Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016

December 24, 2015

(This article on Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016 appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 24 December 2015.)

“Goosebumps” (Roadshow, January 14) is based on the works of R.L. Stine, the mega-popular Jewish writer of children’s horror fiction. Stine – often called the “Stephen King of children’s literature” – is the author of hundreds of novels, which provide the basis for this 3D live-action/computer-animated children’s horror/comedy film. The film stars Jack Black (playing the character of Stine), Dylan Minnette as a teenage boy who moves to a new town, Odeya Rush as “Hannah Stine” – R. L. Stine’s daughter (in real life, Stine only has a son), In the film, Stine (Black) keeps all the ghosts and monsters in his books locked up in manuscripts. Zach and a friend unintentionally open one of Stine’s books, leading to the release of every ghost, monster, and villain. You can guess the rest. Stine briefly appears in the film playing a high school drama teacher, credited as “Hallway Parker”.

“Spotlight” (January 28) provides a gripping dramatisation of the child sex abuse cases that occurred in the Catholic Church, particularly in Boston.  Although this is not a “Jewish” story, it certainly is one of the most significant religious films of the year, and the events that took place had a profound impact on the ability of the US Catholic bishops to respond to other crises during and after that time.  That held important implications for Jews, as my (upcoming) review will make clear.  Directed by Tom McCarthy, and starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Tucci.

“Steve Jobs” (Universal, February 4) is the much-anticipated “biopic” about the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Although Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) was not Jewish, the film has lots of Jewish connections: written by Aaron Sorkin (Jewish), based on the book by Walter Isaacson (also Jewish), it includes the characters of (early Apple employee) Joanna Karine Hoffman (Polish Jewish father), technology journalist Walt Mossberg (Jewish), Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish, played by Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg from “A Serious Man”) and journalist Joel Pforzheimer (Jewish). Seth Rogen also plays Steve Wozniak (who is not Jewish). Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear. The film has received four Golden Globe nominations, including best actor/drama (Fassbender), supporting actress (drama) for Kate Winslet, screenplay for Aaron Sorkin and original score.

“Zoolander 2” (Paramount, February 11), the latest from Ben Stiller, has much to live up to, given the cult status of the 2001 original satirical film (now termed “Zoolander 1”). Stiller directs and reprises his role as model Derek Zoolander, and is joined by actors Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor (Stiller’s wife), newcomer Cyrus Arnold as “Derek Zoolandger Jr”, Billy Zane as himself, Justin Bieber as in himself, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Milla Jovovich, Macaulay Culkin as himself, Miley Cyrus as herself, Lenny Kravitz as himself and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the original “Zoolander”, Ben’s father Jerry Stiller’s memorable portrayal of “Maury Ballstein” has been called one of the “25 greatest Jewish characters in movies”. He spends the whole film with visible chest hair topped by a Magen David. A classic Ballstein quote: “I got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories. It’s time to set the record straight.”

Hail, Caesar” (Universal, February 18): Advance word on the new Joel and Ethan Coen comedy “Hail, Caesar” is that it is one of the most “Coen-y brothers films yet”. So says “The Guardian”, inventing a new, and as yet unheard of word, “Coen-y”. Set for its international premiere at the opening night of the Berlin Film Festival (a frequent location for Jewish-themed films) in February, with an Australian cinema release a week later, “Hail Caesar” features Josh Brolin as a Hollywood “fixer” named “Eddie Mannix”, working on a new film called “Hail, Caesar”, which stars actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who in turn is kidnapped. Mannix has the job of bringing him back.

When this Jewish writing/directing/producing pair puts out a new movie, the film world takes notice. From “Barton Fink” to “The Big Lebowski” to “A Serious Man”, their frequently bizarre – and often Jewish – characters have set new milestones for creativity. This time, the cast also includes Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill (as a Jewish producer), Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton (as Hedda Hopper), Channing Tatum and notable Jewish actors Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”) and David Krumholz as Communist screenwriters.

“Son of Saul” (Sony, February 25) premiered in Australia at the Jewish Film Festival in October, and is widely tipped as a major contender for the “best foreign language” Oscar, already holding a nomination for the Golden Globe best foreign language film. From Hungary (in Hungarian), early reviews indicate that “Son of Saul” will soon join the ranks of some of the most noted dramatic films about the Holocaust.

The date is October 1944, and the place is Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the boy’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and offer the boy a proper burial. A true triumph of the spirit.

(Photo of Ben Stiller in “Zoolander 2” below.)

Ben Stiller Zoolander 2

While We’re Young film review

April 16, 2015

(This review of the film “While We’re Young” appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 16 April 2015.)

Written and directed by Noam Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz and Maria Dizzia

The debate about which American-Jewish film-maker has inherited the mantle of Woody Allen is now closed: it’s Noah Baumbach. With his latest film “While We’re Young”, Baumbach has captured a cultural moment of contemporary upper-middle class American-Jewish angst, at least for the twenty- to fortysomethings who he portrays with incisive wit and intelligence.

For those in the “know”, Brooklyn is now the centre of American urban intellectual and artistic achievement. It’s where Baumbach (and Allen) grew up, and where most of “While We’re Young” is set.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Srebnick, a socially aware documentary director with the film-maker’s version of writer’s block: he has struggled for seven years to finish editing his latest film, a convoluted investigation into political and social issues. Josh’s life is in simmering mini-crisis: at age 44 (the same age as Baumbach when he made the film), he and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have no children and are uncertain of what next to do in life. Cornelia is the daughter of Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), an eminent documentary maker (likened to Frederick Wiseman) who mentored Josh in his early career but from whom he now estranged.

Josh and Cornelia’s dilemma is highlighted by their strained friendship with their close friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Beastie Boys singer Adam Horovitz), who are in the throes of new parenthood with all of the lifestyle changes that brings. Josh teaches a continuing education course on film, which is where he first meets Jamie (Adam Driver, enthusiastically playing a version of his familiar screen persona) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple who define the new “hip” with their retro vinyl record and VHS collections. The young couple’s take on life engages and delights Josh and Cornelia, with Josh soon mentoring Jamie’s own film development.

In less than 100 minutes, “While We’re Young” deftly touches on many of life’s big issues: mentorship, fame, achievement, professional and personal disappointments, middle age angst, the passing of the flame, and what is truth and justice. It’s funny and clever, with lines such as, “before we met, the only feelings I had were wistful and disdainful”.

“When We’re Young” plays homage to Woody Allen’s 1989 film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, an existential comedy-drama and meditation on the existence of evil. Like Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes”, Ben Stiller’s character’s unfinished film focuses on an ageing Jewish intellectual, a “Dr Ira Mandelstam”, a Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.

“While We’re Young” is also a considered and nuanced portrayal of modern intellectual Jewish life. Although the word “Jew” is never mentioned, the choice of the obviously Jewish names “Srebnick”, “Breitbart” and “Mandelstam” makes it clear that this world is a thoroughly Jewish one – at least the men. The matching of Stiller and Grodin is also a fascinating and clever in-joke. Both are strongly Jewish-identified actors who acted in same lead role as Lenny/Eddie Cantrow in the two film versions (1972 and 2007) of “The Heartbreak Kid”, a classic story of Jewish assimilation.

From the opening moments – white Times New Roman print on a black screen (recognise the Woody Allen format?) of lines from an Ibsen play – to its emotionally satisfying ending, “While We’re Young” is an intellectual comedy of manners that does not ignore the heart. Filled with strong performances playing warm and appealing characters, this film is much like the world it portrays: smart, hip, incisive, intelligent and with just enough flaws to make it real.

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in While We're Young(photo above:  Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in “While We’re Young”)

Ben Stiller – Everyman and Marginal Man

August 9, 2012

He is, according to a piece in The New Yorker (25 June 2012), “the put-upon Everyman striving for dignity as the mayhem escalates.”

Tad Friend’s article, entitled  “Funny is Money: Ben Stiller and the dilemma of modern stardom”, running at more than 10,000 words and with unprecedented access to Stiller, surely provides one of the best contemporary insights into this talented performer/writer/director.  Standing at a slight 5’7”, Stiller is a “whetstone, a generous actor who elicits his screen partners’ funniest and most unexpected work” – or, as Judd Apatow (the king of modern comedy, if there is one) is quoted by Friend – “ground zero for everything in modern comedy”.

Back in 2009, I wrote that Stiller was very willing “to play – again – a foolish character with smarts.  Or is it the smart character who is really a fool?”

Fun fact about Stiller revealed by Friend:  for many years, Stiller has wanted to make a film of the Budd Schulberg novel What Makes Sammy Run? (and surely Stiller would be ideal in the title role) – a book about a hard-driving (Jewish) movie mogul whose life becomes increasingly empty as he rises the ladder of success.

And not quite the last word on why we like Stiller.  Friend writes:

A star, to the industry, is someone who can dependably get a film “open” – that is, can lure people to see it on opening weekend.  A star, to the rest of us, is the person our eyes are always drawn to onscreen.  A sirloin star like Brad Pitt is someone people long for, or long to be.  A hamburger star like Ben Stiller is someone whose struggles and triumphs give us vicarious satisfaction.

As I wrote on 14 August 2010, Ben Stiller’s characters are indeed frequently classic “marginal men”, informed by Stiller’s slightly uncomfortable status of never quite being “inside”.

Click here for my collection of writing about Ben Stiller.

Keeping the Faith film review

August 29, 2010

This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 9, 2000

Directed by Edward Norton

Written by Stuart Blumberg (co-writer with Lisa Cholodenko of the new film The Kids Are All Right)

Starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Ron Rifkin and Milos Forman

Mainstream American films about rabbis are certainly not very common.  There’s The Chosen (probably the best of the genre), Close to Eden, The Jazz Singer (with Melanie Griffiths) and maybe a handful of others.  Back in 1927, Al Jolson starred in , a film based on a play based on a short story which in turn was based on his own life.  In it, he breaks his family tradition – being seven generations of cantors – to choose the secular life of the “jazz singer”.  This film has been made many times since, and is so popular in part because of its age-old conundrum:  the conflict of modernism and tradition.

Keeping the Faith falls squarely in this mold, neatly updating the issues to present-day New York City’s Upper West Side.  It’s an interesting, although possibly far-fetched story:  When they were 12 year-olds in year 6 at “PS 84” in Manhattan, young Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), Brian Finn (Edward Norton, who also directed the film) and Anna Reilly (a very blond and WASPy Jenna Elfman) became best friends.  The happy three-some broke up in year 8 when Anna’s family moved to California.  Fast forward 18 years:  they are all in their early 30’s.  Jake has become a hip leather jacket-wearing rabbi (for what appears to be either a Reform or very progressive Conservative congregation), Brian is now a Catholic priest, and Anna is a highly successful California-based business woman, whose strongest relationship is with her mobile phone.

Brian and Jake are still best friends (undertaking projects together like “interfaith drop-in centres” for the elderly), and all of them are (of course) single.  For Brian it goes with the job, but for Jake it is a problem because a bachelor has never been senior rabbi of “B’nai Ezra” (based loosely on and shot mostly at B’nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street), and senior Rabbi Lewis (nicely played by Eli Wallach) is about to retire.  Enter Anna again, posted to New York for a couple of months and looking up her old friends.  Imagine the possibilities:  the priest tempted to give up his calling, and the rabbi tempted to go out with a non-Jewish woman. Old friendships are sorely tried in the process.

Here is where Keeping the Faith enters some interesting territory – likely to be lively topic of discussion around some dinner tables – because Rabbi Jake and Anna get secretly involved.  How the film (with a script by first-timer Stuart Blumberg) resolves all of the complications that entail is interesting to behold.  The three leads are all nicely cast and very watchable (here Norton plays mild and “nice” compared to his Fight Club and American History X roles), and their supporting cast is also superb:  Anne Bancroft as Jake’s mother Ruth (who has disowned her older son Ethan because he married a Catholic woman), Ron Rifkin as President of the Temple Board Larry Friedman, and noted Czech film director Milos Forman (who is also Jewish) in the role of Brian’s mentor Father Havel.

The portrayal of Jews and Judaism is surprisingly nuanced for an American film, possibly partly due to a “Rabbi Hillel Norry” as an advisor.  There are sly references such as one to rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary, some very knowing insights into the dynamics of Jewish communal life, and a remarkably well-developed probing into the issue of continuity versus change in Jewish ritual (Rabbi Schram is very “alternative”).  There are also some hilarious moments, such as when a black gospel choir does its version of “Ain Kelohainu”.  By contrast, Jewish women do not come off all that well:  Jake’s two Jewish “dates” consist of an oversexed workout freak (played by Lisa Edelstein) and a workaholic Middle East journalist (Rena Sofer), neither character much more than one-dimensional.

Keeping the Faith pays much more attention to “faith” than you would expect, is quite entertaining and goes far deeper into “interfaith” issues than the likes of The Nanny or other contemporary fare.  Some viewers may be concerned by the Jake-Anna relationship, but at least there is a sensitivity and thoughtful approach to Judaism that few other maintstream films attain.

Jewish comedy and the marginal man

August 14, 2010

There is a whole lot of literature pointing out that so much of Jewish comedy arises from Jewish pain and the feeling of being an outsider.  Back in 1975, Mel Brooks was famously quoted (in a Newsweek article of February 17, 1975, pp. 55-58, by Paul Zimmerman) saying:

Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved, lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one …. You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.

In his review of the book It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks by James Robert Parish, Joshua Zeitz points out that Brooks is the classic “marginal man”, a concept first introduced by the late Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park in 1928 and elaborated on in 1937, specifically that he is:

a cultural hybrid, a man living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples; never quite willing to break, even if he were permitted to do so, with his past and his traditions, and not quite accepted, because of racial prejudice, in the new society in which he now sought to find a place.  A classic example: the Jew almost anywhere – the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint.” In other words, a man wise because he’s in his surroundings but not of them.

There is a long list of “marginal men” in comedy, and here’s proof that Ben Stiller is amongst them:  Tom Shone has just published an interview with Stiller (Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2010) coinciding with the release of the film Greenberg in which Stiller (for the first time I can recall) acknowledges his outsider status:

Stiller dislikes analysing his comedy – “I talk to my shrink about many things but never that,” he says – but admits you don’t have to dig far to unearth the roots of all that awkwardness in his adolescence.  The son of showbusiness parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he attended the progressive Calhoun School in New York where pupils called teachers by their first names and devised their own curriculum.  Even so, “I had moments of real awkwardness and feeling totally outside the loop in terms of being accepted.  I wasn’t a great student and I definitely wasn’t a sports jock.  I was into theatre but I wasn’t a theatre nerd – I was somewhere in the middle, having crushes on girls and not feeling worthy, trying to figure out who I was.  I was kind of a chameleon in high school, sort of a fly on the wall, a little bit.”

And speaking of Stiller, I can’t resist putting in the link to the early trailer for the film Little Fockers (the third in the series), due for release in the USA on December 22, 2010.

Night at the Museum 2 film review

May 28, 2009

Film review of Night at the Museum 2 – written on May 26, 2009

Directed by Shawn Levy

Written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon Starring Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat & Ricky Gervais

Night at the Museum 2 (known as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in the USA) is an entertaining, odd – and reasonably familiar – sequel.  The history of Hollywood sequels (or anywhere else, for that matter) shows that unless a follow-on film truly reinvents the genre or has some extraordinary characteristics, it rarely is better than the original.  (Witness how this phenomenon transcends Hollywood: no-one has accused Crocodile Dundee 2 of being better than its ancestor.)

My take on Night at the Museum 2 is that is pretty much line ball, no worse, but not really much better.  It does carry “sequel-itis” with it, with a tedious and unexciting reintroduction of the major characters, and assumes that not only do we know these characters, but that we actually remember how they relate to each other.

The basic plot, for anyone who has missed it, is that night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), who works at the New York City Museum of Natural History, presides over a whole menagerie of historical figures (and animals) which come to life at night because of the power of an ancient Egyptian gold wall plate.  Many of the figures are historical: Robin Williams plays President Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson plays a miniature cowboy, and there is Sacajawea (a famous native American), Attila the Hun, so on.  Maddeningly, the second instalment assumes that we know – and remember – who these characters really are from the first film.  The problem is that the relationships in the first film were not so profound:  I saw the film, but couldn’t remember why any of the characters cared for each other.

The second film starts some time later:  the various characters are all being shipped off to the national archives in Washington, D.C. – allowing the film to be primarily set at the Smithsonian Institution (the very large American museum in central Washington), and introducing lots of new ones – with some truly awesome effects.  The story (and there’s not much of it) centres mostly around how a megalomaniac Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (played by Hank Azaria, who just about steals the movie from Ben Stiller) combines with Napoleon and Al Capone to rule the museum and terrorise our hero Larry.  And this time, Larry is given a new sidekick:  a very lovely Amelia Earhart (played by a luminous Amy Adams, who neatly captures an American speech pattern of the 1920s), an adventuresome woman who appears up for anything (within the context of a PG film; but why should she be so attracted to Larry?).  The new characters provide a dizzying parade – the African-American “Tuskegee Airmen” (a sop to African-American film-goers, perhaps?), the statue of Abraham Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial coming to life, as well as “The Thinker” sculpture.

The delightful moments are not in the interminable (and mostly meaningless) chase scenes, but in the highly creative means that show the museum pieces and figures coming to life.  This time, we see paintings actually living on the walls (such as “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, 1930), and the film’s characters can interact with them.

The neatest trick is one taken right out of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo – not an original idea to be sure, but superbly executed.  While being chased through the Smithsonian, Larry and Amelia step into the famous end-of-World War II photo of a sailor kissing a nurse at Times Square in New York City, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt variously called either “The Kiss” or “V J Day in Times Square” (August 14, 1945).  They interact with the characters, and Larry drops his mobile phone there, with – this film implies – consequences later on, which are unfortunately not developed.  This film is like that:  numerous elements of true comic, artistic and technical brilliance with weak and sloppy writing that give most of the actors too little of substance to do, although Amy Adams and Hank Azaria seem to have made the most of it.

Ben Stiller is indeed the heart and soul of this film, in large part because of his willingness to play – again – a foolish character with smarts.  Or is it the smart character who is really a fool?  Either way, it’s a familiar, comfortable and engaging Stiller role: think of Stiller’s classic characterisations in the “Fockers” films or There’s Something About Mary.  There is also a great scene between Stiller and an uncredited Jonah Hill (Superbad), who plays a Smithsonian Museum guard, where the two of them play a museum form of “chicken”.  The scene has great writing and nice execution.  Overall, the execution in this film is “in spades”, as we used to say, but the writing is spotty.

With more scenes like the one Jonah Hill is in, Night at the Museum 2 could have approached greatness.  It will make a lot of money: it has already grossed $73 million in the USA in its first week, and $5.6 million in Australia (meaning that it may “under-perform” in Australia), so the film-makers can congratulate themselves – it will easily return its $150 million (US) budget.  But with so much acting and technical talent, this film could have been great and not just successful.