Film review of Jackie

January 22, 2017

(This film review of “Jackie” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 January 2017.)

Directed by Pablo Larrain; written by Noah Oppenheim; starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.

Few Americans are held in such mythical regard as Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Kennedy, the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman expertly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance in the film “Jackie”, a role that will surely place her in the front row of next month’s Oscars.

Although “Jackie” (the film) lovingly references the stage musical “Camelot” – written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe – a play that operated as an anthem (“one shining moment”) for the short-lived idealistic Kennedy administration, the film holds none of the musical’s romantic optimism.  Set primarily in the week following President Kennedy’s death, the film instead is a close study of Jackie Kennedy’s powerful grief, and her determined actions to locate her husband’s place in American historical memory through an unforgettable state funeral that included walking behind a horse-drawn casket.  That Natalie Portman makes this personal agony so watchable is a testament to the depth of her towering performance, her excellent co-stars and Chilean director Pablo Larrain, working in English for the first time.

The film uses two techniques to illustrate this tragic moment of American history.  First is a re-creation of the events of the assassination and its aftermath, notably with scenes of Jackie cradling President Kennedy’s bloodied head as the car speeds to Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, both of them shielded by Secret Service agent Clint Hill (David Caves). The film also follows Jackie during the crucial four days following the assassination and planning of JFK’s funeral, in which she took the lead role through force of personality.  The other technique – a great achievement by Jewish scriptwriter Noah Oppenheim – involves two confessional talks that Jackie Kennedy had in the days following the tragedy: an interview with historian Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) that resulted in a famous “Life” magazine article, and a counselling session with radical Jesuit priest Richard McSorley (John Hurt).  These “reconstructed” private sessions allow the film-makers to reveal Jackie’s most intimate thoughts, giving the film great depth and insight into Jackie’s mind and psyche at the time.

Although “Jackie” can be difficult to watch at times, it is a “must see” for fans of American political history.  Each member of the excellent cast plays a real-life figure, including Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard), Jackie’s friend and adviser Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, unrecognisable from her normal carefree thirtysomething post-modern roles), President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), Johnson’s wife “Lady Bird” (Beth Grant), film lobbyist and Johnson adviser Jack Valenti (Max Casella), journalist and Kennedy friend William Walton (Richard E. Grant) and President Kennedy (Caspar Phillpson).  The film will withstand repeated viewings so that we can pick out other famous figures who appear, including children John F. Kennedy Junior and Caroline Kennedy, sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother-in-laws Peter Lawford and Sargent Shriver, mother Rose Kennedy, Jackie’s step-father Hugh Auchincloss, Texas Governor John Connally, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and “Washington Post” editor Benjamin Bradlee.

The re-created Washington DC of the period – down to what appears to be the actual location of Kennedy’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery – is also superb.

The film’s January release date in Australia is a virtual tour de force of film marketing (not unlike the release of the 1927 “Jazz Singer”, about the life of Al Jolson, on the night before Kol Nidre):  our interest in US “First Ladies” is at an eight year peak, as the world bids goodbye to the much beloved Michelle Obama and gets ready to welcome the still unknown Melania Trump.

Jackie Kennedy’s later years (not covered in this film) also have two fascinating Jewish connections/  She spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Belgium-born Yiddish-speaking Jewish diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, with whom she was rarely seen in public, but widely acknowledged to be her third great love.  Jackie’s daughter Caroline also married a Jewish man (Edwin Schlossberg); she is currently the US Ambassador to Japan. Her brother John Kennedy Junior died in a light plane crash in 1999.



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”.)


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: