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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.

Thursday 1 August 2019

Ask Dr. Ruth, Documentary USA (2019), directed by Ryan White starring Ruth Westheimer Ph.D., 10* out of 10

Ryan White’s documentary on the life and times of 92-year-old bundle of positive energy and fine humour, the celebrity media personality and sex-therapist Ruth Westheimer, an orphan of the holocaust, speaks to the human being in all of us. Don’t miss it.

At 92 years of age and 146cm tall Ruth Westheimer, Ph.D. is larger than life. Her smile is irresistible, her energy irrepressible, her charm inescapable, her sharp brain unimpeachable. 
“Ask Dr. Ruth” the title of this documentary about the life and times of Ruth Westheimer, was also the name of the radio programme about sex, emotions, and relationships which became a surprise blockbuster success in the New York of the early 1980s. It laid the foundation for her national and later worldwide celebrity status. Ruth Westheimer was in her mid-forties working as an academically qualified sex therapist and post-Doctorate researcher, having recently obtained a Ph.D. in psychology. With great empathy and down-to-earth common-sense, she answered listener’s questions about sex while breaking many taboos about the use of explicit language describing sexual acts and caresses. The German accent from the Frankfurt-am-Main region of the State of Hesse became her trademark. The indefatigable human energy, evident since early childhood, persists until today. At the age of 92 she works as a lecturer, speaker, author, television personality; her memory of names and events is clear and her step is quick as she tackles every busy day while making time for meaningful interactions with close family and friends. She seems to pass on some of this energy to friends and lovers who in their 80s and 90s recall the younger Ruth when she was still Carola Siegel.

Director Ryan White has persuaded Dr. Ruth to be the subject of his feature-length documentary which delves into Ruth Westheimer’s 90 or so years of a life intensely lived. He shows that what is seen by the public is only the already impressive tip of an impressively massive iceberg of her life-experience and educational attainments. Westheimer’s life is a story full of creative responses to the enormous challenges and tragedies with which Ruth Westheimer was confronted from the age of 10, when her German compatriots under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the institutions of his National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) turned on the Jews in their country and the world with murderous intent. Ruth Westheimer credits her resilience to a wonderful childhood gifted to her by her parents and her grandmother up to the age of 10 where a belief in the paramount importance of learning and education was an essential part of the family values which were passed on to her in a loving atmosphere.

When she was 10 years old her parents decided to send her with other Jewish children to Switzerland, where she spent World War II in a Swiss orphanage. The Jewish kids were treated as second class orphans who had to clean and work for the Swiss orphans to earn their keep. Having spent all the war-years in Switzerland, she does not see herself as a Holocaust-Survivor, but as a Holocaust-orphan: none of Ruth Westheimer’s close family survived the systematic murder of the Jews by the Germans under their Nazi-leadership. The documentary, sometimes effectively using beautiful animation, is also a document of important events of 20th-century Western history, taking us with Dr. Ruth, to Palestine-Israel, Paris and New York. 

Ryan White and his team have done a great job capturing many facets of Ruth Westheimer’s personality by following her through a busy year or two and by allowing us to see her through the eyes of other people who know her well, both young and old. Being friends with Dr. Ruth from her childhood onwards seems to give people of all ages access to the secret of a kind of inner optimism and prolonged youth – many of her friends are in their late eighties and truly young at heart.

Watching Ryan White and his crew try to keep up with the whirlwind that is Ruth Westheimer is an unmissable feast of joy and tragedy, drama and resilience, a triumph of profound humanity over unmitigated evil. She is a true hero of our time and a shining example to young and old. Westheimer’s is a life lived with passion and persistence, with bright intelligence, optimism, and love in the face of enormous obstacles. 

“Ask Dr. Ruth” is superb entertainment, as well as an intelligent practical statement about women’s self-empowerment, the Holocaust, sex and emotions, Israeli and US history rolled into an exciting and heart-warming package that strengthens our faith in the strength of the human spirit. In short, it’s the essential Dr. Ruth who speaks to the human being in all of us. A tour de force not to be missed.

Dr. Ruth answers my questions 
Jerusalem Film Festival 2019

Friday 19 July 2019

The Hunt, Play, adapted by David Farr from screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, Almeida Theatre, London, 10* out of 10

The Hunt is a brilliant play about suspicion and the breakdown of trust in a rural community in Denmark. Do not be put off from seeing it just because an accusation of sexual abuse of a child is its starting point. There is so much more to this play including decency, warmth, and loyalty in the most difficult of circumstances. David Farr's adaptation of the original film script is an unqualified success and the team of creatives and actors at the Almeida has done an excellent job with this flawless and powerful production. 

Lucas (Tobias Menzies), has become a kindergarten teacher in the Danish village where he grew up. He is also part of a hunting club, where the men of the village meet to hunt and drink and go to the sauna together in a tradition. Hunting successes are celebrated and hunting failures are mocked at sumptuous meals where the prey is devoured while alcohol and conversation flow freely. Men will be boys and membership passes from father to son. 

Lucas has just gone through a lengthy divorce and his son Marcus (Stuart Campbell) has to decide whether he wants to live with his mother or with Lucas. 

Lucas is very much liked by the children in the kindergarten, among them Clara (Florence White), the daughter of Theo (Jethro Skinner) one of his best friends and Mikala (Poppy Miller) who has not quite overcome her teenage crush for Tobias. After Clara has caught a glimpse of a porn video on the smartphone of her friend Peter (George Nearn Stuart), she mentions to the head-teacher of the kindergarten, Hilde (Michelle Austin), that she has seen Lucas with his erect penis and he asked her to touch it.

The headteacher quickly jumps to the plausible conclusion that 5-year-old Clara cannot have invented such a story even though Lucas, of course, denies it. Hilde suspends Lucas, informs the parents of all the children in the kindergarten of her suspicions and asks accountant and school board member Per (Howard Ward) to speak to Clara 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.

The Hunt started its life as a brilliant screenplay and film by Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm starring Mats Mikkelsen. I reviewed the film here in 2012 ( I usually do not usually see the point of adapting an excellent film script for the theatre, but David Farr's adaptation is an unqualified success. Moreover, the team at the Almeida has done a brilliant job and created a flawless and powerful production. At the centre of Es Devlin's set is a glasshouse at times transparent at times opaque around which the production turns. The direction by Rupert Goold is outstanding, the acting ensemble performs at a very high level, such that singling any performances out seems almost unfair. But the children are excellent, Michelle Austin, Poppy Miller and Jethro Skinner outstanding. Tobias Menzies' performance as Lucas is nuanced, gritty and realistic.

It's productions like this that continue to make coming to London a must for anyone anywhere in the world who loves the theater. "Vaut le voyage" as the Michelin tourist guide would say.

 The Hunt


Monday 8 July 2019

93Queen, Documentary 2018, written and directed by Paula Eiselt, 9* out of 10

93Queen is a thrilling documentary about the fine political struggle by Rachel "Ruchie" Freier, for women’s empowerment in the Jewish Hassidic community Borough Park New York City. It is a struggle for change from within for achieving acceptance in an environment which is particularly resistant for reasons of religion and tradition. Ruchie Freier is a great protagonist and Paula Eiselt a talented filmmaker. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this film. Highly Recommended.

Rachel “Ruchie” Freier is a mother of 6, living with her husband in the Haredi Hassidic community and neighbourhood of Borough Park Brooklyn. Ruchie is also an Attorney-at-Law who believes in women’s empowerment. With revolutionary ideas, she wants to change her community within in an evolutionary way within the boundaries of its rabbinic laws.

Ruchie has two ambitions for herself: to become a judge in Crown Heights and to set up and lead a Non-Governmental Organisation of volunteers, Ezros Noshim, which is an ambulance service by women for women in her community. When all her approaches to do this in cooperation with the existing highly successful all-male Hatzoloh Hassidic ambulance service are rebuffed, she decides to proceed against the resistance of many in her community. 

Ruchie wants to implement her ideas on her own terms and that means to set up and all female ambulance service by women for women while keeping to all the religious standards and most of the customs in her community where all the responsibility for housework and bringing up small children fall on the woman. And indeed, all her husband seems to offer is smiling moral support.

Rather than wanting to have it all, Ruchie Freier wants to do it all to a very high standard. Paula Eiselt follows Ruchie and her merry band of women as they attempt to set up their all-women ambulance service against strong resistance from their ultraconservative community and the often underhand and sometimes nasty attempts by the mighty male Hatzoloh organisation to prevent their female competition from coming into being. 

Ruchie Freier turns out to be tenacious and tough as well as a gifted politician with a will to power. She is ready to fight and capable of being ruthless to succeed. Ruchie’s route to women’s empowerment is the feminism that dare not speak its name. Will she succeed and what price will she have to pay for her attempt to bring change the Hassidic Community of Borough Park?

With great content and a great protagonist, director Paula Eiselt has hit upon an excellent subject for her award-winning first documentary. She succeeds in capturing the character of the ambitious and politically astute “Ruchie” Freier. Ruchie and her band of merry married women from Borough Park do not want to transgress the religious boundaries of their Haredi Hassidic community. They crave endorsement of their project by its all-male Rabbinic leaders. Above all, as they constantly explore the limits of what is possible for them, against strong resistance from the Hatzoloh organisation and the ultraconservative forces within their community, they need help and support from outside to realize their dream. These outside encounters are little jewels attentively captured by Paula Eiselt, a graduate of the prestigious New York University Tisch film-school. One of them is with a black paramedic trainer, who expresses his empathy and advice. His father told him that as a black man he had to work twice as hard and be twice as good as white men to succeed. He encourages the Hassidic women whom he admires and tells them that the same is true for them. Then, there is the black lady trainer who explains the different rhythms of heart massage: one as a waltz, one as a tango and she dances both, as her keen students of “Ezros Noshim” look on in wonder.

Another special moment is provided by the young Haredi woman, who at 30, believes herself beyond the age where she has any hope of finding a husband in her Hassidic community. Being unmarried, she won’t be allowed to join the frontline of “Ezros Noshim” volunteers. Miraculously, in her view, she finds a husband. What’s more she can hardly believe that her future husband gets all her geeky Star-Wars and Lord of the Rings references because he also secretly and disobeying his community’s censorship, watched the movies and read the books next to his Talmudic studies.

The music by Laura Karpman with vocalist Perle Wolfe cofounder of the girl-group Bulletproof Stockings provides a special touch; Perle Wolfe, who grew up in a Hassidic family herself, gives a re-interpretation of the biblical "Eshes Chayil" (Proverbs 31:10): Who can find a woman of valour? Filmmaker Paula Eiselt, may be one herself and so is her protagonist Ruchie Freier and quite of few others shown in this delightful documentary.

Rachel "Ruchie" Freier