unintentionally open one of Stine’s books, leading to the release of every ghost, monster, and villain. You can guess the rest. Stine briefly appears in the film playing a high school drama teacher, credited as “Hallway Parker”.

“Spotlight” (January 28) provides a gripping dramatisation of the child sex abuse cases that occurred in the Catholic Church, particularly in Boston.  Although this is not a “Jewish” story, it certainly is one of the most significant religious films of the year, and the events that took place had a profound impact on the ability of the US Catholic bishops to respond to other crises during and after that time.  That held important implications for Jews, as my (upcoming) review will make clear.  Directed by Tom McCarthy, and starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Tucci.

“Steve Jobs” (Universal, February 4) is the much-anticipated “biopic” about the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Although Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) was not Jewish, the film has lots of Jewish connections: written by Aaron Sorkin (Jewish), based on the book by Walter Isaacson (also Jewish), it includes the characters of (early Apple employee) Joanna Karine Hoffman (Polish Jewish father), technology journalist Walt Mossberg (Jewish), Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish, played by Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg from “A Serious Man”) and journalist Joel Pforzheimer (Jewish). Seth Rogen also plays Steve Wozniak (who is not Jewish). Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear. The film has received four Golden Globe nominations, including best actor/drama (Fassbender), supporting actress (drama) for Kate Winslet, screenplay for Aaron Sorkin and original score.

“Zoolander 2” (Paramount, February 11), the latest from Ben Stiller, has much to live up to, given the cult status of the 2001 original satirical film (now termed “Zoolander 1”). Stiller directs and reprises his role as model Derek Zoolander, and is joined by actors Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor (Stiller’s wife), newcomer Cyrus Arnold as “Derek Zoolandger Jr”, Billy Zane as himself, Justin Bieber as in himself, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Milla Jovovich, Macaulay Culkin as himself, Miley Cyrus as herself, Lenny Kravitz as himself and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the original “Zoolander”, Ben’s father Jerry Stiller’s memorable portrayal of “Maury Ballstein” has been called one of the “25 greatest Jewish characters in movies”. He spends the whole film with visible chest hair topped by a Magen David. A classic Ballstein quote: “I got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories. It’s time to set the record straight.”

Hail, Caesar” (Universal, February 18): Advance word on the new Joel and Ethan Coen comedy “Hail, Caesar” is that it is one of the most “Coen-y brothers films yet”. So says “The Guardian”, inventing a new, and as yet unheard of word, “Coen-y”. Set for its international premiere at the opening night of the Berlin Film Festival (a frequent location for Jewish-themed films) in February, with an Australian cinema release a week later, “Hail Caesar” features Josh Brolin as a Hollywood “fixer” named “Eddie Mannix”, working on a new film called “Hail, Caesar”, which stars actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who in turn is kidnapped. Mannix has the job of bringing him back.

When this Jewish writing/directing/producing pair puts out a new movie, the film world takes notice. From “Barton Fink” to “The Big Lebowski” to “A Serious Man”, their frequently bizarre – and often Jewish – characters have set new milestones for creativity. This time, the cast also includes Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill (as a Jewish producer), Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton (as Hedda Hopper), Channing Tatum and notable Jewish actors Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”) and David Krumholz as Communist screenwriters.

“Son of Saul” (Sony, February 25) premiered in Australia at the Jewish Film Festival in October, and is widely tipped as a major contender for the “best foreign language” Oscar, already holding a nomination for the Golden Globe best foreign language film. From Hungary (in Hungarian), early reviews indicate that “Son of Saul” will soon join the ranks of some of the most noted dramatic films about the Holocaust.

The date is October 1944, and the place is Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the boy’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and offer the boy a proper burial. A true triumph of the spirit.

(Photo of Ben Stiller in “Zoolander 2” below.)

Ben Stiller Zoolander 2

Jewish film releases in Australia on Boxing Day

December 24, 2015

(This article on Jewish themed films being released in Australia on “Boxing Day” – 26 December 2015 – appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 24 December 2015, in a shorter form.)

“Joy” (20th Century Fox), directed by David O. Russell, continues his run of great hits, having already received two Golden Globe nominations, for best picture (musical/comedy) and for Jennifer Lawrence (best actress musical/comedy). Although usually identified as Jewish, Russell continues to insist that he is an atheist.

Russell specialises in making stories about relatively unknown and off-beat Americans who become “larger than life” on the big screen. His “American Hustle” had 10 Academy Award nominations, and who can forget Irving Rosenfeld’s (Christian Bale) “comb-over”? In his new film, the biographical comedy-drama “Joy”, Russell charts the (real) life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a Long Island single mother and the entrepreneurial inventor of “Miracle Mop”, “Huggable Hangers” and almost 100 other new products. Robert De Niro plays her father, Rudy, and Bradley Cooper (a frequent Russell collaborator) plays Neil Walker, a Home Shopping Network executive. Cute Jewish trivia: Melissa Rivers, the daughter of the late Jewish comedian Joan Rivers and the late producer Edgar Rosenberg, has a cameo role, playing her own mother “Joan Rivers”.  Here is a YouTube clip from the film showing Melissa Rivers as her mother, Joan:

“Suffragette” (Transmission) is set in early 20th century Britain and charts, through a range of fictional and real characters, the rise and ultimate success of the “Suffragette” (women’s right to vote) movement in that country. Director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) is Jewish (profiled in this paper earlier this month): her father is the late publishing millionaire and philanthropist Lord Robert Gavron.

“Suffragette” opened the London Film Festival in October, and has received particular praise for its cast, notably Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, with both actresses tipped for possible Oscar nominations, and the film itself as a “Best Picture” contender. Meryl Streep also appears, although the film’s trailer suggests that Streep’s character is more important than it really is.

Sadly, no Jewish characters appear in “Suffragette”, although a number of Jewish women played important roles through the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, including Henrietta Franklin and her sister, social worker Lily Montagu, a founder of Britain’s first Liberal Jewish movement. (Other notable Jews such as Israel Zangwill and Sir Rufus Isaacs voiced strong support.) Jewish involvement was significant enough that the Jewish Museum of London recently mounted an exhibition about them entitled “blackguards in bonnets”.

“Youth” (StudioCanal) is the latest effort from Academy Award-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”). The film stars Michael Caine – who has the distinction of being nominated for an Academy Award in five consecutive decades – and Harvey Keitel. They play best friends on holiday in the Swiss Alps, reflecting on their lives. The film is meditative, an carefully crafted “eternal struggle between age and youth, the past and the future, life and death, commitment and betrayal.”

Keitel is the Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Poland. He studied acting under legendary Jewish drama coach Stella Adler, and has had fascinating Jewish roles, including Judas in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Jake Berman in “The Two Jakes” and Mickey Cohen in “Bugsy”. Another Jewish actor in the film is Rachel Weisz, the British daughter of Austrian and Hungarian refugees, who will soon star as Professor Deborah Lipstadt in “Denial”, based on Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”, that describes her court battle with David Irving. Jane Fonda has also received a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role in “Youth” as an ageing film star.

“Trumbo” tells the story of blacklisted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston).  Although Trumbo was not Jewish, the Hollywood “blacklist” of left-wing and Communist sympathisers in the late 1940s and early 1950s was substantially directed at Jews working in the film industry.  Many Jewish characters appear in this film, including Otto Preminger, Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper.  Directed by Jay Roach. Review to come.

(Photo of Sarah Gavron below.)

Sarah Gavron2

Film review of Phoenix

December 6, 2015

(This review of “Phoenix” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 3, 2015.)

Directed by Christian Petzold
Written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki
Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf

Sneaking into Australian cinemas this week with little fanfare comes one of the most important Jewish films of 2015: “Phoenix”, a noir-ish German drama that raises important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal. Set in immediate post-war Berlin, German-Jewish Holocaust survivor and former nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) has been horribly disfigured. With the assistance of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a fellow survivor who works for the Jewish Agency, she starts to recover her life, first by taking the opportunity to reconstruct her face. Despite the horrors Nelly went through, all she wants to do is to pick up the pieces: her request to the facial surgeon is, “to look exactly like I used to”. But with such severe injuries, the result is a new face, along with the possibility of a new life, allowing Nelly to pass un-noticed among those she once knew.

Against Lene’s objections, Nelly wants to find her non-Jewish husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may – or may not – have turned her in to the Nazis. She’s a lost and broken soul wandering in a ruined Berlin, where she finds her way to the neon red-lit Phoenix nightclub (the double-entendre of rising from the ashes is intentional). And yes, there’s Johnny, a sleazy survivor ever “on the make”, who does not (or simply refuses to) recognise Nelly but sees enough of a similarity with his presumed dead wife to hatch a plan so that he can obtain her money.

To appreciate “Phoenix”, you must set aside the implausibility of Johnny’s incomprehension that this woman – to her great horror – is, in fact, his very alive wife. In a huge act of emotional subjugation with its horrifying psychological implications, Nelly goes along with the plan, believing that this is the way to regain her life and identity, going so far as taking Johnny’s instructions as how to act like Nelly and helping to create a “back story” for the “fake” Nelly.

Here “Phoenix” contains strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), with its psychological melodrama of masquerade and shifting and duplicate identities. These similarities may not be accidental, as both films are based on post-war French novels. Viewers with sharp memories may recall that this story has been told on film before, in the 1961 British film “The Return from the Ashes”, written by Julius J. Epstein (“Casablanca”). This tangled web of stories based on personal betrayal and psychological dysfunction reflects early attempts by European novelists and film-makers to grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear winner Christian Petzold directs “Phoenix” with great visual flair that has made it a universal darling of film critics. Despite this acclaim, “Phoenix” contains many elements that Jewish audiences may find uncomfortable, in the same way as last year’s Polish film, “Ida”, did. Both films show only a couple of depressive Jewish characters in bleak post-war landscapes. Unlike the triumphalism of films like “Exodus”, Zionism seems to offer these survivors little or no hope for the future.

Ultimately, “Phoenix” reveals more about the concerns of post-war Germany than it does about the Holocaust. As Ryan Gilbey wrote in The Guardian, the film’s “warped narrative functions as an allegory for the stories that people and nations recount to themselves in order to go on surviving”. The power of the Holocaust in our memory is now so great that its stories are unexpectedly at risk of being universalised to represent even the fate of Germany.

(In German with English subtitles.)

Phoenix poster

The New York brand endures in Australia: NAB’s promotion

December 3, 2015

Here’s another testament to the enduring power of the lock that New York City has on the Australian popular imagination: here are photos of a NAB (National Australian Bank) promotion (taken in Sydney’s Bondi Junction) that encourages new loans that receive 250,000 Velocity (Virgin) frequent flyer points – more than enough to get you to New York City from Sydney.

And the tagline? “A home today NYC tomorrow.” So it’s not just the image but is reinforced in words. See the photos below.

NAB Sydney Dec2015-1

NAB Sydney Dec2015-2

NAB Sydney Dec2015-3