Film review of Vox Lux

March 9, 2019

(This film review of “Vox Lux” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 February 2019.)

Directed and written by Brady Corbet; starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle and Raffey Cassidy, with narration by Willem Dafoe

*****

“Vox Lux” is a new drama featuring everyone’s favourite Israeli-American actress, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, “Jackie”), as Celeste Montgomery, a young woman who survives a violent tragedy with her sister (French actress Stacy Martin, star of “Nymphomaniac”) and turns it into a hit song that launches their singing careers.

Portman arrives in the film half-way through; her younger self (Raffey Cassidy) is the one (careful: plot spoilers ahead) who faces the darkened eyes of a Columbine-style school shooter in her Staten Island high school, offering to be a hostage if he lets everyone go. It doesn’t work: Celeste is shot anyway, but she survives, following which she attends months of physical therapy.

With the help of her younger sister, Celeste chances on music as a form of therapy, and ends up writing a hit song about her experience, coached by a gruff manager (Jude Law) and guided by a music publicist (Jennifer Ehle). Fast forward 15 years. Celeste, now 31, is a superstar singer, a drug and alcohol abuser, and an imperious, self-centred and powerful presence, part Lady Gaga, part Madonna. She also has a teenage daughter (with no partner on the scene) named Albertine, played by Raffey Cassidy (who is also the younger Celeste). A neat trick.

“Vox Lux” is that kind of movie, striving to keep the audience off-balance. Despite the film’s nasty subject matter, it is presented with a strong ironical (and occasionally humorous) tone, partly due to a calm “voice from on high” narration by an unmistakeable Willem Dafoe. There’s something else, possibly the sound design or an at times menacing musical score by iconic composer Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers). Or perhaps it’s the edginess that most characters show on screen, that makes you think something terrible is always about to happen. Some pretty bad things take place – this is a physically and emotionally violent film, truly earning its MA15+ rating – although events never feel quite as emotionally devastating as foreshadowed. The director, Brady Corbet, may be playing with us here, distancing us from the emotions of his lead character. Or not. The result is disconcerting, intentionally so. This is clever film-making, torn from tomorrow’s news. It may not be easy to watch, but the result commands our attention.

Portman’s performance is enthralling, a haunting darker sister to Lady Gaga in “A Star is Born”. Like Lady Gaga, she sings her own songs. What she loses in melody, she makes up in aggressiveness.

Despite strong early Oscar buzz, Portman was shut out of both Oscars and Golden Globe nominations. According to The Guardian, last year – 2018 – was the worst on record for gun violence in American schools, with 94, beating the previous record (set in 2006) of 59. Are the film’s themes, so contemporary in the era of Sandy Hook and Parkland, just too strong for major awards?

The final half of the film is a count down to a major concert by Celeste, and it is shattered by a distant tragedy with uncomfortable resonance to Celeste’s own brand. Celebrity and terrorism are inextricably linked in America, “Vox Lux” seems to be telling us.

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Film review of On the Basis of Sex

March 9, 2019

(This film review of “On the Basis of Sex” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 14 February 2019.)

Directed by Mimi Leder; written by Daniel Stiepleman; starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates and Cailee Spaeny.

*****

United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the most powerful Jewish women in the world. Sitting on the US Supreme Court since 1993 (appointed by President Clinton), Ginsburg is one of three Jews and three women currently serving – and one of the four remaining liberal/progressive judges. The recent controversy surrounding the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanagh (a conservative Catholic) shows how fraught the politics of the US Supreme Court currently is.

As topical as current Court machinations are, the film “On the Basis of Sex” reaches back in history to provide a dramatic re-creation of 15 formative years of Ginsburg’s early life and career, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The film opens in 1956, when Ruth is commencing Harvard Law School, one of only nine women to enter that year. To the rousing chords of the gridiron football fight song, “10,000 Men of Harvard”, she marches into the Law School building, her blue dress standing out in a field of grey suits. She too stands out as a student, despite the efforts of some professors not to acknowledge her presence.

The young Ginsburg is played by British actress Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”). Ginsburg’s husband, fellow Harvard Law School graduate and taxation expert Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer in his second Jewish role, following “Call Me by Your Name”) must surely be one of the most ideologically sound and “liberated” Jewish males ever to appear on screen: he shares child rearing, he cooks (better than Ruth) and looks out for her career. Despite being first in her class at both Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, Ruth was denied every job she applied for immediately out of school, given excuses of “too Jewish” or “the wives would be jealous”. Instead she commenced lecturing at Rutgers University, Newark, replacing the African-American teacher who had left.

The young Ruth is disappointed at not practicing law, but grabs an opportunity that Marty discovers of a man not allowed to claim a carer tax deduction, one that women can claim. The Ginsburgs see the political opportunity in attacking gender discrimination through a man’s case rather than a woman’s. The second half of the film charts this case, in which they enlist Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux), the Jewish head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Powerful female director Mimi Leeder (“Deep Impact”, “ER”) helms the film and ensures that the normally uncinematic idea of equal rights for women is brought to life on screen. There’s no violence, just a great deal of wordplay: “The word woman does not appear in the US Constitution,” a judge tells Ruth. “Neither does freedom,” she responds. The film’s deepest insights come in illustrating how laws change, often readied by political protests: “We are not asking the court to change the law; we are asking you to give our country the right to change,” Ruth also tells the judges.

Screen icons Sam Waterston and Kathy Bates appear respectively as Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law and later US Solicitor General, and Dorothy Kenyon, lawyer, feminist and civil rights activist. Perhaps the most touching performance comes from Cailee Spaeny as the Ginsburgs’ daughter Jane, exhibiting as a teenager the same activist impulses as her parents. (In real life, Jane also attended Harvard Law, and now teaches at Columbia Law. Her daughter Clara, Ruth’s grand-daughter, also attended Harvard Law; they are possibly the only family with three generations of women – and especially Jewish women – to attend that school.) Not coincidentally, scriptwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the nephew of Marty Ginsburg and had direct access to Ruth, who we see in a brief cameo outside the Supreme Court.

Despite its slightly off-putting title (would “on the basis of gender” be any better?), the film is likely to enter the pantheon as one of the best Jewish female “biopics” ever. While the ending is not in doubt (surely all who watch the film know she wins the case), the film provides an inspirational role model to women – and especially Jewish women – considering the law as a career.


Film review of The Front Runner

February 2, 2019

Film review of “The Front Runner”, by Don Perlgut, for AJN 31 January 2019

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman and Jay Carson; starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons and Alfred Molina

****

“The Front Runner” tells the true story of the 1988 Kennedy-esque US Presidential candidate, Colorado Senator Gary Hart (played by Australia’s Hugh Jackman), whose campaign – he was the Democratic front runner for the nomination at the time – was overwhelmed by the story of an extramarital affair. This was the first time that tabloid journalism and political journalism merged, changing the nature of US national politics and celebrity. The sordid nature of that event seems quaint by comparison with subsequent sexual escapades by Bill Clinton and Donald J. Trump. The implicit question that the film never answers is why did Hart’s candidacy fail, whereas Clinton and Trump (so far) prospered?

Although Senator Hart is now a footnote in history for all but the most ardent devotees of American politics, the film’s neatly written script successfully resonates with the current “Me Too Movement”. Here was a brilliant man and attractive politician who simply could not see that his playing around outside his marriage would have political, moral and personal consequences: “It’s not 1972, it’s not 1982,” one of his advisors tells him. “The public cares about this.” Despite his brilliance, Hart – the film implies – lacked empathy for the lives of the women he was with. The public judged him badly for this.

The film’s Jewish director Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman and grandson of Holocaust survivors, has established a stellar career of dramatising “of the moment” issues, from corporate human resource management (“Up in the Air”) to teenage pregnancy (“Juno”) to big tobacco (“Thank You for Smoking”).

Reitman does a great job with an outstanding cast that includes J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager, Vera Farmiga (Oscar-nominated for “Up in the Air”) giving a perfectly controlled turn as Hart’s wife Lee and Alfred Molina as “Washington Post” editor Ben Bradlee. Jackman – an excellent physical match for the good-looking Hart – provides a strong performance. But the most touching acting comes from Mamoudou Athie, who plays a fictional African-American “Post” journalist who acts as the film’s moral centre: his character’s scrupulously fair but firm pursuit of the truth in questioning Hart is truly memorable.

“The Front Runner” is based on the book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”, written by Jewish journalist Matt Bai, who was once shamed by evangelical Christian and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich into admitting that he had not gone to synagogue that week. A large number of Jewish actors appear in minor but memorable roles, including Kevin Pollak (who has played more than 20 Jewish movie characters) as an editor of the “Miami Herald”, Ari Graynor as a “Post” reporter, and Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Molly Ephraim and Josh Brener as campaign aides.

Although “The Front Runner” never reaches the heights of classics of the political bio-pic genre like “All the President’s Men” (Nixon) or “Primary Colors” (Clinton) or even the (currently screening) “Vice” (Dick Cheney), this film is a highly engaging, sharply directed and crisply edited slice of our current political and cultural moment. It neatly illustrates the engagement and co-dependency between the media and politicians.

When the head of CBS News said of the Trump campaign in 2016, that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, he captured something that screenwriter Matt Bai says began with Gary Hart: concern for a “tsunami of triviality” has helped the rise of Donald Trump. Hart foreshadowed this in his withdrawal statement that closes the film, paraphrasing his idol Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.”


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.

 


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.