French Film Festival in Australia

February 27, 2014

(Note:  this article on the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Australia originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 February 2014.)

The Jewish experience in France is a complicated one:  after centuries of persecution, Jews were emancipated during the French Revolution, and Napoleon spread this freedom to Jews in other parts of Europe as he expanded the French empire.  Yet it was in France that the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and French collaboration with Nazis in persecuting Jews was widespread.  Today, with more than half a million Jews living in France, the Jewish contribution to French life and culture continues to be significant.  Each year, the French Film Festival provides a window into the latest intersections of Jewish history and French culture.

This year two Festival films contain Jewish themes:  one on Russian-Jewish refuseniks and one on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland.  The Festival also features “Grand Central”, a new film by French-Jewish director Rebecca Zlotowski (“Belle Epine”) and a small retrospective of films by Francois Truffaut, who is a significant figure in French Jewish film.  Truffaut (1932-84) is not identified as Jewish in the popular mind, but private research in the late 1960s identified his previously unknown father as Jewish.  While Truffaut’s mother denied the allegation, Truffaut reportedly embraced it, believing that it explained much of his character and his interest in society’s outcasts and martyrs.  But Truffaut’s experience of Jewish life went further:  his first wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, was Jewish, as were his two daughters with her – Laura and Eva.  More than that, we remember Truffaut for his two classic Jewish films: “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (Goodbye, Children) and “The Last Metro”.  While neither of these films are included in the retrospective, the Festival does feature “Finally, Sunday”, “Jules and Jim” and his autobiographical “The 400 Blows”.

Despite its inherent human drama during a heightened time of Cold War tension, there are remarkably few filmic portrayals of the experience of Soviet Jews during the Brezhnev “refusenik” period, when many Jewish attempted, usually without success, to leave Soviet Russia.  The Festival features one film that deals with this time – “Friends From France” (“Les Interdits”), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski.  Set in 1979, two French Jewish cousins (played by the singer Soko and Jeremie Lippmann) travel to Odessa pretending to be an engaged couple on a holiday.  But they are really there to make contact with Soviet-Jewish dissidents.  It’s a time of danger and secret police raids.  Complications ensue when the cousins become attracted to each other, and the personal and the political become intertwined.

The “Belle and Sebastian” story started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry.  Set in the French Alps, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep.  The book was adapted into a French TV series and then a Japanese animated series.  This new film version has been re-set in 1943 and moved to the French-Swiss border, with an additional theme of local Nazi soldiers who are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  It is beautifully filmed in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing, and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters.  The French Film Festival’s screenings of “Belle and Sebastian” are the first ones in an English language country, one of many opportunities to see un-released French films.

The Festival runs in Sydney from 4 through 23 March and Melbourne from 5 through 23 March.  Click here for details on Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

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The Great Gatsby down under – part 1

May 20, 2013

If you live in Sydney (as I do), you would be forgiven for thinking that “The Great Gatsby” is an Australian film.  It was shot here in Sydney – at the Fox Studios not far from downtown, as well as a number of other nearby locations.  (It opens in Australia on Thursday 30 May.)  Gatsby is directed by an Australian (Baz Luhrmann), working with a mostly Australian crew – including his talented partner, production designer and costumer, Catherine Martin.  A number of Australian actors appear, some in reasonably significant roles (Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher), although not, I hasten to say, as Australians.  They play Americans, because – in case you missed it – “The Great Gatsby” is a classic American story, originally a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald first published in 1925.  And this is the fifth time that the novel has been filmed.  The screen version most people current remember was the 1974 movie that starred Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, a mis-fire of a film (ponderous, slow and surprisingly un-memorable).

As the extremely large sign (see photo below, taken today – Monday 20 May 2013) on the wall of 150 William Street, Darlinghurst (East Sydney) shows, even Screen Australia is claiming the film.  The sign prompted me to ask if Screen Australia – Australia’s national government film production and culture funder – has invested in the film (why else promote it in this way?), but alas it does not appear that it did.  This is a Hollywood studio film, William Street notwithstanding (funding from and major distribution by Warner Brothers).

The Great Gatsby poster Sydney 20May2013

Don’t get me wrong.  I am looking forward to watching “The Great Gatsby”.  A great deal.  But remember, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel as a teenager and loved it then.  I remember a long argument at age 20 where I defended Fitzgerald as a much better writer than William Faulkner (you don’t notice Luhrmann doing a film adaptation of “As I Lay Dying”, do you?), was disappointed in the Redford version and like Luhrmann’s work (click here for my post about his film “Australia”).  I just don’t think the film’s very Australian.

And who will be watching this film?  A short article by Garry Maddox in The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 May 2013 (“Women Take Lead Role in Gatsby’s Great Success”, p. 36; online headline reading “Baz woos the women”) reports that the “The Great Gatsby” is about to overtake “Moulin Rouge” as Luhrmann’s most successful film in the USA (easily outstripping “Australia”).  This is substantially due to “an audience otherwise ignored by Hollywood blockbusters lately – women”.  Audiences have been mostly female (59 percent) and older (69 percent).  There’s only one downside of what is assuredly going to be a hit in North America – people don’t want to see the 3-D version, with Box Office Mojo reporting that “a third of the opening weekend sales came from <that> format – ‘ an incredibly low figure for a live-action movie’”.

Does this surprise you?  Not me.  How many men do you know proclaim they loved “Moulin Rouge!”?  Not many, but sure enough the women did.  And despite his “tough guy” roles (“J. Edgar”, “Gangs of New York”, “Django Unchained”), Leonardo DiCaprio still appears to be a pretty boy, more appealing to women than to men (“Titanic” anyone?).  And seriously, are the >25 women so keen on 3-D?  No.  DiCaprio looks just fine in normal 2-D resolution.

Here’s a safe prediction:  Gatsby will be a great success in Australia, reaching many of the same audience as it has in North America – that “over 25 female” quadrant.  Yes, and some others.  Me, for one.

Interested in watching the red carpet opening here in Sydney at Fox Studios this Wednesday (22 May)?  I reproduce below part of the media alert from the distributors, Roadshow.  That’s a hefty (and all-star) list of celebrity guests, yes?

SYDNEY TO SPARKLE AS STARS FASHION THEIR WAY TO THE RED CARPET AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE OF THE GREAT GATSBY

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 at Hoyts, The Entertainment Quarter

WHAT: Red carpet arrivals at the Australian premiere of THE GREAT GATSBY

WHO: Filmmakers Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, together with cast members Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Ralph Cotterill, Max Cullen, Arthur Dignam, Brendan MacLean, Kate Mulvany, Hamish Michael, Heather Mitchell, Barry Otto, Jack Thompson, Matthew Whittet, Felix Williamson, co-writer Craig Pearce and choreographer John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell.

Other celebrity and VIP guests include Premier of NSW, The Hon Barry O’Farrell; Simon Crean MP, George Souris MP, Andrew Stoner MP, Gillian Armstrong, David Berry, Emma Birdsall, Rafael Bonacela, Alice Burdeu, Simon Burke, Ita Buttrose, David Campbell, Sarah Jane Clarke, Collette Dinnigan, Laura Dundovic and James Kerley, Marta Dusseldorp and Ben Winspear, Kym Ellery, Larry Emdur, Dan and Marni Ewing, Manu Fieldel, Emma Freedman, Rebecca Gibney, Kylie Gillies, Delta Goodrem, Josh Goot, Peter Helliar, Deborah Hutton, Akira Isogawa, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Damien Leith, Emma Lung, Joel Madden and Nicole Richie, Ricky Martin, Reece Mastin and Rhiannon Fish, Darren McMullen, Heidi Middleton, George Miller, Peter Morrisey, Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch, Sally Obermeder, Gracie Otto, Neil Perry, Kate Ritchie, Benedict Samuel, Seal, Ryan Stokes, Maurice Terzini, Brian Walsh, Callan Ward, Kate Waterhouse and Luke Ricketson, Fleur Wood, Richard Wilkins, Dan Wyllie, Lincoln Younes and Carla Zampatti.

WHEN: Wednesday, May 22nd
Check-in 4pm Arrivals begin 5.45pm
Screening begins 6.45pm

WHERE: Hoyts, The Entertainment Quarter, Bent Street, Moore Park

From the uniquely imaginative mind of writer/producer/director Baz Luhrmann comes the new big screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”. The filmmaker created his own distinctive visual interpretation of the classic story, bringing the period to life in a way that has never been seen before, in a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.

“The Great Gatsby” follows would-be writer Nick Carraway as he leaves the Midwest and comes to New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy, and her philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan. It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits. As Nick bears witness, within and without of the world he inhabits, he pens a tale of impossible love, incorruptible dreams and high-octane tragedy, and holds a mirror to our own modern times and struggles.

Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, in association with A&E Television, a Bazmark/Red Wagon Entertainment Production, a Film by Baz Luhrmann, “The Great Gatsby.”

Opening in Australian cinemas on May 30, 2013, the film will be distributed in 3D and 2D by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.

Trailer can be viewed on Roadshow Films youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/RoadshowFilms


Bruce Springsteen down under – Sydney 20 March 2013

March 23, 2013

It’s only his third concert tour to Australia, and I missed the first two.  So we went on 20 March.  Summary:  the most accomplished stage performer I have ever seen, but the music was too loud, too brassy and hard to understand.

I guess most of us knew the music anyway.  I sure did.

A three and a half hour concert without a break, with enough energy to power a small city for a year.  How does he do it?  What was more amazing was his audience interaction:  Springsteen almost never lost eye contact with his audience, and we loved him for it.  Highlights:

When he strolled through the crowd while singing (I can’t remember the song, but the event was riveting), and then perched himself on a ledge in the middle of the audience, while audience members held him up.  He then crowd-surfed over the mosh pit back to the stage, held aloft of hundreds of fans.  I was rapt, and just about everyone else was too.

When he brought the little kid on stage with him to sing.

When he chose audience members’ signs identifying songs to sing.

When – near the end – he danced with a female fan whose flip chart he had read out during the concert.

We sat near the back (see photo) but relatively close and he did not ignore us.  He came to the edge of the stage and pointed:  each of us thought/knew he was pointing at us individually, and we waved back.

Bruce Springsteen3 20March2013

What a shame:  Springsteen is the champion of the American working class, a supporter of Barack Obama and New Jersey, where he grew up and still lives.  Almost none of this found its way into the Homebush Bay arena.  He was awfully far from home, but it would have been nice to feel that connection.

Most ironic moment:  Near the end, during what surely were the encores (although it was a bit hard to tell), when he asked, “Are you tired yet?”

Freakiest moment:  When the lights came up and I realised that there were about six men and women perched in the rigging about 20 meters above the stage, pointing spot lights and strapped into little seats.  When did they get there?  How would they get down?  Were they ever scared?

The most memorable concert I have been at, and I am a 30 year fan.

Bruce Springsteen Sydney - 20 March 2013

Bruce Springsteen Sydney – 20 March 2013

Bruce Springsteen2 20March2013


From Manhattan to Rome: Journeys with Woody Allen

October 20, 2012

This article appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 19 October 2012 (Sydney edition, pp. 28-29), in a slightly different format.  The Australian Jewish News version of this article can be seen here.

He is Jewish, 76 years old, has written and directed almost a film every year since 1966, and is an icon of American film and comedy.  That description only fits one person: Woody Allen, whose longevity now outlasts almost every other American film director with the possible exception of Clint Eastwood, still going strong at 82.

While Eastwood is tough (remember “Dirty Harry”?), Western (he was once the mayor of Carmel, California) and conservative (appearing at last month’s Republican convention), Allen personifies the liberal, intellectual, comic, small in stature and Jewish New Yorker.

At least that’s what many of us think, particularly if your film-going came of age in the 1970s and the 1980s.  Your favourite Woody Allen films are likely to include “Annie Hall”, the 1977 multi-Academy Award winner that is still Allen’s most popular film; “Manhattan” (1979), still his second-most popular film, one that has forever identified George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with New York romance; “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986); and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), a deft mixture of comedy and tragedy as an extended metaphor on good and evil.

Or you may prefer the “early, funnier” films:  “Bananas” (1971), about a Latin American dictator; the comic sci-fi “Sleeper” (1973); “Love and Death” (1975), a hilarious parody of Russian literature; or “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972), which is more like a series of “Saturday Night Live” television sketches, but pushed the envelope of comic sex jokes when first released.  You might also choose “Play It Again, Sam” (also 1972) – about a movie critic who is haunted by visions of Humphrey Bogart trying to get him to toughen up (yeah, Clint Eastwood style).

If your adult movie watching seriously commenced in the 1990s, you must have wondered what the Woody Allen fuss was all about.  This was the decade of his worst films, when most seemed rushed to the screen.  Almost no-one watched these movies (well, I did, out of loyalty and curiosity).  Ironically his most popular screen role during that decade was in the animated children’s film “Antz” (1998, not directed or written by Allen), in which he voiced … an ant.

Films since the turn of the new century have been varying in quality, but something happened in 2005:  Allen embraced European locations – not just a New York sound stage that stood in for early twentieth century Germany in the 1991 film “Shadows and Fog” or a few Venice and Paris locations of “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996).  He directed four films shot in London – “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, “Match Point”, “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream”, although only appeared in one of them.  He then moved to Spain for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and then last year to Paris for the popular (including an Oscar for Best Screenplay) “Midnight in Paris”, in which Owen Wilson took on the role of the romantically confused writer so long associated with Allen.  And next to the well-received “To Rome with Love”, which opened in Australia this past week (18October 2012).

In a recent interview, Woody Allen acknowledged that he has never been to Israel, as much as he strongly identifies as Jewish and has expressed admiration and support for that country.  He admitted that he does not like to travel, and has successfully resisted the efforts of his Korean-born wife (Soon Yi Previn, the once adopted daughter of former partner Mia Farrow) to get him to Korea.

Until the six recent western European films, the only city that featured significantly in Allen’s films was New York.  The only other city in the United States that appears more than once is San Francisco:  “Take the Money and Run” was shot there, as well as “Play it Again, Sam”, which Allen also wrote but did not direct – and his original stage play took place in New York City.  Reportedly, Allen’s next film (as yet untitled) has also been shot in San Francisco (planned release 2013).

This sense of place became so important that New York City almost became a character in many films.  How many people can listen to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and not picture the opening montage of “Manhattan”? Just the film’s name – Manhattan – tells us that this guy is serious:  this is a film about New York City, and not just New York, but one certain section of New York.  Not convinced?  This guy also made a film called “Bullets Over Broadway”, another called “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and contributed to a trilogy called “New York Stories”, along with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Allen’s fascination with New York was so strong that he began to be criticised for rarely leaving the Manhattan’s Upper East Side, unless it was for the Upper West Side.  Yes, the characters in his films were mostly white, mostly Jewish, mostly upper middle class writers and artists.  He did not apologise.  This was the world that he knew, the world that he loved, and many of us loved him for bringing this world so brilliantly to the screen.

Almost one-half of the scenes in “To Rome with Love” take place in Italian.  So at an age when most of us are comfortably retired (if we live that long), Allen has marked out new territory and is exploring new countries, new languages and new contexts.  He has outlasted scandal (the relationship with Soon-Yi) and is now reaching a third generation, after working consistently for almost fifty years.


David Denby on Woody Allen

August 15, 2012

David Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, writes approvingly of Woody Allen’s new film To Rome With Love (opening here in Australia on 18 October 2012).  In the issue dated July 2, 2012, Denby describes the film as “light and fast, with some of the sharpest dialogue and acting that he’s put on the screen in years”.

However, one of the most insightful comments that Denby makes relates to the key to Woody Allen’s success – how the film-maker turned his weaknesses into career strengths, by “exploiting his own confinements (Brooklyn obscurity, shrimpy size, neurotic fearfulness, etc.)”


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.


There’s an elephant in the room … Mel Gibson

May 15, 2011

The new Jodie Foster film, The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson has recently opened in the USA (early May 2011), and reportedly is one good film indeed.

Part of the discussion is all about Mel Gibson.  Back in February, it was reported that the film’s opening was being delayed from March 23rd (and indeed from late 2010), on a “backburner when Gibson became embroiled in a nasty domestic dispute with his ex-girlfriend.”

Writing for the Boston Globe (May 1st), Ty Burr starts his article thus:

There’s an elephant in the room and its name is Mel Gibson.  The elephant is travelling everywhere with Jodie Foster these days…. The only thing weirder than the film’s plot is the public firestorm around her star’s offscreen behaviour.

It seems no one can write about the film without writing about Gibson’s trials and tribulations: Rex Reed’s New York Observer article (May 3rd) is entitled “Could The Beaver Resurrect Mel Gibson?” and starts off:

Watching Mel Gibson’s relentlessly reckless self-destruction has been about as much fun as standing by helplessly, observing a truck jackknife on a crowded turnpike.  This is what it must have been like in the old days, when Fatty Arbuckle ruined his career with a Coke bottle and Frances Farmer went from Cary Grant’s leading lady to being dragged, kicking and handcuffed, to the insane asylum.  If Mr.Gibson has any fans left, now’s the time for them to rally. The occasion is The Beaver, a brave and unusual film directed by his longtime friend Jodie Foster, and a good reason for his defense team to say, “I told you so.”

Heavy stuff, being compared with Fatty Arbuckle and Francis Farmer.

The Beaver is not slated to open in Australia until July 21st.  More that film and the Mel Gibson controversy closer to the Australian release date.