Film review of The Favourite

January 10, 2019

This film review of “The Favourite” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 January 2019 in a slightly shorter form.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn

*****

“The Favourite” is a bawdy comedy-drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Lanthimos specialises in off-kilter worlds; here he has created a world of insider court intrigue, deceit, manipulation and sex, especially lesbian sex.

Queen Anne ruled during a time of political turmoil and change, with bitter rivalries between Whigs and Tories, and ongoing military actions against both France and Spain. The film is set not long after the death of Anne’s husband the Prince of Denmark (1708), and Anne is perpetually in a foul mood, exacerbated by increasing poor health: she suffered from severe gout and a number of other medical problems, could hardly walk and is usually pushed around in a wheelchair.

The film extrapolates, with significant poetic liberties, from the acknowledged intimate relationship that Anne (played by an almost unrecognisable Olivia Colman) had with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Jewish actress Rachel Weisz), who becomes the Queen’s closest advisor. The two call each other by pet names – Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman – apparently as a means of establishing a level of equality between them. A competitor arrives in the person of Sarah’s first cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Although down on her luck and fortune – Abigail is literally thrown into the mud from a carriage outside the palace in an opening scene – through careful scheming and attentiveness to Queen Anne’s infirmities, Abigail becomes a power player in the court.

Without its trio of acclaimed female performances – Colman, Weisz and Stone – this film could have become a mash-up of seedy British monarchy stories. The performances are astonishing, lively, energetic, funny, lusty, erotic and frequently nasty. All three have been nominated for Golden Globes, a feat likely to be repeated at the Oscars, with the film and director also in competition for major awards.

Satiric spoofs on the foibles of the British political and social upper classes have rarely been as cutting as this. Palace residents and courtiers are breathtakingly out of touch with what’s happening in the world, preferring to race ducks, shoot pheasants and bombard each other naked with fruit.

“The Favourite” also operates as a form of revisionist history: these three women appear to be the most powerful people in Britain, with many men clamouring – often fruitlessly – for the attention of their monarch. The men are dressed absurdly, with long wigs and bizarre make-up. England is at war – a fact that Queen Anne occasionally forgets – and senior members of the Parliament and the army seek her approval on war strategy and financing the war effort; in both areas, Anne is way out of her depth.

“The Favourite” includes delightful lines, such as when Abigail greets a nobleman who has come to her room unannounced: “Have you come to rape me or seduce me?” “Madam, I am a gentleman,” he responds. “Rape me then,” she replies.

The film also presents as tragicomedy: Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits in her chambers, each of them affectionately named, representing her 17 lost children, most of them by miscarriage. In poor health and growing obese, Anne eats whatever and whenever she pleases, simply vomiting into a pitcher when she is full. Prospective viewers are forewarned: under its comedy, “The Favourite” has a hard and cynical edge; these players are angling for power and the stakes are high.

 

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Film review of Can You Ever Forgive Me

January 10, 2019

(This film review of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 7 December 2018.)

Directed by Marielle Heller; written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the memoir by Lee Israel; starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Marc Evan Jackson and Joanna Adler

*****

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is probably the best film you will ever see with an unlikeable and unattractive Jewish lead character.

Melissa McCarthy – American comic actress best-known for her vigorous and occasionally gross physical comedy (witness “Bridesmaids”) – plays Lee Israel, a failing Brooklyn-born non-fiction freelance writer whose career has run into trouble. Despite modestly successful biographies on Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead, her book on Estée Lauder has bombed and no publisher is interested in her next project – on Jewish actress and comedian Fanny Brice.

Lee’s agent gives blunt advice when Lee complains bitterly about Jack Clancy’s success at writing action thrillers: “You can be an asshole when you’re famous.”

Desperate for funds, Israel starts selling her possessions, including her prized Hepburn letter. When she accidentally finds a Fanny Brice original letter in a library book, she realises the value of celebrity correspondence in the ephemera and memorabilia market. With no more “real” letters to sell, she develops a career as a forger of letters from the likes of Noel Coward and others, using her literary and research skills to embellish the letters in ways designed to appeal to dealers and collectors.

Set in the 1990s, this melancholy film is given extra poignancy because the story is true: Lee Israel was a real person (she passed away in 2014) – a Jewish lesbian who resurrected her reputation (she is ultimately caught) through her autobiographical book telling of her short career as a literary forger, which ultimately became this film.

Lee Israel stumbles into a close friendship with Jack, a gay man played with wild abandon by Richard E. Grant. His occasional over-acting perfectly fits his character: flamboyant, intensely verbal, slavishly loyal (too loyal) to Lee, partaking in numerous sexual delights and easily distracted.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” acts as an ode to New York City: shots of the 59th Street Bridge from director Marielle Heller and Jewish co-writer Nicole Holofcener (read my review of Holofcener’s film Friends With Money) consciously evoke Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. It’s also a film about books, writing, biography, creativity (or its absence), money (or its lack), fame (or its opposite, obscurity), professional ethics (or none), and frustrated or mis-directed love.

The film also hints at deeper questions: what, in fact, is real when forgers are so readily believed? (The film-makers slyly hint at the present moment of “fake news”.) A wordless scene near the end of the film is telling: a bookstore owner realises that a celebrity letter (written by Israel) in his shop’s window is a forgery, and removes it. After a moment’s hesitation, he puts the letter back in the window.

But the film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is Melissa McCarthy’s. Her character is unhygienic (look for the great comic scene with her cat), grumpy, ornery, irascible, unhappy and anti-social. But she’s also energetic and oh-so-real, serving to charm audiences with her story of decline, fall and ultimate resurrection.

Melissa McCarthy in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved


Jewish films released in Australia on Boxing Day

December 20, 2018

(This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 December 2018.)

Boxing Day – 26 December – is traditionally the “biggest” movie-going day in Australia. Freed from the holiday responsibilities, many Australians flock to the movies to watch the biggest summer releases. This year four films feature important Jewish actors or creatives behind the scene.

Holmes and Watson: Sherlock Holmes has, by some count, been the most portrayed character on screen, first featured in a one-minute silent one-reeler in 1900; by 1995, more than 25,000 Holmes and Watson related cultural products had been produced in 63 languages. That competition hasn’t dismayed Jewish Israeli-American director, Etan Cohen (who grew up in Efrat) – not to be confused with Ethan Coen of the famed Coen brothers – who has directed this latest effort. Will Ferrell (as Holmes) and John C. Reilly (as Dr John Watson) star and sport English accents, along with Rebecca Hall, Ralph Fiennes (as Professor Moriarty) and Rob Brydon (Inspector Lestrade). Director/writer Cohen has made this version a comedy: it’s broad, it’s for families, and clever enough to appeal to more sophisticated audiences through pop culture references.

The Favourite: “The Favourite” is a historical period comedy-drama film focussing on behind-the-scenes politics between two cousins jockeying to be court favourites during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. British Jewish actress Rachel Weisz (who played Deborah Lipstadt in “Denial”) takes the role of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. “The Favourite” is already garnering accolades in the upcoming end-of-year awards season: it won the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and been nominated for Golden Globes for Olivia Colman (best actress), Emma Stone (supporting actress) and best screenplay. (Full review coming soon.)

Cold War: The film “Cold War” is, appropriately, set during the 1950s Cold War in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish and died in Auschwitz, previously directed “Ida” (2013). His new film is an epic love story between two passionate and mismatched people of different backgrounds and temperaments. Shot in black and white, a cineaste’s delight.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: What can you say about an animated comedy where the second and third featured actor voices are Jewish women? Worth seeing, we’d say. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” stars the voice of John Reilly (again!) along with stand-up Jewish comic Sarah Silverman and Israeli actress Gal Gadot (Miss Israel 2004 and star of “Wonder Woman”). In this Disney 3-D computer animated film, Silverman plays Vanellope von Schweet (pronounce that five times fast), best friend of Ralph (Reilly). Gadot plays Shank, a tough-as-nails racer in “Slaughter Race”. The plot makes little sense to anyone over age 15, but tech-savvy children are likely to be charmed – and not confused – by the colour, movement and three-dimensional representation of the Internet as only a Hollywood studio can do it. There are hundreds of characters, all of them a mystery to this reviewer, but high entertainment value is guaranteed in this sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012): the film has been nominated for a “Best Animated Film” Golden Globe.

(image below: “Cold War” film theatrical poster)

 


Film review of Sobibor

October 21, 2018

(This film review of “Sobibor” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 October 2018, in a shortened form. It plays as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.)

The film “Sobibor” comes to the Festival carrying a lot more meaning than a big-budget story about a Nazi death camp., Located in eastern Poland, Sobibor (the camp) was one of the most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps, where 250,000+ Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Germany and the Soviet Union – notably including Jewish-Soviet POWs – were murdered.

The film provides a fictionalised version of the Sobibor prisoner uprising, the most successful of concentration camp revolts (Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka also had smaller, less successful uprisings). The 1987 British telemovie “Escape from Sobibor”, starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer, previously portrayed these events. (Documentaries have also been made by Claude Lanzmann and Pavel Kogan.) This Russian version carries great meaning and is likely to be one of the most watched films of the Festival, as its director and star Konstantin Khabenskiy (“Night Watch”, “Admiral”) will be a JIFF guest.

The uprising was led by the Soviet-Jewish POW Aleksandr Pechersky (Khabenskiy), who organised the uprising in just three weeks, eventually including the majority of the 550 Sobibor prisoners. With few weapons, they killed a number of SS soldiers and Ukrainian guards. Of those who escaped, about 80 were killed during the revolt, 170 others found and killed later and many others turned over by local collaborators. Yet 53 managed to survive the war – including Pechersky.

“Sobibor” can be a tough film to watch and prospective viewers are forewarned. An early scene shows a large number of naked women herded into a gas chamber and gassed, with attendant screams and vomiting. As Cnaan Liphshiz writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the film is one of the goriest of its kind, there’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.”

Numerous Holocaust films have been set in the camps, notably including Oscar winners “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul”. While “Sobibor” doesn’t rise to the dramatic or artistic heights of these two, its large budget – much of it from Russian government sources – ensures that the action is realistic, although some of the details of Nazi camp procedures may be debated.

The film has already had unprecedented success in Russian cinemas, and is Russia’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards. It also carries important contemporary political significance, as part of a Russian attempt to ensure that the Soviet Union’s role in European liberation is recognised. As Russia Today reports, the film “is a major step … to preserving historical truth … about the heroism of the Soviet people … who saved Europe and the whole world from fascism at the cost of many lives.” A recent screening of the film for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscores how Russia has made the Sobibor revolt an important part of their national story.


Film review of 7 Days in Entebbe

September 2, 2018

(This film review of “7 Days in Entebbe”, also called “Entebbe”, appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 30, 2018.)

Directed by José Padilha; written by Gregory Burke; starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi and Denis Ménochet

The new film “Entebbe” (also entitled “7 Days in Entebbe”) – about the famed Israeli rescue of 248 hostages from a hijacked Air France airplane in Uganda in 1976 – released in Australia this week on DVD, Blu-Ray and selected streaming services. Four hijackers – two German and two Palestinian – took control of the plane after leaving Athens and demanded it refuel in Libya and fly to Uganda. There, with the support of Ugandan President Idi Amin, they attempted to negotiate the passengers for release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Over the course of a week the Israelis organised a dramatic rescue, projecting their military power by sending 100 commandos an unprecedented 4,000 kilometres, deep into Africa. All but four passengers and one Israeli solder – Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Bibi – survived the experience. For many, it was the most daring special forces rescue in history, a high point in Israeli international authority.

Don’t let the absence of a cinema release fool you: this is a high-production “ticking clock” action thriller directed by Brazilian José Padilha (“Robocop”), with a stellar international cast. One of the pleasures of this new version of the story is the portrayal of historic figures by contemporary actors, notably Israelis Lior Ashkenazi as (then Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin, Mark Ivanir as IDF Chief-of-Staff Motta Gur, Yifach Klein as Ehud Barak; British character actor Eddie Marsan as Shimon Peres; French actor Denis Ménochet (who played a  farmer that hid Jews in “Inglourious Bastards”) as the plane’s heroic flight engineer; and British Nigerian actor Nonso Anozie as Idi Amin. German actor Daniel Bruhl and British actress Rosamund Pike headline the cast, playing the German hijackers; the Palestinian hijackers remain less distinct personalities in Padilha’s telling.

It’s a “Euro-pudding” cast, with the film shot in Malta. Characters mostly speak English, with the occasional foray into German, Arabic, French or Hebrew. The result is a bit disconcerting as it’s not always clear what national background the characters are from.

If you are looking for language verisimilitude, this is not the film. Instead return to the Menachem Golan’s 1977 Israeli-made, Oscar-nominated “Operation Thunderbolt”, in which Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yigal Allon all played themselves.

What director Padilha does bring is a carefully plotted “actioner”, complete with internal arguments among Israeli politicians, how the IDF prepared for the assault on a mock-up of Entebbe Airport, and the rescue itself. There’s not quite enough tension (surely we all know how the story ends), but Padilha adds a new twist by exploring the German hijackers’ backgrounds and personalities, a theme he first utilised in his controversial Brazilian documentary “Bus 174”.

Oddly, the film opens with a rehearsal of the Israeli Batsheva Dance company practicing a rousing Hebrew version of Passover song “Achad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”), also known as “the chair dance”, choreographed by company’s famed director Ohad Naharin. This intercutting of the dance sequence – it appears throughout the film, and returns as a full performance during the final scene during the airport raid at the film’s climax – is affecting and powerful, although its inclusion in the film is difficult to understand. One of the Batsheva performers is the girlfriend of one of the film’s characters, but what does the dance signify?

Director Jose Padilha explains that that he loves Israeli culture and admires the Israeli capability for self-criticism. The dance “is an amazing metaphor. The only way there’s going to be a solution [to the Palestinian conflict], the only way we are going to break this cycle of fear, is if somehow people strip themselves of their orthodox way of thinking.” Maybe, but I’m still scratching my head.

No matter. The story is too good to leave alone and seeing Batsheva on screen is thrilling. The final frames predictably – but satisfyingly – summarise the outcomes of the events.  Many viewers are likely to feel a renewed awe in the capability of Israeli military derring-do, a reminder of the intractability of the conflict and how Israelis were – indeed still are – capable of extraordinary feats of imagination and risk-taking.

(image above: the theatrical poster for US release in March 2018)


Film review of BlacKkKlansman

August 19, 2018

This film review of BlacKkKlansman appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 16 August 2018.

Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott, based on the book Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace and Jasper Pääkkönen

*****

Few films resonate with the American “current political moment” of increased overt racism and demonisation of minorities as Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman”. The film opened this week, purposefully aligned to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Just to be certain we don’t miss the point, Lee – a film-maker never accused of subtlety – ends “BlacKkKlansman” with graphic news footage from that event, including violent confrontations and President Trump’s “good people” comment. In the cinema preview when I saw the film, the audience didn’t emit a sound: we all “got” the point.

Set in 1972, “BlacKkKlansman” tells the incredible-but-true story of the how the first African-American policeman to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel, complete with large rounded “Afro”) successfully joined the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth needs a white guy to “play” him in person with the Klan, so works closely with Jewish fellow policeman “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a secular Jew whose awareness of his religious identity grows as the film progresses. Unlike Stallworth, Zimmerman can “pass” as a white Christian, even though Jews are number two on the KKK enemies list. Flip almost too convincingly plays the role of antisemite while being challenged possibly being Jewish: his response to a Holocaust denier where he excitedly elaborates on the achievements of the Holocaust is chilling in the extreme.

From it’s opening moments with a clip from “Gone with the Wind”, “BlacKkKlansman” illustrates its themes with powerful imagery, marking it as one of the best cinema releases this year (it won the “Grand Prix” at Cannes in May, and is running 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). A fictional white power character played by Alec Baldwin (the actor who plays President Trump on “Saturday Night Live”) rages straight to camera how “blood-sucking” Jews sponsor the “commie” civil-rights movement.

The language is shocking, but the message – repeated during the film numerous times in different ways – is clear: racism and antisemitism are integrally connected. Spike Lee has not previously been known for his sensitivity to Jewish issues – his “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) stereotyped Jews as untrustworthy capitalists – but “BlacKkKlansman” marks new ground. The film’s two original writers – David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel – are both Jewish. They placed the Jewish condition front and centre in the story, including making the Flip character Jewish (which he was not in real life). Lee took their original story and ran with it, both emphasising and deepening the connection. The result is a well-argued plea for black-Jewish rapprochement and partnership, one of the best in decades.

One of the film’s most Jewish moments occurs with no Jews on screen: an articulate speech given by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), a black radical previously known as Stokely Carmichael, quotes Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” He then adds a fourth question, summing up the movie’s message: “And if not you, who?”

An upside down American flag – an officially recognised signal of dire distress – fills the screen at the film’s very end, and the colours slowly turn from red, white and blue to black and white. The effect is both profound and thought-provoking, underscoring Lee’s urgency of the moment.

The direction, acting and casting in “BlacKkKlansman” are all exquisite. Although the white supremacists are sometimes played as naïve fools (watch Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke), they are deadly fools, as a bombing subplot illustrates. The setting looks nothing like Colorado (in was shot in upstate New York), but no matter. This film is a strong drama about American racism (watch the scene where the undercover Ron Stallworth is beaten up by fellow policemen for being black), with numerous comic overtones and an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Jewish journalist Abraham Riesman has written a passionate essay on why “’BlackkKlansman’ is required viewing for Jews”. I agree.

(photo above: Adam Driver and John David Washington)

 

Read my review of Spike Lee’s film “25th Hour”, released in June 2003.


Film review of Foxtrot

June 22, 2018

(This film review of “Foxtrot” appeared in the Australian Jewish News paper on 21 June 2018, and online on 27 June 2018.)

Written and directed by Samuel Maoz; starring Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonathan Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor and Karin Ugowski.

The new film Foxtrot belongs to the long list of eminent Israeli films that attempt to respond the country’s continuing cycle of war and conflict. The name foxtrot provides writer/director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) with both a recurring theme as well as a metaphor for Israeli security and life. As a formal dance, the foxtrot’s four steps continue to rotate around a simple square, always returning to the same place.

The action in Foxtrot fits neatly into a variation of the classic three act film structure. The first third opens with the arrival of soldiers to the trendy, geometric grey-accented flat of architect Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi, from Footnote and Norman) and Dafna Feldmann (Sarah Adler, from Jellyfish). They come bearing news of every Israeli parent’s nightmare: their son Jonathan has been killed serving at a checkpoint in the north. What follows is a painful filmic study of extreme grief and anguish. Dafna faints, but the soldiers have come prepared with drugs they administer and put her to bed. Michael is struck dumb, wordless and barely moving. He and his brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) are both irritated by the presence of an army rabbi – they are atheists – who tells Michael not to carry the coffin at the funeral because he will need to support his wife. As men must. But Michael, the son of a German Holocaust survivor who has dementia, is pursued by his own demons from his own army service, and is anything but the strong silent type he at first appears.

The second act moves to an isolated mud-bound army checkpoint, where four soldiers – including son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray, who played the teenage Amos Oz in A Tale of Love and Darkness) – listlessly pass the time, checking the papers of the occasional passing car, working out of a leaking water tower and sleeping in a sinking shipping container. This chapter presents as a classic absurdist and surreal black comedy tinged with both melancholy and tragedy, typified by the periodic arrival of a lone camel galloping along the road – the most frequent promotional image for the film (see image below).

The final third of the film returns to the Feldman apartment, where Michael and Dafna’s marriage appears to be breaking down. Virginia Wolff style, we watch them slowly reveal their relationship’s anger, stresses and blame – a true tour de force of two-handed acting.

There is a devastating revelation (no spoilers here) towards the end of the first act that re-sets the film’s tone but does nothing to erase its pervading unease. Foxtrot is uncomfortable to watch, and many – particularly those who have lost loved ones in security conflicts – are likely to find the scenes of anguish and grief to be extremely painful. Foxtrot is not a film to love, but one to admire, for its filmic artistry, its formalism, its strong performances and the control that writer/director Maoz exerts over every frame. The production design is simple but effective, and inclusions such as animations are evocative and powerful. Foxtrot won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and eight “Ophir” Israeli film awards, including best picture, director, actor and cinematography. While well-received by international critics (almost 100% positive on Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator), the film has been the subject of trenchant criticism by Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev and others for its unrealistic portrayal of IDF actions.

Foxtrot premiered in Sydney at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this month and opened in Australian cinemas on 21 June 2018.