Big Sonia


Big hearts can come in small packages.

(2017) Documentary (Argot) Sonia Warshawski, Regina Kort, Caroline Kennedy, Morrie Warshawski, SuEllen Fried, Debbie Warshawski, Marcie Sillman (voice), Chris Morris, Ehsan Javed, Rachel Black, Kollin Schechinger, Grace Lamar, Isabella Mangan, Leah Warshawski. Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski

 

After the events in Charlottesville and as we watch the rise of white nationalism and an emergence of racism in the wake of last year’s Presidential election, one has to wonder what Holocaust survivors must think, particularly those who came to the United States to heal, raise families and move forward with their lives. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for them to hear our president characterize those low-life scumbags as “fine people.”

Sonia Warshawski is one of the dwindling number of concentration camp survivors living in the United States, in her case in the Kansas City area. 90 years old at the time of filming (she turned 92 this month), she continues to run her late husband’s (also a Holocaust survivor) tailor shop, the last remaining storefront in an otherwise deserted mall. It is her lifeblood, where she is able to interact with long-time customers, sew and help people dress with somewhat more panache. She’s the kind of gal who is fond of leopard prints and is unembarrassed by it – “(they) never go out of style” she crows at one point in this documentary. Still beautiful even in her 90s, she has a style and glamour all her own.

A somewhat recent development in her life has been her willingness to speak out about her experiences in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She had rarely spoken to her own children about the war, although they were aware that both their parents were haunted by their experiences (daughter Regina Kort speaks about John screaming in his sleep at night which is why she never hosted sleepovers at her own home). However when she heard about Holocaust deniers and American Nazis, she felt it was her duty to those who didn’t survive to speak about her experiences and share them with high school kids while she still could.

Even more recently Regina has been accompanying her mother on these speaking engagements, usually presenting a sobering preamble before her mother speaks. Displaying a family photograph of about 20 people, she points out an 11-year-old Sonia and her sister as the only two who survived. Sonia’s entire family was wiped out almost overnight. At 15, she witnessed her mother being herded into the gas chamber; she recalls vividly that the last act she saw her mother perform was to comfort a fellow prisoner headed for certain death. Afterwards, she would discover that the fertilizer she was spreading in the fields was the ashes of the victims that had come straight from the crematorium.

Speaking at a prison, hardened convicts describe her as “WAY tougher than (we are)” and reduced some of them to tears. One high school student, Caroline Kennedy (not JFK’s daughter) was so moved by her encounter with Sonia that after graduation she formed an organization to help inspire other students called Empower. Sonia has that effect on people.

Like many Holocaust survivors, family is of the utmost importance to Sonia and she has instilled that value in her children, her grandchildren (one of whom is co-director of the film) and even her great-grandchildren. Sonia makes homemade gefilte fish for Passover and Rosh Hashanah and seems to be surrounded by members of her family nearly all the time.

Her life isn’t without challenges though; the property owners of the mall are dithering whether to demolish the property and build condos or rebuild it. Either way, Sonia’s beloved tailor shop is in a state of flux in many ways. She’s survived so much worse however and it is clear that regardless of what happens she will survive this too.

This is absolutely a labor of love; yes, her granddaughter is one of the directors but it goes beyond that. Much of the film revolves around an NPR interview Sonia gave a few years ago with Marcie Sillman, but that’s only a framework. The centerpiece of the movie is Sonia herself.

Nearly everyone who encounters Sonia in the film becomes an admirer but the filmmakers manage to give the film a sense of balance. Sonia is no saint, but she’s pretty dang close. Some of the interviews with her children are heartbreaking, recalling how guilty they’d feel for giving their parents hell when they’d both lived through hell. Morrie, Sonia’s writer son, breaks down while reading a poem he wrote about his mother during a passage where he describes her whistling a tune her brother used to hum to her while they were hiding from the Nazis, an uncle who he would never meet. There are quite a few scenes of similar emotional power.

Buoyed by almost incongruously light animated sequences that show visually some of the most horrible moments from Sonia’s time in the camps, the movie isn’t a downer although it could well have been. Rather, this is uplifting that makes you want to cry and laugh and sing. You will want to take this woman in your arms and give her a hug and it might even give you a renewed determination to see the forces of racism and tolerance be made to slink back under the rocks they’ve crawled up from under. Those who shouted “We will not be replaced by Jews” should only be so lucky.

In any case, this is a movie that can change your life and I don’t say that lightly. It played the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival here in Orlando recently and has begun a brief theatrical run in New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City and hopefully other cities will show the film as well. This is certainly one of the year’s very best and I can’t recommend it enough.

REASONS TO GO: Sonia is a major inspiration. This is most definitely a labor of love. The pain she and her family feel isn’t kept hidden. A movie that makes you appreciate the things you have.
REASONS TO STAY: There is some repetition that goes on with Sonia’s presentations.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very adult themes regarding the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The diminutive Sonia stands at 4’8” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Despicable Me 3

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The Mighty Atom


Steel chains: breakfast of champions!

(2017) Documentary (SDG) Joseph Greenstein (voice, archival footage), Mike Greenstein, Steven Greenstein, Slim Farman, Pamela Nadell, Dennis Rogers, Dave Yarnell, Edward Meyer, Jan Dellinger, Duane Knudson, Donald Kuhn Jr., John Klug (narrator), Lauren Kornacki, Alec Kornacki, Liz Kornacki, Dan Cenidoza, Paluna Santamaria, Heather Ablodi. Directed by Steven Greenstein

 

In this Internet age, we make heroes of people who do crazy stunts on skateboards, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, or simply taking dumb risks for 15 minutes of Internet glory. Back in the roaring 20s and Depression-era 30s, that particular function was fulfilled by vaudeville and the circus, where stunts of derring-do were routinely performed in theaters all over the world.

Feats of strength were certainly audience grabbers at the time but few could match the marvel that was Joseph Greenstein. Known by his nickname “The Mighty Atom,” he stood 5’4” tall and weighed 148 pounds soaking wet. He is as far from the traditional muscle men as it’s possible to get but he still performed amazing exhibitions that even today can’t be replicated easily. One of his feats was to bend a horseshoe; a modern strongman attempts to do so in a Florida lab but is unable to match what Greenstein did routinely into his 80s.

The movie centers around a 1967 radio interview that Greenstein did for WNBC in New York. The film adds interviews of his sons and grandson, fans and disciples in the muscle man (and women) community, experts on the nature of human bio-physiology and assorted spectators and interested parties. There are some diversions such as a story about a woman who seeing that the car her father was working on had slipped its jack and was crushing him lifted the 1.5 ton car off of him and pulled him to safety.

Greenstein’s success wasn’t brought on by muscle mass but rather by mental focus. As a young boy he contracted tuberculosis (which had already taken the life of his father) and he wasn’t expected to live more than a year. He got it into his head after seeing posters of strong men in a local shop that the strength these men possessed might be able to save him. He pleaded with a wrestler in a travelling circus to train him and the man took pity on him and invited him to join. Greenstein spent a few years on the road with the circus learning proper nutrition and how to focus mentally and use that focus to do amazing things.

He eventually returned home to Poland to marry and unable to find work immigrated to Galveston, Texas. There he started his own business – a gas station. Greenstein’s son Mike recalls the time when Harry Houdini, travelling through town, got a flat tire. Greenstein was summoned to change the tire and he did so without the use of tools or a jack. Astonished, Houdini’s manager brought Greenstein to New York to work on the vaudeville circuit and once he began to make some real money, he sent for his burgeoning family which now included six sons.

Besides his size, another unusual feature about Joseph was that he was Jewish and as his grandson wryly relates, there weren’t a lot of Jewish athletes at the time. Greenstein was proud of his heritage and was a devout member of his congregation for the rest of his life.

I will say the movie is entertaining although not vital; the archival footage verifying some of Greenstein’s legendary exploits which included preventing a plane from taking off using only his hair, biting through chains, bending nails, horseshoes and steel bars as well as hammering nails into plywood with his bare hands is absolutely riveting. In the footage Greenstein looks positively grandfatherly and somewhat of an academic which he was; he also marketed salves, lineaments and nutritional supplements that he created himself. He was also well-versed in the science of nutrition long before it became fashionable.

The overall tone is that Greenstein is proof that a human being can do anything he or she put their minds to, even the impossible. It kind of makes me want to go out and see for myself what I’m capable of, not a bad feeling to have after watching a film.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at strength and how much of it is not physical at all.
REASONS TO STAY: Like many documentaries, there is an overuse of talking head footage.
FAMILY VALUES: This is completely suitable for general audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was directed by the grandson of the Mighty Atom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunesVimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Beguiled (2017)

The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once)


The King of Buenos Aires!

The King of Buenos Aires!

(2016) Drama (Kino Lorber) Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zyllerberg, Usher Barilka (voice), Elvira Onetto, Adrian Stoppelman, Daniel Droblas, Elisa Carricajo (voice), Dan Breitman, Uriel Rubin, Dalmiro Burman. Directed by Daniel Burman

 

There are those of us who embrace our roots. Then, there are others of us who want to disconnect ourselves from our roots entirely. Much of that has to do with our childhood and how we feel about it. The traditions of our upbringing can be a prison – or set us free entirely.

Ariel (Sabbagh) is an economist currently living in New York but who grew up in El Once, the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. He is dating a ballerina (Carricajo) and things are getting serious between them. He is returning home to Buenos Aires to introduce his girl to his father Usher (Barilka) who runs a charitable foundation in El Once, serving the poor of that area and providing them with prescription medicine, clothes, food and even arranging for shelter.

Things start going wrong before he even leaves for the airport. His girlfriend has to stay behind because she’s wangled an audition for a major ballet company, so she will be arriving a few days late. Usher asks Ariel to find a size 46 shoe with Velcro instead of laces for a bed-ridden client of the foundation, and although Ariel searches everywhere, he can’t find shoes with Velcro in the short amount of time that he was allotted by his father, who sprung that on him just hours before he had to board his plane.

Once he gets to town, Usher is nowhere to be found although his Aunt Susy (Onetto) shepherds him inside the foundation which is surrounded by angry clients, looking to get meat for the upcoming Purim celebration; the Foundation has none due to a payment dispute between Usher and Mamuñe, a local butcher. Finally Usher calls and has Ariel deliver the shoes, then go to the apartment of a deceased client to find unused prescriptions to take back to the Foundation to redistribute. He is accompanied by Eva (Zylberberg), an attractive but mute Orthodox Jew whose hand he cannot even shake due to the proscriptions of their brand of the faith. It’s this kind of thing that drove a wedge between Ariel and Usher to begin with.

As the week progresses, things begin to fall apart for Ariel who continues to be avoided by his father and who gets roped into performing errands for the Foundation. However, Ariel begins to be inspired by Eva’s spirit and sweetness, and slowly he begins to succumb to the charm of his old neighborhood. What will this mean for the fractured relationship between father and son, and more to the point, between the son and his faith?

Burman has a history of films that deal with the Jewish faith in Latin America that explore similar subjects as he does here, although not quite in the same way. The early part of the movie is a little bit off-center, even a bit surreal as the two most important people in Ariel’s life – his father and his girlfriend – are nothing more than voices on a cellular phone and he wanders about El Once, a bit lost and befuddled. Gradually, though through the rhythms of the neighborhood and its rituals and particularly through the sweet and gentle Eva (who actually does have a voice), he finds a sense of purpose and connection and that journey is at the heart of the movie.

Sabbagh spends most of the movie on the phone, and that can be fairly boring cinematically speaking but the actor, who resembles Jason Alexander a bit to my mind, pulls it off. He plays Ariel as a fairly low-key individual; there are no histrionics, only a sense of frustration that grows as the movie begins, but the more he becomes involved in the neighborhood and with Eva, the more he changes and finds himself. It’s a stellar performance and one you may not want to miss.

I have to admit I was squirming a bit through the first half of the film but the longer it went on, the more it appealed to me. Burman clearly feels a connection with El Once (he is also a resident of the area) and just as clearly a real affection for it. The movie was filmed in the neighborhood and many of the people who live there show up as extras or in small roles.

Most of the time when we see movies about the Jewish experience, we are seeing it either in New York, Eastern Europe or Israel. Burman’s films provide us a look at what Judaism means in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region but certainly with a fairly large Jewish population. The movie isn’t necessarily a love letter to El Once, but it certainly plays a role in the film and is a large part of why I liked it so much.

Given the charm of the neighborhood and Ariel’s evolution (or de-evolution from a certain standpoint) this is the kind of movie that generally appeals to me. It’s low-key, charming and provides a look at life somewhere that I probably will never see. Movies like this give us perspective into our own daily lives and even if you’re not Jewish, you will likely find this as heartfelt and warm as I did.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of movie that grows on you as it plays. Sabbagh plays it low-key and gives a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit overly out there, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed in the Mad About Fabrics store was filmed in the actual store with the owner of the store playing himself. Usher Barilka, who runs the charitable foundation in the area that the one in the film is based on, provides his voice as Ariel’s father.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Putzel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret Life of Pets

Wish I Was Here


The kids both know who farted.

The kids both know who farted.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Alexander Chaplin, Allan Rich, Ashley Greene, Michael Weston, Cody Sullivan, Donald Faison, Bruce Nozick, Matt Winston, Taylor Bagley, Jennifer Terry, Jackie Johnson, Bob Clendenin, Silvia Curiel, Nicole Galicia, Kevin Ho, Ross Ingram, Meli Alexander. Directed by Zach Braff

Growing up is a messy business. As we ride the crest of the wave that washes us from 20-somethings into 30-somethings, our lives have taken on a different cast. No longer are we carefree, without much responsibility. For most of us, that it the time of life where we find life partners, get married, have kids. Our focus changes from following our own dreams to becoming responsible for the dreams of our kids and sharing dreams with our spouses. It can be a scary, soul-churning thing.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is in that spot. An aspiring actor whose aspirations have not yet been rewarded with actual success, his two kids Tucker (Gagnon) and Grace (King) attend a Jewish private school run by their local synagogue. Given the uncertain nature of his profession, normally he could never afford that kind of schooling for his kids but his dad Gabe (Patinkin) pays for their tuition. His wife Sarah (Hudson) works in a crappy cubicle job opposite a man (Weston) whose inappropriate behavior forces her to go to her superior (Winston) who basically tells her to suck it up. She hates her job – although given the wariness that most businesses have for anything that would leave them potentially vulnerable to a sexual harassment lawsuit, the way her boss reacts doesn’t ring true.

However, Aidan is forced to make some changes when his dad announces that he can no longer pay for the kids’ schooling. Gabe’s cancer which had been in remission had returned with a vengeance and the only thing that might save Gabe’s life is an expensive experimental treatment that isn’t covered by insurance. Aidan and Sarah decide that the only alternative is for Aidan to home school the kids.

At first that looks on the surface like an utter disaster. Aidan isn’t the most reliable and responsible of men although his brother Noah (Gad), a disappointment to his dad from whom he had been estranged for some time, makes Aidan look rock solid by comparison. However, a funny thing happens on the way to the rest of his life – Aidan uses the opportunity to experience life with his kids, reconnecting with them in a meaningful way. In many ways, Aidan has grown beyond his father in ways neither man could ever expect.

 

Eight years ago, Braff – then the star of the hit sitcom Scrubs – directed Garden State which was essentially the state of the union for Zach at 20-something. This in many ways fulfills the same function for him at this point in his life. Not that Aidan is Zach or vice versa, but one gets the feeling that many of the challenges that face Aidan aren’t unknown to Mr. Braff in real life; the dilemma of pitting one’s dreams against the realities of responsibility and life. Of how to put your kids ahead of yourself when it wasn’t long ago that you were a kid too. It is a time of life when the tomorrow you were putting things off for has finally arrived.

In many ways this is a very Jewish movie and this may resonate more with those of that faith than with others. However it must be said that Grace’s struggle to integrate her very strong faith with a more modern lifestyle is something plenty of young people of all faiths are grappling with and that particular subtext is done with a good deal of sensitivity and a refreshing lack of judgment. Sometimes Hollywood tends to take sides in that particular struggle.

Hudson, playing the patient wife Sarah, is at her most lustrous best. She has certainly become her own actress, separate from her mother over the years and this may well be her best role ever. Sarah has a heart of gold but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have regrets or frustrations. She hates her job but she endures it for the sake of her husband and her children. She never pushes him to give up on his dreams of being an actor but you get the sense that she isn’t far from her limits on that score. She has a scene with Patinkin – call it the matriarch scene – that is absolutely terrific.

 

Speaking of Patinkin, he is as low-key as ever and plays the role of a dad who is certain he is right about most things, including how to relate to his sons. He doesn’t realize how alienated his eldest son is, or how deeply his actions hurt him. Gad plays that son with a certain amount of humor and a goodly amount of pathos. Braff’s former Scrubs mate Faison makes a memorable appearance as a used car salesman.

The movie bogs down in cuteness upon occasion. Aidan and his brother had played as children, pretending they were heroes of fantasy who were the only ones who could save the world and this feeling that he needs to be the savior is played out in Aidan’s head as a kind of space knight, followed by a cutesy 70s-style robotic orb and opposed by a dark, menacing cloaked figure whose identity is eventually revealed. These tend to be distractions that appear to be there to sate the Comic Con geeks (a scene was filmed there) and at the very least are unnecessary. The children, who most of the time are played fairly realistically, sometimes descend into forcing their quirks as opposed to making their characters real. It’s a mistake many young actors make but it can be annoying nonetheless.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a deeply heartfelt project for Braff and I applaud him for getting it made in his own way rather than having a studio finance it and exert control in an effort to make the movie more marketable. Some have criticized Braff for going the Kickstarter route, questioning whether it was a good thing to fork over cash to a millionaire because he asked for it but I think that this kind of controversy is all Internet bovine crap. At the end of the day, Braff got the film made the best way he knew how and who really gives a rats tush how it gets financed as long as the film is of good quality?

In fact, this is a good quality film although the critics have been surprisingly ambivalent towards it. I think there is a good deal of insight to be had here if you don’t get hung up on the character’s hang-ups – Aidan and his dad are both fairly neurotic and there are some moments that you wonder if you can really get invested in either one of them, but at the end of the day if you are willing to hang in there you may find yourself really liking this, perhaps more than you anticipated.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure it should be said that my son Jacob was one of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.

 

REASONS TO GO: Some tender and touching moments. Hudson has never been better.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the issues with faith may not necessarily resonate with everyone.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language (but not a ton) and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Braff was inspired by the success Veronica Mars had with their Kickstarter campaign; ultimately over 46 thousand donors raised over $2 million, some of which were given “thank you” shout outs in the end credits.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: A Most Wanted Man

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

Love, Wedding, Marriage


Love, Wedding, Marriage

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Mandy Moore, Kellan Lutz, James Brolin, Jane Seymour, Jessica Szohr, Michael Weston, Marta Zmuda Trzebiatowska, Richard Reid, Christopher Lloyd, Alexis Denisof, Alyson Hannigan, Colleen Camp, Andrew Keegan, Joe Chrest. Directed by Dermot Mulroney

There is a Biblical quotation that before you take the mote out of someone else’s eye, first remove the beam out of your own. In other words, before you start fixing someone else’s problem, be sure your own house is in order. Wise words that aren’t always followed.

Ava (Moore) is newly married to Charlie (Lutz), a vintner and a successful one. She herself is a marriage counselor newly minted with a PhD from Berkeley. She is busy planning her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary celebration and she is content with the way her life is going.

That is, until her parents Betty (Seymour) and Bradley (Brolin) storm into her office. Apparently Betty has discovered that her husband cheated on her 25 years ago (the statute of limitations for cheating being indefinite) while they were separated and she wants him gone. Ava offers to avail them of her services but they decline; she has all of six weeks of marital experience and they need an expert.

Ava refers them to a colleague but decides that her help is going to be needed nonetheless behind the scenes. She becomes more and more obsessive with preventing that divorce, going to great lengths. She is also ignoring her own marriage and marital bed, frustrating her husband on every count. She invites her father to live with them without consulting Charlie (a big no-no) and allows Bradley to act out around the house (an even bigger no-no).

Ava goes to all sorts of lengths to manipulate her parents back together again but soon it becomes clear her efforts are not only failing, they are driving her parents further apart. Not only that, but her own marriage is in jeopardy as Charlie begins to wonder why she married him in the first place.

Actor Dermot Mulroney, the veteran of quite a few rom-coms, goes behind the cameras for this one and his inexperience shows. The direction is a bit flat and static; the camera rarely moves much and it makes the movie feel more like a stage play or a sitcom. I wish he’d gotten a little more mentoring before attempting to direct; to be honest, I admire him as an actor but I haven’t seen any sort of inventiveness in him as a director thus far. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any in him, though.

The writing here…well, let’s just say that I’m surprised in a negative way. The logic behind the movie just doesn’t work. Here we have an ostensibly bright and learned woman (they don’t just give out PhDs in cereal boxes at Berkeley, despite what Stanford grads would have you think) who is trained as a marriage counselor violating nearly every tenet of her own profession – not only in dealing with her parents but in her own marriage as well.

Now, I get that smart people sometimes do dumb things and that people can be hypocritical – and that emotional involvement can sometimes lead to us doing things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. That doesn’t mean that smart people act like buffoons, or that our parents’ divorce turns us into lunatics. There are things that Ava does that are actually painful to watch.

Brolin and Seymour, seasoned pros as they are, actually give it a good go. Sometimes Seymour is a bit shrill with her character (who is undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis that is causing her to give in to hysteria) and Brolin’s character shows signs of some sort of way-out dementia that has caused him to become ultra-Jewish (which is apparently something new, as Ava asserts that she isn’t Jewish) and something of a putz. He is apparently easily manipulated, which makes him less interesting of a character.

The sad thing here is that there are the prospects of a good movie deep in the DNA of this film which, unfortunately, aren’t allowed to develop. If the writers had given a little more thought to this movie instead of trying to produce a big screen sitcom rom-com this might have turned out a lot better. While I like the idea of a marriage counselor trying to save her parents’ marriage at the expense of her own, I would have liked a little bit less pratfalls and broad humor and a little more subtlety.

WHY RENT THIS: Brolin and Seymour have some nice chemistry together. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ava’s obsessive behavior strains credibility

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of Ava’s therapist whom Ava only speaks to on the phone is supplied by Julia Roberts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Hurricane

Leaves of Grass


Leaves of Grass

Two Edward Nortons for the price of one!

(Millennium) Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy deVito, Josh Pais, Steve Earle, Ken Cheeseman, Maggie Siff, Amelia Campbell, Leo Fabian, Randal Reeder, Lee Wikoff, Ty Burrell. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Family dynamics can be unpredictable. Two siblings in the same family can take wildly divergent life paths, even if they’re identical twins.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is one of the most brilliant minds in the country. He is a professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, handsome, erudite and brilliant. He is a sought-after commodity, both by administrators at Harvard (Wikoff) who are so eager to have him on staff that they’re creating a position specifically for him, and co-eds (deVito) who write him erotic love sonnets in Latin and tear their clothes off in his office, much to the chagrin of his administrative assistance Maggie (Campbell).

Brady Kincaid (Norton, in a dual role) is one of the cleverest pot growers in Oklahoma. He and his partner Bolger (Nelson) have built, as Bolger puts it, the Taj Mahal of grow houses, a state of the art hydroponics facility in which Brady has crossbred many strains of wacky weed to make the most turbocharged product in all of Southeastern Oklahoma. His girlfriend Colleen (Lynskey) is pregnant and his mom (Sarandon) has checked into a rest home despite being 15 years younger than everyone else there because she likes being able to do whatever the hell she wants, as she describes it.

However, things aren’t all rosy in Brady’s life. The big drug distributor in Oklahoma, Pug Rothbaum (Dreyfus) from whom Brady borrowed most of the cash to set up his operation, is demanding either his money back or for Brady to expand his operation into harder drugs, something Brady is philisophically opposed to. Rothbaum is demanding an answer and Brady and Bolger are pretty sure that he won’t like the one they have for him.

Shortly thereafter, Bill gets a call that his twin brother has been murdered. Even though he’s been estranged from his family for more than a decade, he decides to fly back to Tulsa. On the plane he is seated next to a pushy orthodontist named Ken Feinman (Pais) who is relocating his practice from New York to Tulsa where insurance rates and general costs are much lower. Drowning in debt and desperate to establish a new practice, he hands the disinterested Bill his business card.

Bill is picked up at the airport by Bolger who makes a stop at a mini-market in Broken Bow to pick up some supplies. While there, Bill is mistaken for Brady by a couple of redneck business rivals who beat the living crap out of him before Bolger intercedes, but not before he is knocked out cold by a kick to his head.

When he wakes up, who should be the first face he sees but Brady. It turns out that his brother faked his death in order to get Bill to Oklahoma, which Bill admits he likely wouldn’t have done if asked like a normal person. Brady needs Bill’s help – he needs Bill to impersonate him and be seen by the local sheriff (who hangs out with the receptionist at the nursing home with whom he is smitten) while Brady attends a meeting with Rothbaum in Tulsa. Bill is at first adamant against doing anything to help his brother, but a few hits from the wonderpot persuade him to stay the weekend, and the introduction of Janet (Russell) the comely English teacher with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman and with whom Bill takes a shine to immediately seals the deal. Unfortunately, when Brady is involved with something, the unforeseen usually occurs.

Tim Blake Nelson, best-known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou has directed a handful of films since the late 90s, but this is by far the best work he’s done to date. He captures the rural atmosphere of Southeast Oklahoma perfectly, from the local twang to the fishing hole chic. The movie motors along at a brisk pace that keeps you involved in every little twist and turn that occurs.

Norton’s twin performances as Blake and Bill are also worth seeking this out for by themselves. The two characters couldn’t be more different but there are some core similarities that a pair of identical twins would have to have, from idiosyncratic mannerisms to the strong bond that exists between them, whether Bill wants to admit it’s there or not.

He has a great supporting cast. Russell is one of the most charming of actresses out there, and ever since her work in “Felicity” and particularly the indie comedy Waitress is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nelson as the ultra-loyal Bolger to Dreyfus as the rabid dog of a crime boss, is very strong. Pais is particularly noteworthy as the neurotic orthodontist and Siff as a rabbi has a very moving speech near the end of the movie.

I also wanted to mention Sarandon’s role as the ex-hippie mom. She’s so perfect for this role that you end up wishing she was in the movie more (she only appears in four scenes); if there’s any footage of her on the cutting room floor, I surely hope it ends up on the DVD. I think its safe to say that all the characters in the movie are nicely fleshed out, the mark of a well-written script.

The thing I love most about the movie is that about two thirds of the way though it takes a wild left turn that comes completely by surprise, so much so that at the Florida Film Festival screening at which I caught the film the audience let out an audible and collective gasp. The movie switches gears from that point and goes into overdrive. It’s a bravura bit of screenwriting as well as a tribute to Nelson’s talents as a director.

A word of warning; this is most definitely a movie about the drug culture, and those who are uncomfortable with depictions of pot smoking and other accoutrements of growing weed will probably have problems with Leaves of Grass. However, it must be said that the sweet smoke is no more pervasive than it is in the Showtime series “Weeds” so if you’re not bothered by that show you’ll be okay here.

This is the kind of movie that grows on you, no pun intended. I suspect that if you ask me again in a week’s time I will give this a higher rating than I have to this point. At the end of the day this is a very well-crafted movie that’s worth seeking out at your local art house or on DVD if it doesn’t find its way near you.

REASONS TO GO: The movie takes an unexpected 90 degree turn about two thirds of the way through the movie that’s unexpected. Norton fills both of the roles admirably. Russell is charming as always.

REASONS TO STAY: The stoner tone might be a bit overly much for those who are uncomfortable with the culture.

FAMILY VALUES: Those who are uncomfortable with depictions of drug use (particularly the smoking of weed) will be put off by this. There is also some scenes of violence and quite a lot of usage of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norton was so eager to do this role that he accepted a pay cut of half his normal fee.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68,000 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Social Network

Note: I first saw this movie at the Florida Film Festival and published a mini-review at the time as the film hadn’t been released into theaters yet. Unfortunately, the planned release was scrapped and eventually the movie got almost no release whatsoever, which is a crying shame. Do rent this if you can find it.