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

Film review of Menashe

March 11, 2018

(This film review of Menashe appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 February 2018.)

Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein; written by Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed and Joshua Z. Weinstein; starring Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Yoel Weisshaus and Meyer Schwartz

In these days of mass entertainment, what a pleasure to discover in the film “Menashe” such a heart-felt authenticity. Set and shot in New York City’s Hasidic Brooklyn neighbourhood Borough Park, “Menashe” sets a modern record: it’s the first American film since “Hester Street” in 1975 in which the characters all speak Yiddish. Although “A Serious Man” (2009) and “The Frisco Kid” (1979) each had a Yiddish scene, contemporary popular film – even from Israel – has avoided the language.

“Menashe” tells the story of its title character, also Menashe, played by Menashe Lustig (a Hasidic actor and YouTube star), upon whose life the film is loosely based. He is a hapless and struggling single father of Rieven (Ruben Niborski) and whose wife Lea has passed away. Instructed by the local rebbe (Meyer Schwartz) to place Rieven in the care of the boy’s uncle (Yoel Weisshaus) and aunt until he re-marries, Menashe struggles to maintain dignity and connection with his son, with whom he has a tender and loving relationship. Every man needs “a good wife, a good home, nice dishes”.

Menashe chafes under the criticisms of his boss at the Hasidic-run supermarket (which sells un-washed lettuce), and painstakingly avoids attempts by well-meaning community members to match-make him with suitable women. The film hints strongly that Menashe’s marriage was less than happy (he admits being relieved but guilty when Lea died), and he appears to be in no rush to remarry, frustrating his potential partners.

Menashe lives a dreary, claustrophobic life, and steadfastly refuses to wear full Hasidic gear, preferring simple shirtsleeves without a top jacket. Menashe needs to prove he’s capable of looking after his son – to his brother-in-law, to the rabbi, to his neighbours, but most of all to himself. Can he overcome the klutziness that has him losing thousands of dollars worth of gefilte fish and burning the kugel he tries to bake? Will he rebel? Does he have the capability and capacity to re-set his life?

To its credit, “Menashe” the film avoids an easy melodramatic approach, one personified in the Netflix documentary “One of Us”, which follows three Hasidic people who leave their communities. The result is something much more subtle; the characters in “Menashe” are all flawed, yet each is sympathetic, three-dimensional and very real. Although director Joshua Z. Weinstein does not speak Yiddish (he worked through a translator), his experience as a documentarian means that he gets “up close and personal” with his actors, and they – although basically all amateurs – get to shine.

“Menashe” is an “insider” film, capturing a verisimilitude that audiences have warmed to. These actors didn’t need Yiddish lessons, but they did need a script and a director to bring their lives to the screen. Although set on a “small” stage, the film’s stories – and its truths – are just large enough to make it a feature film experience, a dramatised slice of modern Jewish life rarely shown so well.

“Menashe” was a great hit at last year’s Jewish Film Festival, and opens in selected cinemas this week.

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”)

Mistress American film review

November 5, 2015

(This film review of “Mistress America” appeared in a shorter form in the Australian Jewish News on 5 November 2015.)

Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind and Cindy Cheung

When the history of early twenty-first century American film is written, it will become clear that the true inheritor to the Jewish film-making legacy of Woody Allen is Noah Baumbach, who is 33 years Allen’s junior. Like Allen, Baumbach is a Brooklyn-raised (both attended Midwood High School) auteur-style writer/director. With Baumbach’s most recent film, “Mistress America”, it is also clear that – like Allen’s relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow – Baumbach has now found his non-Jewish female muse, in the person of actress/writer Greta Gerwig.

Baumbach has paid homage to Allen throughout his career, through his black and white film-making (“Frances Ha” vs “Manhattan”), his self-conscious vistas of New York City and his close attention to modern New York relationships, many of them featuring Jewish men, with Ben Stiller being a noted favourite (“Greenberg” and “While We’re Young”). Both writer/directors have also specialised, accidentally or not, in creating memorable female characters.

In “Mistress America” (now screening nationally), Baumbach collaborates with Gerwig for the second time (she starred and co-wrote “Frances Ha”) and extends his development of complex, conflicted and comically struggling female characters.

Set in New York City, the action revolves around college freshman (first year unie student) Tracy Fishko, who is played by Lola Kirke, who is Jewish (both of her mother’s parents) and the sister of “Girls” star Jemima Kirke (“Jessa”). The “Girls” connection is relevant, for “Mistress America” feels like a first cousin to Lena Dunham’s television series, with comically confused characters seeking fulfilment and life’s meaning on the streets of the Big Apple (although without the sex).

Tracy has come to study at Columbia University to study literature, and is having a hard go of it, making few friends and spending many lonely hours. Fortunately, her mother (played by the delightful Kathryn Erbe) is about to get re-married, and puts Tracy in touch with her new step-sister to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething charismatic, energetic and entrepreneurial whirlwind filled with ideas and surprises – just what the depressive Tracy needs. Brooke becomes Tracy’s mentor, carting her around the city and allowing Tracy to feel like she is living the romantic life she so craves.

“Mistress America” is a comedy of manners, much more subtle and low-key than Baumbach’s recent work. Everything in the film presents as slightly askew. Not a great deal actually happens, with a looser structure than “Frances Ha”, which may frustrate some viewers who prefer a strong story line. Relationships never quite get off the ground, people talk at – rather than with – one another, as if they are living in separate planes of existence that don’t quite intersect. There may be some clever commentary here about living life in the hyper-connected digital age: some of the details are totally delicious, down to the severely cracked screen of Tracy’s iPhone (how much that simple image tells us).

The film contains serio-comic sequences, such as when Brooke meets an old female high school classmate who declares how much Brooke hurt her by her bullying, with lines such as “I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath.”

The highlight of “Mistress America” (the name comes from Tracy’s short story about Brooke) is an elaborate comedy of errors set piece, set in a cold modern suburban Connecticut house with a fabulous river view. Brooke – with Tracy and two reluctant friends in tow – is chasing up an old boyfriend and his wife, also a former friend of hers. They’ve made lots of money from digital businesses, and Brooke’s intention is to obtain a loan of some of it for a new restaurant concept. But the whole experience turns into something much greater – and less – than that. In an almost European or perhaps Marx brothers-style scene, characters pop in and out of rooms, learning new things about each other as relationships unravel and new understandings dawn. The scene lasts possibly 15 minutes, and reminds us of the best of Wes Anderson – possibly not surprising, given that Baumbach and Anderson have collaborated on three films.

(photo below: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke on the streets of New York City in “Mistress America”.)


While We’re Young film review

April 16, 2015

(This review of the film “While We’re Young” appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 16 April 2015.)

Written and directed by Noam Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz and Maria Dizzia

The debate about which American-Jewish film-maker has inherited the mantle of Woody Allen is now closed: it’s Noah Baumbach. With his latest film “While We’re Young”, Baumbach has captured a cultural moment of contemporary upper-middle class American-Jewish angst, at least for the twenty- to fortysomethings who he portrays with incisive wit and intelligence.

For those in the “know”, Brooklyn is now the centre of American urban intellectual and artistic achievement. It’s where Baumbach (and Allen) grew up, and where most of “While We’re Young” is set.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Srebnick, a socially aware documentary director with the film-maker’s version of writer’s block: he has struggled for seven years to finish editing his latest film, a convoluted investigation into political and social issues. Josh’s life is in simmering mini-crisis: at age 44 (the same age as Baumbach when he made the film), he and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have no children and are uncertain of what next to do in life. Cornelia is the daughter of Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), an eminent documentary maker (likened to Frederick Wiseman) who mentored Josh in his early career but from whom he now estranged.

Josh and Cornelia’s dilemma is highlighted by their strained friendship with their close friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Beastie Boys singer Adam Horovitz), who are in the throes of new parenthood with all of the lifestyle changes that brings. Josh teaches a continuing education course on film, which is where he first meets Jamie (Adam Driver, enthusiastically playing a version of his familiar screen persona) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple who define the new “hip” with their retro vinyl record and VHS collections. The young couple’s take on life engages and delights Josh and Cornelia, with Josh soon mentoring Jamie’s own film development.

In less than 100 minutes, “While We’re Young” deftly touches on many of life’s big issues: mentorship, fame, achievement, professional and personal disappointments, middle age angst, the passing of the flame, and what is truth and justice. It’s funny and clever, with lines such as, “before we met, the only feelings I had were wistful and disdainful”.

“When We’re Young” plays homage to Woody Allen’s 1989 film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, an existential comedy-drama and meditation on the existence of evil. Like Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes”, Ben Stiller’s character’s unfinished film focuses on an ageing Jewish intellectual, a “Dr Ira Mandelstam”, a Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.

“While We’re Young” is also a considered and nuanced portrayal of modern intellectual Jewish life. Although the word “Jew” is never mentioned, the choice of the obviously Jewish names “Srebnick”, “Breitbart” and “Mandelstam” makes it clear that this world is a thoroughly Jewish one – at least the men. The matching of Stiller and Grodin is also a fascinating and clever in-joke. Both are strongly Jewish-identified actors who acted in same lead role as Lenny/Eddie Cantrow in the two film versions (1972 and 2007) of “The Heartbreak Kid”, a classic story of Jewish assimilation.

From the opening moments – white Times New Roman print on a black screen (recognise the Woody Allen format?) of lines from an Ibsen play – to its emotionally satisfying ending, “While We’re Young” is an intellectual comedy of manners that does not ignore the heart. Filled with strong performances playing warm and appealing characters, this film is much like the world it portrays: smart, hip, incisive, intelligent and with just enough flaws to make it real.

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in While We're Young(photo above:  Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in “While We’re Young”)

Film review of St Vincent

January 15, 2015

(This review of “St. Vincent” appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 15 January 2015, under the title “Sobering lessons of life”.)

Directed and written by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher

There are a number of certainties about the new Bill Murray film “St. Vincent”. The film is way better than its promotional trailer, unlike some where the trailer is the only thing worth watching. It’s a genuine starring vehicle and a virtually certain Oscar nomination for Murray, who has already received a Golden Globe nomination. He plays Vincent McKenna, an alcoholic down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran who accidentally ends up looking after his new neighbour’s child, Oliver Bronstein (12 year-old Jaeden Lieberher).

Oliver is the son of a single mom, x-ray technician Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), who has recently had an unhappy split from her husband and moved to the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn for her new hospital job. Maggie enrolls Oliver in a Catholic school, despite the fact that he is Jewish (“I think”), revealed in his first scene with his lovable teacher Brother Geraghty, played by Chris O’Dowd (“The Sapphires”), when Oliver is asked to lead the class in prayer. Oliver’s lack of Catholic prayer knowledge, rather than an embarrassing disaster, becomes a time when most of his class offers their religious beliefs (“I’m a Buddhist”, “I’m an atheist”, etc) – shades of an early scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. Brother Geraghty then has one of film’s funniest speeches, in which he talks about how good it is to be a Catholic, “because we have the best clothes and the most rules”.

Although religion plays only a minor role, “St. Vincent” is ultimately a film about redemption, giving and growing, all done in a mostly non-ecumenical manner: the title is a giveaway. There are no prizes for guessing the plot. Grumpy ageing and angry man gets humanised, nerdy picked-on kid gets more confident and his stressed out mom gets more settled. “St. Vincent” is not a surprising film, but a charming one.

Part of its charm is in the performances. Bill Murray shows that he can, indeed, act, although his performance is less about subtlety and more about fully inhabiting a very flawed character. Melissa McCarthy convinces, and Naomi Watts appears in a cute but predictable role as a Russian prostitute with a heart of gold.

There are some odd real-life resonances in “St. Vincent”, which make the film a bit more poignant for those “in the know”. Young Jaeden Lieberher, like his character Oliver, is Jewish. Like Oliver again, he moved with his mother from one city to another – from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to act in films. Numerous people have commented that “Bill Murray must be just like that in real life”. I am not so sure that the crotchety character we see on-screen is anything other than good acting. Murray puts his ability for understatement to good use (think “Groundhog Day” and “Lost in Translation”), giving us a performance of surprising depth in what appears at first to be a broad comedy but ultimately becomes much more than that.

There is at least one unexplored theme in “St. Vincent”, having to do with a bank account opened for Oliver, setting up a deep disappointment that is never realised. That led me to believe that the film-makers did some very judicious editing to make the film flow better. They have succeeded.

St Vincent poster

Begin Again film review

August 17, 2014

“Begin Again” is one of those romantic overcoming adversity fantasy films that is just grounded enough for you to suspend disbelief. I loved it.

Irish film director John Carney originally broke onto the scene of small, warm, musically-themed films with his “Once”, a delightful drama of two mismatched musicians in Dublin who go against the odds. With “Begin Again”, the action switches to New York City, and he has enlisted a strong cast to tell a similar story.  The result is highly entertaining and upbeat, guaranteed to make you believe that yes, your dreams are possible.

Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a former music executive who co-founded an independent label with partner Saul (hip hop artist Mos Def), but has fallen on hard times: separated from his wife Miriam (the ever strong Catherine Keener), he wanders the streets in an alcoholic haze and tries vainly to be a father to his 14 year old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta (Keira Knightly) is a sensitive singer-songwriter who has come to New York with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5), who in turn becomes a star, and in turn leaves her.

On her planned last night in New York, Gretta reluctantly takes the stage at an East Village nightclub to sing one of her songs, cajoled by old British friend Steve (James Corden). That’s where Dan hears her, and the result is a magical scene where Dan can hear and envision all of the instrumentation behind Gretta’s song. Director Carney does a neat job of presenting both Gretta’s and Dan’s stories to us (neatly filling in the backstories of the day leading to their propitious first meeting).

From there the film takes a familiar, but still highly satisfying course. Yes, Dan convinces Gretta to stay in New York City, and yes he produces an album of their songs. But the gimmick is that because they don’t have enough money to afford a studio, they record the songs at various locations around the city: on a subway platform, on boats on Central Park lake, in an alleyway, and on a rooftop with a view (of course) of the Empire State Building.

No prizes for guessing the outcome, nor for the inevitable Gretta-Dave reunion, nor for how daughter Miriam’s life is changed, etc etc.

Sound predictable? Perhaps. But the true delight in “Begin Again” is the film’s irrepressible good humour, absolute adoration of modern music (writer/director Carney used to play bass for an Irish rock band, so he knows what he films) and an almost pitch-perfect cast. Ruffalo is a great music exec who needs to prove himself again; Knightly, singing with her own voice, brings just the right combination of vulnerability, energy and style to her role; Keener virtually defines the ever-suffering former wife; Steinfeld is the adolescent daughter needing direction and attention; Corden is the perfect “best friend” who has just what Knightly’s character needs; and as real-life musicians both Mos Def and Adam Levine play important roles. If we did not believe the tension between Def’s character and Ruffalo’s, nor if we did not believe the Levine-Knightly relationship, the film would not have worked. Yet it does.

“Begin Again” is about … yes, rebirth, following ideals and the possibility (indeed the necessity) of reinvention. Director Carney understands this basic element of the American character, and brings it to screen in such a buoyant way that we cannot help being charmed into liking both the film and all of its characters.

Begin Again film poster

Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival June 2014

June 1, 2014

(This article about Jewish themes in the 2014 Sydney Film Festival appeared in different version in the Sydney edition of the “Australian Jewish News” on 29 May 2014, under the title “Documentaries with a Jewish focus”.)

There are few better opportunities to take a snapshot of independent international film-making than a large festival such as the Sydney Film Festival. The most likely Jewish audience pleaser this year will be “Wish I Was Here”, written and directed by as well as co-starring American-Jewish actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs”). This mellow and bittersweet comedy-drama has a similar tone to his first feature, the cult favourite “Garden State”, even including similar music. In “Wish I Was Here”, Braff plays a struggling Jewish actor, Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”) his on-screen father, and Kate Hudson his wife. The film has a notable funding history: Braff obtained more than 46,520 financial backers through the “Kickstarter” crowd-funding website.

As Israeli film and television goes from artistic strength to strength, feature films by Palestinians are slowly but surely making their international mark. Not surprisingly, the primary topic is battling Israel, frequently through acts of terrorism. This year the Festival features “Omar” (in Arabic and Hebrew) by Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”), and shot in Nablus and Nazareth. This hard-hitting (and for Jews, often hard to watch) thriller was nominated for an Academy Award last year, and tells the story of Palestinian baker Omar who keeps scaling the separation wall to see his girlfriend on the other side. When Omar is captured by Israeli soldiers, tensions are brought to a head. The film’s sympathies are obvious, but the dramatic strength of “Omar” and its all-too-human stories are hard to ignore.

“Omar” has a very tight script, excellent acting and direction:  there are some chase scenes through Arab towns that equal the sort of scenes we have seen in the “Bourne” films or Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise vehicles.  The strength of “Omar” is that it focuses on the claustrophobic lives of young Arabs caught on the Israeli-Palestine border.  Although the perspective is Palestinian, the film – mostly – avoids prominent anti-Israel stereotypes.  When three Israeli soldiers humiliate Omar when they stop him on the street (making him stand on a rock), we do not have a hard time imagining that this very event can and does take place.  Ultimately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides the background to a strong drama, but this is much less a political film that a study of character and of people caught in forces much larger than they can control.

Film festivals are the natural screening homes of long-form documentaries, and an analysis of the world’s great documentaries and documentary film-makers will surely show that Jews are over-represented in both. This year the Festival features three creative feature-length documentaries on three very different Jewish men: radical academic Noam Chomsky, the late European lawyer and advocate Raphael Lemkin and Hollywood “super-agent” Shep Gordon. Chomsky is well-known for his anti-Zionist views, and in “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”, Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) presents an original documentary interview with the linguist and commentator, primarily using coloured hand-drawn animation to illustrate the discussion.

In “Watchers of the Sky”, Jewish director Edet Belzberg examines the modern history of genocide. She frames her wide-ranging film through the life of Raphael Lemkin, who was born in 1900 in Belarus, and who invented the term “genocide” in 1944, which he defined as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” The film’s other hero (if you can call him that) is Benjamin Ferencz, the Hungarian-born Jewish lawyer who became a Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials; at age 94, Ferencz is still active in his global peace work. In covering so many different events (Armenian genocide, Rwanda, Darfur, Yugoslavia), Belzberg risks losing focus: the film reportedly took ten years to make and had a massive 800 hours of footage to edit. “Watchers of the Sky” is undeniably dense and not an easy viewing experience, but a powerful addition to the visual history of genocide and the place of the Holocaust.

By contrast, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”, directed by actor Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”), is a more straightforward and totally upbeat documentary about Hollywood Jewish super-agent Shep Gordon (“The nicest person I’ve ever met”, says Myers). You may have never heard of Gordon, but heart-felt testimonials from Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Willie Nelson and others may convince you that not everyone in Hollywood is a shark. Celebrities galore and entertaining.

In addition to these films, four other Jewish documentary-makers have important films in the festival. Octogenarian Frederick Wiseman is best-known for his observational ability to capture the “essence” of American institutions such as hospitals, high schools, the army, state government, parks, prisons and department stores. This year, his two most recent films are being screened: “National Gallery” (three hours, fresh from the Cannes Film Festival) about the iconic London gallery, and “At Berkeley” (two parts, each two hours) about the University of California campus.

A more polemic film is “E-Team”, about human rights workers in Syria and Libya, by Oscar-winner Ross Kauffman (who is a Festival guest). Physicist-turned-film-maker Mark Levinson’s “Particle Fever” follows the scientists launching the Large Hadron Collider. And Australia’s own Rod Freedman (“Uncle Chatzkel”) returns with “Once My Mother”, Polish-Australian film-maker Sophia Turkiewicz’s examination of her fraught relationship with her mother, who is slipping into dementia.

To round out the importance of documentaries, the Festival is hosting a panel discussion entitled “Can Docos Change the World?” Speakers include Ross Kauffman and Professor Andrea Durbach, the South African-born Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW; the film “A Common Purpose” about Durbach’s work won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival back in 2011, and she is a passionate speaker.

Other Festival films of Jewish note include a gay love story, a New York musical tale, an environmental thriller and a teacher rivalry.  In “Love is Strange”, gay Jewish film-maker Ira Sachs’ tells a touching story of two ageing men (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who are desperate to keep living together but torn apart when one of them loses his job teaching music in a Catholic high school.  “Love is Strange” is a small film, set mostly in crowded New York City flats, but it feels so emotionally true that the viewer never strays.  Unlike more films and television programs than I can count, this film shows what it is really like to live in New York City:  too many people for too little space.  The difficulty that the Lithgow and Molina characters have is in finding an affordable place to live together with no income, so each must “board” with friends or relatives, sharing a bedroom (with a nephew) or sleeping on a living room couch surrounded by party people.  This is the real New York, not the fake New York of people with large airy apartments all apparently paid for by part-time low-level jobs.  Genuinely touching and worth seeing.

In “Begin Again” – described as a “musical valentine to New York City” – Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Levine co-stars as a straying musician boyfriend of the ignored Keira Knightly (Adam, are you serious?). In “Night Moves”, Jesse Eisenberg turns his hand to the thriller genre, starring as an environmental terrorist. “Frank” is a bizarre story about musicians (one of whom always wears a giant fake head), directed by Irish-Jewish film-maker Lenny Abrahamson. In “Words and Pictures”, Clive Owen stars as Jack Marcus, a damaged but inspirational Jewish high school English teacher, whose rivalry with an art teacher (Juliette Binoche) runs a predictable but nevertheless enjoyable course. It’s directed by Australian icon Fred Schepsi, who is also a Festival guest and who will give the Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture.

Fun facts:
Frederick Wiseman’s production company is named “Zipporah Films”. In the Bible, Zipporah was the wife of Moses; it is also Wiseman’s wife’s first name.
Zach Braff’s mother converted to Judaism and Zach is a distant (ninth) cousin to American politician Mitt Romney through her.




Frances Ha sparkles

August 19, 2013

This film review of “Frances Ha” appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a slightly different form on 16 August 2013, in a review entitled “Elusive search for stardom”.

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

It is one of the most original and delightful films of the year.  It sits within the current popular “moment” as well as bows to film history.  It is autobiographical, of a sort, and shot in black and white.  It arises from a deep creative collaboration between a Jewish male film director and his non-Jewish girlfriend.  The film is “Frances Ha”.

The Jewish director is not Woody Allen, but Noah Baumbach, who comes as close as anyone can to being the true inheritor of Allen’s mantle of New York Jewish comedic angst.  The parallels with Allen are important:  although separated in age by 34 years, both grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Midwood High School.

Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” star, muse and co-creator is Greta Gerwig.  They met on the set of “Greenberg”, an edgy comedy written and directed by Baumbach and starring Ben Stiller in the title role, reportedly based on characters from Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.  The Jewish literary tradition is in Baumbach’s genes:  his father Jonathan is a novelist and film critic.  Gerwig, best-known for her original “mumblecore” film roles, recently starred in “Arthur” and has had her own brush with Woody Allen, appearing as “Sally” in “To Rome with Love”.

Gerwig brings an assured sense to Frances’ ungainly physical style; there are almost no moments when she is not on screen, and the performance delightful.  This actor has truly “arrived”.  Most of Frances’ autobiography is Gerwig’s.  Frances is a wanna-be dancer who lurches from one mini-personal disaster to another.  She works on the fringes of a professional dance company as an apprentice who never quite makes it, and slowly but surely runs out of money, unlike her unstressed “trust fund”-supported friends.  “The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich”, Frances wisely observes.  She even falls out with her room-mate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  Her one attempt at competing in this world of money and privilege – an impulsive weekend spent in a luxury flat in Paris – is disastrous, as she sleeps most of the time and cannot connect with her only friends there.

Eventually Frances can no longer pay rent, and resorts to visiting her parents at “home” in Sacramento, California (Gerwig actually grew up there).  These touching scenes are all the more poignant because Gerwig’s actual parents – Gordon and Christine Gerwig – play her movie parents.  One of Frances’ last residences is a dormitory at Vassar College (which Baumbach attended), where she works a summer job serving food at alumni reunions.

“Frances Ha” has de facto “chapter” headings – simple white font on black backgrounds, Woody Allen-style, each identifying one of France’s residences. It’s not surprising that “Time” magazine calls “Frances Ha” a “Millennial ‘Annie Hall’”.  But it does have a complex set of antecedents:  Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (romantic New York also shot in black and white), the “Gen Y” television series “Girls” (the film includes Adam Driver from that series, here as “Lev Shapiro”) and splashed with a touch of “Greenberg”.  If you think other actors look familiar, you are right:  Grace Gummer – one of Meryl Streep’s daughters and like Streep, a Vassar graduate – also appears as Rachel, one of Frances’ friends.

As enjoyable as it is, “Frances Ha” is unlikely to have to same impact as “Annie Hall”.  Like Frances herself, the film’s story “arc” drifts.  It’s too “small” and too particular to a certain demographic – modern urban twentysomethings in life transition.  It also glides lightly over its Jewish roots.  In “Annie Hall” Woody Allen’s character complained about antisemites calling him “Jew” under their breath, and Diane Keaton’s character referred to him as “What Grammy Hall would call ‘a real Jew’”.  But “Frances Ha” exists in a more frictionless world.  Sure, you’re Jewish – excepting Frances, most of the main characters are.  But so what?  There’s no tension.

As for the film’s title “Frances Ha” – wait to the final scene for an explanation.

You can watch the film’s trailer here:

Superman Man of Steel – a visceral experience

July 1, 2013

Directed by Zack Snyder, produced by Christopher Nolan, and scripted by David S. Goyer

What an odd, entertaining, loud and engaging ride the new Superman “Man of Steel” film is.  It’s such a visceral experience that in the final third I accidentally bit the inside of my cheek, resulting in an unusual amount of blood in my mouth.  THAT’s how distracting this film can be:  you gotta see this on in a large cinema with good sound; this is not iPhone or iPad stuff.  I saw it at Sydney’s “Event” cinema Macquarie Centre at an 8.15pm Sunday session with an audience about 50% full.

“Man of Steel” is also a truly odd combination of Christian religious fervour and post September 11th disaster.  This Superman is an obvious stand-in for Jesus:  there are too many explicit references to his saving mankind and not being understood.  And the scenes of destruction of Manhattan in New York City consciously imitate the destructive events of September 11th 2001.  It’s not quite clear what the film-makers are trying to achieve here; is the villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) somehow being equated with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists?  Must the destruction of New York City be so total?  Given that a number of high-rise buildings in the final scene are completely destroyed (imitating how the Twin Towers fell) and many others sustained tremendous damage, the total loss of life must have been in the tens of thousands.  Why is there no mention of this, no dead civilian bodies?  So many unanswered questions – the film ends on a note of triumph, but yet it is tragedy.  Here we are, almost 12 years later, and the constraints are now removed:  it appears that we can create disaster films in Manhattan that are more than reminiscent of September 11th.  Enough time appears to have passed, at least in the minds of Hollywood film.

“Man of Steel” carries the weight of many themes:  genocide (barely averted), nationalism (partially thwarted), romance (mostly chaste, except for that one kiss between Superman and Lois Lane), parental responsibility (well and truly fulfilled), the limits of US military power (clear to all to see) and personal destiny (that’s what it’s all about).  There’s even a bit of environmental sustainability.  A bit.

This film works in part because some of the acting is excellent, particularly those playing the two sets of parents of “Cal/Clark Kent” (Superman):  Russell Crowe (as Jor-El, the Kryptonian father) brings an extraordinary gravitas (Russell, what can’t you do?) and Kevin Costner (as Jonathan Kent, the earthly adoptive dad) is great.  The scene where Costner’s character dies is one of the great recent movie death scenes.  I will refrain from describing it in detail so as to maintain the mystery.  But it is special.  And Diane Lane as the earthly mom is also great, perfectly cast as the Kansas farmwoman.  Henry Cavill as Superman himself looks the part and does a credible job, especially when he is wearing a beard “in disguise”; when clean-shaven he is just a bit TOO clean.  But he is sufficient.  Lois Lane (Amy Adams) helps a lot.