Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

Advertisements

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!

Fourth Estate Film Series (AFI): All the President’s Men, Broadcast News, Network, The Front Page, & His Girl Friday

AFI Silver and Washington Monthly magazine presented a series of films that investigated the world of journalism recently (May-June 2019). Below are my thoughts.

All the President’s Men (1976)

“Follow the money.” Deep Throat’s (Hal Holbrook) words have guided reporters in the 40+ yrs since Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as “hungry” young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovering the Watergate scandal. The all-star cast also includes Jack Warden, Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men), Jason Robards (then in his waning yrs battling alcoholism), Jane Alexander, and Ned Beatty.

There was a post-screening Q&A with Bob Woodward (it was a full house, of course) moderated by Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris. There are a lot of phone calls, knocking on doors, as well as research depicted in this film. Though journalism has changed over the years (along w/ technology), Woodward pointed out that nothing beats in-person interviews where reporters can build trust w/ their subjects. Woodward is still going strong; in fact, he recently interviewed individuals who haven’t even spoken to Robert Mueller- WOW!

Broadcast News (1987)

This is one of my favorite films, as I’ve written before. It’s set in a DC TV network news bureau where the lives of three individuals are intertwined: ambitious producer Jane (Holly Hunter), telegenic anchorman Tom (William Hurt), and brainy field reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks). All three are fully fledged out characters, no one is a typical bad guy, and there is sparkling chemistry between both pairs- Jane/Aaron and Jane/Tom. Jack Nicholson (not billed) has a cameo as a powerful anchorman based in NYC. It launched the career of Hunter and was nominated for seven Oscars, incl. Best Picture.

There was a panel discussion with Academy Award-winning filmmaker James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, The Simpsons, etc.) and New Yorker Staff Writer Jane Mayer, moderated by Washington Monthly Digital Editor Eric Cortellessa. Though the work life/personality of Jane was based more on Susan Zirinski (who now heads CBS News), the love triangle was inspired by incidents in Mayer’s personal life; she had trouble choosing between a man who was “like a schlubby best friend type” (like Aaron) and another guy. Neither one was right, she admitted (LOL)! This film is more of a workplace comedy, not a rom com, as it puts career over romance. Albert Brooks (who plays Aaron and also worked on the screenplay) was the first one cast; they waited 6 mos to get Hurt; Hunter was cast a few days before filming started.

James L. Brooks considers this one of the best-written scenes:

There is also an alternate (happy) ending to the Jane/Tom romance:

Here is my earlier review: https://knightleyemma.com/2010/11/14/two-movies-ive-seen-recently/

Network (1976)

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news anchor w/ slipping ratings, is informed that he is being let go, he launches into a rant (on live TV) proclaiming his intention to commit suicide on his next broadcast. The network’s execs (incl. Robert Duvall) decide to keep Beale on and exploit the ratings boost. Beale’s closest/oldest friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), thinks that he may truly be ill (going mad); he tries to care for Beale. Director Sidney Lumet’s examination of the news media depicts a cruel, ratings-obsessed world, in which populist sentiment is exploited for profit. One of the must-see films of the ’70s, Network earned 10 Oscar noms, incl. acting wins for Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, and the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.

There was a panel discussion with Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Beth Reinhard, a local veteran film critic, and moderated by Glastris. I used to see Page on the PBS commentary show- The MacLaughlin Group– along w/ other TV journos; he appears on MSNBC these days. The rise of Trump (UGH) was compared to what happened w/ Beale. Dunaway’s character would also fit in w/ the people making policy around Trump. Page also recommended another film, A Face in the Crowd, for those who enjoyed this one.

Here are my reviews:

https://knightleyemma.com/2018/07/31/network/

https://knightleyemma.com/2016/10/09/a-face-in-the-crowd/

Mr. Jensen (the scene-stealing Ned Beatty) explains to Beale how money makes the world go around in one of the iconic scenes from this movie:

The Front Page (1931)

Newspapermen-turned-playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made their names with the 1928 Broadway play The Front Page. Adapted for the screen in 1931, this is the story of star crime reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien), fed up with his manipulative editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), and about to quit his job to marry his sweetheart Peggy (Mary Brian). But when a big story breaks, Hildy can’t resist covering it, even if it means putting his honeymoon on hold. The play was expertly re-arranged by director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer in 1940 with their adaptation- His Girl Friday (see below). I watched it last year, but will check it out again (see the link to YouTube below).

His Girl Friday (1940)

This Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page (see above) with reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) recast as a woman, her love-hate relationship with hard-driving editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) now complicated by the fact that they were formerly married. These were career-defining roles for the actors in one of Hollywood’s greatest screwball comedies. There was a panel discussion with The Atlantic’s Film Critic Christopher Orr, New Yorker Staff Writer Margaret Talbot, and Washington Post Media Reporter Paul Farhi, moderated by Cortellessa. They touched on topics ranging from the rom com genre, portrayal of journos, Chicago history/politics, feminism (as it pertains to smart/clever/career woman Hildy), casual racism (at least in two scenes), and the enduring popularity on this film (the theater was nearly full, yet again).

Here is my earlier review: https://knightleyemma.com/2019/01/11/awfultruth-girlfriday/

Always Be My Maybe (2019) starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Keanu Reeves, & Daniel Dae Kim

Real-life pals, Ali Wong (check out her Netflix comedy specials: Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife) and Randall Park (Fresh off the Boat) wanted to make a modern-day, Asian-American version of When Harry Met Sally, the iconic 1989 rom com that paired a sweet funnyman (Billy Crystal) w/ a beautiful, yet also eccentric, girl-next-door (Meg Ryan). Wong (who is a 37 y.o. actress/writer of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage) plays ambitious celeb chef, Sasha Tran, who is on the verge of opening more restaurants, incl. in NYC, LA, and her hometown (San Francisco). She is engaged to Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim from Lost), a very handsome, successful, and somewhat older real estate developer. Before they settle down, Brandon wants to travel the world for a year and live like a single man (much to Sasha’s dismay). Her assistant/best friend, Veronica (comedian Michelle Buteau), says this is crazy, but Sasha agrees to Brandon’s terms.

A few months before the San Fran restaurant is set to open, Sasha and Veronica fly to the city and set up shop (and a very nice house for Sasha). Without telling Sasha, Veronica hires Kim & Son to set up the A/C system; when they arrive, Sasha is shocked and Marcus Kim (Park) acts very awkward. Mr. Kim (veteran character actor Jamies Saito) is happy to see Veronica and Sasha; they haven’t been around since high school. It turns out that Sasha’s immigrant family lived next door to the Kims (who are second gen Korean-American) and she and Marcus were best friends all through their childhood! Mr. Kim always thought they would end up together.

There is no one way to be Asian, but you would’t know that from consuming mainstream TV shows, movies, or most media. Here we have two individuals coming from unique families: the Wongs (who speak w/ accents) worked long hours at their store to save for their future and Sasha (though she resented it); meanwhile, the Kims (who have no accents) welcomed Sasha into their home after-school and she developed her interest in cooking from Marcus’ mom, Judy (Susan Park). There are certain touches that add texture to what could’ve been a typical rom com story: kids removing their shoes when entering a home; cooking traditional dishes at home; Asians of various backgrounds as neighbors, friends and romantic partners; a New Age type of Asian woman who works w/ at-risk youth; Asians rapping about their unique experiences, and (perhaps most striking) an Asian male as a romantic lead. Oh, and fans of Keanu Reeves are in for a treat, as are his haters. This is must-see, b/c I feel that different viewers will relate to it on different levels! I recommend it to foodies, immigrants (or those who are second gen in US), rom com fans, and even those who avoid the rom com genre. My favorite thing about Always Be My Maybe was the fact that this was a love rooted in friendship (which is one of the reasons that When Harry Met Sally was so popular).

Alice Adams (1935) starring Katharine Hepburn

[1] …it’s a low-key, genteel film about the problems of small-town people who are moving up in the social world and the one family that gets left behind.

[2] If you’ve ever felt (at a job, a party, a family gathering) that there was nothing you could do – no matter how hard you tried – to fit in – yet it was important that you did, you’ll feel so much for this charming girl.

I love how the movie does not show a saintly Alice… Yet her warmth toward her family – her essential sweetness, her strong frustrated yearning – are completely captivating.

[3] The awkwardness of the social situations are exploited–and the high point has to be the warm dinner served on a hot evening, complete with maid service (by Hattie McDaniel) in one of the movie’s most amusing, if uncomfortable, scenes.

[4] Although Hepburn and Fred MacMurray are the stars of this romance-comedy, Fred Stone almost steals the show. Playing Hepburn’s dad in the film, he was both hilarious at times and very sad….and always interesting.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Katharine Hepburn (28 y.o. in this film) who plays the title character, Alice Adams, credited director George Stevens for changing her public image. He helped her portray more warmth and vulnerability than she had ever shown previously onscreen. Alice comes from a working class background (her father is a clerk at a factory), yet she desperately wants to fit in w/ the upper class. Alice’s mother blames her husband (who has fallen ill) for their low social standing, despite his working hard for nearly 30 yrs. However, Alice doesn’t blaming him for anything; she’s a “Daddy’s Girl.”

Alice tries to put on the appearances of wealth and social standing, despite everyone in town knowing who she is, and so mostly ignoring her. At a party at the Palmer house, Alice surprisingly catches the eye of young businessman Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray). He is rumored to be engaged to Mildred Palmer; even Alice’s unconcerned brother (Walter) says so. After some disappointing moments, Arthur asks Alice to dance, and she is (suddenly) quiet. He is tall, confident, and good dancer- she can’t believe that he could be interested in her!

There was a disagreement among Hepburn and Stevens about the post-party scene. The script called for Alice to fall onto the bed and break into sobs after coming back from the Palmer’s party, but Stevens wanted her to walk to the window and cry, w/ rain falling outside. Hepburn couldn’t cry, so she asked Stevens if she could do the scene as scripted. The director yelled at her and the scene was filmed his way (and Alice’s tears were real).

It turns out that Arthur is interested in courting Alice. He wants to come to her house and meet the family after a few dates. This causes Alice great anxiety- she doesn’t think her home or family will measure up. Also, she wonders if Arthur really likes her for herself (unlike the other men she went out with before). It’s rare to see Hepburn as an insecure woman; many viewers on #TCMParty commented on this (while we were live-tweeting the movie). Check out this movie if you can- it’s quite a treat!