Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as 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 (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  This powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.



The Wolf of Wall Street film review

February 1, 2014

This film review of “The Wolf of Wall Street” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 30 January 2014.

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Terence Winter

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley

After more than four decades of vigorous and ground-breaking film-making, Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, literally crashes into Australian cinemas. Imagine Scorsese’s frenetic gangster film “Goodfellas” crossed with Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”; add a dose of funny voice over and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role of Jordan Belfort, a real-life young crash-and-burn Wall Street trader.

The title of this film has multiple meanings, and comes from Belfort’s first memoir.  Belfort is the voracious “wolf” who eats little people, red riding hood style.  But a better story analogy is one coined by a Forbes magazine writer in 1991: he is a “twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers.”

Jordan Belfort rises fast to make loads of money (and not just from the rich), living a lifestyle of fast cars, many women, drugs and alcohol. This bacchanalian tale includes excessive doses of sex, pill-popping, nudity and cursing. In fact, the film has more uses of the “f” word (about 550) than any other film in history: that’s more than three per minute in a179-minute film.  So be warned:  if you are not able to last through three hours of female flesh, pills and strong language, this is not the film for you.

But with five Oscar nominations – best film, best director, best actor (DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill) and best adapted screenplay – “The Wolf of Wall Street” is solidly entertaining, funny and one of the big events of this film season.  It’s a hilarious and wry black comedy that attempts (not always successfully) to satirise the culture of excess that has taken over the American financial services industry. In his scenes of lifestyle indulgence, DiCaprio gives a great performance, including a physical comedy we have rarely seen before.

Scorsese’s sense of humour continues in his other casting decisions.  Australian actress Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s second wife with astonishing depth and as a fully convincing New Yorker.  Matthew McConaughey plays the multiple-martini-lunch broker who first introduces Belfort to the techniques of Wall Street fun and money-making. Jean Dujardin (of the Oscar-winning “The Artist”) gleefully plays the sleazy French Swiss banker who helps Belfort hide millions in a Swiss bank, assisted by Belfort’s wife’s British “Aunt Emma” (Joanna Lumley). And in smaller roles, Jewish essayist Fran Leibowitz plays the judge who sentences Belfort, film-maker Spike Jonze (born Adam Spiegel, director of “Her”) appears and the real Jordan Belfort shows up to play a host who introduces the DiCaprio version of himself.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” holds some uncomfortable questions for Jews. Although not specifically identified in the film, the real Jordan Belfort is Jewish.  The DiCaprio character makes numerous references to “WASPs”, and consciously chooses the very WASPy company name “Stratton Oakmont”. Belfort’s father Max (played by iconic Jewish actor/director Rob Reiner) is even more explicitly Jewish.  So are almost all of Belfort’s friends, many with obvious Jewish names.  DiCaprio’s voice over describes Jonah Hill’s character of Donnie Azoff as wearing “horn-rimmed glasses with clear lenses so as to look like a WASP”.  Drug dealer friend Brad Bodnick wears a very prominent golden necklace “Chai”.  Why were – are – Jews like Belfort heavily over-represented amongst Wall Street insider traders and other financial criminals (think Bernie Madoff)?

Finally, one of the challenges faced by this film is its moral murkiness. Despite numerous proven charges of insider trading and money laundering, Jordan Belfort spends only three years in prison (in real life, less than two) and is sentenced to pay defrauded investors $110million (of which little has been paid in real life).  At the end of the film, he is shown running a successful motivational speaking business, talking in New Zealand.  Is this sufficient payback for a professional life spent defrauding investors?

Wolf of Wall Street Hill DiCaprio