Film review of Lion

January 27, 2017

(This film review of “Lion” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on January 26, 2017.)

Directed by Garth Davis; written by Luke Davies, based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley; starring Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui

*****

When the history of Australian film of the early 21st century is written, “Lion” will take its place as one of the best of its era, a film both totally unique and fully realised. While its story of childhood loss, displacement, the search for identity and ultimate redemption is universal, it is also thoroughly Australian.

And it’s a true story.  Saroo Brierley became separated from his family in India at the age of five and was adopted by an Australia couple who lived in Hobart.  Some 25 years later, he discovered the potential of Google Earth; after months of searching satellite photos, he recognised his hometown, leading him to a reunion with his birth family.

The first half of “Lion” takes place in India, with young Sunny Pawar playing the role of Saroo, and Abhishek Bharate playing his older brother Guddu.  One fateful day Guddu takes young Saroo on one of his many train expeditions in search of things to sell, and Saroo becomes too tired and is left to sleep at a train station.  Upon waking up in the night, he searches for his brother and gets trapped in an empty train that travels for days – and almost 1500 kilometres – from Saroo’s home in regional Khandwa to Kolkata (Calcutta).  For weeks, Saroo wanders the streets, unable to speak the local language (Bengali; his native tongue is Hindi) and avoids the fate of many homeless young people who are ruthlessly trafficked by unscrupulous adults.  He winds up in an orphanage that is truly Dickensian, filled with screaming kids presided over by uncaring adults.  Too young even to remember his last name, the attempts to find his mother and family fail.

The first hour of “Lion” is possibly one of the best cinema hours you will see this year:  much of the time, the film proceeds wordlessly, mutely viewed from young Saroo’s standpoint.  The media attention has focussed on the “name” stars – Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who plays the 30 year-old Saroo, and Nicole Kidman his adoptive mother Sue Brierley, both have Oscar nominations – along David Wenham as adoptive father John Brierley.  But the emotional strength of “Lion” comes from the performance of Sunny Pawar as the young hero.  Like the best of child actors, he brings a stillness and focus to the role that astonishes, illustrating just the ordeal that many young Australian migrants have experienced prior to their arrival here.

The second half of the film focuses on the emotional journey of Saroo (played by Patel), as he slowly works through his traumatic separation.  Patel inhabits his character perfectly, with a great Australian accent and a cool swagger that only just hides the emotional insecurity he still feels at the early loss of his biological family.  American actress Rooney Mara (“Carol”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”) plays Saroo’s girlfriend, and Divian Ladwa plays Mantosh Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive brother who suffers from psychological demons much greater than Saroo’s.

The second half of the film does not achieve the greatness of the first half, hampered by Saroo’s story that is so internalised that it is hard to show on screen.  But the acting and the settings (Hobart and Melbourne) ground the film in the reality of the present day, setting up “Lion” for the emotional pay-off – yes, Saroo does find his family and learns new things about himself at the same time.

Great films are never the result of one person or one factor.  So it is with “Lion”.  It was not enough that it’s such an amazing “needle in a haystack” story: despite extensive publicity in 2014 given to the publication of Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home”, too few of us here in Australia were aware of it before this film. The film “clicks” because of so many interwoven parts.  Director Garth Davis’ background in directing commercials brings a stunning visual style, one that brings the story to life in a way in unforgettable ways.  Scriptwriter Luke Davis (deservedly Oscar-nominated) understands how to surmount life’s demons – he overcame heroin addiction and later turned it into a book and film (“Candy”) – and has fashioned Saroo’s biographical book into a screen story that rings true emotionally.  And someone had to bring it all together, to see the screen potential in the story and to enlist those to make it:  this was role of Sydney Jewish producer Emile Sherman (previous Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”) and his partners Iain Canning and Angie Fielder.

There are only five to ten films truly worth viewing on the big screen each year.  This year, “Lion” – also nominated for the Oscar “best film” category – is one of them.

lion-nicole-kidman-and-sunny-pawar(photo above: Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in “Lion”)


Film review of Jackie

January 22, 2017

(This film review of “Jackie” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 January 2017.)

Directed by Pablo Larrain; written by Noah Oppenheim; starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.

Few Americans are held in such mythical regard as Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Kennedy, the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman expertly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance in the film “Jackie”, a role that will surely place her in the front row of next month’s Oscars.

Although “Jackie” (the film) lovingly references the stage musical “Camelot” – written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe – a play that operated as an anthem (“one shining moment”) for the short-lived idealistic Kennedy administration, the film holds none of the musical’s romantic optimism.  Set primarily in the week following President Kennedy’s death, the film instead is a close study of Jackie Kennedy’s powerful grief, and her determined actions to locate her husband’s place in American historical memory through an unforgettable state funeral that included walking behind a horse-drawn casket.  That Natalie Portman makes this personal agony so watchable is a testament to the depth of her towering performance, her excellent co-stars and Chilean director Pablo Larrain, working in English for the first time.

The film uses two techniques to illustrate this tragic moment of American history.  First is a re-creation of the events of the assassination and its aftermath, notably with scenes of Jackie cradling President Kennedy’s bloodied head as the car speeds to Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, both of them shielded by Secret Service agent Clint Hill (David Caves). The film also follows Jackie during the crucial four days following the assassination and planning of JFK’s funeral, in which she took the lead role through force of personality.  The other technique – a great achievement by Jewish scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim – involves two confessional talks that Jackie Kennedy had in the days following the tragedy: an interview with historian Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) that resulted in a famous “Life” magazine article, and a counselling session with radical Jesuit priest Richard McSorley (John Hurt).  These “reconstructed” private sessions allow the film-makers to reveal Jackie’s most intimate thoughts, giving the film great depth and insight into Jackie’s mind and psyche at the time.

Although “Jackie” can be difficult to watch at times, it is a “must see” for fans of American political history.  Each member of the excellent cast plays a real-life figure, including Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard), Jackie’s friend and adviser Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, unrecognisable from her normal carefree thirtysomething post-modern roles), President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), Johnson’s wife “Lady Bird” (Beth Grant), film lobbyist and Johnson adviser Jack Valenti (Max Casella), journalist and Kennedy friend William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and President Kennedy (Caspar Phillpson).  The film will withstand repeated viewings so that we can pick out other famous figures who appear, including children John F. Kennedy Junior and Caroline Kennedy, sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother-in-laws Peter Lawford and Sargent Shriver, mother Rose Kennedy, Jackie’s step-father Hugh Auchincloss, Texas Governor John Connally, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and “Washington Post” editor Benjamin Bradlee.

The re-created Washington DC of the period – down to what appears to be the actual location of Kennedy’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery – is also superb.

The film’s January release date in Australia is a virtual tour de force of film marketing (not unlike the release of the 1927 “Jazz Singer”, about the life of Al Jolson, on the night before Kol Nidre):  our interest in US “First Ladies” is at an eight year peak, as the world bids goodbye to the much beloved Michelle Obama and gets ready to welcome the still unknown Melania Trump.

Jackie Kennedy’s later years (not covered in this film) also have two fascinating Jewish connections/  She spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Belgium-born Yiddish-speaking Jewish diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, with whom she was rarely seen in public, but widely acknowledged to be her third great love.  Jackie’s daughter Caroline also married a Jewish man (Edwin Schlossberg); she is currently the US Ambassador to Japan. Her brother John Kennedy Junior died in a light plane crash in 1999.

natalie-portman-in-jackie


Australian post-school education in the age of Trump

January 17, 2017

My new blog post on “Australian post-school education in the age of Trump” has been published by Open Forum.

The post addresses the question: “With the upcoming inauguration of Donald J. Trump as US President on January 20th, what ‘spill-over’ impact will his presidency have on Australian vocational education and training (VET)?”

You can read it here on Open Forum or here on the Community Colleges Australia website, under the title “Australian VET in the age of Trump”.


Make education an investment not a commodity

January 10, 2017

My letter to the editor appeared in today’s (10 January 2017) The Sydney Morning Herald, under the title “Time to value education as investment, not commodity.”  As published by the Herald, the letter reads:

*****

Time to value education as investment, not commodity

The Australasian College Broadway will not be the last private for-profit vocational education and training college to close its doors (“Australasian College Broadway: Teenagers left ‘devastated’ by collapse and in thousands of dollars of debt”, January 9). We have a virtual absence of Commonwealth government policy on the future of vocational education and training (VET).

The replacement of the scandal-ridden VET FEE-HELP loans, which Australasian College Broadway relied on as virtually its sole business model, with the new VET Student Loans program, does not go to the core of the problem: an unbalanced system created by the marketisation/privatisation of VET.

Both the Australian schools sector and higher education sector are coherent compared to VET. Not coincidentally, neither of those two educational sectors have a 67 per cent private for-profit “market penetration” the way that the VET sector has (3 million of 4.5 million VET students in 2015).

It’s time to return to quality education over a so-called “efficient” private market, which turned out not to be so “efficient” after all, relying on unsustainable government subsidies. It’s time to value education as an investment and not as a commodity.

Don Perlgut, Chief Executive, Community Colleges Australia, Sydney

*****

Click here to view the letter online (note: you will need to scroll down the page) or view a copy of the paper edition below.

For more details of this discussion, go to the website of Community Colleges Australia.

You can also view a copy of the letter in the paper edition below:

sydney-morning-herald-letter-10jan2017-cropped


Allied film review

January 6, 2017

(This film review of “Allied” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 January 2017.)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Steven Knight; starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Jared Harris and Simon McBurney

Wars are great for the movie business.  And there’s nothing like battling the Nazis to engage us even now, more than 70 years later: rarely has the world seemed so well divided into good and evil as it did then. The new film “Allied” brings one of the most powerful heroic war themes to the big screen – allied agents operating behind enemy lines.

“Allied” opens with a lone parachutist landing in the desert, with the short screen caption, “French Morocco 1942”.  The parachutist is Canadian Air Force Intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), there on a secret mission to assassinate the German ambassador in Casablanca.  He teams up with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (French actress Marion Cotillard), as they pretend to be husband and wife, and operate in open society, he as a supposed chemical businessman from Paris. Danger arises in that Max’s reasonably fluent French (part of the film neatly uses subtitles and original languages) is hampered by his Quebecois accent, which will mark him out as an imposter to anyone actually from Paris.

At the time, Casablanca was governed by Vichy France (the Allies captured it in late 1942), and the film’s early scenes lovingly depict the architecture, culture and politics of that long-ago North African city.  At Marianne’s insistence, Max sleeps on the roof, because “that’s what men in Casablanca do” after making love with their wives.  Max and Marianne prove to be a powerful and successful team, leading Max to propose marriage.

The action of “Allied” then shifts to blitz-ravaged London, where Marianne eventually joins Max and they have a daughter, born during a massive air-raid in a hospital courtyard.  The film’s nasty plot twist – a spoiler that any viewing of the film’s trailer will tell you – involves the allegation that Marianne is a double agent.  If she is, Max must “follow the protocol” of intimate relationships and kill her, an “is she or isn’t she?” question with profound consequences that tears at the myths of wartime heroism. Thus the film’s title “Allied” operates with a double and possibly triple meaning.

The production values of “Allied” are definitely “big screen” (this is a film worth viewing in the cinema), with director Robert Zemeckis neatly blending special effects into the convincing action, working with cinematographer Don Burgess.  Although the result is not as exciting as their “Forrest Gump” collaboration, it is state-of-the-art Hollywood professionalism. Notable scenes include Marianne and Max’s mutual seduction in a car stuck in a sandstorm, and the London bombings.

In the lead roles, both Pitt and Cotillard do a fine job, with an excellent supporting cast that includes American Jewish actress Lizzy Caplan as Max’s sister, and a great set of supporting British actors including Jared Harris (son of Richard) and Simon McBurney. This is Brad Pitt’s third World War Two heroic outing: he played a tank commander in “Fury” (2014) and the head of Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge squad in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).

“Allied” consciously references its famous forebear “Casablanca”, the 1942 Oscar-winning film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with specific references to the importance of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”.  “Allied” maintains “Casablanca’s” themes of self-sacrifice and heroism set against the wartime effort, but turns the plot in psychological Hitchcockian ways.

*****

If you have a taste for war dramas, Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent “Hacksaw Ridge” – a multi-award winner at last month’s Australian Film Institute’s “AACTA” ceremony – is currently playing in Australian cinemas.  Also opening later this year are two true stories:  “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, how the director of the Warsaw Zoo saved more than 300 Jews from the Nazis; and “HHhH”, from the Laurent Binet novel, recounting the 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

“Allied” is currently screening in Australian cinemas.

allied2(above: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in “Allied”)