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”)

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Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)


Portraying cancer in Australian film

November 3, 2015

(I originally published the following article on Croakey, Australia’s independent, in-depth social journalism for health blog, on 9 September 2015, under the title “Cancer on Screen”.  Click here to view the original article.)

**********

One in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will contract cancer in their lifetime. Cancer is a killer, second only to cardiovascular diseases as the cause of deaths in Australia. Cancer is also responsible for 35% of the “fatal burden”, or years of life lost by Australians due to premature death, way ahead of cardiovascular disease.

Despite this widespread prevalence in our lives (who does not know someone affected by cancer?), cancer is rarely presented in Australian film. Think about all of the deaths we witness on-screen, how many of them are from cancer? Lots of deaths, many of them violent (war, accidents, murder), but not much from cancer.

There’s a reason for this. Dying from cancer rarely pretty, it’s usually quiet and often hidden. A once clandestine and “whispered about” illness, it is now “often described as the defining plague of our generation”, writes Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

It may be a “defining plague”, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Australian films. For reasons we can only guess at, two Australian films featuring cancer are now playing in Australian cinemas. It’s too soon to know if this is the beginning of a trend, or – more likely – a simple coincidence. However a cinema release, with its attendant large marketing budget and effort, indicates that a number of people think the topic worth portraying on-screen.

Last Cab to Darwin

Last Cab to Darwin stars Michael Caton as a Broken Hill taxi driver who travels to Darwin to commit assisted suicide because he is dying of inoperable stomach cancer and wants to avoid palliative care. Since its cinema release in early August, it has already grossed $6.2 million in Australian cinemas, and may still be playing long after the latest Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (current large release American films) have disappeared. Despite its seemingly depressing euthanasia theme, Last Cab to Darwin – already listed by The Sydney Morning Herald as one of the 10 “greatest Australian road movies” – manages to be entertaining, wryly funny, uplifting and filled with heart-felt meaning. It sweeps its characters along its way with effective sub-plots that illustrate Aboriginal reconciliation (few recent Australian films have shown such intimate connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters), the unique wonders of the Central Australian landscape and learning the ability to express and receive love.

Force of Destiny

The other Australian cancer film, Force of Destiny (tagline: “A journey of love on a transplant waiting list”), the latest by iconic Dutch-born Australian director Paul Cox, opened last week and stars David Wenham as a sculptor who contracts liver cancer. Fresh from the Melbourne International Film Festival and with an astonishingly beautiful production, the story focuses more on Wenham’s character’s actual battle with the disease.

Cox based Force of Destiny in part on his own life story: he is a cancer survivor and a transplant recipient. The film’s producers and distributors have taken an increasingly popular approach to Australian film marketing: setting up a series of special events, many of them associated with cancer charities, in order to reach the audiences that might not normally go to a small Australian film.

Any others?

The only other Australian cancer film I can easily recall is 2012’s Not Suitable for Children, an improbable but moderately successful romantic comedy in which Ryan Kwanten played a character diagnosed with testicular cancer who attempts to father a child before he becomes sterile. The comedy comes not from the cancer, but Kwanten’s character’s desperate attempts to find a suitable mother to bear his child.

The truth is that best films about cancer are not actually “about” cancer, but use cancer as a mechanism to illustrate other important, human emotional needs. This is why Last Cab to Darwin almost certainly will reach a much larger audience than Force of Destiny, with its particular focus on, well, cancer, as its main topic.

The American approach

Despite the clear popular success of Last Cab to Darwin and Force of Destiny’s marketing creativity and the strong will of its creator Paul Cox, Australian films have not yet moved to copy the American “weepie” formula where … let’s be honest, no spoilers are required … one of the main characters always dies from cancer. From Ali McGraw in 1970’s Love Story to Debra Winger in 1983’s Terms of Endearment to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars (from the pen of John Green, with three teen characters with cancer, two of whom die), Americans have created literally hundreds of films with cancer, especially teens, so much so that one commentator has asked that films “stop using cancer as a plot device”.

The latest American film in this genre, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – in which the dying teenage girl has leukaemia – also opened last week, fresh from audience awards at both the Sydney Film Festival and Sundance. This gives Australia two cancer film releases in one day, with three in the cinemas. Is this a record?


Partisan film review

June 14, 2015

This film review of “Partisan” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 4, 2015 (Melbourne edition) and June 11, 2015 (Sydney edition)

Directed by Ariel Kleiman
Written by Ariel Kleiman and Sarah Cyngler
Starring Vincent Cassel, Nigel Barber, Jeremy Chabriel and Florence Mezzara

I have no doubt that if Australian-Jewish director Ariel Kleiman’s film “Partisan” was produced in a central or eastern European language such as Russian, Ukrainian or Georgian rather than English, it would be touted as a hot prospect for Best Foreign Language film at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s that good.

Shot partly in Melbourne (at a Mount Eliza winery) and partly in Georgia – yes, the country of Georgia, located between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, “Partisan” is set in a mythical “middle Europe”. It features a multicultural cast headed by French actor Vincent Cassel, whose breakthrough role was the rage-filled Jewish character of “Vinz” in Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine”. Here he plays Gregori, the charismatic leader of a cult-like sect where he is the alpha (and only adult) male, part Pied Piper, part saviour and part unquestioned intimidating master to a number of needy and vulnerable women and their children, who he both protects and preys upon.

The film looks and feels vaguely eastern European, although shot in English with a range of different accents. The result is much more accessible for we English speakers, but the loss of cultural verisimilitude may put off some viewers. (How ironic that I criticise an Australian film for including an occasional Australian accent.)

If viewers are put off by the language, it would be a shame, for Kleiman has created one of this year’s most haunting and disturbing films, one that starts slowly and gradually accretes to create a picture of emotional horror. With its creeping sense of dread, “Partisan” has much in common with “Ex_Machina” (currently screening), Alex Garland’s Frankenstein-like meditation on the potential horror of artificial intelligence. This is not classic horror like last year’s acclaimed “Babadook”, but something that – for me at least – operates far more effectively.

Part of the power of “Partisan” is in our experiencing much of the story through the increasingly less innocent eyes of a young boy, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel). This perspective operates in the same way that we viewed the world through the eyes of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character in “The Road” (also by an Australian director, John Hillcoat), a film that haunted me for months afterwards. Gregori has raised Alexander from birth, and the tension in “Partisan” arises when Alexander begins to question his upbringing and role. Because here is the catch (minor spoiler alert): Gregori has trained his young charges for a particular mission: to conduct assassinations, reminiscent of the film “Hanna”.

“Partisan” falls squarely in the category of films about cults; its closest recent neighbours are “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Master”. Because I lived in California during the times of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple massacre and the Charles Manson murders, I find any strong evocation of cults particularly chilling. “Partisan” captures this claustrophobia.

The beauty of “Partisan” – and it is physically stunning, shot by Germain McMicking, who won a special award for cinematography for this work on “Partisan” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, also lies in its ability to illustrate its emotions through simple visuals.

Director Kleiman – at the tender age of 30 and working with his co-writing partner Sarah Cyngler – has full control of all the elements of his film. Aside from the cinematography, he even commissioned three original songs for karaoke sequences in the film. The film’s themes are universal – parenting, mentoring, human need – but “Partisan” has a dark core that will not appeal to everyone: it is rated MA15+ “for strong themes and violence”, for good reason. Kleiman is a director to watch, an assured auteur with a powerful imagination whose future accomplishments are likely to be many.

Partisan

(photo above:  Vincent Cassel in “Partisan”)


2014 Film Critics Circle of Australia Nominations Announced

February 3, 2015

The Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), of which I am a member, has announced the nominations for the 2014 FCCA Awards.

The nominations for Best Australian Film of 2014 are The Babadook (producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere), Charlie’s Country (producers Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr and Nils Erik Nielsen), Predestination (producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan and Michael Spierig), Tracks (producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman) and The Water Diviner (producers Troy Lum, Andrew Mason and Keith Rodger).

Leading the nominations with nine nominations is The Water Diviner, followed by The Babadook and Predestination both with eight. Five nominations have been awarded to Charlie’s Country, Felony, The Rover and Tracks. The awards have been spread over twelve films released across Australia during the 2014 calendar year.

FCCA President and ABC Radio host Rod Quinn said, “This year’s nominees show the diversity of the Australian film industry – from a scary movie set in a haunted house, to a modern day epic, and stories that cover our entire continent. The filmmakers nominated include the biggest names in Australian film and many talented newcomers.”

The 2014 FCCA Awards Ceremony will be held on Tuesday 10 March, 2015 from 6.30pm at Paddington/Woollahra RSL, Paddington. During the ceremony there will be a tribute to three eminent members of the FCCA who have recently left their long term positions, Evan Williams who has retired from his position as film critic for The Australian, and Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton who have departed their 28 year television careers as hosts of SBS TV’s The Movie Show and ABC TV’s At The Movies.

2014 FCCA AWARDS NOMINATIONS LIST

BEST FILM (producers)
THE BABADOOK: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
CHARLIE’S COUNTRY: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
PREDESTINATION: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Michael Spierig
TRACKS: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
THE WATER DIVINER: Troy Lum, Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger

BEST DIRECTOR
Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
John Curran: Tracks
Rolf de Heer: Charlie’s Country
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST ACTRESS
Essie Davis: The Babadook
Sarah Snook: Predestination
Mia Wasikowska: Tracks

BEST ACTOR
Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
Joel Edgerton: Felony
David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Don Hany: Healing
Guy Pearce: The Rover

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Justine Clarke: Healing
Melissa George: Felony
Erin James: The Little Death
Jacqueline McKenzie: The Water Diviner
Susan Prior: The Rover

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Jai Courtney: Felony
Adam Driver: Tracks
Yilmaz Erdoğan: The Water Diviner
Robert Pattinson: The Rover
Tom Wilkinson: Felony

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUNG ACTOR
Tilda Cobham-Hervey: 52 Tuesdays
Ashleigh Cummings: Galore
Angourie Rice: These Final Hours
Noah Wiseman: The Babadook

BEST SCREENPLAY
Matthew Cormack: 52 Tuesdays
Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Joel Edgerton: Felony
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Ian Jones: Charlie’s Country
Radek Ladezuk: The Babadook
Andrew Lesnie: The Water Diviner
Ben Nott: Predestination
Mandy Walker: Tracks

BEST MUSIC SCORE
David Hirschfelder: Healing
David Hirschfelder: The Water Diviner
Antony Partos: The Rover
Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST EDITOR
Bryan Mason: 52 Tuesdays
Simon Njoo: The Babadook
Matt Villa: Predestination
Matt Villa: The Water Diviner

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Jo Ford: The Rover
Alex Holmes: The Babadook
Chris Kennedy: The Water Diviner
Matthew Putland: Predestination

FCCA logo

 


The Water Diviner a great success despite too many themes

January 11, 2015

Australian actor and screen hero Russell Crowe’s first film as a director, “The Water Diviner”, has become the most successful film of last year (2014): in just five days of release. Opening on Boxing Day (26 December), the film grossed $5.68 million in just six days – through New Year’s Eve, 31 December – to top all other Australian films in 2014. As of a week ago on Sunday (4 January 2015), the film had grossed $8.4 million in Australian cinemas, and was still pulling big audiences.

Last week (5 January 2015) The Sydney Morning Herald (Karl Quinn) also reported that “The Water Diviner” had also become the biggest box office draw in Turkey (where the film is partly set), with more than half a million viewers in its first week, and grossing more than $3,000,000 (Australian) – even reaching the number one theatrical spot in that country.

“The Water Diviner” is a very enjoyable film, but Russell Crowe seems to have been taking lessons from the Baz Luhrmann school of film making: like Luhrmann’s film “Australia”, Crowe decided to throw a number of movies in one in “Diviner”, but I liked it anyway. Karl Quinn in The Sydney Morning Herald describes it as three or four movies: “outback-struggler tale, war movie, history pic, father-son drama, romance, a bit of “Zorba the Greek” tossed in with Lawrence of Arabia and seasoned with a dash of magical realism.”

There are a lot of themes, yes, but there’s only one point where the screenwriters go too far: a moment when the Russell Crowe character seems to have stepped into another movie, one about Turkish nationalism. Look for that point, and see if you can agree.

But these are quibbles. “The Water Diviner” is hugely enjoyable, Rural South Australia “stands in” for Gallipoli (as it did for Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” in the early 1980s). The best dust storm (northeast Victoria) in Australian film history takes place, there’s loads of tragedy, a nice romance and a good child performance – as well as some excellent Turkish actors, Russell gets to fight again (didn’t we all love him in “Gladiator”, a much better film than “Exodus”, by the way, by Ridley Scott, the Exodus director) and coincidences like you wouldn’t believe (including one notably embarrassing one that I won’t repeat as others have already). Shoot the screenwriters, I say, but enjoy the film anyway – the biggest Australian film in a year or more.

Water Diviner


Film appreciation in a time of war

July 20, 2014

Did you ever wonder what it’s like to attend a film festival in a time of war? Tal Kra-Oz’s recent article in Tablet  (18 July 2014) gives a good, insider’s perspective of this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where screenings are interrupted by sirens and the obligatory temporary removal to basement rooms filled with old film reels.

Israel’s artistic elite – of which film-makers are a solid part – are notably more left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the majority of the population.  Thus, the pall cast on this year’s Festival is yet another tragic by-product of the Israel-Hamas conflict now taking place.

But, as Kra-Oz writes, the show does indeed go on: “even when the cannons and sirens are heard, the muses are anything but silent”.

And what a show the Israelis had to boast about. In a country of just 7.8 million people, last year the country produced and released 40 feature films.  In the May Cannes Film Festival, seven Israeli films had official screenings: five features, one documentary and one student film.  Compare that to Australia, almost three times as large (population 23,537,000) , which released 26 films in 2013 and had three films in official Cannes categories (The Rover, Charlie’s Country and These Final Hours).

Kra-Oz’s article captures the spirit of the dynamism of Israeli film-making.  How this relates to the country’s on-again, off-again conflict with the Palestinians is clearly complicated and overlaid with more than 100 years of history.

After some 22+ years of unbroken economic growth, is life too good for us here in Australia?  Do we not have enough to worry about to make good films?  It may be no coincidence that Australia’s greatest success at Cannes this year was Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in which lead Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil – playing a role in part based on his own life – won the “best actor” award in the “Un certain regard” competition.   Indigenous Australians are among this country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and those living in remote regions – such as Gulpilil’s character – even more so.

David Gulpilil(photo above:  David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country)