Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime

Horrible Bosses


Horrible Bosses

Raise the roof, 1999!

(2011) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Jennifer Anniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland, Julie Bowen, Ioan Gruffudd, Isaiah Mustafa, Ron White, Bob Newhart, Lindsay Sloane, Celia Finklestein. Directed by Seth Gordon

Everyone who spends any amount of time in the workplace sooner or later is going to have it happen to them. The horrible boss – we all have horror stories about one or two. Some are so horrible we often fantasize about pushing them in front of a train. Of course, we would never do such a thing for real…would we?

Of course, most of us never have bosses like these. Nick Hendricks (Bateman) however, does. He is working hard for a promotion that has been dangled out in front of him by Dave Harken (Spacey), a mean, cruel, vindictive and manipulative man who jerks the rug out from under Nick’s feet after months of “motivating” him with the promotion.

So does Dale Arbus (Day), a dental assistant to Dr. Julia Harris (Anniston), a dentist with a libido the size of Texas. She harasses Dale, who’s engaged to the beautiful Stacy (Sloane) and wants no part of the predatory advances of Dr. Harris. Her obsession with him is threatening his future with Stacy.

Kurt Buckman (Sudeikis) has a great boss. Jack Pellit (Sutherland) is easy-going and is well-liked by his employees, especially Kurt who is like a son to him. His actual son, Bobby (Farrell), is a train wreck. A drug addict, a womanizer, and a selfish greedy bastard, when he takes over the company after a tragic set of circumstances, Kurt suddenly knows what it’s like to have a horrible boss.

All three of these guys are friends going back to high school. All three of them commiserate with each other at a local watering hole. All three of them agree that their lives would be better if their bosses were dead. And all three of them have seen Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

So has Mofo (that’s not his name, but his name wouldn’t exactly be marquee material) Jones (Foxx) who did ten years in the slam, and he figures out what these men have in mind. He agrees to become their “murder consultant” for a fee. The idea is for all of them need to kill each other’s boss – that way they can’t be pinned with a motive to kill a perfect stranger. Of course these types of ideas always work better in the movies…

First off, this is one of the funniest movies of the summer. It is much in the same vein from an overall standpoint (not so much in plot) as Bad Teacher and The Hangover Part II. It’s a raunchy, push-the-envelope kind of comedy that takes territory previously plumbed by Office Space – in some ways not as well and in others better – and pushes the boundaries a little bit further.

It helps having a stellar cast like this one. Bateman has risen rapidly through the ranks and become one of the busiest actors in Hollywood at the moment. He is likable and somewhat everyman-ish. He has a bit more of an edge here than he usually does but that’s understandable given the movie. Sudeikis has many of the same qualities, although he’s a bit more acerbic than Bateman. He does a pretty good job here, enough so that he might well move up a notch on the Hollywood ladder.

Day is best known for his work on the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I found him a little bit whiny here, which got on my nerves after awhile but I can see how he might be the breakout star from this movie, if there is one. His moment with Bateman in what will be forever known as the “cocaine scene” (the one where the three of them reconnoiter Bobby’s apartment and discover a cache of cocaine which Dale promptly drops on the floor. Day becomes, shall we say, infected. It’s one of the best moments in the film.

The bosses are great too. The actors playing them are all stars in their own right and they have fun with the outrageous parts. Anniston turns her image on its ear, playing a nymphomaniac of a boss. We see a side of Anniston that is far sexier than we’re used to (not that she can’t play sexy – she has and certainly does so here) and quite frankly, it’s pretty welcome. I like seeing her go out of her comfort zone a little.

Farrell can chew scenery with the best of them. His performance as Bullseye in Daredevil was one of the best things about that movie, and with his combover he is scarcely recognizable physically and like Anniston, you sense he’s having a good time with this. Spacey has played tyrannical bosses before (see Swimming With Sharks) and in some ways this is more or less a repeat of that performance, only on steroids.

Sutherland and Newhart, two veterans, only get a scene apiece, but make the most of their time. I would have liked to have seen more of them. Foxx only gets three scenes but he makes the most of his cameo as well. Otherwise nearly all the action revolves around the bosses and their employees so much of the onus is on their shoulders.

Fortunately they carry the movie well. Part of what makes this movie work is the casting. However, the other thing that makes the movie work is the writing. There are plenty of funny jokes, some great comic bits and the actors are given room not only to improvise but to take their characters as far as they can.

It doesn’t work well everywhere and some of the bits do fall flat. It isn’t Office Space which was a much better commentary on the modern workplace, but this is more of a comedy about cubicle cowboys pushed to their limits. It’s crude fun, and yes those who like their humor a little more gentle might be put off by this, but it is funny nonetheless. Sure, those who are unemployed might kill for any sort of boss, but those who are in need of a laugh should make a beeline for this one.

REASONS TO GO: At its best the movie is extremely funny, one of the funniest of the summer. The bosses sink their teeth into their roles.

REASONS TO STAY: A few of the bits don’t work as well. Day’s voice got annoyingly whiny after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of crude, sexual content and almost non-stop foul language. There is also a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anniston dyed her hair a darker brown to differentiate her character from the lighter roles she usually plays.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Rocket


The Rocket

Hockey ain't no game for sissies!

(2007) True Sports Drama (Palm) Roy Dupuis, Julie Le Breton, Stephen McHattie, Patrice Robitaille, Mike Ricci, Francois Langlois-Vallieres, Randy Thomas, Vincent Lacavalier, Sean Avery, Remy Girard, Pascal Dupuis, Ian Laperriere, Stephane Quintal. Directed by Claude Biname

Every sport has its Babe Ruth; a dominant figure who changes the nature of the game forever. However, once in awhile, a player comes along who not only changes the nature of his sport forever, he changes the world around him as well.

Maurice Richard (Dupuis) is the most dominant ice hockey player in his era. A gifted goal scorer, a rough customer and a talented playmaker, he has led the Montreal Canadiens to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League. His suspension for the remainder of the 1955 season after striking an official caused rioting in Montreal.

And yet he came from humble beginnings. As a teenager (Langlois-Vallieres) he worked in a factory by day and played junior league hockey at night. His exploits on the ice impressed young Lucille Norchet who would eventually become his wife (Le Breton). He also impresses scouts for the hometown Canadiens enough that he is given a tryout for the team which has been mired in a bout of underachievement for years. Their new coach, Dick Irvin (McHattie) wants winners. He doesn’t see any on his squad.

Watching Richard’s tryout, he realizes he has a player whose will to win is like nothing ever seen before in hockey. Although hockey experts caution Irvin against signing the young winger due to the number of injuries he’d suffered in the junior leagues, Irvin takes a chance and signs him. At first, it doesn’t look like a brilliant idea. Richard is inconsistent on the ice and when he breaks a leg during a game, it looks like the Canadiens got a lemon – a fragile player susceptible to injury.

But Richard does come back. Put on a line with Elmer Lach (Ricci) and Hector “Toe” Blake (Thomas), he becomes one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game. His skills make him a target – the Rangers send out “Killer” Dill (Avery), a noted goon, to take him out of the game permanently but Richard is well able to defend himself.

Part of what makes him a target is his status as a French-Canadian. Back in the post-World War II era of the NHL – indeed, in all of hockey – French-Canadians were second class citizens. They were given separate caged-in seats to watch the game from at the Montreal Forum, and the players were the targets of racial slurs and excessive violence.

Richard’s skills made him one of the first French-speaking hockey players to acquire a mass following. He had a regular column in the Montreal daily newspaper that was a must-read for French-speaking citizens of the city. He criticized Clarence Campbell, commissioner of the NHL, for not administering discipline in the same way when French-Canadian players were involved. His columns were so inflammatory that eventually the Canadiens had to ask him to stop writing them or risk being fined by the league.

Richard is never paid very much, relatively speaking and feels it necessary to work at the same factory he did as a teenager during the summers when hockey is on hiatus. Supporting his family is very important to him and he is worried that if his hockey career comes to an end prematurely he won’t be able to do that. Still, despite the hardships, despite the injuries, even despite the abuse he perseveres to become the greatest hockey player of his time – and arguably ever.

Before Gretzky there was Richard and it’s hard for us Americans to comprehend what he means in the province of Quebec and specifically in Montreal. I suppose it’s very much like Michael Jordan in Chicago or Carl Yastrzemski in Boston but it’s much more than that. It goes beyond that adulation of an athlete – it’s almost a cultural thing. Richard is very much part of the identity of French Canada.

Before this movie was made, there was a four hour miniseries (in 1999 to be exact) about Richard that also starred Dupuis (who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to the Rocket) and much of this movie is taken from that mini-series. Director Biname does an admirable job with a microscopic budget (by Hollywood standards) and while the movie smacks of boosterism a little bit, there seems to have been an effort to make it as factual as possible. However, there are times when the low budget aspect of the movie shows onscreen which is unsettling.

Dupuis is stolid in playing Richard for the third time in his career. Richard was never the most charismatic of men – he preferred to lead quietly. That makes it difficult for Dupuis to truly grab your attention onscreen as he pretty much has to low-key it throughout. The same goes for Le Breton as Lucille; she never really has much to do other than being the faithful, loyal wife.

McHattie gets much more of a plum role as the fiery Coach Irvin. He brings the irascible coach to life, his belief in Richard helping the player achieve what he did. His is the most memorable performance of the movie. There are also a number of former and current NHL stars in the film, some having more prominent roles than others such as current Tampa Bay Lightning star Lacavalier as the Canadiens’ elegant star Jean Beliveau and former San Jose Shark Ricci as Richard’s linemate.

This isn’t the greatest hockey movie ever but it may very well be the most earnest. There is no doubt that Richard revolutionized the game and has left an indelible mark both on the NHL and on Canada; I would have liked to see a little more of the latter, but they do a great job on the former. Most Americans wouldn’t know a slap shot from a wrist shot but this is a movie that offers insight to the Canadian soul, particularly her French speakers.

WHY RENT THIS: As much of a look back at cultural and class inequalities of the era as a full-blown hockey movie. Decent hockey sequences give you an idea of how dominant Richard really was.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poor production values are noticeable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some hockey violence and quite a bit of blood as a result, a smattering of foul language and yes, there’s smoking which let us remember was common back then. Get over it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was reviewed by Richard himself shortly before his death in order to maintain as much accuracy as possible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 22 minute feature on the real Richard and his impact not only on the game of hockey but on Canada and the province of Quebec in particular. It’s a pretty extensive piece with interviews with contemporaries of Richard as well as current NHL players.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover Part II