Film review of Foxtrot

June 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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”)