Film review of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

May 27, 2017

This review of “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” appeared in a different form in the Australian Jewish News on 25 May 2017.

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar; starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Michael Sheen

When American-born Israeli film-maker Joseph Cedar releases a new movie, the film world pays attention. Prior to his latest film, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (hereafter, “Norman”, opening this week in Australia), two of his four films received best foreign film Oscar nominations (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”). His other two – “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” – won best picture at the “Ophir” awards, the Israel “Oscars”.

“Norman” stars Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer, a sixty-ish New York business consultant (“Oppenheimer Strategies”) who is always on the make. People avoid him on the street because he is always asking them for something. Even his nephew – corporate lawyer Philip Cohen (British actor Michael Sheen, from “The Queen”) – tries to stay away. He pushes into social situations unannounced: when he “crashes” a fancy townhouse dinner party hosted by Jewish philanthropist Taub (Josh Charles), the effect is excruciating – humiliation writ large.

The Washington Post film critic accurately describes Norman as a macher, schnorrer and mensch all rolled together. He’s as complex a Jewish character as we have ever seen on screen, all the more fascinating because the audience knows almost nothing about him. He says he has a daughter, but nobody knows her. Does Norman have an office? Not clear. He appears to be on the Board of his synagogue, where he listens to choir practice for relaxation. He assists the Board with fundraising, and is friends with the rabbi, gleefully played by character actor Steve Buscemi. Richard Gere’s driven and hyperactive performance is breathtaking, avoiding the self-pity of many Woody Allen characters, to which there is some affinity; think “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Front”. This Norman is both natty (he wears a cool camel hair coat) and desperately seeking approval.

Norman’s life changes when he discovers Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi), a junior Israeli trade minister, at a New York conference. Norman follows Eshel to a fancy shoe stop, and inveigles to buy the Israeli an expensive pair of shoes. They become friends, of a sort, and develop a transactional relationship assists both of them: through connections, Norman assists Micha’s son to get into Harvard. We don’t quite know what Norman gets from Micha, but it’s enough to repay his shoe investment many times over.

Some years later, Micha becomes Prime Minister, and warmly and publicly greets Norman at an AIPAC conference in Washington DC. Norman kvells with pride, later detailing his relationship with Micha to New York lawyer Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge) on the train back to New York – the beginning of his “tragic fall”. This is writer/director Cedar in his best blackly comic mode. Some people do hilarious – and very stupid – things, and their actions return to bite them.

My favourite parts of the film were the ones in Hebrew with Prime Minister Eshel. So many American Presidents appear in dramatic films, so it’s fascinating to see a contemporary (albeit fictional) Israeli Prime Minister on screen.

A constant sense of unease underlies “Norman”, which may make some viewers uncomfortable. In Norman Oppenheimer, writer/director Cedar does not go for easy laughs, presenting us with a complicated and flawed character, in relationship to many other flawed characters – all of them Jewish. Recommended for those who are willing to pay attention to words that matter.

(above: Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi in “Norman”)

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Film review of Snatched

May 27, 2017

This film review of “Snatched” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 May 2017.

Directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Katie Dippold; starring Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Joan Cusack, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes and Christopher Meloni

As a mother-daughter adventure caper film, “Snatched” manages to be both terribly old-fashioned and edgily contemporary. With two Jewish stars in the lead – comic Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as her mother – “Snatched” is worth a look, particularly for groups of women looking for a female-centred action film.  Just keep your expectations low.

“Snatched” comes with a great comic pedigree. Teaming Amy Schumer with Goldie Hawn – one of the best American comic actresses of her generation (“Private Benjamin”, “Shampoo”, “Housesitter”, “First Wives Club”) – is a high-concept casting coup. Co-producer Paul Feig, who has made a career of female-centred action comedies, including the 2016 “Ghostbusters”, “The Heat”, “Bridesmaids” and “Spy”, ensures there is the requisite mix of bawdy humour and action. Add to the mix a good sprinkling of lesser-known but equally adept comics: African-American entertainer Wanda Sykes, character actress Joan Cusack and Jewish comic Ike Barinholtz as Amy’s brother.

Emily (Amy), Linda (Goldie) and Jeffrey (Ike) constitute the Middleton family (dad is long gone). Emily is a late twentysomething drifting through life, Jeffrey suffers from severe agoraphobia and a host of other anxiety disorders, and Linda has taken anxiety to a high art. Fired from her job and recently broken-up with her boyfriend, Emily invites her mother to accompany her on her planned trip to Ecuador. It’s a last resort: no-one else wants to go with her.

The trip seems so idyllic, including Emily’s meeting the dark handsome stranger who takes them on an adventure to the jungle … and leads them to getting kidnapped by a nasty Latin gang (a throwback of stereotyped screen bad guys not out of place in Trump’s America). They escape, get found again, get help from odd characters (including Sykes and a mute Cusack), race through the jungle and some people die. Somehow it all seems good fun, an odd mixture of personal peril that does not quite seem real. They call on Jeffrey for help, he rises to the occasion, and contact the American State Department, which appears only mildly interested in their fate.

This is a film for the “Bridesmaids” fans, although director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) never quite pulls it off. It’s one thing to soil a wedding dress, but quite another for two women to be chained in a jungle hideout; the setting seems not quite as funny, even if the characters are.

The Middletons seem like a wholesome middle American family (get the name joke?), but the strong strains of family anxiety feel like a particularly Jewish characteristic presented by three accomplished Jewish comic actors. It’s too bad the film-makers skipped the opportunity of making the characters Jewish, thereby forgoing a truly rich source of humour. It would not have solved the film’s core challenges, but would have given us lots more to laugh about.


Film review of The Zookeepers Wife

May 14, 2017

This film review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman; starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton

****

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a notable film about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of the Second World War, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman – is one of a growing number of dramatic films that tell the stories of Righteous Gentiles (think “Schindler’s List” and “Irena Sendler”).

The film opens in summer of 1939; an idyllic “Belle Epoque” Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with strange animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” & “Interstellar”) and Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard. The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Niki Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human-zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant (if it was special effects, I couldn’t tell).

The peaceful retreat doesn’t last. When the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, the zoo is decimated and lives are changed forever. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan grow a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs (the “treif” juxtaposition is not explored) for food by using ghetto garbage. A sub-plot involves the Nazi Director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (German actor Daniel Bruhl) attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.

The film has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), fabulous animals and strong acting from the principals, especially Chastain, who rivals Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”) with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does feel tame at times; it’s rated “M” (“not recommended for children under 15”). Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story.

(above: Johan Heldenbergh outside the set of the Warsaw Zoo)


The Australian Government moves to start investing in vocational education and training

May 3, 2017

The Australian Government looks like it is about to start investing in vocational education and training (VET) again. It’s about time.

It’s also important to examine some recent history. Last July, Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition ran its election campaign under the slogan “jobs and growth”, although announced no new training policies or programs. Instead, it promoted a $48 billion tax cut for business, part of which has partially been approved by Parliament.

In June of last year, Monash Business School and the Economic Society of Australia (ESA) polled the ESA National Economic Panel for their opinion on this proposition: “Australia will receive a bigger economic growth dividend in the long-run by spending on education than offering an equivalent amount of money on a tax cut to business.”

Economists are famously not the most left-leaning group of professionals, but their responses to this question – while not uniform – were overwhelming: almost two-thirds of the panel (19 of 30) “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement, with only 6 economists disagreeing and 4 “uncertain”. Comments included:

  • Bruce Chapman: “Literacy and numeracy skills of the population are the most important contributors to long-run growth. So long as the additional education contributes importantly to these capacities there should be little doubt that expenditure in this area is of the most critical significance.”
  • Chris Edmond: “Business tax cuts offer a ‘one-off’ level effect and so has no long-run growth dividend at all, while investment in education has a very real prospect of increasing the growth rate of real GDP over an extended period.”
  • James Morely: “Estimates on returns to education are larger and more precise than estimates on the effects of tax cuts on investment and long-run growth.”
  • John Quiggin: “Social and private returns to education are higher than marginal returns to business investment.”

One of those who disagreed – Professor Rodney Maddock (who will be speaking at Community Colleges Australia’s Annual Conference in Melbourne in July) – cautioned that, “I do not expect any payoff from increased educational spending unless there are very significant reforms to the system.” In other words, it’s not just about investment, but also about how the system uses that investment.

Jessica Irvine, senior economics writer for Fairfax Media, agrees with focussing on education investment:

Much of Australia’s low-hanging fruit has been picked when it comes to economic reform. We’ve floated the dollar, privatised the banks, deregulated the labour market. There’s less obvious work for government to do to reform the economy. But if I had to nominate the remaining lowest-hanging fruit, it’s spending money to help disadvantaged students get the best out of their education. Kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds are our greatest untapped source of potential growth. They are our most undervalued stock.

Irvine’s prescription:

Want to innovate? Educate. Want to create the jobs of the future? Educate. Want more tax revenue? Educate. Investments in our human capital offer the best returns around.

In May 2016, writing in The Guardian Australia, former Citibank Chief Economist Stephen Koukoulas stated:

The relationship between educational attainment and growth and income is a given. The more skilled and educated a workforce, the better off is the economy and the population. The consequences for countries with a poorly trained workforce are devastating. Australia saw this just prior to the global financial crisis in 2007-08 when the economy ran out of suitably educated people. The “skills shortage”, as it became known, meant that rapidly expanding companies could not find the people needed to work in their bigger and better businesses.

Koukoulas accurately predicted how and why the Coalition Government might turn to investing in skills:

In the period from the end of 2005 to the start of 2009, unemployment hovered around a 30-year low at between 4-5%. In human terms this was around 450,000 to 500,000 people. None of these half a million people had the skills required in a strong economy, so businesses had to resort to hiring foreign workers. While this was appropriate at that time of unforeseen economic strength, it overlooked the issue that the education and training system allowed 450,000 people in the workforce to remain unemployed despite the unprecedented demand for labour.

Fast forward just 11 months to April 2017: The ABC recently reported that the “May budget will establish a training fund worth $300 million, funded by visa charges. This will sit alongside a bigger focus on vocational and non-university skills training.” This announcement is set in the context of abolishing the “457 temporary work visas” and introducing new language and skills testing for foreigners who seek to work in Australia.

So investing in vocational education and training appears to be on the Coalition’s agenda, although (apparently) tied to new immigration rules. Next week’s budget will reveal how much.

(Note: I originally published this article on 27 April 2017, under the title “Investment in Training Back on the National Agenda”, on the Community Colleges Australia website.)