Search This Blog

Monday 4 March 2024

American Fiction, Film (US 2023) written & directed by Cord Jefferson 9* out of 10

An excellently written screenplay and a great cast led by the outstanding Jeffrey Wright make the prize-winning Oscar-nominated American Fiction the most intelligently funny, moving, and entertaining film that has come to our cinema screens. Too witty to be just "feel-good" it makes you feel good, nonetheless.

Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) an African American writer and academic, teaches creative writing at a liberal arts university in Los Angeles. His writing, demeanour, and contrarian views on the relevance of identity politics and, in his case, specifically black identity politics as seen by America's white liberal elites and their black allies express themselves in his teaching which leads to his being suspended in his teaching job and sent to a literary festival in Boston. He attends the well-attended presentation of a book written in the black ghetto vernacular by a young black woman -author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) with some disbelief and disdain, but it leaves a deep impression on him.

As he originally hails from near Washington DC, he uses his presence on the East Coast to catch up with his family, from which he has distanced himself. He finds his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Medical Doctor working in a family planning clinic having to deal with their mother's deteriorating health. Reluctantly he must become involved with addressing this issue. He also meets his neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander) a plucky and intelligent public defence lawyer and potential romantic interest.

The excellent script by Cord Jefferson is based on the outstanding novel Erasure by Percival Everett. It manages to meld family drama, romance, comedy and ironic but not cynical satire into a plausible whole. The family drama is moving, the romance is low-key and credible, the comedy is funny, and the satire of the liberal literary and academic milieu is witty and at times hilarious. All the pieces of American Fiction work severally and jointly because the writing pays attention and empathy to the humanity of all the characters and distributes the many good lines widely among them, making the different characters interesting. This in turn is a gift for the strong ensemble of actors led brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright and including Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, and Erika Alexander. As the main character's first name is Thelonious after Jazz-legend Thelonious Monk the very jazzy score is fitting too. 

In a year short of good news, American Fiction is the most intelligently witty, moving, and entertaining film that has come to our cinema screens. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon, Film (USA 2023), written by Eric Roth and director Martin Scorsese, 9.5* out of 10

Killers of the Flower Moon (to be seen on Apple+ or at a cinema near you) is a classic Martin Scorsese epic in an unusual Mid-Western setting with outstanding performances from veteran actors Leonardo di Caprio and Robert de Niro as well as from newcomer Lily Gladstone. One of the best films of 2023 and a must-see.

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo di Caprio) returns to the United States after serving as a cook in the US Army in Europe during World War I. He turns up asking for a job at the cattle ranch of his uncle William "King" Hale (Robert de Niro) in Osage County, Oklahoma, where his brother Byron Burkhart (Scott Shephard) also works. Hale is the centre of the local community. A deputy sheriff and a long-time friend, benefactor, and advisor highly respectful of the Osage Indians living on their reservation. He speaks their language fluently, is respectful of their culture and a staunch friend to their leaders. Or so, at least, it seems.

Many of the Osage Indians have become rich as the Federal Government has given them ownership of the petrol below their grounds. Any extraction of oil by novice adventurers or canny oil barons can only proceed if "headrights" are paid to the Indian owners of the ground above. The Osage are torn between their valued age-old traditions and the trappings of their new riches: automobiles, fashionable Western clothes and, of course, alcohol and other drugs.

Among the Osage is Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) who lives with her mother and her sisters. Like all the other Osage, they are considered by law incompetent to handle their own riches and have a white local guardian appointed for this purpose. She has to go and see their guardian regularly to obtain spending money.

 Hale suggests to Ernest, who has taken a job as a driver by day with a side-line of gang robbery by night, to take Mollie as his wife. After a brief romance, Ernest and Mollie get married in an Indian-Catholic ceremony and start a family. But a mix of oil, money, greed, envy, and racism ensures that Ernest, Mollie, and their children and, with them, many members of the Osage nation will not live happily ever after.

Killers of the Flower Moon touches on many subjects of burning actuality: deception, greed, money and political power, identity, spirituality, respect for nature, identity, and supremacist ideas. It also reminds us of an important historical period in the History of the United States when the Federal Government recognized its duty to investigate crimes that would be covered up and whitewashed if left to each state. Uncovering the crimes against the Osage led to the creation of a fully-fledged Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover's leadership.

Director and co-writer Martin Scorsese brings this epic tale of the American West, based on true events to life by eliciting outstanding performances from veteran character actors di Caprio and de Niro as well as from newcomer Gladstone. Each one of their characters is well written and manages to be both highly contradictory to the point of paradox and utterly believable at the same time.  None more so than di Caprio as Ernest Burkhart, who is immensely greedy, highly reckless, somewhat dumb, yet loving, complex and deep. With their help, Scorsese tells an epic tale in his inimitable style. Understated, quiet, slow, yet constantly threatening dialogue is punctuated by short sharp bursts of appropriately brutal violence. 

Familiar and surprising at once, the result is in the best Scorsese tradition and beyond. It is one of the best films of 2023 and a must-see.  

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Sandflakes (גרגירי חול), Film, Israel 2023, written by Gitit Kabiri, directed by Yahel Kabiri, 7.5* out of 10


Containing autobiographical elements and created by a mother-son team, "Sandflakes" is a low-key coming-of-age drama. Playing in a small town in Israel's periphery it manages to be watchable and uplifting with a universal appeal. It received a particularly warm welcome from the public at the Vienna Jewish Film Festival earlier this year. Warmly recommended.

David (Yossi Marshek), is a teenage boy living with his mother Iris (Shani Cohen) and younger brother in a small town in the South of Israel. David's mother has separated from her husband and is suffering from a severe illness. Wheelchair-bound, she is determined to live her life as independently as possible and has developed a hard shell. David is frustrated as he must often act as her carer and take responsibility for his younger brother. 
To cope with his hormonally heightened frustrations, David has turned to writing poetic fictional short stories in an internet forum of aspiring teenage authors. This provides him an outlet and a forum where he receives recognition from his writing peers who are impressed by his creativity and talent. 

The other youths in the group who mainly live in metropolitan Tel Aviv are intrigued by the creativity and poetic truth of his stories and want to know more about him and his life. Believing that his small-time life will make others in the forum look down upon him and his writings, he invents a false identity for himself. Suddenly the means of escape which let him cope with the difficulties of his situation becomes an additional source of pressure: keeping up appearances online becomes increasingly complicated and stressful.

"Sandflakes" is the result of a mother-son-cooperation, written by Gitit Kabiri and directed by her son Yahel Kabiri, who is completing his studies at film school; it contains autobiographical as well as fictional elements. Within a competent cast, Shani Cohen stands out as Iris possibly also because she had the best-written character to work with. Lucy Aharish as Iris' friend Vered also deserves a special mention. 

Despite its rather bleak setting in a peripheral small town in Israel's southern desert and the difficult circumstances of David's life, the story manages to be uplifting. Without sugar-coating it provides a watchable and moving riposte to French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's "L'enfer c'est les autres" (hell is other people): it is through acquaintances and friendships and the meaningful encounters with other people that we can cope with the frustrations in our lives. The strength and originality of this film are that it observes this in a low-key if not entirely unsentimental manner. Warmly recommended.     

Tuesday 1 August 2023

The Monkey House, Film ,Israel 2023, written and directed by Avi Nesher, 8* out of 10

Avi Nesher's intelligent, warm, and tangled comedy takes its characters and its audience seriously. Very enjoyable and warmly recommended.

Young Margo Mai (Suzanna Pappian) has outstayed her welcome as a permanent couch-surfer at her sister and brother-in-law's home. She has to at least demonstrate a willingness to earn a living and look for more appropriate lodgings.

While her real interest is gaining access to the trendiest clubs in town, she decides to apply for the advertised job of assistant with the spectacularly successless left-wing Israeli author Amitai Kariv (Adir Miller), for which she is eminently unqualified. Modern literature is decidedly not her passion, so she reckons there is no chance she will be hired.

Kariv lives in an inherited and somewhat dilapidated property that contains in its gardens the Monkey House of the film's title. The Monkey House stands empty, but the erstwhile menagerie it contained may just remind one of the characters making up Israel's literary scene. 

Kariv would like to belatedly conquer the heart of the recently widowed Tamar (Shani Cohen) whom he has always desired without daring to make a move on her. But then, an apparent lucky break, gives him some confidence to feel worthy of her romantic attention after all: a young Israeli PhD student studying at a US university informs him that she intends to make Kariv the subject of her PhD thesis. She will publish a literary biography. Finally, it seems Kariv standing on the Israeli literary scene is about to receive the longed-for boost. 

His being subject of the thesis is indeed why Kariv placed the advert for an assistant to help provide the PhD student with requisite information about his life and work, which Mai has responded to. Add into this mix Amir (Ala Dakka), an internationally known documentary filmmaker, living in Italy. For good reason, Amir has ambivalent feelings about his Israeliness as he returns in search of a subject for a new documentary film. 

These and other characters bring along their overt and hidden agendas that move the plot forward - and as Sir Walter Scott aptly put it in rhyme: "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive".

Avi Nesher has written and directed a highly, observant comedy/drama/whodunnit playing in the bonfire of vanities that is the business of literature and film. Intellectual aspirations, love, envy, and credulity collide in a most entertaining way. While he makes fun of his characters' foibles, Nesher manages to make us feel sympathy for them, too. The setting of the Monkey House has an Italo-Israeli feel about it, but the story it tells has universal relevance and appeal.

Nesher has also managed to assemble an excellently cast ensemble of actors led by the excellent Adir Miller, Shani Cohen and Ala Dakka. The talented Suzanna Pappian shines with her energetic performance.   
An intelligent, warm, and tangled comedy which takes its characters and its audience seriously. Very enjoyable and warmly recommended.

Monday 28 November 2022

The Capture (2019-2022), TV Series (UK), Seasons 1 and 2, written and directed by Ben Chanan, 8.0* out of 10

Over The Captures' two seasons, writer and director Ben Chanan manages to weave surveillance technologies, human factors and organisational politics, and rivalries into an intriguing and suspenseful thriller with a timely social and political message. 


The two seasons of Ben Chanan's The Capture are available on the BBC iPlayer. The series shows that in the age of applied artificial intelligence, we cannot trust our eyes and ears when it comes to electronic media.


The Capture (Season 1) paints a scenario where filmed evidence that appears to be a reliable recording of pictures and audible dialogues is questionable because the synchronisation of sound and images can be put in doubt. Shortly after, the police are following up on images from a surveillance camera transmitted live into a control room. An operator follows the action as it happens. Can such live pictures be manipulated without arousing suspicion or leaving some signs of interference?


People in trusted institutions whose job it is to fight capital crime and people in human rights organisations are tempted down the slippery slope of playing with visual and auditory technologies making it possible to produce indetectable "deep fakes". 


To cross the line into breaking the law, we need the motive (which can be laudable), the opportunity (which new technologies may offer), and a story with which we convince ourselves that at least in the specific circumstances we confronted with this is, actually the right thing to do. When it comes to social justice or capital crimes, what if questionable means are the only way you can see to achieve a just outcome? Language is important here, too, and a harmless word like "correction" takes on a peculiar meaning.


In Season 2, deep fakes and face recognition become the subject of government-level political intrigue on an international scale and also involve public broadcasting media. In a plot close to present realities, Britain, as a mid-size power, finds itself caught in US-China rivalry as it needs to choose between a Chinese and a US-produced face recognition system for border control. The basic plot is intriguing and turns the suspense up a notch from Season 1.


Over The Captures' two seasons, writer and director Ben Chanan manages to weave surveillance technologies, human factors and organisational politics, and rivalries into an intriguing and suspenseful thriller with a timely social and political message. However, it is a pity that the script does not sufficiently explore the psychological depth of the characters. Less stereotyping about the countries and television stations from which the good and the bad guys are would have been welcome.


Viewers must pay close attention to follow the plot with its twists and turns, but it is worth it. Supported by an impressive ensemble of actors, Chanan's direction is competent. There are strong performances from Rob Yang, mysterious and charismatic as Chinese company CEO Yan Wanglei; Ron Perelman as CIA Section Chief Frank Napier; Lia Williams, perhaps a tad too restrained, as DSU Gemma Garland. Ginny Holder gives a convincing portrayal of DS/DI Nadia Latif.


Despite a few weaknesses, this is a thought-provoking thriller that invites serious binge-watching.


Monday 6 July 2020

The Restaurant (Vår tid är nu), Swedish TV Series (2017-2019), starring Hedda Stiernsted 7.5* out of 10

What makes the nordic telenovela The Restaurant special, is that next to some 30 years of family drama it treats us to a post-World War II social history of Sweden. The mix of melodrama and Swedish modern history makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. 

The Restaurant is a popular Swedish Telenovela that charts the path of the bourgeois Löwander family which owns and runs a traditional restaurant in the centre of Stockholm and their members of staff. The series spans the time period from the last days of WWII to the early 1970s. It serves up a rich smorgasbord of family intrigue. Brothers Peter (Adam Lundgren) and Gustaf (Matias Nordqvist) and their sister Nina (Hedda Stiernsted) are vying for their mother Helga’s (Suzanne Reuter) preference and inheritance. 

What makes The Restaurant special, is that next to almost 30 years of family drama we are treated to a post-World War II social history of Sweden. It is largely a sympathetic view of the creation of the Swedish welfare state by the country’s Social Democratic Party. Its reforms enable the restaurant’s assistant-waitresses to become political bigwigs; Swedish working-class boys who look like Jamie Oliver can become Swedish television chefs who look like Jamie Oliver, and once penniless Italian immigrants may rise from washing the restaurant’s dirty plates to introducing sceptical Nordic bankers to the joys of the pizza-oven. Pizza, after all, is an affordable and tasty food which can ease the hard-working unionized Scandinavian meatball-eater into the ever more multicultural society their country is about to host.

Meanwhile, upper-class and bourgeois Swedes learn to love Rock’n’Roll, Jimi Hendrix, and glittering disco balls imported from the USA via London. They also adapt to understand that immigration and social democracy are acceptable and perhaps even advantageous to the upper-middle class too. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the figure of Gustaf a reluctantly homosexual Nazi sympathiser not only in the closet and fighting with alcoholism but also on a stony path towards born again Christendom and missionary service in Africa. For him, the arc of history is long but bends towards potential happiness with a male Palestinian nurse who has looked after his ailing wife. 

By the time the iconic Olof Palme becomes prime minister and leads Swedish Social Democracy, which has briefly lost touch with Stockholm’s tree-loving, anti-Vietnam-War protesting inhabitants, back towards its more daringly leftish reformist path, he can even risk nominating a card-carrying lesbian former assistant-waitress to his cabinet.

Much credit for the success of The Restaurant goes to the writers, principally Ulf Kvensler, Malin Nevander and Johan Rosenlin. Hedda Stiernsted is a quite charismatic Nina and Charlie Gustaffson a successfully understated Calle. Josefien Neldén gives a strong performance as the modest yet upwardly mobile assistant-waitress Maggan.

Almost reluctantly, I found The Restaurant’s mix of telenovela and social history compelling viewing and binged on its three seasons of 10 episodes each. The acting is sometimes a bit hammy but not distractingly so. One does root for the potential love story between the bourgeois Nina working-class Calle (Charlie Gustafsson) who meet in May 1945 with an uncharacteristically spontaneous kiss. Will they get together? And where will each of them be 32 years, and an equal number of episodes, later? 

I watched this series that was apparently very popular on its first showing in Sweden (2017 to 2020) with my subscription to Sundance Now, which I purchased in order to still my hunger for the new 5th season of Le Bureau des Legendes, one of the best espionage-thriller series bar none.

The Restaurant

Saturday 6 June 2020

The Bureau (Bureau des Legendes), TV Series Season 1, Canal+ France, created by Eric Rochant starring Matthieu Kassovitz, 10* out of 10

Season 1 of the Bureau (available on Amazon) is an outstanding French espionage story. Tightly scripted, brilliantly played, with great character development even in the smaller roles it keeps the audience riveted with a plot that is cleverly embedded in current political developments in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Emotionally and intellectually satisfying binge-watching not only for COVID-19 quarantine times. 

Paul Lefebvre (Matthieu Kassovitz) is a French-teacher in Damascus, Syria at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Except that he is neither a French teacher nor Paul Lefebvre but Guillaume Debailly senior undercover operative of the French Intelligence Service Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE). Having spent six years on assignment in Syria, he is called back to his unit in Paris, the Bureaux des Legendes, the unit which trains, handles and provides the logistical infrastructure for these DSGE undercover operatives abroad. One of the loose ends to tie up is ending his romantic relationship with a married woman, the very attractive Nadia el Mansour (Zineb Triki) an Alawite Syrian Professor of Geography at Damascus University. On his return to Paris, he finds it difficult to forget her and when he finds out that she happens to be in Paris on a UNESCO sponsored programme, he cannot resist keeping his old identity in parallel with his new one for the clandestine prolongation of their affair, which has perhaps become more serious than intended. This, of course, goes against the rules of his employer, but he thinks he can handle the complications and protect himself and the Bureau from the risk that his relationship with Nadia might pose to him. But things are about to get a lot more complicated for all involved. Meanwhile, the Bureau des Legendes has hired Dr. Laurene Balmès (Léa Drucker) to keep an eye on its operatives and help them and their handlers and managers to ensure they can function well as they enter, stay in and leave the psychological pressure cooker each of their assignments puts them in. And, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau) a young new recruit is being prepared for an important new assignment in Iran by Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul (Florence Loiret -Caille), while a DGSE agent in Algiers is going off the rails with dramatic consequences. Clearly, Jacques Duflot (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), the Head of the Bureau, will need all of his cool to manage everything that he has on his plate and keep his superiors off his back.

Tightly scripted to fit into political developments in the Middle East and North Africa by the series creator Eric Rochant and his numerous colleagues, The Bureau makes for compelling viewing. The plot is intelligently constructed and developed. Moreover, an unusual amount of attention is given to detail in the character development even in the smaller roles and the dynamic between the different people working at the Bureau including their private lives. An excellent acting ensemble makes the appeal of the script to emotion and intellect credible. The Bureau is an outstanding example of suspenseful tightly scripted espionage thriller, a credible French pendant to the more emotionally stilted British John Le Carré plots and characters. I can hardly wait to start to binge-watching Season 2 tonight.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Unorthodox, Netflix miniseries US-Germany 2020, directed by Maria Schrader, 8* out of 10

A miniseries with quite a bit of Yiddish dialogue and an unusual subject, Unorthodox is well made with much attention being paid to speech, costume and customs of a Hassidic sect in New York. Unorthodox, inspired by Deborah Feldman's autobiographical book, succeeds in appealing to a wide audience, not least due to another moving performance by the talented Shira Haas in the main role.

Unorthodox is a fictional drama -miniseries by Netflix inspired by Deborah Feldman’s autobiographical book of the same name. Esty (Shira Haas) never quite fit into the ultraorthodox Jewish Hassidic sect in New York (the fictional sect is based on the actual Satmar Hassidim). She grows up without a mother who has left the community and a mentally challenged alcoholic husband. Esty is brought up by her aunt and uncle and has developed a special relationship with her grandmother who introduces her to romantic German music. This despite the fact that anything German is despised by the Hassidic sect whose members have settled mainly in New York under the leadership of their Rabbi after World War II and live their lives deliberately isolating their own community from the rest of the city. Like other girls in the community, Esty is expected to enter into an arranged marriage by the age of 18 and then bear children and run the household. But her curiosity and appetite for interacting with music and culture in the world outside her sect make her take increasingly bolder steps towards exploring the outside world; she secretly takes piano lessons. One day, she decides to flee the confines of her community and go to Berlin, Germany, where her estranged mother (Delia Meyer) now lives. 

Consulted by Esty's husband's shocked parents, the Rabbi decides to send her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and cousin Moishe (Jeff) Willbush, a rather flawed and unsavoury character, to bring her back. Encouraged by the community whose approval he seeks, and towards which he has an ambiguous attitude, Moishe is ready to use psychological pressure and threats of violence to achieve his goal. But first, he and Yanky must find Esty in Berlin. She has meanwhile tagged on to an easygoing multicultural crowd of highly talented classical musicians, who are all students at an elite school (based, no doubt, on the reputed Daniel Barenboim- Edward Saïd Academy in Berlin).

This US-German production stands out by its extensive and impressively authentic use of Yiddish dialogue as well as its accurate depictions of many of the customs, medieval-inspired Jewish costumes, wigs, fur caps and practices of the ultraorthodox Hassidic community in New York, quite an achievement for the writers and the German director Maria Schrader.

The depiction of Berlin as a perfectly free multicultural Nirvana without tensions within and between communities is somewhat less interesting and less convincing. Although Esty for whom Berlin is the place of her liberation from the shackles of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy may well genuinely perceive the German capital in this way.

The acting performances are good. Shira Haas, who was already notable as a young girl in the Israeli cult-drama-comedy Shtisel, shines here in the main role as Esty and so makes a significant contribution to the quality of Unorthodox. As miniseries with high production values go, this one with its rather unusual and somewhat niche subject certainly manages to appeal to a wide audience.

For those interested in the original story of Deborah Feldman, whose book inspired the miniseries I recommend the following 2017 in-depth interview in English with the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg recorded at de Balie in Amsterdam.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Farewell, Film USA 2019, written and directed by Lulu Wang, 8.5* out of 10

Writer-director Lulu Wang succeeds with a touching and intelligent family comedy-drama dealing with universal themes in a world where strong family ties are tested by a difficult situation, geographic distance, and new cultural influences.  

When Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) beloved grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about 6 months to live, the family decides to hide the diagnosis from her. Grandma Nai Nai lives in China and Billi emigrated to the USA with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin). Her uncle (Jiang Yongbo) and his family live in Japan. In order to have a pretext for the whole family to say farewell to grandma Nai-Nai, without arousing her suspicions, the family quickly decide to move forward the date of the wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Ahoi Mizuhara) and let grandma Nai Nai organize it in China.

The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical family comedy-drama that touches on the topics of maintaining a strong national/local family-culture finding expression in a globalized world characterized by families being spread geographically across very different cultures with different values prevailing in each of these locations. Is it right to hide the diagnosis from a patient even with the best of intent? This was a practice widespread in the Western world in the 1950s and 1960s but would now not be accommodated by the medical doctors treating a patient. In today’s China it is still possible. And then there is the simple technical difficulty of keeping something secret from a member of a family that all other members of the family know and must do their best not to divulge. That situation provides significant potential for comedy, tragedy and drama of all sorts.

The story is based on what director Lulu Wang calls “a true lie” that continued to play out in her own family during the making and showing of her film. Grandma Nai Nai’s sister “Little Nai Nai” is actually played by Lulu Wang’s great aunt Hung Lo, the actual sister of Wang’s grandmother. Lulu Wang’s screenplay and the strong acting performances by the ensemble make The Farewell a pleasure to watch, the loving relationship between Billi and the practical matriarch that is her grandmother is beautifully developed. There is some outstanding acting by Awkwafina as Billi struggling in her career ambitions and private life straddling the US and China, Shuzhen Zhao as grandma Nai Nai and particularly by Diana Lin as Billi’s mother.

This is a beautifully written, developed and acted this family story is gentle, nuanced, intelligent touching on universal themes. At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, the film was nominated for two awards including Best Foreign Language Film, with Awkwafina winning for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy.



Wednesday 18 December 2019

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, Documentary Film UK 2019, written and directed by Nick Broomfield, 8.5 out of 10

Supported by interesting and rarely seen archive material, filmmaker Nick Broomfield takes a sympathetic but not uncritical look at Marianne and Leonard’s lifelong love-story. New interviews Broomfield has made with contemporary friends of both are illuminating not only about the relationship but also in capturing the Zeitgeist of the sixties cultural avant-garde and their hangers-on. Not much music or poetry but an insightful and entertaining look at one aspect of the social history of the 1960/70 generation of English-speaking singers and poets.

The Greek Island of Hydra in the mid-1960s became a refuge for creative free spirits of the era and their groupies. Free thinking hetero- and bisexual women were freed of the risk of pregnancy by the invention of the contraceptive pill and had to decide what to do with this new-found freedom. For the intelligent women interested in intelligent and good-looking men it opened the pathway from friendship to naturally move on to sexual relations with lots of men. And good-looking interesting horny men (and their ugly uninteresting horny male entourage) quickly understood that they could benefit big-time. Hydra was an idyllic island for creative spirits of all kinds who were looking for a carefree inspiring social-life in which sex in all combinations and permutations was the natural continuation of friendship between men and women by other means.

The beautiful blond Marianne Ihlen from Norway joined the Hydra community in the early sixties as the wife of an increasingly abusive Norwegian writer. When the dark and attractive unknown Canadian author-to-be Leonard Cohen turns up on Hydra, he and Marianne who has a young child from her marriage, develop a strong emotional and sensual bond that, against all odds, will last a lifetime. This, of course, does not stop either of them from enjoying friendships with sexual benefits with other people they find attractive.

Supported by interesting and rarely seen archive material, filmmaker Nick Broomfield takes a sympathetic but not uncritical look at Marianne and Leonard’s lifelong love-story. Broomfield was himself a friend and therefore naturally also a sexual partner of Marianne. His special angle is to concentrate not so much on Leonard Cohen but give Marianne a lot of room in the story. Both Marianne and Leonard are now dead, but luckily there is archive material about life on Hydra and audiotapes on which Marianne speaks about her relationship with Leonard Cohen and more. And the new interviews Broomfield has made with contemporary friends of both are illuminating not only about the relationship but also in capturing the Zeitgeist of the sixties cultural avant-garde and their hangers-on. This is most accurately and entertainingly expressed in the interview of Aviva Layton the then-wife of Cohen’s poet friend Irving Layton. 

The truth is that the sexual freedom the contraceptive pill opened-up did not change the power relations between men and women. The main beneficiaries of that sexual revolution seemed to be men, the main victims of the perceived total freedom and its corollary of antiauthoritarian education were children, even when due to the miracles of “the pill” children were now wanted and the timing of their arrival could to some extent be scheduled.

Leonard Cohen, handsomely dark, talented and good-looking, with more than a touch of melancholia, became the heartthrob of intelligent, today one would say, sapiosexual women, that is women who find intelligence sexually attractive or arousing. Luckily, for him, in today’s hindsight, he did not attract and was not much interested in the youngest of groupies, but in more mature women between 25 and 45, including Marianne and Janis Joplin and countless others. Many women came on to him, at least one on camera with her boyfriend standing next to her listening in.

Cohen’s redeeming features are numerous: he was highly intelligent, self-aware, had a sense of humour, an instinctive and lasting moral compass and a brain that was surprisingly resistant up to his death in old age to long term excessive use of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Broomfield’s film is interesting for the archive materials and the interviews which tell a rich picture of part of a generation that enjoyed its newfound freedom, was peaceful and full of good intention, and whose selfishness was cloaked in a many-coloured coat of love, sex, poetry, and song.

There are hardly any musical numbers by Leonard Cohen to be heard, but this is an engaging, captivating portrait of the enduring relationship between a man and a woman in an era that was not conducive to enduring relationships. The fact that this relationship favoured Leonard Cohen, who with hindsight put himself first always while behaving more responsibly toward Marianne and her son than most males would have, does not detract from the fact that Marianne as his muse, managed in her own way to be the captain of her soul. Her son, like so many children who grew up on the pseudo-idyllic island of Hydra, was not so lucky. 

Do not expect a celebration of Leonard Cohen the poet and singer. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is the successful presentation of the social context of Cohen’s life and times; as such one does not have to be a fan of Leonard Cohen to enjoy this entertaining and insightful look at a piece of social history from the last third of the 20th century. Entertaining and insightful with some funny and moving moments.

Sunday 8 December 2019

Human Nature, Documentary Film 2019, co-written with Regina Sobell and directed by Adam Bolt, 10* out of 10

The award-winning Human Nature is a spellbinding, entertaining, informative and moving natural science documentary about the recently discovered revolutionary CRISPR technique for targeted changes to the genes in the DNA the building block of all living things on earth. The implications are probably as far-reaching as any technology ever invented. Bolt shows through his protagonists who present CRISPR in their own words that not the subject but also the scientists dealing with it can be funny, witty, wise and moving. 

Nature or nurture is a question we ask ourselves when it comes to many human traits good or bad. To change nature is an evolutionary process taking generations, while with nurture we may such traits of individuals in their lifetime by education and upbringing at least if we get there when the individual is young. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and is pronounced “crisper”; it is a natural method bacteria have developed through evolution and used for millions of years to make themselves immune against known viruses which attack them, has the potential to turn the preceding statement on its head.

Beautifully filmed, and lucidly written by Oscar-winning director Adam Bolt and Regina Sobell, Human Nature explains in some depths the CRISPR technique and its use for targeted changes of the DNA, the building block of all living cells. As one of the highly articulate witty and engaging scientists participating in this film says: “This is going to get quite technical, but good technical” and indeed it does: there are excellent illustrations of the technical aspect of what laypersons should understand about CRISPR. And there are prize-winning scientists from top universities speaking enthusiastically about their discovery which will probably as much of an impact on our societies' future as the internet and Artificial Intelligence combined. Indeed, combined with the internet and artificial intelligence CRISPR provides us with the most profound and precise way in which we can intervene in nature at the molecular level. These scientists, some of the most important one’s young women, are articulate, witty entertaining. Jill Banfield my major contribution to science which will probably the one on my tombstone “The person who over coffee in the Berkley Free Speech Movement Café told Jennifer Doudna about an article on CRISPR she had seen in the scientific Journal”. One of the amusing aspects of its discovery is that it happened when the Yoghurt-culture-provider Danisco needed to address a problem with the Yoghurt culture bacteria it was selling to its yogurt-producing clients.

For the most part, these scientists are also thoughtful and concerned about using CRISPR carefully and responsibly in a complex and interconnected natural world. 

We also hear from a resilient and articulate youth with severe sickle cell anaemia, who now has a chance to be cured of the frequently painful disease that would cut his life short. There are some thoughtful remarks as he reflects on his life so far and on what makes him the person he is. 

And Adam Bolt also shows us business people emanating from elite universities and providing gene-editing services and working on revolutionary research for profit with great drive creativity. They are visibly having an enormous amount of fun but with the potential to get society and nature into serious trouble. The ambition of recreating the ancient woolly mammoth from antediluvian skeletons does evoke some of the more frightening scenes of the dystopic Jurassic Park.

Nature is not human, but it is human nature to want to harness nature for human wants and needs. When people do this, they are often necessarily unaware of all the consequences. We interfere in nature at our peril and create serious problems if we are not extremely careful and sometimes even when we are. 

Thanks to its clarity and its carefully chosen protagonists, Human Nature is an excellent, informative entertaining and indeed spellbinding film. The personalities of its protagonists are encapsulated in the way they speak about themselves, their work and their lives. And there is some great archive material. While the film mainly adopts a carefully optimistic stance, the dystopic potential for the future does seeps through now and again, not least when Vladimir Putin speaks to young Russians about CRISPR's potential for warfare. 

The title Human Nature contains a double meaning which is a factual statement and a warning in one. Will our human nature allow us to recognize that human interventions into the delicate interconnected system of nature can have unforeseeably dangerous consequences for the future of all living beings? 

Go see this film, if you want to learn about CRISPR and the important women and men behind it. Human Nature gives you a fascinating and entertaining introduction into the state of play of this most important of technologies. You can’t ask for much more from a natural science documentary.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Film (France 2019), written and directed by Céline Sciamma, 10* out of 10

Awarded the Golden Palm at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful and memorable period film. Céline Sciamma has a very personal female and feminist vision which is also universally human. She is superbly supported by her creative team and an ensemble of four outstanding woman actors, Noémi Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Valeria Golina and Luàna Bajrami. Magnificent cinema.

France 1760. Sitting as a model for her pupils, the painter Marianne (Noémi Merlant) is asked about a painting of hers different in style from the others. It is a “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and while she sits she remembers. On a Breton Island, Marianne first meets the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and then the Comtesse (Valeria Golina) from Milan who has asked Marianne to come for a commissioned painting. The Comtesse explains that the commission is for a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who has been brought the island from the convent where she lived. The portrait is for the future husband of Héloïse chosen for her by the Comtesse who is herself from Milan and left her hometown to marry a French count. The challenge for Marianne is that Héloïse who refuses the marriage also refuses to sit for a portrait. Marianne will spend time with Héloïse observe her surreptitiously and then paint a portrait in secret from memory. Héloïse is told that Marianne has been hired as a companion. As the Comtesse leaves for a few days on a voyage, a tender friendship and more develops between Marianne and Héloïse. They also develop a close bond with Sophie.

Céline Sciamma has written and brilliantly filmed the story of four women temporarily and artificially appearing to be removed from the constraints of the male world around them. But “Fugere non possum”: I cannot flee. The constraints all around them even when the men are not. 

The photography is beautiful and the sound is captured to be carefully authentic - the scratch of charcoal on paper, for instance). The sound is not overlaid with music, yet there is music too, haunting and unforgettable. Here is a tender love story told in pictures and furtive looks as much as in words. And like the sound and the music, some of the visual storytelling lingers with the viewer. The main four woman-actors (Merlant, Haenel, Bajrami, and Golina) are an outstanding ensemble. The development of the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse is beautifully developed. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a haunting, moving, unforgettable film. Céline Sciamma says she is inspired by  Wonder Woman, Titanic and The Piano but she has her own sensual storytelling style.


Saturday 2 November 2019

Le Jeune Ahmed (Young Ahmed), Belgium 2019, written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 7.5* out of 10, seen at Viennale Film Festival Vienna

With Le Jeune Ahmed the Dardenne brothers bring their trademark documentary style to a drama about a radicalised young Muslim boy in Western-European society. The result is a suspenseful watchable drama that throws up important questions. There are some strong performances by the lay-actors. Idir Ben Addi shines in the title role. Le Jeune Ahmed received the Palme for best direction at the prestigious Cannes film festival.

Belgium 2019. Like the thirteen-year-old that he is, Young Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) moves from school to home quickly, yet awkwardly. His school teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) has helped him with his dyslexia and wishes to teach modern Arabic to her students to supplement the Koranic Arabic which they learn at the mosque. Unlike many other thirteen-year-olds though, Ahmed has been brought to a fundamentalist interpretation of his faith by the preacher Immam Yussuf (Othmane Moumen) in his local mosque.  Being a "pure" Muslim is at the centre of Ahmed’s thinking. He single-mindedly tries to fulfil all the daily precepts of a devout Salafi Islam. Moreover, he feels that he must call to order those Muslims close to him who he considers too westernized. Foremost among them are the two most important women in his life: his single mother (Claire Bodson) and his school teacher Inès who is rumoured to have a Jewish boyfriend; this is one more reason for young Ahmed to plan to deal with her once and for all. In his fanaticism, Ahmed oversteps moral and legal limits. He will encounter the Belgian system for punishing and rehabilitating young radicalised offenders.  How will he respond to the humane, tolerant yet ill-adapted methods and institutions he encounters there? 

In their documentary-like style, Ahmed is followed with a mobile camera from beginning to end the Dardenne-brothers latest film. They place the viewer in the centre of the action with their protagonist. Much of the cinematography concentrates on the upper body, head, and face of the acting persons. The Dardenne-brothers have again carefully selected lay-actors to play the roles in their fictional story. The actual heroines of this film are the women of Muslim origin who are trying to live their lives and assume their roles in freedom in a Western-European society with all its advantages and flaws. They try to build bridges for boys and young men in their care from their ancestral culture and religion to the modern values of the society of the country they live in. They try to do this while respecting the North African and Middle Eastern roots of these youngsters. And they are in danger because it is these women who are the first target of the venom of radicalized Muslim youths and lack the protection and support they need both from governmental institutions and from their own community. This is something Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's film shows very effectively in its spare style. 

Le Jeune Ahmed also shows how the Belgian system for young offenders is trying to deal with radicalized youths. If what is shown in the film conforms to reality, the system seems to avoid and ignore the aspects of radical religion. It treats radicalized youth like any other youth offenders. The carelessness with which a murderous radicalized misogynous child is allowed as part of his rehabilitation to spend time with a non-Muslim girl of his own age seems like just another way in which girls and women in our society lack the care and support they need in the face of racist and misogynous ideologies they may be confronted with. Whether right-wing white supremacist or violent Islamist radical or left-wing anti-Semites (see today’s British Labour Party), the privileged targets of these young radical men and boys are women. The closer these women or girls are to them (secular women of Muslim backgrounds,  Jewish women who are members of the Labour party) the more virulent the expression of the hatred. In this sense, the Dardenne’s fictional story in documentary format is a credible reflection of modern reality.  it shows how a boy, who is still emotionally very dependent on his mother and his teacher can fall prey to an ideology that turns objects of love and respect into objects of murderous hate and disdain. 

Le Jeune Ahmed grabs the attention of the viewer from beginning to end. It does so with a more suspenseful action than their previous efforts. Personally, I found its ending not very credible. I was however never tempted to let my attention slip while watching Young Ahmed’s story. Moreover, Le Jeune Ahmed is a film that does not leave you indifferent. As in previous films, the Dardennes have elicited excellent performances from their lay actors. Idir Ben Addi is outstanding as Ahmed, so are Clare Bodson as his mother and Myriem Akheddiou as a dedicated teacher.

Le Jeune Ahmed received the Palme for best direction at the prestigious Cannes film festival. It is not as realistic as previous Dardenne films on the challenges of ordinary people confronting difficult evens in our very imperfect societies in Western Europe, but it is a topical film worth seeing, thinking about and discussing with others. 

At the packed Gartenbaukino in Vienna the largest venue for the excellent Viennale Film Festival under the capable direction of Eva Sangeorgi, members of the audience had the opportunity to pose questions to Luc Dardenne. He mentioned that the film is shown in schools with many students of Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds leading to discussions with students some of which initially express the feeling that it portrays students from such backgrounds as terrorists or potential terrorists. He answers this by making clear that terrorists can come from all backgrounds for example the inquisition in 16th century Spain or the Jewish assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. To me, Dardenne was more convincing and competent when he spoke about his filmmaking than his skills in the prevention of radicalisation among Muslim youths in Belgium. Experts like the psychologist Ahmad Mansour working in Germany (author of among other books the Spiegel bestseller list's Klartext zur Integration: Gegen falsche Toleranz und Panikmache) who take a more direct and proactive approach seem to be more competent and capable in this area, but the Dardenne's Le Jeune Ahmed can make a valuable contribution to getting a discussion going.

Luc Dardenne at Viennale 2019

2 November 2019 12:51 GMT 

Editorial Note: A number of grammatical error corrections and small editorial corrections have been made by the author after the original release of this blog entry. 

Tuesday 29 October 2019

A Rainy Day in New York, Film 2019, written and directed by Woody Allen starring Timothée Chalamet, 7* out of 10

Eighty-three-year-old Woody Allen, embroiled in accusations of child sexual abuse and a 60 Million Dollar lawsuit with Amazon Studios, presents an enjoyable romantic comedy, more melancholic and nostalgic than highly amusing, which chimes with his early works Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Timothée Chalamet shines as the male lead.

Gatsby Welles (Timothée, not Timothy, Chalamet), Jew-ish son of very nouveau riche parents from New York, is a reluctant student at Yardley an idyllically set liberal arts college in upstate New York. His girlfriend Ashleigh, (not Ashley) played by Elle Fanning, is a banker’s daughter from Tucson, Arizona. Gatsby supplements his pocket-money by copious earnings from his talent for playing poker. So, when Ashleigh gets the opportunity to interview the famous filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) for her college magazine, Gatsby comes along and plans to spend a good part of his recently won ten-thousand Dollars on a special weekend in New York with her, which includes the well-known hotels, restaurants and bars in Manhattan where no ragged people go. While Ashleigh’s interview turns into a series of opportunities for scoops and sexually charged encounters with intellectual, insecure and horny icons of the artsy film world, Gatsby meets Shannon (Selena Gomez), the now not so young anymore younger sister of a former girlfriend on an outdoor filmset in New York and tries to avoid his parents with whom he has a passive-aggressive latently hostile and rebellious relationship.

Woody Allen’s Rainy Day in New York reflects his earlier works that feature New York, Annie Hall, and Manhattan. The photography, the melancholy, the Manhattan landmarks, and the classic Jazz rhythms make this a pleasant romantic comedy for a middle-aged nostalgic crowd who grew up with Woody Allen movies. 

Thus, I enjoyed A Rainy Day in New York and particularly the excellent performance by Timothy Chalamet as the male lead. I suspect quite a few of Woody Allen’s European fans will too, although the film lacks the originality, edge, depth and zany neurotic feel of the earlier Woody Allen works with which it chimes.

Eighty-three-year old Woody Allen has of course become a highly controversial figure in the US, whose status as persona non-grata following accusations of child sexual abuse by his ex-wife Mia Farrow and some of Farrow’s and Allen’s children, has been reinforced by the #metoo scandal and movement which has shaken the film world especially in the US. Because of this and the sixty million USD lawsuit between the giant Amazon Studios and Mr. Allen, A Rainy Day in New York is unlikely to be seen on US cinema-screens anytime soon. Moreover, there will be many, who will not go and see any movies involving those convicted or accused of sexual harassment or worse in the revelations around the #metoo movement. Indeed, some of the plot-points and scenes in A Rainy Day in New York seem to be quite oblivious if not deliberately provocative in the light of the film industry’s numerous #metoo moments and can make for uncomfortable viewing.

For those, however, who are willing to see A Rainy Day in New York as a work separately from its author and director it is an enjoyable melancholic, somewhat nostalgic romantic comedy.

Sunday 6 October 2019

Parasite, Film (2019), Korea, written and directed by Bong Jun-Ho, 9.5* out of 10

Parasite is a bizarre, at times funny, at times horrifying story about rich and poor in developed societies coming into ever-closer proximity, developing an uneasy familiarity which breeds increasing contempt. What starts as dark humour moves seamlessly on to bloody violence and melodrama. Parasite is a satirical portrait of Korean, but not only Korean, contemporary society with apocalyptic overtones. It deservedly won the prestigious Palme d'Or Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

An impoverished family consisting of father (Song Kang-ho) mother, daughter (Park So-dam) and son (Choi Woo-sik) lives hand-to-mouth in a stinking basement in Seoul. They jump at every opportunity to gain access to free resources and make money with piece work such as folding pizza boxes for pennies here and there. Despite their poverty and poor living conditions they are all clever, resourceful and remain optimistic about chances for survival and perhaps even escaping their destitute state.

When the son who is in his twenties gets the opportunity to become an English tutor to a teenager living with her parents and young brother in a classy modern designer home, he jumps at it. Soon, with guile and deception, he manages to find jobs for other members of his family. To do so, plans of getting the current incumbents of domestic jobs removed from their positions must be conceived and executed. The result is an extreme, modern form of masters and servants (think Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey) adapted for the 21st century. Likeable scoundrels are constructing an economic ladder for themselves by clever planning and teamwork and progressively make themselves indispensable to their new rich patrons. Yet what starts as a comedy, becomes an increasingly dramatic, dark and violent satire about the inevitably violent consequences of physically close coexistence of people across extreme wealth gaps.

As Bong-Joon-Ho's bizarre story moves eclectically from one genre to another the viewer is drawn into a rollercoaster ride of emotions from laughter to horror, from melodrama to tragedy with vivid depictions of the rich and the poor parts of society. The unsuspecting viewer will be drawn into the story with humour and at a pleasant pace. Director Bong-Joon-Ho and his talented ensemble of actors take us along for the ride with attractive photography and filmography showing worlds of poverty and wealth coexisting in ever closer proximity until it is too late for them and us to disengage, even though at a certain point we would like to. 

This is a captivating and unusual portrayal of unequal societies in the developed world where members of what used to be the middle class fall into destitution while watching others close-up living lives of increasingly untold wealth and luxury. So, in a world where we are told that middle-class families can achieve a reasonable standard of living what happens when the promise is broken for many and exceeded for a few. Parasite presents satirically and tragically apocalyptic vision. Parasite is a memorable high-quality film that makes for at times difficult yet compulsive viewing.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Come from Away, Musical, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Phoenix Theatre London, 8* out of 10

Built on true Canadian hospitality, politeness and a bit of pathos, Come from Away's originality in taking an unlikely subject as the basis for a  musical ultimately succeeds with audiences in its feel-good mission and has an Olivier Award to show for it.

In the episodic rivulets flowing from the stormy seas of world history, interesting stories can be found which are waiting to be told. On 11 September 2011 thousands of people descended upon Gander, a small town with an enormous airport in Canada’s province of Newfoundland to commemorate the days they spent there 10 years earlier when the run of history was administered a violent jolt by the murderous attack of Al-Qaida, a violent Islamist organisation, on New York City and Washington DC.

In the wake of the airplane hijackings and attacks on the twin- towers, all US airspace was closed for several days. The planes that were in the air expecting to enter the United States when the relevant authorities took this decision had to land wherever possible outside the USA. Gander had a giant airport, because in the era before passenger planes had jet engines all flights from Europe to the US had to refuel there. In 2001 plans to close the little-used airfield of Gander had been made but not yet implemented. And so, 38 airplanes and 6500 passengers were diverted to this sleepy town.

Come from Away is a musical-treatment of the events at Gander where the 7000- inhabitant town of Gander and surrounding villages stood up to the challenge of welcoming 6500 unexpected and upset airline passengers and crew from all over the world. A random cosmopolitan crowd quite literally if gently falling from the skies into a very quiet, somewhat backwoods region. Come from Away shows us how the local community pulled together to give them a home from away and how some of the random encounters played out. 

Based on in-depth interviews the musical written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff this is a charming, feel-good musical with fair attempts at moving moments about airplane passengers and crews in temporary distress. They were helped by the Newfoundlanders of Gander and surrounding towns in a necessarily improvised but heart-warmingly cordial manner with no expectation of any payment in return. 

What makes the production work is above all the lively ensemble performance, with actors slipping into different roles as needed, the on-stage musical accompaniment, direction by Christopher Ashley, scenic design (Beowulf Boritt)  as well as the lighting design (Howell Binkley) which transforms the stage space instantly into into school halls, outside scenery and aircraft cabins as needed. The music is very pleasant too. 

All this makes Come from Away a very enjoyable watchable and original show for those of us in the West who like to be helpful to strangers and for cosmopolitans who often take airplanes for jobs and holidays.

What the story does not have is conflict or real tension between its protagonists, although, or perhaps because, the murderous conflict of which the 9/11 attack is a part plays a significant role in the background: it is, of course, our own view of western civilization as a friendly and cosmopolitan good that is being celebrated in this musical, and the other side of the coin, western civilization being seen as unfriendly and violent to non-westerners is only hinted at. Similarly, the potential conflict between gay city dwellers and manly Newfoundland lumberjacks is also resolved in polite and down to earth Canadian tolerance which although it sometimes skips the province of Quebec, apparently reaches all the way to Newfoundland. There is no black-face future Canadian prime minister anywhere to be seen either. Also, in the era of Greta Thunberg’s admonitions to us all on the evils of air-travel for our environment, any story which has only positive things to say about airline pilots and frequent fliers and the kind earthlings whose beautiful environment they gradually destroy may leave some of us feeling slightly queasy.

If such potential reservations do not put you off, then you are likely to enjoy this enthusiastically performed and similarly received award-winning musical as much as the audiences who love it. Moreover, Come from Away is also the proud recipient of a 2019 Olivier Award for best direction of a musical.

Come from Away in happy action

Monday 2 September 2019

Tel Aviv on Fire, Film, Israel 2018, directed by Sameh Zoabi, 8* out of 10

With the multi-award-winning “Tel Aviv on Fire”, Israeli-Palestinian-Arab writer and director Sameh Zoabi brings us a funny, intelligent and most enjoyable comedy/farce against the absurd background of the multi-layered relationship between the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and West of the Jordan and Jewish Israelis. For security reasons, Israeli soldiers interfere sometimes reluctantly sometimes over-enthusiastically, always significantly in the lives of the Palestinians living in East- Jerusalem and on the Westbank of the Jordan. That interference is largely unwelcome, but after more than 50 years, can lead to unexpected areas of reluctant cooperation. It has great potential not only for drama and tragedy but also for irony and humour. And there is plenty of irony and humour to be found here.

Salem (Kais Nashef), a Jerusalemite Palestinian has obtained a minor job on the Palestinian Soap opera “Tel Aviv on Fire” through literal nepotism: his uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawalha) is the producer. The soap opera is a fictional story playing in 1967 about a Palestinian woman, played by the French Arab actress Tala (Lubna Azabal) who pretends to be an Israeli Jewess and tries seduce an Israeli general (Yousef Sweid) played by a Palestinian Arab actor and have him reveal Israel’s secret military plans. Salem’s excellent knowledge of Hebrew makes him the go-to guy for authentic Hebrew dialogue between them. The soap opera is a hit in the Palestinian territories and Israel particularly with the female demographic. When Salem tries to verify one of his Hebrew expressions (something like sex bomb) at an Israeli checkpoint, the bomb part, gets him an unintended interview with the checkpoint’s commanding officer, Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton) and lets him believe that he is a writer on “Tel Aviv on Fire”. Bored with his checkpoint command, and convinced of his yet untried talents as a creative in the media industry, Assi coerces Salem into giving him influence on the development of the plot and the character of the Israeli General, initially to impress his wife and her girlfriends. Salem finds himself between the rock of the Israeli checkpoint officer who wants to be a screenwriter and the hard place of satisfying the Arab financiers of the soap opera he works on. 

In the 21st century we have become so used to the fact that reality mirrors the most unlikely soap opera plots. Moreover, the actors who are believed to be their fictional characters by their viewers are becoming the most successful politicians in elections. Therefore, it is almost a relief when a comedy farce comes along where it is fiction which subtly chimes with reality and not the other way round. 

The screenplay for Tel Aviv on Fire is written by a Palestinian-Israeli graduate of Tel Aviv and Columbia University Sameh Zoabi and Dan Kleinman a professor teaching in the Columbia University Screenwriting Program. Here is a film about a soap opera which is being developed against the ever more misunderstood and often absurd context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its thesis is that the psychological and practical adaptations of Israelis and Palestinians to their situation can be seen not only as drama and tragedy but also as giving rise to irony and humour on both sides. And you the viewer can decide about the plausibility of that thesis.

It is, of course, easier to see the humour in the situation if you are a Palestinian-Arab with Israeli citizenship or a professor at Columbia University living in New York than if you are a Palestinian Arab living West of the Jordan in the permanent limbo of a situation which is marked by restrictions on travel as well as delay and potential humiliation at checkpoints. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv of Fire is a competently directed if a bit messy comedy which often hits the spot. Strong performances by Kais Nashef and Yaniv Biton as well as Lubna Azabal a Belgian actress with Moroccan and Spanish roots playing a Palestinian French actress in turn playing a Palestinian woman spy pretending to be the Israeli Jewish lover of an Israeli General before the 1967 six-day war. Confused? You won’t be once you have seen this very enjoyable and witty comedy, which richly deserves the international awards it has already received. Warmly recommended.