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 Mortdecai

February 7, 2015

(This review of “Mortdecai” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 February 2015.)

Directed by David Koepp; Written by Eric Aronson; Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum and Jonny Pasvolsky

The new film “Mortdecai”, starring Johnny Depp as “Lord Charlie Mortdecai”, a shady British art dealer fighting off bankruptcy, follows a long tradition of the British comedy caper. Based on the humorous novel, “The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery” by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mortdecai has a lot in common with P.G. Wodehouse’s foppish Bertie Wooster. Both are bumbling members of the British upper classes who romp through with witty dialogue, attended by loyal manservants (Wooster’s Jeeves and Mortdecai’s “Jock Strapp” – get the pun?).

“Mortdecai” races from one exotic location to another: from Hong Kong to London to Moscow to Los Angeles. In each one, Charlie manages to get himself into trouble and is invariably saved by the loyal Strapp (Paul Bettany). The production design is excellent (the “transitions” from one city to another are novel and funny) and the cast is strong. Aside from Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow stars as his wife Johanna; Ewan McGregor an old university friend, MI5 Inspector Marland, still in love with Johanna; Jonny Pasvolsky an international terrorist; and Jeff Goldblum a flamboyant American art entrepreneur.

“Mortdecai” falls into the category of a lightweight and enjoyable “guilty pleasure”, but where it falls down is in the script adaptation by first-time scriptwriter Eric Aronson. The dialogue is indeed witty, but the plot is overwritten, revolving around a stolen Goya painting that may or may not include the code to a Swiss bank account that contains Nazi riches. This reference to Nazi art theft is only a notional device that allows the characters to run around the world bumping into each other.

Much attention is paid to Mortdecai’s insistence on keeping his new moustache (the original book’s theme), to the disgust of Johanna, who refuses to sleep with him because of it. This must have seemed funny back in Wodehouse days, but in 2015 it is anachronistic and inconsequential. Another running joke is that servant Strapp continues to “take bullets” and other physical punishment for his master. There is a strong potential satire here about the attitudes of the British upper classes towards the lower classes, but this never properly develops.

Because we do not much care about Charlie Mortdecai’s problems, emotionally there is little at stake in the film. Underneath his roguish charm, Mortdecai seems a man out of his era, with a sensibility more suited for 1950.

Although the name Mortdecai could be mistaken for one of the stars of the “Purim” story, Lord Mortdecai is definitely not Jewish, although there are lots of Jewish connections to the film: (almost certainly) scriptwriter Eric Aronson along with actors Jeff Goldblum, Gwyneth Paltrow (Jewish father), and of course, Jonny (Jonathan Marc) Pasvolsky (see accompanying article), who plays the character of international terrorist Emil Strago. Pasvolsky is a South African-born Australian Jewish actor whose credits include one of the most Jewish Australian films, “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”. One minor character is even called Spinoza, although it’s not clear if this is a Jewish in-joke or not.

****************

Jewish movie trivia:

This film is the big Hollywood break for Australian actor Jonny Pasvolsky, who appeared in the Australia Jewish film “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”.  (See photo below of Pasvolsky in “Mortdecai”.)

IMDB reports that British actress Norma Attalah – who, as far as we can tell is not Jewish and acts the role of “Bronwen” in “Mortdecai” – played the Vishkower family maid in Barbra Streisand’s 1983 film “Yentl” (1983). Attalah was also Streisand’s “stand in” on the set, and memorised Yentl’s lines so that she could recite them while Streisand (as film director) was setting up shots. Recently Attalah also acted in a role in the British National Theatre’s production of the Nicholas Wright play “Travelling Light”, about the early Hollywood Jewish moguls.

Jonny Pasvolsky in Mortdecai


Young women and the dystopian future on film: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire and How I Live Now

December 8, 2013

It seems to be some sort of obscure Hollywood law:  by some strange turn of our collective unconscious, two films with virtually identical themes are released at the same time.

The latest proof of this theorem is the almost simultaneous openings of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “How I Live Now”, both of them futuristic dystopian films with reluctant female heroes.

This is not a case of shared screenwriter dreams, as I wrote a year ago, comparing “The Sessions” and “The Intouchables”, as well as eight other “paired” films. Both of these new films arise from popular books – “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (published 2009), and “How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff (published 2004).  Both are “young adult novels” and take a traditional male-style action story, turning it into one aimed at young women.

I adored this second film of “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence is a true star and I look forward to following her career for years to come), although “Catching Fire” did not have the same elements of surprise that the first film had.  It’s a crowd-pleaser and I am not surprised at its worldwide success (see below).

Of the two books, Rosoff’s is much better literature (it won a swag of awards).  But in many ways, the film version of “How I Live Now” is actually a superior movie to Hunger Games 2.  Dramatically, it is understated, and use of “off-screen action” makes for a chilling drama.

The plot in brief: Daisy, a young American woman (played by Saoirse Ronan) travels to Britain to spend the summer with her aunt and first cousins.  Her mother is dead, and she is increasingly estranged from her father, who has remarried and has a new child.  Her arrival at the British airport is filled with scenes of high security – a bit like all major airports now, but just more so, more tense, more guns.  Young Daisy seems unaware of all of this, and is picked up by one of her young cousins, who parks illegally outside the airport (an indication of things to come).  When she arrives are the country house, she finds her cousins living a carefree life while their mother (the aunt) is mostly away travelling on what appears to be international relations peace business.  Many small things foreshadow something big coming, but Daisy – slowly falling in love with her oldest cousin (George Mackay) – misses all the cues.

One day, when the cousins are all swimming while their mother/aunt is travelling, they experience what turns out to be a nuclear blast at London many miles away.  And here is where the film truly comes into its own – we do not see the devastation of “tens or hundreds of thousands”, but we see the fierce wind, hear the dull but immense blast and then watch the gray dust.  After a short delay, despite their mother’s absence, the cousins regain their good humour … until the electricity fails and the army comes to round them up and move them out, as battles are soon to be fought in the area.  Who is the enemy?  What is the war about?  We never know.  Remember, it’s all from Daisy’s 17 year old point of view, so what is missing is equally important as what is there.

And a note to fans of the book: the film does not include the final scenes of the book, which does change the dramatic arc, leaving it much more fluid and much less settled.  Probably a good narrative choice, but I was looking forward to the epilogue.

At its best, “How I Live Now” approaches the intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “The Road”. (Even now, almost four years later, both the book and the film – directed by John Hillcoat – still haunt me.)  It is alternately creepy, scary and thrilling.  What a shame that fewer than 3600 people have seen “How I Live Now” here in Australia – compared to almost 2.5 million who have seen “Hunger Games 2”.

In Australia, after two weeks of release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had grossed a whopping Aus$24,814,266 and was still sitting in the number one box office position, playing in 578 cinemas.  By contrast, in its first week of Australian release, “How I Live Now” did not even crack the top 20 in box office – meaning that it grossed less than Aus$36,000 that week.  As of Monday 9 December, it was only playing in a few scattered cinemas around Australia at odd hours.  I could have predicted that result:  the evening session I attended at Event Cinemas Macquarie Centre had five (yes, five) patrons, including me.  By contrast, “Hunger Games” was packed.

Internationally, “The Hunger Games” set a new Thanksgiving weekend box office record in North America, and has already grossed almost US$600 million worldwide.  “How I Live Now” has grossed $60,000 in North America, and a modest – but much better – $746,000 in the United Kingdom.

There is no simple explanation for why “Hunger Games” is so popular and “How I Live Now” so forgotten.  Part of it is production budgets (sure Hunger Games is much bigger), part marketing budgets, part stardom (Lawrence), part Hollywood film versus British film, and part what is sometimes called “The Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer, and the differences between “good” and “great” can be enormous (also see my favourite author Malcolm Gladwell).

It’s a popular culture mystery not easily explained.  Seek out the film of “How I Live Now” and see what you think.  Here’s the official trailer (viewed by at least ten times more people than who have seen the film):

And an image from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire:

Hunger Games catching fire


What makes Americans Americans, and why I love them

February 17, 2013

David Denby, one of The New Yorker‘s film critics, does what a good critic should:  he writes reviews that transcend their subjects.

In the January 28, 2013 edition of The New Yorker (p. 81), he reviewed Michael Apted’s 56 Up, and commented thus about the British subjects of Apted’s astonishing historical “follow them through life” documentary series”:

In all, these men and women don’t seem to have the seething ambitions and the restlessness of so many Americans.  They don’t expect to get rich, somehow, next year.  They may be happier than we are but they’re also less colorful.

Three sentences.  A very good summary of the American character, particularly from the viewpoint of this American expatriate living in Sydney, Australia.  Well, most of the Americans I know definitely do NOT seem very happy (at least compared to Australians), but they sure are more colourful.  (Different spelling of “colourful” this time purposeful.)