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)


Film review of Wonder Woman

June 12, 2017

This film review of “Wonder Woman” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 June 2017

Directed by Patty Jenkins; written by Allan Heinberg; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen and Elena Anaya

*****

The world has a new Jewish female star, and her name is Gal Gadot. This former Israel Defense Force combat instructor is also the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors, a former “Miss Israel” and professional model.

But none of this background prepares you for the fact that Gal Gadot can act. In “Wonder Woman”, which opened world-wide last week, Gadot plays “Diana Prince”, a daughter of the Amazons who grows up surrounded by warrior women on the remote island of Themyscira. This fictional island-state is, as with most things in this film, a creation of DC Comics. As a young girl, Diana is fed stories of Greek mythology by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Danish actress Connie Nielsen) and taught combat skills by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright, Claire Underwood from “House of Cards”).

“Wonder Woman” follows in the super-hero tradition of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, Gadot’s previous big film. But director Patty Jenkins and Jewish screenwriter Allan Heinberg bring a difference: while most super-hero films are bloated special effects extravaganzas, “Wonder Woman” drives its story through characters.  And there are loads of them, all well-drawn and frequently very funny.

After Diana Prince, the most important character is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, who played James T. Kirk in the most recent “Star Trek” films). Steve is an undercover American agent who has stolen German weapon secrets: oh yeah, the year is 1918, and World War I is coming to a fitful close. He escapes by stealing a plane and crash-lands near Themyscira. Diana saves his life, after which the Amazons battle pursuing German soldiers.

Diana and Steve make their way to England (eerily, we know it’s London because the first image we see is the London Bridge), and then on to Belgium to track down and destroy the German secret weapon. They are accompanied by a cast of oddball characters with special skills, who mostly fulfil the “humorous sidekick” requirements of the super-hero movie genre.

There’s nothing unusual about the plot – Wonder Woman saves the day (whoops, I gave it away) – but the fun is in the telling, in the characters themselves and the occasional great dialogue. Gadot plays a delightful Wonder Woman, wide-eyed, naïve, idealistic and a true warrior. Gadot’s on-screen chemistry with Chris Pine is funny, believable (well, for a super-hero fantasy), nicely nuanced and romantic. They combine to create one of the best “buddy” movies of the year.

For Jewish audiences two fabulous lines – both said by Gadot – stand out, both (we hope) purposefully ironic: “Once the Germans are freed from his [the bad guy’s] influence, they will be good men again.” Spoken in 1918; we all know how that one worked out. And in London, Diana upbraids the British army brass saying, “Where I come from, generals don’t hide in their offices. They fight alongside their soldiers.”

At almost 2 hours and 20 minutes, “Wonder Woman” is over-long. It starts slowly and ends with a ritualised super-hero battle seen too often in these films. But it’s funny, highly entertaining and will be a real audience pleaser. Gal Gadot will soon be – if she is not already – one of the most sought-after actors in the world. And one of the world’s most famous Israelis. The power of the big screen.


Sydney Film Festival 2017 preview

June 4, 2017

(This article about the Sydney Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 1 June 2017.)

With no “Jewish theme” requirement at the Sydney Film Festival, program selectors use artistic license to choose films that appeal. Yet each year, the selection of Jewish themes and personalities is eclectic, diverse and fascinating. The year 2017 is no exception, most notably with Jewish documentaries set in Australia, Germany, the USA, the West Bank and – strangely – North Korea; as well as a delightful Palestinian-Israeli comedy and biographical sketch of Karl Marx, one of the most famous Jews of the modern era.

The Australian-Jewish highlight this year is Sydney-based Su Goldfish’s feature-length documentary, entitled “The Last Goldfish”. Born to German-Jewish refugees in Trinidad after World War II, young Su moves to Australia. Only at age 14 does she begin to understand that her family is Jewish: like many survivors, her father doesn’t want to talk about it, telling her she is “the last Goldfish”. Surely there must be other relatives, Su thought. This is the story of her 40-year search for family, ranging back over more than a century of family memories and photos. The film-maker makes sense of her family history, sorting out what happened when and why.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, brings a totally different documentary sensibility to the screen. Belin-based Loznitsa has become one of the most accomplished Russian-speaking documentarians, frequently engaging Jewish topics. Consciously named the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz” explores similar themes of memory and history by using “observational cinema” technique perfected by Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Loznitsa watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The camera captures – in black and white – how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists behave in these places. A cultural commentary for our times.

By contrast, “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” is a straight documentary in the best of the American tradition about New York urban planning activist Jane Jacobs. Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” became a passionate appeal for neighbourhood scale in American city building. “Citizen Jane” tells the story of her battles with New York City master builder Robert Moses, the most powerful planning “power broker” of his time. True to New York style, both the late Jacobs and late Moses were Jewish, as well as many interviewees, including architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

Numerous critics describe the German-French co-production drama “The Young Karl Marx” as a film “full of talk” that should be dull. Yet it’s any but. Credit goes to Haitian director Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), who brings the main characters to life – founder of Communism Karl Marx, his wife Jenny and co-founder Frederick Engels – in engaging, even gripping ways. Stay for the dynamic closing credits. In French, German and English.

One of the Festival’s best comedies, “Holy Air”, comes from Israel. Writer/director Shady Srour stars as Adam, an Israeli Christian Arab living in Nazareth who is struggling. His beautiful liberated wife is pregnant, his father is in poor health, and he needs to find a new way to make a living, battling local hoodlums. The idea of selling “holy air” to tourists is born. Sly, seductive, satiric and a delightful snapshot of life in Nazareth today. The opening and closing traffic jam scenes are gems. In Arabic, Hebrew, English and French.

Iconic French-Jewish film-maker Claude Lanzmann (“Shoah“) – now aged over 90 – returns to the screen with “Napalm”, a personal documentary about an incident that happened to him in North Korea in the late 1950s. As part of a delegation of leftist intellectuals, he has an intimate encounter with a North Korean nurse, a story he has told many times. In “Napalm”, Lanzmann returns to North Korea to re-examine his youthful self in the context of modern Pyongyang. Highly self-indulgent but always fascinating, in “Napalm” Lanzmann asks many questions about his own past and the truly odd North Korean state.

A different type of documentary, “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence.

Closer to home, Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”. A previous Erdstein-Foulcher comic collaboration, the short film “Picking Up at Auschwitz”, equally offended and impressed audiences.

Also worth catching: “Porto”, with one the final  performances by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); “Insyriated”, a drama set in civil war-torn Syria starring Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Lemon Tree”); and “Manifesto” is a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, and loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.

(image below: Jane Jacobs in “Citizen Jane”)


Film review of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

May 27, 2017

This review of “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” appeared in a different form in the Australian Jewish News on 25 May 2017.

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar; starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Michael Sheen

When American-born Israeli film-maker Joseph Cedar releases a new movie, the film world pays attention. Prior to his latest film, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (hereafter, “Norman”, opening this week in Australia), two of his four films received best foreign film Oscar nominations (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”). His other two – “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” – won best picture at the “Ophir” awards, the Israel “Oscars”.

“Norman” stars Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer, a sixty-ish New York business consultant (“Oppenheimer Strategies”) who is always on the make. People avoid him on the street because he is always asking them for something. Even his nephew – corporate lawyer Philip Cohen (British actor Michael Sheen, from “The Queen”) – tries to stay away. He pushes into social situations unannounced: when he “crashes” a fancy townhouse dinner party hosted by Jewish philanthropist Taub (Josh Charles), the effect is excruciating – humiliation writ large.

The Washington Post film critic accurately describes Norman as a macher, schnorrer and mensch all rolled together. He’s as complex a Jewish character as we have ever seen on screen, all the more fascinating because the audience knows almost nothing about him. He says he has a daughter, but nobody knows her. Does Norman have an office? Not clear. He appears to be on the Board of his synagogue, where he listens to choir practice for relaxation. He assists the Board with fundraising, and is friends with the rabbi, gleefully played by character actor Steve Buscemi. Richard Gere’s driven and hyperactive performance is breathtaking, avoiding the self-pity of many Woody Allen characters, to which there is some affinity; think “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Front”. This Norman is both natty (he wears a cool camel hair coat) and desperately seeking approval.

Norman’s life changes when he discovers Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi), a junior Israeli trade minister, at a New York conference. Norman follows Eshel to a fancy shoe stop, and inveigles to buy the Israeli an expensive pair of shoes. They become friends, of a sort, and develop a transactional relationship assists both of them: through connections, Norman assists Micha’s son to get into Harvard. We don’t quite know what Norman gets from Micha, but it’s enough to repay his shoe investment many times over.

Some years later, Micha becomes Prime Minister, and warmly and publicly greets Norman at an AIPAC conference in Washington DC. Norman kvells with pride, later detailing his relationship with Micha to New York lawyer Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge) on the train back to New York – the beginning of his “tragic fall”. This is writer/director Cedar in his best blackly comic mode. Some people do hilarious – and very stupid – things, and their actions return to bite them.

My favourite parts of the film were the ones in Hebrew with Prime Minister Eshel. So many American Presidents appear in dramatic films, so it’s fascinating to see a contemporary (albeit fictional) Israeli Prime Minister on screen.

A constant sense of unease underlies “Norman”, which may make some viewers uncomfortable. In Norman Oppenheimer, writer/director Cedar does not go for easy laughs, presenting us with a complicated and flawed character, in relationship to many other flawed characters – all of them Jewish. Recommended for those who are willing to pay attention to words that matter.

(above: Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi in “Norman”)


Film review of Snatched

May 27, 2017

This film review of “Snatched” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 May 2017.

Directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Katie Dippold; starring Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Joan Cusack, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes and Christopher Meloni

As a mother-daughter adventure caper film, “Snatched” manages to be both terribly old-fashioned and edgily contemporary. With two Jewish stars in the lead – comic Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as her mother – “Snatched” is worth a look, particularly for groups of women looking for a female-centred action film.  Just keep your expectations low.

“Snatched” comes with a great comic pedigree. Teaming Amy Schumer with Goldie Hawn – one of the best American comic actresses of her generation (“Private Benjamin”, “Shampoo”, “Housesitter”, “First Wives Club”) – is a high-concept casting coup. Co-producer Paul Feig, who has made a career of female-centred action comedies, including the 2016 “Ghostbusters”, “The Heat”, “Bridesmaids” and “Spy”, ensures there is the requisite mix of bawdy humour and action. Add to the mix a good sprinkling of lesser-known but equally adept comics: African-American entertainer Wanda Sykes, character actress Joan Cusack and Jewish comic Ike Barinholtz as Amy’s brother.

Emily (Amy), Linda (Goldie) and Jeffrey (Ike) constitute the Middleton family (dad is long gone). Emily is a late twentysomething drifting through life, Jeffrey suffers from severe agoraphobia and a host of other anxiety disorders, and Linda has taken anxiety to a high art. Fired from her job and recently broken-up with her boyfriend, Emily invites her mother to accompany her on her planned trip to Ecuador. It’s a last resort: no-one else wants to go with her.

The trip seems so idyllic, including Emily’s meeting the dark handsome stranger who takes them on an adventure to the jungle … and leads them to getting kidnapped by a nasty Latin gang (a throwback of stereotyped screen bad guys not out of place in Trump’s America). They escape, get found again, get help from odd characters (including Sykes and a mute Cusack), race through the jungle and some people die. Somehow it all seems good fun, an odd mixture of personal peril that does not quite seem real. They call on Jeffrey for help, he rises to the occasion, and contact the American State Department, which appears only mildly interested in their fate.

This is a film for the “Bridesmaids” fans, although director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) never quite pulls it off. It’s one thing to soil a wedding dress, but quite another for two women to be chained in a jungle hideout; the setting seems not quite as funny, even if the characters are.

The Middletons seem like a wholesome middle American family (get the name joke?), but the strong strains of family anxiety feel like a particularly Jewish characteristic presented by three accomplished Jewish comic actors. It’s too bad the film-makers skipped the opportunity of making the characters Jewish, thereby forgoing a truly rich source of humour. It would not have solved the film’s core challenges, but would have given us lots more to laugh about.


Film review of The Zookeepers Wife

May 14, 2017

This film review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 May 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; written by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman; starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl and Michael McElhatton

****

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a notable film about Jewish survival, but is not a film about Jews. Based on a true story of a non-Jewish Polish married couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of the Second World War, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” – adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman – is one of a growing number of dramatic films that tell the stories of Righteous Gentiles (think “Schindler’s List” and “Irena Sendler”).

The film opens in summer of 1939; an idyllic “Belle Epoque” Warsaw Zoo appears like a Garden of Eden, with strange animals running after their almost-rapturous keepers, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” & “Interstellar”) and Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), accompanied by their contemplative young son Ryszard. The Zabinskis love their animals, and New Zealand director Niki Caro does an extraordinary job of showing human-zoo animal intimate interactions, such as healing a sick young elephant (if it was special effects, I couldn’t tell).

The peaceful retreat doesn’t last. When the Germans attack Poland and bomb Warsaw, the zoo is decimated and lives are changed forever. The narrative is familiar: the Nazi occupation, attacks on the local Jewish population and development of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But what happens next is a first for Holocaust screen stories: Antonina and Jan grow a plan to slip Jews out of the ghetto and hide them in a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars at the zoo, creating an “underground railroad”. The pretext is raising pigs (the “treif” juxtaposition is not explored) for food by using ghetto garbage. A sub-plot involves the Nazi Director of the Berlin Zoo, Dr Lutz Heck (German actor Daniel Bruhl) attracted to Antonina. Other notable historical figures appear, including Dr Janusz Korczak, who ran a famous orphanage in the ghetto.

The film has a convincing production design (shot in Prague), fabulous animals and strong acting from the principals, especially Chastain, who rivals Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”) with her Polish accent. Despite its strong Holocaust and war themes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does feel tame at times; it’s rated “M” (“not recommended for children under 15”). Most violence and killing, including the animals, happens off-screen. This “soft pitch” film-making shouldn’t give nightmares, but does undermine the dramatic impact of what is still a great story.

(above: Johan Heldenbergh outside the set of the Warsaw Zoo)


Film review of Denial

April 13, 2017

This film review of “Denial” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 13 April 2017.

Directed by Mick Jackson; written by David Hare, based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall and Andrew Scott

*****

Not long after American history professor Deborah Lipstadt published her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, she and her publisher Penguin Books was sued by British author – and noted Holocaust denier – David Irving for libel. The story of this court case becomes the film “Denial”, opening in Australian cinemas this week.

British libel laws operate differently than other countries: the defendant is presumed guilty unless they can be proven innocent and the burden of proof is much higher. Not only was Lipstadt’s credibility on trial, but also that of Holocaust scholarship, with Irving using the opportunity to promote his denial ideology by focussing on small “unproven” items that could cast doubts on the Nazi genocide.

This docu-drama illustrates real events over the period 1994 to 2000, based on Lipstadt’s memoir, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” (previously “History on Trial”). The film opens with a confrontation where Irving disrupted a lecture of Lipstadt, and then recounts the court case itself, almost solely through Lipstadt’s eyes. We see her meetings with her legal team, with British Jewish community leaders and with an un-named survivor. Lipstadt is forced to watch the trial unfold without speaking out because her legal advisers focussed on making the case about Irving (who conducted his own defence) rather than about her.

“Denial” gathers a great cast of British actors, with Rachel Weisz – originally tipped for an Oscar nomination for the role – neatly capturing Lipstadt’s nasal New York (Queens) accent. Tom Wilkinson – one of the best character actors working in film today – plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, and Timothy Spall (the artist Turner in “Mr Turner”) inhabits the persona of David Irving in a form likely to burn itself in public consciousness as the definitive Irving. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in “Sherlock”) plays lead solicitor Anthony Julius, who in real life is one of Britain’s leading campaigners against antisemitism. Many important historians appear, including Cambridge academic Richard J. Evans (played by John Sessions) and Dutch scholar Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss).

The characters are delightfully drawn, the settings create a strong sense of place, particularly London and Auschwitz, which the defence team visits on an eerie, snow-covered and foggy day.

Courtroom dramas are a staple of modern feature films. From “Witness for the Prosecution” to “Judgment at Nuremberg” to “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Evil Angels” to “A Few Good Men”, the courtroom is ready-made for what the screen does well: illustrate conflict between adversaries, albeit without physical violence. Along with its wider themes of historical truth and the Holocaust, “Denial” sits within this genre, but the film never hits the “aha” moments that the best legal dramas require. This may be because of the known ending or the film’s requirement to stick closely to a trial that revolved around arcane historical research. Because Irving and Lipstadt have only one actual verbal encounter early in the film, the dramatic challenges of the film revolve around keeping Deborah Lipstadt from speaking out, not the most compelling drama.

“Denial” is a film about history and the nature of historical research.  History matters, this film tells us, because it tells us who we are and how we lived then.  But the law also matters, because it can confirm – or deny – one historian’s views in the official view of society.

(image below: Rachel Weisz in “Denial”)

(Note: “Denial” originally opened in North American cinemas on September 30, 2016.)