Film review of Where Hands Touch

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Where Hands Touch” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 March 2019.)

Directed and written by Amma Asante; starring Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston and Tom Sweet

*****

Few film directors specialise in portraying inter-racial couples in historic contexts.  British filmmaker Amma Asante – who is black and born in Ghana – has, first with the award-winning “Belle” (2013), which told the true story of an 18th century enslaved West Indian woman who married a British navy officer and entered high society. Asante followed with “United Kingdom” (2016), another true story of an inter-racial couple in the immediate post Second World War period: an heir to the throne of African country Bechuanaland meets and marries a white British woman.

In “Where Hands Touch” – Asante’s third inter-racial romantic outing – the director turns her attention away from her home territory of British race relations to one far more fraught: Germany in the last years of the Second World War. She has chosen a small but fascinating part of history: children of colour who were born and raised in Nazi Germany, counter-posing the story to the Holocaust and persecution of Jews.

The film is ambitious, well-produced, earnest, well-meaning and attempts a high degree of sensitivity to its subject. Location shooting in Belgium and the Ile of Man capture mid-20th century Germany. However, screening the Holocaust – even as a tangential theme – is fraught even when film-makers are steeped in knowledge, which Asante is not.

The film starts in 1944 Nazi Germany: 15 year old Leyna Shlegel (Amandla Stenberg, from “The Hate You Give”) has a German mother, Kerstin, played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Candy”, “Somersault”). Her absent black African father was a French soldier, and Leyna has grown up – uncomfortably – in Germany with dark skin. Kerstin decides to move the family (including her fully German younger son) from their Rhineland provincial city to Berlin, thinking it will be easier for her bi-racial daughter.

Bad move. Berlin – as the headquarters of the German state – is, if anything worse, and Leyna is systematically excluded from school and almost all aspects of public life. Using family connections, Kerstin tries to ensure that Leyna is not jailed or sterilised (or both): the Nazi state has some awareness of not wanting to offend the German parents of “non Aryans”, but it’s not much.

Leyna is forced to start factory work with her mother. Through a series of coincidences, Leyna meets – and yes – falls in love with Lutz (British actor George MacKay), an active and rising member of the Hitler youth corps, whose father is a rising Nazi administrator. What future for these two young lovers?

To its credit, “Where Hands Touch” shows the ultimate destination of minorities in Nazi Germany: Leyna does end up in a concentration camp, dehumanised and abused. Director Asante has countered criticism of her film and been at pains to state that she has not tried to diminish the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but to illustrate the experience of Romani people, disabled people and other outcasts under Nazi rule. In that purpose she achieves some success. The film tries to raise the questions: what exactly is identity, national and racial, and where do they cross over?

Historically, parts of “Where Hands Touch” don’t add up: it’s unlikely – as this film depicts – that Jews were still wandering around openly in Berlin in 1944 wearing yellow stars. The plot contains too many coincidences, and there’s an element of emotional “clunkiness” to how the story unfolds.

Dramatic acting – particularly by Stenberg and Cornish – is strong, but not enough to overcome an over-ambitious and underwritten film.

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Film review of Transit

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Transit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 April 2019.)

Directed and written by Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers; starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree and Ronald Kukulies

Part of our ongoing fascination with the Holocaust on screen is the rich diversity of stories. Relatively few English-speakers may recognise the name Anna Seghers (the pen name of Netty Reiling), a German-Jewish Communist whose autobiographical 1944 novel “In Transit” is the basis for the new German language film “Transit”, directed by Christian Petzold.

Petzold is part of a new generation of German experimental film-makers, and is best known in the Jewish community for directing “Phoenix” (2014), a noir-ish drama set in immediate post-war Berlin, where a disfigured German-Jewish Holocaust survivor tries to recover her life, raising important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal.

In “Transit”, Petzold again turns to a Jewish story, based on Seghers’ escape from Nazi-occupied France via Marseille in 1940. In the film, the lead character “Georg” (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee in France seeking to flee the country as the “fascists” close in on him. Here is where Petzold’s film takes a creative and extraordinary turn: although his film is firmly a World War Two story of refugees and attempted escape, he has transplanted it to the present day, taking place in a fully recognisable modern France where everything appears contemporary, with exception of an absence of the internet and mobile phones.

In his journey of escape, Georg takes on the identity of Weidel, a German writer who has committed suicide in Paris and whose transit papers Georg has picked up. Weidel was a Communist and the Americans pointedly do not want him, although the Mexicans do; in his political naiveté, Georg travels through these scenes as a damaged innocent abroad. Georg is in fact damaged: actor Franz Rogowski speaks with a pronounced lisp, the result of an operation on a cleft palate in his youth – giving him great similarity to Joaquin Phoenix.

Georg spends his time with other increasingly desperate refugees (some of them Jewish) in a dreary and washed-out Marseille. They visit consulates looking for letters of transit, sullenly wait in endless queues and avoid confrontations with the authorities. Georg befriends an immigrant family, acting as a surrogate father to a young boy, and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the dead writer whose identity he has appropriated; she in turn is living with a noble doctor who assists the poor and is also planning to leave. Marie thinks her husband Weidel is still alive and wandering Marseille, because people keep telling her that he has been there: the truth is that it’s really Georg.

The film comes across as a twisted form of “Casablanca”, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film set in wartime French Morocco, with Georg as Rick, and Marie as Ilsa, the doctor as Victor Laszlo. But this is no homage to that film: blurring the time periods results in a mind-bending, time-crunching movie of displacement and deeply uncomfortable resonances to the present day of refugees and an apparent turn to nationalist, “keep them out” governments in Europe and elsewhere.

The Anna Seghers (Netty Reiling) “back story” provides important context for both her book and Petzold’s film adaptation: Born in Mainz on the Rhine in 1900, despite her Communist activities, she maintained a strong Jewish identity, writing her doctorate thesis in art history (University of Heidelberg, 1924) on “Jews and Judaism in the Work of Rembrandt”. Following the rise of the Nazis, she was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, and fled Germany in 1932, moving to Zurich and then Paris. There she wrote the acclaimed novel “The Seventh Cross” – later a movie starring Spencer Tracy – about seven men attempting to escape a Nazi concentration camp, one of very few movies during the war to depict Nazi camps. When the Germans invaded France, she left via Marseille in 1940 for Mexico with her husband, Hungarian László Radványi. After the war, she returned to Germany, living in East Berlin until her death in 1983 and became one of the most famous East German writers.

 


Film review of The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

June 9, 2019

This film review of “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23 May 2019 (Melbourne edition) and 30 May 2019 (Sydney edition).

Directed by Muayad Alayan; written by Rami Alayan; starring Adeeb Safadi, Sivane Kretchner, Ishai Golan and Maisa Abd Elhadi

Following last year’s premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” opens this week in Australia, one of the few places in the world where the film is screening. This strong thriller-drama is a cracker, and deepens the range of films that show how the Israeli-Palestinian social, economic and political divide is often not a divide at all, but more of a porous and shifting blur.

This first feature from Palestinian director Muayad Alayan and his screenwriter brother Rami Alayan illustrates a tragic sequence of events arising from an illicit affair between Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), an East Jerusalem delivery driver, and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), the owner of a West Jerusalem café. She’s married to an up-and-coming army officer (Ishai Golan) – who is about to be transferred to the south – with whom she has a bright and articulate daughter, and he to an attractive pregnant woman (Maisa Abd Elhadi).

Their romance – one night a week, mostly in the back of Saleem’s delivery van – is fuelled by the passionate risk-taking each one goes through. Sarah’s family can afford a nanny/helper, but Saleem’s struggles financially. That motivates Saleem to moonlight at night as a delivery person, no questions asked, dropping off “whatever people ask for”.

One night Saleem is sent to Bethlehem for a delivery, and takes Sarah with him, convincing her to go out for drinks “because nobody knows us”. Just speak English, he says, and everyone will assume you are a foreigner. An incident in a bar leads to Saleem’s entanglement with Palestinian secret police, where he is forced to pretend that he was recruiting Sarah for espionage (“the reports”) so that he can escape punishment and detention. Once the Israelis catch on, the plot becomes “thicker”, and Sarah and Saleem are caught in a web of deceit, power and conflict.

The director/writer Alayan brothers both studied in the USA, and grew up in East Jerusalem, experiencing their teenage years during the second Intifada. They put to good use the adage of “write what you know”. The experience of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem and the interactions between the characters are naturalistic with an unforced realism that imbues every scene with power. For comparison you would need to cast back to Martin Scorsese’s early “Mean Streets”; the directing and editing is spare (although the film runs a full two hours), with a coiled energy getting ready to strike.

There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem”. The film feels astonishingly straightforward and objective in its political approach to the characters and their situations. Many of the scenes are claustrophobic, but that’s part of the film-making style. I would have liked more “back story” – more detail as to how Sarah and Saleem arrived at where they are – but the Alayan brothers take a European approach and just start the action. The result is a mature and accomplished narrative by film-makers who are likely go on to tell much bigger stories in the future.


Film review of Long Shot

May 11, 2019

This film review of “Long Shot” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 9 May 2019

Directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Dann Sterling and Liz Hannah; starring Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk and Alexander Skarsgård

*****

There is little that is new in the romantic comedy “Long Shot”. In the opening scene, nerdy Jewish guy Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogan) attempts to infiltrate a white power neo-Nazi group (try “BlacKkKlansman”). Later a stunning-looking US Secretary of State, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) makes a presidential bid (think “Madam Secretary” with a dose of “Veep”). Nerdy Jewish guy (Flarsky) beds an attractive shiksa (Theron) – how about “Knocked Up”, which starred … Seth Rogen.

“Long Shot” is highly derivative and deceptively simple, but also an astonishingly well-constructed comedy. It does what all good comedies must: it entertains, an “audience pleaser” set firmly in a fantasy “present day” not unlike our own. Isn’t that one reason for going to the movies – to experience a more perfect world where the nerdy guy gets the girl, even if she’s super powerful?

The set up: Fred Flarsky (Rogan) is a crusading New York journalist working for the “Brooklyn Advocate”, a large but struggling community newspaper. When the newspaper is bought by slimy media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), Flarsky quits in disgust. Invited by his friend, African-American Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), to a reception, Flarsky meets Charlotte the Secretary of State, who used to baby-sit him during her activist high school years. Charlotte offers Fred a job as a speechwriter in her incipient political campaign, and the two grow close, based on his support for her policies.

“Long Shot” benefits from exquisite timing, fabulous and well-chosen pop culture references (including my favourite, Bruce Springsteen) and a few wonderful coincidences: the film’s action starts now, mid-2019, in the early stage lead-up to the American 2020 presidential election. US President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) – a clownish character, something of a cross between George W Bush and Donald J Trump – is a former Golden Globe-winning TV star of a series where he played … the US President, and he revels in watching re-runs of himself. Think both Trump and Ronald Reagan, but has anyone noticed that a former TV star who played the Ukrainian president just won the actual presidency of Ukraine? No screenwriter could have predicted that.

President Chambers decides to step down after just one term because he is aiming for “something higher”: he wants to break into film, which only a few TV stars have done – George Clooney, being one. This lovely satire on the intersection between American politics and film and TV pointedly hits the mark, but is hilarious played “straight” by the characters.

“Long Shot” takes a progressive political viewpoint: Secretary of State and presidential candidate Field advocates for a major world environmental initiative. But it includes a scene reminiscent of when the Kathy Bates character in “The Blind Side” warns the Sandra Bullock character that she’s a Democrat, apparently a no-no in polite southern WASP society. Flarsky’s long-time best friend Lance reveals that he is not only a Republican, but a Christian. What could have been a sloppy, soppy scene turns into a touching recap of what’s good about America, extolling many of the almost forgotten qualities that Republicans have brought to US life.

The plot doesn’t need that scene, but it cleverly places “Long Shot” closer to the centre of the American body politic. The scene may be good for the box office, but is it believable? Not on your life, although the film’s greatest weakness is the Flarsky-Field romance: it’s hard to believe that a statuesque and powerful American female politician would choose the scruffy Flarsky for her beau. No matter; we intellectual Jewish guys now have yet another film that celebrates our virtues.


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 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