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Wednesday 18 December 2013

Fill the Void, Film written and directed by Rama Burshtein, 8* out of 10

It is a truth universally acknowledged in ultraorthodox Jewish communities that a man or woman of marriageable age must either be married or in want of a spouse.  In the Israeli film Fill the Void (Hebrew with subtitles), a costume drama playing in one such community in Israel, writer and director Rama Burshtein tells the story of how the young care-free Shira (Hadas Yaron) is unexpectedly thrown into emotional turmoil when, in the midst of the search for a suitable husband, her elder married sister, to whom she is close, dies giving birth to a boy. 

A few months after these events, Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) is faced with the possibility that her widower son-in-law Yochai (Yiftach Klein) might be offered a match with a widow in Antwerp. This would separate her from her beloved late daughter’s baby-boy. 

When she sees how Shira and Yochai look after the baby, she suggests to Yochai to consider a match with Shira. Irit’s plan is controversial not only with her husband but also in the community. For the the match go ahead requires not only the prospective husband and wife to agree with it but also the consent of the Rebbe, the religious and spiritual leader of the community. Moreover, Irit’s headstrong disabled sister Hanna has a different plan of her own. 

With beautiful costumes and set and scenes filmed at a slow pace, Rama Burshtein has succeeded in making an atmospheric film, particularly through the skilful use of photography and music. She gives a sensitive and sympathetic insight into the life of the community depicted in this film. Fill The Void does not deal with religious conflicts; it tells a universal tale, that of the powerful matriarch challenging those around her to respond and succeed in preserving their own identity and pursuit of happiness. 

Burshtein is helped by a strong ensemble of actors, with Irit Sheleg, and especially newcomer Hadas Yaron standing out. Hila Feldman also shines in the small but difficult role of Frieda.

Fill the Void is a demanding film, making the viewer work, as a number of key scenes are open to interpretation, particularly regarding the motives and emotions that lie behind the decisions and actions of the different characters. 

One sign of a quality film is that it leaves us with considerable food for thought and intelligent discussion; Fill the Void certainly does that.

Sunday 8 December 2013

No Place to Go, written and performed by Ethan Lipton and his Orchestra, Gate Theatre, London 8* out of 10

I have just returned from a week in New York, NY, a lively city full of friendly and resilient people who would not want to live anyplace else. So it was appropriate, if unexpected, that yesterday afternoon I would enter the Gate Theatre in London’s Notting Hill to find it having been turned into a New York comedy club. 

On the stage are Ethan Lipton and his three piece orchestra. Ethan is one of those New Yorkers who have grown up in the city they love. Just like Mayor Bloomberg he has made a career of cleaning raw data to turn it into useful information and just like Mayor Bloomberg he has a second job. Unlike mayor Bloomberg, Ethan was a fairly low-level part-time employee and unlike Mayor Bloomberg his other job subsidised and thus made possible by the first one by the first one, is that of a writer and performer. 

Ethan and his band proceed in words and song to tell us the story of his employer, the information providing company, relocating from Brooklyn to planet Mars. Well, it may not really be Planet Mars but for a man from Brooklyn relocating to anywhere outside New York City might as well be relocating to Planet Mars; except perhaps having to relocate to New Jersey, the other side of Manhattan, which would be marginally worse than living on Mars.

In “No Place to Go ” Ethan Lipton and his band have put together a heartbreaking authentic story taking us through an emotional roller coaster of a middle-aged man and his colleagues facing up to the inevitable which hits them unprepared. It is a story that rings painfully true in the voice of the employee, a perspective from which it is rarely articulated. The force of gravity of our market system means that that roller coaster will drag us down. The force of human spirit means, that as we do not go gently into that good night, which the search for shareholders value has in store for many a knowledge worker in our postindustrial age.  The human spirit, even middle-aged, searches creatively for coping strategies. “No Place To Go” is a deeply true and moving story told in an original manner in soliloquy and song. It comes from the heart of New York City, post 9/11 post financial crisis. And New York City has a very human heart. 

Despite some shortcomings in the acoustics that occasionally made it difficult to follow some of the lyrics, No Place To Go, worthy winner of the OBIE award and voted Best Lounge Show In New York, is definitely worth seeing.

Friday 22 November 2013

The Manor, Film by Shawney Cohen 7* out of 10

Shawney Cohen is running the bar in The Manor, the nightclub and associated hotel his father Roger took over and made the family business when Shawney and his brother Sammy were children. Roger, born in Egypt emigrated to Israel and then to Canada where he started penniless as a taxi-driver. He married Brenda, the daughter of holocaust survivors. Successfully running a night-club with its lap-dancing girls in the small Canadian city of Guelph requires street-smarts and a certain robustness. The nightclub has made Roger’s family a comfortable living, but a lap-dancing club is not a respectable business for a "nice Jewish family", is it? Moreover, as it seems that both sons will follow their father into this shady family business, the psychological problems and family conflicts can no longer be kept under the surface. The Manor chronicles the trials and tribulations of Cohen family, as its members try, each in their own way, to cope with their problems - business, health, personal.  Should they arrange themselves with the "golden cage" that is the family business or free themselves from its materially comfortable yet psychologically and socially toxic embrace?

Though a documentary, The Manor feels like a family drama/comedy. It is the first documentary made my Shawney Cohen. He paints a a sensitive and moving portrayal of his family, without covering up conflicts or character flaws.  The extent to which members of the family are able to switch between suppressing conflict and openly discussing problems and their desire to look out for each other despite all the personality conflicts makes this a spellbinding film. Despite all the unfavourable odds there is a spark of love and connectedness among all the protagonists which gives rise to the hope that that this family will manage to deal with its problems in persistent, cautious and authentic. Meanwhile The Manor, warts and all,  is a very watchable family portrait. Another example of UK Jewish Film Festival bringing a entertaining quality film to an appreciative audience at the Tricycle Cinema.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Enough Said, Film written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, 8*out of 10

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a massage therapist, divorced, and mother of a teenage daughter. When she joins her friend Sarah (Toni Colette) for a cocktail party she meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) a potential new client and Albert (James Gandolfini) a potential new love interest. Eva’s daughter will soon be off to college and Eva is trying “pre-adapt” to the time when she will have left home. And for Eva things are about to get really complicated. How will she fare in untangling the pile of emotional spaghetti that life, not entirely without Eva's own complicity, is about to serve up? 

With Enough Said Nicole Holofcener has done a remarkable job. She tells a plausible story about middle-class, middle-aged people who behave like normal middle-aged people would and manages to turn it into a highly entertaining drama/comedy. Moreover the film is perfectly cast with star actors who know how to deliver the subtly understated performances Holofcener’s writing and direction ask for.  The moments of humour are organically woven into the story; they do not appear contrived as in many of the romantic comedies coming to us from the United States. 

Unfortunately, the great James Gandolfini (unforgettable for his portrayal of the neurotic Mafia-boss Tony Soprano) died suddenly while on holiday in Italy this summer. We’re left here with his perfect portrayal of the eminently huggable Albert - and an immense sense of loss.

Monday 7 October 2013

Blue Jasmine, Film written and directed by Woody Allen, 8* out of 10

Having lost all her money and Manhattan-socialite lifestyle, after her super-rich husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) has been arrested as a fraudster, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has had a nervous breakdown and is seeking recovery and shelter with her sister Ginger in San Francisco. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is as different from her sister as can be: she has been living in modest circumstances with her two young boys from her first marriage to a building contractor with her working-class boyfriend Chilli (Bobby Cannavale). Having climbed to social and financial heights as Hal’s wife, Jasmine had always tried to avoid any social dealings with her working-class sister’s family, whom she considered an embarrassment.

Broke and psychologically destabilised by what has happened to her, Jasmine tries to find a surer footing from which she can climb back on the social ladder. But what’s the best plant for her? Picking up her studies from way back, training to become an interior designer or looking for a suitably powerful man who is looking for a wife capable of carrying out the appropriate social duties to support his professional ambitions? But as Jasmine, supported by Prozac, Lithium and dry Martinis tries to focus on the future, thoughts of her past continue to intrude and haunt her: how much did she know or at least suspect about her husbands fraudulent dealings? How did Ginger’s ex-husband loose the money he had planned to use to set up his own business?

Woody Allen’s topical drama tells the story of Jasmine’s downfall its effect on her and the attempt she makes to get back to lofty financial and social position.  He shows that he can write and direct a powerful drama, with finely drawn characters who ever so often confound our expectations just a little. Jasmine and Ginger, in particular are two contrasting and memorable women’s roles. Jasmine acts outwardly strong and assured but is fundamentally fragile, running on empty.  Ginger appears outwardly less secure than Jasmine and quite vulnerable, particularly after the arrival of her formerly so successful sister; but she can fall back on inner strength, resilience and judgement. Within an excellent ensemble cast, Cate Blanchett’s outstanding portrayal of Jasmine is matched by Sally Hawkins’ Ginger. With Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen, now in his seventies, shows that his creative abilities and his skills as a story teller are undiminished.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Salzburg, Austria: A Coffee House, An Actress and A Musical

Salzburg, Austria. I am sitting in the Café Sacher, opposite the city’s main theatre. The Café Sacher is part of the Hotel Sacher whose big brother is the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. 

Before becoming the Hotel Sacher in the late 1980s, the place was called the Oesterreichische Hof, and before that the Hotel d’Autriche. Over several centuries this has been the premier address to reside at when visiting Salzburg.

In Salzburg’s coffee houses cakes meet culture, art and science and cakes are culture, art and science. Not a 100m from where I am sitting is the house where the Mozart family lived. Even closer is the house where Christian Doppler the 19th century scientist who discovered the “Doppler-effect” was born, a discovery of paramount importance to modern astronomy. About the same distance away is the city’s main theatre. 

On the table next to me an elderly gentleman is reading his newspaper. It is the expressionist painter Kortokraks, the subject of a recent documentary film, and a friend of the more famous Oskar Kokoschka. 

I grew up in this city and remember when the Café I am now sitting in bore not the name of the well known Viennese cake, but that of an equally well-known chocolate specialty from Salzburg, the Mozartkugel; it is a small sphere (Kugel being the German for sphere) consisting of marzipan and gianduja nougat covered in dark chocolate.

The Viennese Café Sacher is of course the home of the famous Sachertorte, or as my waitress likes to emphasise the original Sachertorte, as in “Guten Morgen, mein Herr, darf ich Ihnen eine original Sachertorte bringen? Mit Schlag? Und einen Verlängerten dazu?” (May I bring you an original Sachertorte? With whipped cream? And an Americano to go with it?) 

It won’t be a Sachertorte for me for me today, at least not to start with. The cake that I traditionally eat here is a delicious concoction made of an almond base with a rich chocolate-truffle layer on top. “Also eine “Sarah Bernard”, der Herr?” the waitress asks, pronouncing the “Bernard” in the most French manner possible; so, Luckily they still have my favourite cake. Embarrassingly however, for a coffee house in which signed photographs of famous opera-singers, conductors, theatre directors and actors decorate the walls from top to bottom, they have got the name of the cake wrong! The “Bernard” in the Café Sacher’s menu refers to the most famous French actress of the Bel-Epoque, the late 19th century, Sarah Bernhardt, pronounced as the French first name “Bernard” but with an audible “t” at the end. 

This 5* hotel’s famous café with its impressive pedigree and its location at the heart of the European performing arts misspells and mispronounces one of its most tasty specialties. 

This clearly calls for a campaign to accurately reinstate the link between the tasty sweet and the grande-dame of the European stage and early film which it has been named after. 

I begin by explaining to my waitress that the lady who gave her name to the cake shares the second syllable of the surname and her Jewish roots with the creator of the Salzburg Festival, the German actor and director Max Reinhardt. 

The waitress recognizes the importance of the matter and immediately refers me to the next level up. This is the male waiter, in Austria addressed as “Herr Ober”. The regulars may replace the “Ober” by the first name; to them he is “Herr Franz”. Herr Franz informs me that I might be right, but “Bernard” looks and sounds “so much more French”! This line of argument however, will not cut any mustard with me. 

Herr Franz assures me, he will raise the issue with upper-management and expects a correction to follow. I’ll have to check on my next visit to Salzburg whether my campaign to restore the formidable Sarah Bernhardt to the rightful place in the sweet history of cake making will have borne fruit. 

For now, I am just in time to catch some open-day events at the Salzburg Landestheater across the street from the Café Sacher. Entry is free and an interested audience gets a chance to watch 30 minutes rehearsal for the forthcoming production of Goethe’s Dr. Faustus Part 1. The director and the principal actors perform part of the play and then explain and demonstrate how they go about performing a fighting scene. 

It looks like this Dr. Faustus will be a fine production in modern dress and a very interesting musical score that is integrated into the play. The director seeks to make the complex play accessible to a varied audience and even more ambitiously will attempt to do this for the much more esoteric Dr. Faustus Part 2. 

Clearly, theatre in Salzburg has come a long way since I last sampled it here. Now my curiosity has been piqued and I want to see more. 

The next event of the open-day programme is a free one-hour performance with a medley of songs from a number of musicals. Although I am not a musical-fan, I decide to join the audience in the packed theatre. And I’ll not be disappointed. 

There are excellent singing voices and strong dramatic and comic acting interpretations of great songs, some performed in English, some in German. The songs are from La Cage Aux Folles (the very moving “I am what I am”), Nunsense, Titanic, Kiss Me Kate, The Adams Family, I Have Never Yet Been to New York, and finally a number of songs from the sell-out production of the Sound of Music. It has taken until 2008 for the Sound of Music finally to be performed in the city where most of the action takes place. But now it feels like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical has finally come home to where it belongs.

My coffee-house and theatre-day in Salzburg draws to an end. I have had the chance to sample an interesting and popular programme with which the Salzburg Landestheater is not only attracting larger audiences but also establishing itself as a venue of note in the German speaking theatre - and there is nothing wrong with that.


              Sarah Bernhardt Torte

Rudolf Kortokraks

Sarah Bernhardt

     Café Sacher Salzburg

Max Reinhardt

The Sound of Music - Salzburger Landestheater 

Thursday 19 September 2013

The Proposal – The Bear, 2 short plays by Anton Chekhov, St James Theatre, London, 9* out of 10

For a 21st century city-dweller who is smartphone-connected and desirous of participating fully in many aspects of life - private, professional, social, cultural - so many needs wants and requests, real and imagined, are vying for his attention that certain activities must be undertaken simultaneously.

So it is a good thing that thanks to the St. James Theatre office and other workers in London’s Victoria district can now munch their organic lunch-time salads, while at the same time watching some highly entertaining quality theatre in a very pleasant cultural space. 

They are currently being marvellously entertained by two short pieces signed Anton Chekhov, a 19th century Russian genius, who had a great sense of humour and an eye for the most human of our human traits - losing our cool completely, when it comes to wooing or being wooed by, a potential life-partner. 

In The Proposal the 35-year-old land-owner Lomov (Matthew McPherson) intends to make a marriage proposal to his neighbour’s daughter (Nadia Hynes). But to the chagrin of the latter, other topics than love and marriage arouse the potential couple’s passions.

In The Bear we meet a Smirnov (Gary Sefton), a middle-aged landowner whose solvency depends on immediately collecting a debt from a recently widowed attractive lady (Caroline Colomei) who appears determined to grieve forever for her deceased but undeserving wealthy landowner husband. The angered Smirnov becomes something like Vladimir Putin’s manic cousin including a compulsion for showing off his muscle-packed torso to the adoring multitude (; the Russian for “bear” is medved, without –iev, but still).  In trying desperately and not very successfully to collect the debt Smirnov in turn unleashes the widow’s suppressed passions to the point where quivering duelling pistols can take on phallic proportions.  

This double bill is true farce at its most farcical and yet Chekhov’s talent imbues the plays with an acute understanding of human nature, giving them a special quality; the characters on stage are ridiculous - and disconcertingly like you and me in what we might think of as our less glorious moments!

In the energetic production directed by Edward Hulme, the enthusiastic cast of the Butterfly Company make the Studio Theatre’s space their own.  They also establish great contact with the audience. Both male leads clearly enjoy skilfully squeezing every drop of comedy out of their hilarious characters.

Pure afternoon delight.


Sunday 8 September 2013

What Maisie Knew, Film directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 8* out of 10

Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the precocious 9-year-old daughter of art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) and ageing rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore), who have hired the young Margo (Joanna Vanderham) as her nanny, with whom Maisie has developed a strong bond. What is a very dysfunctional home at the best of times, becomes a truly toxic environment as Beale and Susanna go through a nasty break-up. Margo is involved with Beale, while Susanna soon takes up with the young bar-keeper Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgaard).

The adults around Maisie are so wrapped up in their own affairs and desires that they appear to either ignore her altogether or use her in order to further their own ends. Maisie soon understands that in order to get through this, she will have to look after her own needs and take a lead in managing her relationship with the rather irresponsible adults around her. In the stormy waters which they have created, she looks for a suitable place to throw an anchor, in a desperate attempt to find at least some stability for herself.

Despite being a adaptation of the eponymous novel written in the 1890s by the American author Henry James, "What Maisie Knew" is a heart-breaking story of our time: self-obsessed adults misuse their position as parents to pursue their own ends, leaving their child to fend for herself. 

With the help of an excellent ensemble of actors, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel tell Maisie’s story in convincing “scenes from a marriage” style. Juliann Moore stands out as a woman with guilt feelings for being an inadequate parent which she is asking the victim of her inadequate parenting to assuage.  But, the success of this film depends on how credible the portrayal of Maisie is - and Onata Aprile delivers an outstanding performance.

After seeing the What Maisie Knew, I did ask myself whether it was really possible for a young girl to be as mature in dealing with the consequences of chaotic adult relationships as Maisie is. Quite by accident I came across the 1998 documentary film Divorce Iranian Style by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Halfway through this documentary a young girl, the daughter of the clerk in an Iranian divorce court, who has spent her childhood observing its procedures, speaks on camera to the filmmakers about her observations on failing adult relationships. It is an amazing document, which has settled the question for me – children like Maisie can speak to us in fictional and factual form across time and cultural barriers. Here a link to this documentary film on YouTube:

Friday 23 August 2013

The Attack, Film (2012), written and directed by Ziad Doueiri, 9* out of 10

Herzliyah in modern day Israel; the Arab Israeli surgeon Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) has reached the pinnacle of his career. As he is decorated with the highest prize the Israeli Association of Surgeons awards for excellence. Happily married for 15 years, he knows how to confidently deal with the occasional expression of suspicion from his Jewish-Israeli co-workers and patients, among whom he has made good friends. All his focus has been on building a successful career and social-life as an Arab citizen of the Jewish state; but a suicide bombing in a restaurant not far from the hospital where he works will turn his world upside down. It is a beginning of a journey that will force him to reengage with his roots and change how he reconciles his conflicting identities.

Based on a bestseller by the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra (a male writer who has his novels published using his wife’s first name), the talented and courageous Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri wrote and directed this riveting psychological thriller in Israel with a largely Israeli cast. The screenplay brings out nuances in the characters, which are skilfully picked up by the excellent actors. Ali Suliman’s performance as Dr. Jafaari is outstanding.
Due to the politics of the Middle East, The Attack has been banned from being shown in all Arab countries. Moreover, by shooting the film in Israel, the Lebanese director has broken Lebanese law that bans Lebanese citizens from any contact with Israel. 

One can only hope that as many citizens of the countries which have banned this film from being shown in their cinemas, on their travels outside the Arab world. Irrespective of the politics around its release in Arab countries, The Attack is a moving and intelligent psychological thriller that holds its audience on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

Friday 9 August 2013

Chimerica, play by Lucy Kirkwood, Harold Pinter Theatre, London 7* out of 10

Beijing, Tienanmen Square, on 4 June 1989.  From the balcony of his hotel room, the young American photo-journalist Joe Schofield  (Stephen Campbell Moore) takes a picture of an iconic moment in the attempted uprising of Chinese students against their government.  23 years later, shortly before the 2012 US presidential election, he returns there on another assignment. He seeks out his fixer from former days, Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), who leads a lonely existence as an English teacher. Lin has never been able to get over the death of his wife.  Returning to America, Joe gets it into his head to find out about what happened to the "tank-man", the man with the shopping bag on Joe's photo from 1989, who refused to budge when a tank advanced. Is he dead? Is he living incognito in the United States? Times have changed and the part symbiotic part adversarial relationship between China and America, which inventive International Relations professors Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularik have named Chimerica, will intervene into the lives of Joe and the people he involves in his search.

Lucy Kirkwood has written an ambitious new political play with a well thought out and intricate plot and some great lines.  In contrast with the plot, key characters such as Joe and his sidekick Mel (Sean Gilder) are written as rather flat stereotypes, with whom it is difficult to get an emotional connection. Exceptions are Joe’s love interest the marketing expert Tessa played with the right range of emotionality and wit by Claudie Blakley, his editor Frank (Trevor Cooper) who gets some of the best lines to deliver with feeling. There is a very competent ensemble cast with Benedict Wong deserving a special mention for a moving performance. Director Lindsey Turner knows how to make the action move forward so that the length of the play never leads to boredom in the audience. Award winning designer Es Devlin’s has come up with the best set I have seen in a while: it perfectly supports the direction and pace of a plot moving among time and space. 

This co-production with Headlong is the most successful transfer from the Almeida Theatre to London's Westend in some time. Despite “Chimerica’s” shortcomings, it was good to see a sell-out audience of all ages enjoying this intelligent and topical new play.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Wadjda, Film (2012), written and directed by Haifaa al Mansour, 9* out of 10

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a 12 year old girl in a religious state school run by a severe headmistress (Ahd Kamel), but Wadjda’s priorities lie with secular subjects, pop music, sport and fun. At home she lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) who works as a teacher. Her father (Sultan Al Assaf) comes home from long stints of shift work at his factory. Although Wadjda’s parents love each other their marriage is in crisis. Wadjda and the neighbours’ boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) have formed a competitive friendship. When he get’s a bicycle and she does not Wadjda is determined to get a bicycle one way or another, and she is a bit of an entrepreneur, opportunistic and creative.

The story of the girl applying creativity and determination to carve out a bit of freedom for herself on the streets of her neighbourhood could be told in many contexts. What makes “Wadjda” special is that this story plays in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where it was conceived, written and filmed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa al Mansour. Will Wadjda manage to get what she wants? Will Abdullah stick with a strong-willed friend? 

Writer and director Haifaa al Mansour her German crew and her strong Saudi cast have created very authentic and enjoyable film that tells a story of an intelligent young girl looking carve out a slice of freedom for herself in the public space. In doing so she has to deal with some harsh limitations for women and girls in Saudi society. She also sees how her mother tries to cope with her own difficulties. The director presents in a low key, factual manner. Each time the young girl and her mother have to decide whether to accept, fight or circumnavigate the obstacle.. 

The contrast between women’s lack of freedom in public space and relative freedom in private space when only other women or close family are present is striking. Behind an abaya (the cloak) and niqab (face veil) covering body and face, there often is an educated woman in make-up and dress which are not that far removed from women in Western societies. The same goes for their aspirations.

Although co-financed by a Saudi prince, "Wadjda" is considered too controversial by the Kingdom's authorities to be seen in Saudi Arabia. That is a pity. It deserves a sell out audience numbers there -and everywhere else.

Sunday 14 July 2013

The American Plan, Play by R. Greenberg, St. James Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

The Catskills in the early 1960s. Eva (Diana Quick), her daughter Lily (Emily Taaffe) and Olivia (Dona Croll), her black "dame de compagnie" and chaperone to Lily have rented a cottage across the lake from a large hotel. Here the middle class Jews of New York City spend their summer vacation on the “American Plan”-package, the all you can eat Jewish cuisine XXL food and entertainment option in which the hotels in the Catskills specialise.  Eva is a refugee from Nazi Germany; Lily, her highly strung daughter, struggles to cope with her mother’s overbearing need to control her life. Olivia mediates between the two with forbearance and wisdom. When Nick, a good looking young man swims over from the hotel to the cottage the sparks soon begin to fly.

American Plan starts with a splash and develops into a complex family drama with deep social comment. The characters created by David Greenberg in this play from 1990, are interesting and have depth. They each carry within them their very own American Plan: a design for overcoming personal trauma and finding one’s own path in the pursuit of happiness.

David Grindley’s production shines with excellent acting performances throughout; despite this already high standard, Emily Taaffe stands out with a breathtakingly authentic performance as the highly sensitive and at the same time strong-willed Lily. 

Monday 24 June 2013

Thérèse Desqueyroux, Film, France (2012) directed by Claude Miller, 7* out of 10

Daughter of a rich landowner, the young Thérèse grows up in the Landes-region not far from Bordeaux in the 1920s. Her mother has died and the bookish Thérèse spends her summer holidays with her best friend Anne (Anaïs Demoustier) the daughter of a neighbouring landowner. 

Strong minded, straight talking and intelligent, she senses that her inner sensibilities do not go well with the expectations society has of her. “I have too many ideas in my head” she tells Anne. “Marriage will be good for me. It will put some order into my my ideas.” And so the 20- something Thérèse (cast somewhat implausibly with the 40-something Audrey Tatou) decides to do what is expected of her and marries Anne’s much older-brother Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), a dull country squire without intellectual ambitions. Bernard is quite taken by his beautiful fiancée, who with disarming honesty spells out to him that this marriage is all about joining the neighbouring families’ pine-forests together. 

What must now follow is the tragic tale of wealthy country folk suppressing a young and rebellious spirit. And indeed, this will be rather dark tale; yet the protagonists and the people that surround them are more nuanced than the stereotypes they represent. This gives the story some surprising scope for unexpected yet plausible sorties from the beaten path.

“Thérèse Desqueyroux” is based on the novel by French author, Francois Mauriac who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is director Claude Miller’s last film; he died much too early in April 2012 at the age of 70. Miller’s direction imbues the film with a clear sense of place and time. The landscape and water around the village of Angelouse is a strong character in its own right. Photography and costume are beautifully executed and brought into relief by the carefully chosen piano-music. A competent ensemble of actors led by Audrey Tatou, who gives a strong performance in the main role, contribute to making this an appropriately slow-moving, confident adaptation of Mauriac’s dark and intriguing novel.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Passion Play, play by David Nichols, Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker/Samantha Bond) and James (Owen Teale/Oliver Cotton) are a couple in their late fifties who have been quite contentedly married for 25 years. Oliver restores paintings, Eleanor teaches classical singing (They probably live in Hampstead, subscribe to the Guardian newspaper and vote Labor). When Eleanor’s young friend, the very attractive mid-thirties femme-fatale Kate (Annabel Scholey) decides to go after the rather dull Oliver, he finds it impossible to resist. The awareness of the extent of his betrayal unleashes a full blown mid-life crisis. Eleanor is in the eye of the storm betrayed by Kate and much more painfully by her trusted husband.  Betrayal and martyrdom are the ingredients of the Passion Play.

What makes Peter Nichols’ 1981 play stand out, is that Eleanor and James are each represented on stage by 2 people: one, the person as seen by those who interact with them and the other an alter ego who critically observes the first, and gives more open and direct expression to their needs and emotions. Occasionally that second personality takes over and becomes visible to the other characters, leaving the meaker alter-ego in the shadows. This interplay and the visibility to the audience of the inner dialogue of the two protagonists add drama, wit and some gripping emotional truth.

An impressive set, effective use of oratorio music and a director (David Levaux), who really knows what he is doing add substantially to the impact of this play. Casting was spot on and the quality of the acting makes this a great evening at the theatre: Zoe Wanamaker, Samantha Bond, Oliver Cotton and Annabel Scholey succeed with outstanding performances. This Passion Play is worth a detour to London’s Theatreland.   

Sunday 2 June 2013

Race, Play by David Mamet , Hampstead Theatre, London, 9* out of 10

In his book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty - How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves” (Harper and Collins, 2012) the behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely develops his “fudge factor”- theory about how people decide whether to behave honestly or dishonestly. “....our behaviour is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand we want to benefit from cheating and get as mch money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest , wonderful people? This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalisation, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor” theory.”

I am usually sceptical about about the validity of plausible theories, but this one might be both plausible and valid. Of course, you and I might very well be exceptions to this rule by either being always totally honest or always totally dishonest; but as a working assumption for dealing with others in the real world, this theory may well be valid and useful.

Outwardly, all the characters in David Mamets play Race are either black or white. Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) (white) and Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) (black) are the two partners in their Manhattan law-firm. Susan (Nina Toussaint - White)(black) is a young, highly talented, Harvard-trained lawyer working for Jack Lawson. Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) (white) rich respected businessman appears in their office unannounced. He explains that he has been accused of raping his black girl-friend and that he is innocent. He has just left the law-firm that represented him and would like Lawson and Brown to represent him from now on. Jack Lawson and Henry Brown have to decide whether to accept Strickland as a client and, if so, what strategy to deploy in a case, where the playing field is very uneven as a result of the role race plays in it. 

As the play proceeds the issue of race also enters into the way the various pairs of characters interact with each other and justify their own actions to themselves. Outwardly the people in this play are either black or white, but inside these highly trained and educated individuals are able to paint a firework of shades of grey with their great cognitive flexibility.

Mamet shows again that he is a master of plot and dialogue. The audience is kept on their toes: never a dull moment from the opening lines to the end and the issues of Race that are explored on stage are all worth exploring. This play ranks equal in quality with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, that was such a success when it had its London run last year (first at the Royal Court and then in the West End).

The set is beautifully designed, with the evocative New York skyline appearing in the window of the mock Edwardian furnished Law firm.

Director Terry Johnson succeeds with a suspenseful production. The ensemble cast is excellent with an outstanding performance by Nina Toussaint-White as Susan. Clark Peters shines as Henry Brown. Deservedly rapturous applause from a full house. Very few black people in the audience, though.

Poster from the New York Production of the Play

Saturday 1 June 2013

To Be or Not To Be, Play by Nick Whitby based on the film by Ernst Lubitsch, Stadschouwburg, Amsterdam, 8* out of 10

This review is an exercise in narrow-casting: an English review of a play which is only accessible to Dutch speakers.

September 1939. A Polish theatre company comes together in Warsaw to rehearse a bitingly satirical play about Nazi-Germany. But before its premiere, the Polish government-censor forbids the performance as the Polish government fears that it will provoke Poland’s powerful neighbour to the West. So the theatre company decide to play Shakespeare’s Hamlet instead. During the performance of Hamlet, a young Polish Airforce pilot, Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski becomes starstruck by Maria Tura the actress wife (Ellen ten Damme) of the jealous and ego-maniacal theatre director Josef Tura (Viggo Waas). After the Germans invade Poland he will need the theatre company’s help to save the names of the members of the Polish resistance being communicated to the Gestapo.

To save the resistance, the jealousies of the drama-queens (and kings) in the theatre company must give way to courageous patriotism as they face playing the most important roles of their lives as if their life depended on it . In fact, it does.

To Be Or Not To Be is an adaptation to the stage of the eponymous 1942 Hollywood Film Comedy Classic directed by Ernst Lubitsch remade in the 1980s with Mel Brooks.

In 1942 the great Ernst Lubitsch who was Jewish and had escaped from Germany to the United States, made his film a hilarious comedy. He could do this, since the US had not yet entered the war (World War II) and the worst of the atrocities to be carried out by Germans under their Nazi leaders were yet to come. In the US and England making fun of the Nazis was an arrow in the quiver of  psychological warfare against the Germans. As these countries never suffered occupation by the Germans and remained rather open democracies during World War II, they also kept their penchant for hilarious comedy about grotesque Nazi characters after World War II, once the Germany had been beaten. A production in Amsterdam of a play based on this film, a city under brutal German Nazi occupation during World War II, the city of of Anne Frank, where the majority of resistance fighters, Jews and other “undesirables” were murdered, must necessarily answer the question whether the Anglo-American habit of unadulterated comedy is appropriate for this subject.

The answer given to this question by director Gijs de Lange is no, yet he manages to address this tricky issue in an amusing manner by introducing the stand-up comedian Raoul Heertje, well known and popular for intelligent satirical and political comedy, as the means by which the original film comedy is mitigated by some thoughtful questioning. Heertje is himself Jewish and switches between playing himself and the main Nazi character Col. Erhardt. Furthermore, the ending of the play is more like Charlie Chaplin’s ending for his great Nazi parody “The Great Dictator” than that of Ernst Lubitsch’s original film.

The Dutch production of To Be or Not To Be is an enjoyable mix of comedy, stand-up comedy, slapstick, musical variety show and (a little bit) of drama. The inclusion of stand-up comedy elements is largely successful, the case for an adapted ending full of pathos is less convincing. Despite its undoubted flaws, this play is intelligently silly; it is funny and enjoyable in the appropriately thoughtful way that a Dutch audience would have the right to expect. Not a mean achievement.

Sunday 19 May 2013

A Perdre La Raison (Our Children), Film (2012), directed by Joachim Lafosse, 9* out of 10

After a long romantic holiday, Mounir (Tahar Rahim) proposes to Murielle (Emilie Dequenne). Overjoyed at Mounir’s proposal, Murielle accepts. 

Mounir’s mother, brother and sister live in Morocco, but he has been adopted by André Pinget (Nils Arestrup). André is financially successful a physician (general practitioner) who has taken it upon himself to help Mounir’s family with his money, entering into a fraudulent marriage with Mounir’s sister so she can have a Belgian Passport. Pinget is a tough and controlling type who seems to have need to be recognized as the patriarch who has the last word in the Moroccan family for whom he has now become an indispensable benefactor and pater familias. Mounir lives with André and depends on him for his salary, too.  Murielle is a competent school teacher. She is estranged from her mother and has occasional contact with her elder sister. 

For financial reasons and because Pinget demands it, the newly married couple goes to live together with Pinget in his large apartment in Brussels. Slowly Pinget’s hard and controlling manner begins to take its toll on the young people. They start a family and their three lovely daughters bring the young couple happy moments, but ultimately, the relationship between Pinget, Mounir and Murielle puts an unbearable strain on the young people’s vulnerable personalities - with tragic consequences.

Inspired by a news story, this is as heartrending a film as one is ever likely to see. Writer/director Joachim Lafosse skilfully shows the psychological development of the protagonists with close up camera shots that give a feeling of the intimacy and claustrophobia among the protagonists. Niels Arestrup as the brooding Pinget is excellent. Emilie Dequenne’s performance portraying the psychological development of Murielle is outstanding.

If you decide to see this gut-wrenching film, make sure you give yourself enough time to recover. Even then, this film with stay with you for a long time.

Monday 13 May 2013

Capital (original title Le Capital), Film, France (2012), directed by Costa-Gavras, 7* out of 10

Phenix is a large French Bank. Its Chief Executive Officer Jacques Marmande (Daniel Mesguich) collapses on the golf course due the advanced state of the testicular cancer he has kept secret from his colleagues. From his hospital bed Marmande and the board of directors appoint his young, ambitious assistant Jacques Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh) as his temporary  replacement. They believe that Tourneuil is the kind of figurehead they will be able to steer and, at the given moment, replace with the an appropriate long term CEO from the upper reaches of the French establishment. But they have underestimated Tourneuil’s limitless ambition, cojones and political skill which have been honed in a five year spell at Goldman Sachs before he joined Phenix. His apprenticeship at the top US investment bank, the epitome of the ruthless Anglo-Saxon money making machine and the Nemesis of paternalistic French state-capitalist wheelings and dealings, make Jacques a more formidable figure than his colleagues had expected. Enter a private-equity fund backed by Gulf Money which demands immediate exorbitant returns for its shareholders and is willing to oil the wheels of its sinister machinations with drugs and supermodels, and we can see that the newly appointed CEO has a lot on his plate.

Will Jacques Tourneuil be able to stand up to all these pressures? Will he understand that money is not everything, as his wise and loyal wife Diane (Natacha Régnier) advises?

French director Costa Gavras is a towering figure in the world of film making, who has never shied away from delivering a clear ideological message in his political thrillers. In his Oscar winning film Z he illustrated the evils of the military regime in 1960s Greece; in Missing the brutal methods of  General Pinochet in 1970s Chile. Now in his eighties, Costa Gavras still has the keen eye and youthful enthusiasm to show us his vision of how our globalized financial system perpetrates great social injustice, while its protagonists live in a dog-eat-dog world that makes them impervious to feelings of empathy. And Costa Gavras still manages to do this in the form a politico-economic thriller that is suspenseful and holds our attention.

In this film, he makes extensive use of fondly held French stereotypes about Anglo-Saxon character traits: evil thrives on globalisation, lives in Miami and speaks with a clipped English accent. Our French protagonist comes from a lower middle-class background and insists on only speaking English to his rather uninterested teenage son; surely, no good can come of that!

One would have liked to see more differentiated characters. Having said that, recent actual events around the former French Chief of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are just one example showing that  “Anglo-Saxonized” French and other bankers engaging in pillage, rape and frequent use of illegal stimulants are unfortunately not a vision that can be confined to the realm of fiction.

All the redeeming characters in Capital are women, but unfortunately, just as in the real world, the highest levels of financial decision making are closed to them.

Besides Costa Gavras’ direction, the strengths of Capital, are the fitting musical score and the acting performances, in particular, Gad Elamaleh as Jacques Tourneuil, Bernard Le Coq as the most powerful member of the Board of Phenix, Antoine de Suze, and Daniel Mesguich as Jacques Marmande the soon to be defunct CEO of Phenix Bank.

Capital was shown as part of Le Long Weekend of French film organised the UK Jewish Film Festival. There is nothing particularly Jewish about the subject of this film or of others shown during “Le long Weekend”. So, Jewish or not, it’s worth checking regularly on the UKJFF’s website ( for upcoming events in the UK, Switzerland, Israel and beyond.The organisers are to be congratulated on assembling a series of high quality French films and giving UK film buffs the opportunity of a Q&A with Costa-Gavras.

Saturday 6 April 2013

The Low Road, play by Bruce Norris Royal Court Theatre, London, 7* out of 10

The Low Road by Bruce Norris is a three hour play in the form of a fable narrated by the 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith. Based on the biography of a certain Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) the uncouth bastard son of G. Washington (which G Washington? does the G stand for George?) and his very well spoken upper class black slave John Blank (strong performance by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) it critically examines one of Adam Smith’s central tenets: that the pursuit of self-interest unintentionally augments the common good mainly by means of the “invisible hand of the market”.

Norris` sharp intellect and biting, ironic humour are on display throughout this rather overlong (3 hours) piece. What is sorely missing here though, is his facility with surprising turns of plot (which he performed so masterfully in Clybourne Park). Moreover, the didactic somewhat rigid format of the play, the fable,  emphasises exemplary characters with whom the audience is not meant to, and indeed does not engage emotionally.

There is however one 20 minute segment of the play, when the author shows all his brilliant writing talents and fully engages his audience, a true gem that stands out from the remainder of the play.

The format of a theatre play is not very effective when it comes to making a punchy critique of capitalism: although a plethora of such plays has appeared in the wake of the financial and economic crisis which the the Western World is struggling with they generally get lost in some no-mans land between trying to educate and trying to entertain. Lucy Prebble’s Enron remains the exception to this rule; and despite its flaws, Anders Lustgarten’s play If You Don`t Let Us Dream We Won’t Let Us Sleep, which also recently hada run at the Royal Court, was more original and more effective than Norris' ambitious effort.

Director Dominic Cooke ensures that the production, acting ensemble and set combine to set the high standard that one can always expect to see at the Royal Court.    

Sunday 24 March 2013

Paper Dolls, play written by P. Himberg, directed by I. Rubasingham, Tricycle Theatre London, 7* out of 10

What is the opposite of a “clash of cultures”? It’s when two cultures so opposed to each other that they must clash and conflict confound us as brought together they lead to unexpectedly warm and meaningful relationships.

Paper Dolls is a new play about Filipino Transgender migrants, who work in Israel looking after Jewish Orthodox elderly men in need of care. In addition to their day job they form a transvestite act (called the Paper Dolls) that is looking to break through on Tel Aviv’s vibrant night club scene. The play is a fictionalized an dramatized account of the 2006 award winning documentary film of the same name by Tomer Heymann. 

Paper Dolls revolves around the relationships of the men wit each other and with the people they care for. It also shows the ambivalent relationship between the their host country Israel that allows them to come and work there. They earn enough money to send some of it home to their families in the Philippines, but are not allowed to stay on and settle in Israel, although they are loyal grateful, well integrated and highly productive members of Israeli society who have learnt to speak fluent Hebrew.  

Himberg’s play is partly Cage-aux-Folles-type comedy and partly poignant drama. It raises questions about the status of migrant workers, caring for the elderly and bridging gaps that may seem unbridgeable. Most moving is the relationship between the old man Chaim (Harry Dickman) and his caregiver Sally (Francis Jue).  

While all the members of the Paper Dolls have to leave Israel as their visas expire Paper Dolls is ultimately an optimistic tale that confounds our expectations and shows that common humanity can bridge great differences.

Paper Dolls is not a great or very deep play, but it is a worthwhile play, which one leaves uplifted and well entertained; moreover, it manages to make the audience think about the stereotypes and prejudices we all hold dear. Competent performances, and the songs sung in Hebrew and English add to the entertainment. 

Indhu Rubasingham, the Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, met writer Philip Himberg at the Sundance Theatre Festival, which just underlines the roles of Sundance and the Tricycle Theatre as much needed dynamos, encouraging creativity in the theatre. Long may they continue to do so.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

The Hunt ,(original title Jagten), Film, Denmark (2012), directed by Nikolas Vinterberg, 9* out of 10

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen),  has become a kindergarten teacher in the village where he grew up.He is also part of a group of friends who in the local tradition regularly goes hunting together in the local countryside with a group of friends. Hunting successes are celebrated and hunting failures are mocked at sumptuous meals where the prey is devoured while alcohol and conversation flow freely.

Lucas has just gone through a lengthy divorce and his son has to decide whether he wants to live with his mother or with Lucas. At the kindergarten he meets and starts a relationship with Nadya (Alexandra Rapaport) a recent immigrant to Denmark, who works there.

Lucas is very much liked by the children in the kindergarten, among them Klara, the daughter of Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) one of his best friends. After Klara has caught a glimpse of a porn video on the laptop of her teenage brother, she mentions to the head teacher of the kindergarten, that she has seen Lucas with his erect penis and he asked her to touch it.

The head teacher quickly jumps to the plausible conclusion that 4 year old Klara cannot have invented such a story even though Lucas, of course, denies it. She suspends Lucas, informs the parents of all the children in the kindergarten of her suspicions and brings in an experienced child-abuse specialist to speak to Klara and the other children. As the investigation proceeds, Lucas defends himself and tries to stand his ground as he is ostracised by the community of which he was part.

Jagten is a realistic social drama of the kind that the many international fans of the Danish television series Borgen and The Killing miss since these have come to the end of their run. Their common theme is how ordinary people, with whom we can easily identify,  face extraordinary situations in their professional lives and, at the same time, try to hold their private lives together. “Situations make a man and not a man a situation”; and that, of course goes for women, too. There are no evil or heroic characters here, just everyday people who have to face a situation they never expected to be in as best they can and have their character tested by it.

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas stands out among a very competent ensemble of actors. His strong understated performance rightfully has earned him the best actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The story of Jagten unfolds over one year with a strong sense of place. It shows the changing seasons and local customs that make a community. This lets us empathise with Lucas’ need to fight back and attempt to clear his name rather than just eave. Co- writer (with Tobias Lindholm) and director Thomas Vinterberg tells a story that holds the viewers attention from beginning to end. We can sympathize with all the characters, and so Jagten makes the viewer think deeply and from different perspectives. Our thoughts will return to this story and its characters long after the film has ended.

Don’t be put off by not wanting to see a film about child abuse. The accusation of child abuse drives the actual theme: a close and friendly community plausibly, yet mistakenly turns on one of its own; he in turn fights back, sometimes in despair but also with great dignity. Paradoxically that dignity is likely to come in no small part from having been raised in the community that now threatens to destroy it.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Lincoln, (2012), Film, written by Tony Kushner directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, 10* out of 10

13th Amendment to the US Constitution
"Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Lincoln tells the dramatic story of President Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to pass an amendment to the constitution of the United States that would forbid slavery and recognize black people as equal in the eyes of the law to white US citizens. It shows how a man of courage and moral conviction may have to act deviously, break personal commitments and bribe potential supporters (with jobs for the boys if not with money) to grasp what he believes is a fleeting opportunity to achieve a supremely important moral objective. Abraham Lincoln's biggest moral quandary is to have to trade-off the prolongation of a bloody war against his belief that once that war is won he will find it near impossible to assemble a majority to amend the constitution in such a way that slavery would be abolished throughout the United States.

Watching the story unfold it may take today's viewer, uninitiated into US political history some getting used to that in 1865 Abraham Lincoln and his supporters were in the Republican Party while those opposed to a federal abolition of slavery were mainly members of the Democratic Party.

A great opportunity lies in treating major historical events in literature and the performing arts. In fictionalized treatment a great author can explore the inner life and the character of the main protagonists. In the best cases, William Shakespeare's historical plays for example, the reader emerges with a deeper understanding and empathy for a historical situation and its protagonists than a treatment restricted by the method allowed to an academic historian can do. The price to be paid is that facts have to be augmented with speculation and are sometimes distorted by political constraints and intentions of the period in which the artistic treatment takes place. 

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the Man-Booker Prize winning novels by Hilary Mantel about Henry VIII’s Private Secretary Thomas Cromwell are recent proof, if proof were needed, how fiction can enhance and deepen our understanding of historical fact by engaging parts of intellect and emotion that pure history cannot normally reach.

Even if the is no shortage of historians who have problems with the historical accuracy of some of the events, as a piece of intelligent fact based fiction, Lincoln is an excellent film. Take away the period costume and the wigs - the issues Lincoln deals with and the political craft its depicts are as relevant today as they were in 1865. The American Civil War (1860 - 1866) plays an important role, but it is not a film full of battle scenes. Interpersonal drama is its focus; and it goes on among political rivals and personal friends, between husband and wife, father and son,  master and servant, charismatic leader and perplexed follower. 

Top quality begins with Tony Kushner’s screenplay which should also be easily adaptable into a first class theatre play. It contains unforgettable dialogue, in turn quietly intimate, in turn rousing and rhetorical. It credibly presents the subtle art of personal and political persuasion. Steven Spielberg’s direction matches Kushner’ s screenplay scene for scene.  And the acting performances by an outstanding cast ensemble do more than justice to both direction and writing. There are memorable characters being created by Sally Field and by Tommy Lee Jones. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the title role has already been much praised in he media, so I was ready for my high expectations to be met. They were however far surpassed: from now on the Abraham Lincoln from this film, will be the Abraham Lincoln that will come to my mind whenever I’ll hear the name of this most impressive of US Presidents mentioned. 

If you like great drama, great history or modern politics or just great films, watching Lincoln will be a delight.