Film review of Churchill

June 25, 2017

This film review of “Churchill” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 15 June 2017.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky; written by Alex von Tunzelmann; starring Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell and James Purefoy

*****

As one of the towering political leaders of the 20th century, Winston Churchill holds a special place in British history, with a political career spanning five decades. His impassioned speeches as Prime Minister during World War II are often credited for having kept much of Britain’s heart and soul together, particularly during the darkest years early in the war.

The new film “Churchill” – by Australian Jewish director Jonathan Teplitzky (“The Railway Man”), working from a script by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann – may surprise some, because it does not focus on Churchill’s finest hours – of which there were so many. Instead, “Churchill” takes place over a few days in June 1944 leading up to the Normandy “D-Day” Allied landing. According to this film, Winston Churchill actively opposed the landing, promoting instead a southern European action by the Allies. The reason for his opposition? He feared tremendous casualties associated with a direct beach invasion, being haunted by the images of tens of thousands of young British soldiers dying during the first World War, at Gallipoli and elsewhere – when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the British Navy.

Although set at a crucial time during the war, the film feels like it could have been adapted from a play (it wasn’t), with most scenes set inside offices and residences. What the viewer most remembers from “Churchill” is Churchill the Prime Minister (played by iconic Scottish actor Brian Cox) arguing, primarily with Allied generals including Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery, from “Mad Men”), but also with his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson).

Churchill’s staff fear that the stress of leadership means he is losing his grip on reality (Churchill was 69 years old at the time, and still had more than ten years of political life ahead). He abuses underlings and rants and raves, insisting that he must then go in on one of the first boats to the beach.

Given Winston Churchill’s extraordinary political career and his enormous accomplishments as a writer (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), public speaker, war strategist and protector of British national character, it seems curious – and overly grandiose – to name this small film in a way that implies that it’s a full biography. It certainly is not.

What “Churchill” the film does, however, is to give a platform for two of the greatest acting performances of the year: Brian Cox as Winston and Miranda Richardson as Clementine. The two of them are captivating, in the way that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” showed us that an arguing couple could still be interesting. While John Slattery as Eisenhower is not nearly as well-cast, other characters provide great foils for Brian Cox’s screen power, including Julian Wadham as Field Marshall Montgomery, Richard Durden as South African statesman Jan Smuts, James Purefoy as King George VI (an understated but touching small role) and Ella Purnell as a war room secretary.

(image below: Brian Cox as Winston Churchill)

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Film review of Wonder Woman

June 12, 2017

This film review of “Wonder Woman” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 June 2017

Directed by Patty Jenkins; written by Allan Heinberg; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen and Elena Anaya

*****

The world has a new Jewish female star, and her name is Gal Gadot. This former Israel Defense Force combat instructor is also the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors, a former “Miss Israel” and professional model.

But none of this background prepares you for the fact that Gal Gadot can act. In “Wonder Woman”, which opened world-wide last week, Gadot plays “Diana Prince”, a daughter of the Amazons who grows up surrounded by warrior women on the remote island of Themyscira. This fictional island-state is, as with most things in this film, a creation of DC Comics. As a young girl, Diana is fed stories of Greek mythology by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Danish actress Connie Nielsen) and taught combat skills by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright, Claire Underwood from “House of Cards”).

“Wonder Woman” follows in the super-hero tradition of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, Gadot’s previous big film. But director Patty Jenkins and Jewish screenwriter Allan Heinberg bring a difference: while most super-hero films are bloated special effects extravaganzas, “Wonder Woman” drives its story through characters.  And there are loads of them, all well-drawn and frequently very funny.

After Diana Prince, the most important character is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, who played James T. Kirk in the most recent “Star Trek” films). Steve is an undercover American agent who has stolen German weapon secrets: oh yeah, the year is 1918, and World War I is coming to a fitful close. He escapes by stealing a plane and crash-lands near Themyscira. Diana saves his life, after which the Amazons battle pursuing German soldiers.

Diana and Steve make their way to England (eerily, we know it’s London because the first image we see is the London Bridge), and then on to Belgium to track down and destroy the German secret weapon. They are accompanied by a cast of oddball characters with special skills, who mostly fulfil the “humorous sidekick” requirements of the super-hero movie genre.

There’s nothing unusual about the plot – Wonder Woman saves the day (whoops, I gave it away) – but the fun is in the telling, in the characters themselves and the occasional great dialogue. Gadot plays a delightful Wonder Woman, wide-eyed, naïve, idealistic and a true warrior. Gadot’s on-screen chemistry with Chris Pine is funny, believable (well, for a super-hero fantasy), nicely nuanced and romantic. They combine to create one of the best “buddy” movies of the year.

For Jewish audiences two fabulous lines – both said by Gadot – stand out, both (we hope) purposefully ironic: “Once the Germans are freed from his [the bad guy’s] influence, they will be good men again.” Spoken in 1918; we all know how that one worked out. And in London, Diana upbraids the British army brass saying, “Where I come from, generals don’t hide in their offices. They fight alongside their soldiers.”

At almost 2 hours and 20 minutes, “Wonder Woman” is over-long. It starts slowly and ends with a ritualised super-hero battle seen too often in these films. But it’s funny, highly entertaining and will be a real audience pleaser. Gal Gadot will soon be – if she is not already – one of the most sought-after actors in the world. And one of the world’s most famous Israelis. The power of the big screen.


Sydney Film Festival 2017 preview

June 4, 2017

(This article about the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 1 June 2017.)

With no “Jewish theme” requirement at the Sydney Film Festival, program selectors use artistic license to choose films that appeal. Yet each year, the selection of Jewish themes and personalities is eclectic, diverse and fascinating. The year 2017 is no exception, most notably with Jewish documentaries set in Australia, Germany, the USA, the West Bank and – strangely – North Korea; as well as a delightful Palestinian-Israeli comedy and biographical sketch of Karl Marx, one of the most famous Jews of the modern era.

The Australian-Jewish highlight this year is Sydney-based Su Goldfish’s feature-length documentary, entitled “The Last Goldfish”. Born to German-Jewish refugees in Trinidad after World War II, young Su moves to Australia. Only at age 14 does she begin to understand that her family is Jewish: like many survivors, her father doesn’t want to talk about it, telling her she is “the last Goldfish”. Surely there must be other relatives, Su thought. This is the story of her 40-year search for family, ranging back over more than a century of family memories and photos. The film-maker makes sense of her family history, sorting out what happened when and why.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, brings a totally different documentary sensibility to the screen. Belin-based Loznitsa has become one of the most accomplished Russian-speaking documentarians, frequently engaging Jewish topics. Consciously named the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz” explores similar themes of memory and history by using “observational cinema” technique perfected by Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Loznitsa watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The camera captures – in black and white – how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists behave in these places. A cultural commentary for our times.

By contrast, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” is a straight documentary in the best of the American tradition about New York urban planning activist Jane Jacobs. Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” became a passionate appeal for neighbourhood scale in American city building. “Citizen Jane” tells the story of her battles with New York City master builder Robert Moses, the most powerful planning “power broker” of his time. True to New York style, both the late Jacobs and late Moses were Jewish, as well as many interviewees, including architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

Numerous critics describe the German-French co-production drama “The Young Karl Marx” as a film “full of talk” that should be dull. Yet it’s any but. Credit goes to Haitian director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), who brings the main characters to life – founder of Communism Karl Marx, his wife Jenny and co-founder Frederick Engels – in engaging, even gripping ways. Stay for the dynamic closing credits. In French, German and English.

One of the Festival’s best comedies, “Holy Air”, comes from Israel. Writer/director Shady Srour stars as Adam, an Israeli Christian Arab living in Nazareth who is struggling. His beautiful liberated wife is pregnant, his father is in poor health, and he needs to find a new way to make a living, battling local hoodlums. The idea of selling “holy air” to tourists is born. Sly, seductive, satiric and a delightful snapshot of life in Nazareth today. The opening and closing traffic jam scenes are gems. In Arabic, Hebrew, English and French.

Iconic French-Jewish film-maker Claude Lanzmann (“Shoah“) – now aged over 90 – returns to the screen with “Napalm”, a personal documentary about an incident that happened to him in North Korea in the late 1950s. As part of a delegation of leftist intellectuals, he has an intimate encounter with a North Korean nurse, a story he has told many times. In “Napalm”, Lanzmann returns to North Korea to re-examine his youthful self in the context of modern Pyongyang. Highly self-indulgent but always fascinating, in “Napalm” Lanzmann asks many questions about his own past and the truly odd North Korean state.

A different type of documentary, “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence.

Closer to home, Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”. A previous Erdstein-Foulcher comic collaboration, the short film “Picking Up at Auschwitz”, equally offended and impressed audiences.

Also worth catching: “Porto”, with one the final  performances by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); “Insyriated”, a drama set in civil war-torn Syria starring Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Lemon Tree”); and “Manifesto” is a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, and loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.

(image below: Jane Jacobs in “Citizen Jane”)