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


Return to Zabriskie Point

April 25, 2016

For reasons that are not at all clear, there has been a distinct revival in the film “Zabriskie Point” in recent years.  Directed by Italian Michelangelo Antonioni – his only US film – this film was widely regarded as a major commercial and critical failure upon its theatrical release in February 1970.  This was the man who made the haunting “Blowup” (1966).  After spending some $7 million (US) on the production, filming in the California and Arizona desert, the film only returned some $1 million in its theatrical box office.  My $2.50 was part of that $1 million, and the film has haunted me to this day.

Not because the film is great;  I never thought it was.  But because the film captures a certain sense, a resonance of that period, that time of student protests (think Kent State University) and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.  The plot:  “Mark” (Mark Frechette) is arrested after a student demonstration and later goes “on the run”, stealing a small plane and flying to the desert.  He meets up with “Daria” (Daria Halprin, daughter of the San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and the dancer Anna Halprin), “a sweet, pot-smoking post-teenybopper of decent inclinations” who is driving through the desert.

It’s a convoluted plot, fantastical in many places, and ends with one of the more memorable screen images, the blowing up (real or imagined) of a lonely wealthy desert house in the Arizona desert.  Symbolic?  Deeply. A commentary of American materialism?  Definitely.  And what else?  Who knows.

“Zabriskie Point” made a big impact on me; it was that time of life when you’re young and things make a difference.  So then, so seven years later, I was thrilled to do an environmental planning workshop at Sea Ranch, on the northern Sonoma Coast of California, led by Lawrence Halprin along with Daria Halprin.  My first real “movie star” contact (in retrospect, not true:  see my reflections on Meryl Streep), a magical ten days of 1970s San Francisco-style creativity.

Want to know more?  Quinn Martin’s May 2010 blog post tells you everything you ever wanted to know about “Zabriskie Point”, including the eventual life outcomes of its stars:  Daria and Mark lived together for a time in a “hippie commune”, and Daria now runs a dance workshop in San Francisco.  Mark was killed in jail in 1975 after robbing a bank.  Life turns in very strange ways.

Other resources: The Rolling Stone 1985 article entitled “Where Are They Now: Daria Halprin” by Ira Robbins, and Emma Hope Allwood’s “Three Things You Didn’t Know About Zabriskie Point” (2015).

(image below: a still from the final scene of the movie)

Zabriskie Point


The Intern and The Internship films have a common theme – the importance of wisdom and age

September 8, 2015

I have yet not seen the new Robert de Niro/Anne Hathaway film “The Intern”:  it opens here in Australia in mid-October, a few weeks after the US opening on 25 September.

According to the trailer (see below), this film has a whole lot in common with another film with which it may be confused: “The Internship” (2013) – which, by the way, for reasons I cannot fathom is MY MOST POPULAR POST EVER (yes. the upper case letters are on purpose).  By latest count, I have had somewhere upwards of 4,000 or more views of my review of “The Internship”.

From the trailer, one major theme of “The Intern” is that even in this “dot.com” age of youth culture and 25 year old CEOs, maturity, wisdom and experience are still valued.  That clearly was a theme of “The Internship”, and what a comforting theme it is … for those who are in the baby boomer generation who see our skills dating and the digital economy undergoing such rapid and profound changes.

The “tag line” of “The Intern” is “Experience never gets old”.  A fantasy?  Perhaps.  More like probably.

I think ageism in the workplace is a far more significant phenomenon than the professional experience of a 70 year old (the Robert de Niro character) being recognised by a corporation (except, of course, if you are a major investor, with lots of cash … but that’s a whole other story).

But “good on you”, Nancy Meyers – a baby boomer if there ever was one (born 1949), for keeping our fantasies alive.

View the trailer here:

 


Rachel, the Jewish character in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

September 8, 2015

There is a beautiful “Jewish moment” in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” after Rachel Kushner (played by Olivia Cooke), the Jewish character, dies. People are “sitting Shiva” at her mother’s house after her funeral, and the scene starts off with a disembodied female voice chanting a perfectly accented Kaddish (mourner’s prayer). You never see who chants it, and there is no explanation as to what it is or why, for the uninitiated. It’s subtle, understated and effective, at least for those of us, the relatively small minority, who do understand the prayer.

This moment reflects the sort of care that “Me and Earl and Dying Girl” takes – mostly – with its story and its characters.  The Jewish stuff – such as it is – is handled with sensitivity and discretion.  But not all of the film has that approach.  In particular, as Richard Brody (writing for The New Yorker on 12 June 2015) and others point out, the character of Earl is badly written and badly placed in the story.

Perhaps I should not be so complimentary about Jewishness and this film.  Although I have not (yet) read the acclaimed original novel, in the original book, Greg – the main character – is Jewish (as is the original author, Jesse Andrews), and originally meets Rachel at Hebrew School.  So clearly, Andrews knows his “Jewish stuff”. Fascinating that he felt that (or was pressured into?) making his original story “less Jewish”.  It’s still a great story, Jesse (I loved the film), but I would have loved to see the screen version of the original novel.

Greg (played by Thomas Mann) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in a still from the film below.

Greg and Rachel in Me and Earl


In Selma the film, Martin Luther King is a man who listens

March 1, 2015

I am too young to remember Dr Martin Luther King, but I am not that young that I have not been deeply influenced by his legacy as the leading American civil rights campaigner.

“Selma”, the biopic of a slice of Martin Luther King’s life, can be a deeply affecting experience, at least for those of us for whom the American civil rights movement remains an important cultural, political and social touchstone.

Director Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who seems to have held many roles in film from publicist to writer and director, has arrived without fanfare to show us that she is one of the strongest directors in contemporary film. Her re-creation of historical events – a number of key activities taking place primarily in Alabama in the southern US – and her ability to portray recent historical figures on screen is astonishing, especially African-Americans: King himself (an amazing performance by David Oyelowo), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin, Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and even a brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The white historical figures are equally as good: Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace of Alabama (Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and a host of others. But the film’s ability to get “inside” the African-American characters gives them three-dimensionality, substance and coherent identity – that is this film’s greatest achievement.

I am not quite certain why “Selma” is not more popular in the USA, hovering just over US$50 million in the theatrical box office as I write this. While not a flop, this is by no means a success. Part of it may be the mini-controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson: the film shows a number of discussions between King and Johnson, and paints Johnson as deliberate, strategic (fair enough) but wanting to hold King back at every turn. “You have one cause to worry about,” Johnson says to King at one point, “I have 101 causes.”

Those who live outside of the USA, unless they have read widely in American history, have no true concept of the enduring stain and trail of social dysfunction and blight that the history of slavery and racism has left on that country. Even today, African-Americans are heavily over-represented in American jails and prisons: six times the rate of whites, and nine times the rate for young black men.rs in jail.

As the film “Selma” points out, institutionalised disenfranchisement of African-Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As late as the mid-1960s, African-American voting rights were widely ignored, particularly – and especially – in the south. Just to be clear, this meant that in large areas of the south at that time, African-Americans simply were unable to vote, enforced through a wide range of tricks, regulations and petty bureaucracies. In turn this meant that they could not serve of trial juries, with deeply negative implications for African-American interactions with the justice and court systems. The master strategist King understood all of that. In an early scene in “Selma”, an older African-American woman attempts to enrol to vote and is asked a wide range of questions, including reciting the preamble to the American Constitution (she can, can you?), and finally rejected. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the woman is Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

It’s a shame that “Selma” will not be more widely seen in the USA or even here in Australia, where it has barely registered with the audience, other than with film critics, who wholeheartedly endorsed it. The American civil rights movement had a direct effect on the cause of Indigenous justice here in Australia, inspiring a wide range of campaigners. But aside from Barack Obama, whose personal story captured the attention of many Australians, African-American stories are not popular here.

And finally, a comment as to why “Selma” is able to transcend the biographical film genre in new and unexpected ways. According to American film critic Max O’Connell, there are six ways to make a biopic live and breathe. I quote them directly from his review on letterboxd, rather than attempting to summarise:

*****

1. Focus on one small part of the character’s life.
2. Focus on the backroom deals, the horse-trading, the deal-making and the compromises needed to make progress.
3. Cast an actor who’s as good a listener as David Oyelowo, who’s commanding without ever feeling pre-bronzed because he’s constantly leaning in to what everyone’s saying and weighing information.
4. On top of that, get someone like Ava DuVernay to direct, as she’ll get the least-showy performances out of both actors that tend to show off (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi) or characters that beg actors to give show-stopping performances (George Wallace, LBJ). Everything is perfectly measured, and with the exception of Martin Sheen as the world’s most dignified judge, none of the stars are particularly distracting (also: props to Oprah for never making scenes about her even in movies that seem to encourage it, a la “The Butler”).
5. Show the violence honestly without ever lingering too much on the brutality, instead showcasing how it affects the people and how they’ll have to adapt (or not).
6. When dealing with questions of whether or not the film’s noble center was a flawed man, don’t dodge the issue (here, it’s MLK’s philandering). Show how it hurt the people around them. At the same time, show how it’s just one facet, not an all-consuming problem, and that it’s insignificant compared to the work he did.

*****
I particularly love O’Connell’s point number 3: David Oyelowo’s King actively LISTENS to the people around him. This is something that a large number of leaders and those in power are unable or unwilling to do. King apparently did this, and in “Selma” Oyelowo illustrates it beautifully, in scene after scene. In his short film career – Oyelowo has also starred in “The Butler” – for me, this actor with the sonorous voice has already earned his place in the pantheon of great screen performances, Oscar nominations or not.

David Oyelowo in Selma


Film review of The Interview

February 12, 2015

(This film review of “The Interview” appeared in print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 12 February 2015 and online on 18 February 2015 with the title “Interview with a comic twist”.)

Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Written by Dan Sterling; Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang

In case you missed the news, “The Interview” is the film that may (or may not) have brought the major film production and distribution company Sony Pictures to its knees. This did not occur, like disasters of yore, because it cost heaps of money and flopped (“Heaven’s Gate”, “John Carter”), but for another reason entirely. Many experts (including the United States Government) allege that this fictional comedy about the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, resulted in a massive and unprecedented cyber-hacking of Sony’s computer systems by North Korean agents, revealing corporate secrets on an unprecedented scale.

In the movie, James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of sensationalist and low-rent television current affairs show called “Skylark Tonight”, with Seth Rogen playing his producer, Aaron Rapoport. When they realise that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un enjoys watching their show, they propose to the North Koreans that they interview him. After Kim Jong-un surprisingly accepts, the CIA approaches the television duo with a plan that they assassinate the dictator. After some hesitation, they agree, in part because they are “honey potted” (seduced, in a way) by sexy CIA handler Lacey (Lizzy Caplan). Upon arrival in Pyongyang, however, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) shows a warm and charming personality, successfully be-friending Dave Skylark, who in turn has second thoughts about the planned assassination. What follows is a fair bit of mayhem that even includes a possible nuclear war.

At its heart, “The Interview” is a B-grade film masquerading as a political satire of the American obsession with North Korea – or perhaps it is a political satire masquerading as a B-grade film: the result may be the same. Do not discount the schlocky, broadly comedic elements of “The Interview”: Seth Rogen – now widely recognised as one of America’s top comics – and his co-director Evan Goldberg are as close as we can get to this generation’s Mel Brooks: what was “Blazing Saddles” other than a broad satire on American race relations, under the guise of broad comedy?

Like so much of American political satire (and its intertwined cousin, American comedy), “The Interview” stems from a Jewish sensibility and outlook. Almost all of the major film-makers and actors (Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, Caplan) are Jewish, with Seth Rogen’s character clearly identified Jewish. In “The Interview”, Rogen further develops his on-screen Jewish persona: an intellectual (naturally), slightly overweight and highly sexed neurotic who over-thinks. His dalliance with a female member of the North Korean military elite (Diana Bang) is one of the cuter parts of the film. He is anything but an action hero, but is adept with physical comedy, which he performs here – at times with B-grade “gross-out” elements (be forewarned).

A particular delight is Korean-American actor Randall Park’s performance as the North Korean dictator, giving a wonderfully modulated and hilarious performance. There are also lots of fun cameos, with Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appearing.

Structurally “The Interview” is way less than perfect. There is at least major one device – the use of a killer poisonous bandaid-like strip – that is just left hanging (as it were). It’s a great set-up (one of the film’s best) that sadly lacks a punchline (or did I blink and miss it?). No matter, “The Interview” is good-humoured and very funny in parts, as well as a must-see for Seth Rogen fans.

*****

(The following is the original poster for the film, prepared prior to its postponed release.  According to Wikipedia, the Korean text reads: “The war will begin”, “Do not trust these ignorant Americans!” and “Awful work by the ‘pigs’ that created Neighbors and This Is the End“.)

The Interview original poster


Book review of The Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

July 12, 2014

This book review of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents book review appeared in Media International Australia, issue 136, August 2010.  I am re-printing it here so that it is more easily accessible.

*****

Kemper, Tom, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2010. ISBN 978 0 520 25707 8, xvii + 293 pp.

It is hard to believe that before Tom Kemper’s book Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, there were no academic studies of the history of agents in Hollywood.  It’s not that agents have been ignored: numerous “how to” industry books have dealt with them; Nikki Finke’s tell-all Pay or Play: The Rise and Rise of the Hollywood Agent (1998) charts their modern successes; David Thomson’s The Whole Equation (2005) frequently refers to them; and there have been at least two recent books on super-agent Lew Wasserman.

But Kemper stands in a class alone.  He easily disproves “the standard conception of film history” that agents only became powerful figures in the 1950s with the establishment of MCA, and then ICM and CAA in the 1970s, and commences his study in the Hollywood studios of the late 1920s.  As such, Kemper’s work runs parallel to the historical Hollywood works by Tino Balio, David Bordwell, Douglas Gomery, Thomas Schatz and others, and gives unique and highly detailed insights.

With extraordinary detail, Kemper – a visiting lecturer at the University of Southern California – covers the period up to the 1950s, leaving subsequent developments for a future book.  Kemper’s great contribution is in showing how agency practices and business models – strategies like packaging, story approval guarantees, percentage points and freelance deals – were all first developed, tested and implemented in the 1930s.

Although Hidden Talent deals with a number of different agents and agencies, two agents loom large in the history: Myron Selznick (brother of David O.), the leading agent of the 1930s; and the contrasting Charles Feldman.  Kemper’s chapters take a mixed thematic and chronological approach, dealing with “the power of place”, boutique agencies, the contract industry, agents as producers and then finally the “new fortunes” in the 1940s, and the shift to the “corporate era” of the 1950s.

The book contains clear prose, never falling into deadly academic jargon that can drag film history books down, such as this colourful description of Myron Selznick:  “He rudely relished the power and fortune of his victories by grotesquely spilling cash, owning a fleet of cars, and imbibing biblically.” (p. 25)

One criticism:  While most of the agents of his period are Jewish, Kemper simply avoids the topic, noting that dealing with it is “another project” best left to the likes of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own and Steven Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.  But what elements of Gabler’s assimilation thesis applied to the agents?  Part of our understanding of how Hollywood ran then is in fact based on both on who they were and why they became involved in the industry, not just how they did their jobs.  It is, of course, this “how” that Kemper succeeds in describing, with great breadth, depth and clarity.  He has mined extensive archives (accessing materials that will never make their way online) in Hollywood agencies, studios, guilds and associations.

There is a lot of loving – and highly illuminating – detail here, such as the inclusion of the floor plan of Myron Selznick’s specifically designed new agency officers in 1938.  This one graphic gives us more insight into organisational relationships than many thousands of words could describe.

Hidden Talent book cover